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1 Mar 2014

Happy Birthday St. Louis (Part One)

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March 1, 2014 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon

“My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”         

–Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers

St. Louis dates its official founding from February 14, 1764, when Pierre Laclède Liguest, his teenaged scout, Auguste Pierre Chouteau, and 30 men, stepped ashore to establish a trading post on land granted to Laclede by the King of France. Lacléde had made the three month journey up the Mississippi from New Orleans and chose a site on a bluff on the western shore where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers converge. The Village of La Ville de St. Louis, named in honor of he French crusader King Louis IX, began shortly after. This year, St. Louis is celebrating its semiquincentennial, 250 years of people and events changing the city, the country and our world.

STL250 multicultural celebrations will take place throughout 2014 and run the gamut from site-specific to large-scale events in a wide variety of venues. They will take the form of festivals, balls, lectures, re-enactments, exhibitions, displays, tours and performances. STL250 has placed 250 birthday cakes around St. Louis and 15 counties. The two-tiered, fiberglass, cakes are 4-ft. tall and are individually decorated by artists. Activities are constantly being added and the most current information can be accessed online.

Birthdays are the same whether you are an individual or a city. They are times to recall the events that shaped you and remember the people who accompanied you on the journey. In retrospect influences range from the sublime to the inglorious and everything had merit in the forging of the “personality”. Modern St. Louis is the sum total of both its written and pre-colonial history and this year visitors have a unique opportunity to interact with those locations and people who made, and continue to make, the city a place worth celebrating.

Archeologists date habitation in the region by mound building Native Americans around 2500-years ago. In 1542, members of the Illini Confederacy greeted the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, credited with being the first European to enter the area. The Spanish did not establish settlements and 121 years later a French party led by Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet came to explore and to proselytize. Almost exactly 100 years later Laclede and Chouteau set out from New Orleans. France governed the Louisiana Territory from 1682 until it was ceded to Spain in 1783.

The Osage inhabited the land when the Frenchmen arrived. They called themselves the Niukonska, “Children of the Middle Waters”. The men stood, on average, more than 6 ft. tall and were one of the most populated Indian Nations in the country. They were hunters, traders and farmers. It was the fur-trading monopoly that René Auguste Chouteau established in 1794 with the tribe that was the beginning of St. Louis’ preeminent location as a trading center. Their business arrangement lasted until 1802.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site might seem an odd place to begin our birthday tour, it is far older than 250 years and is across the river in Illinois, but it is significant to the story. The site, inhabited between 800-1400 AD, is the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. At its height the population approximated 20,000 and there were more than 100 mounds. The largest prehistoric earthwork on the continent, Monks Mound, stands 100 ft. tall with a base approximately 1,050 ft. by 965 ft. The name is derived from the French Trappist Monks who inhabited the site, abandoned circa 1300, from 1809-13.

A museum on the grounds presents a 15 minute orientation film that provides background on the culture. The curtain rises at the conclusion and reveals a life-sized, walk-thru, Cahokia compound and numerous galleries.

Also on the grounds is a reconstruction of Woodhenge, the world’s largest wooden post calendar. The poles were 15-20 ft. tall red cedar and were sunk 4 ft. into the ground. Red cedar was used because the color of the heartwood symbolized blood and life. Visitors come from around the world to tour the site and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1982.

St. Louis was a planned city designed to be a mercantile center. The original village contained three streets, La Grande Rue, Rue d’Eglise and Rue des Granges with Laclede’s Landing being at its core. The Landing was filled with warehouses, wharves and business establishments. The cobblestone blocks were small, about 300 ft. long, and no wider than 50 ft. The streets were renamed in 1803 but in honor of the 250th birthday French street signs will be added to the Riverfront District.

Commercial Alley was known as Clamorgan’s Alley after West Indian mulatto  Jacques Clamorgan. Jacques came to the city in the 1780s after fleeing the Haitian Revolution with Jean Baptist DuSable who founded Chicago. He started fur trading and land speculation businesses and by 1800 erected a substantial house on the block and four years later was the owner of the entire block with dependencies and several residences.

Clamorgan had a number of slave mistresses, the most notable of which was Ester. Ester had been the slave of Ichabod Camp but when Camp defaulted on a loan in 1784 Ester was seized by Clamorgan and became his mistress and housekeeper. He purchased her daughter and freed them in 1793. Around that time he signed many of his assets, including his house, over to her to protect them against any personal losses he might suffer in his business ventures. When he moved on to younger women Ester refused to return the assets to him. A court case resulted that was not settled during his lifetime. When the Americans took over the city Ester managed to retain most of her property and many of her descendants continue to live in the area.

The home of Jeanette Fourchet was on the corner of second and Elm Streets. Jeanette was freed from slavery in Illinois in 1763 and moved to St. Louis where she received an original land grant from Laclede in 1765. Jeanette married twice, both times to free blacks, and upon her death in 1790 left a substantial estate.

Laclede’s Landing is still a thriving neighborhood where historic structures house trendy restaurants, entertainment venues and unique shops. More than 50 percent of the buildings predate the 1880s and there are numerous architectural highlights. Nestled between the river and downtown the nine block, 22 acre, site provides wonderful photo ops. Legend states that W. C. Handy wrote “St. Louis Blues” after a night on the town in Laclede’s Landing.

