Monday, December 9, 2013

The Founding of St. Louis and a 1763 Dance at the Old Courthouse

"In late December 1763, Pierre Laclede, a partner in the New Orleans fur trading company of Maxent, Laclede and Company paddled his way up the Mississippi, landing 18 miles south of the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Laclede sought a suitable place to establish an Indian fur trading post, and chose a narrow, flat bank topped by rocky limestone bluffs. Laclede's 13-year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau, returned to the site on February 14, 1764* with a small group of men, including several African-Americans, to begin construction of a village. Laclede predicted that the site, named St. Louis in honor of France's King Louis IX, 'might become, hereafter, one of the finest cities' of the continent, 'by its locality and central position.'" - Excerpt from The French Heritage of St. Louis: 1764-1804 by Bob Moore, The Museum Gazette, February 1995 (

(*New research has shown this date to actually be February 15, 1764.)

The 250th anniversary of these events were commemorated by reenactments and festivities which took place at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and St. Louis City Hall. Here are some photos from the two events courtesy of Doug Harding from the National Park Service and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read about the entire February 15th re-enactment at City Hall on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website here: St. Louis celebrates 250th birthday with City Hall re-enactment.

Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau arrive at the future site of St. Louis with their party. Photo taken by Nancy Hoppe.
Laclède makes a notch in a tree for the future site of his trading post. Photo taken by Nancy Hoppe.
On February 15th, 2014, reenactors returned to the site chosen by Pierre Laclède to begin construction. Photo by Laurie Skrivan courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Photo by Laurie Skrivan courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Photo by Laurie Skrivan courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Photo by Laurie Skrivan courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Photo by Laurie Skrivan courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In December, I attended a 1763 dance at the Old Courthouse.

I took this photo last year. This is the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1847.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Great Weight of Death – A Response to Progressive Humanism

It was in 1955 that a photography exposition, entitled The Family of Man, first opened in New York City. Its main objective was to show, or more precisely, to express the universalism of human nature. All in all, it succeeded, becoming a durable heritage in photography for posterity. You may have never heard of this exposition, but chances are you’ve seen some of its photographs. French writer, Roland Barthes, summed up the spirit of the exposition in this way:

From this pluralism, you magically take away a unity. Man is born, works, laughs, and dies in the same fashion everywhere. And if there still remains in these actions some ethnic particularity, you can, at least, agree there is an identical nature at the heart of each one of them. Their diversity is only a formality and doesn’t deny the existence of a common mold.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1936)

However, in his Mythologies, Barthes believes The Family of Man sentimentalizes human nature to the point where he sees “spiritualist intent” in the works of the photographers chosen for the exposition. By way of example, he considers birth and death. On the subject of death, Barthes concludes that a “natural approach” towards human life, that is to say seeing our mortality as a temporal fact and nothing more, is erroneous because it oversimplifies the experience. As human beings, what are we supposed to understand about death? Which aspect of it should we be more concerned about, its historical context or its mere existence?

Barthes proposes the use of a progressive humanism to examine History, stating that Nature, itself, is historical and can be modified freely over the course of time. Therefore, it would serve us better to see Nature as a symptom of History, not the other way around. In other words, if you ignore the historical context of a certain “universal event”, like death, you will have an incomplete picture of what it actually is, because in the end, death and birth can mean different things to different people. It seems to be a strong theory which unfurls methodically and logically, but Barthes neglected to address one inescapable truth that he mentioned briefly. This “spiritualist intent” to which he makes reference may not be an accidental observation on his part. On the contrary, many would say he stumbled upon an intentional relationship between the human race, universality, and a spiritual realm.

According to a national poll from the Pew Research Center carried out in June/July 2012, 91% of those surveyed affirmed that they believe in God or some “universal spirit” while 7% of those surveyed affirmed that they don’t believe in God or some “universal spirit”. It is impossible to deprive people of their interior thought, but what can be said about those who choose to ignore that these thoughts exist? Upon discovering one of the more philosophical purposes of The Family of Man, Barthes dismisses it in favor of another philosophy. This dismissal may either be of little circumstance or one of the gravest errors he will have ever made. Another French writer, whom you may have heard of, Victor Hugo, in his seminal novel Les Misérables, describes the phenomenon of the human soul as a “spectacle greater than the sea and the sky.”

