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A BRIEF HISTORY OF JEFFERSON COUNTY

Historic Sites of Jefferson County, Missouri
Historic Sites of Jefferson
County, Missouri
(Eschbach, Walter L.)
Settlements within Jefferson County began as early as the 1700's. At this time, the territory was under Spanish authority, and settlers were allowed a certain amount of land, particularly along the Mississippi River. John Hildebrand, a man of French descent, is known as the first white settler in what now constitutes Jefferson County. In 1774, or possibly earlier, he settled on Saline Creek in the northeastern part of the county and founded what was afterward called the Meramec settlement. The first town in the county, New Hartford, was laid out in 1806 by Christian Wilt and John W. Honey. The exact location of the town is unknown, but it was on the Mississippi River, near the present location of Herculaneum.

Jefferson County attracted early settlers, and prior to them, tribes of Indians and various wild animals because of its rich soils and its rivers and springs. In 1798, just before the close of the Spanish period, a Connecticut Yankee by the name of Moses Austin became so impressed with the richness of the mineral deposits in the county that he obtained a Spanish grant of one square league of land. He introduced improved mining and smelting methods and began operations, bringing workmen and equipment from Virginia. Permanent settlements at the mines grew rapidly, despite the constant threat of Osage Indian raids.

In 1808 Moses Austin and Samuel Hammond laid out a town at the mouth of Joachim Creek in Jefferson County as a lead shipping point. It is believed the town was named by Moses Austin, who called it Herculaneum because the limestone strata was so eroded that they resembled seats in the amphitheater of the ancient buried city near Naples. Austin began to manufacture shot in towers which he had built on the high Mississippi River bluffs in 18 10. However, the first shot tower west of Pittsburgh was erected by John N. Maclot in 1809 in the southeastern part of Herculaneum.

On December 8, 1818, Jefferson County along with seven other counties was formed from parts of Saint Louis and Ste. Genevieve Counties by an "Act of the Territory". The county, named "Jefferson" in honor of the third President of the United States and father of the Louisiana Purchase, grew slowly during its early years. Herculaneum, named the county seat by the Act of the Territory, had a population of just 200 in 1821. On March 22, 1819, the first Circuit Court for the Northern Circuit of Missouri Territory was held in the Town of Herculaneum with Nathaniel B. Tucker presiding as Judge of the Northern Circuit. This first court ordered the rates of taxation in Jefferson County for specific items such as horses, mules, cattle, slaves, billiard tables, mills, tanyards and distilleries. The court also discussed slavery during its first session.

By 1831 Herculaneum had seemingly lost its importance as the principal settlement of the county because of the decline of the lead business, and some talk began about moving the seat of justice. One could assume that the population and business of the county had by then become so scattered that a more central location was desirable. At the west edge of Hillsboro flowed a spring which was a deciding factor in locating the county seat of Jefferson County; moreover, it was a stopping point in the trail which passed between Potosi and St. Louis. The first courthouse in Hillsboro was set in a square which had the spring as its southwestern corner. Built in 1838-40, the original courthouse was used until 1865 and afterward served as the first public school building in Hillsboro. The building referred to as the second courthouse of the county, was completed in 1865 along with the jail. The courthouse, as it now stands, was remodeled and enlarged by bond funds voted by the citizens in 1953. The last new addition to the courthouse was completed in 1966. Located on the northwest corner of the county courthouse square is Jefferson County's 100th Anniversary Marker. It was placed there by the Old Settlers Association in 1918.

On the approach of the Civil War (1861-65) between the States of the Union, it is believed that a large majority of the people of Jefferson County were in favor of state sovereignty and were in sympathy with the southern cause, but not to such an extent as to make them favor secession. At the election held in February, 1861, to elect delegates to a state convention, the Union delegates carried Jefferson County by an overwhelming majority. The people of Jefferson County preferred to remain in the Union and, if possible, to maintain state sovereignty and state neutrality.

Although several regiments and many men served in the Civil War from Jefferson County, no regular engagements between the contending armies took place within the county. In October, 1861, Jeff Thompson of Confederate fame made an expedition with his forces from Stoddard County, where he made his headquarters at that time, by way of Fredericktown into Jefferson County. He had two purposes in mind. One was to destroy the Iron Mountain Railroad bridge across Big River, and, thus, hamper the movement of Federal forces south of St. Louis; the other was to seize lead from the lead mines and carry it south for Confederate use. A fierce skirmish was fought at the bridge which was guarded by Union soldiers; nevertheless, the bridge was destroyed and Thompson retreated to join his other forces in Fredericktown.

Jefferson County progressed slowly from 1840 to 1857 when the Iron Mountain Railroad crossed the county from St. Louis southward. For the first time, industrial plants began to take shape, and railroad shops were built in De Soto. But it was not until 1868 that three men discovered the sand within Jefferson County was of the unusual high quality necessary for making plate glass. As a result, Captain Ebenezer B. Ward of Detroit organized the American Plate Glass Company. Another leading industry, the St. Joseph Lead Company, was established in Herculaneum in the early 1890's. At the time it was built, it was the largest lead smelter in the United States. The entry of the Frisco Railroad along the east side of the county in 1902 added greatly to the industrial growth and potential of Jefferson County.


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