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Remains of St. Louis founder's home believed to have been located

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Click photo to enlarge
18th century French coins found the New Chartres, in southern Illinois, compared to a contemporary nickel.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Archaeologists believe they have found the Illinois home of the founder of St. Louis.

What had been thought to be a priest’s residence near the French colonial village of New Chartres, in present-day southern Illinois, “appears instead to have been owned by a series of merchants during the mid-1700s, before it was sold to a young merchant from New Orleans – Pierre Laclede, the founder of the city of St. Louis.”

So says Robert Mazrim, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the French Colonial Heritage Project. The project is sponsored by the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program and the Sangamo Archaeological Center. ITARP is a joint program of the university and the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Initially, the archaeological remains of a large 18th-century structure on the heritage project’s Ghost Horse Site were thought to have possibly been those of a residence of a priest affiliated with Ste. Anne’s Church.

“But several artifacts found in the cellar may have been part of Laclede’s property and supplies, including Spanish majolica brought upriver from New Orleans, and a lead seal from a bale of men’s stockings – perhaps destined for a store in St. Louis.”

Excavation pit
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Excavation pit at the French Colonial Heritage Project, sponsored by the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program and the Sangamo Archaeological Center.

Mazrim’s recent examination of the features and artifacts from the site, which ITARP excavated on a small scale in 1998, “resulted in a reconsideration of Ghost Horse,” Mazrim said.

According to the archaeologist, Laclede lived in the now defunct village of New Chartres, near Fort de Chartres, during the winter of 1763-1764, while preparing to establish a town on the opposite side of the Mississippi River.

Upon Laclede’s departure, a British officer purchased the house. The building probably was abandoned before the American Revolution.

Fort de Chartres, in the Mississippi River floodplain near modern Prairie du Rocher, Ill., was “the primary French outpost in the mid-18th-century ‘Illinois Country,’ ” said Thomas Emerson, the director of ITARP.

The military garrison and the residents in the village of New Chartres were “a key to France’s struggle to hold the Mississippi River valley against British encroachments.”

“Locating Laclede’s house puts a face on an individual who was critical to the formation of St. Louis,” Emerson said.

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Lead bale seal for stockings, from the Ghost Horse site.

“This is a unique opportunity because St. Louis’ French Colonial archaeology has been destroyed by the downtown development, unfortunately, with little attempt to preserve or recover these important archaeological remains.”

Little of Laclede’s personal life is known. He was born in France and was a partner in a New Orleans commercial house before venturing to “Upper Louisiana” in the early 1760s. He was thought to have lived in St. Louis for 14 years, and died in 1778 on his boat near the mouth of the Arkansas River, en route for home after a trip to New Orleans.

Mazrim said that “comparatively little” modern archaeological study has been conducted at French colonial domestic sites in Illinois.

“While major excavations have been conducted at Fort Massac and Fort de Chartres, fewer than 10 domestic sites have been examined.”

In 1998, ITARP crews conducted small-scale excavations within the eastern limits of the Fort de Chartres State Historic Site in Randolph County, Ill., as part of an IDOT bridge replacement project, Mazrim said.

Majolica fragments
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Fragments of majolica drug jar, from the Ghost Horse site.

At that time, the excavations at the Ghost Horse Site encountered remains of an 18th-century structure associated with the French colonial village of New Chartres. The structural remains at the site consisted of a large complex of wall trenches and a sub-floor cellar once associated with a vertical log structure,” said Mazrim, who is writing a book about French archaeology in Illinois, which will include a chapter on the Laclede excavation.

“It is little surprise,” Emerson said, “that when Pierre Laclede came to the area in 1763, seeking to establish a trading post and a new town, that he first set himself up at Chartres while he surveyed the area, finally settling on the present-day location of St. Louis to build what would become a trading empire.”

Actively involved in the archaeology of Illinois, ITARP conducts hundreds of archaeological surveys and dozens of excavations every year, Emerson said.

Its mission is to assist IDOT in the preservation and protection of Illinois’ historic and archaeological resources, to carry out research activities that enhance the educational and public service mission of the U. of I., and to promote and ensure the professional and public dissemination of information about the prehistory and history of Illinois.

ITARP is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year by hosting the 52nd Midwest Archaeological Conference Oct. 12-15. A symposium Oct. 13 will be devoted to archaeology in Illinois. Details can be found at the conference Web site: