Thornton Grimsley – a brief biography

Thornton Grimsley was born on the 20th of August 1798 in Bourbon County, Kentucky where his father had recently immigrated to with his large family. Both his parents died before 1807, leaving a helpless family of eight children. After a short time he was apprenticed in 1808 to the saddlery business of John Jacoby, in Lexington, Kentucky.

When Thornton was 18, Jacoby brought him to St. Louis, when he moved his business from Lexington to St. Louis to try the burgeoning western expansion market. Grimsley continued his apprenticeship over the next three years, finishing in 1819.

On finishing his apprenticeship in St. Louis, he returned to Kentucky for six months, using his savings to support himself to attend school for six months, as well it seems, of winning the hand of his future wife. In 1820 he married Miss Susan Stark of Bourbon County, Kentucky, and returned to St. Louis to pursue his trade in the booming frontier city. In 1821, after returning to St. Louis with his new wife, he formed a company/partnership with his spouse’s brother, now brother-in-law, William Stark. ‘Grimsley & Stark’ existed for about a year, with William Stark passing away in July, 1822. Grimsley operated on his own for a number of years, later associating with a former apprentice, John Young, to form Grimsley & Young between 1835 and 1842. Later, in 1844, he brought on his own son, John T., and son-in-law, George L. Stansbury.

Grimsley immediately began integrating into the St. Louis business community by joining the Masons, and held many offices with that organization for most of his life. It can be easily assumed that the Masonic connections were very profitable for young Thornton, as he was interacting regularly with a wide variety of men, successful in business and politics. Many of the names on the masonic rosters with Grimsley are found in many successful businesses, and state and federal government elective offices.

Politics was no stranger to Grimsley, in 1826 he was elected an alderman, followed by a term in the state legislature from 1828. In 1835 he was again elected alderman and was involved in obtaining claim for a piece of ground that came to be called ‘Grimsleys Folly’, later a valued asset of the city known as Lafayette Park. Again, following his term as alderman, he returned to the state senate.

As a consummate civic leader, Grimsley was diligent in militia matters as well, performing in many duties and roles from his earliest St. Louis residency. In 1832 he raised a volunteer company that offered service to Illinois during the Black Hawk War emergency. His service and patriotism, as well as political connections, were rewarded in 1836 with a commission from President Andrew Jackson, as a 1st Lieutenant with the newly formed 2nd Dragoon Regiment. Grimsley declined the honor to continue his successful business career in St. Louis, and miss the experience of slogging around wild Florida during the ongoing Seminole campaigns. He eventually gained the militia rank of Colonel, and was habitually referred to as Colonel Grimsley in later years.

He proposed a military campaign to the Oregon Territory in 1841, claiming “that with two months reference to the Tactic of the country, I can drill a company of horse, a squadron or regiment, equal to any man in the Army.”

This campaign was not considered, but it does serve as a fine example of the exuberant self-confident ego that was a well-known characteristic of Thornton Grimsley.

His personality and temperament was well-known to his contemporaries, who would charitably refer to his well-established and ably communicated opinions. He knew what he believed, and others did as well.

Edward L. Gallatin was an apprentice with Grimsley’s saddlery firm as a young man, and would tell stories of Grimsley’s rather peculiar bias against left-handed saddlers. Gallatin, having been tipped off to this trait of Grimsley’s, managed to hide the fact for several years until his preference was finally uncovered. Fortunately, Gallatin’s skill was well-established even then, so that he was able to survive Grimsley’s odd bias.

A man of no small number of accomplishments, he was in many ways a somewhat larger than live character, well known in all facets of life in St. Louis in the second quarter of the 19th century. Indeed, it became a point of near amusement that nearly any parade in St. Louis in this time would more often than not feature the large side-whiskered Thornton as the grand marshal.

Politically speaking, Grimsley was a man of his time and breeding. Interestingly enough, his eldest child, Minerva, married into a well connected St. Louis family with distinctly abolitionist sentiments. Grimsley himself identified with a political status quo, most clearly illustrated by his actions in the opening days of the civil war. He formed and drilled a militia unit that was anti-abolitionist in nature, and quickly absorbed into the Missouri State Guard to remove it from possible misuse by the volatile pro-state, anti-abolitionist elements that Grimsley was associated with.

Grimsley passed away in late December of 1861, a mere three months after his long-time wife, Susan. Both are buried in St. Louis.


Annals of St. Louis In Its Territorial Days From 1804 to 1821, Frederic Louis Billon, 1888


St. Louis; The Fourth City 1764-1909, Walter B. Stevens, 1909


The German Element in St. Louis, Ernst D. Kargau, 1893.

What life has taught me, by E.L.Gallatin, Jno.Frederic, Printer, Denver, Co., 1900.