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Patricia Cleary offers a new and intriguing study of early St. Louis, concentrating on the Spanish colonial period from the founding of the city in 1764 to the American annexation in 1804. Interpreting the establishment of the colonial outpost as a product of global forces, particularly eighteenth-century Spanish competition with other imperial powers in trade and politics, Cleary contends that the particularities of geography and migration created a cultural and political diversity that undermined Spanish authority. The result was the ultimate failure of a series of commandants from Francisco Riu to Charles de Hault Delassus to impose either order or loyalty. But if the Spanish officials regarded their St. Louis subjects as concerned only with matters of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” the town, nevertheless, developed as a commercial center that would endure and prosper in the following century.
The author retraces familiar ground when she discusses the political and mercantile events of the Spanish period. Still, interesting details are added to our understanding of the initiatives of various lieutenant governors, the diplomacy between local French, Spanish, British, and, later, American officers, and the commercial operations of French trading dynasties such as the Chouteaus and the Gratiots. These will interest the general reader and, if the author is correct in arguing that there is an insufficiency of emphasis on the colonial history of interior America, should be of particular value to students of colonial and early American history.
The more important contribution of this history is the excellent selection and recounting of characteristic events in St. Louis community [End Page 99] life, drawn from original sources, and the employment of these examples to illustrate the weakness of Spanish authority and control. Confronted by an unstable population of Native American inhabitants, French settlers and merchants, Spanish soldiers, African and Indian slaves, and British and American interlopers with little to unify them and much to divide them, beleaguered Spanish authorities were ill-equipped to enforce laws or to control or deter destructive behavior. Incompetence played its part, but commandants were often well-meaning and occasionally talented. At bottom, they could not effectively govern because they lacked sufficient military power and were chronically underfunded. Assigned tasks impossible to achieve and granted lukewarm support from subjects or superiors, the lieutenant governors were entangled in forlorn efforts to prevent conflicts between native tribes and between the tribes and European settlers and traders, illegal use and sales of alcohol and firearms, violation of trade restrictions, endless litigation, sexual misconduct, domestic disputes, and multiple challenges to their authority. As the author notes: “St. Louis served as a reminder of the limits to [Spain’s] imperial reach and coffers, with inadequate supplies, poor facilities, and an understaffed garrison all exposing the inability of administrators to fulfill the diplomatic and defensive responsibilities of the post” (p. 306).
Cleary is at her best in weaving the variables of governance, religious life, trade, relationships, self-interest, and cultural myopia into a credible image of early St. Louis. She has judiciously reviewed and selected her sources and developed a well-organized narrative that lends authority to the idea that colonial St. Louis deserves the attention more commonly given to the seaboard British colonies. Certainly, the survival of the troubled Spanish post near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers would prove to be of historic importance to the American nation that would raise its flag over St. Louis on March 9, 1804. For if the founding and early evolution of the town was the product of local forces influenced by global imperial ambition, its rise as a city of international prominence was accomplished in the service of the Great Republic. [End Page 100]
C. David Rice is emeritus professor of history at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. He is the coauthor with William E. Foley of The First Chouteaus: River Barons of Early St. Louis (1983, 2000) and several articles on early St. Louis history.