The Village on the West Bank

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masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'
Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

Clark's First Impressions

"Plan of St. Lewis with the Project of an Intrenched Camp French"

Georges Henri Victor Collot (1752–1805)

Plan showing streets, buildings, and forts of early St. Louis

Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Engraved map from Voyage dans l'Amérique Septentrionale. Page 2. Paris: A. Bertrad, 1826.

French General Victor Collot inspected St. Louis in 1796, but this map was not published until 1826. Several features are numbered or lettered, but no key is known to exist.

—Kristopher Townsend, ed.

Meriwether Lewis, whose signature appears on the Document of Transfer, had arrived in the village in the winter of 1803, and was perhaps too busy preparing for the expedition to record his impressions in detail. William Clark, however, had come to St. Louis as early as 1797, when he was trying to straighten out the affairs of his brother, George Rogers Clark. He recorded his impressions in a diary which amply illustrates both his powers of observation and his widely creative spelling. He was "delighted from the ferry with the Situation of this town, which is on the decline of a hill, commanding a butifull view of the river. Crossed & visited the Govr. Zeno Trudo & was received with the mark of hospitality that is to be annext to a French Charector. After seeing Mr. Grattiot, Mr. Shoto, &c, dined at the Govr. In the evening went to a ball given by Mr. Cl. Shoto where I saw all the fine girls and buchish Gentlemen. At almost day returned to Mr. Grasietts & sleap." The next day he "vie'd the Town, found it to be in a thriveing state, a number of Stone houses built and on the stocks, tho all in French stile, small fort, one Bastion & 5 towers round guards the town, some Inds mouns about 1/2 miles above. The shore is of limestone rock, and good . . . 2 streets parrelell."

A Strategic Outpost

Laclède had chosen his site wisely, following—whether he was aware of it or not—the regulations set out by the Spanish for founding colonial outposts: "an elevated place, where are to be found health, strength, fertility, and abundance of land for farming and pasturage, fuel and wood for building, fresh water, (and) a native people" (someone to do the work). The Mississippi was of course the regional highway, providing access from and to fur trade posts in all directions, and to the capital city of New Orleans.

The Best Water Around

Dr. Antoine Saugrain Residence, 1897

French style house with hipped roof

Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum

Called the “First Scientist of the Mississippi Valley,”2 Saugrain was a chemist and naturalist and the only physician in the frontier community of St. Louis when Lewis and Clark arrived there in 1803. Described by a contemporary as “a cheerful, sprightly little Frenchman”—he was just four-feet-six—he had been appointed by President Jefferson, after the cession of Louisiana to the United States, as the resident surgeon at Fort Bellefontaine, a nearby military post.3

The doctor was something of a showman and seems to have liked nothing better than putting on scientific demonstrations. These included placing “little phosphoric matches” in a glass tube, sucking the air out to create a vacuum, then breaking the glass—at which point the matches ignited spontaneously.

—Robert R. Hunt
"Matches and Magic: Just how did the Corps of Discovery make fire?," We Proceeded On Volume 20, No. 1 (February 1994), 15.

Just as important, the river water provided beverage for man and beast, and this particular water was considered the tastiest and most salubrious to be found anywhere. The only processing the water underwent was "settling"—that is, after it had been laboriously hauled uphill in casks mounted on carts, it was poured into large earthenware jars where the mud settled to the bottom. Cooled by evaporation, and taken as it came, it was described as "somewhat rich in flavor, as well as in color," and many stoutly contended that no water on earth could compare to that of the Mississippi, "au naturel." In later years Mark Twain declared, "every tumbler of it holds an acre in solution. You can separate the land from the water as easy as Genesis, and then you will find them both good, the one to eat, the other to drink . . . . But the native do not take them separately, but together, as nature mixed them. It is good for steamboating and good to drink, but it is worthless for all other purposes except baptizing."

The visiting Viscountess Avonmore mistook it for iced coffee, and both Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Dr. Charles Pope carried a supply of it when they traveled.

