Do you have any ancestors who either settled or passed through Missouri? With Missouri’s location in the center of the United States and bordering eight other states, the likelihood is high that you have a Missouri connection. Learning more about Missouri research could help you explore new avenues to break down a brick wall or add to the story of your ancestor’s life. Missouri research has so much to explore that this will be the first of several posts focusing on the land, history, courts, records, repositories, and ethnic groups of Missouri.
Why does understanding the land matter? Your ancestor likely settled in a region similar to his home state and Missouri is a state of diverse regions, defined by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as the Interior Plains, the Interior Highlands (Ozark Plateau), and the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. (See the map below).
Settlers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois settled the Northern Interior Plains. The Ozark Plateau saw people moving from the mountains of eastern Tennessee and North Carolina. Those ancestors who had grown cotton and similar crops chose the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, commonly called the Bootheel because they knew how to farm in that type of soil.
If you have an ancestor who lived in Missouri for a time, place him in his region and see if that aligns with the common migration of Missouri settlers. He could fit in or be an outlier. The following map shows the demarcations of the main regions.
Three rivers played a major role in Missouri’s settlement as it was much easier to navigate a flatboat or take a steamboat than travel by land. Think of these rivers as the interstate highways for our ancestors moving them into and out of Missouri.
– The Mississippi River begins in Minnesota and flows south forming the eastern border of Missouri before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River flows through ten states and creates the border for Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi to the east, and Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas to the east. Numerous settlements sprang up along the Mississippi River where your ancestor might have stopped en route to other locations. The first steamboat reached St. Louis in 1817 and contributed to the growth of the area. When Ohio connected the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes via an extensive canal system, the way was opened to the northeastern states.
– The Missouri River has its beginnings in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana and flows east and south until it joins the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Before the steamboat came into use, the challenge of navigating upriver kept migration to a minimum. With the steamboat era introduced, a huge number of settlers used the Missouri River to move west.
– The Ohio River begins in western Pennsylvania and flows southwesterly to St. Louis. Although it ends in Missouri, the Ohio River brought countless settlers from the northern and eastern states. Bordering Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, and Indiana, the Ohio River played a major role in Missouri settlement.
The History and Timeline
Like any location, Missouri has a storied past. Beginning as a French territory in the late 1600s, possession passed to Spain in 1770 after the French and Indian War and lasted until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. For a brief span of three years (1800-1803), Spain returned the Louisiana territory to France, then the United States purchased all of Louisiana Territory from France for fifteen million dollars. (Shown in white on the map below with modern-day states overlaid).
During the French and Spanish eras, settlement occurred mainly along the Mississippi River with early settlements growing around trading posts. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the U.S. government established the Louisiana Territory with St. Louis as the seat of government.
Soon after the new state of Louisiana had been admitted to the Union, the U.S Congress renamed the territory to Missouri territory on 4 June 1812.
Native Americans inhabited this vast territory and treaty after treaty with the various tribes gradually pushed them into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma and Kansas) or on to reservations. What did this mean to our ancestors? As tribal lands were ceded to the U.S. government, settlers could claim the land through a variety of federal land acts, one of the most notable being the Homestead Act of 1862. The lure of land brought settlers from the more populated areas of the United States as well as immigrants from Germany and Ireland.
Missouri Territory boundaries continued to change with various cessions and treaties and on 10 August 1821, the southeastern portion was admitted to the Union as the state of Missouri.
A brief timeline puts the important events into perspective. As you research your Missouri ancestors, consider what was happening around them that could have affected their choices for migration and settlement.
– 1735 Ste. Genevieve established as the first permanent white settlement
– 1764 St. Louis (began as a trading post established by Pierre Laclede Liguest)
– 1769 St. Charles (began as a trading post established by Louis Blanchette)
– 1773 Potosi (founded as Mine au Breton)
– 1803 Louisiana Purchase
– 1805 Louisiana Territory was organized
– 1808 Osage Tribe ceded many lands
– 1811 New Madrid Earthquake – a quake so powerful, the Mississippi River ran backward in places, devastating the land
– 1812 Louisiana Territory renamed as Missouri Territory
– 1821 Missouri Statehood
– 1825 Osage tribe ceded the remainder of their lands
– 1832 Delaware and Shawnee tribes ceded lands
– 1837 Platte Purchase added six counties in the northwest section of the state
– 1838 Mormon War and the eviction of followers of Joseph Smith
– 1848 Large numbers of German immigrate to Missouri forming Missouri’s Rhineland in St. Louis and Kansas City areas
– 1849 Irish famine immigration causing conflicts between the German and Irish immigrants
– 1861 Civil War wreaks havoc in Missouri with both a Confederate and a Union government ruling the state simultaneously
– 1865 Post Civil War sees the great migration of African Americans from the south
– Early 1900s Migration west from Missouri to the west coast and Pacific Northwest, also migration of rural farmers to the cities
How does understanding the land and history help us in researching our Missouri ancestors? First and foremost we want to discover them in the records. We’ll need to know what jurisdiction to search at different points in history for the records. If an ancestor moved early to Missouri, a French or Spanish land record could exist. If he moved during the territorial period, a territorial census could name him. Just as understanding county boundary changes guides our research, so too does understanding the large boundary changes of territories and statehood.
How do we conquer the challenge of moving boundaries and moving ancestors?
- Create a thorough timeline of the ancestor and every possible location of his life events.
- Consider where the ancestor lived within a physiographic region of Missouri. Does this make sense with his previous location?
- Dig into the history to understand the ramifications of events such as the New Madrid earthquake or the Civil War for your ancestor.
- Study the era to determine the jurisdiction responsible for the records.
- Search the records.
In the next post in this series, we’ll explore the repositories that hold Missouri records.
Best of luck in all your genealogical research!