Thomas Hart Benton: Murals in the Missouri State Capitol
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A Brief Summary of Missouri History in Benton's Mural

The territory that eventually became Missouri initially belonged to France.  The French established a fur trading post and the first permanent settlement of Missouri in Ste. Genevieve in the mid 1730s.  However, before the establishment of Ste. Genevieve, others had settled in Missouri for lead and galena mining purposes.  Benton depicts the beginnings of Missouri, including the fur traders and Plains Indians on the north wall of the room. France ceded the territory to Spain in 1762, but Spain returned the territory to France in a secret treaty in 1802.  This territory eventually became the land of the Louisiana Purchase, which the U.S. bought in 1803 from Napoleon for $15,000,000.


After the Missouri Compromise passed in 1820, Missouri entered the union as a slave state.  Most of Missouri’s settlers had migrated from the south and settled along the Missouri so they could establish plantations. As a highly agricultural state, slaves played a central role in working Missouri farmland, and most Missourians felt strongly about their right to own slaves.  Benton depicts this on the north wall with scenes of slave trade and a slave auction.  This wall of the mural also illustrates a scene from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that also deals with issues of slavery. 


Benton also depicts the highly controversial expulsion of the Mormons on this wall of the mural.  Mormon leader Joseph Smith had proclaimed western Missouri as Zion to await the second coming of Christ.  This led to an increasing number of Mormon converts and pilgrims residing in Missouri, but other Christians in the state clashed with the Mormons, often leading to violent encounters.  The state of Missouri created a “separate but equal” county for the Mormons, but the population soon started to spill over into neighboring counties due to crowding.  Violence escalated in 1838 with an election riot and Missouri’s governor Lilburn Boggs issued his infamous “Execution Order.”  The order declared, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”  The order resulted in over 10,000 Mormons immigrating to Illinois.


The east wall mainly depicts pioneer, farming, and laboring class life in Missouri, especially during the nineteenth century.  Benton fills the scenes with hunters, loggers, farmers, coal miners, and their families.  Coal and lead production played vital parts in Missouri industry at this time and corn farming and raising cattle played the most important roles in Missouri’s agricultural industry.  Many farming families also passed through Independence, Missouri during first half of the nineteenth century because of its critical position as the starting point of the three trails leading west. Benton portrays different farming techniques across the wall to depict the passage of time.  The southeast side of the wall also shows the beginnings of industry with items such as a steam-powered drill. The mural includes people at a religious revival, a multiple-day gathering of people who came to listen to preachers, possibly get baptized, and often socialize. These revivals gained popularity during the first half of the 1800s in the South and Midwest.


Benton also depicts other important points in Missouri history on the east wall.  One part of the mural depicts the Pony Express, which served as the fastest way to deliver mail from any point from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.  The wall also depicts the James brothers, who robbed banks across Missouri during the mid-nineteenth century.  The brothers gained a reputation for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but historians actually do not agree on whether Jesse and Frank James kept the money they stole or distributed it. 


Modern Missouri (during Benton’s time) spreads across the south wall of Benton’s A Social History of the State of Missouri.  The mural illustrates Missouri’s chief industries of shoe making and beer brewing, slaughterhouses, and pharmaceuticals.  The wall also depicts signature buildings from St. Louis and Kansas City, such as St. Louis’s Union Station and Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial and Nelson-Atkins museum of art (constructed a few years before Benton painted the mural).  This section of the mural also depicts contemporary problems of the cities, such as devastation caused by the Great Depression and a meeting of political figures including Tom Pendergast.  Pendergast started as a political boss in Kansas City and expanded his power throughout the state, pushing through candidates in the governor’s position, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and even supported Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign.  Though the man undoubtedly controlled the government in Missouri and blatantly fixed elections, he also supported city reforms that helped the lower and middle classes—much like the James brothers Benton also includes in his mural.


Missouri of the 1930s

By the time Benton began painting The Social History of the State of Missouri, the Depression had fully hit Missouri and the state faced several problems.  A diphtheria epidemic broke out in southern Missouri, causing over 100 deaths.  A drought in the early 1930s, combined with the failing economy, caused farms across the country to fail and many families had to sell their land and move west to look for better opportunities.  But the Depression affected not only rural Missouri. By 1933, unemployment had hit an all-time high in Missouri, with a thirty-percent unemployment rate in St. Louis that year.  Many factories closed in St. Louis, but the twenty-first amendment of 1933, which repealed prohibition, enabled Anheuser Busch to begin producing beer again, which marginally helped the St. Louis economy.  However, Kansas City thrived comparatively during the 1930s, due in large part to a $50 million, ten-year plan for city improvements that passed before the stock market crashed.  The improvements included projects such as rebuilding the Jackson County Courthouse and other public projects that helped to create jobs within Jackson County.   The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art also opened in 1933, which embodied the relative prosperity of the city during the Depression.