When Pierre Laclede chose St. Louis as a site for Laclede=s Village, he had visions of the town becoming one of the great cities in America and the location was chosen with a series of deliberate and rational decisions. The war between France and England depleted the treasury of France and the restraints on trade had ruined many New Orleans merchants and increased inflation. St. Louis provided an opportunity for merchants to grow from the fur trade in West. This was the early beginning for what would be the first major city in the western United States, and the development of the first subdivision which would later be known as Old North Saint Louis.
In November, 1863, Laclede landed at what is now Walnut Street. This location was a high limestone bluff rising about forty feet from the Mississippi River. The bluff continued to slope back in two or three terraces to the west and extending about two miles along the riverfront. The bluff was covered by timber that extended west to what is present Fourth Street. Around the city a large rolling prairie that contained infrequent clumps of timber extended North, West and South.
Originally the land grants were given verbally by Laclede to the first settlers, and the majority of them preferred to live along the riverfront because there was a deep bed of limestone west of town that prevented the digging of springs for water. The land grants continued to be given verbally until 1766, when Captain Louis St. Ange de Bellerive, the French Lieutenant Governor, arrived and began establishing the Office of Settlement Affairs. His first order of business was to require the land grants to be recorded in the ALivre Terrien@ or Register of Deeds. He continued this method of land grants even after Spain obtained dominion over the territory in 1768, and also when the United States took procession from France with the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. The design of the village followed the same system used by the French when they divided the town into small square blocks with each block having its own habitant.
After the town was laid out, the next need was to find land that would be suitable for farming because the St. Louis economy depended on produce from the fields. Areas for growing grains were laid out by the villagers and cultivated as soon as possible. The layout was very close to the ideas from medieval Europe. The custom was to divide up the lands into long narrow strips that ran to the water and back to the hills. This gave each farmer a length of waterfront for a landing, a stretch of bottom land for cultivation and some woodlands on the hills.
Because St. Louis had very little bottom land, there were plateaus of fields that were west, north, and south. The land contained gently rolling hills and possessed good soil. Part of the land was wooded and part was open in the form of grassy parks that were called prairies. The design was adopted as a safeguard against Indian attack, enabling the settlers to work the strips in a line while keeping together in a more secure position so that no one was left alone and isolated.
The five official prairies were named: ASt. Louis Prairie,@ APetite Prairie,@ AGrande Prairie,@ the ACull De Sac,@ and APrairie Des Noyes.@ The first one laid out was the St. Louis Prairie which was located in what is now Old North St. Louis just west of the river. In the same manner as the village lots, land grants were also given verbally. The first one recorded in the Livers Terrains was to Joseph Calve on April 31, 1766 and it mentions that an adjoining strip was already under cultivation by a man known as Dube=. It was policy to grant farm lands in proportion to the number of village lots owned by an individual. Calve received a strip of two arpents in width (one arpent being the width of 192 2 feet) in relation to his double lot that he owned in the village. This tract in length was forty arpent (about a mile and a half) which became standard in St. Louis.
St. Louis prairie was bounded by today would be considered Market Street on the south to the large mound at the foot of Mullanphy Street on the North, and from Broadway west to Jefferson Ave. The prairie was separated from the village by the Commons fence, but the west end was open. Across the field there was a strip of dirt that was thirty-six feet wide to be used as a public road to Grand Prairie or the Village of St. Charles. Today, Jefferson Avenue has a bend at Washington Avenue because it was following the line of the fence used for the prairie.
Common field practice came to an end when Governor Zenon Trudeau stated that the farmers were abusing the common land by enclosing and separating themselves from one another to prevent sheep from entering the cultivated parts. He argued that with the assistance of the stockade, animals will be prevented from traveling to other fields. Already most of the people wanted to abandon the practice. After that speech, the common field system ended and outlying farms were granted when the communal farming broke up. This was also the beginning of establishing residences on some of these prairies.
