St. Joseph, Missouri has a unique and colorful past which forms the basis for cultural and heritage activities. First noted in the journal of William Clark and Merriweather Lewis during their Journey of Discovery in 1804, the site along the banks of the Missouri River later became the location chosen by French fur trader Joseph Robidoux for a trading post.
The site had been an Indian Trading Post from about 1827 to 1843. Robidoux had traded continuously with the Indians at the foot of this area--known as Blacksnake Hills--since 1826 when he established Robidoux Landing. The site was very well situated, attracting many settlers to the area. By 1839, Robidoux was feeling pressured to do something about the crowding and entertained the idea of selling his land. Warren Samuel and two friends from Independence, Missouri liked the prospect of owning Robidoux's land and wanted to plan a town on the approximately quarter-section of land. Robidoux was inclined to sell and a price of $1,600 was tentatively agreed upon. Samuel and his friends returned to close the deal. Robidoux suggested a game of cards and when he felt he was being cheated, refused to sell, deciding instead to submit a town plan of his own. It took him until the summer of 1843 before he filed the plan in St. Louis, officially establishing the town, naming it after Robidoux's patron saint, Saint Joseph. Some have said that St. Joseph was founded on the turn of a card. At any rate, that was the end of Robidoux's Indian Trading Post and the beginning of the era that would see the city claim title: St. Joseph--Queen of the River Cities.
Shortly after formal incorporation in 1843, the city became the primary point of departure for wagon trains heading west seeking free land in Oregon. Pioneers coming from the East could travel by steamboat on the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers, disembarking in St. Louis to board a smaller vessel headed for Independence, Missouri, St. Joseph, or Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they would depart for the long journey west. Most of the travelers were families, seeking opportunity in a new land.
In 1848, James Marshall, a wheelwright in the employ of John Sutter, discovered gold at Sutter Mill on the American River in California. GOLD!! The news spread like wildfire across the land. Competition was intense between cities vying to outfit the pioneers. Because the trip from St. Joseph west involved fording fewer rivers and streams, the city became the most used point of departure--the "jumping off" place. Immigrants were outfitted with wagons, oxen, food stuffs and other provisions for the long journey. Wagon trains were lined up for miles on Francis Street waiting their turn to be ferried across the Missouri River. The trip to California was about 2,000 miles and took four to five months. Many hardships were encountered along the way and, of those who made it, few of them actually struck gold.
The forty-niners who passed through here, traveling to that vast area known as the "Great American West", were part of the most massive migration of people that the world has ever known. It took only twenty years to settle the vast west, not two hundred as some had predicted. Most who made the journey were disappointed in their lust for gold, and didn't realize that the land over which they had traveled would ultimately produce more wealth than all the gold pulled out of those California hills. Many great fortunes were made in St. Joseph from the lucrative business of outfitting the pioneers with the items necessary for the journey west.
The quest for gold abated somewhat until the 1850's when Colorado became the destination for precious metals: gold and silver. "Pike's Peak or Bust" was the rallying cry for another migration of wagon trains heading west. St. Joseph was again a player in the arena of Westward Migration.
The period of time between 1843 and 1860 was significant for our community. When the city was founded in 1843, the population stood at 800. When the migration was largely over in 1860, the population was 8,932.
By the 1860's, the stream of people heading west had slowed and things were beginning to settle down for St. Joseph. Rumblings back East over the issue of slavery were beginning and soon the Civil War would be waged involving St. Joseph and dividing loyalties, even in families. Because of the need to communicate pending events, getting news to people on the West Coast became evident. The need was filled with the beginning of the Pony Express in St. Joseph. The Pony Express had a brief but glorious run of eighteen months, then was replaced with the advent of the telegraph.
After the Civil War, some ruffians who refused to accept the war's outcome, banded together and harassed bordering states, robbing banks and wreaking havoc. Their leader was Jesse James. James eventually met his fate in St. Joseph at the hands of Bob Ford. In recent years, the story of the Pony Express and the end of Jesse James has captured the hearts and minds of the public and provided a unique way to market St. Joseph to the public. Their story is an important part of the uniqueness of our community.
The passage of hundreds of thousands of pioneers who passed through St. Joseph and the businesses that outfitted them is a compelling story. This great exodus of people--the largest movement of humanity the world has seen before or since--is called "Westward Expansion". It is the intention of the committee to commemorate this seminal event with a monument to the journey west. It will be placed in an area that is visible to visitors as they ramp off of Highway I-229 and enter the downtown area. The City of St. Joseph and the Downtown Partnership are committed to enhancing the space with substantial infrastructure and landscaping. The centerpiece of these improvements will be the statue/sculpture that evokes the spirit of the migration.