Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

This site is archival. Please visit the current MIZZOU magazine site for up-to-date content.

Around the Columns

Mapping Missouri's past


With this 1866 ribbon map of the Mississippi River in hand, steamboat travelers could track their progress on the Father of Waters. Photo by Rob Hill

Sometimes a map can convey information in ways that words and numbers can’t, says Walter Schroeder, associate professor emeritus of geography. For decades, Schroeder has turned to maps in the State Historical Society of Missouri’s collection to help explain the social geography of Missouri.
For example, one map created in 1874 by MU entomologist Charles V. Riley charted an infestation of locusts — we call them grasshoppers today — that hit western Missouri. Thousands of farmers saw their fields stripped by hungry insects, and Missouri’s governor called for a day of fasting and prayer. The state legislature provided bounties of $1 for every bushel of dead locusts and $5 for a bushel of locust eggs.

In 1837, an Army engineer lieutenant named Robert E. Lee drew a map that demonstrated his engineering work in St. Louis harbor that kept the city’s waterfront from silting in. Twenty-five years later, Lee commanded the Confederate forces in the Civil War. “The map shows still in existence the Indian mounds that gave St. Louis the name of ‘the Mound City.’ Within a few years they would be destroyed forever,” Schroeder says.

Other historical maps show the importance that railroads and highways played in Missouri’s development. “Railroads revolutionized which towns were going to grow and which were going to die,” Schroeder explains. Later, the location of major highways played the same role in determining a town’s fate.

Maps also tell stories of political power struggles, Schroeder says. An 1895 map shows a proposed land development in Sedalia, Mo., that includes a site for a new state Capitol building. Sedalians thought their town’s bustling railroad commerce was a good reason to move the capital there from Jefferson City. “These maps form a part of the state’s ‘cartographic legacy,’ ” Schroeder says. “Their preservation helps all Missourians better understand their past.”