Colonial and Early American St. Louis (1764 - 1820s)



Colonial Days

      “(Laclede) was delighted to see the situation (where St. Louis at present stands); he did not hesitate a moment to form the establishment that he proposed.  Besides the beauty of the site, he found there all the advantages that one could desire to found a settlement that might become very considerable hereafter.”

            -Auguste Chouteau’s Narrative of the Settlement of St. Louis, given to the Mercantile Library by Chouteau’s son Gabriel nearly 30 years after Auguste’s death


Auguste Chouteau and Pierre de Laclede Liguest.  Missouri History Museum Collections


               On a blustery February day in 1764, 14-year old Auguste Chouteau stepped off the small river boat with a company of a few dozen men to plant a fur trading outpost in the name of the Laclede, Maxent & Company of New Orleans.  The spot he stepped onto now sits somewhere on the grounds of the tallest monument in the United States, the Gateway Arch, but at the time was little more than a sloping bluff clearing, chosen because it could give these newly arrived men some shelter from the swelling Mississippi River that other lowland spots nearby could not provide.  It had only been 100 years earlier that Europeans even discovered that the 2,500 mile long Mississippi River existed, and here he was - a 14-year-old boy standing on the its banks and on the edge of European understanding of the vast western interior of the United States.

A painting depicting the founding of St. Louis, created in 1861 by artist August Becker.  Missouri History Museum.

Pierre Laclede's birthplace in Bedous, France. 

Missouri History Museum

               Chouteau had planted the site for Pierre de Lacléde Liguest (from here Pierre Lacléde), a wholesale fur trader born in the French town of Bedous, nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains near the Spanish border.  Laclede ventured across the Atlantic to New Orleans in 1755, and there met Auguste Chouteau’s mother Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau.  The two became romantically involved, but due to Catholic rule prohibiting divorce in French Louisiana, they could not be married as Marie Thérèse had an estranged husband she had left back in France.  With his partner Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent staying in New Orleans, on August 3, 1763 Lacléde started up the Mississippi River to establish a fur trading post. He brought with him a large cargo of merchandise, 20 or so boatmen, and the young Auguste Chouteau.  In December 1763 the crew first spotted the site that was to become St. Louis, and marked some trees to later identify it. Laclede stayed at Fort de Chartres (about 50 miles south of St. Louis on the Illinois side) while Chouteau began constructing the settlement.  In April, Laclede came to the in-progress trading post site to inspect the work being done.  He named the post St. Louis in honor of St. Louis IX, the famed 13th century medieval king of France and patron saint of the current king, Louis XV.
               To paint early St. Louis as a beautiful, peaceful settlement nestled among the land of plenty certainly doesn’t do it total justice.  The weather could be unforgiving, the settlement was highly vulnerable to attack from unfriendly Native American groups (and on occasion the British), and its inhabitants could expect a life of nearly unending physical toil. Diseases and unchanging daily meals consisting mostly of preserved meats and root vegetables kept the mortality rates high.  St. Louis picked up the nickname Pain Court, French for “short of bread.”  Laclede himself died penniless after relinquishing ownership of his possessions and land in St. Louis to his trading partner Maxent.  The few things he owned at his death were auctioned off.


A drawing by early St. Louisan Anna Maria Von Phul, showing Big Mound in 1818.  Dozens of Indian Mounds could be found around colonial St. Louis, and Big Mound was the greatest of them all.  Missouri History Museum



               Despite the troubles early St. Louis faced, the settlement continued to gain settlers under its period of Spanish control.  In February 1763, France had given Spain all of its territory west of the Mississippi River as a compensation for losing Florida to the British during the French and Indian War.  This included St. Louis, but it would take six years for the Spanish to actually arrive there.  Strict Spanish trade rules would be enforced, food prices regulated, and a market established by free trade with Havana and Spanish ports.  St. Louis was ordered to take an oath of allegiance to Spain, and seventy-one people either sign their names or mark an X (being unable to write their names) including Pierre Lacléde and Auguste Chouteau.

A 1765 map showing the Louisiana Territory, which compromised a great swath of land west of the Mississippi River.  The Illinois Territory, east of the Mississippi River, was controlled by the British.  Missouri History Museum



The Early American City by the River

      “There is no denying the fact that temptations are great in St. Louis, and it adds to our distress to realize what we have to fear for the girls who are still in our school.  I consider St. Louis as bad as Malacca in the days of St. Francis Xavier.”

            -Rose Phillipine Duchesne, founder of the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi in St. Charles and a future Catholic saint, writing in 1823 about the raucous nature of the St. Louis riverfront.

This commemorative 1904 U.S. postage stamp shows the 828,000 square miles of land that became part o the United States after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  Missouri History Museum


A hand-drawn sketch of the Grand Falls of the Columbia River,

from William Clark's journals.  Missouri History Museum

               The Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson’s 1803, $15 million purchase of more than 828,000 square miles of French land for the United States, came to its formal conclusion on the banks of St. Louis.  The ceremony became known as Three Flags Day, as roughly 1/3rd of the area occupied by the present 48 continental United States switched from Spanish, to French, and finally to American hands in a single day at St. Louis’s riverfront.  Jefferson would send explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to investigate the United States’ new purchase.  On May 14, 1804, the Corps of Discovery set out from Hartford, Illinois (approximately 10 miles north of downtown St. Louis near the mouth of the Missouri River) on its mission to reach the Pacific Ocean.  By May 25, they passed the village of La Charrette, the last white settlement on the Missouri River, and ventured into unfamiliar lands.  They would return to St. Louis in September 1806, carrying journals and samples detailing the plants and animals of the American West, many of which Europeans had never before seen.  Many people had assumed them dead, and were astonished that they were actually alive after a more than two-year absence from their departure on May 14, 1804.  The newly arrived explorers were greeted with great excitement, and their buckskin clothes and tattered canoes must have appeared mythically primitive to St. Louis’ society.


A watercolor depicting the settlement of St. Louis in 1804, showing the small frame houses spread across the village.  The tower of Fort San Carlos, St. Louis' only form of military protection, can be seen flying the French flag in the distance.  Missouri History Museum


Early St. Louisan Anna-Maria Von Phul painted a series of

watercolors depicting town life.  Missouri History Museum.

       In August 1812 Louis William Valentine DuBourg was named Apostolic Administrator of Louisiana and the Two Floridas.  The entire sparsely-populated Louisiana Territory was now a single diocese, and DuBourg was to institute a firm presence of the Catholic Church across its great expanse.  He was not the Bishop of St. Louis, as St. Louis was not a diocese, but instead was bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana and had chosen St. Louis as its headquarters.  He chose to reside in St. Louis and arrived in 1818, the main reasons for this surprising choice over New Orleans were the rampant church corruption in New Orleans at the time, and the desire to be closer to Indian groups for missionary purposes.  St. Louis had no resident pastor at the time, and its cathedral was basically a wooden shed that had fallen into disrepair.  The coming of a Catholic presence would help solidify St. Louis as a town, as DuBourg recruited Jesuits to come to St. Louis and begin constructing missions, a seminary, and later successful run St. Louis College, which became St. Louis University.



The brick Catholic church of St. Louis, commissioned in 1818, on the lot set aside by Pierre Laclede to hold a church.  The building next to the church held the fledgling St. Louis College, which would later grow into St. Louis University.  Missouri History Museum

 On to 1820s - 1840s: Fur Traders and Immigrants




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