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Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

St. Louis, Missouri

The Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch

The Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch
Courtesy of the National Park Service

In 1947, architect Eero Saarinen entered his name in the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Chosen from 172 entries, his world-renowned stainless-steel masterpiece memorializes America’s historic expansion across the West. Although popularly known as the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial commemorates not only the history of western migration, but also the role President Thomas Jefferson played in opening the West with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French. In addition, the park interprets the history and culture of St. Louis and the city’s role as the Gateway to the West.

The Spanish conquest of North America, which began in 1521, resulted in Spain obtaining a large amount of territory. This included most of the present-day United States west of the Mississippi River and Florida. By 1800, Spain secretly agreed to transfer power of its Louisiana Territory back to France, through the Treaty of San Ildefonso; however, France delayed taking possession of the area until 1803 because Napoleon wanted more time to build up a military to protect the territory.

Hispanic Heritage Festival held in downtown St. Louis

Hispanic Heritage Festival held in downtown St. Louis
Courtesy of MBK Marjorie through
Flickr's Creative Commons

In 1802, during the time that Spain was still in control of the territory, Spanish officials withdrew the previously granted “Right of Deposit,” which allowed Americans to use New Orleans’ port facilities. This shocking decision prompted President Thomas Jefferson to move forward and purchase the city of New Orleans. The offer proposed by France ended up including the entire territory of Louisiana, which the United States gladly accepted. France controlled the territory for only about three weeks, from November 30 to December 20, 1803. On December 20, 1803, France signed documents formally transferring the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The ratification of the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States and opened up the continent to the continued westward expansion of the nation.

Following the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of westward expansion, commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis and his partner William Clark to lead the Corps of Discovery in an expedition through the nation’s newly acquired territory. Their mission, according to Jefferson’s instructions, was to explore the Missouri River and find the elusive Northwest Passage for the purpose of commerce. Although Lewis and Clark never found a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean, their expedition advanced the nation’s geographical knowledge of the once uncharted West. With the help of their Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea, the Corps of Discovery managed to locate 50 American Indian tribes, many of which Lewis and Clark befriended by offering peace medals to the most important chiefs. As a result, the Corps of Discovery expedition helped open the West for America’s fur trade.

Full-size tipi at Museum of Westward Expansion located beneath the Gateway Arch

Full-size tipi at Museum of Westward Expansion
located beneath the Gateway Arch
Courtesy of The National Park Service

The publication of Lewis' and Clark's detailed accounts of their journey of discovery generated a great American interest in the Indian fur trade. By 1810, with Clark’s map of the West at hand, traders marked the beginning of the historic Missouri River trade as they moved into the Indian Territory to exchange goods with the Plains tribes. The Plains Indians traded their buffalo robes, horses, and mules for the Americans' tobacco, axes, firearms, and other technological goods. Although the buffalo hides were highly sought, beaver pelts were also of great interest. As a result, traders began sending trappers further west to set beaver traps. Among these was St. Louis fur trader William H. Ashley, who in 1822 employed 100 trappers to work in the Rocky Mountains. Known as the legendary mountain men, these trappers helped America expand further west.

Although the decline in beavers eventually slowed the fur trade, America’s rapid westward expansion continued as the notion of Manifest Destiny swept across the nation. Popularized in the 1840s, the term justified the United States' expansion into the West with the claim that America had a divine right to expand from sea to shining sea. As a result, for two decades large numbers of white wagons painted the American landscape as settlers traveled across the western trails, one of which was the Santa Fe Trail blazed by Missouri trader William Becknell in 1821. The trail, which ran between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, became the principal avenue for manufactured goods and emigrants bound for Santa Fe and the American Southwest.

Expansion did not come without conflict. Along with the displacement of American Indian tribes and clashes with other peoples, American soldiers provoked an attack by the Mexican army in the disputed Texas Territory in 1846. This attack led the United States to declare war on Mexico. After several months of campaigning, however, General Winfield Scott entered Mexico City in 1847 bringing the war with Mexico to an end.

By 1869, western settlement increased since the completed transcontinental railway facilitated travel all the way to California. The United States had fulfilled its destiny. The American frontier was gone in less than 90 years.

The St. Louis Courthouse was the site of the Dred Scott lawsuit that gained worldwide notoriety. c.1862

The St. Louis Courthouse was the site of the Dred Scott lawsuit that gained worldwide notoriety. c.1862
Courtesy of Army.Arch through
Flickr's Creative Commons

In the end, displacing a number of American Indian tribes from their homelands, over 300,000 settlers traveled across the West in search of land, gold, and religious freedom. Although the journey proved difficult at times, especially as American Indians fought to keep their lands, the United States' expansion into the West played a significant role in the development of the nation's unique culture. Involved in this mass-migration were peoples of many backgrounds. Spanish explorers, French traders, African Americans, American Indians, Asian railway workers, and the Homestead Act immigrants from around the world all helped shape the American West. Today, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial pays tribute to the diverse people of America, whose stories, whether of triumph or defeat, highlight the historic movement into the West.

At Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, visitors may begin their tour at the Gateway Arch, where they can ride the tram to the top and enjoy the majestic view of St. Louis from the observation deck, which faces both east and west. After riding the tram, tourists can proceed to the Museum of Westward Expansion. Located beneath the Arch, the museum features two films: The Monument to the Dream documenting the construction of the Gateway Arch, and Lewis and Clark, Great Journey West shown in the Odyssey Theatre. The museum also features several exhibits that chart the history of the American West, where visitors can see a full size tipi, lifelike animal displays, a stagecoach, a covered wagon, a bullboat, and other mounted exhibits that demonstrate how the American Indians and pioneers lived.

In 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom, but despite their victory, the U.S Supreme Court declared that slaves were property and had no right to sue.

In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared that slaves were property and had no right to sue.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Beyond the Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward Expansion, the park also tells the story of the Old St. Louis Courthouse. From 1812 until 1865, over 300 African American slaves living in the St. Louis area sued their masters for their freedom at this courthouse. Many times, these cases were thrown out because the United States Constitution did not consider African Americans as citizens at the time. The controversial case of Dred Scott and his wife Harriet moved the nation to the brink of Civil War, which led to the emancipation of all slaves in the United States.

Across from the historic Old Courthouse, visitors are also welcome to tour the Old St. Louis Cathedral, which remains an active Catholic parish. Visitors can stop by the Old Cathedral Museum where the cathedral’s 1776 bell, a gift of Spanish Lt. Governor Don Piernos enriched with 200 Spanish silver dollars in its casting, is on display. The Old Cathedral, the only building spared for the construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, serves as an additional reminder of the westward expansion of the United States.

Plan your visit

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 11 North 4th St. in St. Louis, MO. The park’s Gateway Arch and Westward Expansion Museum are open daily from 9:00am to 6:00pm. During the summer season, both the museum and Gateway Arch are open from 8:00am to 10:00pm. The Old Courthouse is open daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm. All sites at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. There is an admission fee for most sites. For more information, visit the National Park Service Jefferson National Expansion Memorial website or call 314-655-1700.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. The memorial is also featured in the National Park Service's Lewis and Clark Expedition Travel Itinerary and in the Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary. The Old Courthouse is the subject of an online lesson plan, The Old Courthouse in St. Louis: Yesterday and Today. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.
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