Missouri was part of the old west back in the 1800s. Three of its cities showcase the part heroes and outlaws played that formed the history and culture of the state and the country. Here are the places I visited that helped tell the story of these men and women who were native to, or lived a part of their lives, in these cities.
Dred and Harriet Scott were enslaved people held by army doctor John Emerson. After Emerson’s death, they passed to his widow, Irene Emerson. On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott filed separate petitions in the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain their freedom from slavery. They based the suit on the fact that Dr. Emerson had taken them to the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin Territory, where they were considered free. The law at that time stated that “once free, always free.” After a lengthy series of trial and appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts. This case became the lightning rod leading to the Civil War.
Ulysses Grant attended West Point. He visited his roommate, Fredrick Dent’s family, and fell in love with Dent’s sister, Julia. White Haven, the plantation the Dents owned and operated with about 30 enslaved people, was his home for several years. Today, it’s a national park you can visit. A ranger led us on a tour through the home and outbuildings.
Just across the road, visit Grant’s Farm. Along with free ranging deer, goats, elk, longhorn cattle, and other animals, you’ll find the cabin built by Grant. Grant and his family lived in the log cabin in late 1856 for a short time. Grant’s Farm is owned by the Busch Family, so there are Clydesdales, beer, food, and more at the farm. It’s free. You just pay for parking and then take the tram.
Mark Twain was the man who put Hannibal on the map. Many of the town’s attractions tell his story. I enjoyed all of them. Start with the museum and his boyhood home. There’s a reproduction of the town as it looked when Twain, then Sam Clemens, was a boy. The home of the Elijah Hawkins family is the Becky Thatcher Museum. Laura Hawkins was a lifelong friend and Clemens’ model for Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Mark Twain’s life is intertwined with his steamboat captain career. Take a trip on the Mark Twain Riverboat. We took the one-hour sightseeing cruise, but you have an option to take a dinner cruise if you choose.
Another place you will find Mark Twain almost literally is at the Mark Twain Cave. Young Samuel Clemens played in the cave throughout his childhood, and it is featured in several of his books. You can take an hour-long guided tour of the cave and see his signature on the rock wall. Though it has been there for years, his signature was only discovered in 2019. The walk is easy, and the cave is well lit.
Another famous man left his mark on the cave. Jesse James used it as a hideout at one time. His signature is signed and dated September 22, 1879. The hideout place is marked so you can view but you cannot descend to the place where his signature is due to danger.
While there, be sure to see “The Life and Times of Mark Twain,” a one-man presentation at the cave theater by Jim Waddell. He entertained us for one hour with stories taken directly from Twain’s speeches and writings.
There’s even a Mark Twain Dinette where you can enjoy some of his favorite foods.
The Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tours gave us a darker story about the cave’s history. During Twain’s life, the cave was owned by Joseph Nash McDowell. He was somewhat of a mad scientist and wanted to experiment with petrification of dead bodies. When his daughter died, he embalmed her and placed the body in a copper cylinder. He suspended the cylinder on bars in the back of his cave to test his theory of human petrification. Naturally, Hannibal’s kids discovered the cylinder, and it became a rite of passage. Residents learned of body and convinced him to give his daughter a decent burial.
Hannibal History Museum is at the start of the ghost tour. It tells of these characters and many more.
Daniel Quarles AKA Jim in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has a small but detailed Jim’s Journey of his own. It tells the history of the real-life Quarles.
Women are not left out here. Molly Brown is renown for her surviving the sinking Titanic. She was immortalized in the movie and play, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” What many people don’t know was she was active in social causes like women’s rights. You can tour her home.
Jessie James is probably the west’s most well-known figure. What some don’t know is he was thrust into violence at a young age when Jayhawkers tortured his stepfather and beat young Jesse to get them to tell the whereabouts of his brother, Frank. In his mid-teens, Jesse rode with Quantrill’s Bushwhackers.
The home where Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back as he was hanging a picture on the wall was part of the Patee House Museum. The entire museum tells much of the history of Missouri, including the Pony Express. Its original desk is at the museum. Plan on spending a lot of time there.
The James farm where Jesse was born is about an hour out of St. Joe and open for tours. You can view the home through the screen doors. The museum has a great documentary video about his life and death.
Billy Fry and other pony express riders are represented. Anne led us through the Pony Express Museum and gave a detailed picture of life for the riders. There is an exhibit of Billy Fry, the first Pony Express rider preparing to leave St. Joe. Spectators who came to witness this earth-shaking event cheered him on. Just imagine mail getting from St. Joe, Missouri, all the way to California in just ten days. I entered a typical rest stop cabin where the young riders might stay overnight or change horses. I learned about the young men. The youngest was 11, and the oldest was 40; these riders braved hostile Indians, mountains, desert, and weather to deliver mail from St. Joe to California in 10 days. The exhibits are detailed and lifelike.
Walter Cronkite is the most modern-day resident of St. Joe honored with a memorial. It’s at Missouri Western State University in Spratt Hall and is free. The memorial covers his entire career and is beautifully done. There are videos you can watch of many of his historic broadcasts ranging from the President Kennedy assassination to the Beatles’ first American appearance.
These are three towns you do not want to miss.