Saturday, August 20, 2011

Buried History

The 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis is coming in a few years and so far I haven’t seen any plans for the big event.  I have a few ideas of my own.  Here’s one.  The City ought to sponsor a One Read event and pick a good history of the founding of the City of St. Louis for everyone in the City to read and discuss.

They might want to consider picking the recently published  Founding St. Louis:  First City of the New West by J. Frederick Fausz.   I recently finished it and, even though I’m fairly well versed in the founding of St. Louis, I found it chock full of new information.  It offers a lot of good background on the personal and political situation of Pierre Laclede, the founder of the City.

It still doesn’t explain exactly why anyone in New Orleans thought that Laclede was the perfect person to lead an expedition to establish a new French trading settlement at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Laclede didn’t seem to have any experience in traveling the Mississippi or dealing with Indians.  But the powerful New Orleans merchant, Maxent, trusted him, took him into partnership and sponsored the trip.  And that turned out to be a wise decision because Laclede turned out to be the perfect man for the job. 

Fausz does a good job explaining how the end of the French and Indian War laid the stage for the development of a trans-Mississippi French trading settlement.  He places colonial St. Louis within its historical context, as a French settlement in a Spanish territory sitting on the edge of an international border.  He does an even better job showing how the relationship between the first Missouri settlers and the Indians differed tremendously from what American students are generally taught is the typical confrontational settler-Indian relationship. 

Although not utopian, the situation was harmonious. When the Anglos show up to take over the City, after Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, it almost seems a tragedy. 

The history of the City of St. Louis was rewritten by the English Americans and is unknown to most of the current residents of this City.   There is almost nothing left of the old French capital of Upper Louisiana; it was bulldozed years ago and now lies buried under the grounds of the Gateway Arch – the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  As Fausz points out, Missouri has more memorials to Thomas Jefferson than any other state outside Virginia.  History, for most Missourians, starts with Jefferson and his purchase and the first 30 years of the City almost didn’t exist.

Perhaps for the 250th anniversary, the City could do something about that.