Missouri History

17th century

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet sailed down the Mississippi River in canoes along the area that would later become Missouri. The two established that the Mississippi River ran all the way to the sea. In 1682, Robert de LaSalle claimed the Louisiana Territory for France.

From this time up until the building of the first railways in the Mississippi Basin in the 19th century, the Mississippi system waterways were the only means of communication and transportation in the region. During the early years of French occupation, trade with the American Indians was the only industry. It was carried on using birch canoes and pirogues. The fur trade grew to be a major part of the early Missouri economy.


18th century

By 1720, immigrants were settling in New France in considerable numbers, both by way of the Great Lakes and the mouth of the Mississippi. In the Illinois Country, they settled first on the east side of the Mississippi, making the villages of Kaskaskia, Fort de Chartres and Prairie du Rocher. To meet the demands of rapidly expanding commerce, the French and English colonists introduced barges and keelboats on the rivers. In the same year, the Frenchman Phillippe François Renault, based east of the Mississippi River, brought the first black slaves to Missouri to work in lead mining part of the year. He also was seeking gold in the mines of the Mississippi.

Etienne de Bourgmont built Fort Orleans in 1724 along the north bank of the Missouri River in what is now Carroll County, Missouri.

In 1750, Ste. Genevieve was founded on the Mississippi, the first permanent European settlement in the future state. King Louis XV issued the Code Noir (Black Code), a set of regulations concerning the use of enslaved Africans in the territory. It had certain protections for what was considered an economic investment.

Spain gained control of the region in 1762 under the Treaty of Fontainebleau after the British defeated France in the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in North America. It did not assume control until 1770. The agricultural settlements changed little, and continued the use of French in most transactions. The Spanish regime continued most of the Code Noir, but also permitted enslaved blacks to work on their own account and purchase their freedom.

St. Louis was founded in 1764 by the Frenchman Pierre Laclède Liguest.


19th century

Louisiana Territory

Spain, in 1800, negotiated the territory’s cession back to France. The French ruler, Napoleon, reasoned that the territory could not be protected from the expanding United States. He then sold it to the U.S. under President Thomas Jefferson for $15 million in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition set out in 1804 to map the region and in 1805, the Louisiana Territory was organized, with the government seat in St. Louis. The U.S. government soon built trading and military forts to establish control over the territory, Fort Bellefontaine was made an Army post near St. Louis in 1804, and Fort Osage was built along the Missouri River in 1808.

The Mississippi-Ohio river systems were navigated by steamboat starting in 1811 with the New Orleans steamboat travelling from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to New Orleans. On December 16 of that year, the first of a series known as the New Madrid earthquakes occurred, the largest in the history of the United States. Tremors were reported as far away as Philadelphia.


Missouri Territory

After Louisiana became a state in 1812, the remaining Louisiana Territory was renamed the Missouri Territory. That year, the first general assembly of the Missouri Territory was created, with the five original counties being Cape Girardeau, New Madrid, Saint Charles, Saint Louis, and Ste. Genevieve.

Missouri was at the western frontier during the War of 1812, and the main regional headquarters of the U.S. Army was based at Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis. Other forts included Fort Cap au Gris; Fort Osage was abandoned at the start of the war. Several skirmishes were fought in Missouri, including the Battle of the Sink Hole, one of the last battles of the war, on May 24, 1815.

In 1817, the steamboat Zebulon M. Pike reached Saint Louis. That year, the commerce from New Orleans to the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville was carried in barges and keel-boats having a capacity of 60 to 80 tons each, with 3 to 4 months required to make a single trip. In 1820 steamboats were making the same trip in 15 to 20 days, by 1838 in 6 days or less. By 1834 there were 230 steamboats, having an aggregate tonnage of 39,000 tons, engaged in trade on the Mississippi.

Large numbers of flat boats, especially from the Ohio and its tributaries, continued to carry produce downstream. In 1842 Ohio completed an extensive canal system that connected the Mississippi with the Great Lakes. These were in turn connected in 1825 by the Erie Canal with the Hudson River and the Port of New York on the Atlantic Ocean. There was expansive growth of resource commodity, and agricultural products trade throughout the rivers and Great Lakes network.

In 1818, Saint Louis University was founded, a Catholic Jesuit Seminary that was the first college west of the Mississippi River. It expanded its programs to include secular instruction.


