Archeologists from the Missouri Department of Transportation are ecstatic over a discovery beneath the Poplar Street Bridge in St. Louis. They’ve uncovered the first physical evidence dating to when the French founded St. Louis in 1764.
The findings help confirm written documentation of St. Louis’ earliest European settlers and shed new light on the people who live here.
Michael Meyer is an archeologist with MoDOT and the principal investigator of the department’s work in St. Louis.
“I’ve been working in archeology for approximately 22 years and in that time I’ve done a great number of different archeological sites from Civil War battlefields to colonial plantations, and I feel that this excavation is probably the most significant thing that I have ever personally worked on or seen done,” Meyer said.
Meyer and his team have found the first evidence of where a French colonial home once stood. The darker, trench-like formation in an approximate 25 by 30 foot hole shows where a series of wood posts were built to form a house wall.
The French built homes with vertical wood posts, as opposed to the Anglo-American style of horizontal log cabins.
The cross-section of development with concrete on top, brick in the middle, and discolored dirt on the bottom demonstrates development across centuries, common to the way other big cities have developed.
“When people build new buildings they don’t necessarily dig out the old buildings,” Meyer said. “What they merely do is they demolish and tear down the old buildings, lay some fresh soil, some clean fill on top, and build on top of that.”
Because the French kept excellent records, historical documents show who owned the house archeologists uncovered. According to an 1804 inventory, the French house was built circa 1769 by Joseph Bouchard and was later owned by Philip Riviére, who was part of a prominent St. Louis family. The house is described as “house of posts, 20 by 18.”
In a similar hole in the ground a few dozen feet away from the location owned by Riviére was found another house, but one owned by a man of lesser means.
At that site, archeologists found what looks to be part of a bowl, a piece of tin-enameled Spanish majolica ceramic.
According to Fred Fausz, a history professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in colonial America, the archeological discovery is important because it confirms written evidence that St. Louis was a major commerce center and that many of its residents were well off.
“But it even tells us something new in how far down the social scale these affluent products were showing up,” Fausz said. “So someone lives in a house that’s only 15 feet by 18 feet, nonetheless had access to pretty expensive French pottery thanks to the international fur trade.”
Why was this history lost?
People have lived in the St. Louis area for a long time. Just across the Mississippi River is the center of Cahokia Mounds, an ancient city of native North Americans. Scholars think that, about 900 years ago, it was the largest city north of Mexico.
Archeologists, with the help of being able to see large earthen mounds, have better documented some of the history of the ancient Mississippian culture. And recent archeological discoveries made as a result of construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge have identified an ancient suburb of Cahokia.
Meyer of MoDOT said the findings of St. Louis’ colonial past are significant because they were lost as the city became so heavily populated. Then, in the 1930s, to make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Gateway Arch, nearly 40 city blocks where the original French settlement would have been were razed.
Plans for new construction, led to the find. MoDOT will be doing major work to the interstate ramps and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires an archeological investigation be conducted before construction can begin. Since June 2013 archeologists have been at the site on-and-off working on two city blocks. The Poplar Street Bridge was constructed before the federal law was approved.
“And that’s why it’s being done,” Meyer said citing the mission statement of the Act. “It’s not being done strictly for scientific value or personal interest by a researcher. It’s done because, in general, people see value in this and the amount of work we do is measured against how important the resource is. And because we consider this to be phenomenally significant, we expend additional resources on this type of project.”
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Archeologists will likely conduct more surveys in the areas under the Poplar Street Bridge this summer. The dig sites from the most recent finds are now covered up.
Bob Moore, the historian of the Gateway Arch for the National Park Service, sees the significance of what’s been found. He said finding any remnants of St. Louis’ past is exciting.
“I think everybody who’s studied this over the years -- from architectural historians to regular research historians like myself -- have always felt that all the vestiges of colonial St. Louis are completely gone, that the 19th century buildings that had foundations dug deeper and walls built higher and thicker, had totally obliterated anything that might remain from the French colonial period,” he said. “But here, they’ve actually found remnants of this exciting period of time that lasted for 40 years in the early history of St. Louis before the Louisiana Purchase.”
MoDOT and the National Park Service, which controls the museum beneath the Gateway Arch, have already agreed that some of the newfound artifacts will be displayed in new museum exhibits, which won’t likely open until 2016 as part of CityArchRiver.
Moore said he hopes the new exhibits will do a better job in conveying the story of why the Gateway Arch was built along the riverfront.
“They didn’t just sort of arbitrarily pick a spot; they picked the site of old St. Louis. They picked the site of the original fur trading town, the place where Lewis and Clark set off from and came back to, all the overland pioneers and everybody else who passed through St. Louis and the people who came here and chose to settle here and kind of provisioned all those westward expeditions and everything.”
The discovery of the first physical evidence of colonial St. Louis is especially fitting as St. Louis area residents continue their yearlong celebration of the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding.