The St. Louis French Connection

Explore St. Louis
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From founding fathers to heritage attractions, St. Louis has “joie de vivre.” St. Louis is another Mississippi River town that knows how to “laissez les bon temps rouler!” And we come by our ability to “let the good times roll” quite naturally – after all, the city was founded by two Frenchmen who happened this way out of New Orleans, our “cousin” down river.

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In 1754, the French and Indian War results in the defeat of France, which cedes its holdings east of the Mississippi to Great Britain in 1763. That same year, Pierre Laclede, a partner in a fur trade company in New Orleans, began scouting for an ideal Indian fur trading location. He and his 13 year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau embarked on a journey up the Mississippi River. After looking over two sites that proved unsuitable for their needs, they journeyed approximately 18 miles south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and discovered what would become St. Louis. Laclede and Chouteau liked the area’s river access and the bluff that would prevent flooding. They marked the site and returned to it one year later to found the settlement of St. Louis, naming it for King Louis IX of France.

The life of Saint Louis IX, crusader King of France (1214-1270) and the city’s namesake and patron saint, is vividly portrayed in the vestibule of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. Built in 1907, this incredible structure combines Byzantine and Romanesque architecture styles with one of the largest mosaic collections in the western hemisphere. Located in the Central West End neighborhood, the west chapels are the work of Tiffany and Company and the main altar and another chapel features the work of Gorham. More than 41 million pieces of tesserae in 8,000 colors fill more than 83,000 square feet. The mosaic installation began in 1912 and was completed in 1988 by the Ravenna Mosaic Company. Pope Paul II called the church “the outstanding cathedral of the Americas,” during a visit in 1999.

A sculpture of the city’s namesake and patron saint, Louis IX greets visitors at the entrance to the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) in Forest Park. Prior to the creation of the Gateway Arch, this statue, titled “Apotheosis of St. Louis” (1903, Charles Niehaus), was the symbol of the city. The art museum is one of the nation’s leading art museums and houses an extensive collection of French Impressionist works and French Empire furnishings and decorative arts, and also dedicates space to masterpieces from the Renaissance, American European Art, Asian art, and world-renowned collections of Pre-Columbian and German Expressionist art. While the museum frequently hosts special exhibitions that require an admission fee, the museum’s permanent collection is open to the public free of charge. One such special exhibition – focusing on yet another famous Frenchman – is “Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815,” which will be on display June 17 – September 16, 2007. The exhibit includes more than 150 objects such as furniture, jewelry, gowns, paintings and silver. Many of these objects, which linked the Emperor’s reign with the styles of Egypt and Rome, have never been displayed outside of France.

Pierre Laclede predicted in a journal entry in 1763 that, “I have found a situation where I am going to form a settlement which might become hereafter one of the finest cities in America.” St. Louis developed into a thriving river town and eventually into a cultured city of the time. One of the first things Laclede did for his new city was set aside a parcel of land for Roman Catholic worship services. The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, also known as the Old Cathedral, is the oldest cathedral west of the Mississippi River and the current building is an 1834 Greek Revival structure and the fourth Catholic church to grace the site since Laclede reserved it in 1764.

The French soon began settling in St. Louis and established a fur trading community. The town developed into a center for north-south commerce along the Mississippi River, and was closely designed after a French colonial city of the times. The early settlement had no retail centers and supplies were brought to St. Louis by keelboats with cargoes of flour, sugar, whiskey, blankets, fabrics, tools, and household goods.

Laclede’s Landing, the riverfront entertainment district named for Pierre Laclede, is a nine square-block area of restored warehouses on the Mississippi River where the boats once brought cargoes of cotton, tobacco and trade goods. Today the warehouses have been converted into clubs, bars, restaurants and offices.

