Laclede’s Landing History
Laclede’s Landing is proud to partner with The Missouri History Museum to bring occasional historical summaries about Laclede’s Landing and the city of St. Louis. MHM has been active in the St. Louis community since 1866 when founding members established the organization “for the purpose of saving from oblivion the early history of the city and state.”
Today, the Missouri History Museum seeks to deepen the understanding of past choices, present circumstances, and future possibilities; strengthen the bonds of community; and facilitate solutions to common problems. The Missouri History Museum offers programs and outreach services, including traveling exhibitions; tours; theatrical and musical presentations; programs for school classes and youth groups; family festivals; special events; workshops; and lectures. The museum also operates the MHM’s Library and Research Center near the Washington University campus.
The quest for founding the city of St. Louis began in 1763, when a French merchant named Pierre Laclede Liguest, who had a monopoly to all trade along the Missouri River, left New Orleans in search of a place to found a trading post. After storing his supplies for the winter at Fort de Chartres near present Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, Laclede set out with Auguste Chouteau, his 14-year-old lieutenant, in pursuit of a site.
Despite his original plan to establish a post near the mouth of the Missouri River, Laclede scrapped that idea after deeming the spot to be swampy lowland that frequently flooded. But just 20 miles downstream from the lowland, he came upon a bluff that rose almost 40 feet above the water. Their location was below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
When Laclede and Chouteau scrambled up the bluff to survey the area, they saw a forest of huge trees. To the west was a large prairie with many small streams, and the southern view provided more streams and bluffs. The men could also espy the village of Cahokia, across the Mississippi. Laclede decided to establish his post here and put notches in a handful of trees before heading back to the winter camp.
In early February 1764, after the icy river broke up enough to allow boat passage, Chouteau, accompanied by 30 men, returned to the bluff, with instructions from Laclede to clear the land of trees in order to build a trading post. With the felled trees, the crew built a warehouse and cabins. When Laclede visited in April to check on the progress, he gave the settlement the name “St. Louis” as a nod to King Louis IX of France.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris surrendered all territory east of the Mississippi to the British. The French villagers in Illinois, not wanting to be forced under British rule, soon crossed the river to settle around Laclede’s trading post. By year’s end, St. Louis boasted a population of 40 families.[Source: Charles van Ravenswaay: St. Louis: An Informal History of the City and Its People, 1764-1865. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press]
Clamorgan Alley (located between present-day 1st Street and 2nd Street) was originally called Commercial Alley and is named after fur trader, merchant, and financier Jacques Clamorgan (ca. 1730–1814). A native of the West Indies, Clamorgan’s ancestry was most likely Welsh, French, Portuguese, and African. In 1784, he arrived in Upper Louisiana (St. Louis) while it was under Spanish rule and worked as a fur trader with the Native American tribes of the Upper Missouri River. He was a prolific land buyer, amassing 850,000 acres of property.
Part of his property included a whole block on Laclede’s Landing, at 701–717 N. First Street, which included his home, other houses, barns, and structures. (Today, the location of both the Bi-State Building and Raeder Place). In 1804, he was appointed judge of the court of common pleas, and he rented his house to the government to be used as a jail. Clamorgan co-founded the Missouri Company to promote trade and explore along the Missouri River in an attempt to find an all-water route to the Pacific. In 1807, in his late seventies, he received a license to trade along what became the Santa Fe Trail and spent months doing just that.
Clamorgan was a lifelong bachelor, but he did father four children by three mulatto women. He and his prominent family were wealthy and educated aristocrats at a time in St. Louis when many African Americans were enslaved. In 1858, one of Jacques’s grandsons, Cyprian Clamorgan, wrote a book about the family, The Colored Aristrocracy of St. Louis. The book was edited and republished in 1999 by the University of Missouri Press.[Sources: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial website, operated by the U.S. National Park Service, nps.gov/jeff/index.htm | John A. Wright: Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites, second edition. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2002]
Additional History (from Laclede’s Landing Redevelopment Corporation): Near the time he founded the Missouri Company, Clamorgan sought to preserve some of his property by signing it over to his former slave and mistress, Esther. As one of the earliest instances of a female property owner, Esther managed the properties for over ten years. Clamorgan, who had initially intended to grant her the property only as a means to avoid creditors, sought to reclaim the deeds – a long legal process that concluded after the death of Esther in 1833, when the courts restored her property rights per her will.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson assigned two young men from Virginia—Meriwether Lewis and William Clark—to lead an expedition along the Missouri River with the goal of finding a water route to extend American commerce to the Pacific coast. In addition, Jefferson wanted them to take a scientific approach in collecting as much information about the geography and samples of flora and fauna in this unmapped part of the nation.
