The Founding Spirit of St. Louis

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The City of St. Louis was founded in a spirit of collaboration, of tolerance among people of different races and socio-economic backgrounds, and of unprecedented freedom according to J. Frederick Fausz of the University of Missouri St. Louis.* This was due in large part to city founder, Pierre Laclede Liguest, who fostered those attitudes in the fur trading post he named St. Louis and to his stepson, Auguste Chouteau, city co-founder at the age of fourteen and by 1800 its leading citizen, who honored them after Laclede’s death near Arkansas Post in 1778.

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Participants in the dynamic symposium conducted at the Missouri History Museum on February 14, 2014 were met with a list of nineteen ways in which Laclede impacted St. Louis from the start and  which proved to be lasting legacies. The list was compiled by Professor Fausz, author of Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West.

Although some of these attitudes, notably regard for the indigenous nations who lived on the land and racial tolerance began to change dramatically during the territorial period (from about 1804-1821 onward) much of Laclede’s pioneering spirit permeates present-day St. Louis along with the relaxed hospitality that also marked our colonial period and which Meriwether Lewis and William Clark fully enjoyed when they arrived here in 1803.

Historian Bob Moore of the National Park Service, followed Fausz’s opening lecture with a demonstration of the intriguing, interactive map he’s created of St. Louis circa 1804. It allows viewers to click on a link and virtually ascend Rue de La Place/ Market Street to enter St. Louis as Lewis and Clark found it. http://www.nps.gov/jeff/historyculture/saint-louis-in-1804.htm

IMG_7006 - Version 2Indeed William Clark found St. Louis so congenial that he made it his permanent home, raised his children here and supervised Indian Affairs of Upper Louisiana from the house he built adjacent to where the north leg of the Gateway Arch stands today.

Twice Governor of the Missouri Territory, William Clark is buried in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Geography has also played a major role in St. Louis’ greatness – undulating prairie atop a firm bed of limestone – covering rich clay and coal deposits, fed by numerous natural springs, and watered by the mightiest river system in North America. We have Laclede to thank for selecting what geologists have termed the perfect place in the Mid- Mississippi River Valley to establish a fur trading post with the potential to evolve into a major metropolis; by 1890 the fourth city in the nation.

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The founding of St. Louis was neither accidental nor a personal venture but the planned establishment of an “Indian Capital of Commerce” in the Mid-Mississippi River Valley – a collaboration among French government officials and businessmen in New Orleans via Laclede and leaders of the Osage Nation who dominated the area, with the potential for trade with tribes over a far greater area. Frederick Fausz detailed this collaboration in the opening lecture of The St. Louis: a Great City from the Start Symposium that launched the city’s 250th Anniversary Celebrations two Fridays ago.

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Of course the Mid-Mississippi River Valley, and what became the Greater St. Louis Area specifically, had been a major center for trade among tribal peoples from ancient times because of its access to numerous river highways and its extensive natural cave system. St. Louis remains today the vortex of an enormously rich area of diverse natural resources – fertile cropland, mineral deposits, and water.

IMG_20130213_151252 - Version 2Fausz went on to suggest that Pierre Laclede had been specifically recruited in New Orleans for the establishment of this French and Indian Capital of Commerce because of a unique combination of charcateristics. Laclede was a well-educated Frenchman, an expert swordsman and officer in the French Militia in lower Louisiana. He was poised, diplomatic, adventurous and a natural leader. Moreover, for personal reasons, Laclede was willing to leave New Orleans and settle elsewhere.

Thus it was that Pierre Laclede Liguest of Bedous, France set sail at the beginning of August 1763 with his stepson, Auguste Chouteau, a youth remarkable in his own right (a month shy of his fourteenth birthday) for the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to establish a fur trading post.

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Traveling with a royal convoy of five boats bringing provisions from New Orleans to Fort de Chartres, along with the imports they were to trade with the Indians, Laclede and Chouteau had time to get to know each other very well and a bond of trust and friendship formed that would determine much of Chouteau’s future success.

Little_osagesThe journey provided Auguste with months of tutelage in organization, military discipline and leadership. Upon reaching Fort de Chartres and almost immediately upon breaking ground for the fur trading post, Auguste witnessed exemplary diplomacy as his step-father negotiated with Indian leaders, French military, and residents of Cahokia, Illinois – recruiting many to move to St. Louis. In making Chouteau his first lieutenant Laclede was establishing his acceptance as a leader, grooming him for authority in the community, and providing security for Chouteau’s mother and siblings; in effect it was lasting evidence of the love he bore Marie Chouteau and their family.

