A Personal Quest to Prove St. Louis the Best

20, October 2017
Green cover of pamphlet presenting arguments for moving the national capital from Washington, DC, to the Mississippi ValleyCover of 1869 pamphlet promoting relocation of the US capital from Washington, DC, to St. Louis. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

For much of the United States of America’s first century, its national capital was a half-built city in a swamp. As the country expanded westward, and particularly in the years just after the Civil War, loud voices clamored for the removal of the US capital from Washington, DC. They argued that it was simply common sense to move it to the geographic center of the country: St. Louis, Missouri.

On October 20, 1869, delegates from 17 states and territories, including Alaska, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Utah, convened in St. Louis. Their purpose? To arouse widespread support for removing the nation’s capital from Washington, DC—and make the case for relocating it to St. Louis.

For two days the delegates heard speeches, ate meals, and revised proclamations touting the many merits of moving the capital. The meeting seems to have taken on the characteristics of any other large convention, with tedious arguments on wording and endless motions to do this and that, all covered with ruthless completeness by the Daily Missouri Republican. A less well-attended convention was held in Cincinnati the following year, with Cincinnati residents pushing to make their city the capital.

Meanwhile, President Ulysses S. Grant quietly partnered with Congress to build up Washington, DC, so that should capital-removal arguments grow more fervent, the city could rise above them and prove it deserved to be home to the federal government. In the end, Washington, DC, retained its role, but that didn’t silence the man who was likely St. Louis’s biggest booster in the city’s history.

Black-and-white image of Logan Uriah ReavisLogan Uriah Reavis, ca. 1875. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Logan Uriah Reavis not only organized the 1869 Capital Removal Convention but also published a book the following year titled St. Louis: The Future Great City of the World. In it he proclaimed that by the 1990s the Mississippi River valley would be home to 600 million people—nearly twice the current population of the United States. He foresaw a future where the influence of coastal cities was weakened, surmounted by the Midwest, now the center of population, arts, and culture built upon the area’s natural advantages in agriculture and trade. He even predicted that Americans would stop using cotton because that crop space would be needed for growing food to feed the nation’s immense population.

Reavis was born in Mason County, Illinois, and at various times made a living publishing newspapers. His calling, however, was as a booster of St. Louis, and he published several books and pamphlets extolling the region. Late in life he even traveled to England to promote foreign settlement in the Mound City. He also corresponded with notable local figures, including wealthy politician and landowner Henry T. Blow and Missouri governor Benjamin Gratz Brown, and with national figures, such as newspaper editor Horace Greely and abolitionist US senator Charles Sumner.

Color scan of map showing St. Louis and its environs in 1870This map, which shows St. Louis and its environs in 1870, appeared in Reavis's book St. Louis: The Future Great City of the World. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

According to his obituary, Reavis died in poverty, and his funeral expenses were paid for by friends. Yet he had a wealth of conviction that shines through in the writings he left behind. He truly believed in his initiative to move the country’s capital to St. Louis, and he knew in his bones that St. Louis would one day become the greatest city in the world. Would the present disappoint him?

—Lena Bohman, Summer 2017 Intern, Missouri History Museum Library

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