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Alphonse Mucha, Czech (active France), 1860-1939; French Poster Advertising the St. Louis 1904 Exposition, 1903; color lithograph; 41 3/8 x 29 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given in memory of David R. Francis, President, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904, by his granddaughter Miss Alice P. Francis 40:1969
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If St. Louis were to lie down on a couch—an admittedly tricky proposition, with that big loopy Arch and all those sharp bricks jutting out—the analyst would hear a long, tumbling confession of confused identity and self-hatred.
Then, after years of expensive sessions, St. Louis would spring up from the couch and exclaim, “But of course! I am French!”
That single, essential fact got repressed a long time ago. How, you ask, could a city with a French name, a French king on a horse as its patron, French street names, French surnames, and French-inspired architecture forget that it was French?
Blame the Anglos. In 1803, there were only a handful of Anglo-Americans here. A decade later, settlers of British descent were the majority.
And they hated the French.
Cars nudge into tight spaces on the one-way side streets all around The Royale, and the rollicking, foot-thumping music of Creole Stomp reverberates in the alleys off South Kingshighway. Band leader Dennis Stroughmatt has resurrected the old rhythms. They aren’t Cajun; they’re distinct to our region, with the fiddler pushing the beat forward and practically demanding that the listeners start to dance.
Guests take tentative sips of Urban Chestnut’s Royale Apotheosis Saison (a French farmhouse ale) or ratafia, a honey-sweet fruit brandy of the sort that the first St. Louisans might have drunk. It’s August 25, the feast day of
St. Louis IX, the city’s patron saint, and an artist is painting his likeness on the inside of The Royale’s courtyard fence.
In the bar hangs a print of Fernand Le Quesne’s Foundation of the Town of St. Louis by Pierre Laclede in 1764. The 7- by 9-foot 1863 original is kept hidden away, in storage under the Arch.
“We embrace our German and Irish history more than our French,” complains The Royale’s debonair owner, Steve Smith, as he mingles. “The French were the founders, but the dirty immigrants came in and flooded the area”—he gestures across his body and up into the air, cocktail in hand—“and the natives didn’t stand a chance. The French influence is clearly here, though, in the appreciation of good food, the openness, the festivity, the natural appreciation for being with your fellow man…”
Which does make you wonder: What was life like when we were French?
First of all, the word’s a shortcut: We were two kinds of French, influenced by men of aristocratic blood who came from France to fight or govern, and by French Canadian coureurs des bois (woodsmen who trapped beaver), voyageurs (licensed fur traders who canoed up and down the Mississippi River), and habitants (farmers). And the culture born here was Creole: French in origin, but welcoming interchange with the Spanish, the Native Americans, and even, to some extent, the Africans brought as slaves.
Still, there was a distinct Frenchness about us, in that first colonial century—and a great deal more partying. Fiddles came out, feet stomped, homespun and dimity skirts swirled in the dance. Everybody was Catholic, in a way both devout and relaxed: They might or might not go to Mass, but the church’s calendar ordered the seasons, and its feasts made merriment obligatory. Wedding festivities lasted three days. Common amusements were horse-racing, billiards, and the taking of bets on both. On weeknights, people told stories, many of them patterned after medieval French folk tales. And the roughest of the habitants practiced a gentle courtesy.
French Jesuits and explorers ventured into our region in the late 1600s. By the mid-1700s, there were villages along the Mississippi River—Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, Ste. Genevieve—that resembled medieval towns along the waterways of France. A unique French Creole architecture developed, combining the pitched roofs of French Canada with the wraparound porches of the French Caribbean. The whitewashed houses were airy and uncluttered, with no interior hallways to block the crossbreeze. The coarse ware (everyday pottery) resembled mugs, jars, and dishes used a century earlier in western France. “But they also had faience—painted platters that were very festive and would have been fashionable at the time in Paris,” notes Robert Mazrim, a historical archaeologist who wrote At Home in the Illinois Country: French Colonial Domestic Site Archaeology in the Midwest 1730–1800. (The faience wasn’t high fashion, mind you; think Fiestaware.)
