ST. LOUIS • The steamboat Natchez labored noisily up the Mississippi river bearing the most admired tourist in America. Townsfolk jammed the landing at the foot of Market Street, scanning the river for a wisp of smoke.
As the boat approached, the crowd erupted in extended cheers. A musket salute popped from the hill behind them. Four white horses hitched to a carriage waited on the dirt path.
The Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, arrived at 9 a.m. on April 29, 1825, for a one-night visit during a lengthy tour of his beloved United States. St. Louis, a frontier outpost of perhaps 12,000 people, was as deep as he ventured into the great American wilderness.
Accompanying him down the gangplank were U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and William Clark, former Missouri territorial governor and hero of the expedition to the Pacific Ocean. They joined Lafayette the night before in the village of Carondelet, where the Natchez had tied up for the night. (It was the first of many steamboats to bear that name.)
William Carr Lane, St. Louis’ first mayor, thanked Lafayette for “the magic influence of your presence.” Lafayette greeted his hosts warmly, clearly enjoying the city’s link to his native land.
“I have once more the satisfaction to see the descendants of France and the descendants of my American contemporaries mingle in the blessings of republican institutions,” Lafayette said.
Dignitaries and militia on horseback accompanied him through the low river bluff, although haltingly. The borrowed team pulling his carriage had been gathered from several owners, and the horses worked poorly together. The assembly gathered for lunch at the home of town patriarch Pierre Chouteau, at Locust and First streets. Lafayette tearfully embraced Alexander Bellisime, who still limped from wounds suffered at the battle of Yorktown. Lafayette had served there, too.
He first arrived in America in 1777 and offered himself to the rebellion. Lafayette earned the close confidence of Gen. George Washington and named his son for the future first president. When he announced plans to return in 1824, almost every town begged him to drop by. He promised to visit St. Louis after New Orleans.
The mayor asked the Missouri Legislature to cover a public reception, but the state declined. Civic leaders threw together a fund, supplemented by $37 from the city. Guests paid their own way to a ball that night in Lafayette’s honor at the Mansion House hotel, Third and Vine (St. Charles) streets.
Everyone had a grand time. Lafayette’s promenade partner was Alzire Menard, daughter of Illinois Lt. Gov. Pierre Menard. She wore a Paris-made dress of embroidered white muslin. Lafayette slept that night on the Natchez, which headed downriver in the morning. He toured the Ohio River and returned to France in September.
St. Louis named a park and major street in Lafayette’s honor. For the Bicentennial in 1976, France gave the city a bust of Lafayette. It is on display in the Park House, in Lafayette Park.