Mississippian culture and early exploration
Artist's conception of the Mississippian culture Cahokia Mounds
Site in Illinois, directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis.
The area that would become St. Louis was a center of the Native American Mississippian culture, which built numerous temple and residential earthwork mounds on both sides of the Mississippi River. Their major regional center was at Cahokia Mounds, active from 900 to 1500. Due to numerous major earthworks within St. Louis boundaries, the city was nicknamed as the "Mound City". These mounds were mostly demolished during the city's development. Historic Native American tribes in the area included the Siouan-speaking Osage people, whose territory extended west, and the Illiniwek.
European exploration of the area was first recorded in 1673, when French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette traveled through the Mississippi River valley. Five years later, La Salle claimed the region for France as part of La Louisiane.
The earliest European settlements in the area were built in Illinois Country (also known as Upper Louisiana) on the east side of the Mississippi River during the 1690s and early 1700s at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Fort de Chartres. Migrants from the French villages on the opposite side of the Mississippi River (e.g. Kaskaskia) founded Ste. Genevieve in the 1730s.
In early 1764, after France lost the Seven Years' War, Pierre Laclède and his stepson Auguste Chouteau founded what was to become the city of St. Louis. (French lands east of the Mississippi had been ceded to Great Britain and the lands west of the Mississippi to Spain; France and Spain were 18th-century allies. Louis XV of France and Charles III of Spain were cousins, both from the House of Bourbon.) The early French families built the city's economy on the fur trade with the Osage, as well as with more distant tribes along the Missouri River. The Chouteau brothers gained a monopoly from Spain on the fur trade with Santa Fe. French colonists used African slaves as domestic servants and workers in the city.
France, alarmed that Britain would demand French possessions west of the Mississippi and the Missouri River basin after losing New France to them in 1759–60, transferred these to Spain as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. These areas remained in Spanish possession until 1803. In 1780 during the American Revolutionary War, St. Louis was attacked by British forces, mostly Native American allies, in the Battle of St. Louis.
City founding (French and Spanish Louisiana period)
A map of St. Louis, Illinois in 1780. From the archives in Seville, Spain
The founding of St. Louis began in 1763. Pierre Laclède led an expedition to set up a fur-trading post farther up the Mississippi River. Before then, Laclède had been a very successful merchant. For this reason, he and his trading partner Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent were offered monopolies for six years of the fur trading in that area.
Although they were originally only granted rights to set up a trading post, Laclède and other members of his expedition quickly set up a settlement. Some historians believe that Laclède's determination to create this settlement was the result of his affair with a married woman Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau in New Orleans.
Laclède on his initial expedition was accompanied by his young stepson, Auguste Chouteau. Some historians still debate which of the two men was the true founder of St. Louis. The reason for this lingering question is that all the documentation of the founding was loaned and subsequently destroyed in a fire.
In 1780 during the American Revolutionary War, St. Louis was attacked by British forces, mostly Native American allies, in the Battle of St. Louis
For the first few years of St. Louis's existence, the city was not recognized by any of the governments. Although originally thought to be under the control of the Spanish government, no one asserted any authority over the settlement, and thus St. Louis had no local government. This led Laclède to assume a position of civil control, and all problems were disposed in public settings, such as communal meetings. In addition, Laclède granted new settlers lots in town and the surrounding countryside. In hindsight, many of these original settlers thought of these first few years as "the golden age of St. Louis".
By 1765, the city began receiving visits from representatives of the English, French, and Spanish governments. The Indians in the area expressed dissatisfaction at being under the control of British forces. One of the great Ottawa chieftains, Pontiac, was angered by the change of power and the potential for the British to come into their lands. He desired to fight against them but many of the St. Louis inhabitants refused.
St. Louis was transferred to the French First Republic in 1800 (although all of the colonial lands continued to be administered by Spanish officials), then sold by the French to the U.S. in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. St. Louis became the capital of, and gateway to, the new territory. Shortly after the official transfer of authority was made, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. The expedition departed from St. Louis in May 1804 along the Missouri River to explore the vast territory. There were hopes of finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean, but the party had to go overland in the Upper West. They reached the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River in summer 1805. They returned, reaching St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Both Lewis and Clark lived in St. Louis after the expedition. Many other explorers, settlers, and trappers (such as Ashley's Hundred) would later take a similar route to the West.
The city elected its first municipal legislators (called trustees) in 1808. Steamboats first arrived in St. Louis in 1818, improving connections with New Orleans and eastern markets. Missouri was admitted as a state in 1821. St. Louis was incorporated as a city in 1822, and continued to develop largely due to its busy port and trade connections.
City of St. Louis and Riverfront, 1874
An illustrated map by F. Graf entitled St. Louis in 1896
Immigrants from Ireland and Germany arrived in St. Louis in significant numbers starting in the 1840s, and the population of St. Louis grew from less than 20,000 in 1840, to 77,860 in 1850, to more than 160,000 by 1860. By the mid-1800s, St. Louis had a greater population than New Orleans.
Settled by many Southerners in a slave state, the city was split in political sympathies and became polarized during the American Civil War. In 1861, 28 civilians were killed in a clash with Union troops. The war hurt St. Louis economically, due to the Union blockade of river traffic to the south on the Mississippi River. The St. Louis Arsenal constructed ironclads for the Union Navy.
