Nov/Dec 2008

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The French Where First in St. Louis Before the Spanish.



This is French country just look at the names of towns in and around St. Louis, go there today, go to and around Ft. deChartre ILL along the Mississippi and listen to the locals, many still have the French in their voices, eat, sell and have the great cooking of the French. Go to the fort in the spring and watch the colors raised, 1st the French, then the British and last the Americans, in that order as it was occupied in history.

The French built and ran Ft. deChartre, sold it to the English and the Americans took it from them, this is a great event to watch - the units march into the fort, the colors change and so on, the best part is when the Americans come in and raise our flag the chill goes up your spine and your eyes will fill, every time. I've seen this more than a dozen times and have the same reaction with every visit, one that everyone needs to experience at least once. When you look at the history before Ft. deChartre it becomes a clearer picture.


Cartier & the Northwest Passage: AD 1534-1542

The two northern Atlantic kingdoms, France and England, looked enviously at the wealth which Portugal enjoyed from trade with the spice islands of the east. France is the first to seek a western route to the same pot of gold.

In 1534 the French king, Francis I, sends Jacques Cartier with two ships and sixty-one men to look for a northwest passage linking the Atlantic, above the continent of America, with the Pacific. Cartier discovers the great inlet of the St Lawrence river, which he hopes will prove to be the mouth of a channel through the continent. He postpones the exploration until the next summer and returns to France. Meanwhile he claims the whole region for his king, under the title New France.

Ohio & Mississippi: AD 1669-1682

The great central valley of North America, watered by the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is first visited by Europeans during the late 1660s and 1670s. This development is the direct result of the growth of the colony of New France during the 1660s. As the French explore through and around the Great Lakes, they begin also to move down the rivers running south from this region.

The nearest large river to the eastern lakes, is the Ohio. Robert de La Salle explores the Ohio valley during 1669, in a journey which provides the basis for the later French claim to this area.

Four years later a expedition is undertaken by a trader, Louis Jolliet, and a Jesuit priest, Jacques Marquette (founder in 1668 of the mission at Sault Sainte Marie). With five companions, in 1673, they make their way round Lake Michigan in two birch bark canoes. From Green Bay they paddle up the Fox river, then carry their canoes overland to the Wisconsin and on to the Mississippi. They travel down the Mississippi as far as the Arkansas River, convinced that it must flow into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Pacific. Inspired by their example, La Salle becomes determined to reach the mouth of the Mississippi. After two false starts and disasters and struggle for funds, he finally gets there in 1682. At the mouth of the great river he claims possession for France of the entire region drained by the Mississippi and its many tributaries, naming it Louisiana.

Now the English, French and Spanish have interests in North America during the 18th century. The quest for gold has brought the Spanish into Mexico from their first landfall in the Caribbean. The search for the northwest passage has sent the French up the St. Lawrence river to establish a province based largely on trade in furs, taken to the European market from the interior of the continent. Now the English make their move to found a string of colonies down the eastern seaboard.




The natural direction for Spanish expansion is northwards, to the west of the Rockies, into the regions which are now New Mexico, Arizona and California. The French, from their base around the Great Lakes, are drawn south along the rivers which drain into the Mississippi, and then on down the great river itself. The English enjoy the east coast neatly confined to the west by the curving line of the Appalachian mountains.

Each of these three colonial groups have its own argument with the existing occupants of the land, the Indians. The first two centuries of colonization the Europeans have little more than skirmishes with each other, and these occur mainly at sea. The situation changes in the 18th century, the main problem is between the French and the English. The two nations are at war with each other in Europe almost constantly from 1689. A more direct cause for conflict in North America derives from the interest of each colonial group in the Ohio valley. For the French this region is the first route southwards, running west of the Appalachians thus Ft. deChartre is constructed.


Now having a little knowledge of what has taken place one sees the French as the major player in the region. Just look in the grave yards, check the names, the oldest grave sites are French and lots of them, much earlier than what many realize, you'll see more English, Irish and common names than Spanish, few Spanish names compared to the others.

If you talk to the historians, like Crosby Brown (State of Missouri Historical Society-retired), he'll tell you the frogs where thick in this country, they even ran Ft. deChartre for the English, just because of their numbers and worked at that fort after the Americans took over.

The Spanish appeared only after the territory was released to Spain by the French when loosing the F&I War, because of this some of the French living in the area recorded or changed their names to a Spanish like name.

Look at the fight that the French and their Indian friends had and kicked the crap out of the Spanish in the south-eastern corner of Kansas/Missouri - the buffalo robe recording this fight can be seen in Santa Fe at the Governor's Palace. The Spanish where not as welcome as they like to think.

John L. Allen wrote; St. Louis was founded by Pierre Laclede, a French fur trader, in 1764. His adjutant was his 13-year old stepson, Rene Auguste Chouteau, founder of the great French fur trading dynasty.

Earlier French settlements in the area were Ste. Genevieve (1750) and a series of settlements in the lower Ohio River valley dating to the 1730s.

After the French and Indian War, France (the loser) ceded the territory of Louisiana to Spain. But Spanish never outnumbered Frenchmen in St. Louis and the city remained French in culture and language until the 19th century. Part of what is confusing is that most French inhabitants of St. Louis and Louisiana Territory swore allegiance to Spain and simply recorded their names in the Spanish version. Thus, the early explorer of the Missouri River, Jacques d'Eglise, became, in the hi storical records of St. Louis, Santiago de Iglesia (both names mean the same thing and translate into English as "James Church").

The Spanish were not first in St. Louis--either as founders or in numbers of inhabitants or in importance in the fur trade on the Missouri River. Manuel Lisa was a late-coming exception to the domination of the Missouri River trade by the French house of Chouteau and others.


A good documentary history of the Missouri fur trade before the American possession of Louisiana Territory is A.P. Nasatir, BEFORE LEWIS AND CLARK, 2 vols., paperback edition available from Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press.


Buck Conner






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