I cannot visit the Gateway Arch with its splendid views of river and cityscape without recalling Pierre Laclede, his vision and far-sightedness, and how much we owe to him as a community. For while the Arch is the work of a brilliant, Finnish-born architect named Eero Saarinenn, it is Pierre Laclede Liguest who gave us St. Louis.
Two hundred and thirty-three years after his death en route to Saint Louis from New Orleans, Laclede continues to inspire and to mystify historians. But with the publication of Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West* by University of Missouri Professor J. Frederick Fausz, we have a clearer picture of Laclede than has been possible since he walked the landscape here and began marking trees for a fur trading post where the Gateway Arch stands today.
That the waters of the mighty Mississippi have not reached that point on the bluffs since 1764 may be less impressive if you haven’t seen the Mississippi River fifteen miles wide at St. Louis, or Front Street (Lenore K. Sullivan Boulevard between the Eads and the Poplar Street Bridges) frequently underwater. Flooding was not problematic when Laclede lived here because only a ribbon of road (widened from a single crack in the four-story wall of limestone fronting the river) which we know today as Market Street gave the Mississippi access to the village that stood above it.
No definitive portrait of Pierre Laclede survives. The painting in the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park may be Laclede or a descendant of his brother Jean. But the sculpture modeled on Laclede’s grandson, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., by Jonathan Scott Hartley for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 is possibly more dependable; the features and mannerisms of ancestors having an uncanny way of showing up in their descendants.
That sculpture (which I’ve only seen in photographs) captured well the poise and weariness of the city’s founder in his latter years. It’s almost entirely different in tone and style from George Julian Zolnay’s sculpture of Pierre Laclede that flanks City Hall in the northwest corner of Washington Square – the lithe, dynamic, diplomatic former soldier of France and entrepreneur, who so impressed and won the friendship of the Osage chiefs with whom he entered into partnership, here and in the North American wilderness beyond St. Louis.
Frederick Fausz describes Laclede in greater depth than any historian to date, his character flaws as well as his greatness, placing him within the broad and narrow contexts of time and place. Thus deepening the reader’s understanding of the setting in France from which Pierre Laclede came, and New Orleans and the Upper Louisiana Territory where strategies for trade were being orchestrated; illustrating why Laclede was uniquely equipped to establish an international trading center in the mid-Mississippi River Valley beneficial to his family and his trading partners, on which early St. Louisans would build and prosper.
Fausz’s extensive, personal research and his comprehensive correlation of the research and publications of other historical specialists of the Louisiana Territory and the emerging American West, result in an enlightened and dramatic perspective on the founding of St. Louis, which Fausz terms “the first city of the new West”. This modest, 254 page, quality paperback is a history book to sink your teeth into and savor. My copy is marked with a record, thirty-two post-it notes.
Not because all of the information is new (although much of it is – Fausz’s reference to Laclede’s name literally translating as “the gate” gives added meaning to his paving the way for the Gateway to the West) but because Frederick Fausz has done such a masterful job of integrating various, existing source material into one concise and powerful whole. An excellent storyteller, Fausz demonstartes that one does not have to exaggerate or fictionalize history for it to be compelling. If this professor teaches like he writes (and I’ve no doubt that he does) his students are fortunate indeed.
Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West by J. Frederick Fausz is a must-read for anyone interested in St. Louis history and a true understanding of St. Louis’s critical and unique place in the broader scope of U.S. history. If Pierre Laclede was alive today, if he made his way up the Arch staircase, and up the tram to the top of the Gateway Arch would he recognize the view? I think that he would. Not only because I feel that he’s never entirely left here but because I think he would see below him the realization of his dream.
*Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West – J. Frederick Fausz, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2011.
Illustrations: Cover of Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West – used with the permission of The History Press, Charleston, SC; Map of Western New France Including the Illinois Country by Vincenzo Coronelli, 1688 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Chief of the Little Osages by Charles B. J. de Saint-Memin – Wikimedia Commons; Fort Pierre, South Dakota 1839 by Karl Bodmer – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Fort de Chartres Powder Magazine Building (which was standing when Laclede stored his imports at Fort de Chartres in 1763) – Attribution: l, Kbh3rd – Wikimedia Commons, wikipedia.org.
Photos: The St. Louis Riverfront During the Great Flood of 1993 – Thomas Kavanaugh; Downtown St. Louis from the Top of the Gateway Arch and Sculpture of Pierre Laclede, Founder of St. Louis at City Hall – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, author of this blog.