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“Our Lead Belt Heritage,” by Henry C. Thompson, 1955, reprinted Walsworth Publishing, 1992. This 187-page paperback tells the story of the lead belt consisting of four counties-- Jefferson, Washington, St. Genevieve, and St. Francois–in Southeastern Missouri. The French were the original settlers of the area, and indeed it is lead deposits that attracted the French. The book begins with a review of early explorers to learn who first noticed Missouri's lead deposits. The first may have been Hernando Desoto in 1542, whose soldiers returned with copper ore from the region. Father Gravier of the Illinois missions in Kaskasia and Cahokia, IL, first reported a lead mine on the Meramec in October, 1700. The French began mining as early as 1720, but primitive methods, plus wilderness and Indian troubles caused failure by 1725. Nevertheless, workers from this era are the ancestors of French families. The book includes a brief summary of many early families. Although St. Louis, founded in 1764, is the best known French settlement in Missouri, Ste. Genevieve, founded about 1735, is the oldest. It still exists as a tourist attraction and county seat of Ste. Genevieve County.

After the French and Indian War, the Spanish took control of Louisiana territory including Missouri from the Treaty of Paris in 1762. In this era, the Osage Indians regarded the Meramec Valley as their hunting grounds and would attack any who settled there. White settlements tended to be north or south of the Meramec. Lead mining resumed in this era and was well established by 1797.

Moses Austin is a key figure. He was born in Connecticut in 1761, where he became familiar with lead mining and smelting. Later he engaged in an import business in Philadelphia and then Virginia. He obtained a Spanish land grant for lead mining near Potosi arriving in 1798. He brought with him improved lead smelting methods. He founded the town of Herculaneum. “He worked his slaves in the mines to good advantage.” He founded the Bank of St. Louis, which failed in 1819, causing the loss of his fortune. He obtained Spanish land grants in Texas but died in 1821, before he could move there. His son Stephen Austin, often called the Father of Texas, brought 300 families to Texas.

During Austin's tenure, Potosi became one of the dominant towns in the lead belt. Many old roads serve Potosi. At one time it was suggested as the capital of Missouri. It is now the county seat of Washington County.

Another famous family is that of Firmin Rene Desloge, who arrived from France in 1822, settled in Ste. Genevieve and engaged in fur trading. Later he invested in lead mining. His son, Firmin V. Desloge became one of the richest men in America.

St. Joe Lead Company and National Lead are major players. The book includes parts of their story through 1944. Lead mines are often associated with zinc and silver. Iron mines are also prominent. Barite and cobalt are also mined. Many early mines were worked by slaves. In those days, mines were worked in the slow season when local farms did not require manpower.

Mines were often located in wilderness areas. Mining companies built houses for their employees. They operated company stores to supply their needs. They operated water companies and power plants to supply basic utilities. The boom times of the World Wars are described when immigrants were brought in to man operations. The lean times of the Great Depression were also described. Mining companies tried to operate at higher rates in winter when food was less plentiful. The allocated land for gardening during the growing season.

Thompson's presentation of slavery is authentic Missouri. Although the slave population of Missouri was not large, the Spanish did allow slavery whereas slavery was forbidden in the Northwest territory. Hence, Missouri became a logical place to settle from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee for families with slaves. Thompson describes slaves as “members of the family.”

He also projects a Southern view of the Civil War. A slave was worth up to $1000. Because abolitionists offered no compensation to slave owners, slave owners opposed abolition to protect their assets. At a convention to consider secession, Missourians had voted to remain in the Union. Thompson's interpretation is that Missouri wanted to remain out of the war and not take sides. Hence, when General Lyon captured the state militia at Camp Jackson in St. Louis (where they planned to attack the Federal Arsenal for its weapons), he violated the state's neutrality, and was rightly relieved of command. But that view did not prevail. Lyon was reinstated and pursued the Missouri State Guards to a series of battles at Boonville, Carthage and finally Wilson Creek south of Springfield. There General Lyon was killed and the south was victorious, but they fled south to Arkansas, leaving Missouri under martial law for the rest of the war.

The book includes a section on religion. The Spanish required that settlers conform to the Catholic religion and agree to raise their children in the faith. Several protestant preachers visited during the Spanish era, but churches were formed after the Louisiana Purchase. Baptist and Methodists churches were the first established.

This book is an excellent resource on the lead belt and will be of value to those interested in the lead industry as well as those tracing ancestry to the area. Its major limitation is lack of an index.
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