Sneak Peek: 5 Things to Know About the Missouri History Museum's 'Louisiana Purchase: Making St. Louis, Remaking America' Exhibit

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

The Missouri History Museum’s “Louisiana Purchase: Making St. Louis, Remaking America” exhibit opens tomorrow, and the staff has really outdone themselves, going so far as to snag not one but nine documents (the Louisiana Purchase Treaty serving as the crown jewel) from the National Archives in Washington, DC. They supplement an extensive-but-still-engaging look into how this catalyst of westward expansion also shaped St. Louis’ future, right as the city turns 250.

Upper Louisiana Transfer Document, which signed over St. Louis (and other areas) to the US on March 9, 1804. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

Upper Louisiana Transfer Document, which signed over St. Louis (and other areas) to the US on March 9, 1804. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

To get real for a minute: Many adults are skittish of history exhibitions. The very mention of the H-word brings back memories of dull lectures, frantic memorization of dates and entire chapters of history crammed into a single paragraph. But approaching history as an adult who has the luxury to learn is a completely different experience.

The insight in this exhibit makes for a must-see to understand how the city we live in became what it is today. Best of all, the exhibition doesn’t rely on propaganda to describe why the Louisiana Purchase was so influential in the expansion of the country. “We didn’t want to tell the same old story,” says Adam Kloppe, writing and research fellow at the Missouri History Museum. “We wanted to show the dreams, fears and real impact of the Louisiana Purchase on people’s lives.”

  1. The Louisiana Purchase treaty hasn’t been seen since 2003. The lucky lot who head over to Forest Park for the free exhibition are the first to catch a glimpse of it in 11 years—and the first ever in St. Louis, as it’s never come to town before. It’s not just a piece of paper but history itself—the treaty that shaped geographically, culturally and economically what not only St. Louis but the nation would become . 
  2. The Louisiana Purchase didn’t actually cost $15 million. Sorry: The textbooks lied. What was handed over in cash came up to about $11,250,000, with the rest of the $15 million purchase cost comprised of money France was going to pay us for letting merchants’ goods spoil when shipments were compromised crossing the pond. So really it was $11 million and a lot of rotten food. But at a 6 percent interest rate on the bonds we sold to Britain to finance the purchase (bit cheeky coming on the heels of the Revolutionary War), the purchase wound up costing a cool $23 million by the time it was all paid off in 1823.
  3. The people in St. Louis didn’t really want the deal to go down. People obviously didn’t know the long-term benefits the treaty would eventually yield. They much preferred the French cultural influence they’d been living under and didn’t much fancy swapping croissants for biscuits. When St. Louis was officially passed to the U.S. on March 9, 1804, with the signing of the Upper Louisiana Transfer Document…well, “there were a lot of tears that day,” says Kloppe. Bonus: Meriwether Lewis signed it before he headed west on his and William Clark’s trailblazing journey.
  4. The Louisiana Purchase brought dueling to St. Louis. Before the treaty was signed, gentlemen didn’t really enjoy trying to shoot each other to settle an argument. Once the treaty was signed and rowdy Americans started moving into the neighborhood, dueling suddenly became a thing in 1820s STL. Fights took place outside of the city proper and out of the law’s reach on “Bloody Island” in the middle of the Mississippi (really). It got to the point that it merited a saying: “Crossing beyond the Mississippi, crossing beyond the sabbath.”
  5. You can see Meriwether Lewis’ elkskin journal he took notes on. Guess what? He drew maps just like the rest of us. You can also see Clark’s broken watch that he tried really hard to pawn off on people for supplies.

The must-see exhibition runs until April 19, 2015 and is free to the public. Check out the Missouri History Museum’s page for more info.

(Extra credit: See if you can find Napoleon’s hair.)

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