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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

historic site St. Charles Historic District

Location: St. Charles County. The historic district encompasses an area 8-1/2 blocks long and 1-1/2 blocks wide that fronts on the north bank of the Missouri River and is surrounded on three sides by the modern city of St. Charles and on the fourth, or eastern, side by the river. South Main Street, running in a north-south direction, forms the long axis of the historic district, whose northern boundary is the south line of Madison Street.

Although Camp Wood was the base camp and winter quarters (1803-4) for the expedition and the place from which the bulk of the main body set out, St. Charles was the final embarkation point. There, on May 20, 1804, Lewis and the last few members of the complement came on board, the boat loading was adjusted, and last-minute supplies were obtained. Clark and his group, which had departed from Camp Wood on May 14, arrived at St. Charles 2 days later. Scattered along the riverbank they found about 100 homes, whose 450 inhabitants were mostly of French origin. On the after noon of May 21, everything in readiness, the explorers set out upriver. Returning from the Pacific, on September 21-22, 1806, they stopped at the village overnight.

Originally called "Les Petites Cotes" ("The Little Hills") because of the nature of the surrounding terrain, St. Charles was founded as a fur trading post in 1769 by Louis Blanchette, a French-Canadian hunter. It was the first permanent white settlement on the Missouri River and one of the earliest in the present State. The original settlers were primarily French traders, hunters, and farmers. The Spaniards, who ruled Louisiana Territory in the period 1762-1804, made little effort to colonize St. Charles or the surrounding area. In 1791 Don Manuel Perez, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Louisiana, gave the city its present name, which is translated from the Spanish.

St. Charles, Mo.
St. Charles, Mo., final embarkation point of the expedition. It was also once the capital of Missouri and still shows evidence of early French settlement. (Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (Blair, 1964).)

Following the assumption of control of Upper Louisiana by the United States in 1804, the year after the Louisiana Purchase, the influence of the town increased. Located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, it became an outfitting station for both land and water transportation routes to the West. In addition to its role as a river port, St. Charles was the eastern terminus of the Boonslick Road. Originally blazed to serve the Boone brothers in their salt manufacturing works in Howard County, the road quickly became the route to Arrow Rock, at which point the Boonslick route joined the Santa Fe Trail. In 1821-26 St. Charles served as the first State capital, on a temporary basis until it moved to its permanent location, Jefferson City.

Fire and deterioration have already removed from the scene a large number of structures once present in the historic district. About 60 of the approximate 102 that remain are noteworthy and 10 warrant further study to determine their importance. The condition of the extant buildings varies, but a high proportion of those that are exemplary are either being restored or are restorable. The various structures are used for private residences, commercial and industrial purposes, or are publicly owned. Houses closely resembling those in the district are scattered throughout the modern city.

Taken as a whole, the historic district retains the layout of the original town plan and provides an example of town planning and development in the Midwest at the turn of the 19th century. Most of the buildings were erected of handmade brick, quarried limestone, and hewn timber. Similar construction occurred elsewhere in the Midwest, but was frequently supplanted by successive waves of building.

Besides various interesting structures and features pertinent to later phases of 19th-century history and architectural development, the district contains a large concentration of early 19th-century buildings that are little altered from their original appearance. None of them can be directly associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but possibly some of them were standing when it passed through. If not, they were soon thereafter and thus represent the architecture of the period.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004