Meriwether Lewis, explorer turned governor of this new American territory, believed its citizens needed a newspaper.
Lewis considered it good for public discourse. But he also needed someone to print government documents — a strong financial lure in days when subscription revenue was spotty.
He persuaded Irish-born printer Joseph Charless, then toiling in Kentucky, to establish St. Louis’ first weekly newspaper. Charless set up shop at First and Elm streets, south of today’s Gateway Arch.
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His first edition was printed July 12, 1808. No copy survives, but many subsequent editions do, offering a sense of life and the travails of newspapering in the early 19th century.
His Missouri Gazette ran four pages. Subscriptions were $3 per year. The paper identified Charless on the masthead as “Printer to the Territory” and located itself in St. Louis, Louisiana, before the notion of Missouri was drawn on maps.
Local news consisted largely of public notices, horses or land for sale and court documents. There also were such gems as this notice, by a man named Thomas Beaver: “Whereas my wife Polly has seen proper to leave my bed and board ... I am determined to pay no debts of her contracting.”
General ads were $1 per square inch the first week, 50 cents weekly thereafter. Storekeeper Bernard Pratte offered goods “for cash or pork.” Samuel Solomon wanted cash for “1,200 gallons of good old whiskey.”
There were notices about runaway slaves, but most of the chattel business concerned renting out slaves for hire. One ad sought a domestic “who understands the American mode of cooking.”
To fill his pages, Charless relied upon the era’s uncertain mail service. He ran lengthy official documents and correspondence from the East Coast and Europe, often two or more months after the fact. Breaking news was hard to come by, and slow to set in type by hand.
He periodically groused about the dearth of news, noting on March 15, 1809: “We delayed publication of the Gazette in anticipation of the arrival of the mail but as usual are disappointed.”
There were some hints of modern journalism. An article on Oct. 12, 1808, outlined the murder trial of George Druillard, who shot a deserter from a fur-trading expedition after their boss, the prominent merchant Manuel Lisa, ordered him returned “dead or alive.” The jury acquitted in 15 minutes.
Charless had the market to himself until 1815, when the Western Journal hit the streets. He sold the Gazette four years later. It was renamed the Missouri Republic and, in variations on that name, survived until 1919. Charless died in 1834 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Trading village becomes a town
ST. LOUIS • "After the election for trustees for the Town of St. Louis on Saturday last, the following gentlemen were chosen: Auguste Chouteau, Edward Hempstead, Bernard Pratte, Peter Chouteau and Alexander McNair, Esquires."
That report in the Missouri Gazette of July 26, 1808, is this area's earliest surviving local government news story. It was on page three, only six lines long and carried no headline.
For more than four decades, appointees from far-away capitals and leading citizens had run the town. In 1808, American territorial governor Meriwether Lewis empowered the settlement to incorporate.
The first election was set for December 1808, but townfolk decided there was no point in waiting. They chose a Board of Trustees even before drawing up the necessary documents.
The first boundary ran west roughly to present-day Broadway. The trustees voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol to slaves without their owners' written permission. The town established two volunteer fire companies and set annual license fees, including $15 for a tavern and $100 for each billiard table.
It was an era of small government. The 1811 town budget was all of $632.
In 1823, St. Louis became a city and created the offices of mayor and three aldermen. The first mayor was William Carr Lane, a doctor, who served nine one-year terms.