Old Courthouse Square Survey, Artifact of the Month for September 2012

October 05, 2012 Posted by: Jennifer Clark, Archivist

Old Courthouse Square survey

Old Courthouse Square Survey, 1826


This month's artifact of the month is a survey of the land for the Old Courthouse dated 1826. Col. René Paul surveyed this plot at the request of architect George Morton. Together with his partner, Joseph Laveille, George Morton designed the first courthouse that stood upon this square as well as the Old Cathedral and several other early St. Louis buildings.  

"At the request of Mr. Ge. Morton, I have laid out the
public square in the city of St. Louis, it being, Block No. 102
and surveyed it as follows…"

The land for the public courthouse was donated by two very prominent St. Louis citizens, Auguste Chouteau and Judge John B.C. Lucas in 1816. To learn more about the land donation, click here to read the artifact of the month column on the deed to the Old Courthouse.

As you can see on the survey, at the time Chestnut Street was still called North A Street. As street commissioner, Laveille would later name the streets after trees in the fashion of his native city of Philadelphia.

A charming detail on the map is the line for true north decorated with half a fleur de lis.

fleur de lis detail

The clerk's office is already in place, over in the small building in the southwest corner of the plot.

detail of the survey showing the clerk's office

Paul's fee for the survey work is listed on the front of the document as $5. On the back of the document is a note saying,

"The Courts have refused to pay the within on the ground that Mr. Morton was not authorized to have the surveying done at the County expenses
Thomas Sappington, presiding judge" 

The other side of the survey

It is unknown if Paul was ever paid for this work, but some details about his fascinating life are recorded.

René Paul was born in Cap-François in the French colony of Sainte Domingue now Cap-Haїtien, Haiti. His mother moved the children to France for their education while his father remained behind in Sainte Domingue. René studied engineering at the École Polytechnique in Paris. After the slave rebellion in Haiti, René's father perished fleeing from the island and the rest of the Paul family could not return to their old home. Instead, René's mother and siblings moved to Baltimore in 1802 where his mother died.

René stayed in France, going on to fight for Napoleon, serving in the engineer corps on the Italian and Spanish campaigns and earning the title of colonel.

It is one of the oddities of studying history that though we know only the broadest strokes of most people's lives, occasionally they take part in important events which are recorded in such detail that a very good idea of their experiences during the course of that short time period can be formed. Many accounts of Paul mention that he served on the French flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar and was wounded. This battle on October 21, 1805, is one of those carefully recorded events.

Why an engineer and a colonel in the Army should be on board a naval vessel, we do not know. But it is mentioned several times in accounts of Paul that he told tales of the experience, so we are going to take him at his word that he was there.

The French flagship Bucentaure was an eighty gun ship of the line carrying French Admiral Villeneuve. Early in the battle with Admiral Horatio Nelson and the English fleet it took heavy losses from damage inflicted by Nelson's Victory. After three hours of fighting the Captain of the ship Jean-Jacques Magendie surrendered to the British vessel the HMS Conqueror. Of the crew of the Bucentaure, 197 men had been killed and 85 wounded. One of the wounded was René Paul. The battle continued to rage and the British decisively proved their naval superiority with a stunning victory marred only by the mortal wound sustained by Nelson.

Paul's ordeal was not yet over. The British affixed the captured French ships to tow ropes and hauled them behind their vessels. Terrible storms battered the fleet and the sorry conditions of the wrecked ships made survival difficult for the French prisoners. A British midshipman on the British ship Swiftsure described the situation of the French prisoners on another of the captured ships, the Redoutable, as such,

"If our situation was disagreeable from the fatigue and inclemency of the weather what must the unfortunate Prisoners have suffered on board…most of them were not only fainting from fatigue, but were wounded in the most shocking manner…completely exhausted and worn out with struggling to preserve their lives, having been the whole of a Tempestuous Night, upon a few crazy planks exposed to every inclemency of the weather" (Adkins)

The British ships did not make the safety of a port before encountering the French in battle again. Captain Kerjulien sailed from Cadiz with a small fleet to engage the British. The HMS Conqueror had been towing the Bucentaure and cast off the tow ropes in order to form up in line to engage the French. The Bucentaure drifted helplessly and the people on board the ship - the original French crew and British sailors holding the ship - had to be rescued by small boats put out by the French ships.

According to Trafalgar historian, Sir Julian Corbett:

 "Three of the vessels which had engaged Nelson and Téméraire [an English ship] most hotly went down - Roudoutable, Fourgueux, and Bucentaure herself. Prisoners had to be released, and with friend and foe working resolutely hand in hand it was only by the most desperate exertions that many of the other could be kept afloat and off the rocks." (ebook location 2855 of 5169)

Most of those rescued were taken to the French ship, Indomptable while the Bucentaure wrecked upon the rocks of Cadiz Point. While we can't know for sure if Paul was among those taken to the Indomptable, it is likely that he was. The Indomptable itself ran aground killing most of the 1,000 people on board - less than 100 survived.  

After the battle, we lose track of Paul for a few years. He joined his family in America in 1808, travelling to Philadelphia where his sister had settled. In 1809 with his business partner, Bartholomew Berthold, René Paul came to St. Louis, opening a dry goods and grocery on Main Street. He would operate this business in several incarnations over the years, first with Berthold, then with his brother Gabriel Paul.  

He became the first city surveyor , holding office from 1823-1838, and in 1823 created a map of the city of St. Louis. His surveying work led to other maps and an early atlas of the city. (Link to a map of the city by René Paul, 1844)

Paul published a textbook of arithmetic, the first textbook published in the Louisiana Territory. He and his brother Gabriel married sisters Marie Thérèse Eulalie and Marie Louise, the daughters of Auguste Chouteau, becoming part of the powerful Chouteau family.

A man of learning with a sense of civic engagement, Paul was a prominent citizen of early St. Louis serving on the Board of Trustees for the city in 1815 and 1816. Ultimately, he found in St. Louis a place of peace and prosperity to make up for his tumultuous early life.  


Sources of Information for this article:

Adkins, Roy. Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World. New York: The Viking Press, 2005.

Beckwith, Paul Edmond. Creoles of St. Louis. Nixon Jones Printing Company, 1893.

Billon, Frederic Louis. Annals of St. Louis in Its Territorial Days, Under the Spanish and French Dominions. St. Louis: G.I. Jones and Company, 1886.

Corbett, Julian S. Campaign of Trafalgar in Two Volumes, Vol. II. Ebook: Pickle Publishing, 2011.
Foley, William and C. David Rice. The First Chouteaus: River Barons of Early St. Louis. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 

Hodes, Frederick A. Beyond the Frontier: A History of St. Louis to 1821. Tucson: The Patrice Press, 2004.

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