My article this month was to be a continuation of Missouri’s bicentennial history and how Jefferson City became the capital of the new 24th state in the Union. I had my research books out, but COVID and county issues didn’t allow me time. Then the talented Michelle Brooks asked me to read an advanced copy of a book she is writing that will hopefully be out this fall entitled “Hidden History of Jefferson City.” Michelle has done a much better job than I would have done. So enjoy her prose, and look forward to her new book!
Jefferson City’s existence is owed entirely to the state commission, which selected the unclaimed, forested hills of limestone on the south bank of the Missouri River. The state’s earliest pioneers preferred the river bottoms and the richer soil of the north bank. The indigenous people, who predated the Osage and Missouri tribes back to the Mississippian prehistoric people, built burial mounds on the cliffs that would become part of the Capital City, including College Hill, today the Richmond Hill area, and the present Capitol hill.
The fate of this location might have been barren, if one of the other, already populated sites — within the required 40 miles of the mouth of the Osage River — had been selected by the commission.
Howard’s Bluff to the west was near Marion, the first settlement in Cole County with pioneers arriving there as early as 1816. The commissioners decided the area would be too prone to flooding, despite the residents’ eagerness to donate land and welcome the selection.
The prime contender was the French village of Cote sans Dessein on the Callaway County side, east of Jefferson City. Trappers and fur traders were working out of that “hill without design” soon after the Lewis and Clark expedition passed by and a village formed by 1808. With about 100 souls, it was the largest population center within the 40-mile range of the Osage River. To many of the legislators meeting at the temporary Capitol in St. Charles, Cote sans Dessein was a done deal. However, land speculators and misused New Madrid earthquake land replacement certificates foiled the site’s obvious selection.
And so, Jefferson City — which might have been named Missouriopolis — became the City a Capitol Built.
But, it is not the only state Capital to emerge with identity before residents. Others include Columbia, South Carolina; Indianapolis, Indiana; Lincoln, Nebraska; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Madison, Wisconsin.
The site of Jefferson City passed from Spanish to French hands, like all of Missouri, and then to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. As the Missouri Territory, the site was part of St. Louis County, then was included in the creation of Howard County in 1815. Three years later, it was part of the Cooper County split and then Cole County was carved from that in 1820.
The earliest settlers to this area were nearly all of southern descent and most transplanted from either Marion or Cote sans Dessein. Some of the richest men in the young state at the time bought property early in the city’s establishment. Within a decade, a second wave of influential settlers began to arrive — German immigrants.
And so, a few hundred men and women of vision took the dot on a map and built it into a Capital City.
Veterans of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 accounted for many of the earliest settlers in Central Missouri. Rewarded with land warrants, they headed west, some stopping first in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Marion, near Howard’s Bluff, on the south side of the Missouri River, and Cote sans Dessein, a “hill without design” on the north side, were the earliest two population centers in the area. Between them, Revolutionary War veteran William Jones built a shanty on the south side of the river’s edge, inside the future limits of Jefferson City, before 1819. Jones had joined the patriot cause from Albemarle County, Virginia, during a draft of young men. He helped build huts in 6-inch snow at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and then crossed the Potomac River to fight at the Battle of Monmouth for the patriot cause.
A future resident, James McHenry, remembered paying a silver quarter, cut from a Mexican dollar, for a half-pint of liquor at Jones’ shanty near a spring on what would become the west side of the Capitol. By the time Elias Barcroft arrived in 1822 to survey the future Capital City, Cole County — organized in 1820 — had licensed Jones to keep a ferry at Jefferson township.
Jones served as one of the first justices of the peace for Jefferson City and was appointed an original city trustee when it was incorporated Nov. 7, 1825, while continuing to keep his tavern. About 1829, William Jones moved to Rocheport, when his son, Robert Jones, took over the tavern. The younger Jones also served as city collector for six years and then moved his family to Texas.
Robert Jones married Mariah Ramsey, the daughter of one of the most prominent families in the area at the time. Her father, Jonathan Ramsey, was brigadier general of the territorial militia and a state representative in 1820. Jefferson City, in part, owes its existence to Jonathan Ramsey. He is attributed with including the General Assembly’s limitation that the permanent seat of government be on the Missouri River within 40 miles of the mouth of the Osage River. However, a resident of Cote sans Dessein at the time, Jonathan Ramsey likely was angling for his home to receive the political designation.
The first 200 of 1,000 original city lots were sold in May 1823. By that time, Josiah Ramsey, son of Jonathan and brother to Mariah, had moved to the south side of the river, making him the second resident of the future Capital City. So, at the time of the first lot sales, the population included William and Mary Jones, with their youngest children, John and Rebecca; Josiah and Martha Ramsey with son Lycurgus; and the enslaved people they brought with them.
The five commissioners appointed by the state general assembly — John Thornton from Howard County, Robert Watson from New Madrid County, John White from Pike County, James Logan from Wayne County, and Daniel Morgan Boone, who replaced his late brother James B. Boone from Montgomery County — gave their final approval of this bleak site as the permanent seat of government to the General Assembly Dec. 31, 1821, a year after being given the task. It met the required four sections, or 2,560 acres, of unclaimed public land because, as the commission described, the land was “too poor to support any considerable population or extensive settlement.”
Soon after that decision, Major Elias Barcroft laid out 1,000 one-half acre in-lots and five 40-acre out-lots with the help of his wife’s uncle Daniel Morgan Boone. Principal streets were measured between 100-120 feet wide and alleys 20 feet wide. The survey work took 120 days for which they were each paid $4.
A New Jersey native, Barcroft had been surveying land as early as 1808 in Ohio and then Illinois, and had been appointed deputy surveyor of the Missouri Territory in 1813. He was responsible for surveying the Fifth Principal Meridian, which served as the baseline for future surveys of 2 million acres of land in the Louisiana Purchase.
Barcroft, who was a senator for Howard and Cooper counties when he did the survey, was appointed state auditor the next year, serving 10 years. When the City of Jefferson was incorporated in November 1825, he was among the five first trustees. He served as commissioner of school lands and for building the 1840 county jail, at the southeast corner of Monroe and McCarty streets. Barcroft further served two terms as city auditor and two as city assessor. Barcroft’s home, at the southeast corner of Main and Madison streets, was used as the post office after his death from cholera in 1851.
With the survey work complete, the next thing the future Capital City needed was a Capitol. The General Assembly designated May 1823 for the sale of 200 lots to fund the construction of the statehouse. The day would generate only about $6,500, or about one-fourth of the building costs.
To oversee the lot sales, three trustees, who were each paid $100, were appointed — resident Josiah Ramsey, future hotel operator John C. Gordon and Adam Hope. Duff Green was paid $16 to publish the sale of lots.
Sam Bushman is the presiding commissioner on the Cole County Commission. He shares his perspective each month on county issues. He can be reached at [email protected]