When T.P. Fadler put together Memoirs of a French Village: A Chronicle of Old Prairie du Rocher, 1722–1972, he described the early French settlers as eager to extract all possible pleasure from life and avoid its cares. The habitants were, as farm families so often are, plain in their ways, practical and frugal, yet generous, openhearted hosts. They were “satisfied with little on the principal [sic] that ‘contentment surpasses riches,’” Fadler noted—and “retentive of the old.” There was none of the restlessness that would later characterize American culture, none of the striving. One observer actually blamed the humidity: “The American Bottom is humid and moist which produces a lassitude and inertia that hangs heavy over the valley… The climate is partially responsible for the preservation of many old interesting buildings; moreover, for the calmness and peacefulness which is characteristic of its inhabitants.”
They loved the color blue. The men wore a capot made of white blanketing or gray homespun and caught about the waist by a belt of red or checkered wool. In the winter, they copied the Indians and wore buckskin; on their heads, they’d wear a tuque, a Norman knit cap with a broad ribbon about the crown. Women did their best to copy the fashions of New Orleans and Paris, and Fadler quotes one observer who pronounced them “remarkable for the sprightliness of their conversation and the ease and elegance of their manners.”
At right: A planting scene from 18th-century France, showing the long-lot system of agriculture. Farming by French Canadians in our region would have looked exactly like this—minus the castle, and with oxen, rather than horses, pulling the plow.
The common language that arose was an Old French dialect, salted with words borrowed from Native Americans or invented to describe new plants and animals. They wrote home about “wood rats here as big as a French cat,” these rats du bois being opossums; chats sauvages, “wild cats,” were raccoons, and boeuf sauvage were buffalo. Documents show rent paid “each year on the day of the Feast of St. Louis the sum of one denier of quitrent for each arpent,” an arpent being about 37,000 square feet.
You couldn’t travel four arpents without finding charming grapevines, but the French were scathing about their quality and preferred to make their wine from other fruit. Their cuisine went heavy on the local pumpkin, squash, and apples, with thick French-Canadian habitant soup made from yellow peas, as well as gumbos influenced by African and Indian traditions.
In 1763, when the earliest villages were well-established, two Frenchmen—Pierre Laclede and his lover’s son, Auguste Chouteau—came upriver from New Orleans and staked out the site that would become St. Louis. Laclede named the village for the French crusader-king Louis IX, not realizing that France had quietly given the territory away the year before, in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau.
St. Louis was laid out like New Orleans, with a place d’armes (parade ground) in the central square and a cathedral by the water. Its streets were named Rue Royale, Rue d’Église, Rue des Granges. It was nicknamed Pain Court—short of bread—which we’ve worried about ever since, thinking the early city was either broke or spendthrift. But Pain Court probably only meant that St. Louis was a center of commerce, not grain production.
Despite Spanish rule, the colonial culture that shaped this region throughout the 18th century was French, and it was different in every way from the Anglo-American culture that followed.
It’s easy to imagine J. Frederick Fausz in a canoe, a French fur-trapper’s weather-darkened buckskin stretched across his girth, a low-brimmed hat hiding the shine of his bald pate, and what’s left of his hair hanging long on the sides. Fausz, a history professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, knows with intimate precision the world of the coureurs des bois and voyageurs. He’s got little sympathy for prissy Francophiles; he once gave a talk to “one of these French societies” and got scolded for pronouncing the S at the end of “St. Louis.” He pointed out that he was in an English-speaking country. Grudgingly, his interlocutor conceded that he’d gotten “Chouteau” right, but insisted on “La-klehd.” Fausz volleyed right back: Pierre de Laclede had grown up in Béarn, a province wedged between Spain’s Basque country and the Pyrenees mountains. The Béarnais had their own language, and his name could well have been pronounced “La-klayd.”
You might not find Fausz sipping champagne in Paris’ Faubourg Saint-Germain, but he cherishes his city’s French heritage as passionately as Proust loved Paris. In Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West, he talks about how cosmopolitan St. Louis once was, how multicultural and tolerant and relaxed. He describes Laclede recruiting affluent Europeans, making the city “a refuge of all the French.” He notes that both Laclede and his consort’s son, Auguste Chouteau, loved books and collected hundreds of them.
“There were multiple cultures coexisting here, and nobody was killed in their sleep,” Fausz says, shaking his head in amazement. The French viewed Native Americans as allies, lived alongside them, learned their language, traded easily with them. When the French Jesuits named Kaskaskia “Notre Dame de Cascasquias,” they were braiding their faith with the native tradition; by 1721, they were baptizing black babies and marrying slave couples.
