Saturday, September 29, 2012

250 Years Ago ...

In February, 2014 St. Louis will celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding by Frenchmen Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau.  With them were a group of men who came to be known as the “Thirty Worthies”.  
My ancestor, Jean Baptiste Becquet, was one of the Thirty Worthies and, together with his wife, children and in-laws, made the new community called St. Louis his home.  Rather than simply marking the occasion with one blog post in 2014, I’ve decided to spend some time over the next year blogging about the political situation that led to the founding of St. Louis and how Becquet came to become one of the Thirty Worthies.  

Don’t worry, this won’t be the only thing I blog about.

But before we meet Jean Baptiste Becquet and his family, let’s take a peek at the location of St. Louis before the French decided to settle it.  What would a traveler on the Mississippi River 250 years ago in 1762 have seen as their boat passed what is now the site of the Gateway Arch?  And who would this hypothetical traveler have been?

Certainly the traveler most probably would have been a Native American.  But the traveler could also have been a Frenchman traveling between Montreal, the capital of the French colony of New France, and New Orleans, the capital of the French colony of Louisiana.  Given the great distance between these cities it is surprising how often this trip was made in the eighteenth century.  But the lure of profit makes travelers of many people even when that travel is long and laborious.

If this hypothetical traveler began his journey in Montreal, he and his crew of boatment might have traveled by boat to the Great Lakes, through the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, stopping at Michilimackinac, one of the most important French trading posts.  They would have continued down Lake Michigan to La Baye, a French settlement that would one day become Green Bay, Wisconsin.  From there they would journey across what became Wisconsin, portaging all of their goods between local rivers, until they reached the Mississippi River near the settlement of Prairie du Chien.  From there it was a straight, but long, shot down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
As they traveled down the Mississippi they would pass the confluence of the Illinois River and the Mississippi on the eastern side of the river and then, shortly below that, the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi on the west.  There they would notice how the river changed to a muddy brown color.  Just below the Missouri River they would probably portage around the Chain of Rocks, a rocky outcrop into the river that creates a series of dangerous rapids.   Then they would continue down the river past the site, on the western bank, that would one day become St. Louis.

Frederick Hodes described the location in his Beyond the Frontier:  A History of St. Louis to 1821 which I highly recommend.  There are many places to locate the history of the City of St. Louis but he has gathered all them into one location and most of the story I relate here is found in his book.  He tells us:

At the first place south of the confluence [with the Missouri River], a hill rose gradually from the riverbank, neither an inconvenient high bluff nor a dangerous low floodplain.  The nineteenth century traveler John Bradbury pointed out;  “Such situations are rare, as the Mississippi is almost universally bounded by high perpendicular rocks or loose alluvial soil, the latter of which is in continued danger of being washed away by annual floods …”. 

In 1762, there was no permanent settlement at this advantageous location but at an earlier period there had certainly been settlers.  The main geographical feature our hypothetical traveler would have noticed would have been the series of mounds along both sides of the Mississippi.    Between 100 BC and 900 AD one of the most advanced civilizations in North America made its home along the Mississippi where present day St. Louis is located and across the river at what is called Cahokia.   We know almost nothing about them, not even what they called themselves.  We call them the Mound Builders or the Mississippian Culture. I've written about the mounds here and here.

 Again, I’ll let Dr. Hodes describe it:

The number of mounds involved is astounding.  At the beginning of the twentieth century (after many of the mounds had been destroyed), Louis Houck located 28,000 mounds in eastern Missouri alone. This did not include the vast area of Illinois where they were obviously present.   The Mound Civilization style of design for the Mississippian culture spread over a vast area.  This apparent large population was in stark contrast to the small population of native inhabitants in the area when the Europeans arrived.  The population density for the Mound Civilization in this area may well have matched that of the great Indian civilizations south of the Rio Grande.

By the time Europeans arrived in the Mississippi valley, the Mound Builders had disappeared and the local native peoples had no oral tradition that told what happened to them.  But the mounds remained, including the great Cahokia Mound on the east bank of the Mississippi which still remains, as do about 45 other mounds in the general vicinity.  There were also many mounds on the west bank of the river including what was called the “Big Mound” which stood at what is now the intersection of North Broadway and Biddle Streets. The French would call it La Grange de Terre (“the Barn of Earth”). 

