St. Louis: The Early Years (1764-1850)

In 1763 Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau were scouting for an ideal Indian fur trading location. Laclede was a partner in a fur trade company in New Orleans. He took his 13-year-old stepson Auguste with him on a journey up the Mississippi. After looking over two sites unsuitable for their needs, they discovered an area with river access and a bluff to prevent flooding some 18 miles south of the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. They marked the site in fall of 1763 and returned in February 1764 to found the settlement of St. Louis, named for King Louis IX of France.

The French began settling in St. Louis and established a fur trading community. The town developed into a center for north - south commerce along the Mississippi River. St. Louis was closely designed after a French colonial city of the times, probably New Orleans. The early settlement had no retail centers. There were only two granaries, a bakery, a maple sugar works, and a church. Supplies were brought to St. Louis by keelboats with cargoes of flour, sugar, whiskey, blankets, fabrics, tools, and household goods.

The French colonial homes were uniquely structured with wall logs placed vertically and plastered over. Plaster gave the logs a fresh, white exterior. The home typically consisted of a living area, a bedroom, and fireplace in between. The French colonial home was sparsely furnished and may have included straight back wooden chairs, a table, a four poster bed with a buffalo robe spread, and cooking utensils.

The French were one of several cultural groups who settled in St. Louis. The French from Canada brought African slaves who were regulated by Spanish law. This allowed the slaves to earn money for work performed on evenings and weekends. The community traded with the local American Indian people. The Spanish administered the city, which became part of the United States in 1804, although France had rights to the land since 1800 but never took possession of it from the Spanish.

By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, St. Louis' population was approximately 1,000 people. It was an established river landing. With city growth came new warehouses, supply stores, a need for boat makers, and repair shops. Keelboats transported furs to the north in exchange for manufactured goods. After the Lewis and Clark expedition returned from exploring the Louisiana Purchase, their news of beaver sightings was of great interest to trappers. St. Louis became a hub for trappers in a new trade oriented to the far west, and outfitted travelers before their journeys.

In 1817, the steamboat Zebulon M. Pike marked a new era in transportation along the river as it docked in St. Louis for the first time. The sandy beach levee in St. Louis was no longer adequate for these new steam vessels. Levees were transformed into wharves of stone and warehouses were built to receive goods. Steamboats became the mode of river transportation and gradually replaced the keelboat.

By 1849 St. Louis was a major trading city as travelers passed through to the gold rush in California and on to Independence, Missouri to follow the Oregon Trail. With the travelers came deadly cholera that sickened and killed hundreds of people. That same year a steamboat blew up on the crowded levee and fire quickly spread to the city. It destroyed 15 blocks of the center of the city and caused 6.1 million dollars in damage. The Old Courthouse and Old Cathedral were stone structures and not destroyed. St. Louis was built again, this time with brick and iron rather than easily kindled wood.

The community known as the "Gateway City" humbly began as a frontier village. Laclede predicted in a journal entry in 1763 that, "I have found a situation where I am going to form a settlement which might become hereafter one of the finest cities in America." St. Louis developed into a thriving river town and eventually into a cultured city of the time.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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