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  • Writer's pictureFred Hodes

The Founding of St. Louis

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

The Settlement of Saint Louis or The Founding of Saint Louis by Fernand LeQuesne

The Founding of St. Louis

Many decades after the event, Auguste Chouteau wrote about the founding of the city.  He thought that he and about thirty workmen had arrived at the site on February 14, 1764 (some examining the original manuscript think the date was the 15th and not the 14th – Chouteau’s writing was not that clear).  The village had obviously been planned in advance with streets and village blocks indicated.  The families planning to move had probably already chosen their village locations.  In a few short months St. Louis would become an instant village of 40 to 80 families, all of whom had lived in the area for years (perhaps decades).  In  future blog entries I will present reasons why Chouteau did not want to discuss early St. Louis history.

French missionaries had come to this area as early as 1699 to work with the tribes of the Illini Confederation.  As a result several villages  appeared in support of their work and then as part of the new Louisiana Province headquartered at New Orleans.  The bulk of the French in the “land of the Illini” came from Canada.  As part of its control of the area, France built the stone fort, Fort Chartres. With the loss of the French and Indian War, France ceded to  the British the whole area east of the Mississippi River.  This treaty included all the local settlements except for Ste. Genevieve.

Laclede Landing at the Present Site of St. Louis, oil on canvas, Oscar Edward Berninghaus

With the official word that the East bank would be British, the French in New Orleans had to move as much as possible to the West bank.  The bulk of the garrsion at Fort Chartres was withdrawn to New Orleans (this is what the British wanted).  In fact, the British would have preferred a complete withdrawal of all the French from the area.  Perhaps Laclede brought the unofficial orders from New Orleans to effect the transfer of as many  inhabitants as possible to the French controlled West Bank.  Chouteau wrote that Laclede examined the West Bank for a suitable location.  The local residents would easily have pointed out the St. Louis location – almost opposite Cahokia.  The West Bank was mostly high bluff overlooking the river – difficult to access. Only a few locations had hillside starting at the river bank and gradually rising.  The St. Louis location even had a terraced effect that would make placing  the streets a simple task.  To control the vast remaining Louisiana area to the west, easy access to the Missouri River was needed; and this location, above the existing settlements, provided it.  I suspect that, during the winter, Laclede, the residents who planned to make the move, and the existing local authorities platted the planned village and decided who would receive which village lots.  So when the work party arrived in February, the important decisions had already been made.

The planned village had three long streets stretching from about the modern Martin Luther King Bridge to the Poplar Street Bridge.  With a few exceptions, each block on the west side of the first street and on the other two streets was quartered, with each household occupying a quarter of a block.  On the first street, eastside, backing onto the river, the lots extended to the river.  The French realized that the river flooded and did not place anything in danger of flooding.  In the center of the village (between the second and third streets), an entire block was dedicated to the church, its rectory, and churchyard.  In front of this area was a block reserved by Laclede for the company warehouse.  In front of the planned warehouse was an open area, a public square (between the first street and the river).

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