The St. Louis Mound Group was first described in detail by Henry Marie Brackenridge in 1814. He wrote that there was a group of nine mounds north of the village of St. Louis, located “on the second bank just above the town”. Brackenridge described the Big Mound as being located six hundred yards north of the other mounds. Big Mound was estimated to be one hundred and fifty feet long and thirty feet wide, and the flattened top was about 15-18 ft wide. The group of mounds formed a rough square border around a central plaza, with a semi-circular area on the west side formed by three smaller mounds. Brackenridge (1814:189) continued by stating “the enclosed [plaza] is about three hundred yards in length and two hundred in breadth”. The largest of the mounds in this group was known locally as the “Falling Garden” and was nearly 50 ft high, rising in three stages up the second terrace. In June 1819, Dr. Thomas Say and Titian Ramsey Peale surveyed the mound group and identified 27 “tumuli” (including Big Mound), although two of the features were probably not Indian mounds (Peale 1862; Marshall 1992; O’Brien and Wood 1998:286). Using a compass and tape, Say and Peale measured Big Mound at 319 feet long and 158 feet wide with a height of 34 feet. It was located roughly 1,460 feet north of the other mounds. The mound group was all but destroyed by the expansion of St. Louis in the mid-19th century, and no evidence of the mounds is currently visible. (emphasis mine)

These mounds would be the basis for the nickname St. Louis had as the “Mound City”.   Today only one mound remains in St. Louis and it was recently purchased by the Osage Nation which intends to build an interpretive center next to it to educate visitors about the Native American heritage of this area.

But although the Mississippian culture had disappeared, the land was not empty.  In 1762 Native American tribes hunted and lived throughout the region on both sides of the river. 
Although the members of what we call the Illini Confederation hunted on both sides of the river, their villages were mostly located on the eastern side of the river.  The members of this confederation spoke variations of an Algonquian language and were known to Europeans as the Peoria,  Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Tamaroa and Michegamea tribes, with the Kaskaskia and Peoria being the largest.
Again, Dr. Hodes:

The Illini were semi-nomadic.  In the spring they came together from scattered small winter villages, gathering at the summer village sites and planting their crops.  They went on the buffalo hunt from June to mid-July.  Next they returned to harvest their crops and set aside food for winter.  In the early fall they left the summer villages and returned to the smaller winter villages.  They continued to hunt for food but in smaller groups and for shorter periods of time.

On the western bank of the Mississippi the native Americans could be divided into two general groups which both spoke versions of Siouan languages.  One group had broken off from the Winnebago in Wisconsin and moved south and west.  They were known as the Missouri, Iowa and Oto.  They mostly hunted north of the Missouri river up into Iowa and west into what is now Kansas.  The Missouri tribe had a village along the Missouri river. 

The other group originated in the Ohio valley and had moved west.  They were known as the Osage, Kansa, Quapaw and Omaha-Ponca. They hunted south into Arkansas, in Missouri south of the Missouri River, along the Kansas River and up  into Northeastern Nebraska.

The largest and ultimately the most powerful tribe was the Osage who had originally settled the headwaters of the Osage River in Missouri and controlled the southwest third of what is now the State of Missouri plus a large part of northern Arkansas and even parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. Eventually the Osage split into two tribes:  the Grand Osage which stayed at the Osage River and the lesser Osage (or the Little Osage) who moved up toward the Missouri river and settled near the Missouri tribe.

Again, Dr. Hodes:

The Osage were semi-nomadic, and for long periods each year a large part of the tribe would leave the more permanent lodges and go hunting.  On the move small tipi structures composed the temporary villages.  The first hunt was for bear in early spring.  The Osage then returned in time to plant crops.  Next, it was off for the buffalo and deer hunt.  After that the tribe returned to harvest the crops.  Then came the fall hunt for buffalo and deer.  Also on these hunts, the tribe would gather nuts and wild fruit.  The elderly men, most of the women, and the young children remained at the lodges, looking after the crops while the rest of the tribe was on the move hunting.

