You’ll find it literally beneath St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.
Just north of St. Louis, Missouri, westward adventurers of the 19th century—beginning with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 —entered the mouth of the mighty Missouri River and boldly forged upstream on the rushing waters into the frontier. President Thomas Jefferson, of course, was the one who sent Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery to explore the newly purchased territory of Louisiana all the way to the Pacific Ocean. St. Louis became known as the “Gateway to the West,” and today its soaring Gateway Arch is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. But there is more to the memorial than that 630-foot-high stainless steel span. While you can’t miss the arch, try not to miss the Museum of Westward Expansion, which includes rare exhibits from the Lewis and Clark days and highlights the explorers who followed, the pioneers and the Western Indian tribes.
Back in February 1948 Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a nationwide competition to design a monument that best illustrated St. Louis’ role in the Westward expansion of the United States. The National Park Service approved the proposed arch that June, but funding and political and legal disputes kept it from getting off the ground for another 15 years. Once construction began in February 1963, things moved relatively smoothly. By late October 1865 the Gateway Arch was standing, at a cost of about $13 million, and the monument opened to the public in June 1967.
The 91-acre Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which includes St. Louis’ Old Courthouse just west of the plaza, centers on the arch and visitor center beneath it, accessible by ramp from either foot of the arch. Within the visitor center are two theaters and the Museum of Westward Expansion. While the museum charts the history of the American West from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase to the 1890 “closing of the frontier,” Lewis and Clark get top billing. Covering the back wall are 30 murals, each 15 feet high, depicting many of the key people, places and events of that remarkable journey. Exhibits explain the geography, mapmaking and science of the expedition, and drawings highlight the people, plants, animals and fossils the corps encountered. A timeline details the chronology, from the corps’ departure from winter camp on April 20, 1803, to its return to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. An extensive collection of diaries, books, maps, documents and artifacts further illuminates the expedition.
The museum also effectively chronicles the early history of the region, from the ancient mound builders (Cahokia, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, was the trading hub of the Mississippian culture) to the French explorers and traders who arrived in the late 1690s (Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau established the settlement of St. Louis in 1764) to the American traders and settlers who arrived after the region swapped hands from Spain to France and, finally, the United States. Exhibits cover the full extent of Western expansion, including the story of black pioneers and how the push affected the Plains Indians, as well as buffalo and other Western species.
After visiting the museum, swing by the Old Courthouse. The original Federal style courthouse was completed in 1828, while later expansions added additional wings and the three-story Greek Revival cupola. The original courthouse hosted the first two trials of Dred Scott (the slave who unsuccessfully sued for freedom in 1846), as well as Virginia Minor’s unsuccessful 1872 bid for women’s right to vote. The building today houses a museum and showcases the restored courtrooms.
The Museum of Westward Expansion is at 11 N. 4th St. in downtown St. Louis. Like the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse, it is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and admission is free. Call 877-982-1410 or visit www.nps.gov/jeff.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.