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That St. Louis Thing, Vol. 1: An American Story of Roots, Rhythm and Race

That St. Louis Thing, Vol. 1: An American Story of Roots, Rhythm and Race

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That St. Louis Thing, Vol. 1: An American Story of Roots, Rhythm and Race

827 pages
13 hours
Oct 7, 2016


That St. Louis Thing is an American story of music, race relations and baseball. Here is over 100 years of the city's famed musical development -- blues, jazz and rock -- placed in the context of its civil rights movement and its political and ecomomic power. Here, too, are the city's people brought alive from its foundation to the racial conflicts in Ferguson in 2014. The panorama of the city presents an often overlooked gem, music that goes far beyond famed artists such as Scott Joplin, Miles Davis and Tina Turner. The city is also the scene of a historic civil rights movement that remained important from its early beginnings into the twenty-first century. And here, too, are the sounds of the crack of the bat during a century-long love affair with baseball.
Oct 7, 2016

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That St. Louis Thing, Vol. 1 - Bruce R. Olson




Vol. 1

An American Story of

Roots, Rhythm and Race


Copyright © 2016 Bruce R. Olson.

Cover art Copyright © 2016 Eads Bridge by Marilyn Ciafone Olson

Index sponsored by Roger Hudson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted by any means—whether auditory, graphic, mechanical, or electronic—without written permission of both publisher and author, except in the case of brief excerpts used in critical articles and reviews. Unauthorized reproduction of any part of this work is illegal and is punishable by law.

ISBN: 978-1-4834-5797-0 (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-4834-5796-3 (e)

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

Any people depicted in stock imagery provided by Thinkstock are models, and such images are being used for illustrative purposes only.

Certain stock imagery © Thinkstock.

Lulu Publishing Services rev. date: 9/23/2016


Volume One:

Birth of the blues to 1940

Prologue: A Rainy Night in Oregon

1. The Founding: The French and the Osage , 1764

2. The St. Louis Blues , 1893-2014

3. Stagger Lee and Billy : Christmas, 1895

4. The Crime Goes Viral , 1817-2014

5. The Great Cyclone of 1896

6. Frankie and Johnny , 1899-2001

7. The Streetcar Strike and the Boodle Combine , 1900-1904

8. Ragtime: that Quaint Creation , 1893-2014

9. Revival: the Red Light Casts a Long Shadow , 1941-2013

10. The World’s Fair 1904 : Stupendous! Exquisite! Marvelous!

11. The Democracy Balloon , 1904-1914

12. Now, Ain’t that a Bitch : Race Riot, 1917

13. Music by the River: Henry Townsend and Satchmo , 1919-1923

14. Fun, Fun, Fun: Baseball and Lindbergh , 1846-1927

15. The Pre-war Blues I: Lonnie Johnson , 1919-1930

16. The Pre-War Blues II: Ramblin’ Round , 1930-1983

17. Hooverville, Smoke and More Smoke , 1930-1939

18. Peetie Wheatstraw and Four More for the Ages

Chapter Notes



To the four great editors in my life: Robert Olson of the Enumclaw Courier-Herald, the first to declare a sentence complete; to George Arthur of the University of Washington Daily, whose insistence on fact-checking stuck with me long after his demise; to Lucien Carr of United Press International, the master of the clothesline lead; and to Marilyn Ciafone Olson of That St. Louis Thing, who never let me get carried away.

A Note to the Reader

The research for this two-volume story began with interviews with St. Louis musicians and musically connected people conducted during 2012, 2013 and 2014. Information also came from contemporary newspapers and magazines, especially the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (P-D) and The New York Times (NYT) and also including the Riverfront Times (RFT), the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (G-D) and the St. Louis Blues Society BluesLetter.

Most of the periodical information was obtained in the St. Louis Public Library, the Missouri History Museum and through Internet access to the original items. Some also comes from private collections generously provided by people I interviewed.

I’ve consulted dozens of books, including first person accounts, diaries, scrapbooks and other sources. I’ve also used encyclopedias (especially the Encyclopedia Brittannica, 1971), catalogues and discography material, much of it accessed in the stacks at the Gaylord Music Library at Washington University in St. Louis as well as in the St. Louis Public Library’s St. Louis Room and Special Collections section. Official government data was found on the Internet and in the files at the St. Louis Public Library.

Blogs and Facebook commentary have been pretty much ruled out, but the Internet has been used for access to original sources, especially books and newspapers. I’ve also used websites posted by musicians and bands, corporations and officials for basic biographical and historical information of a non-controversial nature.

The citations provided at the end of Volume One and Volume Two are intended to give the reader the opportunity for further reading. Everything inside quote marks comes from the above-mentioned sources. Objective truth in history walks along in a context that includes the eye of the beholder. I’ve tried to keep as much subjectivity out of my story as possible. But sometimes, I can’t resist entering the book myself.


