With the dominance of Anglo culture in the United States and much of Canada, North Americans forget that the first Europeans who moved into the Midwest were French.
Like the settlers in Québec City (established in 1608), the early colonizers of the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys were from France. Both St. Louis, Mo., and Louisville, Ky., were named for kings of France – the former in 1763 for Louis IX and the latter in 1780 for Louis XVI.
The hardy pioneers who founded Ste. Geneviève, Mo., in 1735 were French Canadians who followed earlier explorers down the Mississippi River to settle what was known then as the Illinois Country. At first a trading outpost, the town soon attracted farmers, fur trappers and lead miners.
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.
Although its Illinois Country outpost flourished, France’s colonial empire did not. France ceded the region to Great Britain when it signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending what was known in North America as the French and Indian War.
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.
American pioneer cabins typically were built Swedish-style with horizontal logs stacked one on top of each other.
Six of the French colonial buildings are open to the public, but Ste. Geneviève boasts more than 150 pre-1825 structures.
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.
The Bequette – Ribault House (or the Jean Baptiste Bequette House) was built nearby in the 1780s. It’s another of the rare poteaux en terre structures, and much of the original construction is still intact. It has a hipped roof with king-post trusses, encircling gallery and central chimney at 351 St. Mary Road, also overlooking Le Grand Champ.
The third example of poteaux en terre, the Beauvais House (also known as the Vital Ste. Gemme Beauvais House) was also built in Le Grand Champ about 1775. It, too, was moved after the great flood to its present location in town at Main and Merchant streets (it’s not open to the public).
The Commandant’s House, or the Jean Baptiste Vallé House, is a French Creole vernacular vertical log construction that belonged to the last Spanish commandant of Ste. Geneviève. It’s not open to the public. (The Vallé family prospered in colonial Ste. Geneviève with both mining and mercantile interests.)
Poteau-sur-sol (post-on-sill) construction was used for La Maison de Guibourd-Vallé, completed in 1807 by Jacques Jean René Guibourd at 4th and Merchant streets. In the attic, visitors can see original framing and the great Norman-style truss. The house plus its gardens and furnishings were given to the Foundation for Restoration of Ste. Geneviève. It’s open for tours and has a gift shop.
The Felix Valle State Historic Site includes the Jacob Philipson House. Completed about 1820, it’s a one-and-a-half story, side-gable, limestone dwelling with a merchant store and family quarters. Philipson sold the house in 1824 to Jean Baptiste Vallé. His son, Felix Vallé, became the owner in 1835. The house, located at the corner of Merchant and Second streets is open to the public all year and is operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
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.
IF YOU GO—
Begin your travels to Ste. Geneviève at the city’s tourism website or call 1-800-373-7007. If you find yourself in town on the spur of the moment, head straight to the Great River Road Interpretive Center, 66 South Main Street; 1-573-883-7097. They’ll tell you everything you need to know.
A half dozen of the French colonial houses are open to the public on a regular basis – Bolduc (1770), Bequette-Ribault (1780s), Amoureux (1792), Guibourd-Vallé (1807), Felix Vallé State Historic Site (1818), and Rene LeMeillure (1820). You can see more details at the website.
There are two French-themed events remaining on the 2005 calendar. The 39th annual Jour de Fête (August 13-14) features over 600 arts and crafts booths, exhibits and special attractions. Check the website or call 1-800-373-7007 or +573-883-7097.
A French Colonial Christmas will be celebrated with refreshments and period music at the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site. Check the website or call +573-883-7102.
There are lots of Bed & Breakfast options in the Ste. Geneviève area. I stayed in the heart of the historic district at Steiger Haus Downtown, 242 Merchant Street; click on website, or call 1-800-814-5881 or +573-883-5881. Built in the early 1800s, it’s a German-American reminder that the French weren’t the only European settlers in Ste. Geneviève. The owner/host is a 10th-generation Ste. Geneviève resident.
The Southern Hotel, also downtown (146 South Third Street), was built in the 1790s as a private home, but it began offering lodging to weary travelers in 1805. Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, it claims to be the “oldest longest operating hotel or lodging establishment in the United States west of the Mississippi” – what a mouthful! Check the website or call 1-800-275-1412 or +573- 883-3493.
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