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The 1876 St. Louis City / County split and its effect on research

One of the ways to prepare for successful research in a geographic area is to learn about the history of that area. This is especially true in St. Louis, Missouri, where the events of local history have made research much more challenging. Before beginning St. Louis research, we encourage researchers to review the information below about the City / County Split and how it affects research

The Split

Prior to 1877, St. Louis County encompassed the City of St. Louis plus all other areas within the county boundaries including such towns as Kirkwood and Florissant. During that time, the county seat was the City of St. Louis. Often called the "Great Divorce," the split occurred after the citizens of St. Louis County (that included both city and county) voted on the question of whether the City of St. Louis should separate from the county and become an independent city.

The vote took place 22 Aug 1876, and the initial count indicated that the separation question had failed by just over 100 votes. Supporters of separation then brought charges, including fraud, and a recount was ordered. The recount took four months so it was late 1876 before it was determined that the vote for separation had passed. The story of the split is really much more complex than that, so consult the reading list below for more in-depth material.

The Dividing Point

This separation of city and county affects where public records of interest to genealogists are housed after 1876. While the split actually occurred in 1876, it was 1877 before parallel record keeping systems-one for the city and one for the county-existed.

If you are looking for a public record in St. Louis, it is helpful to first determine if the event-or the recording of it-took place prior to the end of 1876, or after the beginning of 1877. This division point is best used only as a "rule of thumb" for records in the time period around and after the split as that is often a "gray area." Keep in mind that it was not until December of 1878-two years after the vote-that the newly built St. Louis County Courthouse, located in the new county seat of Clayton, Mo., was ready for occupancy. The number of records found in St. Louis County record books for the years 1877-1878 is sparse.

Where Are the Original Records Housed Today?

  • Prior to the split (through 1876)

    All City and County records created prior to the split were kept by the City of St. Louis and are housed by various governmental offices for the City of St. Louis in downtown St. Louis. Many of those records are available on microfilm.

  • After the split (1877 to present)

    City records created after the split are maintained and housed by city governmental offices for the City of St. Louis in downtown St. Louis. Many of those records are available on microfilm

    County records created after the split are maintained and housed by county governmental offices for the County of St. Louis. In late 1877, Clayton, Mo. was selected as the new county seat and that is where most of the county governmental offices are located today. Many of those records are available on microfilm

Why Can't I Find My Ancestor's Record?

If your research is in the post-1876 time period, you need to check the records for BOTH city and county. People's lives often involved traveling back and forth between city and county-and the records of events in their lives were recorded based on where the event occurred, not where they lived. This applies to a wide range of records but especially to

  • births (The place of birth was not necessarily where the parents lived.)
  • marriages (Where were the vows exchanged?)
  • deaths (Exactly where did the person die? The location of a hospital often determined whether a person died in the city or county.)
  • burials (Were they buried in the city, then later moved to a cemetery in county and vice versa? Also were they buried in one cemetery and ALL burials in that cemetery were moved to another location?)

 If you see a location listed as "St. Louis" when working with family records after 1876, try to find out whether that refers to St. Louis County or to the City of St. Louis.

 As an example, an event—such as a marriage—could have occurred in rural St. Louis County before the split, but the officiating minister did not record his records until two and a half years later. By 1879, the new courthouse was built in Clayton and their record keeping system was established, so that is where he went to record the marriage which had occurred in the county. If he had recorded the marriage in a timely manner—just after the wedding—the record would now be housed by the Recorder of Deeds Office in the City of St. Louis with all the other pre-1876 marriages. Because of the delay in recording the marriage, however, the record would now be housed by the Recorder of Deeds Office in the County Courthouse in Clayton, Mo.

For further reading

Barclay, Thomas S. Movement for Municipal Home Rule in St. Louis. University of Missouri Studies Series. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, 1943. Q 352.0778  B244M

Barclay, Thomas S. St. Louis Home Rule Charter of 1876: Its Framing and Adoption. University of Missouri Studies Series. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1962. 352.0778  B244S

Cassella, William N. Jr. "City-County Separation: The 'Great Divorce' of 1876." The Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 15 (Jan 1959). R 977.8  G5591/15  Oct 1958-Jul 1959

Terry, Dickson. Clayton: A History. Clayton, Mo.: Von Hoffmann Press, 1976. R 977.865  T329C

Two St. Louis Library Systems

An example of how the split affects researchers is the fact that the split of 1876 is the reason there are two St. Louis library systems. We are St. Louis County Library system which serves St. Louis County and has its headquarters at 1640 South Lindbergh Blvd. St. Louis Public Library system serves the City of St. Louis and has its main facility at 13th and Olive in downtown St. Louis. To the benefit of researchers, both library systems have excellent genealogical and local history holdings.