Missouri: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historic Landmark is a memorial to President Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the westward-moving pioneers of the nineteenth century. It was the first property acquired by the federal government under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. The site includes the Gateway Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and the Old Courthouse. The architects of the Gateway Arch, winners of a 1947 design competition, were Saarinen, Saarinen, and Associates of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Site Office

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

11 North Fourth Street

St. Louis, MO 63102

ph.: (314) 655-1700

fax: (314) 655-1641

Web site: www.nps.gov/jeff/

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was the first property acquired by the federal government under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. When construction of the Gateway Arch was completed in the late 1960’s and the Museum of Westward Expansion opened in 1976, the project fulfilled the dream of a group of St. Louisans to redevelop a section of riverfront along the Mississippi River and simultaneously to memorialize President Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the pioneers who explored and settled the American West.

Early History

In 1800 the Mississippi River was the western boundary of the United States, and most of the land west of the Mississippi belonged to France, which had just regained it from Spain. Jefferson, who was elected U.S. president that year, wanted to see the young country expand; he wanted free navigation of the Mississippi, and he also feared that French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte had imperial designs on North America. Jefferson sent envoys James Monroe and Robert Livingston to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans from Napoleon, or at least to obtain shipping rights on the Mississippi. The emperor, needing money for military adventures in Europe, agreed to sell the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States for fifteen million dollars in 1803. The purchase agreement defined the territory as “the high lands enclosing all the waters which run into the Mississippi or Missouri directly or indirectly.” This encompassed land extending from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. The transaction violated laws on both sides. When it had taken the territory back from Spain, France had agreed not to cede it to another nation. Also, Napoléon made the sale without approval of his legislature. On the U.S. part, the Constitution made no provision for expanding the country by purchases of land.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

The sale was made, just the same, and the land area of the United States was doubled. Even before the purchase was effected, Jefferson, who had a long-standing curiosity about the western lands, had planned to dispatch explorers on a “Voyage of Discovery” to the area west of the Mississippi. Jefferson had used his great persuasive powers to convince the U.S. Congress to authorize the expedition, even though at that time–late February, 1803–the territory did not belong to the United States. Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis, who had been his secretary and confidant, to lead the expedition, and Lewis spent the next few months obtaining supplies. In June, Lewis invited William Clark to join him on the trip. Clark was the brother of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, and a distinguished soldier in his own right. Confirmation of the Louisiana Purchase came on July 3; Lewis spent July 4 celebrating with Jefferson in Washington, and started his move west the following day. In October he met Clark at Clarksville, along the Ohio River in the Indiana Territory. When Lewis and Clark left Clarksville, they had a party of nine men; more volunteers signed on as the explorers moved west.

The party spent the winter of 1803-1804 encamped near a stream they dubbed Wood River, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis and opposite the mouth of the Missouri River. Clark supervised the camp and trained the men, while Lewis set up headquarters in St. Louis, where he obtained provisions and made preparations for the journey. St. Louis fur trader Auguste Catha and his half brother, Pierre, were very helpful to Lewis, especially in finding crews of experienced boatmen for the expedition and providing gifts for the explorers to exchange with Indians in the West. Lewis, Clark, and the rest of their party left their encampment on May 14, 1804, and began making their way up the Missouri. Their first stop was at St. Charles, a French settlement twenty miles upriver.

From there they continued deeper into the interior of the country, recording information about the plants and animals they saw. They made numerous side trips, never far from the Missouri River, and encountered various Indian tribes along the way. In September they met a group of Teton Sioux, near the confluence of the Bad and Missouri Rivers in what is now South Dakota. The Indians entertained the white men at banquets, but after a few days some armed Tetons delivered an ultimatum: The explorers could stay with the Sioux or return to St. Louis, but they could not go farther up the Missouri. Clark talked himself out of this predicament, but he never forgave the Tetons, despite evidence that the threat was probably the responsibility of a single chief and did not have the support of the entire tribe.

The party continued up the river and spent the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan, near an Indian village in what is now North Dakota. The village was inhabited by the Mandan, Minitari, and Amahami tribes. At their winter encampment Lewis and Clark wrote reports of the expedition and organized a shipment of Indian artifacts, animal skins, plant specimens, and other goods to show the president what they had found. They also mapped out the remainder of their journey.

Sacagawea Joins the Expedition

In the spring a few of the party went downriver with the cargo for President Jefferson, while the rest continued upriver. New members of the exploration party included Sacagawea, a Shosone Indian woman, and her French husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. Lewis and Clark had met the couple during their winter encampment and hired the self-important Charbonneau as an interpreter, but it was really Sacagawea’s facility with Indian languages that they desired. They hired him, in effect, in order to obtain her services. She did prove valuable to the party, while Charbonneau was a hindrance, at one point almost causing one of the boats to sink.

The party continued up to the source of the Missouri and over the Rocky Mountains. In November, 1805, the explorers sighted the Pacific Ocean. They built winter quarters, which they named Fort Clatsop, in what is now Oregon. After three months they began the long trek back, arriving in St. Louis in the autumn of 1806.

