Established as the Blacksnake Hills trading post in 1826, the growing community along the banks of the Missouri River adopts the more impressive St. Joseph as its name.
As with many early western towns, St. Joseph began as a fur trading post. The French-Canadian Joseph Robidoux III shrewdly located his Blacksnake Hills post at the entrance to the Indian-controlled Platte country so he could trade cloth, metal pots, and other manufactured goods for Native Americans’ furs. As the numbers of Anglo settlers in the region increased and the fur-bearing animals disappeared, though, the Indians were steadily squeezed out. In June 1836, the Platte territory became part of the new state of Missouri.
Although the fur trade declined after the 1830s, the town nonetheless prospered and continued to grow as a popular gateway to the West for overland travelers. No longer a mere trading post, the city leaders decided their little town needed a more impressive title than Blacksnake Hills and renamed it St. Joseph. The number of overland emigrants picking St. Joseph as a rendezvous spot and jumping-off point for their westbound wagon trains continued to grow, and the town prospered by providing these emigrants with the food, wagons, stock animals, and the many other supplies they needed to make the westward journey. In 1849 alone, more than 2,000 wagons crossed the Missouri River there. The emigrant demand for meat led some innovative St. Joseph businessmen to begin large-scale hog raising and meatpacking operations, two businesses that continued to play a major role in the town’s economy well into the 1950s.
By 1859, St. Joseph was the second largest city in Missouri, surpassed only by St. Louis. With the arrival of the railroad that same year, St. Joseph became the eastern terminus of the short-lived Pony Express, which picked up mail delivered by train to St. Joseph and brought it by horseback to California from 1860 to 1861.
After the Civil War, Kansas City began to eclipse St. Joseph as the major western travel hub and crossroad for western emigrants. Its proximity to the southern cattle trails and Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri, which eliminated the need for ferries, made it a more attractive stop than St. Joseph.