St. Louis founded in a winter wilderness on this date in 1764 - or maybe it was the next day

St. Louis founded in a winter wilderness on this date in 1764 - or maybe it was the next day

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When the ice floe eased on the Mississippi River, it was time to build the trading post.

Auguste Chouteau, then only 14 years old, led 30 laborers from winter quarters at Fort de Chartres, a French colonial post in the Illinois country, on a 60-mile paddle upriver. The destination was a grove of trees above a 30-foot limestone bluff that their leader, Pierre Laclede, already had marked.

On Feb. 15, 1764, Chouteau and the axmen began clearing trees for a storage barn and cabin, as Laclede had instructed. It was the first day of business for the future city of St. Louis.

Laclede, born in France, arrived in New Orleans in 1755. Eight years later, he was a partner in a company that won a colonial monopoly for the fur trade in the upper Louisiana territory. In August 1763, he headed up the Mississippi with helpers, five boatloads of trading goods and young Auguste, who was his clerk and the oldest son of his lady friend in New Orleans.

St. Louis map, 1796

A map of St. Louis in 1796, while it was a Spanish colony. The tributary on the left was known to the original French residents as Le Petite Riviere, then Mill Creek. A dam built later formed Chouteau's Pond. The site now is part of the rail yard downtown. Post-Dispatch archives

Laclede’s goal was to establish a trading post near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. He needed to be on the west bank of the Mississippi because France had lost Illinois to Great Britain. After the three-month journey, he picked his high ground and named his settlement for the patron saint of the reigning king of France, Louis XV. (His king had secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain, but nobody in America knew about that yet.)

When Laclede arrived in April, the village was taking shape. Laclede laid out a plan for a street grid and chose a place for a stone home that became business and town headquarters. He built another for Auguste’s mother, Madame Marie Therese Chouteau, who arrived later with the four young children she and Laclede had together. (She had been abandoned by her husband, and divorce was impossible in a French colony.)

Among Laclede’s enduring decisions was to set aside the church lot, eventually site of today’s Old Cathedral. It is the only parcel never to change hands in St. Louis’ 250 years.

His settlement gained population with the arrival of French settlers from Fort de Chartres who didn’t want to become British subjects. Joining them were residents of Cahokia, founded in 1699 as the region’s first permanent European settlement. Many of the transplants brought the doors and windows from the homes they abandoned. By Christmas 1764, about 40 families called St. Louis home.

Their colonial handiwork has been obliterated. The 19th century steamboat boom soon covered the old village with a commercial district built of brick, all of which was razed shortly before World War II for the Gateway Arch grounds. Archaeologically, it’s all too churned up to be of much use.

But Laclede’s original plan inspired the downtown street grid that exists today. An example is Market Street, named for the original village public square, where the grand staircase to the Arch is now.

Laclede died in 1778 returning upriver from a trip to New Orleans. Chouteau assumed control of their business, became the town’s leading citizen and lived until 1829.

Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or toneil@post-dispatch.com

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