Indian relations changed over the years with between friendship and sometimes hostilities. The first tribe of Missouri Indians appeared in 1764 right after Auguste Chouteau named the village ASt. Louis@ in the honor of King Louis XV. The Indians had recently traveled one hundred eighty miles to the west and announced to Chouteau that they intended on settling with the French. Included in the group were one hundred fifty warriors and their wives, children, dogs, and horses. While there was a concern that this might discourage the settlements from white families, Chouteau put them to work for the day and then gave them provisions so that they could be on their way. As the years passed, the Indians would become part of the St. Louis area and they soon began to hold Indian councils traded with the each other and the white men. By 1769, more then twenty five tribes from both sides of the Mississippi River visited St. Louis each year for the purpose of trading furs for food and to hold councils. Some of the Indians even stayed to live and marry some of the settlers
Relations between the Indians and the settlers was excellent for the first fifteen years and both the French and later the Spanish worked with the Indians to keep peace. After Chief Pontiac of the Peoria Indians received permission to camp a few miles south of the Village in 1769 he was murdered by an English trader and his body was buried on a hill north of the village with honors by St. Ange de Bellerive. Another example of excellent relations, was when another Chief from the Shawnee tribe came to the defense of the Governor of St. Louis when a chief of the Osage Indians game to town to kill him because he felt he was treated rudely. The Osage Chief was killed in the quarrel by the Shawnee tribe and was buried in the Big Mound where his remains stayed until the Mound was destroyed a century later.
For many years St. Louis had lived in isolation and peace without walls or danger from Indian attacks. When Spain had control over St. Louis, they were not willing to invest much into defending the colony. During 1777, around four hundred and fifty Osages, plus groups from twenty other tribes, visited St. Louis to trade and talk. Saint Louis was trying to be as hospitable as possible since they were lacking protection but items were being borrowed by Indians as well as petty theft from the villagers.
Relationships between the Indians and settlers began to change during 1779 when tensions began to grow between Spain and England. Rumors were spreading around the Saint Louis area that the British were trying to plan an attack on Fort San Carlos with Indian help. Fort San Carlos was just completed in the center of the village because most of the 700 citizens were living up and down the riverbank. Because of these rumors, the villagers worked day and night in attempt to complete the fort before the attack.
When the attack commenced it was made up of parties of Indians, twenty Canadians, and a party of fur traders. The Indians included members of Winnebago, Sioux, Ottawa, Chippewa, Fox, Sac, Mascouten, Kickapoo and Potawatimi. Incredibly, members of all these tribes had been friends with the settlers and had been using St. Louis for food, trading and shelter.
The attack began from the north coming from St. Louis Prairie and the old Indian Mounds of soon to be Old North St. Louis, and occurred during the mid-day meal. Even though only a few villagers were working in their fields, they were unarmed farmers with their slaves. Attackers killed them in the fields, destroyed the crops and killed all the cattle that they could not take. During the attack, which failed because of the well defended fort, close to one hundred defenders were killed, but they mostly were the settlers who lived on the north side of the village and were working in the Saint Louis Prairie.
After the battle of Fort San Carlos the threat of Indian raids increased. The threats posed by the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and the raids on St. Charles County of embittered Sauks and Foxes, kept Saint Louis citizens on edge. It wasn=t until 1816 when William Clark, Auguste Chouteau, and Ninian Edwards negotiated a treaty with ten tribes at Portage des Sioux did most of the raids end. After 1816 many warriors and chiefs along the upper Mississippi came to St. Louis to make peace and to trade. This may of been the reason that the village of North St. Louis was an attractive area to try to develop in 1816 without the threat of raids from hostile Indians.
A legacy left by the early inhabitants of the Saint Louis region were large Mounds that may have been used for religious burials. There is some debate over the number of mounds that were erected in Saint Louis. What may have been just hills, were often called mounds in order to expand the story of Saint Louis being Mound City. Without a doubt, there were some mounds that were built, including the Big Mound which was on the Northeast corner of Broadway and Mound Street. A granite boulder with a bronze tablet exists near the site of the great mound, which was leveled around 1869, to mark the last mound on the Missouri side of the river. The inscriptions read AThis boulder stands near the site of the Great Indian Mound leveled around 1869 which gave the city of St. Louis the name Mound City.@
The Big Mound was thirty feet high and one hundred fifty feet long from North to South and the top was only five to six feet wide. When it was removed in 1869 it was found to be a burial mound composed of four distinct strata of earth built over several graves. There were three terraces down to the river=s edge east of the mound which were believed to have been approaches for religious ceremonies. Many objects such as copper pottery and arrow heads were found in the mound. One interesting side note that the mound was used for, was on June 25, 1823, Joshua Barton accused William Recotor of official dishonesty charges. His brother Tomas C. Rector took the family honor seriously and after meeting on the Big Mound they went to the Bloody Island and Barton was killed while their friends and family watched from the mound. General William H. Ashley built his country home on one of the mounds and the Big Mound had a recreation summer resort on top called Vauxhall Gardens which was built in the 1820's.
