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Welcome to our collection of stories related to the history of the St. Louis region. We hope if you're a history buff or just curious you'll find something interesting here.Have a story to share or question to ask? Email our engagement editor Kelsey Proud at kproud@stlpublicradio.org.

Old maps indicate that Laclede and Chouteau weren't first

A map of St. Louis in 1780
Archives in Seville, Spain | Wikipedia

A respected historian is as excited about three maps he found as if they were treasure maps. They lead to special sort of "gold," the earliest known description of what has become St. Louis and north St. Louis County.

Carl J. Ekberg believes a French citizen already had settled in what now lies within the today’s St. Louis city limits before Feb. 14, 1764, the auspicious day 14-year-old Auguste Chouteau oversaw the beginning of the construction of a fur trading post for Pierre Laclede Liquest.

Ekberg is one of the most respected historians of the Upper Mississippi Valley during the French Colonial period and a professor emeritus at Illinois State University. "The maps shed new light on old St. Louis,” he said at the annual meeting of the Center for French Colonial Studies, a couple weeks ago at the University of Indiana Bloomington.

He discovered three 1767 maps by Capt. Guy Dufossat, a French military engineer assigned to design and oversee the building of two forts in the Upper Mississippi Valley for the territory’s new owner, Spanish King Carlos III.

De La Joie

One of the maps indicates that a man named De La Joie was living in what is now the Hyde Park neighborhood on a stream that flows into the Mississippi just north of downtown. Dufossat followed mapping tradition and named the stream and a nearby Mississippi Island for De La Joie.

Other historians participating in the conference recognized the stream on the engineer’s colorful map and helped Ekberg match it with a stream that is now encased in sewer pipe and runs under Branch Street, emerging about five blocks south of the McKinley Bridge.

Ekberg found Dufossat’s maps in a French library as he was researching a book he is writing with historian Sharon Person about the first decades of St. Louis. The pair’s book is to be published in time for city’s 250th anniversary in 2014, and the authors are not planning to publish the maps until then.

French engineer Dufossat came to St. Louis in mid-April 1767 from New Orleans in a convoy of two large boats with 40 to 50 men under the command of Capt. Francisco Riu Y Morales, Ekberg said. Riu was to build two forts near the mouth of the Missouri River to defend the area from the British who had just gained control of Mississippi’s east bank. The area was being settled by French colonials but had been secretly ceded to the Spanish King in the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau.

Dufossat’s job was to design the forts, the sites of which are lost to the meandering rivers.

Ekberg makes the case that the engineer’s detailed maps indicate that De La Joie settled before Laclede and Chouteau arrived. The maps show agricultural plots, houses, the village street grid, mounds and Indian settlements, and streams entering the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Nothing on Dufossat’s three maps is named for Laclede or Chouteau. Dufossat does not name the settlement St. Louis. He wrote the words Pain Court, the village nickname that means Short of Bread in French.

Dufossat’s map has three stone buildings and a church with a steeple near the present site of the Old Cathedral. The maps were drawn before Chouteau opened a mill on what was to be called Chouteau’s Pond. The pond now is the lowland of the downtown rail yards and parking areas just south of Busch Stadium. Another miller’s name appears near where Chouteau would put his mill.

A map that covers the northern section of the surveyed area includes a quarry near the Missouri River and a nearby stream named L’Eau Froide. The creek survives today with the name translated into English as Cold Water Creek.


Ekberg sought out and published rare maps in most of his books: “French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times” (2000), “Colonial Ste. Genevieve” (1985) and other French Colonial history books on François Valle, Louis Bolduc, both early Ste. Geneviève settlers, explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and the river village of Kaskaskia.

Ekberg made his case about De La Joie's early settlement before a group of historians, archeologists, social scientists, genealogists and passionate amateurs - several descended from Colonial French-Americans and Indians - at the Center for French Colonial Studies national annual weekend meeting.

Now retired in rural Virginia, the professor said he and co-author Person still had much word to do on their book and had not had time to visit St. Louis and walk the area where the De La Joie creek had been.

Person, a member of the center’s board, is author of "Standing Up for Indians."

