Oliver Anderson was born Feb. 15, 1794, in Nicholasville, Kentucky. He was born into a wealthy, business-minded family, and by the age of 16 or 17, had already established an extensive trade with New Orleans by means of flat boats, returning to Kentucky on foot.
Not long after, Anderson enlisted in the War of 1812, serving in Patrick Gray's Company of Kentucky Volunteers. Anderson quickly moved through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1813, a captain in 1815, a major in 1819, and finally a lieutenant colonel in 1820. Following the war, Anderson returned to Kentucky, resuming his trade and serving briefly as a sheriff's deputy.
In 1819, Anderson married Mary Campbell. The couple had 10 children together: Mary Ann, Catherine, Minerva, William, Joseph Caldwell, Jane Le Grand, Robert Oliver, John Campbell, Katherine Blair, and Leila. Catherine died in infancy. Mary Campbell died in 1842. Anderson remarried five years later to Louisa Price.
Anderson entered into the hemp production business in 1830. In addition to raising the hemp, he also manufactured rope and bagging from it. He soon became associated with textile producer Samuel G. Jackson and formed the firm Anderson & Jackson. The company thrived for several years, until political instability in Europe lessened foreign demand for hemp and forced the firm to dissolve. Anderson, however, remained in the hemp business. In 1850, his farm produced 60 bushels of hemp seed and over 20 tons of hemp.
It was about this time that Anderson made the decision to move his family to Lexington, Missouri. He purchased a 67-acre tract of land along the Missouri River and moved west with sons William and Joseph. Both sons were lawyers, and they began to practice in Missouri immediately. Oliver Anderson made plans to continue in the hemp business with his son-in-law, Howard Gratz.
Gratz was the son of a wealthy Kentucky hemp producer and had married Minerva Anderson in 1847. After moving to Missouri, Gratz founded the firm Gratz & Shelby with his stepbrother Joseph O. Shelby, who would later become a well-known Confederate general. Together, Gratz & Shelby owned a ropewalk in Waverly, Missouri; a sawmill in Berlin; and a large 700-acre estate in Lafayette County.
Anderson had finished construction on his ropewalk in 1853, also building himself a residence on the bluff overlooking it. In April of that year, Anderson shipped more than 1,700 coils of hemp to St. Louis, the largest shipment ever received there in one day. By 1854, Anderson & Gratz was the largest manufacturer in Lexington, nearly doubling the output of competing factories.
In 1856, Gratz left Missouri to return to Lexington, Kentucky. It appears that his partnership with Shelby was suffering due to Shelby's active participation in the rising conflict between Missouri slave-owners and Kansas abolitionists. He did not, however, dissolve partnerships with Anderson or Shelby at that time, and merely stepped down from active participation.
Anderson was also among those involved in the border conflict. A staunch believer in slavery as a God-given right, Anderson would later write to his wife:
…Slavery is a scriptural institution, and… Abolitionists, as they exist here, are infidels. They are unwilling that God shall be a judge of what is proper and right, and desire themselves to determine what is proper, and that too, in direct opposition to God's revealed law as given to the Hebrews. Hence they say they want an Antislavery Bible and an Antislavery God.
It would be these loudly voiced beliefs that would soon cause Anderson trouble in the tumultuous border territory. In 1854, Anderson organized a group of landowners in Lafayette County to protest the newly created Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act allowed the people who settled the new states to determine on their own whether or not they would become slave or free states. Kansas was quickly crowded with abolitionists settlers, called free-soilers. Naturally, this caused great concern among the slave-owners along the Missouri border. Anderson would continue to fight this act, sometimes through unscrupulous means, for the next several years.
Financially, though, the next several years would be difficult for Anderson. Gratz, further trying to distance himself from the increasingly radical Shelby, sold most of his holdings to Anderson. Anderson purchased Gratz's interest in their warehouse, 77 acres of property, 11 enslaved people and all of Gratz' personal property from him for $26,000. As part of the agreement, he took on more than $40,000 in debts owed by Shelby and Gratz. But Anderson's financial situation would not improve. In 1859, Anderson announced that he was auctioning off his business, real estate and even his home in order to satisfy his creditors. The rope factory and Anderson residence were purchased by his sons; thus, much of his ownings remained in the family.
Unfortunately, Anderson's sale was not enough to cover his debts. In late 1859, Anderson announced that he would run for the office of sheriff of Lafayette County. He had been appointed to the office earlier, to fill an unexpired term. Now he intended to run on his own, stating that he needed the job "for the living that there is in it." He lost by a 4-1 margin. The 1860 census reports Anderson as living with his wife, two sons and daughter. He is listed as having no real estate or personal value. This is the condition Anderson would find himself in when the Civil War broke out.
In the fall of 1861, the war came into Anderson's home. The Union army, which had occupied the Masonic College in Lexington and surrounded it with defenses, now claimed Anderson's house for use as a field hospital. It is believed that Anderson and his family were evicted by the army during this period and stayed with friends and family during the fighting. Evidence suggests that Anderson returned to his house after the Union troops left town, if only briefly.
In the summer of 1862, Anderson's secessionist beliefs and poor financial condition would spell doom for him as the Union Army took Missouri into a state of martial law. Anderson was arrested in July and taken to Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis. The exact reason for his arrest is not known, but rumor had it that he was a member of a secret militant group called the Southern League, which was stealing and smuggling arms for the Confederacy. A Lexington resident also noted in his diary that Anderson was jailed for being unable to pay the usual bond required by the military.
Anderson would spend less than a year at Gratiot Street, as he still had influential friends in Washington. He was paroled, but forced to live in the Northern states for the duration of the war. The terms were soon softened, though, and after several months of moving from place to place, Anderson returned to Kentucky. He died in 1873 at Gratz's residence in Lexington, Kentucky. The Kentucky Gazette published this obituary:
In this city, on the 20th of January, Col. OLIVER ANDERSON, in the 79th year of his age.
Col. Anderson was a native of Jessamine County, where he principally resided until he was near sixty years of age, and where he was well-known and highly esteemed as a man of probity, and recognized as possess of those qualities which give a man influence with the better class [sic] of his fellow citizens. He entered the army which marched from Kentucky in 1813 to the relief of the northwestern frontier, and was present at several battles that distinguished those campaigns, and was wounded and taken prisoner at River Raisin. This consumed the years that should have been devoted to acquiring a collegiate education, such as his brothers had attained, and yet no one ever supplied this deficiency more thoroughly by subsequent study and reading. We doubt if any unprofessional man ever had a more accurate knowledge of Shakespeare and the elder dramatists, and gave more of an otherwise busy life to the reading of history and current literature, and profited more by the reading. He was benevolent, honorable and brave, and, without being austere, he was profoundly religious in his convictions and his life. He represented the county of Fayette in the Senate of Kentucky at one time, and attacked the mismanagement of certain departments of the government with a vigor and courage that gained him the approbation of all good citizens. While not cordial or warm in general intercourse, yet he was gentle and kind in his family, and was rewarded by the utmost affection and respect of his children and grandchildren, which, in the decline of life, is far more to be prized than wealth or honors. We have the very best reason for knowing that he was a man of a strong and robust nature, of an integrity that could not be tempted to do a mean or dishonorable action and of a charitable, kind and forgiving disposition. He passed away at peace with all men, and there were no hands in his death.