Best known as the place where the Pony Express began in 1860, and where Jesse James met his end in 1882, St. Joseph, Missouri, holds a place of honor in the history of westward expansion.
Situated on the bluffs of the Missouri River, St Joseph began life in 1826 as Joseph Robidoux’s first trading post. Although Missouri had become the 24th state five years earlier, in 1821, the area was still Indian territory. Lewis and Clark had passed by here on their way upriver in 1804.
When the fur trader filed the plat for the new town, he named it for his patron saint. Robidoux had only one stipulation for those wanting to buy lots of his land: no one could take possession until he had harvested his crop of marijuana. In those days, it was used in the making of hemp.
The town was destined to be successful because it’s location on the Missouri River made it easily accessable. Naturalist John James Audubon visited in May of 1843, (two months before its official incorporation) and described Robidoux’s settlement as “a delightful place for a populous city that will be here some 50 years hence.” St. Joseph celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 1993.
The settlement grew steadily, but the discovery of gold in California in 1848 turned it into a boom area. Gold seekers came across Missouri to St. Joseph by steamboat, to where the city’s location on the westward bend of the Missouri River made it one of two choice “jumping-off” points (the other was Independence, about 60 miles southwest). Gold rushers bought supplies here for the westward wagon trek. Estimates say as many as 50,000 passed through St Joseph in 1849 alone.
Another 100,000 or more pioneers would crowd the streets, bound for California and other points west, before the coming of the trains. And that’s why I chose it as a subject for today’s blog post.
Where steamboats helped established St. Joseph as the place for travelers heading west, trains kept it there. The first train from the east arrived here February 14, 1859. Until after the Civil War, St. Joseph was the westernmost point accessible by rail. That means, until around 1870, if you wanted to get to Texas–or Colorado or Montana or anyplace west–by train, you had to go through St. Joseph. By 1900, one hundred passenger trains a day came into St. Joseph. I don’t know about you, but that number boggled my mind!
And where the train tracks ended, the stage coach lines began.
If you read my blog on 11/27/09, you already know St. Joseph was the starting point of The Pony Express in 1860. And in 1887, St. Joseph became only the second city in the U.S.–after Richmond, VA–to have electric streetcars.
Wholesale houses for things like shoes, dry goods and hardware, helped ensure St. Joseph’s prosperity during its Golden Age in the late 19th century. At one time, the town ranked fourth in the nation for dry goods sales and fifth in hardware sales.
Cowboys were familiar with St. Joseph, too, since livestock was a large part of the economy beginning in 1846. Swift and Armour were important names in town.
I’m thinking that song from the musical OKLAHOMA, “Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City” probably should have been written about St. Joseph.
To top it off, infamous bank and train robber Jesse James, a Missouri native, tried to retire here in 1881. His wife wanted him to live a more normal life. And it was here, in a house on top of the highest hill, where, in 1882, one of his new partners, Bob Ford, decided collecting the reward for Jesse James would pay better than robbing the Platte City Bank.
St. Joseph is a town full of history. There are national parks dedicated to the Lewis & Clark expedition, museums housing collections about The Pony Express, Jesse James and westward expansion, and stunning views of the mighty Missouri River. Stop in sometime. You’re bound to learn something new. I did.