Today in History

Today in History: August 10

The "Show Me" State

Bird's eyw view of Jefferson City
Bird's eye view of Jefferson City, the capitol of Missouri,
A. Ruger, artist, 1869.
Map Collections

On August 10, 1821, Missouri entered the Union as the twenty-fourth state. Named after the Native American people who originally inhabited the land, Missouri was acquired by the U.S. as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. At that time, the territory's occupants were mainly French settlers. After the War of 1812, American settlers poured into the region.

In 1818, the Speaker of the House of Representatives presented the first petition of the Territory of Missouri requesting statehood. The question of Missouri's admission as a slave or free state led statesman Henry Clay to devise the Missouri Compromise of 1820, admitting Missouri as a slave state while admitting Maine as a free state, and prohibiting slavery in Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36ยบ 30', Missouri's southern border.

This resolution proved temporary. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, a series of laws that amended the Fugitive Slave Act, abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and admitted California to the Union as a free state. The Compromise of 1850 also established territorial governments in Utah and New Mexico, but left the issue of slavery in the new territories to be decided by the local residents. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act served to abrogate the Missouri Compromise. And in 1857, as a part of the Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the compromise unconstitutional by ruling that Congress had no power to bar slavery from a territory, as it had in 1820. Four years later, the slavery debate erupted in civil war.

The Civil War divided Missourians. Although the state remained in the Union, some of its citizens chose to fight for the Confederacy. John Franklin Smith, the son of a Missouri slave owner, recalls early tensions and violence in the state, including an 1861 incident when a vigilante group opposed to slavery, called the Jayhawkers, visited Smith's house and threatened to kill his father:

I can remember as well as if it happened yesterday, one of the men spread his arms out and said, "stand back men I'll kill the rascal" and raised his gun to shoot when we heard a shout and looked up the road to see what it was and saw Judge Myers coming as fast as his horse could run, shouting as loud as he could. The man dropped his gun to his side, when Judge Myers rode up be was shaking his head and his eyes were blazing fire. He turned around in his saddle and pointed back toward town and said you men get out from here and do it…quick…All the Jayhawkers turned around and sulked off like a whipped dog.

"J. F. Smith,"
William E. Smith, interviewer, ca. 1936-40.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Smith's father and his rescuer, Judge Myers, remained best friends despite their conflicting views on slavery, but the two ended up fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War.

Missouri was the westernmost state in the Union until Texas was granted statehood in 1845. St. Louis, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the southeastern part of the state, was called the "Gateway to the West" because it served as a staging area for wagon trains in the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city captured the world's attention while hosting the much celebrated Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World's Fair) of 1904.

Panoramic of St. Louis Exposition
General view of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis,
photographed from the top of Festival Hall,
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition is etched in the minds of many Americans because of the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincente Minnelli. Less fanciful, yet authentic to the fair, are a number of items in American Memory. Watch Princess Rajah, a "cooch" (a form of belly dance) dancer, in a performance filmed at the fair. Read a pamphlet, distributed at the fair by Bell Telephone Companies, which declared the telephone was becoming "as necessary as the mowing machine." Play the 1904 march "Salute to St. Louis." Examine maps of the fairgrounds. Zoom in on the latter to find fountains, pavilions, walkways, the fair's intramural-railway, the ferris wheel, and other fine details.