The other mounds in the area were known as the Quadrangle. One mound was at the corner of Ashley and Collins near the river, where the first water works were built. It is possible that there may of been more than one dozen mounds in the area of Old North St. Louis but most likely they were just hills. The three circles that were laid out in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood later in 1816, were always mentioned as being possible Indian mound sites but there no proof that exist of this. There were bones found in one of the circles but they may of come from early burials of settlers or of those Indians and who fought in the battle of Fort San Carlos. Saint Louis rallied around the mounds, calling itself the Mound City, and established the Mound Market at Broadway and Howard.
As Saint Louis grew and the threat from Indian attacks grew less frequent, some of the first subdivisions were laid out in the North and South. After the elimination of the St. Louis Prairie, a number of mills were added to the North of the village and 4,332 people were living outside the city limits.
One of the subdivisions was the town North St. Louis that was laid out in 1816 and used the mills to help aid early business development. The subdivision was about a mile upriver from Roy=s Wind Mill, which stood at the foot of Ashley Street, and marked the northern limit of the town of St. Louis. The first road to the village was called the Great Trail which later became Broadway. Colonel William Chambers, of the United States Army, stationed in Saint Louis at the time bought a tract of land that was about a mile north of the city of Saint Louis. His land was located east of Eighteenth Street, between Brooklyn and Harrison Streets. Two years later, Chambers sold one-third of the land to Major Thomas Wright and another third to Mr William Christy who was Wright=s father-in-law.
The Chambers residence stood on Broadway, near Chambers street while the Christy house was located on the northwest corner of Second and Monroe Streets. The Wright family had built their house near Twelfth and Monroe. These were three of the wealthiest men in the Saint Louis region all having their houses built with limestone blocks and furnished with great works of art and upscale furniture.
Soon after Missouri was admitted as a state, Chambers, Christy and Wright allowed the state of Missouri to work with them in planning for a town settlement on their land. They decided to call their new village North St. Louis and they established the boundaries to be Madison Street on the south, Montgomery Street on the north, Seventh (now Twelfth) on the west and the river would be the eastern border. The names of some of the existing streets were changed, such as Monroe which was called Washington and Benton which was known as Green Street first. They changed Main Street near the river to Front Street in order to entice wealthy people to want to live on the river line. Street historian could argue that the North Saint Louis development was similar as the commuter subdivisions of University City and Kirkwood that were built in the late 1890s. Streets were laid out and planning was made such as Broadway was as the road to Saint Louis just like Delmar would become for University City.
Alton Illinois was still the largest city in the area and Chambers, Christy, and Wright were making offers to merchants and traders to come to the other side of the river because it would be a better business point since most of the boats were docking at St. Louis first. There were dreams by these men that old St. Louis would decline and the area would look to North St. Louis for their living and business needs.
To give further entice citizens more, Chambers, Christy and Wright dedicated four areas of real estate for free that would be used as public space by the residents of the neighborhood. They were entitled ALot A,@ and the ACircles Numbers. 1, 2 and 3. This would be another example planning for the subdivisions future needs.
The Lot A was located from Front Street east to the high water mark and between Jefferson and Montgomery Streets. This area was designated to be used as a public common or a park. About one-third of the lot was used for park purposes and the rest was used as a stone-quarry and garbage dumping ground. The Lot later known as Exchange Square and it was located just north of the Big Mound.