Europeans traveled among the tribes on the western bank but in 1762 had not yet attempted a permanent settlement near the Missouri confluence.  For a brief period in the late 1600’s, French Jesuit missionaries had tried to settle, with the Kaskaskia Indians, on the west bank of the Mississippi near  a small river now located in south St. Louis and known as River des Peres.   But the Kaskaskia were unhappy with the location and moved back to the eastern bank of the river and further south near what is now called the Kaskaskia River.  Their French missionaries left with them.

In the 1720’s the French learned that a Spanish expedition had ventured north into present day Nebraska .  Although the expedition had been destroyed by the Pawnee, the French saw this expedition as the thin edge of the wedge and they were determined to maintain control over the region.  Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont, who had explored the Missouri River valley and lived among the tribes, was given command of an expedition up the Missouri River to establish a trading post.  He left New Orleans in winter of 1723 and made his way to the small French village of Cahokia, which stood south of the Great Mound of the Cahokias. With assistance from the Missouri tribe he made his way up the Missouri River to their village.   

Bourgmont established himself and his men nearby at what came to be called Fort Orleans and began to reach out to the Osage who were located to the south. Bourgmont also traveled into what is now Kansas, trading with the local tribes, including the Apache, and tried to cement their relationship with the French.  With him was a young French officer named Louis de St. Ange de Bellerive who would later be given the command of the French post at Vincennes on the Wabash river.  Bellerive would end his career in the newly founded St. Louis.

But Fort Orleans was not profitable for the French and by 1727 it was ordered abandoned.  Although historians know that it was located on the north bank of the Missouri River about ten miles northwest of Marshall, Missouri, the exact location has never been found.

The next French attempt to make a permanent presence along the Missouri  River was to establish Fort de Cavagnal in 1744 near what is today Fort Leavenworth.  Although french posts were often called "forts" they were first, and primarily, trading posts.  The military commanded because they were given the authority to resolve disputes, not because they were afraid of attack.  The first commander was Francois Coulon de Villiers.   It was the death in 1754 of his brother, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, while in the custody of George Washington that would begin the Seven Years War between France and England.   In 1762 that war was just ending and France was on the losing side. 

As our hypothetical traveler of 1762  floated past what would become St. Louis, Fort de Cavagnal still existed and he might have passed travelers headed up the Missouri River en route to it.  But within a few years it would be abandoned.   In 1804, Lewis and Clark passed its ruins and William Clark noted in his journal:

"the French formerly had a fort at this place, to protect the trade of this nation, the Situation appears to be a verry elligable one for a Town, the valley rich & extensive, with a Small Brook Meanding through it and one part of the bank affording yet a good landing for boats . . ."
Our traveler by now was probably tired and might have put in to spend the night on the east bank of the river at the small village of Cahokia (located a few miles south of the Great Mound of the Cahokias and four miles south of the future location of St. Louis).  

Cahokia was founded by the French in 1699 by Fr. St. Cosme and two other “Recollects” or members of the “Society of Foreign Missions of the Seminary of Quebec” as a mission to serve the nearby Tamaroa and Cahokia tribes.   It is said that on their way south to live among the tribes they crossed the Mississippi and camped in what would become the City of St. Louis before traveling south to explore as far as Arkansas.  Finally they returned in March 1699 and established the Mission of the Holy Family in the villages of the Tamaroa and Cahokia.  Eventually the settlement became known simply as Cahokia.   Although other Frenchmen arrived to live in the village, many taking wives from the local tribes, there were never many permanent Europeans living in Cahokia.  However, it received many French traders as visitors, being a natural stopping point on the journey from La Baye to points south or for travelers intending to travel up the Missouri River. And there was even an overland road that could take travelers south from Cahokia to the French villages in Southern Illinois.
The next morning our hypothetical traveler would be on his way.  Perhaps he might think that the western bank could provide a good location for a settlement.  But crossing the river couldn’t have been easy and why make life difficult?  After all, the French controlled both sides of the river.  The small settlement of Cahokia was a perfect stopping place for the few French who travelled up the Missouri.  There was no need to establish a settlement on the western side.

Within a few months that would change.  And life for the French in North America, including Jean Baptiste Becquet and his family, would never be the same.