17 St. Louis History Museums Not to Miss

From pre-Columbian mound-builders to the 1904 World's Fair, these St. Louis museums offer a sweeping view of history

Founded in 1764, St. Louis has a lot of history behind it, but of course a lot happened below the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers before St. Louis was established, and regional museums reflect the broad scope of that historical panorama.

Cahokia Mounds, the 2,200-acre state historic site just east of St. Louis, preserves the remains of the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico, including the 100-foot high Monks Mound. The outstanding interpretive center features an introductory film and exhibits on the civilization that flourished here and mysteriously vanished.

Cahokia Mounds (©D. Lancaster)

Before Thomas Jefferson considered purchasing the Louisiana Territory, Daniel Boone moved to the Femme Osage Valley just outside St. Louis in what was then a Spanish possession in 1799. He and his son, Nathan, built the house today known as the Daniel Boone Home in Defiance, Missouri, open for tours along with a pioneer village assembled from relocated vintage regional buildings.

Daniel Boone Home (©D. Lancaster)

The Louisiana Territory became a French possession in 1800, and in a head-spinning real estate deal in 1803, the 827,000-square-mile parcel was sold to the U.S. for $15 million. Plans to explore the new acquistion were immediately formulated by President Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned an expedition led by an aide, Meriwether Lewis, who promptly recruited William Clark his co-leader. The Corps of Discovery, as Lewis and Clark's exploratory contigent was called, camped near the mouth of the Missouri River in the winter of 1803, preparing for the long journey to the Pacific Ocean, an episode recounted fully at the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site near Hartford, Illinois. The museum also includes a complete chronicle of the expedition as well as a full-size replica of its keelboat.

Lewis & Clark State Historic Site (©D. Lancaster)

Jefferson's legacy and the Westward expansion that funneled through St. Louis is quite literally symbolized by the Gateway Arch, whose completely reimagined museum considers the opening of the American West from a number of viewpoints (including displaced indigenous peoples) and gives new meaning to the term “Gateway to the West.”

Gateway Arch Museum (©D. Lancaster)

The brick residence housing the Thomas Sappington House Museum, built in 1808 by the son of George Washington’s bodyguard, is an outstanding example of Federal architecture, rare in Missouri. Judged to be the oldest brick home in St. Louis County, the home includes furnishings from 1780-1830 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The complex includes the Library of Americana and Decorative Arts, the Loft Gift Shop and The Barn Restaurant.

Located on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis Mercantile Library, the oldest library west of the Mississippi (1846), concentrates on the Western Expansion engendered by the Lewis & Clark expedition, Native Americans and the history of the St. Louis region and American rail and river transportation through its collection of books, prints, photographs, documents, newspapers, tapes, films, maps and a significant collection of artwork.

In 1821, Missouri became the nation's 24th state, with a temporary capital in St. Charles, just up the Missouri River from St. Louis. The buildings of Missouri's First State Capitol have been restored and furnished as they appeared in 1821-26, when the newly formed Missouri state legislature met in what is now the St. Charles Main St. historic district, and are open for tours.

Missouri's First State Capitol (©D. Lancaster)

Missouri played a pivotal role in the events leading to the Civil War. The Old Courthouse, Griot Museum of Black History and Field House Museum all tell the story of the slave Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom (originally at the Old Courthouse) and was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, whose Dred Scott Decision helped foment the Civil War. Missouri's complicated involvement in the conflict is meticulously chronicled at the Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks Park. The general credited with defeating the South is remembered and celebrated at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site at Whitehaven, the home in south St. Louis County where Grant lived off and on during his adult life. The grounds include five carefully restored historic structures and a Visitor’s Center.

Missouri Civil War Museum (©D. Lancaster)

Newly emancipated slaves and their descendants lost no time in making significant contributions to the nation's culture. Scott Joplin, born just after the Civil War, popularized the musical form known as ragtime, and wrote 44 ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet and two operas. His life and work are chronicled in the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark and the only building in existence where the ragtime king is known to have composed some of his famous melodies. Downstairs museum traces the composer’s life and career; upstairs apartment has been furnished to reflect the period. The musical influence of African Americans is further celebrated at the National Blues Museum. The downtown complex contains 16,000 square feet of interactive exhibition space tracing the history and world-wide impact of the blues, a 100-seat theater, a calendar of public programming, a record-your-original-blues-riff interactive element and traveling exhibits.

National Blues Museum (©D. Lancaster)

African American involvement in World Wars I and II contributed mightily to the growing Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and '60s. Soldiers Memorial Military Museum honors military service members, veterans and their families in the thoroughly revitalized facility downtown, whose four exterior heroic equestrian sculptures by Walter Hancock rank among downtown’s best public art. The forces against segregation unleashed by the world wars resulted, among other things, in the integration of major league baseball, a chapter fully documented in the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum in Ballpark Village.

Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum (©D. Lancaster)

The entire cavalcade of St. Louis history is illuminated at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. The three-level institution includes permanent and temporary exhibits on St. Louis and regional history, including the 1904 World's Fair, The Muny outdoor musical theater (100 years old), the St. Louis Rogues' Gallery, and Panoramas of the City.

Missouri History Museum (©D. Lancaster)

 

David Lancaster
About the author

David Lancaster is an accomplished artist and photographer whose work has been shown in galleries in St. Louis, Chica...