Historic Sites In Missouri. More Than Just Parks has 5 incredible must-see sites for you.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing these articles for More Than Just Parks.
I’m going to give you my list of the 5 Historic Sites In Missouri that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as opposed to national parks. (More on that below)
If you are planning a trip to Missouri then you might want to pick up a copy of Missouri State Parks and Historic Sites: Exploring Our Legacy, Second Edition by Susan Flader.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Historic Sites In Missouri
#5. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
Starting off at #5 on my list of the best historic sites in Missouri is Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
The Civil War may have ended over one hundred and fifty years ago, but the history of that momentous event just keeps coming. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield preserves the site of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
For those of you unfamiliar with this battle, it took place on on August 10, 1861. It was the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River.
The Union Army was defeated by a Confederate force commanded by Benjamin McCulloch and Sterling Price. Union General Nathaniel Lyon was killed during the battle.
The Battle Of Pea Ridge
After the battle, optimism quickly turned to pessimism for the Confederates as they suffered a subsequent defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge. That defeat forced the Confederates to withdraw from the state effectively ceding control of Missouri to the Union forces.
If you’re interested in learning more about Pea Ridge then I would recommend The Battle of Pea Ridge–“Gettysburg of the West.”
Written by Dee Brown, also author of the critically acclaimed Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, it’s an excellent account of the battle and its historical significance.
RELATED: National Parks Near St. Louis
A Guerilla War In Missouri
While the Confederate Army withdrew after its defeat at Pea Ridge, Missouri experienced the most widespread, prolonged, and destructive guerrilla fighting in American history.
This guerilla war was characterized by arson, robbery, torture and murder as well as swift and bloody raids on farms and settlements.
The author draws upon a cornucopia of primary sources including letters, diaries, military reports, court-martial transcripts, depositions, and newspaper accounts.
This brilliant book depicts how both Confederate and Union officials used guerrilla fighters to create chaos and division.
RELATED: 10 BEST Civil War Sites In America
Things To DO
There are some wonderful things to do at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. The visitor center features a bookstore, museum, and library.
There is a 4.9-mile paved tour road. Visitors can take a self-guided auto tour with eight interpretive stops at different locations.
There’s also some great walking trails which include a pedestrian lane for walkers, runners, or cyclists. And there’s a 7-mile trail system for horseback riding. Hiking is accessible from the tour road as well.
Visitors can tour the Ray House, which is a historic home dating back to the 1850s. The home served as a field hospital for Southern soldiers following the battle. The Ray House is where General Nathaniel Lyon’s body was brought after he was mortally wounded.
There are also some wonderful living history programs. These depict Civil War soldier life, musket and artillery firing demonstrations, Civil War medicine, and other related topics.
These programs are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day on selected weekends. You should check for availability before planning your visit.
#4. George Washington Carver National Monument
Coming in at #4 on my list of the best historic sites in Missouri is the George Washington Carver National Monument.
If you know anything about George Washington Carver then you likely know he had something to do with peanuts. Mark Hersey is a history professor at Mississippi State University. He’s the author of My Work Is That of Conservation. It’s an environmental biography of Carver.
Hersey makes the case that Carver did more than just work for peanuts. He made important contributions to the environmental movement, including his visionary ideas about self-sufficiency and sustainability.
RELATED: 5 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In Alabama
Born Into Slavery
Carver was born into slavery. He emerged from the aftermath of the Civil War as a man fully prepared to shake off the chains of oppression and become a person of consequence.
After obtaining his Master’s degree, Carver was invited to lead the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute in 1896. He remained there for 47 years.
A Monument To Progress
Authorized by Congress in 1943, the George Washington Carver National Monument showcases the birthplace and legacy of an extraordinary African American scientist, educator and humanitarian.
If you’re planning a visit (and you should) facilities include a visitor center and museum, gift shop, a walking trail and a lovely picnic area. It’s a wonderful place to soak up the history of a pioneering scientist and conservationist.
While you’re there you should also visit the 1881 Moses Carver House and the Carver Cemetery.
Historic Sites In Missouri
#3. Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
At #3 on my list of the best historic sites in Missouri is the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.
Like George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest service to his country may have been as a general rather than a president. Most historians agree that Grant was the savior the Union needed as it wrestled with the difficult challenge of subduing the South and bringing an end to the Civil War.
While other Union Generals allowed Robert E. Lee to dictate their actions on the battlefield, Grant pursued his opponents with a single-mindedness of purpose. He did this no matter who his opponent was. His bulldog tenacity and brilliant strategy broke the back of the Army of Northern Virginia thus bringing an end to the nation’s bloodiest conflict.
General Grant Versus President Grant
President Grant does not receive as high marks as General Grant from most historians. Overlooked by the scandals which rocked his administration, however, was his landmark Civil Rights Act, which ended separation in public accommodations and more.
Also overlooked were his relentless and successful efforts to root out the Klu Klux Klan and protect the political rights of African Americans in the South. Those rights were taken from them by the imposition of Jim Crow Laws, but this did not happen on Grant’s watch.
Rather, it was his Republican successors, beginning with Rutherford B. Hayes, who were all too willing to look the other way in return for the South’s acquiescence when it came to Republican political dominance at the presidential level.
To learn more about Grant’s successes on the battlefield and after he left the military, I would recommend Jean Edward Smith’s Grant.
My son Jim highly recommends Ron Chernow’s Grant for a fuller understanding of both the general who saved the Union and the far-sighted public servant who’s presidency is deeply misunderstood.
Why You Should Visit The U.S. Grant Historic Site
The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is the home of the 18th President U.S. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent.
Visitors to the site have the opportunity to see a film on Grant’s life, tour a museum featuring exhibits which outline his achievements and tour the grounds where he lived. I would recommend beginning your tour by watching the 22-minute orientation film.
