Missouri Bicentennial Minutes: Mining in Early Missouri

Apr 1, 2021

Welcome to the Missouri Bicentennial Minute from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Deposits of lead and other minerals were a primary stimulus for settlement in early Missouri. The French discovered lead in the St. Francis Mountains around 1700, and Sieur Renault opened several mines, including Mine la Motte, in the 1720s. These were surface mines, and large diggings began and deforestation provided wood for smelting ore. Individuals and small groups also dug in locations likely to provide ore.

Moses Austin introduced bedrock mining near Mine a Breton, renamed Potosi, and also built the first reverberatory furnace for efficient smelting. A successful ironwork began in 1815, giving rise to a future booming industry.

Native peoples had distilled salt for millennia by boiling water at salt springs. European settlers continued this, and place names with the word “saline” are modern testaments. Additionally, prospectors discovered copper, cobalt, manganese, saltpeter (in caves with guano deposits), and limestone.

By the 1820s, mining had hit some rough times. Deposits of lead, iron ore, and other minerals were relatively inaccessible, requiring long trips to the Mississippi from deposits further west over poor roads. More accessible sources elsewhere undercut costs for Missouri minerals. Additionally, limited capital prohibited developing new sources. More abundant, cheaper sources of salt, as another example, killed Missouri’s industry.

Environmental effects were also evident. Livestock sickened and died near the mines by ingesting lead or breathing fumes containing arsenic or sulfur. Human health also suffered near smelting operations.

Much mining would not experience a resurgence until better transportation and recovery methods were developed. As a result, Missouri mining still remains a valuable industry in the state to the present, although most mineral deposits are at great depth.