Even with a “schoolmaster” as rigorous as History, whose lessons should suffice to teach and correct us, it is the great weight of a physical death that maintains one of the most powerful influences over our actions in the present. More specifically, it is the fear of this death and what comes after that regulates the choices (whether good and timely or bad and reckless) of an overwhelming majority of the general population. Given the atrocities of past wars, one would expect a gradual, if not complete, decrease in human conflict. But we don’t see that, to our great dismay. They continue without any foreseen end. As a blunt example, the United Nations has much historical context with which to examine death. The cause of war has been scrutinized relentlessly, but in the end, nation-states do not seek peace simply because our ancestors did the same (this way of thinking would go against the rational logic of many countries), but because we hate destruction and death. It’s true that human beings resemble the other creatures of the earth, inasmuch as we eat, sleep, and tend to our own bodies in the quest to protect ourselves from the ravages of an impartial mortality, but what separates us from the “zoological order”, as Barthes disapprovingly calls it, is our capacity to understand the moralistic world, something which can be learned thanks to the experiences of our forebears.

Using the terminology of Barthes, a significant History of our ancestors is not just the bare facts of their existence or even the context of those facts, but what drove them to make such or such choice in the course of those unfolding facts, thus giving us a particular History. What good is the study of History anyways if it is only a chain of abstract events? Are we obligated to see it as only an intransigent Thing or is it a mold that continuously receives the free will of our actions? If the answer comes to us through the latter, we must take care to notice what it is that actually creates History…me and you.

Our human race has committed the same mistakes again and again. There are two very incongruent worldviews that attempt to explain this fact, theism with its spirituality and acknowledgement that mankind, alone, does not have the ability to answer every question it may ask itself, and humanism with its rejection of spirituality in favor of human reasoning. Death tends to be the one universal event that initiates all of us into the greatest mysteries our existence has to offer and a certain king who lived in Antiquity, named Solomon, expressed his assessment of the affair in the writings of Ecclesiastes. His reasoning unmistakably led him to the belief that man is not a Creator, but created. All of us were given an allocation of time in which to come to grips with a preexisting world and its Nature:

All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? […] It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. (Ecclesiastes 3:2-21,7:2)

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Éditions du Seuil, 1957. Print. 

“Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Religion & Politics Survey.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life 
Project Poll Database. N.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fort de Chartres State Historic Site

During our trip to Ste. Genevieve, we journeyed across the state line to visit the historic Fort de Chartres. Named after Louis the Duke of Chartres, the first of two wooden forts was built in 1720-1721 about 18 miles north of Kaskaskia. Besides establishing a military presence to counter the attacks of Fox Indians on French settlements, the fort served as the political headquarters for le pays des Illinois. The stone fort that has been partially reconstructed was built shortly before the outbreak of the French and Indian War. With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the fort was taken over by British troops of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment on October 10, 1765. Renamed Fort Cavendish, the fortification was of little use to the British and was eventually abandoned in 1771.

The locals refer to the Ste. Genevieve-Modoc Ferry as "The French Connection".

We drove by Prairie du Rocher. Descendants of those first 18th century settlers still reside here today.

Gate to the fort

View from atop the gate overlooking the surrounding countryside.

Flour in the storage loft.

The Powder Magazine is the only original structure in the fort and is thought to be the oldest non-Indian structure in Illinois.

A reconstruction of the East Barracks using a technique called "ghosting".

Entrance to the Piethman Museum in what would have been the king's storehouse.

Bastion and turret overlooking the dry moat.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri and the Jour de Fête 2013

Alicia and I took a mini-vacation in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. The town is well-known for its bed and breakfasts. It's also Missouri's first permanent settlement, so there were attractions for both of us. In August, the annual Jour de Fête celebrates the heritage of this historic town and holds the largest craft fair in the region. 

We stayed at the Main Street Inn Bed and Breakfast in the historic district.

One evening, Alicia entertained me and the innkeepers with some nice music.

Looking down Merchant Street. Ste. Genevieve was established by French colonists around 1735. The original town was moved in 1785, due to flooding by the Mississippi, to a new location about three miles away.

The Louis Bolduc House was built in the early 1790s. It's an excellent example of French Creole architecture.

The salon inside the Bolduc House.

