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Happy Birthday, St. Louis!

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2009 - The city of St. Louis was founded on Feb. 14, 1764. The community is 245 years ago today.

This morning, a floral wreath will be placed at the statue of the city's founder Pierre Liguest Laclede by members of La Societe Francaise de Saint Louis, as the group has done for years on this date. The statue of the French-born fur trader-leader is immediately west of St. Louis City Hall, facing Market Street.

Laclede was clever about understanding flooding and transportation needs when he set out to choose his base for his company's fur-trading operations. He chose high ground about 18 miles south of the Confluences of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers.

He came to America during the French and Indian War and had lived in New Orleans for about a decade. He was a partner in the fur-trading company Maxent, Laclede and Co. In 1763, the French crown granted that company the right to the Indian fur trade in the Upper Mississippi Valley.

That November, Laclede ventured from New Orleans upstream on the Mississippi River to the French settlement of Fort de Chartres in the Illinois Country. He spent the early winter there assisted by Auguste Chouteau, who was just 14. The youth was the son of Laclede's companion Marie Therese Chouteau and New Orleans baker Rene Chouteau.

French Canadians, who had lived in Illinois communities for two generations, helped the pair scout for a site for a fur-trading post. They ventured as far north as the Missouri and Illinois rivers. The bottom land of the Illinois country was not considered for the post - perhaps because Laclede had heard a treaty in Europe had just been shifted that land from France to England.

By mid-February, ice flows on the Mississippi River had diminished and travel was easier. On Feb. 14, Laclede led his party of 30 men to clear the trees at the site we now call Gateway Arch. The site then was gently sloping with limestone outcroppings. Its flatness today was artificially created in the 1950s and 1960s to hide railroad lines in a tunnel parallel to the river. Laclede laid out and named three streets. He returned to Fort de Chartres and left young Chouteau to over see the development. At first, the men slept on platforms that were six or seven feet high above ground to protect them from "wild beasts," according to Chouteau.

By that June, the company had built a few buildings and, within the year, a fine white stone company headquarters.

Laclede was 35 when he founded St. Louis. He was born in the small village of Bedous, in the Bearne district of southern France in 1729. Even today, the village is not easy to find on all but the most local road maps. It is south of Pau in the Pyrenees mountains. On a visit to the town a few years ago, we found that the residents are proud of Laclede. A provincial Michelin Green Guide lists the town only because Laclede founded St. Louis. In his boyhood, his family home was a half-hour hike from the Spanish border. Today, the border is farther south.

Berne means bear in French, and the wooded Berne region was known for wild game. Laclede grew up knowing about trapping and fur trading, although immediate family members were not trappers. His father, also named Pierre Laclede, was a lawyer and regional official at the Parliament of Navarre. His older brother was a lawyer and a member the Academy of Arts and Sciences at Pau, the largest city in that area.

In the late 1760s, many French residents in present day Illinois and Indiana were alarmed to learn that their land had been ceded to England many were alarmed. Many French-Canadian fur trappers, farmers and miners whose families had lived a few generations in French towns from Vincennes to Cahokia and Kaskaskia left the British behind and moved to the high ground of St. Louis, according to records in Alvord and Carter's "The Critical Period, the New Regime, Trade and Politics" Illinois Historical Collections Vol. X.

By 1766, 40 families lived in the village of St. Louis.

Laclede not live to see his St. Louis flourish. He died at 48, in November 1778 while traveling along the Mississippi near the mouth of the Arkansas River. Laclede's four children by Marie Therese Chouteau and their half-brother Auguste Chouteau were among the leaders of the settlement.

Unknown to most French speakers, the land west of the Mississippi had been granted to Spain. Eventually the Spanish military took control. In 1769 most French-speaking male residents had to take an oath of allegiance to Spain. In speech and customs, the growing village of St. Louis remained French except for a few Spanish administrators and their aids.

In 1803 France's Emperor Napoleon got Louisiana Territory back just long enough to sell it to Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis became part of the United States.

Patricia Rice, who is a member of La Societe Francaise de Saint Louis, is a freelance writer.

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