The French followed the Code Noir, a list of colonial slave laws that said slaves could not be compelled to marry; could be whipped, but not tortured; could not be imprisoned without due process; must be properly housed, clothed, and fed; and must be cared for when old, ill, or infirm. Granted, a Frenchman might have dealt out harsh punishment for an offense, branding a slave with the fleur-de-lis or clipping his ears. But back in France at that time, criminals were being burned alive or broken on the wheel.
As for the Indians, marriages between French men and Osage women grew common. “The more the French interacted with the Indians, the more intermarriages and sexual liaisons there were,” Fausz says, “and there was this great acceptance. Who are better culture brokers than people of mixed heritage?” He imagines the introductions of the time: “‘These are my slaves—they are married; they have children; they are Catholic; they speak French—and here’s my Indian daughter-in-law.’”
Ah, but then the Anglos came, and they feared the Indians. The Anglo-Americans also wanted to clear-cut the land for their farms, and that meant the Indians had to be gone. “The French traded with them and married them, and the Americans shot them,” sums up Mazrim. In 1818, the Treaty of St. Louis ousted the Osage from Missouri. As noted in the Cahokia Records 1778–1790, “the dramatic struggle of Anglo-Saxon energy with Gallic quietism had begun.”
The Anglo-Americans—most of Scottish and Irish blood—started to arrive in the 1780s. Some streamed through rather noisily on their way west. Others stayed and built cabins—“little log boxes,” as Mazrim describes them. “The French homes were much larger and cooler, with higher ceilings and substantial cellars. The Americans were camping, by comparison.”
The French used vertical wooden posts, driving them into the ground (poteaux-en-terre) or notching them into a wooden sill on a stone foundation (poteaux-sur-sol). They chinked in the gaps with bits of stone and bousillage, a plaster of clay, mud, and straw, perhaps binding it with horsehair (or human hair) before whitewashing it. Broad roofs slanted low, shading the wide galleries (porches) that often wrapped around the houses, protecting them from sun and storms and providing a shady, breezy work space. “That was good thinking,” notes Mazrim, who has excavated several of these structures. “You can tell the difference when you’re in one of those early French homes. They knew how to live.”
The French even used the land differently, more sociably. Just outside their villages were the long lots, narrow strips of land that the habitants plowed side by side, clomping along in their sabots (wooden shoes). Anglo-Americans did just the opposite, setting their farmhouses as far from each other as possible, buffered by fenced fields. While they found freedom in space and quiet, privacy and isolation, the French relied on an amiable, chattering, close-knit community. “You may behold at one and the same time a hundred plows going, under one inclosure, which belongs to the French, who cultivate in Common,” observed Jonathan Jennings in 1807. “Their Customs are often very ridiculous and grating to the feelings of an American.”
French Catholicism especially irritated the Protestants. Fausz quotes Thomas Jefferson calling Catholicism “the lowest grade of ignorance” and noting that history “furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” The Anglos found it maddening to see the French go to Mass on a Sunday morning, share a cup of rum with the priest afterward, and play card games all afternoon. In 1959, historian Richard C. Wade accused a “gay and relaxed” French population of slowing St. Louis’ growth.
“The take on the French was that they drink too much, they play too much, they have sex with savages, and even the best of them are Roman Catholic,” Fausz says. “They have never been a colonial democracy, so they must love tyranny. They don’t have juries—what do we have in common with these people?”
It’s true, the French loathed common law; it seemed too litigious. They chose the code of Paris as their law and settled infractions within the community. If someone was found murdered, it was up to the magistrates to determine the guilty party, who was expected to confess.
“There never was a Creole Frenchman hung in Illinois since the earliest settlement of the country,” noted the early Illinois governor and historian John Reynolds. “No Creole was ever sentenced to the penitentiary of this state. I believe the records of the courts in Illinois do not exhibit an indictment against a Creole Frenchman for any crime higher than keeping his grocery open on a prohibited day of the week… In common broils and personal combats the French rarely engaged.” In Gateway magazine’s 2010 French-heritage edition, Carl J. Ekberg quotes Reynolds and adds that Creoles “viewed Anglo-Americans as ruffians, who were hot-headed, lawless, and addicted to strong drink.”
“One basis of the prejudice was that we were a fur-trading town,” Fausz says. “Fur trading was the next thing to hosting buccaneers. These voyageurs and their Indian women and a lot of liquor—it just seemed vice-ridden. And there was a lot of prejudice against men who didn’t farm. They rode boats all day, they went into the woods—we’ve always been afraid of dark woods. What’s in there? Devilish practices! Besides, many Anglos were related to people who were damn near killed by the voyageurs’ Indian allies.”
