French America

The French Roots of St. Louis

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This month, welcome to St. Louis, Missouri!
© Mathieu Persan

St. Louis sets itself apart with its enormous arch. Nicknamed the “Gateway to the West,” it embodies exploration and the processions of settlers who left the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the monument’s inauguration in the 1960s overshadowed another of the city’s icons, the equestrian statue of French king Louis IX, who was made a saint in 1297.

René-Auguste Chouteau arrived at the site of the future city on February 14, 1764. Born in New Orleans, he was part of an expedition led by his stepfather, the fur trader Pierre Laclède, to establish a trading post on the right bank of the Mississippi River. The name “St. Louis” first appeared in a notarized statement from 1765, proposed by the governor Louis Saint-Ange de Bellerive, in tribute to his patron saint, King Louis IX.

Located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the French and Native-American village grew to become a hub for fur trading in North America. Every year after the ice melted, hunters and trappers would travel west in barges and dugout canoes. Explorers Lewis and Clark, accompanied by two Francophone guides, left St. Louis on May 14, 1804.

The city slowly industrialized and welcomed new waves of immigration, mostly from Germany and Ireland. In L’Amérique fantôme, historian Gilles Havard writes that it had “essentially lost its Franco-Creole character” by the mid-19th century. The old town of St. Louis was demolished in the 1940s to allow for the construction of the future arch. The Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, built in 1834, was the only structure left untouched and can still be visited today.


Article published in the March 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.