St. Louis' French Heritage Web Exclusives: French Affairs, a Tour of the Creole Corridor, and More
Digging Up Dirt
In spring 2007, Illinois needed to clean out some ditches along Route 157 (where the village of Cahokia started). The Illinois State Archaeological Survey investigated—and found native American smudge pots and the imprint of French buildings from around 1740—one of them the home of Jean Baptiste Hamelin, who died fighting the Brits.
That fall, a Columbia water line had to be routed through Cahokia. “We found intact deposits dated between 1760 and 1780—the remains of a wood-lined well and a foundation,” reports Patrick Durst, interim senior research archaeologist. They overlaid a map of Cahokia drawn in the 1770s by a British officer who’d kindly included the names of landowners. It seemed they’d found the home of Joseph Trotier. And in fall 2010, along Cargill Road, they found remnants of the house of his father, militia commandant Francois Trotier. (And an admittedly quick, sloppy journalistic Google suggests that he married one of the Hamelin girls).
The Foundation, in the Basement
At the Missouri History Museum library, an archivist pulls out a disposition testifying to the noble background of Charles De Lassus, who became lieutenant governor of this region under the Spanish. The parchment is signed—in large, neatly rounded schoolboy script—“Louis.” (That would be King Louis XIV, not Louis IX, who’s having an apotheosis at the top of Art Hill.)
Hidden away in the museum’s basement, Anna Maria von Phul’s watercolors show slender women in Creole headwraps and the high-waisted gowns of Napoleon’s Josephine. There’s also an 1820 oil portrait of Marguerite Blondeau Guion, the French-Canadian woman who gave birth to the city’s first white child. There’s work by Frances Guyol, one of St. Louis’ first artists, and a silver punch ladle made by Louis Robitaille, likely St. Louis’ first silversmith. A small, very fine portrait shows Dr. Joseph Guillotin, who suggested the guillotine as a humane means of execution during the French Revolution; his brother-in-law was St. Louis’ first doctor, Antoine Saugrain.
Another storeroom shelters a French Colonial Louis XV armoire, “hewn out of log” in 1765 for Pierre Chouteau and adorned—perhaps later, in a burst of French symbolism—with carved fleurs-de-lis. A mahogany camp chest, made around 1790 by Napoleon’s goldsmith, was a present to William Clark from the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who fought with the Americans in the Revolutionary War. (The gift triggered a game of one-upmanship; Clark reciprocated with a live grizzly bear cub.) For those who came to escape Napoleon, a tortoise-shell snuffbox bears likenesses of Robespierre and other leaders of the French Revolution.
The museum’s French art and furniture is such a significant example of early French culture in the Midwest that it’s been featured in reference books and borrowed for exhibits throughout North America.
If you’re curious what once stood on the Archgrounds site, visit Ste. Genevieve, where similar structures have been preserved. Its entire historic district has been named a National Historic Landmark, as has the 1785 Bolduc House, one of the first Creole homes to be authentically restored. The Bauvais-Amoureux House was built in 1792 and is of similar Creole construction. The Felix Valle House was built in the Federal style, with Empire furnishings, in 1818.
The Colonial Cahokia Complex: Cahokia Courthouse
As a courthouse and post office, this building transferred mail from Lewis and Clark to President Thomas Jefferson, but it was first built around 1740. The building has been reconstructed on its original site, and from the outside, still looks as it would have in the 1700s.
The Church of the Holy Family
If you’re curious about St. Louis’ first church—on the site now occupied by the Old Cathedral—cross the river to Holy Family. One of two vertical-timber churches in North America (the other’s in Quebec), it was first built in the 1730s, then rebuilt, of dressed black walnut in the poteaux-sur-sol style, between 1787 and 1799. The original chalice remains.
The Martin-Boismenue House
Built in 1788, this small poteaux-sur-sol house is in N. Dupo (an inelegant shortening of Prairie du Pont, the meadow by the bridge). The structure is an excellent example of a French Creole farmhouse.
Nicholas Jarrot worked as a bookkeeper for Sulpician priests in Paris, then came to the New World and married a French-Canadian woman from Prairie du Rocher. They settled in Cahokia, but Jarrot refused to build the typical Creole house; he wanted brick, in the plain Federal style of his new country. More than 200 years later, the Jarrot Mansion remains intact, the oldest masonry building in Illinois and in the St. Louis region. Despite Jarrot’s American zeal, you can see French influences in the painted furniture, the stenciling, the faux wood grain (called tiger-striping or fiddleback), and the color scheme of gray, blue, and ochre yellow. The Jarrot is open to visitors by appointment. 124 East First St., Cahokia, Ill., 618-332-1782, jarrotmansion.org.
Fort de Chartres
After New Orleans was founded—and named after the Duke of Orleans—men came upriver in bateaux, flat-bottomed boats, and built Fort de Chartres in the Illinois Country, naming it for the Duke of Orleans’ son. In the 1750s, it was replaced with a far more imposing stone fort, whose powder magazine is now the oldest surviving non-Indian structure in the Midwest.
The Jesuits founded Kaskaskia in 1703 as Notre Dame de Cascasquias. It became the capital of Upper Louisiana, and by the mid 18th century had the largest population in French Illinois.
Pierre Menard House
Built in the early 1800s by the first lieutenant governor of Illinois, this elegant home overlooks the river and the site of old Kaskaskia. Historian Carl Ekberg has called it “the best preserved and most elaborate vertical log house in North America.”
Prairie du Rocher
Built in the shelter of the bluffs in 1722, its name means The Beautiful Meadow Beneath the Rock. The town remained quintessentially French Canadian for 100 years.
The Taille de Noyer House is now a gracious antebellum home in Oldtown Florissant, it started as a two-room log cabin that served as a French fur trading post in 1790. Several private homes in the same area are late 18th- and early 19th-century French Canadian vernacular design.
Chatillon DeMenil Mansion
The house started as a brick farmhouse owned by Henri Chatillon, a guide for the American Fur Company of St. Louis. Then it was purchased—and turned into a Greek Revival masterpiece—by a French physician who married a Chouteau descendant.
Everyone knew everyone, in the early French days, and romance braided the aristocratic families together. The Cahokia Courthouse was built as a home for Jean Lapensee, whose daughter Angelique married François Saucier Jr., son of the engineer who was in charge of Fort de Chartres. Angelique and François’ daughter Angelique then married Pierre Menard, and their daughter, Bérénice, married François Chouteau, who founded the settlement that evolved into Kansas City.