Missouri was initially settled by indigenous people during the Paleo-Indian period around 12,000 BC. Native tribes continued to inhabit the region until the 17th century when small settlements were established by New France. In 1803, the area was sold to the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Missouri became a state following the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which allowed slavery. The city of St. Louis played a significant role in the state’s rapid settlement, thanks to its network of navigable rivers and large population of European immigrants, particularly Germans. The Civil War saw control of the state by the Union, with numerous small battles fought.
In May 1673, French Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette and French trader Louis Jolliet traveled down the Mississippi River in canoes through the region that would later become Missouri. The French began pursuing colonization of central North America in the late 1680s and 1690s to promote trade and thwart English efforts on the continent.
Jesuit priest Pierre-Gabriel Marest established a mission on the west bank of the Mississippi at the mouth of the River Des Peres in late 1700 with a handful of French settlers and a large band of the Kaskaskia people seeking French protection from the Iroquois. The French government pursued increased development of the region in the 1710s, with Fort de Chartres constructed as the base of operations for the Illinois Country. French prospecting expeditions were sent to an area west of the Mississippi River in present-day Madison, St. Francois, and Washington counties.
In January 1722, Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont was sent to Missouri to protect the French trade networks on the Missouri River from Spanish influence. Bourgmont negotiated alliances with indigenous tribes along the Missouri River and constructed Fort Orleans in present-day Carroll County. French control over Missouri remained weak in the 1730s and 1740s, with no permanent settlements on the western bank of the Mississippi River.
French settlers remained on the east bank of the Mississippi at Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres until the new settlement of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri was constructed in 1750. Ste. Genevieve grew slowly initially due to its location on a muddy, flat floodplain, with primarily farming using enslaved Africans and Native peoples to grow wheat, corn, and tobacco.
By 1800, the majority of land in Missouri was controlled by Native Americans, and the non-Native American population, which included around 20% enslaved individuals, was primarily concentrated in a few settlements along the Mississippi River. Agriculture was the main economic activity, with farmers selling their surplus crops to merchants who shipped them downriver to plantation settlements in the south. Fur trading, lead mining, and salt making were also significant economic activities. Slavery was central to the economic life in Missouri, and approximately 20% of the population was enslaved.
The settlers in Spanish Missouri were mostly French-speakers, and the Catholic Church played a significant role in their lives. Although Protestant services were not allowed in the colony, restrictions on Protestant residency were rarely enforced, and itinerant Protestant preachers were allowed to visit settlements in private. The social system was based on wealth, with the highest class consisting of creole merchants, followed by artisans, craftsmen, and laborers. Free blacks, servants, and coureur des bois were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with enslaved Native Americans and Africans forming the lowest class.
Women in the region were responsible for domestic tasks such as food preparation and clothing making. French women were renowned for their cooking, which incorporated both French staples and African and Creole foods. The colonists also ate local meats, including squirrel, rabbits, and bear, although they preferred beef, pork, and fowl. Most foods were local, although sugar and liquor were imported until the late Spanish period. Malaria was a significant problem, especially in low-lying settlements such as Ste. Genevieve.
In the early 1800s, schooling in the small French settlements that became part of the United States was limited. However, schools were established in several Missouri towns by 1821, mainly as proprietary schools run by itinerant teachers who catered to boys of families who could pay small stipends. Coeducational schools began to emerge in rural areas by the 1830s, and there were also a few schools for girls that focused on basic literacy and homemaking practices.
Missouri experienced rapid growth in newspaper and book publishing from 1820 to 1860, with the number of newspapers in the state expanding from 5 to 148. However, early newspapers suffered from the problem of slowness, which was only resolved with the arrival of the telegraph in 1847. Most Missouri newspapers began to side openly either in favor of or against President Andrew Jackson and his policies after 1825.
Two significant newspapers during this period were the Missouri Statesman, which strongly advocated for the Whig Party, and the Missouri Democrat, which supported Jacksonian Democratic politics until the 1850s when it switched its support to the nascent Republican Party. Other important publications included the German-language Anzeiger des Westens and Westliche Post, and the French-language La Revue de l’Ouest.
Literature in Missouri often took the form of nonfiction travelogues and biographies or collections of fictional short stories centered on life on the frontier. Thomas Hart Benton’s biography and Henry Boernstein’s The Mysteries of St. Louis were popular publications.
In the early 1800s, the population of black slaves increased substantially in Missouri, particularly during the 1820s and 1830s. The proportion of slaves in the state population peaked at 18 percent in 1830. In St. Louis, nine percent of the 14,000 residents in 1840 were slaves, while only one percent of the 57,000 residents were enslaved in 1860. Although few Missouri families owned slaves, many whites of Southern origin supported the institution of slavery. Slave labor played an integral role in the development of the state, with wealthy planters from Kentucky and Tennessee moving into the Little Dixie region in the central part of the state. In most of the state, slavery was unprofitable and little practiced, and the enslaved population was heavily concentrated along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Missouri laws treated the enslaved as property that could be bought and sold, and in practice, most of the enslaved had no protection under the law. Physical abuse, such as brandings, beatings, rape, and family separation, was common, but the slave system also created mental and intellectual barriers that were equally abusive. Later laws relating to slavery included an 1847 law prohibiting teaching reading or writing to the enslaved and banning free Blacks from entering the state. Despite the harsh realities of the slavery system, slave owners in Missouri sometimes displayed genuine concern for their slaves.
the Missouri economy experienced significant growth from the end of the Civil War to the early 20th century. With the emergence of railroads as the primary mode of transportation, they replaced the rivers and steamboats that once dominated the state’s trade and commerce. Missouri had 817 miles of railroad tracks in 1860, which increased to 2,000 miles by 1870 and further to 8,000 miles by 1909.
Railroad companies built new towns where necessary to provide repair and service facilities, leading to the decline of the old river towns. Kansas City, which lacked a navigable river, became the primary rail center of the West. Its population surged from 4,400 in 1860 to 133,000 in 1890. Similarly, cities of all sizes grew as the proportion of Missourians living in communities with a population exceeding 2,000 increased from 17% in 1860 to 38% in 1900.
The coal mining industry grew rapidly, providing fuel for locomotives, factories, stores, and homes. The lumbering industry in the Ozarks also expanded, supplying timber for cross ties and smaller bridges. Despite the growth of Kansas City, St. Louis remained the primary railroad center, unloading 21,000 carloads of merchandise in 1870, 324,000 in 1890, and 710,000 in 1910. The total tonnage of freight carried on all Missouri railroads doubled and redoubled again, from 20 million tons in 1881 to 130 million in 1904.
The state’s commercial revival and urban growth were evident from the significant increase in population over the years. In 1810, the population was 20,845, which increased to 66,586 by 1820, 140,455 by 1830, and 383,702 by 1840. The population continued to surge to 682,044 in 1850, 1,182,012 in 1860, 1,721,295 in 1870, 2,168,380 in 1880, and 2,679,184 in 1890, according to the US Census.
In the early 20th century, the Progressive Era brought reforms that modernized state and local government and minimized political corruption. The state’s economy diversified further during the 20th century, with a balanced mix of agriculture and industry. However, manufacturing declined, and service industries such as medicine, education, and tourism grew in importance. Despite this, agriculture remained a profitable sector, with farms becoming larger due to mechanization.