Price was born near Farmville, Virginia September 20, 1809. He grew up to attend Hampden-Sydney College in 1826 and 1827, where he studied law and worked at the courthouse near his home. He was then admitted to the Virginia bar and established a law practice. In the fall of 1831, Price and his family moved to Fayette, Missouri. He moved to Keytesville, Missouri, where he ran a hotel and mercantile a year later. On May 14, 1833, he married Martha Head from Randolph County, Missouri, and the couple would eventually have seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.
During the Mormon War of 1838, Price served as a member of a delegation sent from Chariton County, Missouri, to investigate reported disturbances between Latter Day Saints and anti-Mormon mobs operating in the western part of the state. His report was favorable to the Mormons, stating that they were not guilty, in his opinion, of the charges levied against them by their enemies. Following the Mormon capitulation in November 1838, Price was ordered by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs to Caldwell County with a company of men to protect the Saints from further depredations following their surrender.
He was elected to the Missouri State House of Representatives, serving from 1836–1838 and again from 1840–1844. He was then elected as a U.S. Congressman, serving from March 4, 1845, to August 12, 1846, when he resigned from the House to participate in the Mexican-American War. He served as a Brigadier General of Volunteers.
After returning from the war, he returned to politics, serving as the 11th Governor of Missouri from 1853 to 1857. When the Civil War began, Sterling Price was opposed to secession but reversed himself after Federal militia, under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, seized Camp Jackson near St. Louis, where the pro-secessionist militia had gathered. When he joined the Confederates, he was given command of the Missouri State Guard. He led his forces to two early Confederate victories, the first at Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Missouri, on August 10, 1861, and the second at Lexington, Missouri, in mid-September.
Price was commissioned a major general in the Confederate States Army on March 6, 1862, just before the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. His forces were defeated there and again at Iuka and Corinth in Mississippi. Price’s command fought a series of minor engagements during 1863, which had little effect on the war.
Then, in the fall of 1864, Price mounted one final campaign, a large-scale raid into Missouri and Kansas from his base in northern Arkansas. Price cut a wide swath of destruction across his home state but was finally run to the ground by two Union armies at Westport in present-day Kansas City and soundly defeated. Price and the remnants of his command then fled south into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and finally Texas.
Price never surrendered after the war. He led his troops over the border and offered their services to Mexican Emperor Maximilian I, who refused them. Price then settled in a colony of former Confederates in Carlota, Veracruz. He was impoverished and in poor health when he returned to the United States in 1866. He died in St. Louis on September 29, 1867, and was buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.