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St. Louis At 250: How They Lived


In St. Louis’ first few years, more longtime residents of Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher, Mine La Motte, Old Mines, Mo., Ste. Genevieve and the area moved to Laclede’s fur trading post. Land-owning small farmers, fur traders, miners, merchants from the region’s French settlements all came to Laclede’s settlement.

“Religion was a very strong reason. They just didn’t want to live under the English,” said Margaret Kimball Brown, author “History as They Lived It: A Social History of Prairie du Rocher.”

“Most of the people from Fort de Chartres and some from St. Philippe went to St. Louis,” Brown said. Flooding at Fort de Chartres was another reason for their move, she said. “A lot of the people of Kaskaskia, which was mostly a mission settlement, went to Ste. Genevieve, but some went to St. Louis.”

The populations of most of east side communities dwindled. Some disappeared. The only remnant of Fort de Chartres and the villages is the last fort  built on the site, which has been partially reconstructed. Of  nearby towns, Ste. Anne is an archeological site; and a fragment of St. Philippe’s lifestyle survives in a short story, “The Maid of St. Philippe,” by Kate Chopin. The 19th century novelist had spent much time when she was young with her great grandmother Victoire Verdon Charleville (a Godchild of Auguste Chouteau).

Capt. St. Ange de Bellerive, the last French military leader at Fort de Chartres, moved to St. Louis in October 1765. He used French law and customs to run the village, with five inhabitants. None knew they were now part of New Spain, due to a secret treaty signed between the French and Spanish at Fontainebleau, outside of Paris.

When the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau became public, Spanish officials did not take over instantly. But when they did, they outlawed the buying of Indian slaves (1769), built Fort San Carlos (1780), but mostly did not interfere with the French culture and language. The Laclede-Chouteau family lost its fur-trading monopoly, though it continued in that business and expanded to milling wheat and corn in a mill on the Mill Creek.

“We became a milling center, the first year we might have been nicknamed Paincourt – short of bread – but soon we were selling it,” food historian Suzanne Corbett said.

Bountiful harvest

"This country is one of the most beautiful in all Louisiana.” So wrote Viron D'Artaguette, an inspector in the Illinois County in the 1720s, about land near Fort de Chartres. “Every kind of grain and vegetables are produced here in the greatest abundance. They have large numbers of oxen, cows, sheep, etc., upon the prairies. Poultry is abundant and fish plentiful. So that, in fact, they lack none of the necessaries or conveniences of life."

Despite the abundance, early settlers were challenged by Fox Indians raids. As Brown said in a recent interview, “It was not always peaceful and there never was a large population.” Before the American Revolution, the area had 7,000-8,000 residents, she said, compared to approximately a million in the English Colonies.

“The French were very savvy with their table, because unlike other colonies in other parts of the continent, the French incorporated the food around them into their collection of recipes,” said Corbett, who often works with the National Parks Service at the Arch.

“They did not consider themselves superior to native foods and didn’t mind trying different foods: large catfish, game and pecans,” she said.

“Pecans replaced the almonds in many of their traditional recipes,” Corbett said. “By the early 1800s some of the pecan trees along the river were over-harvested, stressed but some of those riverside pecan (trees) still exist,” she said. “They raised hogs, bought from professional game hunters and bartered with the Shawnee for other meats. They enjoyed local yellow plums and grapes and loved apples not just in their pastries but to make sweet and hard cider.”

Church at the center

By its sixth year, the St. Louis village was large and devout enough to build a small vertical log church with a split board roof. It was the first of the parish’s four buildings on the site that is occupied today by the limestone Basilica of Louis IX, King of France (the Old Cathedral). It is the only plot of the colonial city that remains with the same ownership and is under major restoration.

Credit Wikipedia
A map of St. Louis in 1780, from archives in Seville, Spain

The pastor at Kaskaskia would visit to celebrate Mass and officiate at weddings and baptisms. In the town’s 8th year a resident priest was assigned. Friar Valentine Neufchateau, a member of the Capuchin order, offered daily Mass, regular confession, baptism, weddings and funerals.

In Colonial times, Sunday Mass was followed by a community-wide afternoon “bal” that often included group singing of secular songs and shared food. Sometimes there would be a horse race or billiards.

In 1772, St. Louis had a population of 577, edging close Ste. Genevieve, which was then the largest with 691 residents. It was a diverse lot.

Beside the initial Indian visitors, the Osage, Ottawas, Ioway (Aioiak), also traded at the post. The Sac-Fox came to sell maple sugar and pecans. Some Indians sold captives as slaves to the settlers. Madame Chouteau is said to have owned two female Indian slaves.

Male European owners sometimes married their Indians slaves and/or baptized their mixed race children, according to Forest Park Community College professor Sharon Person. Person is the author of “Standing Up For Indians” and did part of her research in Old Cathedral Parish baptism records. Mixed-race children were clearly part of the fabric of early St. Louis. Community leaders including members of the Chouteau, Gratiot, Liguest, Labbadie and Cerre families served as godparents for Indian infants, Person found.

Remembering Laclede

“Laclede chose his site wisely,” said Suzanne Bouchard, a member of the 100-year-old, Société Française de Saint Louis.  Each Feb. 14 since the city’s 200th birthday party, her organization has laid a fresh floral wreath at the foot of Laclede’s statue on the south side of Market Street, just west of City Hall.

Credit Courtesy of Suzanne Bouchard
A french newspaper report on the 1964 wreath ceremony organized by the late Jacques Chincoineau.

This year on Feb. 15 at City Hall actors will present tableaus that reenact the founding of the city. On Feb. 14, a great bonfire in Forest Park will mark the founding, and 250 sculpture birthday cakes will be unveiled around the region. The Société Française will honor Laclède at his statue at 11 a.m. as it has for a half a century.

More events: www.stl250.org/event-calendar.aspx/home

Read more:

“The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion,” Jay Gitlin. Yale University Press 2009

“Lion of the Valley, St. Louis, Missouri,” James Neal Primm. Pruitt Publishing Co. 1981

Credit umsl.edu

“Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West,” J. Frederick Fausz. Charleston; History Press 2011 “Becoming ‘A Nation of Quakers’” Missouri Historical Society, Gateway Heritage

“The First Chouteaus, River Barons of Early St. Louis,” William E. Foley and D. David Rice. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983

“Colonial St. Louis, Building a Creole Capitol,” Charles E. Peterson. Tucson: The Patrice Press 1993

“Standing Up For Indians “Baptism Registers as an Untapped Sources for Multicultural Relations in St. Louis 1766-1821,” Sharon Person. Chicago: Center for French Colonial Studies, 2010

Note: An earlier version misspelled the name of Capt. St. Ange de Bellerive.


Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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