Can You Imagine the Compromise?

Issue #20 - Missouri Compromise

On March 3, 1820, the United States Congress passed the Missouri Compromise. It was a desperate attempt to to appease two sides of the nation’s most important issue: slavery. Allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state while simultaneously allowing Maine to enter as a free state temporarily settled the issue… but only temporarily. Western expansion soon raised the question again, as more and more U.S. Territories applied for statehood. The Missouri Compromise is now understood as one of the first major legislative acts that led to the ultimate battle over the morality of slavery: the U.S. Civil War.

The Knell of the Union

At the heart of the American Experiment is a delicate balancing act. Whether it’s dividing the forms of political power into equal judicial, legislative, and executive branches, or maintaining parity between the two major political parties, the United States prides itself on accommodating opposing viewpoints. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an example of this effort, an attempt to address the increasingly controversial issue of slavery that would eventually end in a civil war. 

The Missouri Territory was a small part of the Louisiana Purchase, the 800,000-square-mile land deal with France in 1803. In 1818 the Missouri Territory applied for statehood. If granted, Missouri would be the first state west of the Mississippi River as well as the first western slave state. 

At the time, the United States were evenly balanced between states in which slavery was illegal (10 northern states) and where it was legal (10 southern states). Were Missouri to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, that precious balance would be thrown off. 

The ensuing argument was one of the early warning signs that the issue of slavery would eventually tear the country apart. The U.S. Congress agreed to a compromise consisting of three key elements. They first agreed to allow Missouri to enter the union as a slave state, but then allowed Maine to enter as a free state simultaneously, thus preserving the balance of pro- and anti-slavery voices in the federal government. But the third aspect of the compromise was an agreement that the portion of the enormous territory of the Louisiana Purchase that lay north of the 36th parallel--Missouri’s southern border-- would eventually be free states. The Missouri Compromise bill passed in 1820. But everyone involved knew that it was only a temporary fix.

Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson saw the writing on the wall. In a letter written just four days after the Missouri Compromise was signed into law, Jefferson admitted that the “Missouri question...awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.” 

It was a brief reprieve. The 19th century saw an burst of westward expansion, causing demographic changes in the new western lands that soon forced the question again. Over the next several decades, Congress struggled to declare new territories as free states while southerners protested. The Compromise of 1850 was another attempt to balance the interests of north and south. It included the now-notorious Fugitive Slave Law, which ordered that escaped slaves in free states must be captured and returned by residents even of free states. 

With this, northerners were finally forced to address the issue of slavery on their own soil and the result was the explosive growth of the abolitionist movement. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was written in response to the Fugitive Slave Act and helped Americans everywhere understand the evils of slavery. The ensuing swell of support for the anti-slavery movement set the stage for a now-inevitable Civil War. 

In retrospect, the Missouri Compromise represents a young republic’s first attempt to balance the opposing interests of its subjects. We can also see that, as early as 1820, just a few decades after the birth of the United States of America, issues of justice, race, and equality would live at the center of American life for decades and centuries to come.

Weekly Discoveries

  1. The 63rd-annual Missouri Conference on History will be held virtually, March 10-12.

  2. A nominee for Deputy Secretary of Commerce will report to work at the same location where his formerly enslaved ancestors ran a taxi service, if confirmed.

  3. MyHeritage Releases Groundbreaking Feature to Animate the Faces in Still Photos.

  4. She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew.

  5. Best applications for building and organizing your family tree research.

From In-laws to Outlaws: Research in the Show Me State

Following the Missouri Compromise of 1820, many ancestors made their way to the Show Me State, some for a lifetime, some for multiple generations and even more spent only a short time in Missouri as a pit stop on their treks west. By 1860, the population of Missouri had grown to over a million residents, with almost a quarter of them being of German heritage, though there were many Irish and English found in the early population as well.

Many migration routes were established in Missouri, including major waterways, such as the  Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, overland trails and roads, such as the California Trail, Butterfield Overland Mail, Buffalo Trace, Chicago-Kaskaskia Road, Mississippi and Tennessee River Trail, Mormon Trail, Nashville-Saline River Trail, National Road (a.k.a. Cumberland Road), Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, as well as railways, such as the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, Santa Fe Railway and Texas and Pacific Railway.

