French in St. Louis
In the 1700s, French settlers migrated up the Mississippi north from New Orleans and south along the rivers from Quebec and Detroit, often settling on Kaskaskia Island. Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, along with other French settlers,decided to establish a village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. They were the first citizens of St. Louis.
The post of what was to become the city of St. Louis was founded by Pierre Laclède and his stepson and lieutenant, August Chouteau and a group of thirty men in 1764. They laid out three north-south streets: la Grande Rue, rue de l’Eglise, and rue des Granges (now First, Second and Third Streets) and narrower east-west streets: Rue de la Tour, Rue de la Place, and Rue Missouri (Walnut, Market and Chestnut). A one-story stone building with a high cellar was erected to serve as both Laclède’s business and residence. The next block west was dedicated for a church and graveyard. (The Old Cathedral, built in 1834, still occupies this site.) A central public plaza for assembly and a public market was drawn up between Laclède’s house and the river.
Laclède’s decision to expand the post into a village was made following receipt of news that France had transferred the land east of the Mississippi to Great Britain. French settlers in the east bank villages of Cahokia and St. Philippe speedily moved to the new settlement on the west bank, causing it to expand immediately into what came to be known as Laclède’s Village. However, the official name of St. Louis was given to the village by its founder in honor of King Louis IX of France. In 1770, the village contained fifteen stone houses and one hundred wooden ones, of which about seventy-five had been erected during 1765 and 1766. The population numbered 500. A census by the Spanish lieutenant-governor Delassus in 1798 showed that the population of St. Louis had grown to 925 inhabitants.
The old French street names were used until 1809, but from then until 1826, the east-west streets were known by letters of the alphabet with the prefix North or South (of Market Street) attached. An ordinance passed in 1826 adopted the Philadelphia system of street names, giving numbers to the north-south streets and calling the east-west ones by the names of trees.
Most of the first residents of St. Louis made their living from the fur trade; however, provisions for the division of land for farming were laid out as early as the village itself. In a tradition which probably comes from Canadian settlements, a large tract of partly wooded land southwest of the village became the St. Louis Commons and was shared jointly by all inhabitants. The land was used for cattle grazing, and timber was logged for building materials and fuel. Originally, the Commons occupied the area now bounded by 4th, Clark and 10th Streets, and Park Avenue, but increased in size along with St. Louis, eventually reaching the River des Pères seven miles away.
The design of the buildings constructed by the French in St. Louis had evolved over two hundred years of colonization in the New World. They were a combination of French and Caribbean influences and resulted in two distinct house forms. Except for the church, a few small barns and military structures, virtually all buildings in early St. Louis were residences.
French houses were of three distinct construction types. By far the most common was palisaded or vertical log construction, also called poteaux en terre (posts-in-ground). Vertical posts were placed directly into a deep trench and earth packed in to hold them upright. The spaces between the posts were filled with a combination of stones, earth and plaster. Walls were then given a finished coat of plaster on interior and exterior, and whitewashed. Tall, narrow openings were filled with multi-light casement windows, and had exterior shutters. The houses had distinctive, hipped roofs, called pavilion roofs, where the front and back slope was very steep, and the two sides nearly vertical. The earliest roofs were thatched, and the pitch was required to shed rain properly. At least two-thirds of the first St. Louis buildings were of palisaded construction.
The town gained fame in 1803 as the jumping-off point for the Louisiana Purchase Expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. After 1804, more New Englanders and other East Coast emigrants settled in St. Louis, but the population remained predominantly French until well into the 19th century. St. Louis incorporated as a city in 1823. During the 19th Century, St. Louis grew into an important center of commerce and trade, attracting thousands of immigrants eager to find a new life on the edge of the frontier.
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Other French settlers migrated to St. Louis from Kaskaskia Island, New Orleans, and Detroit expanding the population of the newly formed community. Another French village, St. Ferdinand, was formed along the Missouri River just miles beyond the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi River.
The French citizens continued to influence growth of St. Louis until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. After that event, westward expansion of American citizens from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia overwhelmed the St. Louis area.
The St. Louis County Library Special Collections offers a special finding aid outlining the French and French-Canadian resources available at the library. Click on St. Louis County Library Finding Aids for further information.
Beckwith, Paul. Creoles of St. Louis. St. Louis: Nixon-Jones Printing, 1893.
Peterson, Charles E. Colonial St. Louis: Building A Creole Capital. Tucson, Arizona: Patrice Press, 1993.
Last modified: 30-Jun-2016 19:44