The bedroom housed all members of the family.

The Nicolas Janis House was built around 1790.

We had dinner at the beautiful Inn St. Gemme Beauvais. Upon leaving we encountered some tourists from Quebec. I couldn't help chatting with them for a moment.

The Jour de Fête is a popular attraction for the region. Just be warned that lodging will probably be fully booked for this weekend, so reserve accommodations well ahead of time if you plan on attending.

The Felix Vallé House was built in 1818 by Jacob Philipson in the Federal Style. It served as a residence  and mercantile store for the trading firm Menard & Vallé.

Inside the mercantile store.

Les Petits Chanteurs sing "À la claire fontaine", a traditional French song.

Diorama of what Ste. Genevieve looked like in the 18th century. Photo taken at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, MO.

Monday, July 29, 2013

La Fête d'automne 2012 and Missouri French

Yes, you read that right. Missouri has its own French dialect. Sometimes called pawpaw French, descendants of French colonists who journeyed up the Mississippi from the Lower Louisiana territory and down from French Canada in the early 18th century have preserved this language in a region of southeastern Missouri that's centered around the Old Mines area. 
Philippe François Renault arrived in the Old Mines area in 1720. With his miners and slaves, he's considered the founder of the community that would bring with it its French language and Catholic religion. The region was then known as part of the Illinois Country.

I hardly believed this when I first learned about the culture, but it exists. Over the centuries, families were geographically and culturally isolated from the outside world and the American colonization that was going on around them. They came to this region to mine silver and gold, but instead found lead and barite, or "tiff" as the locals call it. While not rolling in wealth, they were able to support their families and establish a settlement. Only a handful of elderly inhabitants still speak the language as native speakers, so if you have a desire to see and hear this distinctly Franco-American heritage, you should do so soon.

Every fall, the Old Mines Area Historical Society (OMAHS) has a fall festival celebrating the region's cultural heritage and language. I couldn't resist discovering more about this area and its quickly disappearing dialect. Alicia was game to tag along, too. She had never seen Ozarks Mountain Country, so the adventure began again.

Reconstructions of colonial French cabins have been built near the St. Joachim Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is still the center of community life in this part of Missouri.
Alicia peeks through a window.

Notice the mud-daubed walls or bousillage. The traditional insulation for French colonists on the frontier.

I'm checking out the woodwork on a log column.

It may be hard to see in this photo, but there are engravings on the doors of this stone bread oven that say "Renault" and "1723".

Three cemeteries sit near St. Joachim Catholic Church. This one was the oldest. The wrought-iron crosses were a practice brought over from Europe.

Gravestone of Étienne LaMarque (1785-1851). He was buried, along with his wife Louise, behind his home which was built in 1818 and is still a private residence today.

I was worried about the weather, but it turned out to be a beautiful day for a fall festival.

Festival-goers try their hand at rope-making.

LEsprit Créole performs on the stage. The sign says, "300 years - We're still here!" in Missouri French.

L'Esprit Créole performs a song in the Missouri French dialect. Near the end of the video, you can hear me talking with a local named Ray Thebeau. He and his wife, Emma have spent their entire lives in the Old Mines area. They were glad to share a few stories from their history. Ray said his grandparents spoke French and lived on less than three dollars a day. After this song was over, Ray went on stage and led a square dance while his wife joined the dancing. 

These ladies were fun to watch. They rushed into action whenever a customer requested a bowl of ham and beans.

Le Magasin campagnard - The Country Store

Traditional Yarn Spinning

A display on the history of Old Mines inside an old schoolhouse.

We had plenty of good food. The croquignoles, or croxiolles in the local dialect, were delicious!

This young girl threw it down on the fiddle! Preserving a culture is done one generation at a time.

I got a picture with Dennis Stroughmatt, the lead singer of L'Esprit Céole. Dennis is preserving the history of French America in his own way, through  music. Learn more about Dennis and L'Esprit Créole here:

A reconstruction of a colonial French home.

Me with Monsieur Beaulne, stage manager/local historian/preservationist/Missouri French speaker and an all-around nice guy.

La Société Historique de la Région de Vieille Mine.

Alicia took this photo on our way home. It's kind of blurry, but you can get an idea of the topography. It's beautiful country. Hope you had a good time discovering La Vieille Mine with us!