South Broadway after a May 27, 1896, tornado
Slaves worked in many jobs on the waterfront as well as on the riverboats. Given the city's location close to the free state of Illinois and others, some slaves escaped to freedom. Others, especially women with children, sued in court in freedom suits, and several prominent local attorneys aided slaves in these suits. About half the slaves achieved freedom in hundreds of suits before the American Civil War.
The printing press of abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy was destroyed for the third time by townsfolk. He was murdered the next year in nearby Alton, Illinois.
After the war, St. Louis profited via trade with the West, aided by the 1874 completion of the Eads Bridge, named for its design engineer. Industrial developments on both banks of the river were linked by the bridge, the first in the mid-west over the Mississippi River. The bridge connects St. Louis, Missouri to East St. Louis, Illinois. The Eads Bridge became a sybolic image of the city of St. Louis, from the time of its erection until 1965 when the Gateway Arch Bridge was constructed. The bridge crosses the St. Louis riverfront between Laclede's Landing, to the north, and the grounds of the Gateway Arch, to the south. Today the road deck has been restored, allowing vehicular and pedestrian traffic to cross the river. The St. Louis MetroLink light rail system has used the rail deck since 1993. An estimated 8,500 vehicles pass through it daily.
On August 22, 1876, the city of St. Louis voted to secede from St. Louis County and become an independent city. Industrial production continued to increase during the late 19th century. Major corporations such as the Anheuser-Busch brewery and Ralston-Purina company were established. St. Louis also was home to Desloge Consolidated Lead Company and several brass era automobile companies, including the Success Automobile Manufacturing Company; St. Louis is the site of the Wainwright Building, an early skyscraper built in 1892 by noted architect Louis Sullivan.
The city hosted the 1904 World's Fair and the 1904 Summer Olympics, becoming the first non-European city to host the Olympics. Permanent facilities and structures remaining from the fair are Forest Park and associated structures within its boundaries: the St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri History Museum, as well as Tower Grove Park and the Botanical Gardens.
After the Civil War, social and racial discrimination in housing and employment were common in St. Louis. In 1916, during the Jim Crow Era, St. Louis passed a residential segregation ordinance saying that if 75% of the residents of a neighborhood were of a certain race, no one from a different race was allowed to move in. That ordinance was struck down in a court challenge by the NAACP, so racists invented racial covenants, which prevented the sale of houses in certain neighborhoods to "persons not of Caucasian race". Again, St. Louisans offered a lawsuit in challenge, and covenants were ruled unconstitutional in 1948 in the Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court case.
In the first half of the 20th century, St. Louis was a destination in the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South seeking better opportunities. During World War II, the NAACP campaigned to integrate war factories. In 1964, civil rights activists protested at the construction of the Gateway Arch to publicize their effort to gain entry for African Americans into the skilled trade unions, where they were underrepresented. The Department of Justice filed the first suit against the unions under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the first part of the century, St. Louis had some of the worst air pollution in the United States. In April 1940, the city banned the use of soft coal mined in nearby states. The city hired inspectors to ensure only hard anthracite was burned. By 1946, the city had reduced air pollution by about three-quarters.
View of the Arch
(completed 1965) from Laclede's Landing
, the only remaining section of St. Louis's commercial riverfront.
De jure educational segregation continued into the 1950s, and de facto segregation continued into the 1970s, leading to a court challenge and interdistrict desegregation agreement. Students have been bused mostly from the city to county school districts to have opportunities for integrated classes, although the city has created magnet schools to attract students.
St. Louis, like many Midwestern cities, expanded in the early 20th century due to industrialization, which provided jobs to new generations of immigrants and migrants from the South. It reached its peak population of 856,796 at the 1950 census. Suburbanization from the 1950s through the 1990s dramatically reduced the city's population, as did restructuring of industry and loss of jobs. The effects of suburbanization were exacerbated by the relatively small geographical size of St. Louis due to its earlier decision to become an independent city, and it lost much of its tax base. During the 19th and 20th century, most major cities aggressively annexed surrounding areas as residential development occurred away from the central city; however, St. Louis was unable to do so.
Several urban renewal projects were built in the 1950s, as the city worked to replace old and substandard housing. Some of these were poorly designed and resulted in problems. One prominent example, Pruitt-Igoe, became a symbol of failure in public housing, and was torn down less than two decades after it was built.
Since the 1980s, several revitalization efforts have focused on downtown St. Louis.
Urban revitalization continued in the new century. Gentrification has taken place in the Washington Avenue Historic District, Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods. This helped St. Louis win the World Leadership Award for urban renewal in 2006. In 2017 the US Census Bureau estimated that St. Louis had a population of 308,826 which is down from a population of 319,371 in 2010.
In the 21st century, the city of St. Louis contains only 11% of the total metropolitan population. (The top 20 U.S. metro areas have an average of 24% of their populations in their central cities. St. Louis grew slightly during the early 2000s, but lost population from 2000 to 2010. Immigration has continued, with the city attracting Vietnamese, Latin Americans predominantly from Mexico, and Bosnians, which comprises the largest Bosnian community outside of Bosnia.