And until the beginning of this century the water coming through the taps stayed pretty much the same; it was truly said that St. Louisans could not see their feet in the bathtub. Ironically, it was in 1904 when the world celebrated the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase at the St. Louis World's Fair, that the city's chemists and engineers were finally able to produce the clear water we take for granted today.

Fortunately, river water was not needed for the family laundry. This was done, whether by housewives or slaves, at Choteau’s Pond, the body of water produced by the mill operated from the earliest days on La Petite Riviere. The pond offered not only laundry facilities, but also a recreational area for picnics and boating, diversions enjoyed until the growth of the city and industrial pollution forced the draining of the pond in the mid-nineteenth century to provide land for the railroad yards.

Self-Educated Citizens

Although Amos Stoddard "found no want of education among them," the early settlers had no established institutions of learning. Jean Baptiste Trudeau taught sons of the villagers on an irregular schedule, taking time off for occasional hunting and trapping expeditions. Just about everybody did this. In 1778 Lt. Governor Fernando de Leyba complained to the Governor General at New Orleans that although the country was suitable for crops, the settlers neglected their farming, being interested only in trading with the Indians-" All are, or wish to be, merchants." From this situation came St. Louis's first nickname, Pain Court-" short of bread."

One other teacher, Mme Parie Rigauche, kept a school for girls in the late 1790's; this lasted but a few years. Sons of wealthier families were sent way for their education. Auguste Aristide Chouteau, eldest son of Auguste, was sent in 1802, at the age of nine, to Montreal. Charles Gratiot and Auguste Pierre Chouteau graduated in 1806 from West Point, and young Silvestre Labbadie studied in France in the 1790s. Actually, and hardly to the city's credit, the first public school in St. Louis was not opened until 1838.

Lack of schools did not mean however, that the village's leading citizens were ignorant. John Francis McDermott's study, Private Libraries in Creole St. Louis, shows that of the village's approximately 1,000 residents in 1800, at least 56 family heads possessed books, and that before 1804 there were some 2,000 to 3,000 volumes in private libraries. Pierre Laclède's collection emphasized political theory, history, and philosophy, while that of Auguste Chouteau contained mainly histories and works of the free thinkers, many of the listed on the Index. Dr. Antoine Saugrain, a French emigre who came to St. Louis via Gallipolis, Ohio, and was the town's only physician from 1800 to 1806, possessed a considerable library of scientific works, dramas, and at least one cookbook, The Science of Cooking, published in Paris in 1776 - a collection now housed in the Missouri Historical Society. It was this same Dr. Saugrain who provided sulphur matches, then practically unknown, for the Lewis and Clark expedition. His stone house was at present-day Second and Lombard streets; here his wife maintained a splendid garden that is said to have charmed and inspired Henry Shaw on his rides through the town.

Industry

For industry, the village boasted in 1804 such manufactures as shoemaking, coopering, and gunsmithing, all carried on in the homes of the artisans. As early as 1766 Joseph Taillon dammed La Petite Riviere for his mill, which was later acquired by Auguste Chouteau and provided the already-mentioned Chouteau's Pond. At least two bakeries existed by 1803, one operated by Francois Barrera in a structure joined to his Third Street dwelling, the other by Joseph Robidoux in a two-story building. Four tanners were known to have been in business before 1800, and the town had one potter, Joseph Eberlein an "artiste" who came to the village about 1795 and operated a furnace for baking earthenware.

  • 1. Frances H. Stadler, "St. Louis in 1804," We Proceeded On, Volume 20, No. 1 (February 1994), the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. From a speech presented at the Foundation's 25th Annual Meeting near St. Louis, Missouri. Editorial additions include page titles, headings, and graphics to assist the web-based reader. The original printed format is provided at http://lewisandclark.org/wpo/pdf/vol20no1.pdf#page=11.
  • 2. Meany, p. 309, n. 24, citing W.V. Byars, The First Scientist in the Mississippi Valley, (pamphlet), 14-15.
  • 3. Saugrain de Vigni, Antoine Francois, 1783-1821, L’Odysee Americaine d’une Famille Francaise [par] le docteur Antoine Saugraine; H. Foure Selter, ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1936), 33.