1839: A Watershed Year

On March 1, 1839, after recording more than one thousand residents, Hannibal was officially incorporated into a town. In November of that year, a family of modest means that included five children and one slave moved from Florida, Missouri, into the Virginia House, a small hotel on Hill Street just west of Main. The new owner of the Virginia House, John Marshall Clemens, had purchased the entire block of Hill Street where the Virginia House stood for $7,000 from Hannibalian “Big” Ira Stout. Clemens was enthusiastic about relocating his family to Hannibal and optimistic about the opportunities for prosperity in the booming river town.


The Clemens family included John Marshall; his wife, Jane; Orion, their eldest son, fourteen years old; their eldest daughter, Pamela, twelve; their son Benjamin, seven; their son Sammy, four; and Henry, the youngest son, just sixteen months old. Their teenage slave, Jennie, was the last of the slaves inherited by John Marshall Clemens from his Virginian parents, the other slaves having been sold previously to pay the family’s considerable debts. Their arrival would forever change the course of Hannibal’s history.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aged 15

Photograped in 1850 by G. H. Jones

In the 1840 census, Hannibal recorded 1,034 citizens. This number would double by the end of the decade, making Hannibal the largest town in northern Missouri and third largest in the state. Two stagecoaches per day arrived in Hannibal, bringing news and visitors from Paris, Missouri, a small town forty-five miles to the west. The town also now had its first newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, which was renamed the Pacific Monitor when J.S. Buchanan became the new publisher in May 1840.


By 1840, Hannibal would see more than one thousand steamboats per year pull into its levee. New industries began to spring up in the village of Hannibal. Mr. Amelung of Cincinnati had begun operation of the first pork-packing plant in 1837, located at the river’s edge on Market Street (now Broadway). A second pork-packing plant, operated by Shields and Williams, would also appear near the levee in 1838. Pork packing would prove to be one of the most important industries in Hannibal throughout the nineteenth century.


The pork-packing industry generated growth throughout the village. Thousands of barrels were required to pack the meat for shipment by steamboats churning up and down the river, and cooper shops multiplied to build the needed wooden barrels. Salt production on the aptly named Salt River was increased, used to aid in the preservation of the meat. Labor was needed for these operations, and advertisements announced that jobs were available in Hannibal. With population growth came the need for new housing, larger general stores, blacksmiths and other necessary services. The increased revenue generated by these new industries spurred further growth. The promise of opportunity and prosperity encouraged many new families to move into the area and call themselves Hannibalians.



Interior of a 19th century Cooper's shop

By 1847, the booming river city was welcoming more than one thousand steamboats annually to its levee, an average of three per day that would be welcomed with great fanfare and excitement. Flour production had become big business in the area, with more than 110,000 bushels of wheat brought to Hannibal for milling and export that year. Other industries were thriving as well. Two hundred tons of hemp were used annually in Hannibal’s ropewalks, with rope being a prime product manufactured in town. John Garth, who moved to Hannibal with his family in 1844, began a tobacco business and produced cigars and plug and chewing tobacco, exporting more than 400,000 pounds of products per year from his new facility. According to the February 25, 1847 edition of the Hannibal Gazette, a total of more than $1.2 million of goods had been produced in Hannibal the previous year. The city was now home to twenty carpenters, fifteen physicians, fourteen wholesale and retail general stores, twelve attorneys, eight tailors, six brickyards, six blacksmiths, five cabinetmakers and undertakers, three hotels, three sawmills (one of them powered by steam), three saddle shops, two druggists, two watch makers, two livery stables, a tan yard and a steam distillery. Amos and Brison Stillwell, who came to Hannibal in 1845, engaged in a new milling business at the mouth of Bear Creek. The Stillwells would also be involved with pork packing. Three hundred men were employed in the various pork-packing facilities along the levee, where, during a six-month period in 1847, thirteen thousand hogs and forty-five hundred cattle were slaughtered.

These animals were driven on foot down Main Street to the processing plants -- one can only imagine the cacophony  of sound as hundreds of ill-fated hogs stampeded down the muddy,

earthen street, upsetting horses, causing dogs to bark, and forcing townsfolk to scurry into storefronts simply to avoid the noise and smell.

1840s Hannibal

Do You Know:


Flooding along the Mississippi has always been a serious concern for the residents of Hannibal.

Hannibal's Front Street, c1880

Living next to the great Mississippi River has never been an easy task. Each spring, the residents of Hannibal keep an eye on the mighty Mississippi, as flooding is a constant concern. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, some years would see the river rise to the point of overwhelming the riverfront and Main Street, causing temporary setbacks in the production and shipment of goods from Hannibal. Flooding was so great, for so many years, that one by one the buildings along Hannibal's Front Street had to be torn down. Front Street, pictured at left, had as many buildings and businesses as Main Street but was one block closer to the riverfront. [Today, the earthen levee that protects downtown Hannibal from the rising waters of the river is situated on what used to be Front Street.]


Fortunately, the terrain of Hannibal was such that businesses and family homes just one block west of Main Street were on high enough elevations to prevent water from destroying the structures. Even during years of heavy flooding, the residents of Hannibal were able to overcome the damage left by retreating waters and resume their everyday lives.






Eagle Mills [Flour], 3rd Street at Broadway