Now Legeay

The audience, of course, had never seen Dufossat's maps but several knew the turf. Emily Horton, a board member from St. Louis, said the De La Joie River, now is underground as part of the Metropolitan Sewer system. The land above it still collects water and sometimes floods in spring, she said. She has seen the stream labeled as Lageay, which she spelled for the conference participants.

From across the room French-speaking genealogist Suzanne Sommerville of Detroit nearly exploded with excitement.

“Legeay is just a corruption of De La Joie,” she said. “Listen, it sounds exactly the same, spelled differently.”

The fur trader and the stream named for him are mentioned in the history of Hyde Park’s landmark, Most Holy Trinity Catholic, founded in 1848. At the time of its founding, oral histories of the trader had survived.

But until Ekberg’s discovery of the Dufossat maps, no modern person knew how early De La Joie had settled along the stream. While that initial date is not known, Ekberg said he is sure it was established before 1764.

Historians had been relying on Auguste Chouteau’s memoir, written in 1804, one year after Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase. Chouteau, then 54 and a prominent community leader, described how he and Laclede chose an “empty” but auspicious bluff south of the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and Missouri and how he himself had oversee the post’s construction.

Most historians assumed Chouteau meant no French fur traders nor other Europeans were settled in this area west of the Mississippi.

“He wrote about the empty bluff; this map changes that,” Ekberg said.

Chouteau could not have seen upriver to the De La Joie settlement, but in deciding where to set up a trading post, Laclede would have picked up information about the fur trader.

On reflection, the conferees noted that historians made a lazy assumption. Few pioneers were more nimble and mobile than the French colonialists. The Mississippi River was not a national border until the end of the French and Indian War.

From 1699, when two French Canadian priests founded the Church of the Holy Family in what is now Cahokia, generations of French-Americans settled and raised their families on the east side of the Mississippi in Fort de Chartres, Prairie de Rocher, Cahokia, Medoc and Prairie Du Pont (known today as Dupo). Some settlements were lost, including St. Phillippe near Fort de Chartres. Now an archeological dig, it is most vividly depicted in St. Louis writer Kate Chopin’s 1892 story "The Maid of Saint Phillippe" based, in part, on her great-grandmother’s stories about French Colonial times.

Many of these Illinois French Colonists fled to the Mississippi’s west bank after the British prevailed in the French and Indian War. In the years after that war, Chouteau and Laclede’s fur trading post boomed.

Busting myths

Ekberg’s discoveries will burst a few myths, he said.

For example, in the first decade of the village, French Colonial stone and frame buildings lacked the gracious “French Creole” porches and multiple French doors found in Ste. Geneviève. Instead the early St. Louis builder stuck closely to models of houses they knew in France or Quebec. The French Colonials seemed to have had to endure years of hot Upper Mississippi summers before discovering that a gallerie or porch provides shade and that opened French doors provide interior cross ventilation.

The engineer’s maps show that the village of what would be called St. Louis is laid out in French measure called pied not the more traditional arpent measurement, Ekberg said.

Two examples of naming streams for the first to settle along them are familiar today. In 1700, more than two generations before Laclede and Chouteau arrived, French Jesuit missionaries Pierre Gabriel Marert and Jacques Gravier established the St. Francis Xavier Mission to the Kaskaskia Indians on the north bank of the mouth of a river in modern day Carondelet. On old maps, the river was called La Riviere de Pere (Priest’s River). Today we call it the River Des Peres. The Jesuits followed the Kaskaskia Indians to southern Illinois about 1701 and closed the mission, according to St. Louis University professor the Rev. Lawrence Kenny.

Then we have Fifi Creek, now spelled Fee Fee, in northwest St. Louis County. Fifi is an old French nickname for fils, which means son in French, equivalent to Sonny in English. Fifi Beaugenou was one of the first children born in the village of St. Louis. As an adult he moved west to farm on the rich flood plain of Bridgeton. A creek went through the farm, so it was called Fifi’s creek.

Next time you are stuck in traffic along I-70, just north of downtown, you can get a sense of where De La Joie settled. First spot the 215-feet tall, twin Bedford limestone towers of Most Holy Trinity Church high on the river bluff, then let your eyes go to the Mississippi River then a few blocks downstream to where oral history says the fur trader's house stood.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

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