The story of St. Louis’ beginnings becomes more complicated with new archaeological findings | St. Louis Public Radio

The story of St. Louis’ beginnings becomes more complicated with new archaeological findings

Jun 8, 2017

Archaeologists from the Missouri Department of Transportation believe they have found artifacts and evidence of permanent residences in St. Louis prior to 1764, when the city became a permanent trading post along the Mississippi River.

The discoveries and inferences that archaeologists can derive from them add nuance to the complex story of how St. Louis became an important commerce center in the 18th century – more than a decade prior to United States’ independence and nearly 40 years before the country acquired St. Louis through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Archaeologists work near the Poplar Street Bridge in downtown St. Louis in April, 2017.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The founding of St. Louis

The story of the founding of St. Louis goes something like this: A French fur trader named Pierre Laclède and a small group that included his stepson, Auguste Chouteau, sailed north from New Orleans in late 1763. Along the way, they stopped in Ste. Genevieve, Fort de Chartres and the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Laclède eventually decided in February 1764 to establish a trading post on the west bank of the Mississippi River and call it St. Louis.

While Laclède and Chouteau certainly played an important role in establishing a permanent trading post, what’s lost in the popular version of events is the extent to which people – both French and American Indian – were already living in the area that became St. Louis.

To be clear, archaeologists working in St. Louis aren’t claiming to have uncovered artifacts that date back many hundreds of years to the Mississippian culture. It's established that native peoples had lived in the area long before white Europeans arrived.

Scholars believe Cahokia Mounds, an ancient city of native North Americans just 10 miles east of St. Louis, was the most populated city north of Mexico about 900 years ago. Plus, the west side of the river contained many mounds in present-day Forest Park and a prominent one near the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge called Big Mound.

The last surviving mound in St. Louis that’s thought to have been constructed by the same Mississippian culture that created Cahokia Mounds is Sugar Loaf Mound, in south St. Louis. However, it’s also possible native groups built Sugar Loaf Mound during the earlier Woodland period.

The archaeologists’ discoveries of French and American Indian artifacts are from a historic period that refers to a time when native groups and Europeans regularly interacted with one another.


Archaeologist Michael Meyer shows off a piece of French faïence his team unearthed.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The findings

Michael Meyer, a senior historic archaeologist with the Missouri Department of Transportation, enthusiastically talks about the work he’s done in St. Louis the past few years.

After uncovering three years ago the first evidence of French colonial homes in St. Louis, Meyer said he didn’t expect to find so much information related to the beginnings of St. Louis.

“We thought there was a historic Indian village near St. Louis but it was well south of our excavation right here and it was completely separate from the village of St. Louis,” Meyer said. “By finding Indian features, by finding an Indian encampment at the same location we’re finding French houses, it kind of changes our understanding of how the very earliest settlement of St. Louis happened.

“And it might sort of tie into recent changes in our understanding of the early French settlement that French settlers were here actually before Laclède and Chouteau arrived here, and there were actually permanent French houses here prior to 1764,” he said.

Michael Meyer says that the work he and his current team have completed is the most significant of his career.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The discovery of three items has caused Meyer and his team of archaeologists to believe American Indians occupied land both predating French occupation and at roughly around the same time and place as the early French settlers.  

Those items are trade beads, brass artifacts that include kettle fragments and cooking utensils, and French faïence, specifically a ceramic cup.

Meyer is careful to point out that his assertions are not definitive since the uncovered artifacts aren’t dated. However, he said the collection of all three items – items traded to and used by Native Americans rather than kept in French homes – leads to the educated inferences.

“When you put them all together, it looks like a historic Indian encampment,” Meyer said.

The discovery of items that predate the founding of the St. Louis trading post in 1764 comes as no surprise to Andrew Weil.

Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, said that although there were likely no large, permanent groups of Native Americans living in the area in 1764, when St. Louis was established, he said the region was “a Native American superhighway.”

Archaeologist Michael Meyer shows off a bird pipe he estimates is from the late 1700s.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Weil, who also has a master’s degree in historic archaeology, said it was common for Native Americans to pass through the area, temporarily stay for a couple months or even spend winters here.

“What they are finding are early trade goods that point to the presence of Native Americans interacting with the Europeans at the site,” Weil said.  

Weil said that because some of the items seem to predate 1764, “they may be indicating that there were some Europeans living in or near the site of St. Louis and interacting with local Native Americans prior to the founding.” 

“It’s conceivable that some intrepid European traders sniffed the place out before Laclède and Chouteau showed up,” Weil said.

Bob Moore, a National Park Service historian at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, said the archaeological findings are surprising.

“There’s a lot more investigating that needs to be done about what [Meyer] is uncovering there,” said Moore of the archaeological findings. “If you would have talked to me 10 years ago and asked me what’s left of colonial St. Louis, I would have said nothing; it’s completely gone,” he said.

To that extent, Moore gives Meyer and his team credit for finding evidence of the city’s past so well preserved beneath the surface.

“[Meyer] had the faith that there could be remnants of the French colonial period that existed in the soil layers,” Moore said.

