St. Louis Rising: Authors Tell New Story about Old City

stlrisingcoverThe Webster community will be the first to get their hands on St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of St. Ange de Bellerive – a new book by historians Carl J. Ekberg and Sharon Person – next month, courtesy of Le Centre Francophone. To commemorate the book’s launch, Ekberg and Person will participate in a panel discussion about the founding of St. Louis on Monday, April 13 in Webster University’s East Academic Building at 4:30pm. They will be joined the Consul Général of France, Vincent Floréani, who will provide opening remarks.

St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive sheds new light on the founding of St. Louis. The popular narrative of the city’s early days focuses on the efforts of French fur-traders Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau to create a settlement out of the wilderness. But Ekberg, a retired professor of history, and Person, an ESL instructor, have culled another story from their examination of new source documents. In Ekberg’s words, St. Louis “was not founded by two greenhorns from New Orleans, Laclède and Chouteau, but rather by scores of Illinois-Country residents — men, women, slaves, and children — who moved across the Mississippi during the early 1760s to find better lives for themselves in a new settlement.”

Director of Le Centre Francophone and Webster’s Jane and Bruce Robert Endowed Professor of French Lionel Cuillé believes St. Louis Rising has the potential to spark “a fascinating debate for everyone who is interested in the founding of St. Louis.”

Lionel Cuille
Lionel Cuillé

“It is indeed commonly understood that after the French and Indian War the entire west side of the Mississippi became Spanish,” Cuillé said. “But [Ekberg and Person’s] new research shows that, with Louis St. Ange de Bellerive as commandant, St. Louis remained a French post until 1770. The authors also go back to the conventional wisdom that Pierre Laclède came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans in order to found St. Louis, and sent fourteen-year-old Auguste Chouteau to get the job done. St. Louis Rising demonstrates that this traditional story is a legend, based on Chouteau’s journal.”

Ekberg and Person did not set out to discredit what most St. Louisans believe about the founding of the city. They were initially inspired to examine historical documentation surrounding the founding of St. Louis by the city’s 250th anniversary (celebrated in 2014). But as they uncovered a new founding narrative, they found themselves inspired by, in Ekberg’s words, “the challenge of setting the historical record straight.”

“The stories we tell [in St. Louis Rising] have always been there in the documents,” Person said. “We have just coaxed them into the light.”

The authors hope that St. Louis Rising demonstrates, above all, a more egalitarian narrative of the founding of St. Louis.

“Our story about early St. Louis, rather than focusing on a few heroes, is more inclusive,” Ekberg said.

“Seeing the signatures of the literate and the marks of the illiterate, including women and slaves, is quite moving to me,” Person said. “I want readers to take away from our book that the stories of ordinary people can be quite extraordinary, no matter the place or time.”

Cuillé feels that Webster students will appreciate both the new take on St. Louis history and the way St. Louis Rising “illustrates that history is a narrative, and that new archives can shed a new light on events that we take for granted.”

“By attending this exceptional event,” Cuillé said, “our students will be able to witness critical thinking at work — a value not only praised in academia, but in the business world, which is looking for students who are curious, cultured, and intellectually engaged.”

Vincent Floréani, Consul Général de France
Vincent Floréani, Consul Général de France

Students will also have the opportunity to meet Consul Général Floréani, whose first visit to Webster University occurs courtesy of Webster University Board of Trustees member Jane Robert. In the days leading up to the panel discussion, Robert will give Floréani tours of St. Louis, St. Genevieve, and Ferguson, Missouri, and accompany him as he meets with Mayor Slay and local activists.

“[Floréani] will be here at Webster to attest to the vibrant francophone culture in our town,” Cuillé said. “Le Centre Francophone is proud to bring this kind of event to Webster University.”