Recto and Verso: Shubael Allen

Recto – George Caleb Bingham

George Caleb Bingham, Shubael Allen, 1835
Oil on Canvas, 26 x 22 inches
Kenneth B. and Cynthia McClain Collection
Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri
Bloch Catalog #15
Used with Permission

Shubael Allen (1793- 1841) was New York native and a civil engineer. Before moving to Missouri by 1818, he helped build bridges in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. In 1822, in Boonville, Missouri, he married Dinah Ayers Trigg. They moved to Missouri’s western frontier where for several years they shared a dog trot cabin with Dinah’s sister Elizabeth and her husband, John Thornton. The Thorntons remained on their land about five miles east of Indian Territory. The Allens moved closer to town and built a home on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.

In addition to their home, Allen built warehouses, a river landing and “one of the most beautiful and romantic plantations in the state.” He served as sheriff of Clay County from 1826 to 1830. By 1829, Allen’s Landing was northwest Missouri’s main steamboat stop and the last port of call for trappers from the American Fur Company. In the Blackhawk War of 1832, his rank was colonel. A biographer wrote that Allen was an exceptional businessman. “It was conceded that no one in the state could, in the same time, dispatch more business, or with greater precision, or with less discomfort to the parties engaged with him, than he.” Yet he found time to serve as County Court Justice from 1831 to 1834.((“Colonel Shubael Allen: Liberty,” Portrait and biographical record of Clay, Ray, Carroll, Chariton, and Linn Counties, Missouri… (Chapman Brothers, 1893), 700-708.))

George Caleb Bingham was only 24 when he portrayed Shubael Allen. The artist was not yet proficient in his chosen profession, but he offered a service no one else in western Missouri provided. Shubael Allen demonstrates the artist’s simple, flat, and hard-lined early style. A rudimentary, dark vertical shadow presaged the portraitist’s later command of perspective. Bingham delivered not only a believable likeness, but one that appeared to be a flesh and blood human with a commanding presence. Unlike many self-trained artists, Bingham’s subjects were not two-dimensional figures floating on the canvas, but beings with substance.

Verso – Annice I

His position as sheriff involved Allen in an infamous murder trial. A Clay County resident, Jeremiah Prior, owned a slave woman, Annice, her two children, Bill, 5, and Nelly, 2, and three other children, Ann, Phebe, and Nan. On a summer day in 1828, Annice pushed the children one by one into five feet of water and held them down until they drowned. The circumstances around Annice’s decision are unknown. Court documents focused on financial concerns and recorded only the barest details of the tragedy.((State v. Annice, a Slave, Slay County Circuit Court Records, 1828; History of Clay…Missouri, 108; William H. Woodson, History of Clay County, 89, in Harriett C. Frazier, Harriet C. Frazier, Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865 (McFarland & Co. 2001), 168.))

When Sheriff Allen arrested Annice, Clay County did not yet have a jail. The nearest one was across the Missouri River in Independence, Missouri. Because no bridge had yet been built over the river, Allen ferried Annice between Independence and Liberty, including every day for five days during the trial. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. Annice was publicly hanged.((Ibid.,169.))

Jeremiah Prior and his family soon moved further north to Clinton County, Missouri. Was he no longer comfortable living near Liberty, Missouri? What did the townsfolk know about Prior’s treatment of his slaves that would drive Annice to infanticide? Was the notoriety of owning a murdering slave or the reasons for her actions too much of an embarrassment?