Aunt Rhode of Breshears Valley
A Slave Saga
By Lila Odetta Breshears Zimmerman
Great great granddaughter of
Henry and Atsey Breshears
Rhode was born a slave. Even though there is no birth record, the
probability is that she was born in the State of Tennessee during the
period 1818 to 1825. Also, no information is available as to her earlier
years. The first known fact of her life is that she was purchased as a
slave on April 10, 1838, for $600 by one Thomas Ethridge of Lawrence
County, Tennessee. The Bill of Sale stated that she was then about 20
years of age.
It was in that same month of April 1838, that Thomas’s daughter Atsey and
her husband Henry Breshears, Jr. were preparing to leave Tennessee
destined to a new life and home in the State of Missouri. As they
prepared to leave, Atsey’s father is reputed to have said: “Atsey you take
Rhode with you. There is going to be trouble down here.” The fact that
Atsey was then pregnant with her eight child was surely of great concern
to her father and mother. The planned journey was likely to be long and
arduous for her.
Henry and Atsey were accompanied on their long trek by their immediate
family of seven children ranging in age from three to fifteen and the
slave Rhode. A family descendant has written: “Riding in oxen carts,
theirs was a slow and painful journey westward.” This same descendant has
also reported that several families of relatives and friends joined the
westward-bound “wagon train” with them. They began their journey to
Missouri probably in late April, 1838. After 7 or 8 months of hard
traveling they reached the Polk/Dallas County area in southern Missouri
during the month of November, 1838. Henry decided to settle his family
there for the winter. While there Atsey delivered her first Missouri-born
child on November 22, 1838.
The following spring in 1839, they continued on their journey, finally
settling in Benton (now Hickory) County, Missouri. There they joined
relatives who had previously migrated from Tennessee and settled in a
valley. That valley came to be known as the Breshears Valley, the name it
A family descendant has written in an article: “When Henry and Atsey
moved to Missouri, they were offered $1,000 for Rhode, but they refused
Henry homesteaded and settled his family on a hill on the western side of
the Breshears Valley where he built a large house. In time the family of
Henry and Atsey grew to include fifteen children. One was an orphan named
William Carroll Green; he was raised as a family member and adopted the
Breshears name. Two of the children in the family died very young.
Over the years Henry acquired many more acres in the Valley. Family
tradition is that when he died, he left each of his children forty acres
of land. By his will dated March 10, 1860, Henry left “the black woman
Rody” to his wife Atsey. Henry died March 18, 1860, at the age of 59;
that was just prior to the beginning of the Civil War. He was buried in
the Henderson Cemetery which was located in the Breshears Valley.
After Henry’s death, Atsey continued to live in the large house that Henry
had built on the Avery hill in the Valley. Living there with her at that
time were her younger children, some of her grandchildren and Rhode.
As noted, Rhode’s birth date is uncertain. According to the Bill of Sale,
she was born about 1818. It is interesting to note that she first came to
be listed as a person by the U.S. Census only after the Civil War ended in
1865. The first Census taken after the end of the War was 1870. In that
Census record, Rhode was listed as a member of the household of Atsey and
her son Andrew Jackson. That record is as follows: “Rhode (domestic
servant) age 45 (Black) born in Tennessee.” If Rhode’s age recorded in
the 1870 Census record is correct, she was born in 1825, rather than 1818.
Even though Rhode received her freedom as a consequence of the Civil War
at an age somewhere between 40 and 47, she then chose to remain as part of
the Henry Breshears family just as she had been for the previous 27 years.
Over all her years in Missouri, Rhode was a true and faithful helper to
Henry and Atsey, not only helping raise their large family, but she also
helped raise some of their grandchildren. The children and grandchildren
called her “Aunt Rhode”. A family descendant has written: “From all the
information we have learned about Aunt Rhode she was considered a member
of the family and the children and grandchildren said that was the way it
After Atsey’s death in 1888, at the age of 82, she too was buried in the
Henderson Cemetery beside her husband Henry. By then Aunt Rhode had been
Atsey’s true and faithful helper, friend and companion for over 50 years.
Atsey’s family, after her death, built Aunt Rhode a small cabin on the
Avery hillside near the Andrew Jackson Breshears home. She lived there
for the rest of her life. A family descendant has written: “The ruins of
the tiny cabin remained on the hillside in view of the road until it
finally fell in.” That same descendant has also stated that she had seen
remnants of the cabin when she visited the Valley.
It is unfortunate that the descendants of Henry and Atsey did not record
the date of Aunt Rhode’s death. Hence, it is not known by how many years
she outlived Atsey. She was buried in the Henderson Cemetery at the foot
of the graves of Henry and Atsey, and her headstone reads simply “Aunte
Rhode”, but gives no date of birth or death.
Over the years in the Breshears Valley where Henry Breshears, Jr., Atsey
and Aunt Rhode lived their entire lifetimes in Missouri, they and their
descendants witnessed many tragic events. Among those events are the
vicious Slicker War which occurred in the early 1840's; the devastating
Civil War action in Hickory County which endured from 1861 to 1865; and
the terrible tornado of 1933.
The Breshears Valley as the family of Henry and Atsey knew it is gone.
Around 1978-1979 the U.S. Corps of Engineers came and denuded almost the
entire Valley. This was done in preparation for construction of the
Truman Dam at Warsaw, located in Benton County, Missouri. Practically all
of the Valley is now submerged under the lake created as a result of the
building of the Dam. The Valley had been almost half surrounded by the
Pomme de Terre River. Now the River is a part of the lake.
The Notice of Condemnation by the United States to acquire the Henderson
Cemetery listed the graves in the Cemetery of Henry and Atsey Breshears,
next of kin, Atsey Jennings and Iva Bird. Atsey Jennings was their
granddaughter (the daughter of their son Andrew Jackson). Iva Bird was
their great granddaughter (the granddaughter of their son Henry Thomas).
The Notice referred to Aunt Rhode’s grave as “Unknown next of kin, Aunt
Rhode, deceased”. But the reality is that the descendants of Henry and
Atsey have always known of her and regarded Aunt Rhode as a beloved
Breshears family member.
The remains of Henry, Atsey and Aunt Rhode, as well as their headstones
were removed by the Corps of Engineers from the Henderson Cemetery and
transferred to the Avery Cemetery. That cemetery is located on the Avery
hill, and is near the place where Henry Breshears and his family first
settled in 1839. Aunt Rhode’s grave is there fittingly beside the graves
of Henry and Atsey.
For many descendants and close relatives of Henry and Atsey Breshears, the
saga of Aunt Rhode had come to be known through the recitation to them of
their parents’ and grandparents’ loving memory of her. Thus, by Breshears
family lore Aunt Rhode continues to be a family legend even unto the
current Breshears generation.
Goldena Trolinger and Pauline Kirby at the site of where Aunt Rhode’s cabin once stood.
Lucie Atwood & Louise Breshears Sieker at the graves of Henry & Atsey Breshears
at the Henderson Cemetery.
Henry & Atsey Breshears and Aunt Rhode’s graves after being moved to the
Breshears Avery Cemetery.
Article and Photos contributed by Brenda Smith,
4x great-granddaughter of Henry and Atsey Breshears.
Note: 1850 Slave Schedule of the Census for Hickory County
Henry Brashears one black female slave age 41