The biggest controversy surrounding the circles, was the truth as to whether they were formal Indian burial mounds similar to the Big mound. Other mounds in the area were know as the Quadrangle mounds, but in many cases they probably just turned out to be hills and just contained some Indian artifacts. The battle of 1780 on Fort San Carlos began in Old North Saint Louis and Indians and settlers on both sides were killed in the prairie. There were also many early burials such as the ones on Circle Number 3 that were from some of the early settlers. Indians from both sides of the Mississippi River crossed over in search of food or shelter. They may have left some artifacts, but the circles were probably not the same burials that were used by the Mississippians centuries earlier.
Circle Number 1 was located near what was Jefferson Street, which changed to Exchange Street, and what is now know today as Clinton Street. This was established to be the center of learning and College Hill was established there which later became known as Clinton Place. This was where the first seminary of learning was established after the City of St. Louis annexed the town. Today, Webster School, named after Daniel Webster who stayed with the Cambers family when he visited, is located there
Circle Number 2 was established as a recreation place but was never fully developed because the owners Christy, Chambers, and Wright could not decided on the best use of the circle. In the middle 1860 the city finally created Jackson Park which is also known as Jackson Square.
Circle Number 3 which intersects Warren Street, was established for the purpose of erecting a house of worship and a burying ground open to all denominations. The street was formally known as Church Street. but now is known as Marion Alley. The circle is the site of Grace Episcopal Church and graveyard was built in 1844 by Mrs. Christy. Some of the first burials were Mr. Christy, Benjamin Howard, who was the Governor of the Territory of Missouri from 1810 to 1812, and John Miller, the Governor of Missouri from 1826 to 1828. Many of these graves were disturbed later when the streets were graded and they were moved to Bellefontaine Cemetery. Initially there were not any churches established on the lot until the Grace Episcopal Church.
Another oddity in the neighborhood of Old North Saint Louis is the direction of the streets. When Saint Louis was only a village, the common fields were laid out irregular and skewed in some areas because of the topography of the land. When developers began dividing the prairie in 1805, most of the wealthy people moved into the subdivision, a pattern which was to be repeated in Saint Louis in new subdivision developments for decades to come. When Christy, Chambers and Wright developed old North St. Louis, he used the river as an axis from with to design the community. The river did not travel in a perpendicular line and began to curve to the west to meet the Missouri River. The streets were laid out parallel to the river which caused them to run at different angles from the existing streets then from the original layout of Saint Louis. When Saint Louis annexed the village the shaped streets and their existing streets created some very unusual intersections which were more similar to European streets than to Eastern United States streets. When the city extended its grid patten west it had to accommodate the existing North Saint Louis streets.
Dividing of land grants by Laclede worked well for a time, but with the purchase of the Territory of Louisiana and the elimination of the common field system, there was a lot of confusion about the land titles. Testimony before the recorders of Land Titles in Saint Louis began in 1805 by Auguste Chouteau and the final claims were not complete until 1833.
As North Saint Louis continued to grow and the land ownership was not as clear, the town arranged for a surveyed in 1820. All the common areas that were in connection with the public and private surveys were discussed so that all disputes would be settled as soon as possible.
Saint Louis exceeded Pierre Laclede dreams of becoming a powerful city. By the centuries end, St. Louis would be know as the Fourth City which was helped along because of all the early development of its pioneers. An extension of this was Old North St. Louis which began only as a prairie fields and water mills, to become one of the first subdivision in Saint Louis history. The neighborhood has endured Indian attacks but also contains the history of Indian Mounds. North Saint Louis took the lead in the area of Saint Louis when they had their streets built because of their own topography and refused to follow existing Saint Louis=s East coast example. The most insightful neighborhood contribution are the three circles which are still in use. Today, Webster school is still on circle number one for the use of education just like the founders intended. If anyone travel North of circle one, they will still see children are playing basketball on Circle number two courts, and on circle number three, Grace Hill is still there as a place of worship and an anchor to the community.
Old North Saint Louis may not be the most physically desirable place to live in Saint Louis, but its heritage and culture as one of the Saint Louis=s first subdivisions, gives the neighborhood an identity that no burned out and boarded up buildings can take away from it. The history provides a spark of life and pride for a future for generations to come, as a neighborhood to be proud of.