St. Joseph was founded on the Missouri River by Joseph Robidoux, a local fur trader, and officially incorporated in 1843. In its early days, it was a bustling outpost and rough frontier town, serving as a last supply point and jumping-off point on the Missouri River toward the “Wild West”. It was the westernmost point in the United States accessible by rail until after the American Civil War.
The main east-west downtown streets were named for Robidoux’s eight children: Faraon, Jules, Francois (Francis), Felix, Edmond, Charles, Sylvanie, and Messanie. The street between Sylvanie and Messanie was named for his second wife, Angelique.
St. Joseph, or “St. Joe”, as it was called by many, was a “Jumping-Off Point” for those headed to the Oregon Territory in the mid-1800s. In these cities, including Independence, Missouri, and St. Joseph, were where pioneers would stay and purchase supplies before they would head out in wagon trains. The town was a very bustling place, and was the second city in the USA to have electric streetcars.
Between April 3, 1860, and late October 1861, St. Joseph was one of the two endpoints of the Pony Express, which operated for a short period over the land then inaccessible by rail, to provide fast mail service. The pony riders carried additionally, along with the mail, a small personal bible. Today the Pony Express Museum hosts visitors in the old stables.
In 1882, on April 3, the outlaw Jesse James was killed at his home, originally located at 1318 Lafayette, now sited next to The Patee House. In the post-Civil War years, when the economy was down, the hotel had served for a time as the home of the Patee Female College, followed by the St. Joseph Female College up to 1880. James was living under the alias of Mr. Howard. An excerpt from a popular poem of the time is: “…that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard has laid poor Jesse in his grave.”
The Missouri River in St. Joseph
The Heaton-Bowman-Smith Funeral Home maintains a small museum about Jesse James. Their predecessors conducted the funeral. The museum is open to the public. His home, is now known as Jesse James Home Museum. It has been relocated at least three times, and features the bullet hole from that fateful shot. St. Joseph is identified by the slogan, “Where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended.”
Among properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places are the Patee House, a former hotel is now maintained as a museum of transportation and the Missouri Theatre, an ornate movie palace.
St. Joseph’s population peaked in 1900, with a census population of 102,979. This population figure is questionable, as civic leaders tried to inflate the numbers for that census. At the time, it was the home to one of the largest wholesale companies in the Midwest, the Nave & McCord Mercantile Company, as well as the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, and the C.D. Smith & Company, which would become C.D. Smith Healthcare.
The Walnut Park Farm Historic District near St. Joseph was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.