Autumn in all its glory has arrived in the mid-Mississippi River Valley and we St. Louisans revel in it! From excursions to pumpkin patches, apple orchards and wineries to street runs like the Rock’n'Roll Marathon, from dramatic baseball pennant races to the festive tail-gate parties that usher in the football season – we spend as much time outdoors as the weather allows. Spring may rival autumn in St. Louis for beauty but no season can rival its exuberant color!
It was the autumn of 1763 when city founder Pierre Laclede Liguest caught his first glimpse of the Illinois Country (Pays des Illinois) and the lush ripeness of the landscape. Coupled with a bracing coolness reminiscent of his native Pyrennes, the temperature and the view must have been a welcome contrast to the sweltering, subtropical New Orleans that he had left behind.
After reaching the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and finding the land too marshy for the settlement of a fur trading post with potential for expansion, Laclede selected an area of woodland and prairie atop the first elevated and accessible site on the west side of the Mississippi, fifteen river miles below the confluence. He would name it St. Louis for the patron saint of Louis XV, whom he’d served as a soldier before leaving Bedous, France.
Laclede wasn’t the first to fall in love with the beauty and richness of the mid-Mississippi River Valley. The ancient people archaeologists have named the Mississippian Mound Builders raised the first city north of Mexico several hundreds of years before Laclede’s arrival, on the east side of the river, eventually expanding westward as their population increased, into what became downtown St. Louis.
In Cahokia Mounds: America’s First City archaeologist William Iseminger describes the lay-out and construction of the amazing Mississippian capitol; today one of twenty World Heritage Sites in the United States.
The French and Creoles of Saint Louis named the earthworks on this side of the river and used them to gauge their proximity to dangerous shoals and bluffs when navigating the Mississippi, but they did not destroy the mounds as later settlers would. Sugar Loaf Mound (Pain du Sucre) is the sole surviving earthwork in the near-downtown St. Louis area, though two small ranch houses were built – one near the top and the other on the step portion – of this once conical-shaped burial mound. The Osage Nation now owns and plans to restore Sugar Loaf as a sacred heritage site.
In Colonial times French settlers in Cahokia and Kaskaskia fled their Illinois homes before the encroaching British and found in Laclede’s village a refuge where they could re-situate their businesses and their homes safely above flood level along the greatest natural highway in North America. Above and behind the village proper, rolling prairie farmland and pasture grazing land stretched for miles, fed by natural springs and creeks, and buttressed by virgin forests. When Laclede chose the site no one at all was living here.
As rich as the landscape was, life on the edge of the frontier was isolated, arduous and fraught with danger. Hunger, extremes of weather and precarious relationships among foreign settlers and tribal nations were constants. I don’t think that any author to date has painted a more detailed nor thought-provoking portrait of Colonial Saint Louis than historian and native St. Louisan, Patricia Cleary in The World, the Flesh and The Devil.
Cleary’s book is the latest in a very fine series of St. Louis histories leading up to the Sestercentennial Celebration of the city’s founding in February of 1764. Others include Shirley Christian’s Before Lewis & Clark: The Chouteaus, the French Dynasty that Ruled the North American Fur Trade, Frederick A. Hodes’ Beyond the Frontier, and J. Frederick Fausz’s Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West. Each written from a distinctive perspective, they combine for an amazingly descriptive view of early St. Louis.
Auguste Chouteau, who was fourteen years of age at the time and overseeing a “faithful crew of thirty” cutting timber for La Poste de Saint Louis was an old gentleman when he put his memories of the founding into writing, and historians have debated for decades whether the number he wrote after the 1 for the date was a 3 or a 4.
The City of St. Louis has officially settled on the 14th because even though Chouteau arrived with his crew on February 13th, they didn’t break ground until the following day. I’m hopeful that the celebrations will cover both days.
The terraces of limestone bluffs that front the Mississippi here and the prairie west of them have evolved in fantastic ways in the last two hundred and forty-nine years. Although it has been landscaped and partially built upon, Lafayette Park (named for the Marquis de Lafayette, who served as a volunteer under George Washington in the Continental Army) southwest of downtown St. Louis is the oldest city park west of the Mississippi River and the most unchanged segment of the broad St. Louis Commons delineated in 1764.
But to view the last remaining segment of virgin prairie in Greater St. Louis one must travel to Calvary Cemetery near the city’s northern boundary. Indian burials in a hill that once stood tall in that area of prairie overlooking the Mississippi and which were relocated on the same grounds, suggest a remnant of the Mound Culture that inspired many such earthworks in the vicinity, gaining for St. Louis the early nickname of The Mound City.
Other areas of the vast St. Louis Prairie have given way to gardens – one of them magnificent – thanks to English emigre, entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Shaw, who fell in love with St. Louis in 1819 and left large parts of it far better than he found them. Seven and a half generations of St. Louisans have delighted in the Botanical Garden he bequeathed to us and to all Missourians.
Louis Sullivan, father of modern western architecture, never lived in St. Louis but he conceived a skyscraper here of steel, glass, wood, and terra cotta sculpted from the richest clay deposits on the St. Louis prairie that became an international model for steel frame architecture and the wedding of functionality and lyrical design.
The Mississippi still waters and sustains St. Louis as it has since our founding, occasionally reminding us after repeated, heavy rainfalls and great snow-melts to the north, that we are no match for its breadth and power. Appreciating that as long ago as 1763 when he chose this site after toiling close to a thousand miles against its current, Laclede notched trees for the first buildings of St. Louis just behind where Eero Saarinen’s magnificent steel Arch rises today. He didn’t need to see the Mississippi fifteen miles wide at St. Louis to realize that he needed to situate the fur trading post well-above the river.
According to Bob Moore, Jr., historian in residence at the Old Courthouse downtown, if Laclede’s fur trading post was still standing, the view of the Mississippi from its windows would be blocked by the south leg of the Gateway Arch. Never in recorded history have the waters of the mighty Mississippi reached that point on the bluffs.
There are numerous ways in which St. Louis can and must be improved, as those who have spent lifetimes in the effort will passionately tell you. But there is a great deal to love about St. Louis, not the least of which is an open and relaxed friendliness imbued by prairie vistas.
As we look forward to 2014 and the lighting of a birthday cake with two hundred and fifty candles, there is ample room for new dreams to take shape and grow; here on the bounteous prairie overlooking the Mississippi, which the poet Thomas Stearns Eliot knew from boyhood and rightly described as running right through us.
Illustration Credits: Pays des Illinois – from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Paris, France, in the public domain in France and the U.S. at Wikimedia Commons.org; Book Cover for The World, the Flesh and the Devil – by Patricia Cleary, published by the University of Missouri, 2011; Indian Attack on St. Louis 1780 by Oscar E. Beminghaus, from the Missouri State Capitol Building, Jefferson City, MO, in the public domain at wikipedia.org; U.S. Postage Stamp La Fayette 1957 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Book Cover for Cahokia Mounds: America’s First City by William Iseminger, The History Press, 2010.
Photo Credits: The Gateway Arch at St. Louis – used with the generous permission of photographer, James Seatris; Detail of the Wainwright Building, St. Louis and The Rooftop of Bob Cassilly’s City Museum – used with the kind permission of Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr.; all other photographs by Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, author of this blog.