Sunday, November 3, 2013

250 Years Ago* ... November 3, 1763, Laclede Arrives in Ste. Genevieve

On November 3, 1763 Pierre Laclede and young Auguste Chouteau arrived at the village of Ste. Genevieve, on the west bank of the Mississippi River in what is now Missouri.  They had been on the river since the beginning of August, traveling slowly upstream from New Orleans with the royal convoy bound with supplies for Fort de Chartres.



Ste. Genevieve was the most northern French settlement on the west bank of the Mississippi, or at least the most northern settlement downriver from the confluence with the Missouri River.  Although the town of Ste. Genevieve still remains, the original settlement was a victim of Mississippi River flooding. By the 1790's, the residents had moved the entire town back from the river to where it exists today.

According to Gregory M. Franzwa, in his Ste. Genevieve: An Account of an Old French Town in Upper Louisiana; its People and their Homes, Ste. Genevieve was located where it was because of its easy access to the river (there were higher cliffs along the river north of Ste. Genevieve) and the route to the lead mines located northwest of the village.

In the early 1700's, the Royal Company of the Indies appointed a man named Philippe Francois Renault to explore and exploit the mineral resources of Louisiana.  The Company of course hoped he would locate gold and silver mines to rival those in Mexico.  Renault found no gold and silver, but he did find some of the best lead mines on the continent. As part of his arrangement with the company, Renault was granted a concession of land just north of Fort de Chartres and there he founded what became known as the village of St. Philippe.  According to Franzwa, Renault opened Mine La Motte on the Missouri side of the river and by 1725 was producing 1,500 pounds of lead per day.

Renault may be indirectly responsible for the founding of Ste. Genevieve on the west bank.  Sometimes the date given for the founding of Ste. Genevieve is the early 1730's but other times the official founding date is given as occurring after 1750.  Some historians, however, believe that there were people living on the site of the original village soon after Renault arrived, for the simple reason that workers would not want to cross the wide Mississippi every night to go home. But whether these, probably, itinerant workers constituted a village is open for debate.  Without a doubt, Ste. Genevieve was permanent French settlement by the 1750's.

Carl J. Ekburg, in French Roots in the Illinois Country, states that Ste. Genevieve, as a permanent agricultural community, first appears on the 1752 census of the Illinois Country (the French did not do a census every year or even every 10 years and they were not always accurate).   This census reflected eight permanent households with a total population of 23 (free and slave).

Presumably the early itinerant mine workers were superceded by permanent French Canadian families.  Ekburg, in his Francois Valle and his World, says:
Most of the residents of the Old Town [Ste. Genevieve] were a closely knit group of French Canadian habitants, or children of such habitants, who migrated from the east to the west bank of the Mississippi in pursuit of agricultural land. Multiple ties of blood, friendship and shared experiences bound these colonists together. 
By the time Laclede landed in 1763 the population would have grown. In fact, the 1760's saw an influx of French settlers relocating from what was now British Illinois to what they thought was French Illinois.  In 1765 a British captain reported Ste. Genevieve contained 50 families. By 1770 the British were reporting that Ste. Genevieve had 170 families.  French families clearly were not comfortable staying in British dominated lands, but in 1763 the only option for French families who did not want to live under Protestant British rule was to move across the river to Ste. Genevieve or head downriver to Arkansas Post or New Orleans.

In any event,  when Pierre Laclede stepped ashore in 1763, Ste. Genevieve was an established community.  Ekburg speculates that the original Ste. Genevieve was a "string town", a village laid out along one street, La Grand Rue, that would have run north/south more or less parallel with the river.  At the southern end of the village was La Petite Riviere, a stream that ran into the Mississippi.  It was here that the ferry across to Kaskaskia was located.  Secondary streets would have crossed La Grand Rue and homes, situated on lots of one square arpent, were laid out along La Grand Rue and the secondary streets.

Ekburg claims that the original town was a planned community, although no plan exists to tell us what it looks like.  Land grants made by the commandant at Fort de Chartres were not haphazard but were in accordance with a plan made by the royal surveyor, Francois Saucier. Saucier had arrived in the Illinois Country to design the new (and last) stone fort for Fort de Chartres.

Outside the village was a 7,000 acre agricultural area known as La Grand Champ, which was divided into strips of land that were owned by the villagers.   The whole area was enclosed by a large fence to keep animals out of the field.   After the harvest, the gates would be opened so that livestock could graze. As was typical throughout French North America, the French lived in their villages and traveled out to work their fields.

Although Ste. Genevieve was in French Illinois, it was directly across the river from the towns that would now be under the rule of the new British masters. This could not have been a comfortable feeling.  The French thought of the Mississippi River exactly as  we think of it today - a river located in one unified country, to be freely traversed without harassment from either bank other than from, sometimes, Indians.   As soon as the British arrived on the east bank, the river would turn into an international boundary.

