Christmas Selections For Saint Louis History Buffs
by Diana Davis, Walrus Contributor
2011 was a great year for those interested in St. Louis history. Walrus recommends three excellent books by local authors–the perfect gifts for your favorite hometown history buff.
Frederick Fausz introduces us to Pierre Laclede in Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West. Asserting that one “cannot understand the founding of St. Louis without investigating the formative influences on its founder,” Fausz explores Laclede’s childhood to his love life to his influence in western expansion. The educated son of a French nobleman, young Laclede lost his mother to death and, as the second son, he lost his father to the preservation of the House of Laclede, freeing Laclede to seek fortune in the New World.
In America, Laclede developed a love liaison with the beautiful Madame Chouteau, who was abandoned with her son by her husband in New Orleans, took Laclede as her lover for the rest of his life. Laclede fathered four more children with her, but had all of the children baptized with the sir name of Chouteau for the sake of decorum. He raised all five children as though each was truly his own beloved child, and continued 30-year love affair with their mother until his death.
The drama of Laclede’s personal life was accomplished against the backdrop of squabbling kings, rat-infested river docks, and sweltering heat. Laclede and his cohorts fostered a respectful, cordial trade relationship with the Osage Indians, built a flourishing international trade center, founded the City of St. Louis and recruited settlers. All of this work paved the way for Lewis and Clark to come after them and extend the western frontiers.
Charlene Bry (who had a journalism career with the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Ladue News, and Town & Country) delivers the meticulously researched, Ladue Found, about how the Ladue area went from a sleepy little 1800s township to the 28th most affluent city in the United States where and acre of land costs $500,000.
Bry tells us the story behind many of Laude’s notable names. Peter A. Ladue, for whom the area was believed to be named, never lived in Ladue. Although he brought property there, he lived in the city. In fact, he was a scoundrel who failed to pay his bills and was quickly driven out of town.
Poor John McKnight was orphaned when his parents died in rapid succession in Virginia. His uncle, another John Knight brought him to Missouri. The elder John McKnight formed a successful real estate business; the younger McKnight studied law and hated it. He went to Santa Fe, N.M., and became a successful merchant, returning as a wealthy man to marry his cousin, Martha A. McCutcheon in 1850. He had his slaves build a house and slave quarters made from bricks that they made on the property in a kiln, one at a time.
Have you ever heard of Samuel Denny? If not, it’s probably because his legacy was edged out by Charles Lindbergh. Denny bought a land grant from James Monroe in 1815. He donated the right-of-way at the edge of his property for the building of the road, and like other roads, it was named after the family who lived there. Denny Road was a prominent thoroughfare in west St. Louis County for generations. In 1930, following Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, the newly paved road was formally dedicated as Lindbergh Boulevard.
Bry also touches upon slave ownership, mayoral compensation and many other tidbits that a history buff would consider noteworthy.
Although Bry had to dig when she researched her book, Todd Abrams had his handed to him, literally, by his wife who attend an estate sale and purchased a copy of The History of St. Louis County, written by William Lyman Thomas in 1875.
Abrams (publisher and editor of Town and Country magazine), his wife and occasional borrowers used the book for research or to fulfill curiosities. He noticed that the pages were brittle and starting to fall apart, and the bindings were dropping bits of dried-up glue. The copy at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters was in a similar condition. Knowing the book was in the public domain, he worked to preserve this priceless chronicle by painstaking photocopying each page to republish the book in paperback form.
Covering the period from the earliest settlers in the St. Louis area up through the Civil War, it provides a plethora of information about neighborhoods, schools, churches, social societies, local governments and also includes statistics and the names of thousands of individuals active in various communities.
In the early days, St. Louis City and St. Louis County was one entity until the city voted to secede from the county in 1876, just two years after the Eads Bridge was completed. Abrams says St. Louis County grew as a result of the desire for the people to get away from the acrid, smoke-filled cities; it was considered a luxury to get out and relax in the green grass, fresh air and sunshine in the county. The book chronicles developing cities in St. Louis County from the French-speaking Florissant to the German-speaking Affton.
The book also includes many memorable photographs of familiar places in their earlier forms, such as the shot of the University City Lion Towers newly built atop barren land.
Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West, Ladue Found, and The History of St. Louis County each offer a look into various aspects of our beloved St. Louis and each one would make a great addition to any history buff’s library or holiday stocking.