Charlie Brennan

Happy Birthday, St. Louis!

Auguste Chouteau led the men who cleared trees for what is now downtown STL.

Charlie Brennan
February 13, 2018 - 1:38 pm

Happy birthday, St. Louis!  Our city was founded on February 14, 1764 by a group of fur traders who came here from New Orleans. Auguste Chouteau led the 30 men who cleared trees and built cabins for what is now downtown St. Louis. Chouteau was born on September 7, 1749.  If you do the math, he was 14 at the time! You might ask, “wasn’t Pierre Laclede also a founder?” Laclede did not visit the settlement until April, 1764. Today, a 14-year-old would not be able to drive, drink, smoke or vote, but in 1764, he was old enough to start a great American city.

Laclede, by the way, was the boyfriend of Chouteau’s mother, Madame Marie-Therese Chouteau. The two had four children together even though Marie-Therese was still married to Rene Chouteau of New Orleans. Laclede died in 1778, and by then, the two had still not married.  So, a number of early inhabitants of St. Louis were born out-of-wedlock to a single mother - and we thought that was a modern thing.

Even the birthday of St. Louis is in dispute. Historians like Charles van Ravenswaay and James Neal Primm claimed February 14, 1764, was the actual first date in St. Louis history. However, Frederick Fausz of UMSL believes, by looking at Chouteau’s handwritten notes, Chouteau wrote February 15, with an oddly scrawled “5.”  This account is backed up by Greg Ames, a curator at The Mercantile Library.  In St. Louis, we’ve been arguing since day one, whenever that was!

February is also the birth month of Washington University in St. Louis. The school was conceived on February 22, 1853 when Missouri State Senator Wayman Crow filed a bill chartering the school. Governor Sterling Price signed the measure into law the same day.  Originally, it was named Eliot Seminary, after Unitarian minister and educator William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr.  Eliot, however, did not approve.  He feared, because of his religious ties, the young college would be seen as sectarian.  A year later, when the Eliot Seminary leaders met again on the first anniversary of the school’s incorporation, February 22, 1854, they renamed it after President George Washington, who was born, by coincidence,  February 22, 1732.  Question: if they chartered the school on February 2, would they call it Groundhog University?

If you are still awake, you can read more on St. Louis’s early days in my book, “Amazing St. Louis: 250 Years of Great Tales and Curiosities” (Reedy Press).