“It was a great area that hadn’t been bulldozed,” he confirmed, noting that the removal of 40 city blocks to make way for the Gateway Arch didn’t help in preserving the city’s past.

Small artifacts are found by sifting through dirt.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

However, Moore does not think the archaeological findings definitively show the presence of French settlements in St. Louis prior to 1764.  

“If French people lived in the area we now call St. Louis prior to 1764, why is there not a single land claim alluding to earlier habitation?” he asked.

St. Louis residents made land claims to the U.S. government after the Louisiana Purchase. 

“Being able to claim the establishment of a piece of property which predated even the founding of the town would have been a feather in the cap of any French resident. Yet there are no such claims,” Moore said. “There is no physical or written evidence at this time … that there was French habitation – year round habitation – before the founding by Laclède.”

The absence of such evidence, however, doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t French occupation.

“Not everything is documented, especially in the early days of St. Louis,” Meyer said. “Just because we don’t have records doesn’t mean that there weren’t people living out there.”

Indeed, more investigation of the archaeologists’ findings is needed and ongoing.

“We have what we believe are the remains of the earliest French house – the wall trenches – but what we see is that this early French house is cutting through earlier trash pits and in those trash pits, we’re finding artifacts that look more Native American than they do French,” Meyer said. “Whether that is an earlier French settler or that is a Native American occupant, we’re not 100 percent sure.”


A peek into the lives of people who lived long ago

On a recent sunny day, MoDOT archaeologist Michael Meyer and six other archaeologists occupied a dig site beneath the Missouri side of the Poplar Street Bridge. Their work here is required because of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The site is meticulously organized and it’s clear that the archaeologists who use shovels to skim off thin layers of soil are trained to do such precise work. A team nearby places what’s uncovered into sifting pans, where solid objects that don’t pass are bagged and labeled.

The entire site is roughly 30 by 40 feet. Archaeologists first used a backhoe to excavate 12 to 18 inches to remove 19th and 20th century rubbish to expose the 18th century living surface as well as evidence of homes and other buildings.

“What we’re looking at is part of the original settlement of St. Louis as it was platted back in 1764,” Meyer said.

The physical structures no longer exist but a trained eye can discern where the French buildings were.

French colonial homes were uniquely built with logs placed vertically in the ground. This style of construction is still visible in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri – the first French settlement west of the Mississippi River. Only five such homes remain in the United States, three of which are in Ste. Genevieve.

The site, to Meyer, is more than just a means to find historic artifacts. Of particular interest are the stories of people who lived here. Records show the first European structure on the property was built in 1766 and belonged to a fur trader named Pierre Rougeau dit Berger.

“He actually signs a contract, a very ambitious contract, and guarantees to come back to St. Louis with a whole plethora of furs, which he fails to honor and unfortunately this puts him in debt and eventually he loses his property, his real estate and most of his personal property, because of that debt,” Meyer said.

“It’s kind of interesting to peek into the lives of people 250 years ago and realize that they’re not so different from people today,” Meyer said.

The property would later be occupied by others, including a blacksmith.

“For the first time we have large stratified deposits full of artifacts where we really haven’t seen that type of feature, that type of trash dump anywhere else,” Meyer said. “So we’re finding not only a large quantity of material from two different time periods but a variety that we haven’t seen anywhere else in the past three years out here and it’s fascinating trying to understand what was different about this than the five other houses we excavated.”


Different layers show archaeologists where residential foundations once stood.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Why are the archaeological findings important?

French records that show who lived where and did what can only tell us part of the story of the beginnings of St. Louis.

The ability to uncover artifacts and stand where people such as Berger lived in the 1760s adds a different dimension of historical inquiry.

Sharon Person, an English professor at St. Louis Community College who’s an expert on local archival records from the colonial period, explained that anything Meyer has found is interesting.

“These are people who lived and died and who had children and the descendants of a lot of these people are still around,” Person said. “It’s exciting for people to find their roots.”

The question of whether the archaeological findings change the narrative of how St. Louis was founded is a difficult one. At the very least, the discovery of French and American Indian artifacts and occupation predating 1764 adds nuance to a complex story.

“It rattles our notions of how St. Louis began,” explained Person, who along with historian Carl Ekberg published a paper challenging the notions of how St. Louis began. “A lot of people say this area was empty and so clearly it wasn’t,” she said.

Gateway Arch historian Bob Moore explained that it’s important to go “where the evidence takes us.” He doesn’t necessarily see anything contradictory in the story of how St. Louis came to be a trading post on the bank of the Mississippi River though.

“We know that Laclède laid out the plans for St. Louis,” Moore said. “My contention is even if a couple of fur traders were living here, even if there were 10 houses, it still wasn’t St. Louis until 1764. It was not the commercial town that St. Louis became today.”

Michael Meyer maintains that the work he and his team have completed is the most significant of his career. The findings add greatly to the understanding of local events but in a national context, can help people further appreciate the role of Native Americans in the area.

“Every time I come out here … everything has been even more important and significant than the last time,” Meyer said.

Person said people are ready to embrace a more complicated story.

“It doesn’t have to be something that fits on a bumper sticker or in a headline,” she said. “There’s a level of complication that appeals to certain people.”

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