Birth of the blues to 1940

I like being from St. Louis because it’s an underdog city -- people are very humble. I think St. Louis weeds out the weak.

— Pokey LaFarge, St. Louis musician, 2012

Prologue: A Rainy Night in Oregon

You got to keep it in motion while it’s there; that’s a must, keep it in motion while it’s there.

Henry Townsend, A Blues Life

St. Louis was founded by French fur traders in 1764, a group that paddled five boats against the current of the Mississippi River up from New Orleans. St. Louis was launched without priests or soldiers. Unlike their Puritan counterparts who founded America a hundred years before, these settlers conducted no witch-hunts. They displaced no Native Americans. They enjoyed life and danced, even on Sunday.

After the city was purchased by the United States in 1803, the politics changed but the music continued. By the eighteen-fifties a major theater stood in the center of town. Steamboats brought brass bands and variety shows. By the early eighteen-nineties the St. Louis sporting district was known far and wide.

At Babe Connors’ Castle, the 300-pound ragtime piano player Tom Turpin joined a singer called Mammy Lou. They brought together the urban and the folk, the beats that made up the core of ragtime, the syncopated rhythm of the city overlaid on the African- American music of the South. Piano composers like Turpin and Scott Joplin rose out of St. Louis as inventors of the new style, the first original American music, a style that began sweeping the country in 1899 after the publication of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.

Black-inspired music had invaded the white piano parlors of Jim Crow America.

Also in St. Louis in the eighteen-nineties came another African American, a round-faced bandleader named W.C. Handy. Homeless and hungry in the winter of 1892-1893, he nearly froze under the Eads Bridge. Two decades later, Handy used the experience to compose The St. Louis Blues, one of the greatest American music standards, the song that embedded the city’s most iconic phrase into its heart. The song had been recorded in over 1,600 versions by 2015.

Another song that came out of the sporting district of St. Louis in the eighteen- nineties and has been recorded hundreds of times was Stagger Lee, a song based on a shooting in a bar, the result of an argument over a Stetson hat fueled by a lethal combination of politics, alcohol and ego.

Then, in 1899, came Frankie & Johnny, the story of a woman who killed a man because he done her wrong. Her passionate response to a cheating male was quickly told, spread along the rail tracks and on the rivers that brought together North and South, East and West, black and white, rich and poor at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

A St. Louis ragtime player in 1912 published a blues song for the first time. And by 1919, when a teenage horn player named Louis Armstrong arrived in town, jazz was creating waves. Players spilled off the steamboats into the late night jams at saloons and bordellos along the riverfront. Dance halls sprung up and another new style, hot jazz, was born.

The blues caught on as well. The guitar player Lonnie Johnson arrived the same year as Armstrong. Johnson became the first of America’s sterling blues guitar masters, someone who could compose, sing and play the lead at the same time. During the twenties and thirties the city saw a surge of blues -- female singers, barrelhouse piano players and guitarists. Of the top ten blues players in the two decades before the Second World War four were from St. Louis.

The forties saw feet moving and horns swaying from bandstands across the city as the players from boats stocked the big bands of the swing era. Then in the fifties, the city saw another form of music developed – rock ‘n’ roll. The arrival of Ike Turner, who formed the first R&B revues, and the explosion of Chuck Berry, who, with his piano partner Johnnie Johnson, sent teenagers around the country into a frenzy.

Jazz took another step forward when Miles Davis picked up a trumpet in East St. Louis, learning how to play a clear note from a German teacher. He made bop, cool, modal and fusion. Davis brought the white crowds into jazz clubs all over America. Then came Albert King in the sixties, also boiling out of East St. Louis, big and bold. King invented Blues Power and turned on a generation of young counterculture Americans to the bent, crying notes of the electric guitar.

Music in the late seventies and eighties became racially integrated, throwing Jim Crow down the back stairs. Blues players from the black North Side moved into new clubs that opened up in old neighborhoods down by the river and on the South Side. An enduring scene was created and solidified that lasted into the present -- an scene that in the twenty-first century encompassed 500 musicians and 50 venues, a blues, jazz and rock culture that existed nowhere else in America.

That St. Louis is an underrated American musical gem became clear to me as I sat in a bar on the Pacific Ocean with a guitar player from the other end of the Oregon Trail. Bells rang for me as I heard the big names. But I, like most Americans, was unaware of a flurry of other names that spilled out from my companion as the level of our whiskey bottle lowered and the wind rattled the picture windows of the seaside club.

