Located just south of St.
Louis, Jefferson County is roughly bounded by its three largest rivers: the
Mississippi River on the east, the Meramec River on the north, and the Big
River in the west. A high ridge runs north and south through the center of
the county that forms a watershed that empties into the Big River and the
Mississippi. Narrow ridges and deep ravines are common throughout the
northern portion of the county while the southern half is characterized by
rolling hills. Bottomlands are found along the main river ways and bluffs
rising up to 170 feet can be found along the Mississippi.
presence of the three significant waterways, the natural resources of the
area, and the temperate climate have made Jefferson County an attractive
place to call home for at least 13,000 years. Evidence of the Clovis culture
from the Paleoindian period (between 11,500 B.C. to 9,500 B.C.) has been
found at the Kimmswick Bone Bed at the Mastodon State Historic Site near
Imperial. In 1979 archeologists found the first solid evidence of the
coexistence of humans and mastodons at this site. The Missouri Department of
Natural Resources in cooperation with local agencies has preserved this site
and operates a museum there. A full-size replica of a mastodon skeleton and a
Clovis campsite (photo right) that illustrates this prehistoric culture's daily life highlight the exhibits at the museum. 12,000 years later Native
Americans of the Mississippian culture (900 A.D. to 1600 A.D.) inhabited
Jefferson County. The largest group of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, in
Missouri has been found in Washington State Park near DeSoto. It is believed
that the petroglyphs were used in religious ceremonies and date to 1,000
A.D. When the Europeans arrived in the region the Missouri and Illinois
tribes settled along the Mississippi near the mouth of the Meramec River and
the Osage had settlements along the Big River.
The French were the first Europeans to arrive in Jefferson
County when Joliet and Marquette explored the Mississippi in 1673 and
claimed the region for France. The lands were turned over to the Spanish in
1763 and became part of the Upper Louisiana Territory. By that time St. Louis and Ste.
Genevieve had become trading posts of considerable importance, but the
country lying between the two towns, including Jefferson County, was filled
with tribes hostile to Europeans settlers and wild animals. A trail was marked out using the
inland trails used by the natives and wild animals. The trail was
called the El Camino Real (The Royal Road) and is the oldest road in
The Spanish were seeking permanent settlers and
offered liberal grants of land, particularly along the Mississippi River.
The first known settler was John Hildebrand, a Frenchman, in 1774. The
setters that followed set up homesteads, each with a tract of flax and
cotton for clothing and corn for cornmeal. Venison, bear meat, and wild turkeys
were an abundant source of food. In 1798 Moses Austin obtained a Spanish
grant of one square league of land and began mining and smelting operations.
Austin brought in workmen and equipment from Virginia and settlements near the mines grew rapidly. The European immigrants enjoyed
reasonable relations with most native tribes although raids by the Osage
killed many settlers and caused others to flee to St. Louis for refuge.
When the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed in
1803 Missouri became a territory of the United States. With this treaty the
settler's privilege of securing a farm and home under Spain's homestead
rules was cut off. All the lands embraced in Jefferson County were included
in the St. Louis Land District. It wasn't until 1821, after United States
surveys had been completed, that settlers could obtain title to their lands,
although squatter sovereignty or settlement rights protected their
interests. In 1806 by Christian Wilt and John W. Honey laid out New Hartford
on the Mississippi River, the first town in the region. A shot tower was
erected to turn the lead from nearby mines into projectiles for firearms and
the region's first store established. The town was unsuccessful and soon
1808 Moses Austin and S. Hammond laid out the town of Herculaneum at the
mouth of Joachim Creek near the site of the abandoned New Hartford.
Herculaneum became the main shipping point for the lead mined in the region
and by 1813 three shot towers had been erected on the bluffs. In 1818
Jefferson County was formed from parts of Saint Louis and Ste. Genevieve
Counties by an "Act of the Territory" of the Missouri State
Legislature and Herculaneum was named the county seat. The county was named
in honor of Thomas Jefferson (photo right,) the third President of the
United States and driving force behind the Louisiana Purchase. By the 1830s
there was considerable sentiment by the citizens of the county to move the
county seat to a more central location and in 1839 the county seat was moved
to the newly formed town of Hillsboro.
The railroad reached Jefferson County in 1857 as
the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway began laying track to
Pilot Knob in Iron County. DeSoto was founded along the railroad's proposed
route in that same year by Thomas C. Fletcher (who later became Governor of
Missouri) and his brother-in-law Louis James Rankin. By 1859 the town of
Kimmswick was founded along a separate line. Although Kimmswick was home to
a number of different enterprises it was most well known as a summer resort
town that St. Louisans used to escape summer's heat. Jefferson County was a
Union stronghold during the Civil War. No regular engagements were fought
within the county but a fierce skirmish was fought in 1861 by Jeff Thompson's Confederates
led by and the Union soldiers who were guarding the Iron Mountain Railroad
bridge across the Big River. Thompson, known as the "Swamp Fox of the
Confederacy," and his forces succeeded in destroying the bridge.
The rise in popularity of the automobile had a
profound effect on Jefferson County. Cities along the St. Louis County line
and along the major highway corridors experienced suburban style growth.
Cities such as Kimmswick, which relied on rail service and riverboats, began
to decline. In the 1970s an effort was begun to revitalize Kimmswick. Today
Kimmswick has many restored 19th century buildings and is a popular
destination for visitors along the Great River Road.