History
5:15 am
Wed April 2, 2014

Scientists Discover Remnants Of St. Louis' French Colonial Past

Originally published on Wed April 2, 2014 1:04 pm

Archaeologists in St. Louis are ecstatic over what they say is an astonishing discovery in a most unlikely place.

Under a highway overpass just south of the city's famed arch, researchers have uncovered the first evidence of French settlement there 250 years ago. The findings will help shed new light on how settlers lived in the city back then.

"What we've uncovered is what appears to be a [wood] post-and-earth constructed house," says Michael Meyer, an archaeologist and the principal investigator with the Missouri Department of Transportation. "It's construction techniques commonly used by French Creole people during the colonial period – [the] late 18th century."

Meyer points toward a patch of dark dirt in a wide hole that's about five feet deep. This is the exact location of where some vertical wood posts formed the wall of a French house that was built around 1769.

There are two other visible layers in this hole, with concrete on top and brick in the middle – a construction method that Meyer says that's not surprising.

"When people build new buildings, they don't necessarily dig out the old buildings," he says. "What they merely do is, they demolish and tear down the old buildings, lay some fresh soil [and] some clean fill on top, and build on top of that."

These archaeologists are here because MoDOT is planning major highway construction — and the National Historic Preservation Act requires an archaeological investigation before any work can begin.

Meyer goes to his truck and brings out one of the artifacts his team recently found. "This appears to be a tin-enameled ceramic — colonial period, possibly a polychrome majolica," he says.

The piece was probably part of a bowl. It's white and has two blue stripes, and part of what looks to be a yellow floral design.

To be clear, people have lived in the St. Louis area for a long time. Just across the Mississippi River, in Illinois, is Cahokia Mounds – an ancient city of native North Americans. The settlement is thought to have been the largest city north of Mexico 900 years ago.

Meyer says finding evidence of St. Louis' European past is the most important work of his career, because much of old St. Louis is gone. In the 1930s, nearly 40 blocks where the French settlement once stood were leveled to make room for the Gateway Arch and a national park honoring Thomas Jefferson.

Fred Fausz teaches history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he specializes in colonial America. He says the archaeological discovery is important because it confirms written evidence that St. Louis was a major commerce center and that many of its residents were well-off.

"It even tells us something new, in how far down the social scale these affluent products were showing up," Fausz says. "So someone who [lived] in a house that's only 15 feet by 18 feet nonetheless had access to pretty expensive French pottery, thanks to the international fur trade."

Back at the archaeological dig site, the importance of what's being found is not lost on Bob Moore, who's the National Park Service's historian for the Gateway Arch.

"I think everybody who's studied this over the years — from architectural historians to regular research historians like myself — have always felt that all the vestiges of colonial St. Louis are completely gone," he says.

Moore plans to display some of these artifacts in a museum exhibit below the Arch. And as St. Louis residents savor the year-long celebration of their city's founding 250 years ago, they now have something new to embrace.

Copyright 2014 KWMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Archaeologists working in St. Louis are pretty excited about a recent discovery. They found evidence of a French settlement 250 years ago. As we're about to hear, it's teaching them a lot about that city.

Alex Heuer from St. Louis Public Radio reports.

ALEX HEUER, BYLINE: I'm standing just west of the Mississippi River, immediately south of the Arch, and right above me is the interstate highway. As you can tell, it's noisy. There's a lot of traffic. And where I am is significant, because archeologists have never found the kinds of things that they are finding right now.

MICHAEL MEYER: What we've uncovered is a, what appears to be a post and earth constructed house, it's construction techniques commonly used by French Creole people during the colonial period, late-18th century.

ALEX HAUER, BYLINE: That's Michael Meyer, an archaeologist and the principal investigator with the Missouri Department of Transportation. He's pointing towards some really dark dirt in a wide hole that's about five-feet deep. This is the exact location of where some vertical wood posts formed the wall of a French house that was built around 1769. There are two other visible layers in this hole. Concrete is on the top, and brick is in the middle. And Meyer says that's not surprising.

MEYER: When people build new buildings, they don't necessarily dig out the old buildings. What they merely do is they demolish and tear down the old buildings, lay some fresh soil, some clean fill on top, and then build on top of that.

HAUER: There are archaeologists here because MoDOT is planning major highway construction work, and the National Historic Preservation Act requires an archaeological investigation before any construction can begin. Not too far away, Meyer goes to his truck to retrieve one of the artifacts his team's found. He grabs a brown paper bag, and he reaches inside.

MEYER: This appears to be a tin-enameled ceramic, Colonial period, possibly a polychrome majolica.

HAUER: The piece was probably part of a bowl. It's white, has two blue stripes and a part of what looks to be yellow floral design. To be clear, people have lived in the St. Louis area for a long time. Just across the Mississippi River in Illinois is Cahokia Mounds, an ancient city of Native North Americans. About 900 years ago, it was thought to be the largest city north of Mexico. But Meyer says find evidence of this city's European past is the most important work of his career, because much of old St. Louis is gone. In the 1930s, nearly 40 city blocks of where the French settlement would have been were leveled to make room for the Gateway Arch and the national park honoring Thomas Jefferson. Fred Faust teaches history at the University of Missouri St. Louis, where he specializes in colonial America. He says the archaeological discovery is important because it confirms written evidence that St. Louis was a major commerce center, and that many of its residents were well-off.

FRED FAUST: But it even tells us something new in how far down the social scale these affluent products were showing up. So, if somebody lives in a house that was only 15 feet by 18 feet, nonetheless, had access to pretty expensive French pottery, thanks to the international fur trade.

HAUER: Back under the interstate at the archaeological dig site, the importance of what's being found is not lost on Bob Moore, who's the National Park Service's historian for the Gateway Arch.

BOB MOORE: I think everybody who's studied this over the years, from architectural historians to regular research historians like myself, have always felt that all the vestiges of colonial St. Louis are completely gone.

HAUER: Moore plans to display some of these artifacts in a museum exhibit below the arch. And as St. Louis residents continue the yearlong celebration of their city's founding 250 years ago, they now have something new to embrace. For NPR News, I'm Alex Hauer, in St. Louis.

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