The Confederate general had nothing to do with it. Someone who’d been working on the railroad didn’t know how to spell.
Lee’s Summit, Missouri, has an elementary school, a middle school, and a 16-1/2 acre park, all within a few blocks of each other, all bearing the name Pleasant Lea.
A lea is a grassland or a meadow. It would be reasonable to think that the two schools and the park got their names because they were situated by a grassy meadow that was enjoyable in quiet way—a meadow that was called Pleasant Lea.
But they didn’t.
They were given that name to honor an individual—Dr. Pleasant Lea, who owned the land containing the summit that gave its name to the town. Looking across the south central part of Jackson County, “summit” may not be the first word to come to mind. Different sources, though, tell us that Dr. Lea’s land contained the highest elevation along the railroad tracks that connected Kansas City and St. Louis. So yes, the town was named Lea’s Summit. “Lee’s Summit” was the sign-painting-on-the-side-of-a-boxcar equivalent of a typographical error.
Pleasant John Graves Lea was born in Tennessee to Major Lea, Jr. and Rhoda Jarnagin Lea in late 1807. Some sources give the month as September, and some as November. And some sources give the location as Jefferson County, and some as Caswell County.
Dr. Lea’s niece, Myra Inman, kept a diary during the Civil War, which was published by Mercer University Press in 2000, edited by William R. Snell, under the title A Diary of the Civil War in East Tennessee. She referred to him as Uncle Pleasant (his sister, Anna, was Myra’s mother). Though he moved to Jackson County, Missouri (no later than 1850, when he is listed there in the Federal Census), he and several of his offspring are mentioned in the diary.
Dr. Lea’s grandfather was Major Lea, Sr., born in 1759, and his great-great grandfather was James Lea, the ancestor who emigrated from England to the Americas. James was born at Lea Hall in Wimboldsley, Cheshire County, in 1718. He came to America while in his early 20s, and settled briefly in Virginia before moving to Orange County, North Carolina, which was later renamed Caswell County.
Dr. Lea’s father was Major Lea, Jr., born in Orange County in 1775, and his mother was Rhoda Jarnagin Lea, who gave birth to nine children in all. After Rhoda’s husband died, she lived with Anna Inman and her family. In 1838, when he was 31, P.J.G. married Lucinda Callaway in Bradley County, Tennessee. Lucinda was born in 1821, and so would have been 17 years old, or 16 going on 17, at the time of the wedding. They had nine children.
Bradley County had been created in 1836, named for Col. Edward Bradley, who had led the East Tennessee militia during the War of 1812. Foster County and Rutledge County had been proposed as names, before the legislature settled on Bradley. Even after the Bradley name had been inserted into the organizing bill, some in the state senate tried to change it to Cleveland, to honor Col. Benjamin Cleveland, a North Carolina hero of the Revolutionary War (and distant cousin of future president Grover Cleveland).
By 1835 a white settlement had been established in what became Bradley County, and, in accordance with the dictates of the law that established Bradley County, when it was selected to be the county seat, it was given the name of Cleveland.
P.J.G. Lea was one of the founders of Cleveland, Tennessee, and one of its first commissioners.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Lea’s step-granddaughter, Claudine Sowell Chandler, wrote a short memoir of her step-father, Thomas C. Lea, Sr., Dr. Lea’s oldest son, for the Jackson County Historical Society, the first part of which shares Lea family stories handed down to her. In the fall of 1981 it appeared in the Kansas City Genealogist. Mrs. Chandler tells us that Dr. Lea graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in the spring of 1847. (The school was founded in 1824, and is still in existence as part of Thomas Jefferson University.) He came back to Cleveland and tended to his medical practice for two years. Dr. Lea also owned a pharmacy. (One of his employees was John G. Carter, who married his niece Darthula Inman. Nearly two decades later, a year or two after his wife died, Carter married Darthula’s younger sister, Myra.)
It says something about Lea’s importance to Cleveland that the town’s principal street, much broader than the other streets (it was said that it was wide enough for four to six teams of horses to turn), the street that came out of the original route for the stagecoach, on which the original settlers built homes, was named Lea Street in honor of the good doctor. Several decades later, Lea Street’s name was changed to Broad Street, over the objections of older residents.
The 1850 census lists P.J.G. and Lucinda’s family as living in Missouri. The records for the Lee’s Summit Cemetery list Lucinda’s year of death as 1857. Based on fragments of a letter written to one of his sisters, Lucinda’s death seems to have hit Dr. Lea very hard. In the years following Lucinda’s death, and during the war, Myra Inman’s journal tells of Dr. Lea and members of his family making visits back to Cleveland.
Chandler reports that Dr. Lea and his family headed out for Missouri on October 9, 1849, accompanied by at least one neighbor, a Mr. Bradford, and that
Besides Dr. Lea’s nine children, [there] were ten others, including babies. These little busy-bodies knew not nor feared danger. After awhile [sic], they sought their own wagon, and soon [were] lost in deep sleep.
One night the Lea children were all accounted for except one little girl—Mary—age eleven. The entire camp was aroused and a quick active search was made. No signs, no answers to [c]alls, no footprints, nothing to reveal the whereabouts of the little Mary.
At last, in their sadness, the caravan proceeded on the morning of the fourth day. ... Dr. Lea left three slaves, young Tom (aged 10) and three other riders to continue the search.
For two days nothing was heard. Only Tom returned, a frightened boy. All he and the three white searchers found were dead horses, dead negro slaves ... and an Indian moccasin!
The caravan proceeded on its journey, with a mother filled with sorrow and grief.
While it is very possible that something tragic happened on the journey from Tennessee to Missouri, comparing Chandler’s account (which would have been stories told to her by her step-father’s family) with the Federal Census records shows some major discrepancies. The 1840 Census, which only lists names for the heads of households, shows only one free white female in the household, which would be Lucinda, who was 19 at the time. “Mary” would have been born the year before Thomas. The 1850 Census (the year after the journey) does list a Mary, who was two. This means she would have been in her first year or second year during the journey from Tennessee, which would mean that the Lea family had two daughters named Mary who were living at the same time.
This is not to say that there was no truth to Chandler’s story, but that through the years the narrative of the story she inherited had gone through some changes. She says that the deep grief that came with Mary’s loss finally led to Mrs. Lea’s death. (Lucinda Lea died in 1857, some eight years later.)
About the Author
Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.