The French reciprocated. Don Zenon Trudeau, lieutenant governor of the Upper Louisiana territory, called the Americans a people “sans loix ni discipline”—lawless and weak in character.
“There wasn’t anything the French could have done,” Fausz forces himself to admit. “The numbers were never in their favor. The British population just mushroomed. There was this aggressive expansionism, this need for land. And there is something very deep in our national psyche about militarism: If you can settle it either by treaty or by war, choose war. To this day, we don’t think of a frontiersman as an educated Frenchman with books.”
Above: A view of St. Louis City Hall in 1900, looking north toward the intersection of Tucker and Market streets. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis
The French lost the French and Indian War, and their empire with it. Fort de Chartres was turned over to the British, who renamed it Fort Cavendish. French and French Canadians on the Illinois side rushed across the river to St. Louis or south to Ste. Genevieve rather than live under the Brits.
Napoleon got us back from Spain in 1800. In 1803, he sold us to the Americans.
A proclamation “au nom de la république francaise” was posted in the old village, probably at the Chouteau home, reassuring inhabitants that nothing much would change when power transferred.
Nothing much did. French colonialists wrote to Washington, D.C., chiding the Americans for not allowing St. Louis’ city records to be kept in French as well as English. But the Chouteau family and the rest of the French elite made nice with the new rulers—a decision both instinctively cordial and politically expedient. Their political influence shrank, but their cultural influence remained. Almost 20 years later, a city map still included the French street names: Rue Grande (Main Street), Rue d’Église (Second Street), and Rue des Granges (Fourth Street).
Today, though, nearly every trace of the old French buildings has vanished. “We’ve excavated thousands of homes, dating back to 1100 AD,” says Mazrim, “but no more than two dozen French colonial houses in the last 40 years.” Sadly, because the convivial French built in clusters, rather than scattering across a wide area, their settlements were more vulnerable to destruction. In 1772, Fort de Chartres started sinking and literally began to tumble into the river. The Great Fire of 1849 tore through wooden Creole homes, reducing them to ash. In the steamboat age, we cut too much wood for fuel, and the Mississippi broadened and began flooding more severely. In what later became Illinois, floodwater drowned the old French towns of St. Philippe and Nouvelle Chartres, soaked Prairie du Rocher, and took a third of Cahokia and 85 percent of Kaskaskia; across the river, old Ste. Genevieve was damaged as well.
And the original village of St. Louis? “Two words,” says Mazrim. “The Arch.” Warehouses had replaced the original buildings over the years, but that was bearable for archaeologists, because the French construction methods leave such a vivid footprint in the soil. After the upheaval of Arch construction, all those traces were destroyed.
“We erased the last rare remnants of French St. Louis that had survived into the 20th century by bulldozing the city’s oldest 40 blocks along the riverfront and then burying even the outlines of the 18th-century town under tons of dirt,” Fausz says. “Words are all we have to remind us of St. Louis’ French colonial era. Every physical feature of the frontier town that Laclede and Chouteau knew and nurtured disappeared long ago.”
With bitter satisfaction, he quotes James D. Kornwolf, author of Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America: “St. Louis achieved the unique, if dubious, status in North America of entirely obliterating its original
urban core in one fell swoop.”
Why was it so easy to erase our beginnings? Even calling St. Louis the Gateway to the West “automatically associates us with the Anglo path,” Fausz points out. “We’re not ‘The City of All Rivers,’ which would have drawn more attention to the French settlers here.” St. Louis lies at the midpoint of an arc of early French influence that stretched north from New Orleans to Detroit. Yet “we are ignorant,” Yale University lecturer Jay Gitlin once wrote, “because the story of this French or Creole corridor, this crescent-shaped Francophone world, has never found a place in American history textbooks.”
Well after the Americans bought us, Fausz says, St. Louis remained recognizably French in its cultural ways. “It was a center of international commerce,” he says. “A model of multicultural harmony. An enlightened, alternative frontier, one of peace and prosperity.” His voice grows more passionate, building like an old-time orator: “I contend that St. Louis, as the first city in the ‘New West’ of the Missouri River Valley, was the notable climax of France’s legacy in North America.”
His shoulders collapse. “Our French history is just not taught. Why not? Because it’s at least slightly unpatriotic to say, ‘There might have been a better way.’ Are you going to emphasize that you lost an empire? Are you going to emphasize the Roman Catholicism, in a predominantly Protestant nation?”