An encampment was established at the mouth of the River Dubois in Illinois in December 2003. Over five months, William Clark recruited and trained men for the rigors of the upcoming expedition, and on May 14, 1804, the corps departed the camp for St. Charles, Missouri, and up the Missouri River. More than 45 men comprised the corps.
The explorers arrived back in St. Louis on September 23, 1806. During their 28-month sojourn, Lewis and Clark learned about Native American cultures and social customs, taking notes and keeping journals, and they returned from the expedition with a wealth of information about the plants, geography, and species they had encountered.
Clark made St. Louis his home from 1807 until his death in 1838. His house was located on the grounds of what has since become the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and St. Louis Arch.[Sources: Charlie Brennan, with Bridget Garwitz and Joe Lattal: Here’s Where: A Guide to Illustrious St. Louis. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2006 | Carolyn Gilman: Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003 | Jefferson National Expansion Memorial website, operated by the U.S. National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/jeff/historyculture/corps-of-discovery.htm | Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition website, http://www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org]
In 1847, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law that stated: “No person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes in reading or writing in this State.” The assembly also forbade blacks to hold meetings. These laws were in reaction to the several schools and classes for African Americans that were being led in church basements under the guise of Sunday school. Missouri’s slave owners feared that educated and literate blacks would rebel.
Leading the charge in educating St. Louis’s black population through clandestine sessions were the Chambers Street Baptist Church, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Central Baptist Church, and the First African Baptist Church. The First African Baptist Church was established in 1825 by pastor John Berry Meachum, a former slave who had bought his own freedom and as well as his family’s. It was located at present-day Memorial Drive, between Chestnut and Market streets.
After the law was enacted, Meachum found a loophole by building a steamboat and anchoring it in the Mississippi River, where there was no federal jurisdiction. In the 1840s and 1850s, hundreds of African American children received an education by attending Meachum’s “floating school,” thanks to many teachers who came from the East.[Source: John A Wright: Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites, second edition. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2002]
Late in the evening on May 17, 1849, a fire was raging on St. Louis’s bustling riverfront. The blaze began on the steamboat White Cloud and could not be contained despite the efforts of the volunteer firemen. The flames quickly spread to a few nearby steamers.
During the mayhem, the lines of the steamboat Edward Bates were cut in the hope that the burning boat would be taken into the river’s current and flame out without spreading. Unfortunately, the strong current carried the Edward Bates downriver, where it crashed into a mass of other steamboats that were docked along the banks.
And the disaster was far from over. The wind blew flames onto the levee, where piles of tobacco, fur, and lumber readily burned and then acted as conduits to also attack blocks of warehouses. Because the boats were spread out over a mile of shoreline, the river couldn’t be accessed as a source of water to put out the flames.
Fire captain Thomas Targee sent orders for soldiers to use kegs of gunpowder to blow up buildings in order to create a fire-stop. His idea worked to an extent, but he was killed in one of the explosions.
Despite the valiant efforts of nine volunteer firefighting companies, the fire ravaged the city for hours, finally burning out at 7 a.m. the next morning. The carnage numbered 3 men, 23 steamboats, and almost 15 city blocks.
There were a few positive things to come out of the devastation. On May 31, the newly formed Fire Association voted to ask the city of St. Louis for $1,500 annually for each volunteer fire company in order to support their volunteer efforts. It would take almost 15 months before an ordinance was passed to pay each volunteer company $1,000 to cover its annual expenses.
Also, in rebuilding the downtown and the riverfront, the levee was expanded, streets were widened, and brick and cast iron were used in rebuilding the business district.[Source: Allen E. Wagner: Good Order and Safety: A History of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 1861-1906. St. Louis: Missouri History Museum, 2008]