The common version of the founding of St. Louis goes something like this: Pierre Laclède was told by the French government to travel from New Orleans and construct a trading post near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 1763. Bringing along his stepson, Auguste Chouteau, in early 1764, Laclède opened a trading post 18 miles south of the confluence in what would become St. Louis.
Two local historians have recently found reason to believe that, in actuality, the “founding of St. Louis” didn’t go like this at all. In fact, in their publications on the matter they’ve eliminated the word “founder” or “founding” altogether because the story is just that messy.
Professors Carl Ekberg, professor emeritus of history at Illinois State University, and Sharon Person, professor of English at St. Louis Community College, read through thousands of original documents from the 1700s that led them to believe we’re putting far too much weight on Laclède and Chouteau’s creation of the city.
The basis of this story, they say, came from Chouteau’s journals which were actually written 50 years after 1764, they year the city was founded. So, Ekberg and Person committed themselves to reading only source materials available in English, French and Spanish between 1760 and 1770.
“Slowly we began peeling back the onion,” Ekberg said. “The story conveyed by Chouteau in his journal became increasingly incredible and not viable if you are using serious, professional standards in history.”
Person was in charge of census data — the first available for St. Louis came in 1766, which corroborated the fact that Chouteau’s journal wasn’t really all that accurate.
“There was a slow emergence of community that went on for years,” Ekberg said. “When we’re raising the question, can Pierre Laclède be called a founder? We can’t replace him with anyone. We’re saying there’s a gradual emergence as the community arose with settlers coming from the other side of the river.”
There’s actually only one document that has been found that mentions a trade agreement between Laclède and the French government. And in March of 1764, a French commandant on the Illinois side of the river reported that Laclède came to his office and told him of his intent to set up the trading post—this is after the time Chouteau’s journal reports the city was founded.
Other documents from that period in time rarely mention Laclède and even more rarely mention Chouteau.
Ekberg and Person can’t pin down the exact people who did “found” St. Louis, but they do say Chouteau likely painted such a grand portrait of Laclède’s accomplishments to set himself up politically and to “buttress his land claims.”
“This is not a disinterested, objective document,” Ekberg said.
Person and Ekberg discuss why Laclède is still worth knowing about in our history and exactly how St. Louis garnered the name:
What: Pierre Lacléde, “Founder of St. Louis”: The Making (and Perpetuation) of a Myth
When: Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1 p.m.
Where: AT&T Foundation Multipurpose Room, Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd, St. Louis, MO, 63112
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