What would St. Louis be like now if we’d spent more time as a French colony or drawn more lessons from those early years? “More cosmopolitan, more tolerant of diversity,” says Fausz. “Most likely, St. Louis’ population would have swelled with new French immigrants from the Caribbean and other Francophone areas, solidifying the culture to make it as resistant to future changes as New Orleans.”
Mazrim agrees that St. Louis would have been “profoundly different. The Americans just fanned out immediately and put everything within sight under cultivation. The French had a different sensibility about the material universe they were inhabiting; they tended to tread more lightly on the physical and cultural landscape. The American presence led to homogenization—Walmart.”
Until recently, attempts to resurrect our French heritage haven’t gone well. Colonial Williamsburg is an international tourist attraction—yet Colonial Cahokia was founded in the same year, 1699. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in North America, yet there it sits, unpublicized and barely staffed, in the middle of a timeworn little town with a rising crime rate.
Some of the erasure was deliberate, says Bob Moore, historian for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. “Basically, it was a defensive maneuver on the Americans’ part. They felt that they couldn’t necessarily trust the French who were here, because they’d been monarchists. The U.S. was worried that other powers—the French, Spanish, British—would try to regain the area. So the French language and customs were discouraged; there were changes purposely put in place to make good American citizens out of these people.”
Then there’s St. Louis’ famous sense of inferiority, which travels in a circle: We grow up hearing that there’s nothing special here, so we assume that what’s around us can’t be anything special. For the 1904 World’s Fair, Pierre Chouteau wanted to re-create the early Creole village co-founded by his great-grandfather, Pierre Laclede. The last house from the original village had been torn down in 1875, but Chouteau commissioned sketches from artist Clarence Hoblitzelle, who pieced together his elders’ still-fresh memories and descriptions. Alas, the exhibit wound up relegated to a corner of the fair. St. Louisans wanted a grander theme than their French heritage.
Today, European visitors trek to our French colonial historic sites, only to find that most St. Louisans have never visited them. Moore’s done workshops for teachers who are fascinated by St. Louis’ French history, but say their standard curriculum skips from the Mound Builders to Lewis and Clark—which, he says, is a shame. “The whole culture here was unique. It wasn’t the same as the French-speaking culture in Canada or Louisiana. The mid–Mississippi Valley turned out to be a very different culture than anywhere else in the world.”
Fausz would have liked to see the new Mississippi River bridge named The Founders Bridge or the Laclede-Chouteau Bridge, to finally honor the deeply historical French contributions to both Illinois and Missouri. He scanned the news eagerly when the first proposal was announced.
“The Jerry F. Costello-William Lacy ‘Bill’ Clay Sr. Veterans Memorial Bridge.”
Elizabeth Gentry Sayad is the sort of woman who wears pearls, understands power, and holds her own in repartee. There’s a whiff of French aristocracy about her, light as her perfume—her maiden name comes from gentil, meaning high-born. Mais non, she’s as Midwestern as they come. Her great-great-great-uncle, Justus Post, founded Chesterfield. And she’s never forgiven him for slicking a Yankee veneer over the family’s French heritage.
Still, she says, “This was a total Creole culture, and all my ancestors grew up with it. Even snooty Justus Post had all of his sons learn French.” Sayad’s been knighted—she’s a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques—because she’s done so much to preserve French culture in this region. After the Great Flood of 1993, the French consul general in Chicago thought France should show a little solidarity with this region, the last vestige of its old empire. So he formed a French Heritage Relief Committee and asked Sayad to co-chair the Missouri branch. She swiftly identified an orphan property, the 1792 Beauvais-Amoureux House in Ste. Genevieve, that had been drenched. Then she forged an alliance with Princesse Marie-Sol de La Tour d’Auvergne, then-president of the French Heritage Society. Fundraisers in Paris, D.C., and St. Louis brought in enough money to purchase the house—but when Sayad tried to give the house to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the state wouldn’t take it unless a nonprofit formed to pay for its maintenance.
So Sayad founded Les Amis, which has been fighting ever since to preserve this area’s French Colonial heritage. In 2000, Les Amis widened its purview to include the entire Creole Corridor of the mid–Mississippi Valley, stretching from Chester to Cahokia on the east bank of the river and from St. Louis to Ste. Genevieve on the west bank. A nice little brochure offered a self-guided tour detailing French historic sites on both sides of the river—and Sayad had to fight to get Missouri and Illinois to cooperate long enough to distribute it.