Henry Townsend, Victoria Spivey, Oliver Sain, Peetie Wheatstraw, Big Joe Williams, Mary Johnson, Irene Scruggs, Tommy Bankhead, Walter Davis, James Crutchfield, Charlie Creath, Oliver Lake, Big Bad Smitty, Little Milton, James De Shay. Rich McDonough, Rondo Leewright, Ptah Williams, Big George Brock, Blind Willie Dineen, Mat Wilson, Jeremiah Johnson, Tom Papa Ray, the Soulard Blues Band, David Dee. Who were these people?

Then the young guitar player mentioned Doc Terry. Finally something clicked and I was transported to another time. I did remember St. Louis after all -- a night in the early seventies when I crashed with the brother of a friend during a cross-country ride aboard a Greyhound bus.

Doc Terry and the Pirates.

My friend’s brother was a big white man, originally from Chicago, who wore a large Afro made from his styled, tightly wired hair, a guy who favored bright colors and the loose fit of the Ethiopian dashiki and who frequented the black clubs scattered through North and East St. Louis in the days before African-American music in St. Louis crossed over into the white South Side and hip-hop conquered the black music community.

My bus rolled into St. Louis around nine on a weekday night. I hoped I’d get in an hour or two of music before it was time for bed. My friend taught school and I figured he would not want to be up too late. He had other ideas, announcing that we would grab a set on the North Side before heading across the Mississippi for some late night action. I only remember the first stop as being packed and sweaty, the music fades many years later.

But my mind was able to recapture that trip over the Eads Bridge, down to a club called the Soul Brother, where Doc Terry and the Pirates crowded a dinky stage, performing for a 98 percent black crowd.

The music at the Soul Brother started at midnight and it was around 1:30 when we arrived. The club stood a fair distance from other buildings in the neighborhood, out in a open field, a clapboard building painted yellow and green with a large mural dominating a side wall, showing figures of black men with Afros.

Flames from the nearby oil refineries made an orange hell on the eastern horizon, sparks flashing into the black sky sending shards of light reflected across the metal hoods of the beater cars backed in next to the building, big Buicks and Chryslers and DeSotos, their fins butted up against the side of the structure, their long hoods and double eyes looking out toward a road that may or may not have been paved.

Stay cool, my friend advised as we headed toward the club, through a night silent and damp. My host pushed open a reinforced metal door and out washed a wave of noise from a band just starting a song I remember to this day.

It was like all the blues harp songs you’ve ever heard rolled into one, an instrumental that blew apart as it got faster and faster, riding into a wild jam that had the dancers flying.

Do you know what that’s called? I yelled to my companion.

Dr. Boogie, he hollered back.

Dr. Boogie because the Doc was Dr. Boogie himself, his harp cutting notes into the souls of dancers doing the funky chicken and a mad version of the Lindy Hop.

The Doc had deep creases in his worn black face, his eyes pinched in concentration, his lips engulfing that harp through which he was blowing clean, clear notes. Sweat reflected off this face, catching the light from a bare-bulb spotlight hanging on a precarious wire just above his face near the front of the stage. A couple of strings of Christmas lights dangling on the walls added a reddish glow as he blew that harp and slammed his foot onto the trembling wooden stage maybe four inches off the cement floor.

The smell of after-shave, marijuana and sweat filled up the club. My feet found themselves in a puddle of beer. Cigarette butts floated. I steadied myself by the purity of the sound. I’d heard blues before -- mostly in Seattle, but not this close and nothing like this. The travelers who played the Northwest in the late sixties were mostly solo acts that didn’t match this intensity. This was the real dirt.

There was a white guy up there pounding a piano, it was probably Bob Lohr, although I wasn’t asking for anybody’s name that night. Years later, Lohr told a story about his time at the Soul Brother.

Back in those days there was a white supremacist military organization called the Minutemen. One night we’re in there playing and we hear this big boom. White people lived not more than a few hundred yards from there, and they did not like that place. So we walk outside and there’s this giant crater, smoking. And somebody says, I just got back from Nam -- that’s what we call incoming mail.

Somebody had shot a mortar shell and missed the club by, oh, about 200 feet. Now that’s a rough joint. You hear about the chicken wire, but I’ve never actually heard about a place where they shot a mortar to try to blow it up. I’m a kid, I’m laughing.

I was a kid, too, that night at the club in the seventies, laughing with a 50-cent Budweiser in my hand. I don’t remember chicken wire; a Minuteman certainly did not shoot at me although I do remember it being odd that nobody wanted to park out in the big parking lot, all the cars huddled near the club. I don’t remember looking out there but had I looked closely in the dark, I might have seen a crater.

I do, however, remember the sound that came from that stage: the real dirt.