By this time Laclede had a son of his own by Marie Bourgeois Chouteau, Jean Pierre Chouteau aged six. But this did not diminish his affection for Auguste, who had become in all but name, his adopted son.

220px-AugustechouteauAbandoned in early childhood along with his mother, by his legal father (Rene Auguste Chouteau, who left New Orleans, went to France and didn’t return for nearly fifteen years) Auguste would become one of the shrewdest merchants in North America; a quality he may have inherited from his mother. He was likely, already, a bright and determined little boy when a French officer by the name of Laclede entered their lives – Auguste’s and Marie’s – and began to mentor him.

220px-Reverie_TN_08_former_MS_river_SThe voyage up the mighty Misssissippi was a journey into the unknown for both,  “Laclede symbolizing the mature wisdom of Enlightenment Europe and Chouteau, the youthful vitality of frontier America.”*

It was an arduous but fascinating, twelve-hundred-river-mile voyage into the Illinois Country against the Misssissippi’s powerful current – past Arkansas Post, past Kaskaskia, past Ste. Genevieve (settled just twenty-eight years earlier).

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They reached Fort de Chartres in November as winter was settling into the Mississippi River Valley. There Laclede secured permission to store their trade goods until spring while he and Auguste began scouting out a secure site for the trading post. Since the land at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers proved to be too marshy and prone to flooding for a permanent settlement, they needed an alternative nearby.

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While wintering at Fort de Chartres Laclede began planning a grid pattern map for a village centered around the fur trading post. It would stretch out atop the natural terraces of bluffs that fronted the Mississippi in the location he had chosen about fifteen river miles south of the confluence. Beyond the riverfront, flowering prairie and virgin forest spread as far west as the eye could see.

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Considered modern by many in 1764, this plan had its roots in the street grid of New Orleans and earlier roots in medieval Europe. When the ice began to break up in the Mississippi in February of 1764 Auguste returned to the area in which Laclede had notched trees for the location of the village, with a “faithful crew of thirty” and began supervising construction of the first buildings of St. Louis  – thus ushering in the Colonial history of St. Louis.

St. Louis was for a time remarkable for its vision and its tolerance. It did indeed become an Indian Capital of Commerce where delegates from many nations, some as far west as the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, came peacefully to trade. For the first four decades the languages spoken most commonly in St. Louis after French, were Indian dialects. Indians came in such great numbers that at times they outnumbered the villagers. Trade was also conducted outside of the village. Laclede’s sons lived for months at a time among Indian nations and established trading posts far to the west of St. Louis.

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Women rose to prominence, many controlling their own fortunes before the turn of the 19th century. Auguste Chouteau and his younger brother Pierre learned to speak the languages of the tribes with whom they did business. They spoke Osage but not English. Class distinctions would not arise until after the Colonial period.

People of different races and social backgrounds lived and worked side by side in the village perched above the Mississippi. Slavery would not be eliminated until 1865 but almost from the start free men and women of color also inhabited this multi-cultural community that evolved in stark contrast to the English colonies along the Eastern seaboard. In all of North America there was nothing quite like St. Louis.

* J. Frederick Fausz, The Founding of St. Louis: First City of the New West, The History Press, 2011.

51Hc-5wiwqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Illustration Sources: Fur Traders in Canada Trading with Indians, 1777 – author William Fadden (1750-1836) from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Map of the Illinois Country 1718 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Chief of the Little Osages c. 1807 by Charles B. J. de Saint-Memin – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Old Ste. Genevieve c. 1750 – mural from the Missouri State Capital Building by Oscar E. Berninghaus, 1924 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; New Orleans Fort Map, 1763 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Fort Pierre from Travels in America – by Karl Bodmer – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; St. Louis: The Fourth City, 1764-1911, Volume 2 by Walter B. Stevens – paperback reprint by the Ulan Press, available at amazon.com.

Photo Credits: Reverie, Tennessee, TN/AR Stateline at the Old Course of the Mississippi River, View South, author: Thomas R. Machnitzki, July 2010 – Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License; wikimedia commons, GNU Free Documentation License at wikipedia.org; Fort de Chartres – Front Curtain and Gate House – author: Kbh3rd, released into the public domain at wikipedia.org; St. Louis, Missouri Skyline in September 2008 – author: Captain Timothy Reinhardt, USAF – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; William Clark’s St. Louis Grave Site and February 15, 2014 Re-Enactment of Chouteau’s Return & the Founding of St. Louis – used with the kind permission of Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr.. All other photos by Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.

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About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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