John Hardeman, best remembered for the botanical showplace he created on the banks of the Missouri River in the 1820s, was born in Virginia’s Dan River region, not far from the North Carolina border, in 1776. The second son of Thomas and Mary Perkins Hardeman, John followed his peripatetic father from Virginia to North Carolina, to Tennessee, and eventually to Missouri. He came from hardy stock and inherited from his parents a westering impulse that he shared with successive generations of pioneering Hardemans. At the same time, though, he often stood apart from his kinfolk and backwoods neighbors. A man of many talents and diverse interests, John Hardeman was a prosperous merchant who wrote poetry, a successful farmer who collected Indian artifacts and read great books, an amateur botanist who searched for unusual plants to cultivate in his experimental garden, an attorney who seldom practiced law, and an agnostic who questioned the beliefs of his Christian friends.
Hardeman was well schooled in many subjects. For a time he studied mathematics, most likely at the Davidson Academy in Nashville, but by 1802 he had entered the world of business and farming. In that year he and his older brother opened a country store in Franklin, Tennessee. The Hardeman brothers acted as buyers and marketing agents for local producers of cotton, tobacco, pork, whiskey, and peltries. They regularly shipped those commodities to Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans and also provided ginning services for local farmers. When an aspiring young attorney named Thomas Hart Benton moved to Tennessee in 1804, Hardeman extended him credit to obtain the books he needed for his legal studies, and that assistance initiated their lifelong friendship. By the time the Hardemans sold their thriving mercantile establishment in 1806, John had acquired sufficient funds to allow him to devote his primary attention to looking after his farm and conducting agricultural experiments.
After gaining admittance to the Tennessee bar in 1810, Hardeman dabbled briefly in politics, but following an unsuccessful campaign for the state senate in 1812, he withdrew permanently from the political arena. He was well on his way to becoming a prosperous Tennessee planter, but in 1817 he headed for the famed Boonslick country in the Missouri Territory where he joined his wanderlust father, who had moved there a year earlier. John Hardeman purchased land along the north bank of the Missouri River in Howard County, five miles above the new settlement of Franklin. The slaves Hardeman brought with him cleared the wilderness property for his new plantation that he called Fruitage Farm. Those same slaves also produced the cotton, corn, tobacco, hemp, and livestock that helped Hardeman finance agricultural experiments producing such wonders as three-foot radishes, turnips thirty inches in circumference, and 672 pounds of citron melons on a single vine. His friend Senator Benton helped publicize his efforts to develop improved plant and animal species.
Hardeman’s Garden, an elaborate nine-acre English garden filled with exotic plants, ornamental shrubs, and fruit that Hardeman had obtained from many parts of the world, made Fruitage Farm one of central Missouri's major attractions. Henry Shaw visited it long before he established his famed botanical garden in St. Louis. Tragically, the 1826 flood that destroyed much of nearby Franklin also swept away the showplace garden and claimed more than half of Fruitage Farm.
In addition to his agricultural pursuits, Hardeman held part interest in a Franklin general store and operated a ferry between his farm and Arrow Rock on the other side of the river, but it was the lure of profits from the newly opened Santa Fe trade that caught Hardeman’s eye in the 1820s. Two years after the rampaging Missouri had ravaged his farm, Hardeman organized a trading expedition and set out for the Southwest. He traveled all the way to Sonora, where he sold his wares. After completing his business, he chose to return home via New Orleans, but while passing through that city he contracted yellow fever and died there on September 2, 1829.
Hardeman married twice. In 1805 he wed Lucretia Nash in Baton Rouge, and they had two children. Lucretia died in 1812, and Hardeman waited until 1823 to remarry. His second wife, Nancy Knox of Boonville, bore him three children.
Hardeman, Nicholas Perkins. Wilderness Calling: The Hardeman Family in the American Westward Movement, 1750–1900. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977.
Published June 24, 2020; Last updated June 26, 2020
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