Born in Sheffield, England on July 24, 1800, Henry Shaw was the oldest of four children. Sheffield was the center of the English steel and cutlery industries, and Henry Shaw's extended family manufactured and sold ironware. In 1818, the young Shaw traveled to the New World with his father on business affairs. Looking for a place to sell his goods, Shaw arrived on May 3, 1819, at the small French trading port of St. Louis by way of the steamboat, Maid of Orleans.
With a business front where the Gateway National Arch stands today, Shaw found success selling cutlery and other iron works to people pioneering west or building a new home in the blossoming St. Louis community. Over the course of the next 20 years, Shaw’s frugality and business acumen reaped great dividends. At age 39, Henry Shaw retired from his successful hardware business and focused his attention, skills and resources on real estate, buying and renting many city and rural properties. His holding would encompass almost 1000 acres in the St. Louis region, with the land on which he chose to build his legacy being named Tower Grove.
Mr. Shaw owned an unknown number of enslaved people from 1828 until at least 1860. Existing records provide an incomplete picture of Mr. Shaw’s participation in the institution of slavery, and of those who were enslaved. However, a review of Shaw’s personal papers, tax documents, and government records provides some insight into this history. For instance, records show Mr. Shaw freed an enslaved woman named Juliette in 1839. But in 1855, Shaw hired a bounty hunter to track down four enslaved people who attempted to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Those four, including a woman named Esther and her two children, were captured at a site commemorated today as the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing. Archival records include the names of some of the people enslaved by Shaw: Peach, Juliette, Bridgette, Joseph, Jim, Sarah, Tabitha and her daughter Sarah, and Esther and her children.
Shaw traveled to Europe on three trips that totaled about a decade. After his first trip, Shaw decided to make St. Louis his permanent home, and he became a U.S citizen in 1843. In 1849, he commissioned George I. Barnett, an English-born architect and friend, to design both Tower Grove House and his townhouse, the latter of which was originally located at 7th and Locust. Tower Grove House is Barnett’s first design with an Italianate influence, a style popular among Americans who traveled to Europe in the Victorian era.
Shaw had seen the land that would become his new home many times. Oral tradition shares that when Shaw first arrived in 1819, he would ride out to the land that the Missouri Botanical Garden now sits on. Overlooking the open fields and prairies, far outside of the city limits, Henry Shaw described it as "uncultivated without trees or fences, but covered with tall, luxuriant grass, undulated by the gentle breeze of spring." It was then that Shaw chose this place to be his future home. The name Tower Grove House was inspired by the house’s significant tower, which overlooks a grove of oak and sassafras trees. Inspired by his last trip in 1851, Shaw decided to build a garden around his country estate. Seeing the magnificent grounds of Chatsworth and visiting the Great London Exhibition, Shaw was inspired to give St. Louis and its community a garden as great as those in Europe.
The Garden opened to the public in 1859. Henry Shaw spent the next 35 years watching the community of St. Louis enjoy his Garden and establishing the botanical research legacy that is still vital to our mission today. When he passed in 1889, Henry Shaw left the Garden to the head of the Washington University School of Botany, Dr. William Trelease.
Visit Henry Shaw's country home in the Garden's historic Victorian District.