Accomplishments of the Expedition

Overall, the Lewis and Clark Expedition identified twenty-four Indian tribes, 178 plants, and 122 animals. Many of the artifacts sent back by the explorers were displayed in Charles Willson Peale’s museum (later the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) in Philadelphia. The expedition fueled interest in westward migration and established St. Louis as the gateway to the West. Each spring for many years thereafter St. Louis was crowded with parties of emigrants outfitting for the journey across the Great Plains. Tragically, with this western settlement come the displacement of American Indian tribes.

Eventually St. Louis grew into an urban and industrial center, and in 1890 the U.S. Census Bureau announced that there was no more American frontier. Four decades later, various prominent St. Louis citizens became interested in memorializing the pioneers who went west from St. Louis. The memorial itself would be more than three decades in the making.

Plans for a Monument

Luther Ely Smith, a St. Louis attorney, proposed the idea of a historical monument honoring Jefferson and the pioneers to Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann late in 1933. Smith also saw the monument as a way to revitalize the St. Louis riverfront. Dickmann liked Smith’s idea and called a meeting of business and civic leaders to discuss it. Bolstered by a plan presented by local historian McCune Gill, this group transformed itself into a temporary committee and in April, 1934, obtained a state charter as the nonprofit Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association.

Following an abortive attempt to secure a thirty million-dollar congressional appropriation, the association focused instead on creating a federal commission to study the project’s feasibility. On June 15, 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution establishing the United States Territorial Expansion Memorial Commission with fifteen members: three each chosen by the president, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, and six from the association. The National Park Service was designated to develop the memorial and opened an office in St. Louis in 1936.

The commission decided on a mix of federal and municipal funding for the project. The complicated procedure for approving federal public works expenditures, political opposition to a St. Louis bond issue, and resistance from property owners in the area delayed the project for several years. Finally, in 1940, funding was in place, and all the land needed for the memorial had been acquired and began to be cleared. By this time it had been decided to include the Old Courthouse within the memorial. The courthouse, dating from 1839 (with major additions in the 1850’s) was the site of several historic events. Dred Scott filed suit for his freedom there in 1847; Ulysses S. Grant freed his only slave there in 1859; and Virginia Louisa Minor sued for the right to vote there in 1872. The building ceased being used as a courthouse in the 1930’s.

Buildings that had to be cleared from the memorial area were demolished by 1942. By then, the United States was deeply involved in World War II, so development of the memorial slowed, although some renovations were made to the Old Courthouse. Toward the end of the war, the memorial association revived a plan, first proposed in 1933, to hold a national architectural competition to design the memorial.

Saarinen’s Arch

The competition opened in 1947 and drew 172 entries. The winner, announced in 1948, was Eero Saarinen, whose design called for a stainless steel arch, symbolizing a gateway and incorporated into a plan that included a monumental stairway down to the river, two museums, a tree-lined mall, a campfire theater, and a village of pioneer houses.

Again, there were delays in federal funding for the memorial. It was not until 1954 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized $5 million for preliminary elements of Saarinen’s design. In 1958 the federal government increased the total authorization to $17.25 million, to be supplemented by city funds left from the bond issue of the 1930’s.

Saarinen had redesigned the memorial in 1957, shifting the arch and cancelling plans for one of the museums and the reproductions of pioneer buildings. Site preparation began in 1959, and Saarinen began to make working drawings so construction could begin. Saarinen did not live to see his project completed, however; he died of a brain tumor in 1961 at age fifty-one.

Construction Begins

The first concrete was poured for the arch’s foundations in 1962, and the first stainless steel section put in place early in 1963. The north leg of the arch opened in July, 1967, and the south leg in March, 1968; Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey dedicated the arch in May, 1968. A temporary Museum of Westward Expansion opened in June, 1967, with the permanent museum completed by August, 1976. Renovation of the Old Courthouse was finished in 1986, and the site was named a National Historic Landmark in 1987. In addition to the courthouse, the site includes another historic building, the Old St. Louis Catholic Cathedral, dating from 1834.

The future of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as an important part of St. Louis’s cultural life seems well assured. The people of the city have embraced the Gateway Arch with increasing affection, and each year about two and a half million visitors come to the site; about one million ride to the top of the arch. The words “arch” and “gateway” and depictions of the arch have been employed by a large number of local businesses and organizations. Over the Fourth of July holiday the grounds of the memorial serve as home to an annual fair that draws several million people. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill expanding the boundaries of the memorial to a section of the East St. Louis riverfront, which awaits development.

For Further Information

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives, located in the Old Courthouse, hold the public records concerning the memorial, plus a large number of reports, documents, and clippings. Especially helpful are “A History of the Gateway Arch” by Michael A. Capps, a former Jefferson National Expansion Memorial historian and the administrative history of the site written in 1984 by Sharon A. Brown. There also have been numerous editions of Lewis and Clark’s journals.

  • Cheek, Larry. Eero Saarinen: Architect, Sculptor, Visionary. Edited by Sandra Scott. St. Louis: Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1998. A biography of the architect.
  • Hawke, David Freeman. Those Tremendous Mountains. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. A helpful account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
  • Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949. 2 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981. Of less value but still useful. Hosmer emphasizes the role of National Park Service personnel and deplores the demolition of the site’s original buildings in the name of historic preservation.
  • Temko, Allan. Eero Saarinen. New York: George Braziller, 1962. The standard biography of the architect.
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