Saturday, February 15, 2014

250 Years Ago* ... Happy Birthday St. Louis!

Happy Birthday St. Louis.  Today you are 250 years old! Some people think your birthday was yesterday, but I side with those who think it is today.  February 15.  But we are celebrating all weekend.

How do we know when St. Louis began its existence?   St. Louis appears to be among the chosen few cities that has an account written by an eyewitness.  Many years after the fact (probably after the Louisiana Purchase in 1804) Auguste Chouteau hand-wrote (in French) his memoirs.  Unfortunately, most of the original was destroyed in the 1840's in a fire while the document was on loan.  But a fragment was found among Auguste Chouteau's papers and, fortunately for us, what survived was his "Narrative of the Settlement of St. Louis".   The original is now in the collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library which is located on the campus of the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

In 1858 the Mercantile Library published the original of the work along with an English translation.  Then in 1911, the Missouri Historical Society Collections republished both the English and French versions and included helpful footnotes.  They also included a photograph of the original manuscript  that containes a portion of the description of the day of the founding.  This is the publication that I use. 

Chouteau wrote:
Navigation being open in the early part of February, [Laclede] fitted out a boat, in which he put thirty men, - nearly all mechanics, - and he gave the charge of it to Chouteau, and said to him:  "You will proceed and land at the place where we marked the trees; you will commence to have the place cleared, and build a large shed to contain the provisions and the tools, and some small cabins, to lodge the men.  I will give you two men on whom you can depend, who will aid you very much; and I will rejoin you before long."  I arrived at the place designated on the [15th] of March and, on the morning of the next day, I put the men to work.  They commenced the shed, which was built in a short time, and the little cabins for the men were built in the vicinity.
Ah, I hear you say.  But doesn't Chouteau state that the date was March 15th?  And isn't this February 15?  And, looking at the deep winter that surrounds us, doesn't it make more sense that they would have waited the additional month?

In helpful footnote (which refers us to the facsimile of the original page) we learn:
The date of the founding of St. Louis has been the subject of much discussion.  As will be seen in the facsimile here given, Col. Chouteau wrote fevrier - February.  By his, or some other hand, the word mars was written over the word fevrier.  In his deposition before Recorder Hunt, Colonel Chouteau testified that, "On the tenth of February, A.D. 1764, Mr. Laclede sent Auguste Chouteau, this deponent, at the head of a party of mechanics of all trades, amounting to upwards of thirty in number to select a place suitable for an establishment such as he proposed.  On the 15th of February, A.D. 1764, they landed at a place which they thought convenient for the purposes of the company and immediately proceeded to cut down trees, draw the lines of a town, and build the house where this deponent at present resides.  Mr. Laclede on his arrival named the town Saint Louis, in honor of the King of France."  1 Hunt's minutes, p. 107.
And why the brackets around the 15th?  The translation is the 14th but the footnote begs to differ: 
Some person have mistaken Colonel Chouteau's figure 5 for the figure 4 (see facsimile).  But a comparison with other documents shows beyond question that the date here is fifteen.  ...
So I looked at the way Chouteau wrote the number "5" and I'm in agreement.  It was the 15th.

Unfortunately Chouteau does not name the two men on whom he was to depend (Chouteau, you might remember, was only about 14 years old).  It also does not name the 30 "mechanics" who accompanied him.  Later, however, in the original manuscript there is a list of names which the editor says appears to be Chouteau's best effort at recalling the names of the thirty men who were with him.

  • A. Joseph Tayon
  • Roger Tayon
  • Dechene
  • Beauchamps
  • Morcerau
  • Joseph Bequet*
  • Andre Bequet*
  • Gabriel Dodier
  • Baptiste Marligne
  • Lemoine Marligne
  • Beaugenou
  • Cotte
  • Pichet
  • Hervieux
  • Bacune
  • Francois Delin
  • La Garosse
  • Kierseraux
  • Gregoire Kierceraux
  • Alexia picard
  • Antoine Pothier
  • Th. Labrosse
  • Labrosse
  • Louis Chancellier
  • Chancellier
  • Gamache
  • Ride
  • Roi
  • Layoie
  • Le Grain

I've asterisked the two Becquets.  As the footnote says:

... the list is intended to be the muster roll of the thirty (in a deposition given 18 April, 1825 Col. Chouteau said upwards of thirty) men who came with Chouteau from Fort Chartres.  ... The errors in the list seem to be the mistakes of a copyist, and would indicate that Col. Chouteau had transcribed it from some previously written document.  Beauchamps was probably intended for Deschamps.  Marcereau should be Marcheteau dit Desnoyers.  The Becquets were both named Jean Baptiste.  Marligne should be Martigny.  The Martignys were near kinsmen of Iberville and Bienville.  Bacane should be Bacanne dit Riviere.  Layoie was Jean Salle dit Lajoie.  Most of the men named in the list became respected citizens of St. Louis. Nearly all were Canadians who had lived in the village about Fort Chartres.  (emphasis mine).
Other books about the founding of St. Louis reference the two Becquets (or Bequets as it is sometimes spelled) and agree that they were named Jean Baptiste and were from the Fort de Chartres area.  There were two Becquets, both named Jean Baptiste, who came to St. Louis.  (There was another Becquet family who went to Ste. Genevieve.)   Later records make clear that one was a blacksmith and one was a miller.   

The blacksmith, Jean Baptiste Becquet, was my ancestor, the son of Jean Baptiste Nicolas Becquet and his wife, Catherine Barreau who were immigrants from France.  J. B. Becquet (the younger) was married to Marie Francoise Dodier, the sister of Gabriel Dodier who was another member of the group of thirty who came with Chouteau.  Both men were blacksmiths.  If you intend to build a settlement, blacksmiths are essential to help make hinges and locks, etc.  They are also very useful to have around for trade because they would draw the Indian population in to have their metal goods repaired.

Jean Baptiste Becquet and his brother-in-law Gabriel Dodier were among the thirty who accompanied Chouteau.  Eventually Marie Francoise Dodier would join her husband in Saint Louis, as well as JB Becquet's mother-in-law, Veuve (Widow)  Dodier.  The founding would be a family affair for my family.

Over the years the family would become less French and more Irish and German, just as St. Louis became less French and more Irish and German.  Eventually in the late 1800s a descendent of Jean Baptiste Becquet would, for the first time, marry someone not of French descent - an Irish immigrant girl who had recently arrived in St. Louis.   Their daughter would marry a British citizen who had come to St. Louis from the British West Indies.  Her son would marry a woman of German-Irish descent.  The stories of our family's French heritage would be almost forgotten.  I would have a general understanding that my great-great-great grandfather with the French name had come "from Canada".  The knowledge that we were descended from a founding family would be misplaced.

But knowledge that is misplaced is not lost forever.  My father started digging into the history of that g-g-g grandfather.  Thanks to the tremendous resources of the St. Louis Public Library, the St. Louis County Library and the Missouri History Museum Library, and some help from my sister and me, the link was rediscovered.    And, thankfully, it was discovered in time for the Birthday Party!

So, again, Happy Birthday St. Louis.  You are a fine place to live.

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