Meeting the Missouri River
St. Charles County, Missouri
St. Charles County is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers meet just north and east of St. Louis. On the Illinois side of the Mississippi River are steep limestone bluffs and their counterparts in Missouri are about 15 miles inland. This line of low hills that surround the farmlands of the floodplain are not steep because they are made largely of shale that does not form vertical cliffs. The alluvial soil of the floodplains is fertile and productive and has been attracting human cultivation for hundreds of years. Between 900 and 1350 the pre-Columbian Native Americans were drawn to the area concentrating mainly at Cahokia across the Mississippi in Illinois. Several Cahokia type mounds have been found near Portage des Sioux and north of St. Charles.
The first recorded Europeans to reach St. Charles County were Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet who were exploring the Mississippi River Valley. In June 1673 on seeing the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Marquette wrote in his journal, “I have seen nothing more dreadful. An accumulation of large and entire trees, branches and floating islands was issuing from the mouth of the river, with such impetuosity that we could not, without great danger, risk passing through it.” While the point of confluence has changed over time as the rivers make new channels, the meeting of the two rivers can be seen at Confluence Point State Park.
European interest in the region was limited mainly to fur trapping until the late 18th century. The first Europeans to live in St. Charles County were 15 Spanish soldiers who manned a blockhouse in 1767 at the confluence to ensure that boats going up the Missouri had a trading license. In 1769 a French-Canadian named Louis Blanchette established the first European settlement on the Missouri River. Blanchette named the village Les Petite Cotes (The Little Hills, later to become San Carlos) because of the low bluffs along the Missouri River running along the length of the town.
The first American settlers began arriving in the 1790s. Daniel Boone, the famous frontiersman, became one of the first American settlers in St. Charles County by building a home in Defiance in 1799. In 1804, when the Louisiana Purchase was finalized, San Carlos’ name was Anglicized to St. Charles. On May 16, 1804, William Clark arrived in St. Charles, still at the time a predominately French community, with the main body of the Corps of Discovery to await the arrival of Meriwether Lewis who still in St. Louis. Lewis arrived from St. Louis on May 20, and the expedition resumed their epic journey up the Missouri the next day. St. Charles has been designated as a Lewis and Clark site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and is the home of the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center.
When Missouri became a state in 1821 two adjoining Federal-style brick buildings on Main Street in St. Charles served as the seat of state government until 1826, when the capitol building in Jefferson City was ready. The buildings were bought by the state in 1961 and were restored and are located within an easy walk from the new St. Charles Visitors Center. There are also a large variety of restaurants, specialty shops, and bed and breakfasts located in the historic St. Charles Historic District.
Even to this day the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are major national highways in the Midwest. But until the mid 19th century they were the primary routes of transportation in Middle America whether by canoe, keelboat, or steamboat. The railroad arrived in St. Charles County in the 1850s and became the major mode of travel until paved roads began being built in the 1920s. The Katy Trail, the old route of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line and Missouri’s longest state park, begins in Frontier Park in St. Charles and follows the Missouri River until it reaches Clinton in western Missouri.
German immigrants began arriving in large numbers beginning in the 1830s and by the 1850s largely towns with a strong German heritage like Augusta were prospering. The Germans began making wine soon after their arrival and the vineyards in the area had achieved a reputation for excellence by the 1850s. The vineyards were dealt a severe blow by Prohibition began to revive in the late 1960s and Highway 94 has become known as the Weinstrasse, or "The Wine Road." Today Augusta’s economy caters to visitors and offers antique shops, small boutiques, restaurants, and bed and breakfast inns.
Located just north of St. Louis and within an easy drive from both the city and St. Louis County, St. Charles County offers its visitors a diverse array of attractions and events, historical heritage, natural beauty, and friendly people.