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Cleary’s Newest Book Examines 18th-Century French Trading Post

Published: May 15, 2012

History’s Pat Cleary examines an 18th-century French trading post in her new book and sees The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

As Anglo-American colonists along the Atlantic seaboard began to protest British rule in the 1760s, St. Louis was founded in what is now Missouri by Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau. The frontier community anticipated America’s future with its diverse population of indigenous Americans, French traders and farmers, African and Indian slaves, British officials, and immigrant explorers, all under the weak rule of Spanish governors and soldiers.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil from the University of Missouri Press is the first modern book devoted exclusively to the history of colonial St. Louis, said Cleary, a St. Louis native and professor of U.S. History in CSULB’s History Department.

“I’m pleased with the book both as a historian of early America and of St. Louis,” she explained. “When people think about the early history of St. Louis, their understanding typically begins with Lewis and Clark and the moment when the city was incorporated into the United States. People imagine that the history of the area has to do with the expansion of the 13 original British colonies and then states and so doesn’t begin until after 1800. Historians haven’t paid enough attention to the rest of the continent in the eighteenth century, to its indigenous peoples who had been settled there for eons, or to other European powers in places like St. Louis. There is a vacuum of historical knowledge. What I wanted to do was to populate the place both with the indigenous people and with the Europeans who built the city in the 1760s and to explore its significance as a settlement at the crossroads of peoples and empires—French, Spanish, indigenous, African, British, and ultimately, American.”

Cleary believes there are three reasons for the fledgling community’s survival from its 1764 founding to its 1804 absorption into the young United States—location, location, and location. “St. Louis is in a pivotal spot in the central part of the continent just below the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers,” she explained.

“Together, the Missouri-Mississippi forms one of the longest rivers in the world. With the Ohio river draining into the Mississippi nearby, this water system covered a vast territory. Whoever controlled the location of St. Louis was in a position to control the goods, people, and news flowing east of the Rockies and west of the Appalachians. But as important as its location was the topography. On the Illinois side of the river are low-lying flats subject to annual floods. But St. Louis, on the west bank, is located high on limestone bluffs, a position which gave it some defensive advantages as well as protection from devastating inundations.”

Cleary used a range of original documentary records in her study. “Research was occasionally difficult because the records are a mess,” she said. “There is a lot of unindexed and poorly preserved material in French and Spanish, as well as some in English. St. Louis was settled by people who spoke French but, because of a secret treaty in 1762, the territory was administered by Spain for most of the colonial period. Fortunately, the Spanish records are better preserved than the French. The indigenous perspective was difficult to uncover, typically filtered through European translators and scribes. There were large numbers of indigenous people who regularly visited St. Louis to trade and some who lived either in or immediately adjacent to the colonial village, including dozens of tribes such as the Peoria and the Osage. The population of St. Louis spoke a multitude of languages, although French was the dominant tongue.”

A lack of institutions present in other, longer-established communities affected life in St. Louis. For example, at the heart of the founding family and the city’s early history was an illicit union. Founder Laclède had a long-term partnership with Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau, a married woman, and together the pair had four children. Eventually, their illicit union became the subject of a government inquiry.

“Divorce was not possible for Catholics at the time,” Cleary explained, “so there was an adulterous relationship right at the heart of the founding family. A skewed sex ratio in the village also contributed to other non-marital unions, typically between French men and African or indigenous women, with the result a significant mixed-raced population. Such behavior, which fell well outside the codes of conduct promoted by the church and state, added to St. Louisans’ reputation as a dissolute people. Priests and officials complained about the excesses of the populace; their drinking, gambling and impiety. One noted that the people could not resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

Pat Cleary book cover

In addition to detailing the illicit Laclède-Chouteau union, Cleary explores the 1780 battle that nearly destroyed the village (the westernmost battle of the American Revolution), and the many ways colonial St. Louisans tested authority.

“Some of my richest sources of information were records of litigation and personal correspondence,” she said. “These are records of people complaining about each other’s bad behavior. Those who are illiterate, such as the French farmers and enslaved Africans of St. Louis, often do not make much of an impression on history. But these records of litigation offer a record of their oral testimony.”

Cleary argues that St. Louis residents possessed a remarkable willingness to adapt and innovate that enabled them to survive. “The settlement of St. Louis was never that big,” she said. “For most of the colonial period, it was home to several hundred, not thousands, of people. For a long time, the village didn’t even have a priest. This small, diverse population needed to band together for survival, defense, and common interests. There were not a lot of institutions in place to facilitate all that. They had to face the demands of founding a new settlement in an area where they, as the colonial invaders, were far outnumbered by the indigenous population, a demographic fact that required them from early on to cooperate with each other and with indigenous peoples in a relatively tolerant and open way. This book is about a settlement where no one population’s power was overwhelming. No one group could dictate to another what would happen. They were forced to improvise and innovate, and this flexibility stood them in good stead.”

Not many clues remain of the original St. Louis. “You can see some traces of the colonial era in the layout of the city,” she said. “Laclède first set foot in an area that is today mostly warehouses being renovated into nightclubs and restaurants. One park on the city’s south side preserves some of the original open grazing lands. The original settlement stood near the St. Louis Arch, where there is a park today. There is also a cathedral built on the site of the period’s original church.”

Cleary hopes The World, the Flesh and the Devil attracts attention as St. Louis nears its 250th anniversary in 2014. “It was my goal to write a very serious and carefully researched study that would serve as a contribution toward a geographically and demographically inclusive American history,” she said. “Keeping my family and other St. Louisans in mind as potential readers pushed me to write a readable narrative about a particular people and place which I hope is accessible and enjoyable.”

Cleary received her B.A. from Rice University and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She has held a variety of fellowships, including as a Mellon Fellow and Berkshire Fellow, as well as fellowship awards from the Autry, the Missouri History Museum, the Huntington Library, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her previous book was Elizabeth Murray: A Woman’s Pursuit of Independence in 18th-Century America with additional information available on the NEH-funded website, “The Elizabeth Murray Project.”