The Founding of Hannibal

  First Settlement Established by Moses Bates in 1819

On the banks of the swirling dark waters of the Mississippi River, nestled in a valley between twin limestone bluffs, they paused to marvel at the view. First, Native Americans; then the French; next the Spanish; and, soon thereafter, first- and second-generation Americans. Sitting alongside the shore, watching the majestic river roll by, looking first toward the prominent hill to the north and then turning to examine the bluff with its natural rock cliff jutting out over the water to the south, these explorers paused, certainly acknowledging the beauty of the area. This small valley would one day become known as America’s Hometown, Mark Twain’s boyhood home, and the birthplace of Hollywood stars, an admiral and the “Unsinkable Molly” Brown. For many generations of Hannibalians, it would simply be a place to call home.


For centuries, Native Americans freely roamed the area of what is now northeastern Missouri. They would winter in the region, tribes of Fox and Illinois and Sac (Sauk) Indians traveling downriver from their northern farming territories to camp and hunt along the banks of the great river. No single tribe claimed the area as its own, but many would travel through the area as part of their nomadic traditions. The river was called misi-ziibi (“great river”) by the Ojibwe (or Chippewa) tribe.



Sauk Indian family photographed by

Frank Rinehart, 1899

Do You Know:


Who first named the town "Hannibal"?

Hannibal (247-181 BC)

Punic Carthaginian Military Commander

In 1800, the Spanish government commissioned Don Antonio Soulard, a Frenchman working as the surveyor general for Spain, to formally survey and map Spanish Louisiana. Soulard was well versed in the history of Ancient Rome, as maps produced by Soulard during this exploration bear the names he culled

Map of Mississippi and Missouri Rivers


Drawn in 1800 by Don Antonio Soulard, used by Lewis and Clark during the Corps of Discovery Expedition 1804-1806.

from popular Roman military leaders. On his published map, Soulard renamed Bay de Charles “Scipio” in honor of the Roman general who was victorious in the Second Punic War. A small river in the area was named “Fabius” for Fabius Maximus, the Roman general known for his skill in retreat. A short distance farther downstream, he came across another small tributary that wound its way through the valley between twin bluffs, flowing west from the Mississippi, and recorded the name of the creek as “Hannibal.” (Hannibal, although defeated by Scipio in the Second Punic War, is still believed to be the greatest of all Carthaginian military commanders.)  Later, the creek that Soulard called "Hannibal" was renamed "Bear Creek" by local residents because of the brown bears that were sometimes seen sleeping in the hollowed out logs of fallen Sycamore trees along the creek's bank; the name "Hannibal" was adopted for the village. Thus, it was Soulard’s map from 1800 that first bore the name Hannibal, marking the first recorded instance of the name’s use in the area.



Keelboats, similar to the ones used by Lewis & Clark on the Corps of Discovery Expedition, were the most commonly used vessels on the Mississippi River until steamboats began to appear regularly in the 1820s.

In 1816, a young man named Moses D. Bates arrived in Missouri from Virginia to seek his fortune. Bates was ambitious and driven; upon his arrival in St. Louis, his first step was to establish one of the first lumberyards in the city. Soon, his business flourished when he began to offer his services as a contractor specializing in new construction. One of Bates’ first contracts was to build a home for General William Clark, who, after returning from his famous expedition with Meriwether Lewis, had been appointed governor of the Missouri Territory by Thomas Jefferson. Clark chose St. Louis to establish his headquarters and chose Bates to build his new home.


During this time, Bates heard that William V. Rector, United States surveyor general, was planning to survey the northeast area of the Missouri Territory. He immediately secured an assignment to become part of the survey team as a chain carrier. The survey team commenced work in 1817 and continued into 1818. While working on the survey, he saw the potential of the primitive trading posts in the land around Bay de Charles (Scipio) and began to envision a bright new future for the area.

After the survey was complete, Rector’s team returned to St. Louis. Wasting no time, Bates immediately engaged Jonathan Fleming, a friend and fellow carpenter, to travel upstream by keelboat to begin construction on the new settlement he envisioned. Robert Masterson, John Bobb, Sam Thompson and a Frenchman known as “French Joe” were also enlisted and agreed to follow Bates and Fleming to the new settlement several weeks later.


Thus, in 1819, Bates chose a small patch of ground near the banks of the Mississippi to make his camp and built Hannibal's first structure, a 2-story log cabin.  (This site would later become the southeast corner of Main and Bird Streets in downtown Hannibal.)  Bates continued to have business dealings in St. Louis and traveled up and down the Mississippi between the two settlements. It was during one of these business trips to St. Louis that Bates was introduced to Thompson Bird. Bird was the son of Abraham Bird, who happened to have been issued New Madrid Certificate #379 for the loss of his land during the devastating Missouri earthquake of 1811. The savvy Bates was able to convince Bird to redeem the certificate and stake a claim in the northeast portion of the territory, which would, of course, include Bates’ settlement near the river.



Original plat of Hannibal

Filed by Stephen Glascock, 1836


The original survey of the town called for thirty-three square blocks, each containing eight separate lots. As soon as the lots were made available for sale by the land office in St. Louis, Moses Bates and Sam Thompson purchased all of Block 33, riverfront property between what are now Rock and North Streets.

Steamboats had been on the Mississippi as early as 1811 with the launch of the  New Orleans out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During that decade, there were approximately twenty steamboats navigating the Mississippi; by 1830, more than twelve hundred were making the rounds between Minneapolis, Minnesota and New Orleans, Louisiana. Soon, yet another business venture began to take shape in Moses Bates’ entrepreneurial mind, and by 1825, Bates had purchased a small side-wheeler, the General Putnam. The crew carried axes and would make frequent stops along the river to chop the wood necessary to make the steam that powered the vessel. Immediately, Bates and the crew of General Putnam made regular trips between the lead mines of Galena, Illinois and the ever-growing port of St. Louis, Missouri; on each trip, whether heading north or south, Bates would require that the ship pause for a short stop along the shores of Hannibal.

The steamship New Orleans was the first powered ship on inland waterways in 1811. The New Orleans was 26 feet wide, 148 feet long and was propelled by a 34 cylinder steam engine that produced 160 horse-power. The ship could travel at 10 miles per hour downstream.