The land along the river banks was fertile farmland. The American Bottoms, a sixty-mile-long strip of land on the Illinois’ bank of the Mississippi River and Le Grand Champ of Ste. Geneviève on the Missouri side quickly became the breadbasket of the Louisiana Territory.
Many of the French colonials homesteading on the east bank of the Mississippi were Roman Catholic. Preferring Spanish law to living under British rule, they crossed the river to resettled in St. Louis and Ste. Geneviève. The western side of the river was ceded to the French during the Napoleonic Wars, and finally sold to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The little town of Ste. Geneviève (about an hour’s drive south of St. Louis) shelters the largest concentration of French Colonial buildings in the States. The style is distinctive: a central structure (usually one story but sometimes two) is surrounded on three or four sides by a deep porch or gallery. The porch, although not as necessary in Missouri as it was further south, serves as natural air conditioning and sheltered storage space.
When I toured Ste. Geneviève, the guides patiently explained the intricacies of the construction technique – but all I remember is that the French used vertical logs, filling the space between with mud and stones.
The Bolduc House was built in 1770 by Louis Bolduc, a Canadian lead miner, merchant and planter. Originally situated closer to the river, the house was taken apart after the great flood of 1783, moved inland and reassembled in its present location. Of vertical log construction, it has a distinctive stockade fence, galleries and hip roof. These days it is owned and operated by the Missouri Chapter of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Located at 123 South Main, it’s open April through October with gardens and a shop featuring Quimper faience, Santons from Provence, and other “things French” as well as herbal gifts.
The Amoureux House (also known as the Jean Baptiste Ste. Gemme Beauvais House) was built overlooking Le Grand Champ in 1792. This is a French Creole vernacular post-in-ground (“poteaux en terre”) construction – one of three in Ste. Geneviève and only five in the U.S. Its cedar log walls are set directly into the earth, without a foundation. The roof system consists of king-post trusses with longitudinal wind braces. You’ll find it just outside downtown at 327 St. Mary Road.
One of the attractions of visiting Ste. Geneviève these days is its size: fewer than 5,000 people live here, and many of them can trace their families for a dozen generations in the area. While the town celebrates 1735 as the date of its founding, the origins are uncertain – probably between 1722 and 1749. It was named for Ste. Geneviève, who was born in 422 in the village of Nanterre near Paris.
Next time I go, I’m going to allow more time to explore some of the new wineries springing up in the area – another legacy of its European heritage.