Tracing the history of humans in Missouri begins in the bluff-lined valley of Rock Creek in the southwest corner of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
More than 12,000 years ago, mastodons and other Ice Age animals gathered in the valley at the water and nearby salt licks. Archeological evidence of their bones prompted a local movement to purchase the site for a state park in 1976, and it later became Mastodon State Historic Site.
Excavations at what is known as the Kimmswick Bone Beds found two spear points next to mastodon bones. It was the first hard evidence that the Paleo Indians known as Clovis - paleo means first – hunted mastodons, earning the site a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Milestones of human events in Missouri are marked at state historic sites. The mastodon hunters were the earliest, and other historic sites tell about the mound builders of the Mississippi, the arrival of the first French and Germans, the march to statehood, the struggles of the Civil War and the successes of the early entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution.
Where the Clovis came from is a matter of conjecture, some believe they walked into North America from land bridges that, at the time, linked continents. Whatever, those two spear points are the first sign of human activity in the state, and are kept under lock and key at the historic site. Reproductions are on display.
“They’re invaluable,” Brooke Mahar, interpretative resource specialist at Mastodon, said of the spear points. Chicago’s Field Museum recently put on a traveling exhibition titled “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,” and borrowed the points for the show.
The visitor’s center at Mastodon State Historic Site explains the people and animals found there, with a diorama of three Clovis Indians near a life-sized replica skeleton of a mastodon. Trails lead along the bluffs, down to the bone beds along Rock Creek.
“The Clovis who gathered at the site actually were here to hunt, a group of about 40 to 50 people,” Mahar said. “There was never any evidence of them occupying this area; we don’t know where their base camp would have been.”
The Clovis Culture was found throughout North America, south into areas of South America. Where they came from, and where they went, remains a mystery.
“We aren’t really sure what happened to them once the animals disappeared,” Mahar said. “They likely went ahead and maybe evolved into later groups. Right after this was the Dalton Period, some 10,000 years ago, and there’s evidence of that at Graham Cave State Park.”
Here are some other interesting historic sites for time traveling through Missouri:
Towosahgy State Historic Site near the Bootheel:
The site is a few miles northeast of Big Oak Tree State Park and features seven mounds that rise above the surrounding farm fields. They were built as temples and lodges for the dignitaries of an Indian village of several hundred people.
The first construction began about 1,540 years ago, and the last was built 520 years ago. The site was inhabited for about 1,000 years.
Chris Crabtree, natural resource manager of the site, said it was built around the time that the larger Cahokia Mounds community was thriving near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to the north. Towosahgy is an Osage Indian word for “old town.”
“Inhabitation pretty much stopped by 1340 to 1450,” Crabtree said. “We have no idea why.”
There were other ancient Indian sites in the Mississippi River Valley, but most have been razed as the land was drained and plowed for agriculture.
“It is one of the best remaining samples of a fortified village site in Missouri, and the only one maintained as a state historic site,” Crabtree said. “This is the most pristine one that we have in the state.”
Felix Valle House State Historic Site in Ste. Genevieve:
French Canadians from Quebec began showing up in the Mississippi River Valley along southern Missouri as early as 1735. They settled on high ground and established Ste. Genevieve around 1790.
The numbers of new arrivals increased after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, overwhelming the French in Ste. Genevieve. Among them was Jacob Philipson, of a Philadelphia Jewish family, who built a home and store in 1818.
Jean Baptiste Valle bought the building in 1824, and his son, Felix, and his wife, Odile, lived in the house. Odile lived there until her death in 1894. The family donated the home to the state in 1970, and the state historic site now is used to demonstrate the lives and customs of the early French.
Ste. Genevieve is a national historic site with the largest number of French colonial buildings still standing.
Deutschheim State Historic Site in Hermann:
Inspired by a book published in 1829 by Gottfried Duden, a lawyer who visited and praised the area, Germans began arriving in the Missouri River Valley in the 1830s. Hermann was founded in August of 1836.
“Stimulated by Mr. Duden’s writings, which created a romantic appeal, families came and wrote back to other families in Germany,” said Cindy Browne, site administrator. “The German migration in the early 19th century would have been a few thousand. By the end of the century, it was hundreds of thousands.”
The site uses two historic homes to explain the traditions that the Germans brought with them, including wine making. Stone Hill Winery in Hermann was the third largest winery in the world before Prohibition.
Today, Stone Hill is once again an award-winning winery, and Hermann is the heart of Missouri Wine Country, with six family-owned wineries on its 20-mile scenic wine trail.
First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site in St. Charles:
On Aug. 10, 1821, Missouri became a state and a two-story brick building was used at the first state capitol until 1826, when Jefferson City was named the capital.
The historic site tells the story of the early struggle to become a state, which included three stumbling blocks that had to be overcome, said Sue Love, interpretative specialist.
First, a potential state had to have a population of 60,000. When the first count came up with 55,000, slaves were then included to go over the 60,000 mark.
Second, Missouri was to be admitted as a slave state, but Congress did not want to upset the current balance, which was 11 free and 11 slave states. That was resolved when Maine came in at the same time as a free state.
The third hurdle was a statute in the proposed state constitution that restricted the travel of free blacks within the borders of Missouri. The federal government objected. “They refused to remove it, but promised not to enforce it,” Love said.
Arrow Rock State Historic Site near Boonville:
The early Americans were restless, and many headed out of St. Louis, which became known as the Gateway to the West. The first stop by steamboat on the Missouri River was the tiny village of Arrow Rock, which was founded in 1829.
Most continued their journey on the Santa Fe Trail. Arrow Rock reached its peak population of some 1,000 people around 1860. After the Civil War, the town was bypassed by the railroads and new highways.
The historic site has a visitor’s center that explains the early importance of Arrow Rock. The stuck-in-time town is home to the Lyceum Theatre, which puts on Broadway-caliber plays, and the Huston Tavern, which was established in 1834 and still serves some of the best fried chicken in the state.
Battle of Lexington State Historic Site:
Only two states, Virginia and Tennessee, experienced more Civil War battles on their soil than Missouri, which nearly was torn in two by the conflict.
The historic site tells the story of the Battle of the Hemp Bales, which was fought in September 1861. Sterling Price and his Southern-leaning Missouri State Guard defeated Union forces by advancing on their stronghold behind a blockade of rolling hemp bales.
The site has a visitor’s center that tells the story, and its centerpiece is the Oliver Anderson mansion, which displays bullet holes from the three-day siege.
“It was bittersweet because the Southerners won the battle, but two weeks later they were without the support they needed,” said Jenae Fuller, site superintendent. “Union troops were marching this way, so the Southern commander skedaddled out of the state.
“They won the battle, but lost the war.”
Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site:
The four-story, brick woolen mill was built in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. Its production peaked in the 1870s at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
A young entrepreneur, Waltus W. Watkins, came to the area in 1839 and established a farm. When he built his woolen mill, there were about a dozen in Missouri. By 1882, there were 119.
The textile industry bottomed out in the 1890s, one of the reasons was the arrival of the railroad, which brought competition from Montgomery Ward and other commercial outlets.
Today, the historic site includes the family farm and home in a bucolic setting and the mill building, the only one remaining in North America with all its original equipment. The site is a national mechanical engineering landmark.