Storing Our Stories
Missouri has pack rats, but that’s a good thing. While countless articles tell us how to get rid of old stuff, the Missouri State Archives keeps acquiring documents telling our Missouri history. And best of all, the archives are available to everyone.
The items collected are mind-boggling. One can research hand-drawn maps dating to the 1700s, land grants more than 200 years old, family histories, court records, the papers of legislators, and every press release a governor’s office issued. Among hundreds of other old treasures, you can find out the state dinosaur, Hypsibema missouriense, roamed Missouri 99 million years ago. Fossils were found in 1942 near Glen Allen.
You can trace your own family history through death certificates from 1910 all the way through 1960. (Missouri law states that death certificates may be transferred to the archives after 50 years have passed. Certificates for 1962 will become available via the archives beginning the first working day of 2013.) You can research old court records such as files related to the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. Landowners were allowed to trade damaged land for other unclaimed federal land in the territory of Missouri.
Just about everything finds its home at the archives, where there are almost 400 million pages of paper, a half-million photos, 15,000 books, more than 10,000 maps, 200,000 reels of microfilm, and hundreds of audio and video items. And that’s just since 1965 when the archives were established by the legislature.
Huge underground vaults house many of these original and rare pieces, says State Archivist John Dougan. This is where all of Missouri’s original signed laws are kept, as well as all territorial records and early state road maps. The concrete and steel bunkers have extraordinary security and are temperature controlled to a finite degree. Items stored there will last a minimum of 500 years.
“There’s a story with every record we have,” John says. “For example, some of the men who drew early maps of what ultimately became the Missouri Territory must have had time on their hands.
“On several very old maps,” John says as he points to a few, “we’ve found drawings of such things as musical scales, rural cabins with smoke curling from chimneys, people fishing. It’s incredibly interesting to examine what some of these fellows did when they were probably bored.”
Within the archives is a conservation department where workers handle precious documents, mending many of them. Absolute care is used when handling the documents, with workers wearing white gloves. Original paperwork from the Dred Scott Decision and paperwork from the court cases involving Jesse James have been handled at the archives.
The archives’ storage area is a steady 65 degrees, and there is a fire suppression system in place. Seeing the measures taken to keep our historical treasures safe is impressive, but you don’t have to visit the archives in person to explore all of its artifacts. Many, such as death certificates, can be examined online.
Not surprising, the archives house files of all Supreme Court cases beginning before we were even a state. Between the years 1812 and 1820, Missouri was a territory controlled by the federal government, and the highest court was called the Superior Court, not the Supreme Court. Searches for court cases in this time period bring up topics such as the lifetime debts of Meriwether Lewis, breach of promise of marriage, and even a wife who filed for divorce because her alcoholic husband threw an axe at her.
Of interest to many are the military service cards for just about every Missouri man or woman who has ever worn a uniform. These date back to the War of 1812 through World War II, although the bulk of the information details soldiers who served in the Civil War. The archives’ collections also include state penitentiary records beginning in 1836, detailing each prisoner with glass plate negatives of convict mug shots. This is part of the magic at the archives. War heroes and convicts are brought together in one place for modern day history buffs to research, reflect upon, and remember.
Photo collections are some of the most popular artifacts at the archives. Images exist of the building of the current Capitol in 1915, the State Penitentiary riot of 1954, a pictorial history of the State Fair, and early Missouri Department of Transportation black-and white negatives, among thousands of other pictures and negatives. The archives even boast some original photographs of Jesse James in its collections.
Remembrance is important here at the archives, even for items deemed unsuccessful. Alongside collections honoring success is a treasure trove of bills that failed, including a bill submitted to the legislature in 1929 calling for Missouri housewives to make hot biscuits two times every day. Another defeated bill defined what an inferior bottle of wine was when being used to pay off an election bet. Kansas City Representative John Kennedy submitted a bill in 1913 defining a bottle of wine as “one quart of champagne of some well-known and highly respected vintage.” His bill elaborated that it would be a felony for anyone to pass off an inferior bottle of wine in the payment of an election bet, and the guilty party “shall be shot at sunrise without the benefit of clergy.” Rep. Kennedy put this together after winning a bet over the 1912 election and receiving what he deemed an inferior bottle of wine as payment.
The Missouri State Archives isn’t just a place for old things. It’s a place to breathe life back into our state’s history. Actors recreate historic venues and times in Archives Alive!, a theater for fourth through sixth graders who arrive on field trips from all over the state. The archives are also a place to connect with your past and your community. Public outreach programs, available to schools and organizations, range from genealogy workshops and guided tours of the facility to interactive lesson plans for teachers and tutorials on how to protect your books and family papers to tips and aid to those doing research. With history this fascinating, who could blame our state for its pack rat ways?
Visit www.sos.mo.gov/archives/ for more information.