St. Louis, Missouri Territory: 1819-1821.
Unbound. Six letters from Theodore McGill, a New Jersey resident documenting his arrival and new life in St. Louis, Missouri between 1819 and 1821, giving his initial impressions of the city, its people, and his activities in the two years before Missouri achieved statehood. Each of the letters are composed of a single folio sheet folded to make four pages and sealed with wax, four with St. Louis Missouri Territory covers. Overall very good with small scattered stains, a few chips and tears at some of the folds.
McGill was born in New Jersey about 1799, in Burlington Country, close to Trenton. At the age of 19 he headed West reaching St. Louis, Missouri Territory in the summer of 1819. In his first letter dated July 10, he tells his cousin Anne his trip was very lonely “as the houses are 25 to 30 miles apart” but that when he arrived he was well met by “my Jersey acquaintances” who had already made the trip. Still, he was unsure of his new city: “S. Louis, which you have heard so much is about as large as Trenton but not half as handsome and the inhabitants, how shall I describe them - they are the most motly set I ever saw. The most delicate ladies would by no means pass for white in Jersey and the most dissolute people I ever saw - yet there are some few exceptions. … The gentleman’s lady who I live with is a very handsome little French woman a shade darker than Jersey.”
McGill’s next letter is dated April 14, 1820, nearly a year later. In it he explains to his cousin that while his fortunes haven’t changed, he has no intention of leaving, pointing to the rapid growth of St. Louis: “We have had our Town quite lively for some time back - goodly numbers of people are coming here daily some to view our fair country and some to spend their day here - among other curiosities that have arrived here is an excellent company of Actors that are said to be equal to the Phila. & company.” By July McGill writes again describing how the “mosquitoes are so thick that I can hardly see the paper” and that the fever has moved swiftly through the area: “The fever has already commenced its ravages among the Irish – God knows how I shall get through.” McGill also mentions notable St. Louis resident William Hunt: “I have been trying to persuade him to visit Jersey but I believe he is afraid some of you girls will steal his heart from him which, as he grows old & prudent, he guards with the greatest care.” Hunt led the first major party to cross the continent to the Pacific following the expedition of Lewis and Clark. He opened up the fur trade in service of John Jacob Astor, settling in St. Louis following his success and was appointed postmaster general of St. Louis by President James Monroe.
By December of that same year, McGill writes again to Potts to explain he has been away for several month and the effects of the Bank Panic of 1819 has finally arrived in St. Louis: “the hard times which have been so severely felt to the easterward have at length reached this place and my next move will be further off.” Still, the nightlife remains some consolation to the young man: “The weather has been very cold here already. There has been considerable sleighing and the town is quite lively. We have cotillion balls every week and sometimes often the French girls are fonder of dancing than anything else, and when they get at it they never know when to stop. They will dance continually all night.”
McGill’s final two letters were written in February and November 1821, several months before and after Missouri was brought into the union as part of the controversial Missouri Compromise in August. In the first, McGill announces he is shortly heading out on a surveying trip to the head of the Illinois River, describing himself dressed in “Buckskin with a belt full of knives and pistols bearing a good deal the resemblance not a little of the disposition of an Indian which by the by are to be my associates for the next four months. The trip will be somewhat disagreeable but if I succeed in my expectations it will be the means of my acquiring something.” By his November letter it appears he has met with some success and is set for another surveying trip in the “wild woods of Illinois and will return God know when but returning some time in January provided I do not freeze to death as it is quite an airy part of the country for a winter campaign.”
McGill did not freeze to death and appears to have continued to prosper. Research shows that by the 1830s, McGill had found his place in St. Louis and was doing exceedingly well. Various source list him as president of the Union Insurance Company, director of St. Louis’ first gas-light company, an elected member of the board for The Bank of the State of Missouri, and a successful merchant, who with business partner Henry Von Phul, navigated a business dispute with the aid of a young Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. By 1850, McGill had relocated down the Mississippi River to New Orleans with his six children, dying there in 1860.
An engaging group of letters from young man seeking his fortune in frontier Missouri Territory who becomes a vital citizen. A detailed list is available.