An Ozark Journey: Gunsmoke in the Courthouse

John and Sarah Baldwin Barrett moved to Ozark County in the late 1800s, settling on land adjoining the homestead of Plez Duckworth and his wife, Amanda. A feud developed between the two men for reasons that have been lost to time. Their enmity led to the 1891 shootout in the Ozark County Courthouse.

Pleasant J. “Plez” Duckworth, who died as the result of a shootout in the Ozark County Courthouse in 1891, was originally buried in a lone plot on the land he had homesteaded along Barren Fork, but his grave was moved to the New Friend Cemetery near Isabella when Bull Shoals Lake was constructed.

Editor’s note: In its first four segments, published in the July 17, 24, 31 and Aug. 7 editions of the Times, Gainesville resident Wayne Sayles’ column, An Ozark Journey, traced the history and route of the Old Salt Road created by James McClurg before the Civil War, focusing on the rugged road’s path through Ozark County. During that “journey” along the Old Salt Road, several early Ozark County settlers were introduced, each with a story to tell. Part 4 (Aug. 7) told the story of Mansfield and Jane E. McCullough Duckworth, who were peacefully clearing their Ozark County land to create a farm when the Civil War broke out in April 1861. To escape the escalating violence of raving marauders and bushwhackers, the Duckworths and their four children fled north on the Old Salt Road, eventually finding shelter in Dallas County. Tragically, Mansfield Duckworth was killed in January 1863 while serving with the Union Army, leaving Jane pregnant and on her own with their four children age 9 and younger. In the middle of winter, Jane courageously headed back home to Ozark County, making it as far as what is now Thornfield, where their fifth child, a daughter, was born. This column shares another chapter in Jane’s life, showing that the loss of her husband was not the last calamity she would face during her pioneer experience.


Pleasant Johnson (“Plez”) Duckworth, the third of five children born in Ozark County to Mansfield and Jane Duckworth, was born on June 1, 1859, in what was then recorded as Falling Springs Township. Don’t bother Googling that township; it no longer exists. All of Ozark County was recorded in this one “township” during the 1860 census. More precisely, Pleasant’s birthplace was the northeastern-most “40” in Section 33, T.23N, R.15W of what is now Jasper Township. That parcel of land was fertile bottomland along the Barren Fork of the Little North Fork. 

Plez’s uncle George Duckworth, Mansfield’s brother, owned an adjoining 80 acres that ran east to west along that same tributary. A quarter-century later, Plez himself homesteaded 120 acres in section 34, just a quarter mile east of there. About half of Plez’s land bordered Barren Fork. Today, much of this land that was once owned by the Duckworths is part of the Mark Twain National Forest or is U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property about a mile northeast of Haskins Ford. 

Brothers George and Mansfield Duckworth both served in Captain Stone’s Cavalry, Company A, of the Missouri Home Guard, and both of them married daughters of Pleasant McCullough.

Plez Duckworth was named after his maternal grandfather, Pleasant Johnson McCullough (1807-ca.1875) and grew up near his grandfather in the Otter Creek / Toledo area of Ozark County. The elder Pleasant was a popular figure of the time who appears in several of the much-heralded stories of Silas Claiborne Turnbo. He served at least one term as sheriff during the formation of the first circuit court in the newly established county and also as local tax collector. 

Plez’s parents, Mansfield and Jane McCullough Duckworth, were from strong and proud pioneer stock – role models who would have made Horatio Alger proud. Plez was no exception. He grew up in the hardest of times in abject poverty and carried that legacy as a badge of honor. He was successful in winning the heart of Amanda Capehart, a young woman from a notable Ozark bloodline, and the two built a life and family together in the new and vibrant Ozark County that emerged after the Civil War.


A shootout in the courthouse

The east side of the land Plez Duckworth homesteaded was bordered by John Clinton Barrett’s land. Most of that land today appears on topographical maps as “Barrett Hollow” with a wet-weather creek running through it called Barrett Creek. John Barrett was married to Sarah Baldwin in Tennessee about 1875. Family members remembered her as a “true southern lady.” With their four children, the Barretts moved to Ozark County, along with Sarah’s mother and her brothers, Arthur and Lewis Baldwin, as well as a sister, Mary Catherine, and her husband Thomas Allen. 

Arthur Baldwin served as an Ozark County judge in the late 1800s and owned the property where Baldwin Cemetery can still be found today in a remote corner of the Mark Twain National Forest near Nottinghill. Both the Duckworths and the Baldwins were solid citizens, and from all accounts, they got along well together. 

However, the relations between John Barrett and Plez Duckworth were strained, to say the least. A growing feud built over several years. The reasons for the feud are not entirely clear, and family recollections vary. The issues may have been over property rights or perhaps more personal issues. In any case, the tension was enough that the two finally resolved their differences in a face-to-face shootout in the Ozark County Courthouse on the Saturday morning of Nov. 21, 1891.

Five shots were fired. One hit Plez Duckworth. He was taken to the nearby Ozark Hotel, where he was treated by Doctors Arnold, Small and Beach. From there he was transported to the McDonald residence, where he received care until he died on Monday evening. Plez was buried in a lone plot along Barren Fork on his homestead. When Bull Shoals Dam was constructed, his grave was moved to the new Friend Cemetery near Isabella.

The shooting led to the arrest of John Barrett and a two-year trial that included a change of venue.

In its Aug. 31, 1893, edition, the Ozark County News reported, “If there is a man within 5 miles of Gainesville who has not been subpoenaed as a witness in the Barrett murder case, he will please stand up and be counted. Owing to the large number of our citizens who are in attendance at the Oregon county circuit court as witnesses for the State and defense in the Barrett murder case, which was taken there on a change of venue, our usually stirring little metropolis seems almost depopulated this week”

The trial ended in a not-guilty verdict. 

Afterward, Barrett and his family moved to West Plains, where confrontations and scrapes with the law continued until his death by natural causes at the age of 56. 


Duckworth Road

Jane Duckworth was devastated by the loss of her son and Amanda Duckworth by the loss of her husband, but these two pillars of strength rallied to protect the orphaned children and the home their son and husband had built. 

More than 90 years later, many of the details of the incident were published in serialized version in the “Ozark Reader” column of the Ozark County Times as a 15-part series titled “Gunsmoke in the Gainesville Courthouse.” That story, extracted from a book written by Ron Pyron, great-grandson of John Barrett, ran weekly from April 22 to July 22, 1982. 

At the time of publication, Plez Duckworth’s granddaughter Sarah Ann Duckworth Freeman responded to Pyron’s account in the “Ozark Reader” with a respectful but clear counterpoint. In it she defended her grandfather’s virtues, saying, “I am honor bound to speak in his behalf in order that both sides may be heard.” 

Plez Duckworth left behind four children, and the ownership of his homestead was split five ways. Over a period of some 20 or more years, Douglas Duckworth acquired the shares of his mother and siblings one by one. He raised cattle and sold lumber with the help of his brother Burt, adding adjacent parcels of land when they became available. Among those parcels were the properties previously owned by John Barrett and his brother-in-law, Lewis Baldwin.

At the time of his death in 1967 Doug Duckworth owned 800 acres of land along Ozark County Road 829, still known to many old-timers in the area as “Duckworth Road.” And a part of that land previously owned by Lewis Baldwin is home to Wayne and Doris Sayles and is a part of their own Ozark journey.


Ozark County Times

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