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St. Louis At 250: Why This Place

Private Collection
courtesy Kodner Gallery

As all in the area should know by now, 14-year-old Auguste Chouteau and his band of 30 “mechanics” unloaded their boat a bit south of the legs of today’s Gateway Arch 250 years ago on Feb. 15*. People may not know that this middle stretch of the upper Mississippi Valley was already rich with French settlements on both sides of the river. Residents, especially the younger generation, of those settlements would help St. Louis grow quickly.

Some French villages in the area were three generations old. Cahokia, the oldest, was founded in 1699. Its vertical-log church, Eglise de la Sainte-Famille (Holy Family Church) still stands. According to parish registries, about 3,000 Catholics lived in the region.

Why a new settlement?

Maxent, Laclede & Co. held a monopoly on the fur trade west on the Upper Mississippi. Pierre Laclede Liguest, who was in his mid 30s, was to stake out a site on the Mississippi’s west bank where Indians would come to trade. Fur pelts from Indians as far north as the Great Lakes, east along the Ohio and west along the Missouri River would be purchased and sent down river to New Orleans and on to Europe. The idea was to avoid the established St. Lawrence River route, as that waterway froze four or more months most years.

*Custom has put the date of the founding as Feb. 14, but historian J. Frederick Fausz, author of Founding St. Louis First City of the New West, is clear that recent reviews of original documents put the founding at Feb. 15.

On Nov. 8, 1763, after enduring nearly three months on the Mississippi, Laclede’s party arrived at the 34-year-old Fort De Chartres and settled into the adjacent Ste. Anne village. (Ste. Genevieve did not have a building large enough to hold Laclede’s wares.)

Almost immediately, Indians heard Laclede had trinkets to trade for fur, and he was in business. In early December 1763, Laclede and Auguste Chouteau carefully explored the west side of the Mississippi, north to the mouth of the Missouri. They looked for a safe site above the flood plain with springs and easy access to the river, and marked trees on a site Laclede said could become a great city.

On Feb. 15, young Chouteau started work. According to his journal, written decades later, the youth oversaw cutting down trees and first building a tool shed, then building cabins for his crew and eventually laying out a planned village.

The site was on a fine limestone bluff, high above the flood plain, 18 miles below the Missouri confluence. It had springs and a stream they called La Petite Riviere.

Credit umsl.edu

Chouteau led the work for about six weeks without Laclede, according to his journal. But when the fur trade post was just weeks old, about 150 peaceable but daunting Missouri Indian men arrived. Chouteau sent for Laclede to come from Fort de Chartres. Laclede’s negotiations with the Missouris were so successful that they moved on, and Native American women came most summers to help with house and barn construction.

Laclède laid out three streets that ran parallel to the Mississippi and grid of cross streets. He set aside a plot for a church and another for a public square. He named the post St. Louis to honor the patron saint of French King Louis IX.

Why did it grow?

Laclede’s timing was perfect. As he was getting ready to start the adventure, news came from France that the Treaty of Paris had granted England all French-American land east of the Mississippi, except New Orleans. The treaty ended the Seven Years War (the American extension was called the French and Indian War). French settlements in present-day Indiana and Illinois, most founded between 1720 and 1744, were the spoils of war.

Credit Amazon.com

The French-Americans knew the merciless way in which the British had exiled the French Canadians of Acadia in eastern Canada and present-day Maine. Those in the Illinois Country feared the British might do the same to them, according to the late James Neal Primm of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Many believed that their culture, language, land and their Catholic faith were threatened. Laclede realized that some settlers might flee to the river’s West bank. He looked for a site above the flood plain for his fur trading post with flat land to set out a street grid.

Those who moved to the new settlement from surrounding communities included a diverse mix of French, Canadian, Indian, Métis (children of Indian women and European men) and African Americans, free and enslaved. Their knowledge and proven adaptability strengthened Laclede’s settlement.

Who Was This Family?

Laclede was the ambitious second son of a French lawyer and public official. He was born in Bedous, a few miles from the Spanish border. Bedous, in a shady, steep valley near some of the highest peaks of the Pyrenees, was a fur traders’ haven.

The Feb. 10 St. Louis On The Air included Jay Gitlin of Yale, Peter Kastor of Washington University and Fred Fausz of UMSL, who will be among those addressing an all day conference, A Great City from the Start: The Founding and Lasting Significance of St. Louis, on Feb. 14.

From the time that Auguste Chouteau was about 7, Laclède had been his de facto stepfather. His mother, Marie Therese Bourgeois Chouteau, was estranged from her husband, Rene Chouteau, and became Laclède’s longtime companion. To them were born Jean-Pierre, then 5; Marie Pelagie, 4, who later married Sylvestre Labbadie; Marie Louise, 2, who married Joseph Marie Papin; and newborn Victoire, who married Charles Gratiot. Because divorce was not legal, all the children were baptized with the surname of Chouteau.

Next: St. Louis: Life on the Frontier

Saint Louis University presents a discussion of "St. Louis at its Founding," from 4-5:30 p.m. Feb. 13 in the Saint Louis University Museum of Art.

The Nine Network presents "Chouteau's Journal: In His Own Words," at 7 p.m. Feb. 10, on NinePBS.

More to read:

“History as They Lived It: A Social History of Prairie du Rocher,” Margaret Kimball Brown. Tucson: Patrice Press 2005

“Echoes of Their Voices - A Saga of the Pioneers who Pushed the Frontier Westward to the Mississippi,” Carl R. Baldwin. Hawthorne Publishing Co. 1978

“From a Watery Grave - The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle’s Shipwreck La Belle,” James E. Bruseth and Toni S. Turner. Texas A& M University Press 2005

“The Maid of St. Philippe” p. 711, “Complete Novels and Stories,” Kate Chopin. The Library of America 2002

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.