Sunday, May 31, 2015

St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive

When the history of St. Louis is written, historians inevitably begin with the "journal" of Auguste Chouteau.  Not really a journal but a memoir written many years after the event, Chouteau gives a version of the founding of St. Louis in which he and Pierre LaClede are the major players.  And why not?   Chouteau would become one of the most important businessmen in the young town of St. Louis, his family becoming very rich in the fur trade.  The Chouteau family were definite "winners" in the economic race run by the first founders of the City.   And, as we know, history is written by the winners.

But there are always, of course, others who were important in history.  Perhaps those who do not have descendents to write about them.  Or those for whom the written records is scattered.  If those records can be gathered they often document lives of great interest.

Carl J. Ekburg and Sharon K. Person have written about such a life in this book. Louis St. Ange de Bellerive led one of the most interesting lives in French colonial history - and possibly in all North American colonial history.  The Groston de St. Ange family came from Canada where the father, Robert, had immigrated in 1685.  Robert was a member of the French Marines.  (Despite most of the French North American colony being landlocked, the area was under the jurisdiction of the Marines.   This probably made sense as supplies needed to be sent by ship.)  He would spend his entire career in service to the French crown and his career would take him and his family all over what is today the American midwest.

In 1720, Robert, his second wife and two adult male children, Pierre and Louis, were at Post St. Joseph at the bottom of Lake Michigan near present-day Niles Michigan.  From that posting, Robert (and presumably his sons) accompanied the Jesuit Father Charles Charlevoix down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres.   The St. Ange family were now a part of the colony of Louisiana.  In 1723, Robert and his son Pierre were ordered to accompany a man named Bourgmont who was tasked with setting up a post on the Missouri River  - Fort d'Orleans.   Louis St. Ange eventually joined the family there and remained as commandant of Fort d'Orleans in the 1730's while his father returned to Fort de Chartres and became commander there. 

When Louis' brother Pierre was killed in action against the Chickasaw, his now retired father requested that Louis be given command of the post at Vincennes.  Louis St. Ange remained as the commandant at Vincennes from 1736-1764 when the end of the Seven Years War resulted in the transition of all the land east of the Mississippi to the English.  St. Ange was then moved from Vincennes to Fort de Chartres and was made commandant of all of Upper Louisiana.  It was he who eventually handed over the fort to the English and moved his troops across the river to the new settlement established on the west bank where he remained commandant of "Spanish Illinois" until an actual Spaniard could show up to take over.  An old man, he died a few years later in St. Louis in the home of Madame Chouteau.

As a genealogical researcher with family living in Upper Louisiana during that time, including in Vincennes, I've been well aware of St. Ange's history.  Ekburg and Person are to be commended in putting the history of the St. Ange family into one place where it can be easily accessed by the general public and where Louis de St. Ange might finally get his due. 

In addition to the history of the St. Ange family, Eckburg and Person have also spent time researching the written records of the village of St. Louis in the years leading up to 1770 when Pedro Piernas finally arrived in St. Louis to institute Spanish governance.  They write a fascinating social history of the village, examing births, deaths and marriages.   They discuss the architecture of the village and include a creditable discussion of the law of the land:  the Coutume de Paris.  They include a full chapter on slavery in early St. Louis and describe the foundations of the fur trade. 

For anyone interested in the founding of St. Louis this book is a must-read.  My only complaint is that, in their zeal to show that the story of Laclede and Chouteau are not the only important, or even the most important, story to know about the founding of St. Louis, they sometimes get a little petty. Every book has a point of view - even history books.  But far better to show that St. Ange was more important than Laclede by writing about St. Ange than by editorial comments about Laclede.  If you can ignore that editorializing, this is a book well worth reading.