The Founding of Springfield, Missouri: John Polk Campbell

We know Springfield, Missouri, as our home, but what do we know about its beginnings? If not for a traveler and a donation of 50 acres, Springfield may have never been the city that it is now. The History Museum on the Square has put together a brief history of the founder of Springfield with a name that you’ll recognize from all over the city.

The Humble Beginnings of Springfield, MO and Greene County History

The story of the founding of Springfield begins in the 1820s, when a man named John Polk Campbell traveled to Southwest Missouri with his brother, Madison. The brothers were originally from Tennessee and wanted land of their own. At the time, the land was occupied by several Native American tribes including the Osage, Delaware and Kickapoo, with no settlers of European descent to be found.

A granddaughter of John Polk Campbell, Louisa Cheairs McKenny Sheppard, detailed the story of her grandfather in her journal, which was compiled in the book A Confederate Girlhood. Louisa wrote, “On their outward trip, the two brothers lost their way and when night fell they had no idea where they were; but as they were stumbling on in the darkness, seeking a suitable camping place, they happened on an Indian village where they were received with grave kindness. It soon transpired that one of the young Indians was very ill. An old chief led the two white boys to the tepee where the sick lad lay and made them understand that they were to cure him. With all the assurance of youth, they undertook the task, using the medical supplies and herbs provided by their mother for their trip.” Louisa went on to describe that the young boy only got sicker, but the brothers worked harder to improve the young boy’s health. In a few days time, the young boy got better. The Kickapoo chieftain was so grateful for the rescue of life that he gave John Polk Campbell a tract of land that included a large spring. This land would later become the founding point for the city of Springfield.

Sometime in 1829, John Polk Campbell and his brother camped by a natural well or spring. He decided he would like to use the land around the spring for his home, so he carved his name in an ash tree to claim the land. There are several tellings of just how Springfield got its name. One version claims because the town was founded next to a spring in a field, the town was named after such. A book titled Springfield of the Ozarks suggests the name came from Springfield, Massachusetts. Another record tells that a man proposed the name Springfield after the name of his former hometown in Tennessee.

Not long after establishing his land there, John Polk Campbell returned to Tennessee to marry Louisa Terrell Cheairs. The two went back to Missouri for a brief period but returned to Tennessee when Louisa became pregnant, not wishing to have their child in such a rural, unsettled region. After the birth of their first child, the two once again returned to Missouri, where they had another nine children, including the first white female to be born in the area. After his return, John Polk Campbell began to build several houses for new settlers to live in. In fact, the first home in Springfield was built by his brother-in-law James Price Gray and was later sold to John Polk Campbell, becoming what we now know as the Gray-Campbell Farmstead. In 1835, fifty acres were donated to the city by John Polk Campbell, including two acres that would become the “public square,” later renamed the Park Central Square. The donation of the land is marked by a historical marker on the square. Springfield was incorporated in 1838, at which point over 500 people lived in the town.

Greene County and Beyond 

John Polk Campbell was also an integral person in the creation of Greene County. With his donation of land to help form Springfield, he also ensured its spot as the county seat. In 1833 the county was formed and named after Nathanael Greene, famed general in the Revolutionary War. The county was huge, and spanned what is now the counties of “McDonald, Newton, Jasper, Barton, Dade, Lawrence, Barry, Stone, Christian, Greene and Webster; the greater portions of the counties of Taney, Dallas, Polk and Cedar, and parts of Vernon, Laclede, Wright and Douglass” according to the History of Greene County, Missouri. John Polk Campbell served as the county clerk, which was especially opportune for him since his home was the first courthouse for Greene County. In this role, he helped design the layout of Springfield, modeled after his hometown of Columbia, Tennessee.

The family lived in the town for some time up until the Civil War made its way to Springfield. Four of John Polk Campbell’s sons fought in the war, with two dying as a result. As the Union took Springfield, the Confederate-siding Campbells left Springfield and moved to their homes in Mississippi and Tennessee. Once the war was over, John Polk’s granddaughter Louisa and the rest of the family returned to Springfield and after years of struggle restored their home.

The legacy of the Campbell family lives on to this day. Not only can we thank the family for the founding of Springfield and Greene County, but they are also the namesake for Campbell Avenue and the Campbell township. Their donation of land started the city and became the home for the square downtown as well. If not for the charity and hard work of the Campbells, Springfield as we know it would never have existed as it does now.