Why Is Jefferson City the Capital of Missouri?

Why Is Jefferson City the Capital of Missouri?

If asked to name the capital of Missouri, many people would probably say St. Louis or Kansas City. After all, these are the largest cities in the state, attract the most tourists, and even are home to major sports teams. But these people would be wrong. In actuality, the capital of Missouri is the much smaller Jefferson City. Why is Jefferson City the capital of Missouri? Let’s take a closer look.

The Capital of Missouri

Sometimes, a state or country’s capital is chosen based on population or prominence. This was not the case with Jefferson City.

If you look at Missouri on a map, you’ll find that Jefferson City is near the geographic center of the state, and this is no accident. In fact, Jefferson City was specifically chosen to be the capital of the state when the city was founded. To understand why this is the case, we need to look further back to the history of the area.

Missouri territory was formed from part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and soon earned the nickname Gateway to the West because of its position on the American frontier. For much of the early 19th century, the bulk of Missouri’s population was located in the eastern part of the territory.

In 1821, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in accordance with the Missouri Compromise. By this time, however, the western part of Missouri had come to be much more settled, and there was a growing sentiment that the capital should be more centrally located. While St. Charles, a prominent city in Eastern Missouri, was made temporary capital, a small, centrally located trading post in the Missouri wilderness was selected to be the future seat of the state legislature. Initially, the name “Missouriopolis” was proposed, before settling on the name “Jefferson” to honor Thomas Jefferson.

In 1825, Jefferson (which would soon come to be called Jefferson City) was incorporated. A year later, the Missouri legislature met there for the first time.

Jefferson City and The Civil War

Not being directly associated with the South or North in the Civil War era made this a difficult time for Jefferson City, and Missouri in general. On the one hand, you have Abraham Lincoln calling for an end to slavery, while then governor Claiborne F. Jackson was a slavery supporter and wanted to secede along with other Southern states. Eventually, a state assembly would be held, and Missouri opted to stay with the Union, but Jackson was still in objection to it. He refused to pledge Missouri troops to the Union and marched a group of volunteers to join Confederate forces.

It’s important to remember that at the time, there was a heavy ideological division based on geography. The Eastern part of the state generally favored being part of the Union, while Jefferson City and the Western part generally favored the Confederacy. This would lead to a deep division within the state and city that took decades after the war ended to finally heal.

Jefferson City Today

Fast-forward to today and Jefferson City has an estimated population of 42,895, making it only the 15th most populated city in the state of Missouri. Its central location and proximity to the Missouri River makes it a major trading and manufacturing center for the region. For example, many automotive seats, specialty printing supplies, and cosmetics are produced in Jefferson City.

However, there’s no shortage of things to do in the city, including taking in history at the Cole County Historical Museum or Lewis and Clark Monument, or having some outdoorsy fun hiking, biking, or renting a kayak out on the water. Notably, the capitol building you see today is actually the third one the city’s had. The first burned down in 1837, and the second would end up torn down to accommodate a larger state legislature.


Interested in the history of some other state capitals? Check out these posts on Sacramento, California or Trenton, New Jersey.