Across the river in Cahokia, Illinois, the Cahokia Courthouse is an excellent example of Colonial French log construction known as poteaux-sur-solle. Originally built as a residence in 1740, it is the oldest standing building that was part of the United States government during the Lewis & Clark era. The Courthouse was where Clark received and sent correspondence from President Thomas Jefferson and where he and Lewis met with territorial leaders. An exhibit within the building relates to Lewis & Clark’s experiences in the area, before and after launching their historic trek with the members of the Corps of Discovery. A few short blocks from the courthouse is Holy Family Church, founded in 1699 by Spanish and French explorers. It is believed that Corps of Discovery members attended services at this still-operating log church. Next door is the Jarrot Mansion, the oldest brick building in Illinois. Jarrot was a powerful businessman and landowner of French descent who allowed Lewis & Clark to build their winter camp – Camp DuBois – along the Wood River just north of Cahokia. The courthouse, church and mansion are part of the “Creole Corridor,” the largest collection of authentic French-Colonial structures in the United States. The buildings are located in a swath through southwestern Illinois, St. Louis, and the beautiful Mississippi River town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, named for the patron saint of Paris. The sites are an easy day-trip from St. Louis.

The French were one of several cultural groups who settled in St. Louis. French Canadians brought African slaves who were regulated by Spanish law, which allowed the slaves to earn money for work performed on evenings and weekends. The community traded with the local Indian tribes, and the Spanish administered the city, which became part of the United States in 1804. France had retained the rights to the land since 1800, but never took possession from Spain.

Visitors can learn about St. Louis’ origins as a French-Colonial outpost at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Several exhibits provide an interesting primer into the decades of French reign in St. Louis and show how the tiny trading post grew into the Gateway to the West. The Currents Gallery includes remnants of the city’s French fur trading past, Parisian fashions and French cultural customs, as well as the original Louisiana Purchase Land Transfer Document, which passed control of Upper Louisiana from Spain to France to the United States. Explorer Meriwether Lewis witnessed and signed the transfer.

By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, St. Louis had grown in population and established a bustling river landing. With city growth, came new warehouses, supply stores and a need for boat makers and repair shops. Keelboats transported furs to the north in exchange for manufactured goods. After the Lewis and Clark expedition returned from exploring the Louisiana Purchase, St. Louis became a hub for trappers in a new trade oriented to the far west, and served as the final outpost to outfitted travelers before their journeys began.

More French Colonial history of St. Louis is on display at the Museum of Westward Expansion. The museum beneath the Gateway Arch provides visitors with 100 years of human history related to the American westward movement including the heritage of French fur traders and trappers who first claimed the region. Beautiful murals depicting scenes along Lewis & Clark’s “journey of discover” are described in captains Lewis and Clark’s own words through excerpts from their journals. Other exhibits put faces with the historic characters that played vital roles in the nation’s biggest growth period, and life-sized animatronic figures of Clark, Native American Chief Red Cloud and a brave Buffalo Soldier bring the opening of the American West to life. Also found here is the world’s largest collection of Indian Peace Medals including the design Lewis & Clark presented to Native American leaders whom they met along their route.

Speaking of the Arch, no trip to St. Louis is complete without a tram ride 630 feet to the top of the Gateway Arch. Visitors get a stunning view of the mighty Mississippi, the river explored by French and French-Canadian explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet who began mapping the “Big River” in 1673. The Arch, officially titled the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, honors Thomas Jefferson and his dream of a continental United States, the Native Americans, explorers and settlers who shaped the American West. Another facility within the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial complex is the Old Courthouse. Built from 1839 – 1862, the building features restored courtrooms, exhibit rooms on St. Louis’ history, and a remarkable set of dioramas depicting French Colonial architecture in Old St. Louis.

Visitors also can take a 45-minute tour highlighting the building’s architecture and historic events such as the Dred Scott slavery trials that took place in the building. Architecture buffs may be interested to know that the Old Courthouse’s dome was used as the model for the dome on the U.S. Capitol.