The early settlers to Missouri were often farmers in search of fertile lands and records pertaining to those lands are plentiful.  In efforts to entice westward expansion, the Federal government sold lands by the way of land patents, an early form of title.  These patents were issued by the Land Office for the initial transfer of land ownership from the Federal government to individuals  and images of the original documents are held by the Bureau of Land Management for patents sold as early as 1819 in Missouri. These holdings include Land Patents for Cash Entry, Homestead and Military Warrants. A collection of Missouri county-level land records, in the form of plat map books and county atlases may provide great contextual information to the lives of ancestors and the communities they lived in, as well depict land holding locations.

Census records are one of the best sources to place ancestors in geographic location and time, providing clues to additional, often more detailed records.  Though Federal enumerations began in the Missouri Territory during the 1820 Census, they did not survive; as such, records of Missouri residents cannot be found in United States censuses until 1830.  Prior to statehood, there were multiple enumerations conducted of the Missouri Territory, beginning in 1805 and ending in 1820.  The 1820 Census has not survived, but portions of the other enumerations do exist on microfilm, with an index of the 1805 Missouri Territory Census available online. As a state, Missouri continued sponsoring state-level enumerations.  The years 1844 - 1881 are available digitally online, with the most complete being the 1876 Missouri State Census.

Beginning in 1883, legislation was enacted which provided for the Missouri Board of Health to have authority over statewide registration of births and deaths, though general compliance was not achieved and the statues were repealed a decade later.  In 1910, the state again required recording of births and deaths at the county level and sending such records to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.  Though the mandate began in 1910, widespread compliance did not occur until 1927 for births and 1911 for deaths.  This is not to say that no records prior to these dates are extant. Though not comprehensive, the Missouri Birth and Death Records, pre-1910 are available on microfilm at the Missouri State Archives, with an index available online. This repository also holds the Death Certificate images for the years of 1910-1969, which are available digitally to the public. All death records that are less than 50 years old are closed to non-family members.  Birth records from 1910 onward are restricted to immediate family members and other qualifying individuals. Online availability for marriages are not comprehensive for Missouri, as a general rule, but can be obtained directly from the  Missouri Bureau of Vital Records (beginning in 1 July 1948) or directly from the county recorder of deeds for earlier records.

A plethora of genealogically-pertinent records are maintained by the Missouri State Archives, and are available for viewing via the Missouri Digital Heritage site, including historic newspapers, tax lists, census records, Civil War records and so much more. Whether you are researching pioneering ancestors, such as Daniel Boone, or those of a more notorious nature, like bushwhacker brothers Frank and Jesse James, the records of Missouri can reveal a goldmine of biographical details.

Helpful Resource

Research efforts do not always reveal the document or information we are seeking, however, negative results often provide not-so-obvious information. Learn about the Hidden Value of “Negative” Research Results in this insightful article.

Past Issues


United States Senate ( : accessed 25 February 2021), “Missouri Compromise Ushers in New Era for the Senate.” ( : accessed 25 February 2021), “Missouri Compromise (1820).” 

Thirteen ( : accessed 25 February 2021), “Conference Committee Report on the Missouri Compromise, March 1, 1820.” 

American Battlefield Trust ( : accessed 25 February 2021), “Trigger Events of the Civil War.” 

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, digital images, Library of Congress ( : accessed 25 February 2021), digital image of original map, “The Missouri Compromise 1820” Chicago, Ill. : Modern School Supply Co., [1919], digital id g3701sm.gct00483.

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration, digital images, DocsTech ( : accessed 25 February 2021), digital image of photograph, “Family with Their Covered Wagon During the Great Western Migration; 1866,” Record Group 69, Photograph 69-N-13606C

J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction (Auckland, New Zealand: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2006), pp. 598-599. 

Missouri State Archives, “Missouri Death Certificates, 1910-1969,” database with images, Missouri Digital Heritage ( : accessed 26 February 2021), certificate image for Laura Inga3ls Wilder, 10 February 1957, state file no. 11919; citing, Missouri Bureau of Vital Records, Jefferson City.

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