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.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis and his partner William Clark to lead the Corps of Discovery in on 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.
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 American’s 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 America’s 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. By 1869, western settlement increased since the completed transcontinental railway facilitated travel all the way to California. America had fulfilled its destiny. The American frontier was gone in less than 90 years.
In the end, displacing several 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, America’s 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. African Americans, American Indians, French traders, Spanish explorers, Asian railway workers, and the Homestead Act immigrants from around the world all helped shape the American West. Today, Jefferson Expansion Memorial and the Gateway Arch pay 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.
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. Among these were Dred Scott and his wife Harriet; their 1846 lawsuit against Irene Emerson became one of the most important cases ever tried in the United States. Although the Circuit Court of the St. Louis County awarded Dred Scott and his family their freedom in 1850, the United States Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1856 after determining that as property, African American slaves had no right to sue. The Supreme Court dismissed Scott’s suit since at the time of its adoption, the United States Constitution did not consider African Americans as citizens. Although Scott lost his case, this Supreme Court ruling 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 to this day an active Catholic parish.
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 form 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 Memorialwebsite 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. 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.
Last updated: August 4, 2017