By the third or fourth round of whiskey in Oregon, decades removed from the Soul Brother, my companion, Jeremy Segel-Moss, guitar player for the Bottoms Up Blues Gang, had relaxed and become philosophical. The buzz of names ebbed away as the wind calmed and a full moon broke out behind drifting clouds. My East Side story over, I asked a question:

So is there such a thing as the St. Louis sound? You always hear about the Chicago blues and the New Orleans sound, what about the St. Louis sound?

The question turned out to be one I came to ask many times over the next couple of years. I didn’t know it that night but the bar on the Oregon coast wasn’t long for this world. Not because of the pounding waves or the Pacific storms, indeed, the building always held up well. No, the doors of the place, a club owned by my wife and myself, was locked once the Great Recession spilled its economic venom over the little business, emptying the pockets of the customers and shutting the vaults of the banks. We sold off the range and the fryers, the plates and the silverware, put the keys to the locks and drove out of the little town, heading the wrong way on the Oregon Trail to the Mississippi River.

What is the St. Louis sound?

Jeremy’s answer was the first one I’d heard and rings in my memory like the harp of Doc Terry:

It’s something you don’t realize until you leave town -- it’s what we don’t play, he said. He used as examples the Soulard Blues Band, a mainstay of the St. Louis scene since 1978, and two harp players, the Delta-infused Arthur Williams and city native Eric Southend McSpadden.

When you listen to Soulard or Arthur Williams or Eric, these guys leave a lot of room and they don’t waste anything, he said.

He then mentioned Bennie Smith, a man who learned guitar on the North Side from Ace Wallace and in turn taught Ike Turner (and Jeremy Segel-Moss) how to play.

With Bennie Smith -- even when he’s playing a lot of notes -- there’s this space -- there’s that pause -- the way we use the space -- we break different because we have a funk influence, the East St. Louis groove and we have ragtime, too, remember. Ragtime came from St. Louis and those ragtime breaks are off time and not expected, not always where they usually are -- that’s what makes us who we are in a lot of ways.

The unexpected. Like Handy, throwing a tango rhythm into the middle of The St. Louis Blues, a decision that had more to do with making it the most recorded blues of all time than its lyrical finesse. Or when Lonnie Johnson decided in 1927 to play a single-string solo on his guitar. Or when Miles Davis put his East Side roots into the album Kind of Blue and made jazz cool. Or the new sound a pair of St. Louis cats brought to an old country tune in a recording studio in 1955 that gave the team of Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson a prominent and permanent seat at the head table of rock and roll creators.

Segel-Moss continued: Another thing -- because we have never really had an industry we don’t fight each other, we just play. You’re not going to fight over stealing something that doesn’t exist.

In New Orleans, where his band plays about a third of its gigs, you are fighting over industry, you’re fighting over visibility. There are so many musicians carving up the pie.

He spoke next of the players who were on top when he started in 2001.

They didn’t have the attitude that you were out there stealing anything -- as long as you treated them with respect they taught you anything they knew.

You take that and you add the fact that the pretense just doesn’t exist -- or when it does it’s so obvious and visible and so out of place -- so easy to spot -- like your ego is so big. It’s the young hipsters or the guitar masturbators -- the guys that are way too loud or playing out in front of everybody. It’s just not there at all in the best of the bands -- like Soulard; there it’s all about working together.

He mentioned another name I’d never heard of, a band few people outside St. Louis know, a band without a hit record or a regular tour or a national label or a booker or a public relations staff or a corporate logo -- the Rough Grooves Band, led by a guitar player, Rich McDonough, who plays his own version of Albert King’s bent-string blues.

You take a band like Rich’s band. That band is trained to not play over each other -- they are all support staff at one time or another, whether it’s Rich or Eric (McSpadden) or Sharon (Foehner) taking the front. That’s an example of a St. Louis band -- in our town there are way more, way more instrumentalists and vocalists then trippy virtuosos, even if everybody steps up from time to time.

Because we had the R&B groups like Ike and Tina on the East Side and with the ragtime and everything else over a whole century of music, you end up with an unbelievable amount of sidemen who all know how to play with whoever they are with. And so when they get up to play with each other there is so much space, so much room for everybody -- so you have these jams all over town, every night of the week, and people can walk in there and you don’t have to tell them anything -- just the key -- not even that. Just call the song.

What we have in St. Louis is a town of highly educated musicians. If you are qualified it works and if you are really qualified you’ll be awesome and just walking over the sidemen like me. But that’s fine -- I can just recede and let these stars go. There’s a system for all of this and when somebody gets really excited it still stays in the framework, but it still sounds like it’s within the St. Louis style -- there is always that space.

As Jimmy Hinds said: You protect the groove at all costs.

After my wife Marilyn and I cast our hook into St. Louis I was struck immediately by the great divide between the white culture and African Americans. A line was drawn in the cement down the middle of the city. On the North Side of the line stood a desolate, decaying urban neighborhood of neglect, where pockets of courageous black residents fought a battle against trends that had been present throughout the city’s history.

