What’s In Our Name?

Mexico – like Shakespeare’s rose – by any other name would smell as sweet; and Audrain County, whatever its name, would still be home. But why these particular names, these “handles for posterity?”

When state legislators examined the map of Missouri in 1831 they found that in the northeast section, along the ridgeline between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, there still remained an unorganized area of land. Bounded by Callaway, Boone, Monroe, Ralls and Pike Counties, this pocket of the wilderness was the same size as most counties and obviously would one day have enough people to warrant representation.

Anticipating the eventual movement of settlers into this rough rectangle of prairie, they sketched the boundaries of a proposed new county. The question of a name for the area brought an immediate response from legislators accustomed to a familiar pattern of naming counties for famous Americans and prominent Missourians. From Jefferson, Franklin, and Jackson, to Howard, Boone, and Wayne, the state had honored many individuals in this way.

Now, in tribute to a newly elected colleague who had recently died, into these roughly drawn boundary lines was lettered “Audrain County.” James H. Audrain, a son of Peter Audrain, a French immigrant to America, had been born in 1782 in Pennsylvania.

Following his father west as a young man, he for a time engaged in merchandising in Indiana, then moved to Kentucky, and in 1809 crossed the Mississippi to St. Louis. During the War of 1812, he was commissioned a Captain of Volunteers, served as “Captain of a company of spies” and was made the captain of a company of United States Rangers–service which earned him the lifelong title of “Colonel.”

After the war, he settled in St. Charles County, where he built a mill and a distillery. In 1830 he was elected to the Missouri Legislature, but his term was shortlived, for he died in November of 1831. In December of 1836, Missouri formally added to its current list of counties the name of “Audrain.”

In expectation of the official organization of the county, two pioneer realtors, James H. Smith and the Rev. Robert C. Mansfield, were by the spring of 1836 planning a proposed county seat. Acquiring land at a central point in the county and outlining lots for a town, they were prepared to donate half of its lots to the county and to take other steps necessary to ensure that it was designated as Audrain’s seat of government.

At that time the Missouri frontier was alive with tales of Texas, then a part of Mexico, whose settlers were heroically seeking their independence. The excitement surrounding these events and the reports of great wealth to be found there prompted the two men to consider for their new town the name of “Mexico.” It seemed appropriate in a state already dotted with towns bearing names of exotic faraway places–Paris, New London, Troy, and New Madrid, among others–and they were hopeful that the luck of that southwest utopia would rub off on the settlers of their promising prairie village. Someone at the legislature mistakenly recorded it as “New Mexico” in the first records of the county’s organization, but that error was quickly corrected, and the business of the County of Audrain proceeded at its County Seat of Mexico.

Over the succeeding century and a half, the smell of corn, horses and brick dust – along with soybeans, shoes, steam engines, offices, stores, and roses – have mingled with the sweet smell of success to engender for those calling it home high regard for the names of Mexico and Audrain.

–Leta Hodge, Audrain Historical Society

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