French and Spanish Settlers in Pre-Statehood Missouri

Before Missouri became a state (1821), before the Anglo-Americans moved West, and before the railroads, steamboats and wagon trains traversed Missouri, there were the French and Spanish Settlers.

Missouri was initially part of the Louisiana Territory.  Known as “Upper Louisiana,” the territory was settled first by the French Canadians as they moved west from Illinois about 1750, establishing St. Genevieve.  Then St. Louis was founded by the French migrating up the Mississippi River from New Orleans in 1767.  Although the French had first settled this area, Spain had control from 1762 to 1800, when Spain ceded control to France in a treaty.

With the Louisiana Purchase (1803) from France, America agreed to honor all previous land purchases and claims from the French and Spanish by the settlers.  While noble in theory, it was rather difficult to execute in practice for several reasons.

  • Very few (about 1%) of the original patents (title/deed) of the early settlers were perfected (the paperwork complete)
  • The lots were typically organized in long strips emanating from the town or river and not the standard grid (rectangular survey system) now in place for all Public Lands.
  • The land was measured in French “apents” not acres as we’re accustomed.  A square arpent is about .84 acre.
  • Often lands not occupied or abandoned by the settler often reverted back to government (French or Spanish) ownership.
Nonetheless, Congress decided to let the settlers complete the patent process, register them with the United States, and retain ownership of their claims.
A Board of Commissioners was established in 1808 to sit and hear claims of the settlers as to the proper ownership of their land.  The Board remained in operation through 1812 and gave certificates confirming 1,342 land claims.  New statutes, new boards, and more certificates were granted in 1816 and 1834 certifying 1,754 and 90 more claims respectively.
The Records
The good news for genealogists is that the records of the Board of Commissioners have been published in several books, segmented by Congressional Session, which fall along a chronological timeline.  Generally these read like court hearings with the land described then witness testimony supplied.
Here we go!
    • 1813: Land claims in the Missouri Territory : records of the 12th Congress, second session, Mountain Press
    • 1834: Private land claims in Missouri, 1834 : United States: House of Representatives document 1178, Twenty-third Congress – First session (full text on Hathi Trust)  by Elijah Hayward, Mountain Press
    • 1835:  Missouri Land Claims published by Polyanthos (1976). The portion selected are the 90 claims approved in the 1834 Commission meeting and the 152 claims rejected by the 1834 Commission . Every name index. [The last claim rejected, #152, says the claimant requested 500,000 arpents.  That's a lot of land!!  I can see why he was rejected.]
    • 1835: Land claims in Missouri : House of Representatives 24th Congress, First session – document numbered 1538
    • 1835: Final adjustments of private land claims in Missouri, 1832 : House of Representatives document 1340, 24th Congress – First session, 1835 by Ethan Allen Brown, Mountain Press

As an alternative to the orginial documents, you can try checking out a three volume series by Frances Terry Ingmire, Citizens of Missouri Territory, Mountain Press, 1984.  He has abstracted the Congressional Record and included an every name index.

Finally, if you’re still feeling a little overwhelmed now and are wondering how to navigate a fist full of Congressional hearing records, don’t worry.  There’s help.  Several finding aids have been published to aid in your research.

Finding Aids

  •  Index to Minutes of the First and Second Board of Land Commission Meetings 1805-1812, 1832-1835. by the St. Louis Genealogical Society
  • Early settlers of Missouri as taken from land claims in the Missouri Territory by Walter Lowrie, Southern Historical Press, 1986
  • Index of purchasers : United States land sales in Missouri by Ozarks Genealogical Society, 1985
  • Index to French and Spanish land grants recorded in registers of land titles in Missouri: Books A, B, C, D, E by Betty Harvey Williams, self-published, 1977
If your ancestor staked a claim in Pre-Statehood Missouri, you have an impressive story to tell.  It’s well worth your time to find the documents to shape the story to share with the next generation.
Happy Researching!