As I began to understand these forces, a sudden explosion thundered out of the suburbs north of town. A white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in a place called Ferguson, one of the towns in the maze of municipalities that seemed to exist only for the purpose of retaining the old days of Jim Crow America.

The spark from Ferguson blazed across America and made me more determined to put a microscope to this city of St. Louis.

I had already begun to read things and hear things. I found a lot of things that were virtually unknown among the people in St. Louis, historical secrets, perhaps, or historical amnesia.

I found that just as much as the music, racial conflict was at the very heart of the city.

The history of the St. Louis civil rights movement, a generally peaceful attempt to use voting and organized protest to make changes, began before the First World War. A group made up of equal numbers of blacks and whites in 1910 formed the St. Louis Committee for Social Service Among Colored People. The group came out of a reform movement that had uncovered poverty and deplorable living conditions in the city’s downtown districts.

In the thirties, the movement spread its fight to racial discrimination in department store lunch counters and other public facilities, some of the first such protests in the United States. The fight continued against job and housing discrimination during the Second World War, into the fifties and sixties as part of national civil rights actions, and into the violent reaction that followed the events in Ferguson in 2014.

A 1948 Supreme Court decision outlawing housing discrimination came out of St. Louis. The 1963 Jefferson Bank protest was one of the most successful job actions in the nation, resulting in the hiring of 80 African Americans in white-collar jobs and launching the careers of both the liberal congressman William Clay and the black activist Percy Green.

A deadly race riot had ripped through East St. Louis in 1917, a riot that led to the rise of the NAACP. That first Committee for Social Service morphed into the Urban League. The lunch counter protests spread across the South. Blacks in St. Louis were given the vote as early as 1896 and black politicians made several attempts to legally challenge the system that led to destruction of their neighborhoods in 1939, 1949 and 1959.

During the long struggle rights organizers, both black and white, ran head on against a group of industrial, banking, business and real estate interests. Some of the tycoons were part of organizations once called the Big Cinch and now called Civic Progress, white men whose wealth and power dominated the city since the eighteen hundreds.

Also at the heart and soul of this city at the confluence were a series of notable events that shaped its character, events that reflected an apparently unstoppable desire to party.

The World’s Fair of 1904 was such an event, one that lives into the present. President Theodore Roosevelt called it stupendous, rushing around the grounds for 10 hours, covering 10 miles on foot, stopping to gaze at several hundred exhibits; a World’s Fair that spawned the modern Forest Park, larger than New York’s Central Park, a park with a free zoo, a major art museum, a history museum, a science center and the largest outdoor theater in the nation.

There was also the joy in the heroics of Charles Lindbergh, whose biggest worry after the first solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis was remembering he’d forgotten to bring along any money on the trip.

St. Louis saw the opening in 1894 of what was at the time America’s busiest railroad station and its residents celebrated heartily, dressed in the their best clothes to pack the new Union Station.

It has the tallest national monument and when the Gateway Arch was finished the bands played and the citizenry danced. It was the home of the men and women who produced more bullets than any other city during World War II and when the war ended the streets filled with cheers and beers.

Its engineers designed the space capsule that sent the first Americans into space. It opened the first high school for African Americans in the West and ordained the first black Catholic Bishop in the country.

Beer maker Adolphus Busch was the first manufacturer to pasteurize his brew. The city built the nation’s first skyscraper, the largest Japanese Garden outside Japan, and the world’s first climate-controlled geodesic dome.

St. Louis history is also a story of a city crazy about baseball, of the National League Cardinals, the American League Browns and the Negro League Stars, of a World Series showdown in 1926 between Grover Cleveland Alexander and Babe Ruth, a city that marched through the streets after 11 World Series victories, cheering its ballplayers and the giant Clydesdale horses with equal vigor. It is also the place where of one player, Curt Flood, changed forever the employment status of major league players and of another, Mark McGwire, who broke home run records while juiced on steroids.

It, too, has seen several deadly tornadoes, 1896, 1927, 1959, killers of hundreds that shaped the city with destructive swaths of terror that swept in from the prairie.

It is also the story of songs -- St. Louis Rag, St. Louis Tickle, St. Louis Breakdown, St. Louis Cyclone Blues, St. Louis Fire Blues, Stranded in St. Louis, Meet Me in St. Louis, St. Louis Yesterday, St. Louis Daddy, Johnny B. Goode, Johnny B. Bad, Baby Please Don’t Go, Every Day I Have the Blues, Maybellene, Rescue Me, A Fool in Love, The Cheater, Night Train, Rock and Roll Music, River Deep, Mountain High, Let’s Have a Natural Ball, Born Under a Bad Sign, and Gentle on My Mind.

