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Colonial St. Louis: Fortunes Gained, Fortunes Lost

I remember a trip I took with my dad in 2008. He had always wanted to see the Liberty Bell. That trip, all by car, took two weeks. He planned every day, just as he had done when we took family vacations. I inherited that trait, but as much as I wanted to help plan, I decided to let him enjoy it. Looking back, I'm amazed he did it without the internet. How did we do that? Planning vacations online is one great societal change we can all get behind!

While in Philadelphia, we visited the typical tourist sites. One stop included a place where you could watch and interact with people working with archaeological artifacts. My dad proudly mentioned to them that I had participated in several archaeological digs. The man said, "Oh, St. Louis. So that's a bit later than the American Revolutionary Period we're working with." No. No it's not.

St. Louis was founded in 1764, but well before that, people were out here in the Pays des Illinois. Most of them were French or French-Canadians. Some were missionaries, some were military, but most were looking for fortune. In 1673, Louis Joliet (born in Quebec in 1645), and Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, a missionary Catholic priest, made their way down the Mississippi River. Although he had studied philosophy, Joliet was a fur trader.

Two things brought the French to this area of the continent:

  1. Control of the Mississippi River and the interior of the continent.

  2. Monetary wealth provided by the fur trade.

Most textbooks claim that converting the indigenous people to Christianity was also a reason, but I kind of feel like people funding the missionaries were interested in monetary gain too. If you can control the people, by using a shared religion for example, you can gain their trust and then access to material wealth. Maybe I'm just a bit cynical, though.

In 1845, St. Louisan George Caleb Bingham painted French-Trader, Half-breed Son. It is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York under a new title, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Although I understand why the name was changed, in this case it's important to know the original. The French were here, and they interacted with and married into Native American families. The French traded well into the interior of the North America decades before Lewis and Clark's famous expedition. Many of these ventures were financed by the French and later the Spanish, who governed the land west of the Mississippi for a little less than 40 years during the colonial period. Local merchants helped to support the explorers and traders with supplies needed for survival and trade goods to make friends with tribes encountered along the way. They were sometimes promised reimbursement by the government, but this usually didn't happen. By investing in these ventures, however, they hoped to get rich. They knew people who had succeeded, and they wanted in!

A drawing of the Chouteau mansion - built in 1764 in St. Louis.

Most everyone else lived in significantly smaller, 2-room homes. But this mansion is what they saw every day. This is what they wanted, so they gambled on their futures.

I have read in multiple places that food was sometimes hard to come by, even in a region of the country with extremely rich farmland. Why? It seems that no one here wanted to farm. They all wanted to be either merchants or fur traders, and they would risk everything to do it. One of my ancestors, Hyacinth St. Cyr, my 4th great grandfather, was one of those men. He and several other Colonial St. Louisans invested in the "Company of Explorers of the Upper Missouri," more commonly known as the Missouri Company, in 1793. Largely unsuccessful as a business venture, Lewis and Clark used the maps made during the last Missouri Company expedition to guide their own venture.

St. Cyr lost everything. Interesting, though, there was very little cash money in St. Louis. People bought and sold using things like furs. Although St. Cyr was forced to sell everything, the value of what he had to sell, including several lots of land in the town of St. Louis (where the Arch now sits), did not nearly equal the amount of his debt. He, or rather his wife Hélène Hébert, was allowed to keep one lot north of the town (in what is now Florissant), and everything they would need to farm the land. It is important to note that part of St. Cyr's debt had accrued when he helped finance the building of a defensive wall around St. Louis. The Spanish government was supposed to pay him back but didn't. Later the government granted land to his children as repayment. Those children were forced to prove those land claims to the United States government in the years that followed the Louisiana Purchase.

This is where my ancestors lived - not just Hyacinth St. Cyr but many others. I don't mean St. Louis. I mean here, in this exact spot. It looks a little different now. This is an old National Park Service photo.

No one in my branch of the family has gained the monetary fortune St. Cyr tried to obtain. But now, anytime I want, I can go and sit under the Gateway Arch, which was built the year I was born. I can stand at the new entrance and think about my 3rd great grandfather, Christian Frederich Kienlen, who owned the first confectionary in St. Louis at 3rd and Chestnut, which was near that very spot. And I can go to the place where my ancestors lived, sit down on the grass, and watch the river flow south just as they did. And that's worth a fortune to me.

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