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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

August 1673: St. Louis

Editor's Note:

During the third week of August, 1673, Marquette was paddling against the current past the site of modern St. Louis, Missouri. As usual on his return trip, he said nothing about it; not for another century would the stie's strategic importance, on the nearest dry land to the mouth of the Missouri River, be appreciated.

We therefore supplement Marquette's journal with an excerpt from the reminiscences of the founding of St. Louis by Col. Auguste Chouteau. Chouteau (1750-1829 was born in New Orleans to a teen-age mother with an abusive husband. When he was fourteen, she fled to the wilderness with her lover, Pierre de Laclede, who had obtained a monopoly on the trade in furs from the Missouri region. Laclede and Chouteau visited the site of modern St. Louis in December 1763, an on March 14, 1764, young Chouteau arrived with 30 workers who cleared the forest and laid out the first streets of St. Louis.

This remote outpost was the headquarters of the company that would eventually handle nearly all the furs collected from the basins of the Missouri, Platte, Osage, and Arkansas rivers. Within a generation the fledgling settlement had become, in the words of French spy Victor Collot, "the key of Upper Louisiana." The full text of Chouteau's memoir and Collot's report on his espionage activities are in our American Journeys digital collection.

Chouteau's narrative: "[Chouteau's step-father, Pierre de Laclede] set out from the Fort de Chartres in the month of December [1763], took with him a young man in his confidence [Chouteau], and examined all the ground from the Fort de Chartres to the Missouri. He was delighted to see the situation (where St. Louis at present stands;) he did not hesitate a moment to form there the establishment that he proposed. Besides the beauty of the site, he found there all the advantages that one could desire to found a settlement which might become very considerable hereafter. After having examined all thoroughly, he fixed upon the place where he wished to form his settlement, marked with his own hand some trees, and said to Chouteau, "You will come here as soon as navigation opens, and will cause this place to be cleared, in order to form our settlement after the plan that I shall give you."

We set out immediately afterwards, to return to Fort de Chartres, where he said, with enthusiasm, to Monsieur De Neyon, and to his officers, that he had found a situation where he was going to form a settlement, which might become, hereafter, one of the finest cities of America -- so many advantages were embraced in this site, by its locality and its central position, for forming settlements. He was occupied the rest of the whiter in procuring all things necessary for the settlement-men, provisions, tools, &c.

"Navigation being open in the early part of February, he fitted out a boat, in which he put thirty men, - nearly all mechanics, - and he gave the charge of it to Chouteau, and said to him: "You will proceed and land at the place where we marked the trees; you will commence to have the place cleared, and build a large shed to contain the provisions and the tools, and some small cabins, to lodge the men. I give you two men on whom you can depend, who will aid you very much; and I will rejoin you before long."

"I arrived at the place designated on the 14th of March, and, on the morning of the next day, I put the men to work. They commenced the shed, which was built in a short time, and the little cabins for the men were built in the vicinity. In the early part of April, Laclede arrived among us. He occupied himself with his settlement, fixed the place where he wished to build his house, laid a plan of the village which he wished to found, (and he named it Saint Louis, in honor of Louis XV, whose subject he expected to remain, for a long time; he never imagined he was a subject of the King of Spain) and ordered me to follow the plan exactly, because he could not remain any longer with us. He was obliged to proceed to Fort de Chartres, to remove the goods that he had in the fort, before the arrival of the English, who were expected every day to take possession of it. I followed, to the best of my ability, his plan, and used the utmost diligence to accelerate the building of the house."

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