The St. Louis riverfront’s first encounter with recorded history came with the Mississippians, an indigenous culture that flourished for 500 years in the Mississippi valley. Cahokia, on the Illinois side of the river, was the cultural and political “capital” of this very successful civilization. These people built mounds: triangles; squares; some circles. On top of the mounds they had houses, or burial sites, or other structures. They were very good at cultivating maize, and they made lots of pottery. It is believed that their political power rested on very few (even maybe one) persons. The “capital” communicated with numerous lesser cities across a vast territory (all the way to the Gulf coast).
The Mississippian culture began to decay shortly before Europeans appeared. No one knows for sure if it was a drought, or a mini ice age, or the result of expensive wars. People began to move out, leaving their mounds behind. We are lucky enough to have been able to preserve a few on the Cahokia site. Almost all of the ones on our side of the river were dug up by settlers to use as landfill (remember that the original city was built on a marshy area).
Our Western Civilization history begins with fur trading. Animal pelts (beavers, otters, etc.) were transported from what is now the Colorado area via the Missouri river until it ran into the Mississippi, where the trappers and traders veered south to sell their wares in New Orleans. A young man, Pierre Laclede, had built a thriving fur trading business in New Orleans. Historians agree that he belonged to a French family that was fairly well-to-do. Maybe he ended up in New Orleans (remember that most of the land surrounding the Mississippi was owned by France) as a result of tourism, or he was a not unusual example of a bright youngster who wanted to do his own thing rather than settling for what his parents gave him. In either case, by all accounts he was handsome, athletic, bright, honest, and trustworthy. Native Americans, trappers, and traders took to him. He did very well.
In 1863 he was approached by wealthy backers. Why not establish a trading outpost at the confluence of the two great rivers? This way he would have a monopoly on all of the furs that were due to arrive in New Orleans. Laclede enthusiastically agreed.
Why would a young man who was doing great agree to travel way out of his comfort zone in order to be stuck in no-man’s land, without any of the benefits that civilization had to offer? Maybe he saw into the future. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was having an affair with a married woman. Marie-Therese Bourgeois had married René Auguste Chouteau, an inn owner, long before Laclede met her. They had a son, Auguste Chouteau. Mrs. Chouteau had no dowry, so people felt that she had done well to land any man. Unfortunately, Mr. Chouteau liked his alcohol, and he was abusive to her. Mr. Laclede fell in love with Marie-Therese, and once her husband abandoned her (he left for France without her or her child), he moved in. Eventually she bore him four children.
Of course: this was the 17th century. People gossiped and smirked about this relationship. Although Laclede obviously didn’t care what people said, it’s not a stretch to assume that he may have thought that Mrs. Chouteau and their children would be happier far away from anyone who knew their history. So off he went, and he took Marie-Therese’s 18-year-old son, Auguste (whom he treated as if he were his son) with him.
Trappers and traders knew the route well, but Laclede was not satisfied with how marshy the confluence of the rivers was. He decided to go a few miles south on the Mississippi. Legend has it that on Valentine’s day, 1764, he founded the city of St. Louis, named for the French king who led a disastrous crusade and built the Sainte Chapelle.
The businessmen were right. Laclede and St. Louis thrived. He sent for Mrs. Chouteau, who joined him almost immediately after having their fourth child. The family was well-liked; Mrs. Chouteau, who by all accounts was bright, pleasant, and determined, was often referred to as “The Queen of St. Louis.” When Mr. Chouteau decided to return from France to New Orleans, he found his wife and son gone. Instead of letting things go, he opted to claim her.
In those days, women were property. She had to go back. Laclede’s friends in New Orleans placed dozens of roadblocks on Mr. Chouteau’s path. He did not fill out the right forms. One form was lost. There was an additional piece of paper that needed to be clarified… Eventually they ran out of delaying tactics. Mrs. Chouteau was told that she had to return to New Orleans.
But there is a happy ending! Mr. Chouteau went on one of his patented drinking sprees. He caught pneumonia, most likely because he aspirated while he was unconscious from booze. He died quickly. Pierre and Marie-Therese were able to legalize their union. The riverfront settlement that they so courageously started became one of the greatest cities in the world. The St. Louis Arch stands very close to Laclede’s original landing site, and directly across from Cahokia.