The first thing that Laclede would have noticed about Ste. Genevieve when he arrived was that it was not a military establishment.  The same week that Laclede arrived in Ste. Genevieve, the French governor of Louisiana wrote to his predecessor that he intended to order the commandant at Fort de Chartres to carry off everything from the Fort when it was handed over to the British and deposit the artillery either in New Orleans or at the French post in Arkansas because "in Ste. Genevieve the  English would carry them off on their own perogative."

Governor D'Abbadie also remarked, in that November 6, 1763, letter that "the English officer assigned to command at the Illinois appears to me to be an alarming and seemingly completely dogmatic man" and D'Abbadie suggested that it would be best to warn the French commander in Fort de Chartres of this fact in advance.  Certainly this would not have made the French in the Illinois Country feel any better about the coming transfer of power.

Laclede had arrived in the Illinois Country, but his stay in Ste. Genevieve would be short lived.  Ste. Genevieve was not fortified and there was no secure location to store all of his trade goods.  Fortunately Commander de Noyes at Fort de Chartres (the brother-in-law of ex governor Kerlerec) was on the lookout for Laclede and Chouteau.  According to Auguste Chouteau's later memoir, Commander de Noyes sent a soldier over to Ste. Genevieve to tell Laclede that he was willing to assist Laclede and store his goods in the fort.  Since Fort de Chartres was another 18 miles upriver from Ste. Genevieve it is possible that Laclede and his party spent the night in Ste. Genevieve, but that is just speculation.

According to J. Frederick Fausz in his Founding of St. Louis,former Governor Kerlerec had sent an overland messenger to his brother-in-law, Commander de Noyes,  that had arrived at the Fort on October 25, 1763.  So de Noyes undoubtedly knew that Laclede, the partner of the richest merchant in New Orleans, was on his way.  According to Fausz, Governor D'Abbadie had "loaned" Laclede 300 pounds of the King's gunpowder.  The safest place to store gunpowder would be in the magazine at Fort de Chartres. (Clink this link for a view of the restored magazine building at Fort de Chartres, thought to be the oldest building in Illinois.)  Fausz sees this as evidence that Maxent & Laclede had the backing of the French colonial government in their endeavor to establish a trading post at the Missouri/Mississippi confluence.

Fausz thinks it is clear that the French colonial powers realized that there was going to be an exodus from the eastern bank of the river.  The day before Laclede arrived in Ste. Genevieve, de Noyes had treated with a group of Indians who were requesting French assistance against the British, including a request for gunpowder.  De Noyes had to deny the request because, as far as the French were concerned, the war was over.  He urged the Indians to cease waging war on the British and "retreat under French wings to the other side of the Mississippi River."  The following year, many French would "retreat" to the west side of the Mississippi to the new trading settlement that Laclede would found near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Although Laclede's visit to Ste. Genevieve was short, it was important.  It marked his official arrival in the Illinois Country.   By the 1780's the people of Ste. Genevieve were beginning to move to higher ground where the flooding of the Mississippi River could not reach them.  Today Ste. Genevieve remains one of the oldest existing communities west of the Mississippi River and it has the largest concentration of French Colonial Buildings in the country.  In 2008 it was selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one its "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" and some of the old homes are open to the public including The Bolduc House.  Although built in the 1790's, it gives some idea of the type of homes that Pierre Laclede would have encountered in Ste. Genevieve and in the Village of Nouvelle Chartres during his stay there. If you are ever in the area, I strongly encourage a visit.
In 2008 Sainte Genevieve was selected as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” - See more at: http://www.greatriverroad.com/SteGenHome.htm#sthash.V6wqJmne.dpuf


Ste. Genevieve holds the distinction of the having the largest concentration of French Colonial buildings in the country. In 2008 Sainte Genevieve was selected as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” Each year the National Trust for Historic Preservation selects 12 cities that offer an authentic visitor experience by combining dynamic downtowns, attractive architecture, cultural landscapes and a commitment to historic revitalization. Sainte Genevieve’s strength was its preservation, with more than 150 pre-1825 structures. Three of these buildings - the Amoureux, the Bolduc, and the Guibourd-Valle houses - are open to the public. The Felix Valle Home is open to the public and demonstrates the effect of the American influence. - See more at: http://www.greatriverroad.com/SteGenHome.htm#sthash.V6wqJmne.dpuf
Ste. Genevieve holds the distinction of the having the largest concentration of French Colonial buildings in the country. In 2008 Sainte Genevieve was selected as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” Each year the National Trust for Historic Preservation selects 12 cities that offer an authentic visitor experience by combining dynamic downtowns, attractive architecture, cultural landscapes and a commitment to historic revitalization. Sainte Genevieve’s strength was its preservation, with more than 150 pre-1825 structures. Three of these buildings - the Amoureux, the Bolduc, and the Guibourd-Valle houses - are open to the public. The Felix Valle Home is open to the public and demonstrates the effect of the American influence. - See more at: http://www.greatriverroad.com/SteGenHome.htm#sthash.V6wqJmne.dpuf

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.