Unlike the Gateway Arch, Union Station, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and the Chatillon-Demenil Mansion, some of the city’s greatest treasures lie underground. Chief among these from a public perspective are the limestone caves over which St. Louis evolved from ancient times; some of which continue to be used for railway tunnels and offices in downtown St. Louis.
Cherokee Cave, a popular attraction in a by-gone era still lies mostly-inaccessible beneath the Chatillon-Demenil Mansion, as do the once highly-utilized Anheuser-Busch and Lemp brewery caves, as does the tunnel through which a full-size train can pass beneath the formidable Old Post Office.
But the huge cave beneath the Main Post Office on Market Street is filled with naturally cooled offices and Metro Transit runs commuter trains several times an hour through a natural channel of the cave engineered by James Eads in the early 1870’s, in conjunction with his masterwork of a bridge connecting Missouri and Illinois at St. Louis.
The modest cave beneath Sugar Loaf Mound, which stands just west of the Mississippi River atop a sheer bluff on Ohio Street east of Broadway, makes it doubly precious from the perspective of history. It is believed to be the last Mississippian Mound in what was once the western fringe of the great capital at Cahokia, and it may contain the only intact, Mississippian burial remains on the St. Louis side of the river.
Conical in shape at its southern end, before a retired riverboat captain named Adams leveled it early in the 20th century to build a home with a splendid view of the Mississippi, Sugar Loaf is believed to have been constructed in the Pre-Colombian Era, sometime around 1050 AD, with three platform steps to the north, one of which may have served as the base for a leader’s home, archaeologist Melvin Fowler has suggested.*
The conical top, no longer visible, was strongly suggestive of a burial mound. Although a small amount of digging was permitted many years ago, the last of the St. Louis Mounds has never been completely excavated. Nor will it be according to the Osage Nation which purchased it in 2009 and is planning to remove the contemporary houses on it, restore the mound and its steps, and establish an interpretive, cultural center there.
Like many Mississippian Mounds, Sugar Loaf was built over a cave. Archaeologists believe that caves were sacred to ancient peoples, who considered them the womb of mother earth. This may explain why such a large concentration of mounds was situated in and around what became St. Louis, because of the extensive underground cave system on the Missouri side of the river.
Federal troops stored ammunition in part of the cave beneath Sugar Loaf Mound during the Civil War. But the land fill created immediately south of the mound by the highway department, hides the cave entrance and several feet of Sugar Loaf’s base. The Osages have constructed cyclone fencing around much of the mound and are allowing nature to have it’s way with the earthwork. With grass growing high over its southern apron, Sugar Loaf is very much a protected burial site under wraps.
Honoring the graves of our ancestors is important to modern humans as it was to the ancients. But as descendants of many of St. Louis’ First Families discovered, locating the lost graves of their ancestors proved quite a mystery.
Jenne Kostial (shown to the left of her cousin Sharon Jezierski) grew up in St. Louis with stories that her “de Gamaché lineage had,” in her words, “strong historical ties that ran deep into the city’s core.” But it would take a great deal of personal research to get to the bottom of that oral tradition. There she found that her Great-great-great grandfather, Jean-Baptiste de Gamaché, was one of The First Thirty who built Colonial St. Louis.
Emigrating from Quebec, Canada in 1762 at the age of twenty-eight, Gamaché made his way to Fort de Chartres, where he met Pierre Laclede Liguest in November of 1763 and signed on to the expedition that gave birth to St. Louis. In terms of verifiable proof, it was in St. Louis’ colonial marriage and baptismal records that Jenne struck gold.
Jean-Baptiste de Gamaché married Marie Charlotte D’Amours de Leuviere of Praire du Rocher on May 3, 1767. Their original marriage certificate survives in the archives of the Missouri Historical Society Library.
Three of their five children lived to adulthood, one was the first child baptized in the first St. Louis, King of France Church. Sadly Charlotte died in 1781 not long after giving birth to her last child, who died by the age of four. Life in the frontier outpost was hard.