“Bateaux used to sail back and forth across the Mississippi every day,” she remarks. “The politics of statehood totally broke up this French colonial culture that spanned both sides of the river.” She had to make a big splash—co-chairing the National Commission on the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and bringing French and Spanish ambassadors and the chief of the Osage Nation to St. Louis for a festival—to compel a little teamwork. “For the first time since the Louisiana Purchase,” she says, “we were able to get the two states to work together.”
In 2007, Les Amis brought in a scholar from Canada. After a year of research, he helped prepare documents nominating the Creole Corridor as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a backlog of U.S. nominations, Sayad says, “but we’re still being considered. Mount Vernon and Savannah have been dropped.
“Normally, UNESCO sites are much more compact,” she adds. “But this is an 18th-century linkage of a fragile, entirely unique culture that is desperately in need of preservation.”
The only thing Midwestern about St. Louis is its geographic location, in Sayad’s opinion. “We have very little in common with Indianapolis, Wichita, Iowa City. None of these have the depth of culture and diversity of cultures that we have.
“A couple of generations ago, we were simply trying to be like everyone else,” she continues. “The RCGA [Regional Chamber & Growth Association] thought it was not modern and businesslike to call the city ‘St. Louie,’ as everyone on the East Coast did. Well, ‘St. Louie’ tells everyone we are a French city. Our culture is as French as New Orleans’ is, but it is hidden.”
Not entirely, of course. The 2000 census noted 8,958 St. Louis residents claiming French heritage. French influence waves from our flagpoles; fleurs-de-lis dot Saint Louis University’s campus, dangle from dowagers’ necks, emblazon ball caps. We have towns called Normandy, Creve Coeur, Florissant. Schools founded by Mother (now Saint) Rose-Philippine Duchesne still call their snack time gouter and their holiday from classwork congé. On a side street between Chouteau Avenue and Lafayette Park (named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a nobleman who came from France to fight in our revolution), you can see the crumbling stone walls of an 18th-century building from the French common fields. Soulard Farmers Market dates to 1779, and the surrounding neighborhood hosts Bastille Day bacchanals and one of the nation’s biggest Mardi Gras celebrations.
“Our Veiled Prophet Ball came right out of Mardi Gras,” Sayad points out. “The VP doesn’t seem to know that. They’ve forgotten their origins.”
On the weekend of February 14, 2014, after more than a year of planning, St. Louis will kick off celebrations for its 250th anniversary as a city. Balls will be hosted. The French Heritage Society, based in Paris and New York, plans to invite all of its members to St. Louis for one of the special-event weekends. A contingent from historic New Orleans is also likely; French Canadians and guests from the sugar islands settled by France in the Caribbean will be invited; and sister cities such as Lyon, France, and Saint-Louis, Senegal, will hopefully participate. Scholars will fly in for a symposium cosponsored by Yale University, Washington University, and Les Amis: The Impact of the Founding of St. Louis on the Region and on the Nation.
In honor of the occasion, Les Amis plans to restore the old French names to the downtown streets of the village: Rue d’Église by the Cathedral Basilica, for example. The old names will be in French blue beneath the current names, and a standard on each street post will give the history of that street. The hope is that the signage—already designed by Eric Thoelke, president and owner of TOKY Branding + Design—will eventually extend throughout the Creole Corridor.
Historians Carl Ekberg and Sharon Person are writing a new book to be published for the anniversary, with fresh insights into the city’s critical early years, 1765 through 1770. “We are discovering,” Ekberg says, “that early St. Louis has not really been thoroughly studied.”
The anniversary isn’t the only impetus for recovering our French heritage. As part of the CityArchRiver 2015 program, historians began to reevaluate exhibits at the Museum of Westward Expansion and the Old Courthouse. “We started to wonder why the museum started in 1800,” says Moore, “when the city was founded in 1764.” Now the exhibits are being redone to include the French culture that preceded the Anglo-Americans.
“We decided to tell our whole story,” Moore explains, “what was unique about St. Louis and what was squelched. We will be presenting two very different views of colonialism, two radically different ways of looking at how you could deal with native peoples, and how you could move into a new area and live lightly on the land. I think visitors will be surprised, maybe even a little shocked.
“St. Louisans have no idea the French played such a role here.”