Missouri Compromise

Also in 1818, Missouri requested admittance to the Union as a slave state. This became a national controversy due to the delicate balance between free and slave states. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise cleared the way for Missouri’s entry to the union as a slave state, along with Maine, a free state, to preserve the balance. Additionally, the Missouri Compromise stated that the remaining portion of the Louisiana Territory above the 36°30′ line was to be free from slavery. This same year, the first Missouri constitution was adopted. The following year, 1821, Missouri was admitted as the 24th state, with the state capital temporarily located in Saint Charles until a permanent capital could be built. The state capital moved to Jefferson City in 1826.

Before the steamboat was successfully used on the Mississippi, the population of the valley did not reach 2,000,000. The population increased rapidly from approximately 2,500,000 in 1820 to more than 6,000,000 in 1840, and to 14,000,000 or more in 1860. The well-equipped passenger boats of the period immediately preceding the Civil War were notable features on the Ohio and the Lower Mississippi.

During this time, both free blacks and slaves lived in Missouri. In 1824, the Missouri State Supreme Court ruled that free blacks could not be re-enslaved, known as “once free, always free.” In 1846, the Dred Scott v. Sandford case began. Dred and Harriet Scott, who were slaves, sued for freedom in state courts. This was on the premise that they had previously lived in a free state. This case continued until 1857, culminating in a landmark United States Supreme Court decision rejecting Scott’s arguments and sustaining slavery.


Platte Purchase

At the time of its admission, the western border of Missouri was a straight line from Iowa to Arkansas based on the confluence of the Kaw River with the Missouri River in the Kansas City West Bottoms. Land in what is now northwest Missouri was deeded to the Iowa (tribe) and the combined Sac (tribe) and Fox (tribe). Following encroachments on the land by white settlers—most notably Joseph Robidoux — William Clark persuaded the tribes to agree give up their land in exchange for $7,500 in the 1836 Platte Purchase. The land was ratified by Congress in 1837. The purchase received widespread support from Southern Congressmen since it would mean adding territory to the only slave state north of Missouri’s southern border. An area only somewhat smaller than the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware was added to Missouri. It consisted of the Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Holt, Nodaway and Platte counties.


Gateway to the West

The University of Missouri was created in 1839. Six years later, St. Louis was connected by telegraph to the east coast. The same year, the first bank west of the Mississippi was established.

The California Gold Rush began in 1848 and Saint Louis, Independence, Westport and Saint Joseph became departure points for those heading to California, earning Missouri the nickname “Gateway to the West”. Kansas City was incorporated a year later on the banks of the Missouri River.

In 1860, the Pony Express began its short-lived run from Saint Joseph to Sacramento, California.

Mormons and the ‘Mormon War’


Joseph Smith, Jr., the leader of the LDS church (otherwise known as Mormons) claimed to have received revelation that western Missouri, specifically the area around Independence, and other areas of western Missouri, were to become Zion and a place of gathering. By the early 1830s Mormons came into the area, at first to Independence and its nearby environs. One Mormon community was set up in Daviess county and was named Adam-ondi-Ahman, which Joseph Smith said was the place where Adam lived after being expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Many of the early settlers in western Missouri, who came from the southern states and brought along with them the institution of slavery, resented the newcomers. The Mormons would vote in blocks and congregate in concentrated areas, and would typically trade only amongst themselves, and they would not hold slaves; all this tended to make the ‘old settlers’ jealous and suspicious. Open claims by the Mormons that the area was given to them by God only worsened the situation. By the mid 1830’s Mormons had effectively been driven from the Independence area, but they relocated to counties north and a little east. Disputes with old settlers began anew, and by 1838 open hostility was peaking again. Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issued the ominous sounding Extermination Order, which encouraged Missourians to expel Mormons by all means possible. Skirmishes and small battles occurred and a number of people were killed, mostly Mormons. Joseph Smith was jailed, along with other LDS leaders and held in several jails for more than five months, with no hope of a trial or court hearing. Smith was allowed to escape and he and his church moved to Illinois to form the city of Nauvoo in 1839. Missouri still holds many important sites still considered significant by the LDS and Community of Christ churches. In 1976 Missouri officially revoked the extermination order.


Civil War

Immediately before the Civil War began, Missourians voted overwhelmingly against seceding from the Union. However, in the 1860 presidential election, the Republican (and therefore anti-slavery) Abraham Lincoln received only a small percentage of Missouri votes, mostly from St. Louis. Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas won the state’s 12 electoral votes — the only state he captured in his campaign. Sympathies ran for both sides, the Confederacy and the Union, and it was in Saint Louis where the first blood was spilled in the “Camp Jackson Affair.”

