A Timely Find: Pieces of St. Louis History Uncovered During City's Anniversary Year

3, April 2014

Archaeologists working a construction site near the Poplar Street Bridge in downtown St. Louis have made quite a timely find. Buried beneath hundreds of years of city development were the first pieces of evidence from the French founding of the city in 1764. Historical records have long shown who was living in the settlement during the French colonial period of the city, but up until this point no artifacts from these early people had been found. Missouri Department of Transportation archaeologist Michael Meyer has located ceramic pieces that most likely came from bowls in addition to traces of French colonial–style architecture on the site.

This discovery comes just as St. Louis is celebrating its 250th anniversary, and the Missouri History Museum’s 250 in 250 exhibit includes several objects, people, and stories that help tell the history of the city’s French colonial heritage. In addition to people like Auguste Chouteau and moments such as the “Founding of St. Louis” within the exhibit, the Museum has several images related to French colonial culture and history within our overall collection.

Street scene of early St. Louis by Anna Maria von PhulSt. Louis scene by Anna Maria von Phul, 1818.
Creole woman and child. Creole woman and boy, by Anna Maria von Phul, 1818.

 

Deemed the “Eyes of the Missouri Territory,” Anna Maria von Phul was in town visiting family in the early 1800s when she painted a portfolio of watercolors illustrating the Creole people and buildings in the St. Louis and St. Charles areas. Von Phul’s images may be from a later time period, but they do offer a glimpse of what everyday life was like for the French and Americans living in early St. Louis. A collection of her watercolors was donated to the Museum in 1953.

Daguerreotype of French home in St. Louis, 1800sThomas Easterly daguerreotype of Bienvenue House, ca. 1850.

Thomas Easterly, one of the more famous American daguerreotypists from the 19th century, spent a considerable amount of time traveling around Missouri practicing his early photographic process. In addition to portraits, Easterly used this process to capture images of 18th-century French homes still standing around the St. Louis and Mississippi River area.

Sketch of a French Creole home, 1796. French Habitation in the Country of the Illinois, by Georges Henri Victor Collot, 1826.

Finally, French military officer Georges Henry Victor Collot sketched homes and landscapes while traveling down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the spring and summer of 1796. His sketch of a French colonial home in the area served as the basis for the engraving shown here. The vertical timbers shown in the engraving are characteristic of French architecture during the period and match the type of wood-post holes found by archaeologists at the Poplar Street Bridge construction site.

—Matt Ringelstetter, Digital Media Content Developer