St. Louis was founded on a cooperative effort between the French and the Osage in the middle of the eighteenth century, then conquered by the Anglos, the Virginians and the slaveocracy in 1803, then was shaped, reshaped and formed again by a clash of culture and attitude that has touched three centuries.

Somehow, perhaps inevitably, these clashes and conflicts created an underground music scene that flourished for the benefit of its citizens, avoiding the hot light of corporate control. Never did a music industry grow in St. Louis that became big enough to swallow the individual, either on the stage or in the audience. Some see this as a shame, as a flaw. Others stand in the shadows and grin, waiting for the next set to begin. Some don’t want outsiders to know about their city. Others bemoan the lack of understanding beyond the city limits.

Some say geography is destiny. If so, St. Louis’ location at the crossroads of the country -- the meeting of the North and the South, the East and the West, city and country, the Mississippi and Missouri -- was destined to retain a spirit of diversity in a country that elsewhere was often pushed by its elite into little boxes, all in a row. But the destiny had to be lived, worked for, capitalized on and achieved.

Even with all the obvious diversity in its music, even with a mature civil rights movement standing by, even with progressives at every level, true integration escaped St. Louis. In politics and in the economy the city remained sharply divided by race as Darren Wilson’s bullets flew in Ferguson. The Civic Progress moguls, the coal companies, the beer barons, the redlining banks and their real estate allies left blacks out of the mix, weakening the whole. Neighborhoods emptied and buildings sagged and fell into heaps of bricks.

Still, however, stands the music, found nightly, affordable and diverse.

In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote of his teenage years in East St. Louis, talking of fellow performers on both sides of the river who were taught to play a solid, forceful, clear note. No rapid reiteration or alternating notes, no hesitation, no fear. He was warned by his teachers to stay away from the big band tradition, to avoid the Harry James technical gymnastics. The lessons took hold and Davis found other players in town who played this way.

All of the trumpet players from St. Louis at that time played like that, he said, we had what I used to call ‘that St. Louis thing.’


The Founding: The French and the Osage


The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use, the word ‘new’ in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently retain the impression that there is nothing old about it.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

There are a lot of misperceptions about St. Louis -- one being that the city is located at the center of the United States. Not so. It is 2,054 miles due west of San Francisco on the Pacific and 948 miles due east of Atlantic City on the Atlantic. Due north to Hurley, Wis., on the Canadian border, is 617 miles, south to the Gulf of Mexico just below Houma, La., is 725 miles by land. New Orleans is 677 miles by highway but over 1,000 miles along what Mark Twain called the crookedest river in the world. Dead center USA is in fact Lebanon, Kan., 507 miles west of St. Louis.

St. Louis sits 12 river miles south of the place where the Missouri River and the Mississippi River meet, join and begin to flow together to the Gulf. The combined waterways of these rivers, known as the Mississippi-Missouri River System, is the fourth largest river in the world, over 3,900 miles long. This confluence was well known to European explorers long before the Feb. 15, 1764, founding of St. Louis and to many nations of native people who had walked onto the continent from Asia thousands of years before.

Pierre de Laclede, the Frenchman who founded St. Louis, chose his spot primarily for its location near the confluence. He also liked the rocky, two-mile-long bluff that ran parallel to the river. Here were plenty of mature trees, freshwater springs and a grassy prairie. He was also pleased that no one lived on the land. Unlike many of his fellow Europeans, he was not anxious to displace natives. He was a merchant, not a military conqueror and knew he needed the cooperation of the local tribes to make money.

At the spot he chose, the big and often wicked river runs calm and deep, moving quickly through its channel at an elevation about 450 feet above sea level. This is the very spot where the majestic, steel Gateway Arch was finished in 1965, its big feet dug into the limestone bluff. The southern foot sits at just the spot where Laclede built his first house. The Arch, however, is no monument to the French founder. It is a monument instead to the American president who engineered the purchase of the city nearly 50 years after St. Louis began.

That president, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, had a different attitude about the West than the Frenchman, but he, too, knew the value of the location. He could read maps very well and saw that in addition to its proximity to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers it was also near where the Mississippi meets the Illinois River, about 40 miles north, and the Ohio River, 200 miles south. All told, this was a location capable of linking Canada, the Great Plains, the Caribbean Sea and Pittsburgh. Here, too, sat a proven trading center, a city with a stable, educated population, a place much coveted by the president.

Officially, the Arch is part of what is called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. An extensive exhibit on Jefferson’s 1803 deal with the French (the Louisiana Purchase) was contained in the Museum of Western Expansion, which until 2015 was located in the base of the Arch. The walls there were lined with written and pictorial information of the military exploration under the leadership of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lt. William Clark of the land purchased by the United States.

