Visitors Guide to
Jefferson County

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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.

The 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 Missouri.

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 abandoned.

In 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.
Explore these Great River Road Communities
in Jefferson County, Missouri
DeSoto   Herculaneum   Hillsboro   Kimmswick
Arnold, Crystal City, Festus, & Imperial

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