William Carr Lane: St. Louis's First Mayor

1, December 2017
Color portrait of William Carr LanePortrait of William Carr Lane, painted ca. 1881 by A. J. Conant, after an earlier painting by Chester Harding. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

William Carr Lane had a restless nature, floating from academic studies, to work, to militia fighting, to medicine. Eventually, President James Madison appointed him as “garrison surgeon’s mate” at Fort Belle Fontaine, north of St. Louis. Lane served there until 1819, when he settled in St. Louis. By this time, Lane was nearly 30, and although he maintained a continuous medical practice and served as chairman of the Department of Obstetrics at Kemper College, he began to turn more of his attention toward public office.

The first position he held was that of Missouri quartermaster general in 1822. A year later he was elected St. Louis’s first mayor. In his early inaugural address as mayor, Lane set out the basis for urban government in St. Louis and the responsibilities of elected officials. At the same time, he dealt with animal carcasses on the streets, roaming dogs, tax assessments, wharfs, markets, and myriad immediate problems facing the growing city.

Hand colored lithograph showing view of St. Louis from across the river View of St. Louis from across the river, ca. 1835. Hand colored lithograph by T. Moore's Lithography. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Lane was reelected to eight full one-year terms as mayor through 1839 (and appointed once to fill out the remainder of Mayor John Darby’s term). He was also elected to the Missouri state legislature in 1826, 1830, and 1832, and appointed surgeon general under General Atkinson during the Black Hawk War in 1832. He was chosen to lead various committees as well, including one that dealt with St. Louis’s first cholera epidemic in 1832.

Lane’s Personal Views and Personal Life

Possessed of strong opinions, Lane believed that education was necessary, Catholicism was a misguided faith, alcoholism was a curse, and slavery was a right. The debates and conflicts centering on slavery dominated his political career. He owned household slaves as his family had for generations, and he once proposed to the Missouri legislature that slavery was appropriate for blacks, and that there should be another form of society for Indians—both overseen by the white government.

Lane wrote frequent letters to his family members when separated from them by his travels or other circumstances. In these documents, hundreds of which can be found in the William Carr Lane Papers housed at the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center, Lane describes much about life in St. Louis, political movements, and his often unfavorable opinions of local citizens and national politicians, particularly Abraham Lincoln.

Scan of three-page letter from William Carr Lane to Edward Bates, dated December 14, 1860In this December 14, 1860, letter to Edward Bates, Lane wrote that the country was on the precipice of civil war and that Lincoln needed to clarify his position on slavery. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

The First Territorial Governor of New Mexico

In July 1852 the Missouri delegation in Congress proposed Lane as the replacement for New Mexico’s first territorial governor, James Calhoun, who had died a few months earlier. President Millard Fillmore made the appointment, and the Senate confirmed it. Lane accepted immediately, probably because he recognized it would be his final opportunity to fill an important position.

Flyer announcing inauguration of William Carr Lane as territorial governor of New MexicoFlyer printed in Spanish and English announcing William Carr Lane's inauguration as territorial governor of New Mexico, September 1852. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

He arrived in Santa Fe on September 9, 1852, after leaving Independence, Missouri, on August 5 to start the 36-day journey across the Santa Fe Trail. He found a land in chaos, “run over with red and white thieves and robbers.”

In his first and only message to the legislative assembly, which was read in Spanish and English, he listed the seemingly overwhelming problems facing the territory. More important, he outlined New Mexico’s great potential for agriculture, forestry, and mining development. He later almost started a second Mexican War in his attempt to protect American citizens by annexing—without authority from Washington, DC—almost 30,000 square miles claimed by Mexico.

Living Out His Final Years in St. Louis

Lane returned to St. Louis in April 1854. He and his wife, Mary, spent their days doting on their grandchildren until daughter Sarah moved her family out of the country.

As the Civil War approached, Lane’s belief in the righteousness of slavery didn’t waiver, but he did oppose secession and thought the war a disaster when it came. At the time of his death, with St. Louis occupied by Union troops, Lane was included in A List of Disloyal and Disenfranchised Persons in St. Louis County as “No. 4516, Lane, William Carr, assessed, Secessionist, city.”

Scan of covor and interior page of A List of Disloyal and Disenfranchised Persons in St. LouisCover (left) and interior page (right) of A List of Disloyal and Disenfranchised Persons in St. Louis County. Lane is number 4516. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Lane’s final years were tragic: He was devastated by the Civil War, crushed by being labeled an “untrustworthy person,” and distraught over being separated from his family. By late 1862, his body simply started to give out. His daughter Anne wrote, “How often he said he would rather wear out than rust out.” And so he did in January 1863, at the age of 73.

—William Carson, great-great-grandson of William Carr Lane

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is excerpted from an essay published in the 2016 edition of Gateway, our member magazine. For the full story of William Carr Lane's life, see He Moved West with America, The Life and Times of William Carr Lane, 1789–1863, written by William Carson and published by Archway Publishing.

Membership appeal