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Saint Louis City
October 1, 1812

County Seat: Clayton

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History

When city founders decided that government business should have a central location, the original courthouse in St. Louis was built in 1828. This Federal style building was perhaps the finest in the city and state. Within ten years the city outgrew the brick courthouse, however the population increased threefold due to the fur trade industry. Between 1839-1862 a new courthouse was built, first incorporating the original courthouse in the east wing. The original brick courthouse was torn down in 1851 and the new east wing was built in its place. A smaller wooden dome was replaced by a wrought and cast iron dome in 1860. The top of the dome measured 192 feet high, giving it the distinction of being St. Louisí tallest building until the 20th century.

3rd Level of the RotundaThe Old Courthouse dome interior displays four murals created by Carl Wimar, who was commissioned to design murals representing significant benchmarks of St. Louis history. The murals depict explorer Hernando de Soto discovering the Mississippi River, Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau founding St. Louis, the British attack on St. Louis during the Revolutionary War, and Cochetopa Pass, through which St. Louisans proposed to have a railroad line run to San Francisco. The murals are painted on the interior walls in the same cardinal directions as the events they depict. Unfortunately, Wimar was afflicted with tuberculosis, and he died shortly after the murals were complete, in 1862.

The building was filled with the activity of people conducting daily business with local government, private individuals, and agencies. The lighting was dim inside and smoke from coal stoves filled the air. The exterior of the building was blackened with coal dust and soot, and was not the pristine white todayís visitor sees. The Probate Court auctioned off the property of citizens who died without a will orowed tax money on the east steps of the building. Prior to the Civil War, these estate settlements sometimes included slaves.

The Old Courthouse played an interactive role with the community for many years. In the nineteenth century, the Old Courthouseís rotunda was a stage for lectures, meetings, and political events. A National Railroad Convention was held in the rotunda in 1849, with Senator Thomas Hart Benton calling for the building of a railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco, California through the Cochetopa Pass in the Rocky Mountains.

The Old Courthouse served many purposes. It was the St. Louis County Courthouse until 1877, when the county and city separated, and it continued to serve as the St. Louis City Courthouse until 1930. The Supreme Court of Missouri operated in the south wing of the courthouse from 1856-1876. Some of the overlanders who were bound for the Oregon Trail organized their journey in this building. Abolitionists and anti-abolitionists held rallies in the Old Courthouse to debate the slavery issue. The Museum of the Missouri Historical Society was housed in the basement for a short time. The National Park Service has operated the Old Courthouse as a museum since 1943. 

Two nationally recognized court cases were heard in the Old Courthouse. In 1846 slaves Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom. Lawsuits by Dred and Harriet Scottslaves for freedom based on residence in a free territory occurred with some frequency. The Scotts lost initially and continued to appeal the case, which eventually commanded national attention. The case was heard before the United States Supreme Court in 1857. The ruling of the court denied the Scotts freedom, claiming that because blacks were slaves and not considered citizens they could not sue in Federal court. Later that same year, the Scotts' last owner, Taylor Blow, gave them their freedom. The case moved the country one step closer to Civil War.

The women's suffrage movement moved into the public eye in 1872. The founder of Missouriís women's suffrage movement, Mrs. Virginia Minor, attempted to register to vote and was denied because she was female. Her husband sued on her behalf in the St. Louis Circuit Court, claiming the Fourteenth Amendment gave her the right to vote as a citizen. The court ruled that the right to suffrage applied to male citizens only. She lost the case but set a court precedent for the suffrage movement by appealing to the Supreme Court, where she lost in 1874.

The Old Courthouse was preserved and transferred to the Federal government in 1940 because of its significant legacy to St. Louis history. The exterior of the Old Courthouse appears today much as it did in the 1870s. The rotunda interior and two courtrooms are meticulously restored and displayed. Four galleries interpreting St. Louis history occupy the two first floor wings. The Old Courthouse reminds visitors of St. Louisí past, and the cityís role in westward expansion.

Courtesy: National Park Service

Local Records at the Courthouse
Recorder of Deeds, City of Saint Louis

Birth & Death Records

Archives Services -- A Resource for Genealogists

Further Links

Search for St. Louis CityRecords at the Missouri Archives

Local Records Inventory Database

County Records-Roll by Roll List  ~ PDF file

St. Louis Marriages 1754-1835

Missouri Birth & Death Records Database: Search & Record Availability