Lewis was a Virginian who as a militiaman helped put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 then became an aide to Jefferson, living with him after he was elected president. Clark, another Virginian, spent the Revolutionary War fighting tribes that supported the British and was a veteran of the 10-year Northwest Indian War that lasted until 1795.

The venerable museum closed February 2015 to make way for a new facility, part of the CityArchRiver 2015 project, an overhaul of the whole Arch area designed to generate more direct contact with the rest of downtown. The museum update promises to bring modern, interactive exhibits to the facility. Mayor Francis Slay said the new museum will have more focus on St. Louis and our role in history.

An official said exhibits in the new space would continue to tell the stories of westward expansion and the Gateway Arch in modern, engaging and compelling ways.

Long before Laclede’s arrival in 1764, long before any European explorers arrived, a major Native American city, Cahokia, sat on the east side of the river, directly across the narrow passage from where the Arch now gleams in the sun. For centuries, that native city was the largest urban center north of Mexico and the main settlement of the Mississipean people, the united tribal groups that spread from the Mississippi south to the Gulf of Mexico and east to the Atlantic Ocean. Cahokia was founded as long as 3,400 years ago, and by 1200 its population reached 15,000 people, comparable to London or Paris at the time. It took until 1830 for St. Louis to catch up to that population level.

By 1803, Native Americans were gone from Cahokia. European America, which included African slaves, was well established as the next big thing on the continent. By then, the Europeans, led by the Virginia Anglo-Americans, were well on their way to the establishment of the economic juggernaut called the United States of America. The native populations across American were already on the brink of annihilation -- shot, sickened and surrounded.

Cahokia’s decline can’t be blamed on the steamboats, the railroads, the industrialists, the land speculators or the slaveocracy. The Mississippian capital was in decline by 1300 and was gone a hundred years before explorers from Spain arrived along the river. In fact, the environment got away from the early Indian culture -- too much hunting for food and rampant chopping down of trees for heat were the major mistakes in Cahokia, causing erosion that made it impossible to grow the maize necessary for survival.

After the native city was abandoned, only a series of 80 man-made mounds were left for twenty-first century visitors to gawk upon. The Spaniard Hernando de Soto arrived at the river in 1540 but was promptly wiped out by the Chickasaws in the Mississippi Delta. In 1673, the Frenchmen Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet traveled downstream from Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Arkansas River, about 400 miles south of where St. Louis now sits, before returning north. Nine years later, Robert de La Salle, another Frenchman, went all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed all the land drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for the Sun King, Louis XIV, who needed many livres to build Versailles. New France was thus born.

Next up, in 1700, a group of French Jesuits established an outpost where the River Des Peres (River of the Fathers in French) meets the Mississippi (The Great River in Ojibwe) 10 miles south of the Arch. This is a piece of flat land inside the present St. Louis near the new River City Casino and a decayed strip of antique stores, bars and abandoned chemical plants once the city of Corondelet (settled 1797). The first French arrival was just a year after Pierre Le Moyne de Iberville landed way down yonder at the mouth of the river. In 1718, New Orleans was established 100 miles upstream.

The priests at the River Des Peres lasted only three years before skedaddaling downstream after trouble with the Indians. The French, already established to the north in Canada and always looking for products to sell in Europe, were persistent, establishing a more long-lived presence beginning in 1720 by building a fort on the east side of the river about 45 miles south of today’s St. Louis in an area called the American Bottom.

Here was also a town, Kaskaskia, the Jesuits established in 1703 after leaving the River Des Peres. The nearby Fort de Chartres, the French administrative headquarters in the Illinois Country, was the last of three eighteenth-century forts by that name erected near the Mississippi River by France’s colonial government.

From 1720 to 1763 the French were centered at the forts, built successively on or near the same site. The last stone fort, built in the seventeen-fifties and abandoned in 1771, has been partially reconstructed to provide a modern glimpse of life in Illinois under the French regime. Nearby Kaskaskia didn’t fare as well, it was wiped out by a flood in the nineteenth century and in 2010 sported a population of 14.

The fort was still there in 1763, awaiting the arrival of the man who changed the Upper Mississippi forever. Pierre de Laclede was from a mountain province in the deep south of France, the second son in a family of landed gentry. Born in 1729, he grew up in a whitewashed mansion that featured a stone tower, the prosperous town of Bedous at the confluence of two rivers, 1,500 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Pyrenees. His family, a part of the French nobility since 1385, operated a gristmill turning corn into flour. His mother died when he was four. His father was an attorney and his two uncles were doctors. Laclede was raised by nannies and aunts and learned independence in the mountains.

