- St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive by Carl J. Ekberg and Sharon K. Person
In 1804 fur trader Auguste Chouteau penned a famous narrative of the establishment of St. Louis, which, according to Chouteau, he and his [End Page 656] stepfather, Pierre Laclède Liguest, had cofounded forty years earlier. With great foresight, Laclède and the teenage Chouteau identified a prime location, cleared and surveyed the land, and set the city on its course to become the hub of the Missouri River fur trade. In St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive, Carl J. Ekbergand Sharon K. Person argue that Chouteau’s reminiscences were an exercise more in mythmaking andself-promotion than in history. Moving beyond Chouteau’s oft-cited account, Ekberg and Person tell a richer story of St. Louis’s founding and its emergence as the commercial center of Middle America.
Divided into two halves, St. Louis Rising is a study of the Grotton-St. Ange family in the Illinois Country from 1720 to 1770 and a social history of early St. Louis. In the first part, Ekberg and Person document the careers of French officer Robert Grotton-St. Ange and his son, Louis St. Ange de Bellerive, two of the most capable and longest-tenured French officials in the Illinois Country. In 1765 the son transferred the Illinois Country to Great Britain and then administered St. Louis until Spain took possession in 1770. The second half provides an in-depth look at early St. Louis with thematic chapters on architecture, law, slavery, material culture, and the fur trade. Most histories of St. Louis emphasize the centrality of the fur trade to the town’s founding and growth, but drawing on underused St. Louis notarial archives, Ekberg and Person uncover the world that existed beyond the commerce in peltries. Particularly compelling is their analysis of the effects of the Coutume de Paris on social life and business endeavors in St. Louis.
Like Ekberg’s best work, St. Louis Rising combines exhaustive research in French-language sources with a detailed understanding of colonial society in the Illinois Country to challenge received wisdom and misconceptions about the region. In highlighting the Grotton-St. Ange family, Ekberg and Person demonstrate the importance of two little-known officials. Additionally, the authors provide a skilled examination of the everyday life of French colonists in early St. Louis. The book reveals an orderly colony that was governed according to French laws and customs. It was a far cry from the stereotypical lawless frontier outpost.
Unfortunately, Ekberg and Person fail to apply the same level of acuity to the region’s Native peoples. In this book, Indian nations serve as little more than pawns in an imperial struggle between France and Great Britain. Rather than pursuing their own ambitions and interests, in this analysis Native nations were merely “provoked,” “sometimes led,” and “incited by” Europeans (pp. 30, 40, 69). Recent scholarship has shown the array of factors that influenced Native decisions and actions, but those insights are absent here. Additionally, beyond enslaved Indians living in colonial households, Native peoples are largely missing from Ekberg and Person’s exploration of early life in St. Louis. Indians from throughout the region regularly visited the town for commercial and diplomatic purposes. A town of Peoria Indians even sat across a small stream from the fledgling village. These and other Indians rarely appear in St. Louis Rising, which instead depicts St. Louis as “the most thoroughly French community in the Mississippi River valley” (p. 217). These omissions diminish the overall success of St. Louis Rising, but anyone [End Page 657] interested in the Illinois Country or early St. Louis will find much of value in this book.