Two hundred and forty-seven years ago today, on February 15, 1764*, fourteen year old Rene Auguste Chouteau arrived at the foot of Market Street (then merely a single break in the four-story bluffs that fronted the Mississippi here) with a crew of thirty workmen to oversee construction of the first buildings of St. Louis. Acting on the instructions of his mentor and guardian, Pierre Laclede Liguest, who had enough confidence in Auguste to make him his First Lieutenant and entrust him with the responsibility, he proved to be more than up to the task. He is credited today with being the Co-Founder of St. Louis.
Leadership would come easily to Auguste Chouteau. In business and finance he would excel; becoming in time the “first citizen” of Saint Louis and head of “the French dynasty that ruled America’s frontier.”* But today he and “the faithful crew of thirty”** (many of whom had made the arduous journey with Laclede and Chouteau almost a thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the rivers’ confluence where the land proved too swampy to establish a village) were felling trees, clearing land*** and digging foundations.
Before winter set in, he and Laclede had scouted the Mississippi River south of its confluence with the Missouri, for a suitable location for a trading post. A native of Bedous, France (having grown up at the foot of the Pyrenees) Pierre Laclede had a powerful regard for nature.
He selected the first elevated sight below the confluence and began marking off the trees for the first houses of the village where the Gateway Arch stands today. His intention was to protect the fur trading post from the river when it was in flood. Never in recorded history have the waters of the Mississippi reached that point on the bluffs. After Laclede’s death Auguste Chouteau transformed the original fur trading post into the first great Creole mansion of the mid-Mississippi River Valley.
Family life was complicated for young Chouteau. The man to whom his mother, Marie Bourgeois, was married, Rene Auguste Chouteau, Sr., abandoned them when he was infant. A tavern-keeper and baker who became abusive when he drank, Rene Auguste Chouteau left New Orleans for France in about 1751 and didn’t return for fifteen years. Auguste was nearly seven years old when Pierre Laclede and Marie Chouteau met and fell in love, entering into a common law marriage. He now had four younger siblings who could never acknowledge Laclede as their father. Indeed he was the only real father Auguste had ever known. As they began a new life on the bluffs above the Mississippi the future was uncertain but hopeful.
Generations later a descendant of Auguste’s would order a new grave marker when the older one had become almost unreadable with an engraving falsifying the year of his birth so that he would appear to have been old enough to be – as the engraving further stated – “Founder of St. Louis”. Ironically, according to the accurate engraving on his mother’s beautifully carved coffin a hill away, if the newer birth date for Auguste was correct, she would have to have given birth to him when she was seven years old. The Famille Chouteau gravesite is filled with unrecognized Lacledes.
Mystery still surrounds the early history of St. Louis. And it probably always will. But for all of their failings, something joyous was born in this place nearly two and a half centuries ago, of the love between Pierre Laclede and Marie Chouteau, when on Valentine’s Day in 1764 Saint Louis took root and began to grow. Happy Birthday, St. Louis – 247 years and counting!
References: * Since the 2011 release of J. Frederick Fausz’s excellent history, Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West, I have corrected the founding date of St. Louis from February14th to February 15, 1764; **Before Lewis & Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America’s Frontier – Shirley Christian, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004.* **Robert Moore, Jr. for the National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/archive/jeff/LewisClark2/Circa1804/StLouis/BlockInfo/Block7Efounding.htm
Illustrations: Valentine’s Day Hearts and Calligraphic Lettering – in the public domain at http://www.karenswhimsy.com, Auguste Chouteau and The Chouteau Mansion – in the public domain at wikipedia.com.
Photo Credits: Grave Marker of Auguste Chouteau and Coffin of Marie Bourgeois Chouteau, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO – Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr., who makes this blog and my explorations into St. Louis history possible. Merci, mon cher mari!