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The Pinckney Bend Story

 




Pinckney Bend was a navigational hazard well-known to generations Missouri River boatmen.  Located at mile marker 83 above St. Louis, it is the site of a once-thriving town long since disappeared, and a stretch of river where at least five 19th century steamboats were wrecked, including the famous side-wheeler Spread Eagle. 

Today its namesake, the Pinckney Bend Distilling Company in New Haven, Missouri, celebrates the legend and lore of this vanished town.  The river has changed course since those early days, but standing on the levee not far from the distillery’s front door and looking westward, you can almost see where the town of Pinckney once stood.

Daniel Boone Country

Daniel Boone, trying to escape the encroachment of civilization in Kentucky, pioneered this wild section of Missouri in 1799 and built a house not far from the river,.  But his solitude was brief.  In just five years ownership of this vast and largely unexplored wilderness passed from Spain, to France, to the newly established United States of America.  In 1804 President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to take a look at what exactly he had bought with the Louisiana Purchase.

Lewis & Clark Whiskey Stop

On the afternoon of September 20, 1806 Lewis and Clark, returning from their Voyage of Discovery, rowed past what would soon be named Pinckney Bend.  The group overnighted just downriver at small French village near the mouth of St. John's Creek.  Clark noted in his journal, “We purchased of a Citizen two gallons of Whiskey for our party for which we were obliged to give Eight dollars in Cash, an imposition on the part of the Citizen.“ Sergeant Ordway noted the exorbitant price in his journal as well. Both men chafed at the cost, but there were no complaints about the whiskey's quality.  This is the first historic reference to strong spirits at our bend in the river.

Town Springs Up

Despite its vulnerable location within the Missouri River’s vast flood plain, in 1818 the soon-to-be-platted town of Pinckney was designated Seat of Justice for the newly formed Montgomery County.  The town was laid out one year later, a few log cabins were built and a store, which also served as  post office opened in 1820.  The first public building-- a jail-- was built the same year, along with the first frame house in the county, which also served a courthouse. The next building erected was a mill, completed by two Germans named Weaver and Duvil.  Where there is grain and the means to process it, whiskey is never far behind.

Spirits Not Far Behind

In those days Pinckney was literally a town on America's western frontier, and whiskey was as valuable --and as essential-- as powder and shot.  We know that there was no shortage of strong spirits in Pinckney.  We are also fairly certain that spirits were being distilled in Pinckney, but at this juncture recorded history grows sparse and legend is our only guide. 

Pinckney Bend's distiller would likely have descended from several generations of craftsman,  trained in the art of fermenting grains and fruits, and at distilling clear alcohol from the fermented 'wash'.  With milled grain available and warm prevailing temperatures, he could easily have offered his first product for sale to the public within a month of his arrival.  Later in the summer he could harvest the abundance of wild grapes and turn them into brandy.  His customers would make little distinction, so long as his product was good, strong, plentiful and fairly priced.

Order in the Court

Dr. Andrew Fourt, also a County Commissioner, built the first hotel in Pinckney. On court days the strong spirits flowed freely and he generally had his hands full.  Men would come to town and get drunk, and then quarrel and fight in and around the hotel.

Stories of whiskey-fueled court days in Pinckney still survive. "Among the most noisy characters of that class was a man known as Big Ben Ellis, of South Bear Creek, and one day he became so demonstrative that Fourt offered him a dollar to leave the house. He took the money, stepped out at the door, came right back again, and told Fourt that if he would give him another dollar he would go home. He finally compromised on fifty cents, and took his departure."

The first criminal case tried in Pinckney was against a man named Jim Goen, who had stolen a pair of shoes for his sweetheart.  It gets better. "He was sentenced by the court to receive twenty-nine lashes at the whipping post, which, at that time, was a familiar instrument of justice as there was one at every courthouse in the State. As soon as the sentence was pronounced, the prisoner started to run, and the Sheriff (Mr. Irvine Pitman) gave chase. It was a pretty close race until they came to a fence, which Goen attempted to jump, but failed and fell on his back. Pitman secured him, took him back to the whipping post, and inflicted the punishment, which was the first and last sentence of the kind ever executed at Pinckney."

Spirits in the Early Days

Prior to the Civil War distilling was a craft, usually practiced locally on a small scale and minimally regulated, if at all.  A distiller's name and reputation were associated with the quality of his product.  A spirit's age was the time it took for a barrel or jug to travel from the place where it was produced to the place where it was consumed…sometimes only a matter of hours.  Spirits aged for extended periods of time in new wood were not unheard of, but they were rare and expensive on the frontier.

Pinckney's distiller probably choose the town because it was on a major waterway, it was surrounded by fertile river bottom soil already under cultivation, and it had a grain mill.  By 1821 the town had nine buildings, and as the Seat of Justice for a new county, in a newly minted state, the town held great promise for rapid and continued economic growth.

Prominent Neighborhood Folks

Early settlers in the river bottoms around Pinckney were an interesting lot, with Daniel Boon and his extended family being the most prominent.  Several nearby farmers were veterans of the War of 1812, and two were descendent from signers of the Declaration of Independence. The famous steamboat Captain William R. Massie also grew up on Massie's Creek near Pinckney.  It is not generally known that Charles Younger, grandfather to the notorious Younger Brothers Gang, which included Jesse James, was an early settler near Pinckney.

John Coulter Connection

Incidentally, Corporal John Coulter, perhaps the most famous and colorful member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and arguably one of the group’s hardiest partiers (he was brought up on charges twice) eventually settled in the New Haven area, just across the river from Pinckney.  He lived there until his death in 1813, and is believed buried only a few miles from the distillery. 

Then It Was Gone

Just when everything was going so well, the promise that was Pinckney ended with a major flood in the spring of 1824. Only one first hand account of this disaster survives.  "John Tice, a German, was the first settler on Pinckney Bottom in 1809. When the over-flow of 1824 came he refused to leave his house, but moved his family upstairs and waited patiently for the water to subside. But in order to be prepared for escape in case of an emergency, he tied two meat troughs together to be used as a canoe. Some of his neighbors who had fled to the hills, became alarmed at the absence of Tice and his family, and went to their house on a raft, to see what had become of them. They found them safe, but unwilling to abandon their home; so they left them. Fortunately the water did not sweep the house away or reach the second story, and they remained in safety until the river receded into its banks."

While the Tice family home survived, most of Pinckney's other buildings did not.  The final stroke came in the same year, when the County Seat was moved to a more central, less flood-prone location.  But fate wasn't finished.  Sometime after the flood of 1824 the Missouri river changed course and the area that had been Pinckney found it self on the opposite bank of the river, and in an different county.  With this final act, all physical evidence of the town was erased.  What became of the town's distiller also disappeared into the mists of time.

Spirits Return

Fast forward to the present.  Today Pinckney Bend Distillery celebrates the historic town of Pinckney. Our goal is simple; to produce premium quality, hand-crafted spirits worthy of their heritage, one small batch at a time.