The Founding of Truesdale


The City of Truesdale was born as a small village whose mother was the new North Missouri Railroad. The North Missouri Railroad Company was incorporated on March 3, 1851. Tagged “the great central rail route to the West,” the start-up plan was to build a railroad from St. Charles, Missouri to the Iowa state line and “all points west.” In 1852 the charter was amended to extend it to St. Louis rather than stop at St. Charles. In 1855 the railroad reached Warrenton, the county seat of Warren County. The drive and determination that it took to accomplish this feat cannot be overstated. The biggest obstacle was the “Big Muddy,” the wide Missouri River. There was no bridge, so at St. Charles the railway cars had to be unloaded and ferried across, then reloaded on the other side. This arduous task continued until the St. Charles railroad bridge was built across the river in 1871.

If Truesdale’s mother was the North Missouri Railroad, then a determined, forward-thinking man named William Truesdail, a contractor with the railroad, was its father. In 1856, anticipating the arrival of the railroad, William Truesdail purchased a large tract of land from John Woodlan, one of the oldest residents of what was then known only as Elkhorn Township. Upon that land Truesdail platted and laid out a village. As owner of the land, he made a deal with his employer, The North Missouri Railroad, to give them land as a place to build the necessary depot and switchyard, if they would agree to name the village after him. On July 4, 1857, the first train arrived in Truesdail, Missouri. (The village’s name was originally spelled the same as his, Truesdail, but as time went on the spelling evolved into the current Truesdale.)

William Truesdail was, to coin an old term, a go-getter. Born on January 9, 1815, in Chautauqua County, New York, he started working as an indentured merchant at the age of 12 in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1835, when he was 20 years old, he was elected Deputy Sheriff and Police Justice. The following year he engaged in real-estate speculation and in a short time, cleared over fifty thousand dollars. Only a year later, due to the financial panic of 1837, young Truesdail lost all his fortune except about three thousand dollars. In 1838 he was appointed Special Teller to the United States Bank at Erie and worked for the bank till 1841 when he went back into the merchant buisness. In 1849, he contracted with The Panama Railroad Company to build a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. He left New York with 250 men and the company sent him 1400 more. The harsh labor and weather conditions in Panama were so bad that only about 300 of those returned alive.

In 1851 Truesdail, now married and with a growing family, headed west. He contracted and built over 60 miles of the railroad from Sandoval, Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri as an agent of H.C. Seymour & Company, in charge of the Western Division of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad.

William Truesdail married Mary Ann Sterritt in 1841 in Erie, Pennsylvania. They eventually had 12 children. During his years working for the railroad in Missouri, he settled his family on an estate he built for them “adjacent to Warrenton” on the famed Booneslick Road. At least one son was born there, in Elkhorn Township, but records show only that several of his children were born in Missouri, probably there in Elkhorn as well.

Other than planning a town and having it named after him, continuing his work for the railroad and raising a family, Truesdail’s years in Warren County, up to the start of the Civil War, appear to have been pretty uneventful. Possibly, and most likely, local historical records are just lacking for those years. Beginning about 1860 he was spending much of his time in Texas having begun construction of a railroad from New Orleans, Louisiana to Houston, Texas.

After the fall of Fort Sumpter and the beginning of the Civil War, Truesdail, sympathetic to the Union cause, left Texas and returned to Missouri where he was appointed by General Pope, commander of the North-western Missouri region, as military superintendent of the North Missouri Railroad, which had brought him to Warren County in the beginning. At St. Louis he contracted to supply General Grant’s army with beef. During this time General Pope put him in charge of police and secret service, the scouts and couriers, and the forwarding of mail and dispatches. When General Pope was ordered to Virginia, he invited Truesdail to go with him, however Truesdail declined, preferring to stay in Missouri where his family still resided and where he still owned property.

When General Rosecrans was put in command of the Army of the Mississippi, he asked Truesdail to stay on as military superintendent, maintaining his charge of the police and secret service and soon gave him the title of Chief of the Secret Service with the Army of the Cumberland. It was in this capacity that Truesdail became famous, or as those on the southern side of the war often called him, infamous.

Although he remained a civilian, Truesdail was thereafter called Colonel Truesdail. The role that Colonel Truesdail played throughout the Civil War as a spy for the Federal Army is written about in dozens of books on the subject of the war. It makes for some very interesting reading for those who would like to learn more about his life as the head of a large Civil War spy ring.

Colonel William Truesdail died of consumption in 1867 in Macoupin County, Illinois and is buried beside his wife at Bunker Hill. The Illinois Veterans Commission has included him in the Honor Roll Of Veteran Burials in Macoupin County, IL. His obituary in his hometown newspaper, The Erie, Pennsylvania Observer, on November 28, 1867, stated simply, “Died at Bunker Hill, ILL, on the 26th inst., Mr. William Truesdail, formerly of this city, aged 51 years.” His rather short life was one of high adventure and harrowing exploits. The “father of Truesdale, Missouri” left his mark, not just on our area, but on the entire country.

Truesdail’s 932 acre estate, comprising most of present Warrenton and Truesdale, was purchased May 19, 1864 by the Methodist Episcopal Church as a school and a home for orphans of fallen Civil War soldiers. They called it The Western Orphan Asylum and Educational Institute. The large house which the Truesdail family had lived in became the orphanage and a new building was constructed for the school. In 1869 the name was changed to Central Wesleyan College and Orphan Asylum. In the 1930s the Truesdail family home was torn down and cottages on the property were used for the orphans home until the orphanage closed in 1939. The college closed in 1941 and the property was sold at auction in 1946. Today the Truesdail family home site is a business section.

Researcher & Author: Margy Ball Miles; ©2014

  • Sources:
    1. Central Wesleyan College Archives at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO
    2. Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri: North Missouri Railroad edited by Howard L. Conard; 1901
    3. The History of the Civil War in America, Vol. II by John S.C. Abbott; 1866
    4. Nashville, the Western Confederacy by James L. McDonough; 1934
    5. Police Record of the Spies, Smugglers and Rebel Emissaries in Tennessee; 1863
    7. Rosecrans Campaign with the Fourteenth Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland by William D. Bickham; 1863
    8. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume 22; 1963