It provides insights into Grant’s military service during the American Civil War and his two terms as President of the United States.
The museum is located in a horse stable designed by Ulysses S. Grant and completed in 1872. It’s totally self-guided so feel free to take your time while exploring the museum’s six permanent exhibits.
#2. Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
Coming in at #2 on the list of best historic sites in Missouri is the state’s other commander-in-chief.
Harry S. Truman’s extraordinary life and career impacted not only America, but the entire world. This is a man who went from being a Missouri judge to unleashing the nuclear age.
Truman left office as a very unpopular president, but–with the passage of time–his presidency has undergone a reevaluation. As a consequence, he has risen in national and international esteem.
Truman left his mark on foreign affairs by introducing a policy of containment. Containment meant finding ways, short of all-out war, to restrain Soviet aggression. This policy would be tested in Korea and elsewhere.
It passed the test. There was no superpower military confrontations during Truman’s time in office. His successors, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, wisely pursued this policy until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Truman also left his mark in domestic affairs. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981. This order abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. For the first time, the unfair and unjust policy of “separate but equal” was challenged by the U.S. Government.
And Truman protected the New Deal, enlarged Social Security, and banned discrimination in federal hiring practices. Another executive order issued by Truman made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race.
To learn more about this remarkable leader, I recommend David McCullough’s Truman. Distinguished historian and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author David McCullough tells one of the greatest American stories in his riveting account.
A National Historic Site Worth Seeing
You can learn more about this remarkable leader by visiting the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. This site is made up of five houses in Independence and Grandview, Missouri. It features locations that are important during the years before and after Truman lived in the White House.
Visitors can tour the original Truman home and follow in his footsteps with a walking tour of Truman’s neighborhood. They can also visit the family farm in Grandview, explore exhibits about his private life in his cousin Noland’s house and examine oral histories from people who knew him well.
The #1 Historic Site In Missouri
#1. The Gateway Arch
At #1, it’s the most recognizable in the state of Missouri. Why it’s none other than the Gateway Arch!
This arch symbolizes Missouri’s important role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. It’s also the entrance to one of America’s 63 national parks.
At a mere 91 acres, it’s a part of Gateway Arch National Park which is the smallest national park in America. It doesn’t even have a natural area. So why, you might ask, is it a national park? That’s a good question. But before I try answering that question, as a retired history teacher, I’d like to give you a little bit of the history of this special place.
St. Louis was the capitol of the Louisiana Territory from 1812 until Missouri gained statehood in 1821. It was the vision of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, that Missouri should serve as the “Gateway to the West.” That vision is symbolized today by the iconic Gateway Arch.
In describing the arch, Kimberlee N. Ried writes:
“It rises gracefully toward the sky, then elegantly curves back toward Earth as the combined waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers swiftly flow by at its base—a symbol of the accomplishments and dreams that drive the American experience.” (Source: Kimberlee N. Ried, A Gateway to the West, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2016, Vol. 48, No. 3)
From Sea To Shining Sea
The arch represents the jumping-off point of 19th century America’s age of westward exploration. From the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery and the subsequent westward expansion of the North American continent, it is the doorway to America’s “manifest destiny.”
Symbolically speaking, a journey through this fabled arch signifies our nation’s grand mission to occupy all of the land from sea to shining sea.
The Best Visitor Center & Most expensive
Before becoming a flagship national park in 2018, the Gateway Arch Visitor Center underwent a $380 million dollar renovation. That’s right! $380 million dollars!
Totaling more than 150,000 square feet, it’s accessed by a semi-circular entryway that is accentuated by the site’s curving geometry. The lobby is actually dug into a berm and organized around a circle of water. An artistic masterpiece!
The Gateway Arch
Speaking of artistic masterpieces, is it possible to provide enough superlatives about that magnificent archway? I think not. At 630 feet about the Mighty Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch is one of the most recognizable and beloved landmarks in the United States.
The monument we know today first began in 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated property along the St. Louis riverfront to be developed as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (now known as Gateway Arch National Park).
Eero Saarinen’s Vision
A nationwide design competition was launched in 1948 to determine what shape the Memorial would take. Architect Eero Saarinen’s design won and, in 1963, construction began on a stainless steel arch.
It was completed two years later in 1965. Today, it stands as a symbol of national identity and an example of mid-century modern design.
Visitors need to check out the breathtaking view at the top of the arch. One side overlooks the Mississippi river and Illinois while the other overlooks the city of St. Louis with Busch Stadium and downtown in the background. It’s well worth a trip to the top to see this amazing view.
Luther Ely Smith Park
Luther Ely Smith was a 19th century St. Louis lawyer and civic booster who first proposed a riverfront memorial for President Thomas Jefferson. It was his efforts which led to the creation of the Gateway Arch.
It is therefore fitting and appropriate that the park which bears his name should welcome visitors to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Gateway Arch National Park.
So, Why Did It Become A National Park?
Sometimes, it’s more important who you know than what you know. Missouri’s Senator Roy Blunt sponsored changing the Jefferson Expansion National Memorial from a national memorial to a national park.
What is the National Park Service’s definition of a national park? Simply put, “a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”
Does Gateway National Park meet this definition? No.
I guess that old saying is true. It’s more important who you know than what you know.
RELATED: 6 GREAT Missouri National Parks
Map Of Historic Sites In Missouri
List Of Historic Sites In Missouri
- The Gateway Arch
- Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
- Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
- George Washington Carver National Monument
- Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for the More Than Just Parks website. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then sign up below!
To learn more about the difference between the various National Park Service designations check out our article that explains everything!
Civil War Sites: 10 BEST Civil War Sites In America
Missouri National Parks: 6 GREAT Missouri National Parks