Just south of downtown St. Louis is Soulard, the city’s oldest neighborhood. Known for its brick row houses, restaurants, blues clubs, corner taverns and shops, Soulard celebrates its French heritage by hosting one of the nation’s biggest Mardi Gras celebrations and spirited events commemorating Bastille Day. The centerpiece of the neighborhood is Soulard Farmers Market, the oldest continually operating farmers market in the country that has been around since 1779. The land originally belonged to one of St. Louis’ early French residents, Gabriel Cerre, who gifted the 64-acre-tract to his son-in-law, Antoine Soulard, upon Soulard’s marriage to Cerre’s daughter Julia in 1795. Soulard arrived in St. Louis as a refugee from the French Revolution and was appointed as the second Surveyor-General of Upper Louisiana by Zenon Trudeau, the Spanish commandant who oversaw old St. Louis. Julia Soulard eventually donated the land for the market to be used by the city as a public market in perpetuity. Madame Soulard also gifted a nearby parcel of land at what is now Ninth Street and Park Avenue to the Catholic Church. This became the site for St. Vincent De Paul’s Church (1843), which was designed by local architect Meriwether Lewis Clark, son of famed explorer William Clark.

Farther east is Lafayette Square, St. Louis’ Victorian neighborhood and home to the oldest public park west of the Mississippi (1836). The elegant neighborhood surrounding the “squared park” was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, France’s leadership contribution to the American Revolutionary War effort, who visited St. Louis in 1825. The neighborhood’s “painted ladies” (circa 1870 – 1880) have been called the finest and largest collection of Victorian-era architecture in the country. In addition to visiting a variety of popular restaurants and bars, today’s visitors can be “house voyeurs” during the neighborhood’s Christmas Parlor Tour and Spring House and Garden Tour.

St. Louis continued its love affair with French architecture with the construction of the City Hall (1873) building, which is modeled after the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris. A statue of the city’s founder, Pierre Laclede, is located just west of the Market Street entry to the building.

In 1904, St. Louis welcomed the world to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, which commemorated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Held in Forest Park, the exposition featured exhibits from more than 40 nations and was visited by nearly 20 million visitors. There were 12 palaces that displayed technological advances, beautifully designed exposition halls, lakes, and gardens, as well as amusement rides and foods from various nations. Many modern-day items that are considered “all-American” debuted at the fair, including Buster Brown Shoes, ice cream cones, and hot dogs served in a bun. The soft drink Dr. Pepper got its start at the fair, along with iced tea.

One of St. Louis’ most popular “exports” was Josephine Baker. “Jazz Cleopatra” Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis on June 3, 1906, and she often had to rummage for food behind Soulard Market as a child. As a teenager, she began dancing with local minstrel bands and moved to Paris in 1925 to perform with the Revue Negre. Baker went on to star in the Folies-Bergere and became one of France’s best-loved entertainers. During World War II, she was a heroine of the Resistance, earning the Legion d’Honneur, and she was an activist for Civil Rights in the U.S. Upon her death in 1975, she was given an unprecedented state funeral in Paris. She is memorialized at 6501 Delmar Boulevard as part of the St. Louis Walk of Fame, along with more than 100 other favored sons and daughters of the Gateway City. In addition to such famous names as Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau, Baker shares the star-lined sidewalk with names like Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, Nelly, Tina Turner and many other significant St. Louisans from the worlds of science, education, entertainment and politics.

St. Louis’ French heritage is still on display at Bissinger’s French Confections, one of the last handcrafted chocolatiers in the world. The company has been making fine French confections for more than 400 years and takes pride in the fact that it has not sacrificed quality ingredients, taste or craftsmanship to produce more candy at a lower cost. The elegant St. Louis sweet shop’s original storefront in the Central West End is filled with antiques (a gift to the candy maker from the 19th-century songbird Jenny Lind) and delectable chocolates made from the same recipe that delighted the Empress Josephine.


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