John Rice Jones. [Columbia Missouri Herald: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, 1895]

John Rice Jones, a pioneering jurist renowned for his erudition, was one of the principal framers of Missouri’s 1820 constitution and a member of the state’s first supreme court. He was born in Wales on February 10, 1759, attended Oxford University, and practiced law in London before immigrating to the United States in 1784. After residing briefly in Philadelphia, Jones headed west in 1785 and settled at Vincennes, in present-day Indiana. The following year he joined a force, led by George Rogers Clark, enlisted to defend Vincennes against an anticipated assault from the Wabash Indians. Once that threat subsided, Jones traveled farther west to Kaskaskia, on the east bank of the Mississippi, and from there in 1789 he warned the military commander at Vincennes that the Spanish in Upper Louisiana were making every effort to depopulate the settlements on the American side of the river.

Jones, who was fluent in English, French, and Spanish, soon made himself well known throughout the region. In 1795 the peripatetic attorney went to New Orleans to confer with Louisiana’s governor­general, the Baron de Carondelet, concerning the claims of a group of Michilimackinac merchants he represented. He sought compensation for property that Spanish authorities in Upper Louisiana had seized from his clients in 1793. Lieutenant governor Zenon Trudeau wrote Carondelet from St. Louis that the “caustic character of the lawyer Jones whom you have seen, aside from his wranglings, has a talent destined to trouble us.” Jones also accompanied Moses Austin during his 1797 visit to Upper Louisiana’s lead mines and served as his interpreter. He subsequently joined Austin, in partnership with François Vallé II and lieutenant governor Charles de Hault Delassus, for the purpose of conducting mining operations at Mine à Breton in the hinterlands west of Ste. Genevieve.

Jones returned to Vincennes, where his legal skills and his friendship with territorial governor William Henry Harrison helped him secure appointment in 1801 as Indiana Territory’s first attorney general. The following year he acted as secretary of a convention that unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to repeal the antislavery article of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Governor Harrison, acting on behalf of the president, Thomas Jefferson, selected Jones in 1805 to serve as a member of the territory’s Legislative Council. Jones’s proslavery views in all likelihood doomed his attempt in 1808 to become Indiana’s territorial delegate to Congress. Shortly after losing that contest, he returned to Kaskaskia, where he championed the cause of separating the Illinois counties from Indiana Territory.

In 1810 Jones moved across the Mississippi to Ste. Genevieve and from there to St. Louis before settling at Mine à Breton, where he engaged in lead mining. He continued the partnership he had formed earlier with Austin, and they each conveyed land for the creation of Potosi, which was selected to serve as the county seat for Washington County. A series of disagreements and misunderstandings between the two men gradually took their toll, and in 1814 Austin and Jones parted company and dissolved their remaining joint interests at Mine à Breton.

Notwithstanding his squabbles with Austin, Jones found time to dabble in territorial politics. He served one term as a representative in Missouri’s territorial assembly, and then as a member and president of the Legislative Council. In 1820 the voters selected him as one of three delegates representing Washington County in the Missouri constitutional convention. Jones, dubbed by historian Floyd Calvin Shoemaker as the convention’s “most learned member,” assumed an active role in drafting Missouri’s first constitution. He chaired several key committees whose reports helped shape the final document.

When the new state’s House of Representatives convened in 1820, its members selected Jones as clerk. Later that year, however, the respected jurist failed in his bid to represent Missouri in the US Senate, even though he apparently enjoyed the backing of influential members of the St. Louis Junto. Missouri’s newly elected governor, Alexander McNair, who had served with Jones at the constitutional convention, promptly appointed his well-schooled colleague to a seat on the Supreme Court of Missouri. As a member of the high court, Jones frequently disagreed with his fellow justices, and his dissenting opinions enliven the otherwise staid early state reports.

Jones married twice. His first wife, Eliza Powell, who was born in London, bore him three children. His union with Mary Barger, whom he wed in Vincennes, produced eight children. When Jones died in St. Louis on February 1, 1824, he had attained renown in the legal profession, success in business, and considerable personal wealth. He was highly respected, though not particularly well liked, but his failure to win popularity should not obscure his substantial contributions as a distinguished member of the bar in Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

Further Reading

Barnhart, John D., and Dorothy L. Riker. Indiana to 1816: The Colonial Period. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau and Indiana Historical Society, 1971.

Burgess, Charles E. “John Rice Jones, Citizen of Many Territories.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 61, no. 1 (Spring 1968): 58–82. 

Gray, David B. Moses Austin: His Life. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1987.

Nasatir, Abraham P. Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804. 2 vols. 1952. Repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Shoemaker, Floyd C. “David Barton, John Rice Jones, and Edward Bates: Three Missouri State and Statehood Founders.” Missouri Historical Review 65, no. 4 (July 1971): 527–43.

———. “Judge John Rice Jones: A Living Chronicle of Passing Times.” 1963. Repr., Missouri Supreme Court Journal 5, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 1, 6, 9–11.

Published June 27, 2024

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