But Jean-Baptiste (known familiarly as Bapbette) lived on to the spring of 1805 witnessing St. Louis’ transfer from France to Spain and then to the United States of America. He built his home three doors north of Pierre Laclede and Marie Chouteau on Rue Royale/Main Street where the north leg of the Gateway Arch stands today. A farmer and fur trader (with a separate building for his merchandise) Bapbette flourished in St. Louis, operating a mill, surveying land and briefly running a ferry on the Meramec River.
And when he died Jean-Baptiste was buried, as was everyone else in St. Louis, in the graveyard beside the church, in the third block from the river, in the center of the village (where you see the crosses on the right). So why the mystery? Decades later Jenni explained, “the land where the cemetery lay was sold to make way for Hiway 70.”
The remains of those whose families could not purchase separate grave markers in a new cemetery were placed in metal boxes in the crypt beneath The Old Cathedral. Such was the fate of Jean-Baptiste and Charlotte de Gamaché – and many others! The Gamachés alone had thirty-seven family members who needed to be re-buried.
In a tangle almost as complicated as her genealogical research, Jennne Kostial discovered that her ancestors had eventually come to rest in an unmarked area of Section 5 in Calvary Cemetery with other early St. Louisans. So great was the Gamaché family’s joy in the resolution of the mystery, and so deep their devotion, that they partnered with the Archdiocese of St. Louis to raise a fitting memorial, not only to their family, but to all of the first settlers re-interred there.
Dedicated in 2009 the memorial bears the names of the First Thirty Families of St. Louis. City founder, Pierre Laclede is among them ‘though he died two leagues south of Arkansas Post in 1778 and his grave was later swept away by the Mississippi.
Jenne Kostial’s cousin by marriage, Ken Webb (pictured with her above) is a very knowledgable director with the St. Louis Genealogical Society, one of the largest family research organizations in the United States: http://www.stlgs.org/
“St. Louis was,” Webb points out, “a focal point in the westward movement.” It would become a melting pot of refugees from the Civil War and immigrants from the world over. Spearheaded by Dorothy Amburgey Griffith in the summer of 1966 and founded in 1968, the St. Louis Genealogical Society is a great place to research your family. With a database of 4,000,000 surnames and 2,000 members world-wide their resources are far-reaching.
Virtually everything left of Colonial St. Louis proper, as it stretched out above the Mississippi where the Arch grounds are today was believed lost in the Great Fire of 1849 and later demolitions that made way for the Jefferson Expansion Memorial Park.
Until an aerial view taken of the St. Louis Riverfront in 1942 after the demolition, revealed that the grid pattern established by Laclede in 1764, had survived a century-and-a-half of massive reconstruction, only to re-appear in the 20th century. As if the founder’s vision had never been lost. A carpet of grass now replaces the colonial grid.
Note the steeple of St. Louis’ Old Cathedral in the photograph above, the only building left standing at the center of the last block; on the only piece of land in St. Louis which has never been bought or sold.
Illustration Credits: The First Catholic Church in St. Louis, Arkansas Post 1689, and Louisiana Transfer for Exposition in 1904 World’s Fair – all in the public domain at wikipedia.org.
Photo Credits: Julian de Gamaché, Grandson of Jean-Baptiste de Gamaché with His Wife – used wih the kind permission of Jenne Kostial; Dedication of the Founding Families Memorial in Calvary Cemetery – Jenne Kostial; Fort de Chartres Powder Magazine – author: Kbh3rd, Creative Commons Share Alike License at Wikimedia Commons: Attribution: I,Kbh3rd, wikipedia.org.; St. Louis Riverfront after Demolition for the Gateway Arch, 1942 – used with permission of the National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; Four Views of Sugar Loaf Mound in St. Louis, March 31, 2014 and The Famille Chouteau Gravesite in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis – Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr.; all other photos – Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.
References: Journeys: The Gamachés in the New World, by Marquis de Gamaché, AuthorHouse, 2008.
*”A New Era for Sugarloaf Mound,” Max Wexberg Sanchez, The St. Louis Beacon, 7.02.10. https://www.stlbeacon.org/#!/content/18531/a_new_era_for_sugarloaf_mound_