Jeff City vs. Sedalia: the 1870s race for the state capital

By Rhonda Chalfant Democrat Columnist

December 10, 2013

The point-of-view from which an event is described influences the manner in which the story is told. This is particularly true when considering community histories. Generally written by civic boosters intent on demonstrating their community’s superiority, 19th century local histories exaggerated the positive aspects of their towns while downplaying or ignoring negative aspects. Local writers also made disparaging and sometimes untrue statements about other communities.

Sedalia historians, for example, regularly overstated the city’s population in order to make Sedalia appear more progressive and more prosperous than it actually was. Other towns responded with negative comments about Sedalia’s flaws. Sedalia Bazoo editor J. West Goodwin frequently cited exaggerated statements about Sedalia’s crime rate made by editors in Boonville, St. Louis or Ft. Scott. Sometimes Goodwin rebutted these statements as untrue, but sometimes he sidestepped the issue by claiming that Ft. Scott was really worse than Sedalia.

An excellent illustration of point of view and civic loyalty can be seen when examining the issue of moving the state capitol from Jefferson City to Sedalia from both Sedalia’s and Jefferson City’s points of view.

Jefferson City was chosen as the site of the state capitol before the state entered the union. In 1821, the federal government gave 2560 acres of land on the south bank of the Missouri River to the state and mandated it be divided into lots for public sale and tracts designated for state government buildings. The first session of the legislature met in 1826 in Jefferson City after a suitable government meeting place had been built and several lots sold to individuals.

In addition to the federal mandate justifying its claim to be the capitol, Jefferson City had a number of advantages, especially during the 1870s. It was centrally located in the state. It was on the Missouri River, the primary transportation route through the state prior to the completion of the Pacific Railroad, and on the route of the Pacific Railroad after 1855. By the time the railroad arrived, Jefferson City had a number of mills, factories, stores, schools and churches, in addition to the state capital and the state penitentiary.

However, access to Jefferson City from the northern part of the state was limited by the Missouri River. While a ferry made regular runs across the river, there was no bridge.

Sedalia, established along the Pacific Railroad in 1860, was impressed with its growth and rapid development. Its developing business and industrial district was at that time much smaller than Jefferson City’s. It did, however, have more developed public water, sewer systems, and railroad connections throughout the state by the mid 1870s.

In an attempt to further its growth, in the 1870s and 1880s Sedalia attempted to become the site of a state facility, including a normal (teacher training) college, an insane asylum, a school for the blind, an inebriate asylum (a rehab facility for alcoholics), and the state capitol.

In the 1870s, Sedalia boosters including Colonel A. D. Jaynes and Cyrus Newkirk suggested Sedalia would be a better location for the state capitol. The effort continued throughout the 1870s and 1880s. According to James Ford’s 1938 History of Jefferson City and Cole County, Sedalia tried to convince the General Assembly to vote to move the capital. Sedalia sent lobbyists to “spread propaganda over the state” about its superiority and Jefferson City’s limitations. Jefferson City countered by exerting a great effort and spending a considerable amount of money to offset Sedalia’s campaign.

As an example of the rivalry between the two cities, Ford reprinted an article from a late 1870s newspaper, the Jefferson City People’s Tribune, outlining why it believed Jefferson City would eventually triumph and keep the capitol. Sedalia would never become the capitol, the Tribune noted, because “a city that tolerates three hundred vagrant hogs running at large as Sedalia does can not hope to defeat Jefferson City where not over a hundred hogs roam the streets.”

The People’s Tribune may have been correct. Sedalia had a major problem with hogs and dogs running loose on its street. However, Jefferson City had the same problem. Whether anyone ever actually counted the hogs and dogs that ran loose or not remains unknown. The numbers did not stop Sedalia from pursuing its campaign to secure the capitol.

In the 1890s, the issue surfaced again. Next week’s column details the 1896 effort from Jefferson City’s prospective.