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Jefferson City, Cole County started from humble origins

Jefferson City, Cole County started from humble origins

April 21st, 2019 in Opinion

Cole County and Missouri are planning their bicentennials, and they both have long, interesting histories. After the Louisiana Purchase, the Territory of Missouri was created in 1804 with St. Louis being the only county encompassing this whole territory. In 1816, Howard County was created with Cooper County following in 1818. In 1820, Cole, Boone and Callaway counties were broken off from Cooper County. Originally, Cole County also included Moniteau County in its area.

Missouri had been governed by the Indiana Territory, but in 1812, the first Legislature of the Territory of Missouri met in St. Louis at the home of Pierre Chouteau. The Legislature petitioned for statehood in 1817, and in June 1820, in anticipation of becoming a state, held a convention to draft a Missouri Constitution. Under this Constitution, the governor and lieutenant governor were the only elected official, with the governor appointing all other officers.

Politics moved at a faster pace in the early 1800s. Congress was preparing what became the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, and Maine as a free state. On Aug. 10, 1821, this became official.

A general election was held in Missouri in August 1820 and Alexander McNair was elected governor. A General Assembly was also elected with 14 state senators and 43 representatives. St. Charles was the temporary capital and the Missouri Legislature met for the first time in September 1820. During this session, Cole County was created, being separate from Cooper County, and Marion was selected as the county seat of Cole County because of its central location on the Missouri River. Missouri’s population at this time was 70,647, of which 11,254 were slaves; and Cole County’s population was only about 1,000.

As part of the congressional legislation to establish Missouri as a state, a commission was created to find a suitable site for the State Capital. Jesse Boone of Montgomery County, John White of Pike County, Robert Watson of New Madrid, and John Thornton of Howard County were appointed commissioners to locate this site. With the Missouri River running across the center of the state, this was the most logical choice, and the commission was directed to choose a site within 40 miles of the mouth of the Osage River. Since rivers were the maritime highways to get across Missouri, this made the most sense.

Boonville, Franklin, Cote San Dessein, and Marion were the only towns existing on the Missouri River near the mouth of the Osage. Boonville was more than 40 miles from the Osage River so that excluded them. Franklin was the largest city west of St. Louis with a population of almost 3,000, but it was prone to flooding being on the north side of the Missouri River. Fortunately it was not selected since in 1826 Franklin was washed away by flooding. It was relocated on higher ground as New Franklin but never regained its prominence. Marion, which was established in 1820 by William Leintz and Peter Bass, offered 450 acres to the state as a site for the capital. Cote Sans Dessein also offered 450 acres to the State Commission, but by this time land speculators had acquired much of the land around most of the potential sites. Cote Sans Dessein was excluded, and finally land on the south side of the Missouri River at Howard’s Bluff was selected. The Legislature made this official on Dec. 21, 1821, and it was “decreed that the State Capital be named after President Jefferson.” Just imagine if Marion would have become our Capital.

The commissioners were “to proceed immediately to lay out a town thereon to contain at least one thousand lots, and in blocks or squares of such size and dimensions as the commissioners or a majority of them shall agree, and the principal street of said town shall be not less than one hundred nor more than one hundred and twenty feet wide, and other streets not less than eighty feet, and the alleys twenty feet wide. Be it further enacted that the town be laid out at the permanent seat of government shall be called ‘City of Jefferson,’ that there shall be three squares laid off to contain each four acres, and that the Governor of this state shall appoint a surveyor to lay out this town.” 1

In May 1823, lots were advertised for sale in the City of Jefferson, as was the contract for the Capitol building. It was to be “a good brick building, sixty feet long, forty feet wide, well laid and two stories high, three rooms and a passage on each floor with fireplace well finished.”1 The contract was given to Daniel Colgan with a bid of $25,000. Its location was near the site of the current Governor’s Mansion.

On Nov. 7, 1825, Jefferson City was incorporated, and on Oct. 1, 1826, officially became the capital of Missouri. Thirty-one families had bought lots, and there was a general store, a tavern, a distillery, a mill and the Rising Sun Hotel.

In February 1829 Cole County moved its seat of government from Marion to Jefferson City. Cole County judges (commissioners) have always been cautious and frugal, so I’m sure they waited to see if Jefferson City would succeed before relocating.

Cole County will begin celebrating its bicentennial in April 2020 with many activities throughout the county. Missouri celebrates their bicentennial in 2020.

Our county and state has seen tremendous changes in 200 years, and one wonders what the next 100 years will bring. There are children born today who will see this tricentennial, and I’m sure they will laugh at how backward we were in 2020-21.

1. Missouri Laws of 1821-22, Chapter L1, Section 1 and Section 3.

Cole County Recorder of Deeds: Records 1821-1829

State of Missouri Archives 1821-1829

History of Jefferson City 1821-1938 by James E. Ford

Sam Bushman is the Cole County presiding commissioner. His column appears monthly in the News Tribune.