St. Louis: History

Fur Trade Establishes St. Louis Townsite

The first known attempted settlement near present-day St. Louis was the Jesuit Mission of St. Francis Xavier, established in 1700 at the mouth of the Riviere des Peres (River of the Fathers). Two Native American bands settled at the site with the Jesuit party, but within three years the mission was abandoned and no permanent settlement was attempted again in that area for more than 60 years.

Around 1760 the New Orleans firm of Maxent, Laclede & Company secured exclusive rights from France to trade with Native Americans in the Missouri River Valley and the territory west of the Mississippi River as far north as the St. Peter River. Pierre Laclede Liguest selected the present site of St. Louis for a trading post in December 1763. Laclede said his intent was to establish "one of the finest cities in America." The village was named for the patron saint of France's King Louis XV. North of the village were Native American ceremonial mounds; these mounds stood outside the original village boundary but were eventually leveled as the city expanded. The largest, known as Big Mound, was located at the present-day St. Louis intersection of Mound and Broadway streets.

In its early years St. Louis was nicknamed Pain Court (short of bread) because of the absence of local agriculture to supply such staples as bread flour. Laclede's fur business prospered but in time France lost control of the territory and the ruling Hispanic government withdrew Laclede's exclusive fur-trading rights. This opened the city to new settlers and new businesses. During the American Revolutionary War, the Mississippi-Ohio River route was protected when soldiers and townsmen successfully rebuffed an attack by British General Haldimand's troops; this victory secured the strategic importance of St. Louis. After the Revolution Mississippi River pirates disrupted trade on the river but in 1788 boats carrying fighting crews from New Orleans defeated the pirates. St. Louis quickly emerged as a trading center as the village grew into an oasis of wealth, culture, and privilege.

American Influence Brings Westward Expeditions

This early period of splendor ended in 1803 when France, which had regained control of the surrounding territory, sold the vast tract of land to the new government of the United States in a land deal known as the Louisiana Purchase. American migrants soon brought gambling, violence, and mayhem into the community. Nearby Bloody Island gained a national reputation as a place of infamous duels, such as the one in 1817 when Thomas Hart Benton shot and killed a man. The rough-and-tumble village life eventually stabilized itself; the Missouri Gazette, St. Louis's first newspaper, and the opening of the first English school helped to improve the local environs.

St. Louis-based fur trappers and traders were the source of great local wealth; the Missouri Fur Company was founded in 1809 and dominated the Missouri Valley for the next 40 years. The city became a logical point of departure for explorers setting off on westward journeys. The most famous of these undertakings is the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 to 1806. Eventually as many as 50 wagons a day crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis on the trek westward, and the arrival of the first steamboat from New Orleans in 1817 was the first sign of the city's importance as a river trading center.

St. Louis was incorporated as a village in 1808 and as a city in 1822. The city asserted its political dominance early in Missouri's public life, but tension between businessmen and farmers in outlying areas resulted in the election of Alexander McNair as the state's first governor and the eventual establishment of the state government in Jefferson City.

Industry and Immigration Prompt Development

St. Louis's first manufacturing enterprises were operated by craftsmen in small shops, but by mid-century the city was an industrial center as the development of flour mills, iron-works, and factories for the production of foodstuffs and manufactured goods fueled the economy. Between 1832 and 1850 more than 30,000 German immigrants started new lives in St. Louis. As industry brought another wave of new wealth, many of the city's existing civic, educational, and cultural institutions were established. During this period, credit for introduction of the highball, Southern Comfort, and Planter's Punch was attributed to local bartenders.

Serious damage to the city's downtown resulted when a fire on the steamboat White Cloud in 1849 spread to the wharf district and destroyed 15 blocks in the commercial district; estimates of property damage ran as high as $6 million. St. Louis rebuilt by replacing log and wood buildings with masonry; public health issues such as sewage disposal and contaminated water were also addressed.

At the outset of the Civil War St. Louis was divided in its sympathies. The city's role was decided when General Nathaniel Lyon led the Union Army action, surrounding Missouri state troops at Camp Jackson. St. Louis became a base of Federal operations, and the city benefited from the purchase of manufactured goods by the Chief Quartermaster that totaled $180 million. St. Louis's industrial capability increased by almost 300 percent in the decade between 1860 and 1870.

Prosperity, Culture Draw World Notice

In the post-Civil War period railroads replaced steamboats as the primary transportation mode, and a new route to the east was opened. The Eads Bridge, the world's first arched steel truss bridge, was completed in 1874 and the city's first Union Station was built in 1878. The new prosperity was diverted in part to cultural enrichments such as the Missouri Botanical Gardens and Tower Grove Park. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the nation's second oldest, was founded in 1880. The Mercantile Library Association, which opened in 1846, began purchasing and commissioning original art works. Joseph Pulitzer's Globe-Democrat and Carl Schurz's Westliche Post were two of many newspapers that reported on the political and social issues of the day. St. Louis was, in 1876, the first city west of the Mississippi River to host a national political convention. In 1877 St. Louis's city charter separated it from the county and freed the city from state government control except for general laws.

By the turn of the century St. Louis had a population of 575,000 residents. In 1904 the city hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which focused national and world attention on St. Louis. Many European nations were represented in yearlong festivities that were considered a success. The first Olympiad to be held in the United States took place in St. Louis in 1904. The ice cream cone, the hot dog, and iced tea mark their beginnings at this world's fair. In 1926 an $87 million bond issue improved the city's infrastructure and financed the construction of new public buildings. A second bond issue in 1934 continued the improvements. New industrial initiatives in the late 1930s helped St. Louis pull out of the Great Depression.

In 1965 the Gateway Arch became a part of the St. Louis skyline, marking the spot where Laclede first established St. Louis. After failing to solve public housing problems in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the city emerged in the 1980s as a model for urban housing renewal, with stable neighborhoods of rehabilitated structures. A renovated warehouse district near the Gateway Arch called Laclede's Landing attracts tourists to the historic roots of modern St. Louis.

St. Louis Approaches the Millennium

In the summer of 1993 St. Louis suffered extensive damage from flooding when the Missouri and Mississippi rivers joined forces just north of the city and swept down over its protective levees in some of the worst flooding in the country's history. Damage in the flood region was estimated at more than $10 billion.

Also in 1993, Democrat Freeman Bosley, Jr. was elected St. Louis's first African American mayor. Four years later African American police chief Clarence Harmon became mayor after an acrimonious campaign in which the vast majority of white voters preferred Mr. Harmon, while Mr. Bosley claimed the support of African American ministers and civil-rights activists. Race relations remain a thorny issue in St. Louis, but city leaders continue to address the problem.

St. Louis in the New Millennium

St. Louis entered the twenty-first century recognizing itself as a big city without some of the major big city problems. Looking past a downturn in population and instead focusing on a vibrant future, St. Louis has attracted major companies, revitalized the downtown area, and improved the educational system. Renovations, remodels, and additions to St. Louis arts and history establishments, parks, buildings, infrastructure, and athletic venues have modernized the city, while traditional values continue to reign supreme in this mid-America city. Mayor Francis Slay, in one of his Neighborhood Newsletters, stated it well, ". . . the people of St. Louis embody the values that make America a great country. We applaud hard work, dedication and effort. We judge players by their performance on the field—not where they came from. We demand integrity, selflessness, and team-work. We never give up, no matter how hard the task."

Historical Information: Missouri Historical Society, PO Box 11940, St. Louis, MO 63112-0040; telephone (314)454-3150; fax (314) 454-3162; email City of St. Louis, 1200 Market St., St. Louis, MO 63103; telephone (314)622-4000