They were French and Spanish before they were American. Before European explorers travelled the river, the land was home to the Mississippians, a mighty Indian civilization of mound builders. When that culture disappeared during Europe's Middle Ages, only their mysterious earthen structures remained, earning St. Louis its nickname, "Mound City."
In 1764, French fur traders from New Orleans founded a city named for Louis IX, the Crusader King of France. St. Louis was built in Spanish territory on a high bluff just 18 miles south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers—a perfect site from which to trade with Indians in the fur-rich lands of the west. France regained rights to St. Louis and the west again in the 1800.
When the French began settling in St. Louis, they established a fur trading community. The town developed into a center for north—south commerce along the Mississippi River. St. Louis was closely designed after a French colonial city of the times, probably New Orleans. The early settlement had no retail centers. There were only two granaries, a bakery, a maple sugar works, and a church. Supplies were brought to St. Louis by keelboats with cargoes of flour, sugar, whiskey, blankets, fabrics, tools, and household goods.
The French colonial homes were uniquely structured with wall logs placed vertically and plastered over. Plaster gave the logs a fresh, white exterior. The home typically consisted of a living area, a bedroom, and fireplace in between. The French colonial home was sparsely furnished and may have included straight back wooden chairs, a table, a four poster bed with a buffalo robe spread, and cooking utensils.
Then Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson without taking possession.
When explorers Lewis & Clark set out from St. Louis to chart the Louisiana Territory in 1804, more than 1,000 people, mostly French, Spanish, Indian and black, both free and enslaved, lived in the city which was already the center of the fur trade in America. Two years later, after the explorers returned from the Pacific with their Corps of Discovery, St. Louis became the last stop for pioneers, mountain men, trappers and travelers heading to the frontier. For decades, entrepreneurs would make fortunes selling goods to explorers and trading for furs.
The first steamboat arrived in 1817, heralding a new era of commerce and travel along the Mississippi. Soon it was common to see more than 100 steamboats lining the levee at one time. This was the Mississippi that Mark Twain came to know as a riverboat pilot, and later as an author.
In 1849, a deadly fire destroyed a third of the city when the steamboat White Cloud exploded on the riverfront. It destroyed exactly15 blocks of the center of the city and caused 6.1 million dollars in damage. The Old Courthouse and Old Cathedral were stone structures and not destroyed. St. Louis was built again, this time with brick and iron rather than easily kindled wood.
While Missouri remained with the Union, the Civil War divided St. Louis as it divided the nation. Abolitionists shared the streets with slaveholders, and the Dred Scott trials, which began at the Old Courthouse, helped lead the nation toward Civil War after the U.S. Supreme Court verdict that denied citizenship and rights to slaves.
New immigrants changed the face of St. Louis throughout the 19th century. Joining the French, Spanish, Indian and African descendants were Germans who settled in St. Louis and along the Rhine-like Missouri River valley, and Irish immigrants fleeing the famine on their island.
In 1874, the completion of the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi heralded a new day for the Iron Horse. As railroads grew, steamboat traffic declined. St. Louis became a major industrial center with more than 100 breweries operating in the city. Clothing and shoe manufacturers thrived along the Washington Avenue garment district, and St. Louis was known as "first in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League," a reference to the St. Louis Browns baseball club.
In 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Forest Park became a glittering expanse of palaces and attractions, drawing 20 million visitors and exhibits from 43 countries. Popular foods, including the ice cream cone and iced tea, were invented at the fair. Scott Joplin's new ragtime music enthralled visitors, and the song "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" summed up the most glorious time St. Louis had ever seen. The fair, and the 1904 Olympic Games, which took place at Washington University, defined St. Louis as a world-class city.
The first International Balloon Race was held in St. Louis in 1908, and less than 20 years later Charles Lindbergh captured the imagination of the world by crossing the Atlantic non-stop. His 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris took place in an airplane named Spirit of St. Louis thanks tot he financial backing of St. Louis businessmen. In 1965, the Gateway Arch opened as a monument to the important role St. Louis played in America's westward expansion.