St. Louis – The Fourth City, Volume 1 – Walter Barlow Stevens
This is not a book of dates. It does not abound in statistics. It avoids controversies of the past and prophecies of the future. The motive is to present in plain, newspaper style a narrative of the rise and progress of St. Louis to the fourth place among American cities. To personal factors rather than to general causes is credited the high position which the community has attained. Men and women, more than location and events, have made St. Louis the Fourth City. The site chosen was fortunate. Of much greater import was the character of those who came to settle. American history, as told from the Atlantic seaboard points of view, classed St. Louis as “a little trading post.” The settlement of Laclede was planned for permanence. It established stable government by consent of the governed. It embodied the homestead principle in a land system. It developed the American spirit while “good old colony times” prevailed along the Atlantic coast. Home rule found in St. Louis its first habitat on this continent. This is volume one out of four, giving a historical review from the founding of the town to its great days.
St. Louis – The Fourth City, Volume 1
Excerpt from the text:
A man and two treaties made St. Louis.
The man was the founder. The treaties were the opportunity. The man was Laclede. His judgment determined the site in December, 1763.
In November, 1762, Louis XV. of France gave, on paper, Louisiana to the King of Spain. The undelivered gift was kept an international secret.
In February, 1763, Louis purchased peace by giving England what had been French possessions east of the Mississippi.
These were the two treaties. They afforded Laclede his opportunity to found a settlement instead of a trading post. They influenced the French villagers to leave the east side and to join Laclede at St. Louis.
The fifteenth Louis was weak in war. He was crafty in diplomacy. Affection for his “dear cousin,” the King of Spain, had nothing to do with the gift of territory. By that gift England was kept east of the Mississippi.
While France, England, Spain and Portugal were changing the map of America, Pierre Laclede and Antoine Maxent and a few others who stood high with French authority at New Orleans were planning the enterprise out of which came the creation of St. Louis.
Laclede was thirty-one years old when he arrived in New Orleans. His older brother was an official of importance in one of the southern provinces of France. The ancestral acres of the Laclede family were in the valley of the Aspe. Laclede was a well-educated man. He had learned agriculture and milling in his youth. He left France in 1755 to seek his fortune in the New World.
Planting was tried. Hurricane and high water discouraged. With some capital brought from France, Laclede invested in business in New Orleans. The mercantile and shipping interests suffered severely from the war between England and France. Laclede volunteered for service in the inter-colonial war. He was assigned to duty on the staff of Colonel Antoine Maxent. Between the colonel and his staff officer developed esteem which led to life-long friendship and confidence. Maxent was much older. He had means and influence. Laclede’s services strongly commended him to the colonial authorities.
In 1762 Maxent and Laclede were in position to ask favor of the government. Laclede, ambitious and hopeful, hungered for an opportunity. Maxent, with an older man’s admiration for the younger’s enthusiasm, was ready to risk. The colonel and the staff officer went to the acting governor-general with their proposition. They were received favorably. A grant was issued to them conferring the privilege of “exclusive trade with the savages of the Missouri and with all of the nations residing west of the Mississippi for the term of eight years.”
A company was organized to operate the grant. The syndicate was called “Maxent. Laclede and Company.” Occasional references in the archives mention “Antoine Maxent, Pierre Liguest Laclede and Company.” Colonel Maxent was the financial manager. He raised most of the capital. Merchandise in quantities and suitable for the trade was ordered from abroad. The stock was such as the partners deemed “necessary to sustain on a large scale their commerce which they proposed to extend as much as possible.” Upon Laclede devolved the practical work of organizing the expedition. By him the boats were secured and the force was recruited. The merchandise did not arrive as soon as expected. Winter and spring passed. When the boats were loaded the summer of 1763 had come. Laclede had hoped to start up the river in the spring. He got away from New Orleans the 3rd of August.
By one who traveled with it, the flotilla of Laclede was called “a considerable armament.” Eight miles a day was the limit of progress. The boats were low hulls. They resembled somewhat the more rudely constructed barges of the present day. There were no cabins. The boats were without accommodations for the crew. Bales and barrels of goods for the trade, materials and tools for the post filled the hulls. About the center of each boat was a stubby, strong mast, well braced. Tied to the mast was a rope several hundred feet long. This was the cordelle. The loose end of the rope was ashore, in the hands of the cordeliers. In single file the cordeliers moved at a slow walk dragging the boat after them. The bank was the tow path. The river was the canal. The fifteen to thirty men were the motive power. In shallows, poles were used. When the wind blew up-stream, sails were spread.
Stops were frequent. In advance of the cordeliers were men with axes. The path must be cleared of fallen trees, of vines. The chasseurs de bois were part of Laclede’s organization. They left the boats in the morning and hunted in the woods for game to supply the commissary. When one bank of the river was found to be utterly impassable for the cordeliers, the boats were tied to the bank until the ropes could be carried across to the other side. Thus the armament was shifted from side to side. When darkness came on, the boats were tied to the bank. A shelter tent was pitched for the family of Laclede. The men slept on the ground or on the cargoes. In later years, as commerce on the river increased, before the day of steamboats, the path of the cordeliers became beaten. When Laclede came up to the river, the cordeliers traveled a trail upon which were countless obstructions.
Through August, September and October, the expedition toiled along the river banks. November came before Ste. Genevieve was sighted. Full three months the journey had required. While Laclede was laboriously making his eight miles a day, news having vital bearing on his plans had reached the Illinois country. Laclede heard it at Ste. Genevieve. He faced a situation before which one less resolute would have faltered. France had ceded to England the country east of the Mississippi. That was the news. The war was over. The cession was the price which bought peace.
Laclede acted quickly. Ste. Genevieve had the growing lead industry behind it. Storage rooms for the goods with which the “armament” was loaded could not be found. Moreover, Laclede looked at the flat upon which the Ste. Genevieve of that day was built. Another and higher site was chosen a few years later. Laclede remembered his experience with high water near the lower coast. He “deemed the location insalubrious” for his business. So he said to Auguste Chouteau, the stepson not yet fourteen years old, upon whom he looked even then as his lieutenant. An officer came down from Fort Chartres. The expedition of Laclede had been heralded. Courtesies were due from one officer to another. The commandant at the fort sent his greeting to Laclede. He offered a storage place within the fort. At the same time he explained that he was expecting to evacuate upon the arrival of an English garrison. While he waited the facilities of the fort were offered to the expedition. Services that Maxent and Laclede had rendered the colonial government warranted this tender.
Laclede pushed on. Fort Chartres was six miles above Kaskaskia. The massive stone walls, eighteen feet high, were near to the landing. They enclosed four acres of ground. The storehouse, into which Laclede’s boatmen carried the goods, was a stone building ninety feet long. Government house, barracks, coach house, guard house, bakery— all of the structures were of stone with doors of wood and iron. Cannon were in the embrasures covering approach from every direction. Fort Chartres had stood a third of a century. It was considered the strongest fortification in America. Seven years after Laclede made the fort his temporary stopping place, the wall nearest the river was undermined and slipped into the water. In 1772 Fort Chartres was abandoned.
Neyon de Villiers was the commandant of the Illinois, stationed at Fort Chartres. He was calling in the garrisons of outlying posts when Laclede arrived. Preparations to depart for New Orleans were under way. Commandant de Villiers contemplated more than a military movement. He considered it proper to advise the settlers to follow the French flag down the river. He thought to leave only the stone fort and the soil to the new authority.
Under the shadow and protection of Fort Chartres was a considerable settlement — St. Anne de Fort Chartres. A few miles away was Kaskaskia. To the north was Notre Dame de Kahokias. Villages and hamlets on the east side of the river had been growing slowly while the French flag floated over Fort Chartres from 1720 to 1763. And now Neyon de Villiers proposed a general exodus. He was the representative of France in the Illinois. His advice was impressive. Many French settlers were preparing to follow it. On the Missouri side there was no settlement north of Ste. Genevieve. Up to that time the east side had been favored by the pioneer immigration. But now, if Neyon de Villiers had his way, the skirmish line of civilization was to fall back from the country of the Illinois.
Laclede had learned patience as he waited costly months for his goods to come from abroad. He had faced hardships, such as he had never known previously, in his three months’ voyage up the river. The crisis of his enterprise confronted him at Fort Chartres. The goods were stored. Some presents were made ready for the Indian tribes with whom Laclede intended to trade. Friendly relations were established with the officers at the fort. Acquaintance was cultivated with the habitants. Much information Laclede sought about the surrounding country. The goods were shown. The prospects of trade were discussed. The local sentiment was extremely discouraging. It was December. Ice was running in the river. Laclede declared himself. He would found “an establishment suitable to his commerce.” No turning back for him! Ste. Genevieve would not do. When he stopped there he did not find storage room sufficient for one-fourth of his cargoes. Furthermore, he rejected it “because of its distance from the Missouri.”
Of his courage and decision of character, Laclede gave the wondering habitants immediate illustration. With Auguste Chouteau he crossed to the west side of the Mississippi. Very thoroughly Laclede explored the country northward, all of the way to the mouth of the Missouri. It was not a due course. Topography was studied. Two natural conditions were taken into careful account,— the west bank of the river and the country some distance back from the bank.
Turning southward from the limestone bluff’s near the mouth of the Missouri, Laclede and Auguste Chouteau passed through groves of oaks and across small prairies. They went some distance west of the river front. On the way northward Laclede looked for water power. The little river flowing through what is now Mill Creek Valley attracted his attention. He noted that it was fed by large springs. Coming southward, on the return, as he neared the slope leading downward to the ravine through which ran the little river, Laclede led the way to a considerable elevation. From that vantage point he looked over the tree tops to the river. This elevation became “the Hill” of St. Louis for a third of a century. Upon it, but graded down somewhat, stands today the courthouse. From this hill Laclede surveyed the locality in detail. He went down through the trees to the river. The distance from the hill to the water was about one thousand feet. It included two gentle descents and two plateaus about three hundred feet wide. Laclede saw with satisfaction that the plateaus, or terraces they might be termed, were heavily wooded. Here was building material at hand for the first house construction. At the eastern edge of the lower plateau, the explorers came to a sharp, rocky bluff. Precipice might better describe the topography. But the drop to the sandy beach was a short one. At most this precipice or bluff was thirty-five feet high. In places the distance was only twenty feet down to the sandy beach. Both to the north and to the south, as Laclede traversed the water front, he discovered that the rocky bluff sloped down gradually until it was lost in the alluvial low land.
In the rocky river bluff, which he examined arpent by arpent, Laclede found breaks or gullies through which the water line was easily reached from the first plateau or terrace. One of the depressions was at the foot of Walnut street as now located. The other, the most rugged of the two, was some distance north. From the edge of the rock-bound front, Laclede closely scanned the river movement. He saw that the current ran strong in shore; that the water deepened rapidly just off the strip of wet sand.
“He was delighted to see the situation,” the boy Auguste remembered to write years afterwards of that eventful December day; “he did not hesitate a moment to form there 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 which might become very considerable hereafter.”