Before the coming of white settlers, the region surrounding Jefferson City was home to an ancient group known as the Mound People. In fact, America's largest prehistoric city was located only 160 miles away at what is now Cahokia, Illinois. Why this civilization disappeared remains a mystery.
At the time Europeans arrived in the area in the seventeenth century, the Osage Indians inhabited the region. In 1673, the French explorers Joliet and Marquette explored the region. In 1682, the explorer LaSalle sailed down the Mississippi River and claimed the area of Jefferson City for France. In 1715, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac opened a lead mine nearby, where until 1744 white men used slaves to work the mines. During the mid-1700s, settlements were begun at Ste. Genevieve and at St. Louis. Soon many new settlers began arriving from Kentucky and Tennessee by way of the Ohio River and its tributaries.
In the 1780s, the Spanish built a road northward from New Madrid, Missouri to St. Louis, which today is known as U.S. Route 51. The area was explored by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. In the early 1800s, frontiersman Daniel Boone carved out the Boone's Lick Trail, which is now Interstate Highway 70. It ran westward from St. Charles to the Missouri River at Franklin. In time the Santa Fe Trail was developed, running from Franklin westward to Independence, then southward. The Oregon Trail branched westward from Independence.
Created to Serve as Capital
Jefferson City holds the distinction of having been created specifically to serve as the state capital by a commission appointed by the Missouri state legislature in 1821. But until government buildings could be constructed, the town of St. Charles served as the capital.
Jefferson City was laid out by Daniel Morgan Boone, the son of the frontiersman. It was named for U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who served from 1801-1809. The town was incorporated in 1825, and the general assembly moved there in 1826. At that time, the town had thirty-one families, a general store, a hotel, and a few other buildings.
For several years, other towns attempted to have the capital city changed, and in 1832 Governor John Miller suggested that a state penitentiary be built in Jefferson City to strengthen the town's position as capital. The prison was completed in 1836.
The next year, the Capitol burned and all the state records went up in flames. Five years later, a new statehouse was completed at the site of the present Capitol building. At that time, although pigs still wandered in the streets, modern steamboats regularly visited the city and stage coach routes brought travelers. These facilities encouraged the growth of local industries, including grist mills, flour mills, tanneries, and distilleries. The 1830s saw the influx of German immigrants, who were mostly farmers.
Civil War Brings Strife and Division
In 1839, Jefferson City was incorporated as a city, and in 1840 the population stood at 1,174 people, including 262 slaves. A frightening incident took place in 1849, when a ship carrying Mormon church members, some of whom had cholera, landed at the city dock. For two years, the plague infected residents in the area, paralyzing the local trade.
In 1855, the Pacific Railroad line was completed between St. Louis and Jefferson City. However, the first trip between the two cities was a disaster. As residents waited for the president of the railroad and other dignitaries to arrive, a pier collapsed on a bridge that crossed the Gasconade River, and the resulting train accident killed 28 people and injured 30 others. Regular train service did not begin until the next year.
The coming of the Civil War (1860–1865) brought to a head the question of whether slavery would continue in Missouri. While President Abraham Lincoln encouraged an end to slavery, Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson favored the retention of slavery and the secession of the southern states, including Missouri.
Decades Pass Before Wounds Heal
Soon after, a convention was held in Missouri to decide which position the state assembly would embrace. The convention voted to remain in the Union. But Governor Jackson refused to recognize federal authority and also refused to send troops to fight for the Union Army.
Instead, he rallied 50,000 volunteers for the state militia and marched from the capital to join Confederate forces at Booneville. But two days later, Union troops overran Jefferson City and pitched camp on Capitol Hill. In 1864, Confederate General and former Missouri Governor Sterling Price and his men marched to within four miles of the city and announced they would attack. Troops exchanged fire, but in the end Price withdrew and fled westward toward Kansas City, and Jefferson City remained in Union hands.
Decades passed before the city recovered from the rifts occasioned by the Civil War. But the Missouri constitution of 1875 restored peace of mind to the citizens and a period of expansion began. Such industries as printing and shoe manufacturing developed in the city, and within ten years a bridge was built across the Missouri River, uniting the pro-South Jefferson City with its pro-North neighbors in Kansas. In 1896, the town of Sedalia tried to wrest the capital from Jefferson City, but the attempt failed when Jefferson City triumphed in a popular vote among Missouri citizens.
The City in the Twentieth Century
After 1900, the local economy began to grow again with the expansion of the state government. In 1904, The Supreme Court Building was constructed with funds from the St. Louis World's Fair. The next year St. Mary's Hospital was built. In 1911, street car service began in the city, and a dramatic fire brought the destruction of the old State House. A new one was completed in 1917 and the present Capitol building was dedicated in 1924.
For the next forty years, the business of state government business continued to dominate the local scene, throughout the periods of two world wars and the Great Depression. The city slowly continued to grow, as more people left the local farms and gravitated to the city.
In 1951, Still Hospital was built, and in 1954 a major prison riot took place at the state prison in Jefferson City. The 1960s saw the construction of Memorial Hospital, the opening of Rex M. Whitten Expressway, and Jefferson City's development as a manufacturing center. In 1983, the John G. Christy Municipal Building opened. A major flood in 1993 caused extensive damage, but by the end of the 1990s the city had fully recovered. Jefferson City, notable for its liveability, and relatively low cost of living and high per capita income, has entered the 2000s with vitality.
Historical Information: Cole County Historical Society, 109 Madison St., Jefferson City, MO, 65101; Phone: (573) 635-1850 www.colecohistsoc.org