In 1861, General John C. Fremont issued a proclamation that freed slaves who had been owned by those that had taken up arms against the Union. Lincoln immediately reversed this unauthorized action. Secessionists tried to form their own state government, joining the Confederacy and establishing a capital in exile first in Neosho, Missouri and later in Texas (at Marshall, Texas). By the end of the war, Missouri had supplied 110,000 troops for the Union Army and 40,000 troops for the Confederate Army.


Because of the state’s strategic location linking Northern and Southern states, many important Civil War battles occurred in Missouri. Missouri was the location of the third largest number of engagements of any state, after Virginia and Tennessee. The pro-Southern state force known as the Missouri State Guard commanded by Sterling Price initiated a long retreat from Boonville to the Southwestern portion of the state in 1861. In Carthage, the Guard defeated a heavy detachment of Federal regulars commanded by Col. Franz Sigel. Shortly afterward, the 12,000-man force of the combined elements of the Missouri State Guard, Arkansas State Guard, and Confederate regulars soundly defeated the Federal army of Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek or “Oak Hills”.

Following the success at Wilson’s Creek, southern forces pushed northward and captured the 3500-strong garrison at the first Battle of Lexington. Federal forces contrived to campaign to retake Missouri, causing the Southern forces to retreat from the state and head for Arkansas and later Mississippi.

In Arkansas, the Missourians fought at the battle of Pea Ridge, meeting defeat. In Mississippi, elements of the Missouri State Guard participated in the struggles at Corinth and Iuka, where they suffered heavy losses.

In 1864, Sterling Price plotted to liberate Missouri, launching his 1864 raid on the state. Striking in the southeastern portion of the state, Price moved north, and attempted to capture Fort Davidson but failed. Next, Price sought to attack St. Louis but found it too heavily fortified. He then broke west in a parallel course with the Missouri River. The Federals attempted to retard Price’s advance through both minor and substantial skirmishing such as at Glasgow and Lexington. Price made his way to the extreme western portion of the state, taking part in a series of bitter battles at the Little Blue, Independence, and Byram’s Ford. His Missouri campaign culminated in the battle of Westport in which over 30,000 troops fought, leading to the defeat of the Southern army. The Missourians retreated through Kansas and Oklahoma into Arkansas, where they stayed for the remainder of the war.

Besides organized military conflict, Missouri spawned guerrilla warfare. In such a bitterly divided state, neighbors frequently used the excuse of war to settle grudges and took up arms against neighbors. Roving bands such as Quantrill’s Raiders and the men of Bloody Bill Anderson terrorized the countryside, striking both military installations and civilian settlements. Because of the widespread guerrilla conflict, and support by citizens in border counties, Federal leaders issued General Order No. 11 in 1863, and evacuated areas of Jackson, Cass, and Bates counties. They forced the residents out to reduce support for the guerrillas.

Under Federal control, the Mississippi was closed to commerce. When the war was over, the prosperity of the South was temporarily ruined. Hundreds of steamboats had been destroyed. Moreover, much of the commerce of the West had been turned from New Orleans, via the Mississippi, to the Atlantic seaboard, via the Great Lakes and by the rapidly multiplying new lines of railways. There was, of course, some revival of the Mississippi commerce immediately after the war, but this was checked by a sandbar at the mouth of the south-west pass. Relief was obtained through the Ead’s jetties at the mouth of the south pass in 1879, but the facilities for the transfer of freight were far inferior to those employed by the railways, and the steamboat companies did not prosper.

In 1865, Missouri abolished slavery, doing so before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, by an ordinance of immediate emancipation. Missouri adopted a new constitution, one that denied voting rights and had prohibitions against certain occupations for former Confederacy supporters.


Later 19th century

The Missouri’s Women’s Suffrage Club was organized in 1867, to win the right to vote for women, and was the first such club in the nation.

Missouri adopted its 3rd constitution on October 30, 1875. In 1882, the bank robber and Confederate guerrilla Jesse James was killed in Saint Joseph.


20th century

On March 1, 1912, US Army Captain Albert Berry made the first parachute jump from a moving airplane over Missouri.

In 1919, Missouri became the 11th state to ratify the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

The first president from Missouri, Harry S. Truman, assumed the presidency in 1945 after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman was re-elected in 1948.

Construction began on the Saint Louis Gateway Arch in 1965.

In 1980, court-ordered desegregation began in Missouri.