Dr. Elizabeth M. Scott - Excavations and Research at Ste. Genevieve, Missouri

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Historical Background – Ste. Genevieve, Missouri


Map by Nicolas de Finiels, 1797


French settlers began using resources in the Ste. Genevieve area long before they established houses and towns there. As early as the 1690s, the French who lived on the east side of the Mississippi River came across the river to produce salt at La Saline, a creek located six miles south of Ste. Genevieve, which had been used by Native Americans for salt production since at least AD 1000. Water from the salt springs was boiled in ovens the French built; when the water boiled away, the salt remained. Salt was a very important commodity; it was used not only for preserving meat and for flavoring food, but also was necessary for processing and preserving bison and other hides that were key to the fur trade. Over time, two settlements grew up along the Saline: the Grande Saline, located near the mouth of the creek, and the Petite Saline, located at the upper end of the creek, along a tributary.



Another resource important to the French was the lead that existed in fairly shallow deposits some distance to the west of Ste. Genevieve. Used primarily for producing shot and musket balls, lead, like salt, occurred only in a few circumscribed areas. Lead shot was important not only for protection, but also for hunting, perhaps more so. In addition, a description of Ste. Genevieve in 1802 mentions that the residents there used lead coins for currency.


Map by Thomas Hutchins, 1771


The third important resource for the French settlers on the east side of the river was rich agricultural land. During the 1740s, settlers at the growing village of Kaskaskia began crossing the river and planting crops on the floodplain on the west side. By 1750, people had begun building houses there (Ekberg 1985). The original town of Ste. Genevieve was located about two miles south of its present location, on the floodplain.


The Big Field (Le Grand Champ) of Ste. Genevieve


Agricultural production became the third leg of the economy. Wheat and other crops grown in Ste. Genevieve were depended upon by other French settlements, such as the fledgling village of St. Louis (founded in 1764) and the growing city of New Orleans, and were a critical link in the French colonial supply network. Wheat could not grow well in sub-tropical Lower Louisiana, and the French, like other Europeans, depended on wheat bread for a large part of their diet.

The French colonial era officially ended in 1765, after its defeat by Britain in the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War). France ceded all of its colonies east of the Mississippi to Britain, and thus the Illinois side of the river was considered part of the British colony of Virginia. Thus, this area was still “colonial,” but it was British colonial; it was not officially under U.S. rule until after the Revolutionary War, in 1790.

France's colonies on the western side of the Mississippi were ceded to Spain. However, Spain never sent large numbers of colonists, soldiers, or government officials to the region, so the social and economic hierarchy that was in place remained essentially unchanged. What we have on the western side is a continuation of those same French villages after 1765, exercising great control over their own affairs (just as they had under French rule). There was an influx of population from two sources on the east side of the river: French Catholics who preferred to move and live under Spanish Catholic rule rather than British Protestant rule; and Anglo-Americans. This, also, was still “colonial,” but was Spanish colonial, until the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S. in 1803-1804.


Bequette-Ribault House, Ste. Genevieve
(view from the back of house lot)


Bequette-Ribault House, Ste. Genevieve
(view from front)


Detail of Bequette-Ribault House, showing poteaux-en-terre (posts-in-ground) construction


Detail of bousillage (clay chinking) between vertical logs


One of the reasons the land near Ste. Genevieve was so rich, of course, was because of repeated flooding by the Mississippi River. Several particularly high floods in the 1780s convinced at least some residents that the town needed to be relocated to a higher elevation. As early as 1784, Jean Baptiste Bequette and several other residents began farming long lots near what were called les petites côtes, or “little hills.” This slightly higher ground became the location of the New Town of Ste. Genevieve, although some people continued to live in the Old Town well into the 1790s. The residents of the New Town included new arrivals as well, particularly French aristocrats and royalists who had fled the French Revolution of 1789. These émigrés also were influential in the establishment of another town about two miles to the southwest, called Nouvelle Bourbon in honor of the recently deposed Bourbon monarchy.


Map by Nicolas de Finiels, 1797


The French in the Mississippi Valley used several different settlement patterns. As may be seen in the de Finiels' map of 1797, the Old Town had gradually grown up in a string-like fashion, with houses along both sides of a long street, in the midst of the agricultural fields. The New Town brought the houses together and separated folks from the fields. Since it was laid out when the area was under Spanish colonial control, it has the grid pattern common to all Spanish colonial towns. Most of the town lots, such as the Bequette property, were fenced by head-high posts in a palisade fashion. The enclosed area included the houses, slave quarters, barns, smokehouses, and other outbuildings used by the residents of that lot.


Bolduc House, Ste. Genevieve
(view from front)


Bolduc House, Ste. Genevieve
(side view; poteaux-sul-sole (posts-on-sill) construction; note double-pitched roof)


Bolduc House, Ste. Genevieve
(view from back yard; note cabinet [enclosed portion of galerie] at left, which was the kitchen)


LaSource-Durand House, Ste. Genevieve, after it was moved to the Bequette-Ribault property. Beneath the clapboards, one can see poteaux-sur-sole construction, with pierrotage (rock in-fill) between the vertical logs.


French barn, Jean-Baptiste Valle house lot, Ste. Genevieve
(side view; structure no longer standing)


French barn, Jean-Baptiste Valle house lot, Ste. Genevieve
(front view; structure no longer standing)


Slave cabin behind Amoureux House, Ste. Genevieve
(Library of Congress, 1930s)
(vertical log construction is visible beneath clapboards)


Down on the floodplain, in the Grand Champ, or Big Field, individuals owned long lots which they farmed. These lots varied in width depending on the wealth of the owner, but all were generally the same length: they stretched from the river on the east to the bluffs on the west. The long lot system was brought from France and was used in a variety of ways throughout the French colonies. It allowed all landowners to benefit from the floods that enriched the soil, since all had riverfront property. The “common” part of the field referred only to the fence surrounding it, which would keep livestock out of the fields until after harvest. Each landowner contributed posts for the fence and was responsible for its upkeep along his/her lots. Some of the owners marked their long lot boundaries by planting pecan trees, some of which remain today. These original long lot survey numbers continue to be used in land transactions. People still farm the Big Field, but no one has built a house on his/her property in the field. This is one of a very few examples of a French colonial agricultural landscape still in existence in North America.


Felix Valle State Historic Site, Ste. Genevieve
(built for Philipson c. 1818)


It wasn't until the New Town of Ste. Genevieve was established that we begin to see non-French settlers there in any numbers. With the Louisiana Purchase, a large influx of Americans of Scots-Irish descent settled in the town and region. In addition, German immigrants came, especially in the 1830s and 1840s. Many examples of Federal and German architecture may still be found in the historic part of town. In fact, the majority of town residents today are descended from German immigrants, rather than French.

Thus, the population of Ste. Genevieve became more diverse through time. The French intermarried with Native Americans, and their offspring being “métis.” Enslaved African Americans worked in the fields and house lots of some of the original French residents. During the first half of the nineteenth century, and perhaps earlier, free people of color resided in the town, some of whom intermarried with French residents. As the nineteenth century progressed, Scots-Irish and German immigrants also settled there. Except for those of Scots-Irish descent, all were Catholic; civil and religious authorities were often one and the same.



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This page last updated 08 May 2008
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