Salt deposits in the area attracted a few Europeans to the area around Bear Creek, but no permanent settlement was attempted until Moses D. Bates organized a group of St. Louis residents to leave and start a new town. After poling a keelboat for sixteen days against the current, the group reached Bear Creek and got to work building a few cabins to live in.
Bates saw an opportunity to make some money and kickstart his little community when he met Thompson Bird. He soon learned that his father, Abraham Bird, had one of the New Madrid Certificates. In 1815, the US Congress passed a relief act granting 640 acres to landowners who suffered losses from the New Madrid earthquakes. Certificates could be used to buy any land in Missouri that had not already been claimed. Bates convinced Bird to use the claim for the area around Bear Creek, which he did; Bird then gave Bates a 1/8 interest in the property and sold half of the claim to a St. Louis investor.
The new village was surveyed in 1819, and Bates probably named it Hannibal because that’s the name Don Antonio Soulard used for the creek when he surveyed it in 1800. (Later residents called it Bear Creek.) Unfortunately, disputes related to Bird’s use of the certificate clouded ownership claims until 1833, which didn’t do much to convince more people to move there.
Bates brought enslaved blacks with him and opened a trading post. Business wasn’t great for the first few years, so some families didn’t stick around, including Bates. In 1821, he moved to Galena to build keelboats for the Galena-St. Louis run. Four years later, he launched the General Putnam, the first steamboat to run regularly between Galena and St. Louis; Hannibal was one of its stops.
The city began to take root in the 1830s, after those land titles were settled. Some of the early businesses included a pork packing plant, a sawmill, and cooper shops. In 1831, the city got its first ferry, a flatboat powered by oars that could hold a team of horses and a wagon.
In the 1830s, an east coast investor founded a town called Marion City about twelve miles upriver of Hannibal. He didn’t realize that most of the area was marshy, though, so he lost much of his investment when new residents gave up in face of a big flood in 1836. They moved to Hannibal, which helped the city grow from just 30 residents in 1830 to a thousand a decade later.
It was during those years of rapid growth that Jane and John Marshall Clemens moved to Hannibal with their six children, one of whom, four-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens, would immortalize the town in his books and short stories. The year after the Clemens family arrived, the town was hit with a measles epidemic that killed forty people, but the Clemens family probably wasn’t to blame.
Hannibal’s early fortunes were deeply tied to the river. In 1847, the city recorded over a thousand steamboat landings. Many of those boats carried surplus wheat to market, as well as hemp and tobacco. Commercial fishing thrived for a while, until native fish stocks were nearly depleted. The river giveth and the river taketh away, too; the city suffered through major floods in 1844 and 1846.
After the Civil War, logging boomed in the forests of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and many of those logs were floated to Hannibal for processing. In the 1870s, Hannibal grew into the fourth largest producer of finished lumber in US.
The logging boom was over by 1900, and the city’s sawmills shut down. In an effort to reboot Hannibal’s economy, the city bought up old factory lots and offered free land to new companies; in some cases, they even covered up to half of new construction costs. These incentives helped land a big shoe factory (Roberts, Johnson & Rand, which later became the International Shoe Company) and soon the industrial corridor along Bear Creek filled in with a variety of factories (cigars, steel, and metal products, for example).
A small Jewish community grew in Hannibal in the early 1900s. Temple Israel was dedicated in 1935 and remained active until it merged with Temple B’Nai Shalom in Quincy in the 1960s. Lester Gaba was part of the small Jewish community of that era; he worked in his father’s retail store when he was growing up. After graduating from high school, he went on to find fame doing retail window displays and as an artist. He worked in soap for a while (and even sculpted a cameo of Mark Twain for the local museum), then became an adept painter later in life. His brother, Mark, was a local tennis star who was killed in the Philippine Islands at the end of World War II.
Like most of the US, Hannibal lost manufacturing jobs beginning in the 1980s. Hannibal still has a significant manufacturing base, though; General Mills is the region’s largest employer. Health care and education also employ a lot of people, and tourism is also a big deal, obviously.
Like every river town, Hannibal has lived through its share of flooding, with the river often stretching out toward Main Street. Building a barrier wasn’t a cheap proposition, though, so it wasn’t until 1993 that a flood wall was completed (where Front Street used to be), just in time, as it turned out. The Great Flood of 1993 crept high up the new wall, but it held. Subsequent major floods in 2008, 2013, and 2014 have tested the wall again and again.
Random Fact: Some of the streets you drive down today are topped with asphalt that was laid over cobblestones that were placed atop wood planks.