One of America’s greatest gems is located in St. Louis and spans its history from the days of the fur trade to pre-WWII. The Campbell House interprets the story of the Campbell family who resided there from 1854 until 1938 with a concentration on the 1880s.

Robert Campbell, an Irish immigrant, purchased the seven floor, 30-room, mansion, in 1851. The mansion is uniquely preserved both because the family lived there until 1938 and it became a museum in 1943 and because in 1885 professional photographs were taken of the interior and exterior of the house. All rooms, with the exception of the servant’s quarters were documented. The residence was purchased for $17,000 and Campbell gave his wife $50,000 for furnishings, $562,233 and $1,559,509 in modern dollars. Most of the furniture was purchased from Philadelphia craftsmen and Virginia Campbell retained receipts and carpet samples.

Tours are guided and each room is exquisite. More than 99 percent of the furnishings are original as are the clothing items on display. Highlights of the tour of the Gilded Age mansion include 450 pieces of handpainted china with no 2 pieces alike, a silver set that was a gift from President Grant, a man’s shaving mirror patented by Lena Horne’s father and two large cherubs holding candelabras. They are one of only three sets still in existence with one being seen in Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle.

Campbell left Ireland at the age of 19 and made his way to St. Louis to work in the fur trade. He was an organizer of the first Rendezvous, a trade fair held enabling natives and hunters to trade furs in one location on the border of Utah and Wyoming.  The first rendezvous lasted only two days because the organizers failed to bring whiskey, that never happened again and they lasted much longer. These meetings continued for ten years and made Campbell wealthy, at one point the richest man in the state. The Campbells had 13 children, three of which lived to adulthood but never wed.

Food historian Suzanne Corbett is currently penning, “The Gilded Table: The Campbell House Museum Cookbook,” that will include recipe’s collected by Virginia Campbell.

The Louisiana Purchase was one of the largest land purchases, 630,000,000-acres, in history. It doubled the size of the country adding all or sections of 15 states and a portion of Canada. An agreement was signed in Paris on April 30, 1803 with the formal transfer in St. Louis on March 10, 1804. The cost to the US was $15 million, about $.03 an acre. The country could not meet this financial obligation and was forced to borrow the money from England at a 6 percent rate of interest.

Two months later, on May 14, 1804 the Corps of Discovery, led by Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Second Lt. William Clark, set out from St. Louis to explore and map the newly acquired territory. They traveled 4,000 miles before returning in September 23, 1806. Their expedition led to the settlement of the frontier and to St. Louis’ renown as the “Gateway to the West.”

The expedition was reflective of an increasingly multicultural nation and included Sacagawea, a 16-year old Shoshone woman who served as guide and interpreter, and York, an enslaved man. York was probably born in the 1770s in Virginia. He moved with the Clark family and was a companion of William Clark’s when they were children In 1799, William inherited York and included him in the expedition where he hunted, guided, carried goods and was a voting member of the group. Clark did not free York immediately upon their return but did several years later.

Lewis and Clark note that at the time of the purchase the Osage in the region numbered around 6,000 but the expedition heralded the beginning of the end for the natives in the area. The Osage Treaty was signed in 1808 and relocated the Osage from their Missouri homeland. They ceded 52.5-million acres for $200 and $500 in goods. By 1825 a series of treaties granted the US their Arkansas and Oklahoma land. In 1870 the tribe was forced to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. They are the only Native Americans to have purchased their reservation land.

The National Park Service administers one of America’s most iconic symbols, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The 630 ft. high stainless steel Gateway Arch, was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1947 to honor Jefferson and the opening of the West. It is the world’s tallest man-made monument, tram rides to the top are offered daily and the views are unsurpassed.

At the base of the memorial visitors can tour The Museum of Westward Expansion and step inside the world of the individuals who made their lives on the frontier of the early 1800s. This is a great place to put all the pieces together and begin to understand the enormity of their undertakings and the force of their will to succeed in unexplored territory.

The 370-room Drury Plaza Hotel in Downtown St. Louis is situated inside what was once the 1919 International Fur Exchange building and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Exchange, the oldest concrete building in the city, was the largest of its kind and trading continued until the 1960s. The building was meticulously renovated with many of the architectural elements being retained including 24 huge concrete pillars, Italian pink marble, and 15,000 pieces of Waterford crystal. The highlight of an interior tour is a life-sized diorama of the pivotal figures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as their trek comes to an end. Lewis, Clark, York, Sacagawea and her baby son and Lewis’ dog Seaman are depicted.

The Drury offers luxury accommodations, is within easy walking distance of all major historic attractions, serves complimentary hot breakfast each morning and complimentary appetizers and cocktails each evening. The service is exemplary and the rates are affordable. This is an excellent choice for a family vacation or romantic getaway.

Let’s continue the celebration and historical reminiscences in part two. You can always plan ahead using information and tools found online.

I wish you smooth travels!



Genealogists Alert! The National Archives is providing free access through to all its digitized Civil War records for the United States Colored Troops through May 31, 2014. Birth place and dates, physical descriptions, battles fought, wounds incurred, death dates and burials, parents, wives, children’s names, other relationships, employment information, former enslavers names, and community information such as midwives names, ministers, neighbors, fellow soldiers names, land and asset ownership is included.

“In the Footsteps of the Monuments Men” will be on view in NY’s Metropolitan Museum until March 13, 2014.

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