Today the City of St. Louis is made up of seventy-nine neighborhoods but in the beginning there was only one. The Village of Saint Louis proper stretched out roughly a mile along the first two terraces of bluffs that fronted the Mississippi River here. Its Common Fields, planted in crops, stretched westward from the third tier of bluffs, while vast areas of prairie were set aside to the south and southwest of the village for grazing.
Unlike many of the American settlements on the eastern seaboard, Saint Louis was open to the Irish; even Irish Catholics, who shared a religious heritage with the French and Creole founders of the village. The early Irish and Irish-American settlers to St. Louis were Protestant as well as Catholic but they seem to have put whatever religious differences they had behind them or at least aside for other major concerns – like surviving on the edge of the frontier and helping the people they’d left behind in Ireland.
The French and the Irish shared other affinities. John Darby, who arrived in St. Louis in 1818 as a teenager and would later be elected twice mayor, once to the Missouri Senate and later to the U.S. House of Representatives, recalled that “every house in St. Louis had a fiddle” and that the social atmosphere was relaxed and hospitable. His book, Personal Recollections, is a charming read.
The first Irish land-owner in St. Louis was Patrick Lee. Born in Quebec of an Irish father from County Cork and a French mother, he married Constance Conde on July 18, 1797 in St. Louis, King of France Church (a forerunner of the Old Cathedral), where all eight of their children would be christened.* In 1809 the Lee home stood at First and Myrtle (today Clark) Street. The Independence Day Dinner of July 4th, 1809 was held in Patrick Lee’s orchard followed by a ball at Merriwether Lewis’ home.** By this time the early jambalaya of St. Louisans had increased to include not only French, Creoles, Canadians, Africans, Indians and Spanish but Swiss, Italians, Scots, Americans and many Irish. St. Louis was still one neighborhood.
Jeremiah Connor emigrated to St. Louis from County Roscommon, Ireland and platted the widest street in early St. Louis, Washington Avenue, out of his Common Field property. He would later donate the land on which St. Louis University built their first campus.
The Erin Benevolent Society of St. Louis was founded in Jeremiah Connor’s home in February of 1818. Among its earliest members were Thomas Brady, John Mullanphy, Thomas Hanly, Hugh Ranken and Joseph Charless – all of whose names survive to this day on St. Louis streets, buildings or charitable institutions. In 1808 Joseph Charless of Westmeath had published the first newspaper west of the Mississippi River, in English and French.
Two years after its founding, in 1820, members of the Erin Benevolent Society organized the first public observance of St. Patrick’s Day in St. Louis with a procession followed by dinner and many toasts. One hundred and ninety years this Wednesday, the procession will survive as a parade, followed by dinners and toasts galore in a St. Louis Irish neighborhood commonly referred to as Dogtown and in countless pubs and homes all over the area.
John O’Fallon didn’t arrive in St. Louis until just after the War of 1812. He would make a fortune as a merchant after serving as Assistant in Indian Affairs to his uncle, William Clark. Where O’Fallon Park stands today John O’Fallon built a country house that stood four stories high. He called it “Athlone” for the birthplace of his Irish father, who had served as a surgeon in George Washington’s Continental Army. Carvings of Irish wolf hounds guarded the gates to “Athlone” (“fallon” being the Irish word for “wolf”).
John Mullanphy of County Fermanagh is reported to have been the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies. His fortune (many millions in today’s terms) and generosity would become legendary. In THE ST. LOUIS IRISH, William Barnaby Faherty, SJ refers to John Mullanphy as St. Louis’ first philanthropist. There is so much to recount of John Mullanphy, his wife Elizabeth Brown Mullanphy of Youghal, County Waterford and their children, including stories of the land which he donated for the settlement of impoverished Irish immigrants in Old North St. Louis, that I must save the Mullanphys and the Kerry Patch for another blog.
* Earl Fischer’s (priceless) Database
**BEYOND the FRONTIER: A HISTORY of ST. LOUIS to 1821, Frederick A. Hodes, Ph.D.
© 2010 Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh