Hannah Cole (1770? – 1843)
Hannah Cole was one of the first pioneer women to permanently settle in central Missouri. She showed great strength and courage as she led her nine children through the wilds of Missouri to establish a home and fort near present-day Boonville.
From Colonial Virginia to Missouri
Hannah Allison was born in Virginia around 1770 when England still ruled the American colonies. Her parents were Holbert and Agnes Allison. Hannah married William Temple Cole, Jr. in 1789. Hannah’s sister, Phoebe, married William Cole’s brother, Stephen. Hannah and William had nine children together. They were named Jennie, Mattie, Dykie, Nellie, James, Holbert, Stephen, William, and Samuel. The Coles also owned slaves. One enslaved female named Lucy lived with Hannah for many years.
In 1805, both Cole families left Virginia and moved to Kentucky. Like other colonial families, the Coles were in search of more land for farming. The United States had just purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803. This land was the homeland of many American Indian tribes. It extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
From Kentucky, the Coles moved farther west in 1807. They followed trails into the wilderness. They joined other families at a temporary settlement on Loutre Island, an island in the Missouri River near present-day Hermann.
A Widow in the Wilderness
In July of 1810, tragedy hit Hannah’s family. Indians living in Missouri were not happy to see pioneers living on their land. One night, a band of Sac and Potawatomi Indians came into their camp on Loutre Island and took seven horses. When William and Stephen Cole tried to get their horses back, the Indians killed William and injured Stephen. Hannah was left a widow in the wilderness with nine children to feed and clothe.
Once Stephen recovered from his wounds, the Cole families left Loutre Island. They followed Boon’s Lick trail, a path through woods and prairies. Hannah, her nine children, and their milk cow walked. Their two horses pulled a wagon with their belongings.
The Coles stopped around present-day New Franklin. They had traveled about 100 miles. It was January and the weather was cold. The Missouri River was high and filled with ice. The Cole families crossed the Missouri in a piroque, or hollow log. They had to leave their wagon behind. They set up a makeshift shelter on the south bank of the river using branches and animal skins. They huddled together and survived by eating acorns, slippery elm bark, and a wild turkey. When the weather improved, they returned for their wagon, took it apart, and brought it across the river.
Hannah Builds a Home
In the spring of 1810, Hannah and her children built a one-room cabin near the river on high ground. They cleared land for a small crop of corn and gathered food from the woods, including honey from a hollow tree. Phoebe and Stephen Cole built their cabin 1 1/2 miles away. Both families made their clothing from thistle fibers and animal skins. They ate wild game, honey, forest products, and bread made from the corn they grew.
By 1812, more settlers had come to the area and another war was breaking out between England and America. Indians sided with the British and fought against the settlers. Hannah and her neighbors went to Fort Kincaid on the north bank of the Missouri River for protection. When the fighting stopped, the settlers returned to their homes and fields.
In 1814, Indians attacked again and Hannah Cole called her neighbors together. In a week, the group built a fort around Hannah’s cabin. Fort Hannah, also called Fort Cole, was built with logs flattened on the side and set upright into the ground. This fort kept many families safe until the war with Britain was over and the Indians moved farther west.
Fort Hannah became the center for many community activities. It served as a county seat, court of law, election place, post office, school, church, and hospital. Hannah’s sons ran a ferry across the Missouri River below the fort. Hannah was the first person to receive a license to operate a ferry across that section of the river.
Enduring Pioneer Spirit
Eventually, Fort Hannah became part of present-day Boonville. Hannah and her family moved to a cabin outside Boonville. She lived there until her death in 1843. Hannah Cole is buried in Briscoe Cemetery, twelve miles south of Boonville. A statue of her stands in Boonville to honor her courage and to pay tribute to the vital role she played in early Missouri history.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Borwick, Jim and Brett Dufur, eds. Forgotten Missourians Who Made History. Columbia, MO: Pebble Publishing, 1996. pp. 31–33.
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 198–199.
Dains, Mary K., ed., Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Volume 1: 15–16.