As a teenager, Laclede worked with his grandfather cutting down trees for the French Navy. He attended Jesuit school in Pau, the provincial capital, enjoying the theater and absorbing the culture of eighteenth-century France. He excelled as a student and when he was 17 moved to the much larger city of Toulouse, where he won a fencing competition that netted him an ornate sword he carried with him the rest of his rather short life.

Laclede then served in the local militia. He was on track to become an attorney like his father but found he was not interested in following the legal profession. He was an outdoorsman at heart, growing up in the trees and on the rivers. But he knew he stood little chance of getting his hands on his father’s land, the law gave all the inheritance to the first son. And thus, like many second sons in the European nobility, Laclede decided to head to the New World. He chose to sail from La Rochelle, a teeming port on the west coast of France, heading for New Orleans.

He was lucky to leave in 1755. By doing so, Laclede avoided almost certain capture in the Seven Year’s War, which had already broken out between Britain and France. And upon arrival in New Orleans, his sharp sword at his side, he found immediate engagement in the Louisiana militia, gearing up to do battle with the British in American version of the European war -- the French and Indian War.

His regimental commander was Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, who became his patron and business partner, the man who obtained the monopoly that led to the fur trade in St. Louis, to Laclede’s success as a Mississippi River merchant and to the city’s eventual status as the leading urban center of the West.

Laclede was also lucky in love. Maxent introduced him to Marie Therese Bourgeois Chouteau, who had married the tavern owner Rene Auguste Chouteau when she was 15. They had a child, but Chouteau promptly abandoned her and sailed back to La Rochelle.

Marie soon took up with Laclede but was unable to get divorced. Even so, they formed a lifelong bond as strong as any marriage, flaunting convention and parenting four children in six years, all carrying the Chouteau name. Her eldest son, conceived with the tavern owner, was Auguste Chouteau, a man who became one of the great figures of St. Louis history, a co-founder of the city who lived until 1829.

The French did not do well in the war. Spain and Britain divided North America at the Mississippi. New Orleans in 1763 was a shambles, economically depressed, crippled by a British sea blockade and dependent on dwindling handouts from Versailles. But plans were afoot to revive New Orleans by exploiting the raw materials that lay up the river. Maxent, the most successful trader of Indian goods in New Orleans, was granted exclusive trading rights with all the Indians living west of the Mississippi.

He had the capital to establish a new trading center that would replace Fort de Chartres and before the war ended he sent Laclede, Chouteau, now just 13, and a group of traders up the river to find a spot for the company headquarters.

That place was the bluff atop the limestone across the river from the old Cahokia city.

Laclede and his five-boat armada arrived at Fort de Chartres in November 1763 after 85 days of struggle against the Mississippi current. Kaskaskia then had the largest population in what was called the American Bottom, with about 675 people, including 246 black and 75 Indian slaves. Three miles away another 650 Indians lived in their own village. On the other side of the river about 450 people (counting slaves) were living in Ste. Genevieve.

Laclede could tell at a glance that these bottom areas were in danger of flooding. He moved his men and cargo into the fort. He stored the cargo and in December he and Chouteau got into an open canoe and paddled 60 miles upriver to the mouth of the Missouri. When he saw mud gushing from the western river, he paddled back downstream to the limestone ridge they had passed on the way up.

Chouteau wrote years later that Laclede was delighted to see the location (and) did not hesitate a moment to make the settlement there that he envisioned. The traders came back in February, carrying Laclede’s plans for the new city. They landed at a spot just below the current Walnut Street and began to build the first European city on the site.

And here it still sits, the grid of its downtown built on the plan Laclede drew up that winter. Centered by Market Street, nine blocks were laid out in each direction from the center, with the short streets running east and west. Three long streets ran parallel with the river north and south. Market Street still runs up the middle of the city just as it did in Laclede’s plan.

For reasons lost in the fog of history, Laclede named the place St. Louis after the fairly unsuccessful crusader, Louis IX, the only canonized king of France. Louis had failed to conquer the Arabs in two crusades, had spent several years in captivity, but was known for expelling the Jews from France and expanding the inquisition against those he saw as heretics.

St. Louis is the oldest permanent city in the West (Ste. Genevieve washed away later on and was rebuilt on a different spot).

Not a single Native American was displaced to build the initial city. The settlers saw considerable evidence of previous habitation, especially many mounds, including a 32-foot giant at the north end of the bluff. But these were leftovers from the Cahokia period, when a suburb of the main city across the river had been there, abandoned centuries before.

St. Louis was a city founded without a priest and without the military. The Osage helped dig the cellar for the first house and no tribesmen were infected with disease. The Osage controlled 100,000 square miles to the west and southwest and were eager partners in Laclede’s fur trade. They had been stockpiling goods all during the recent war and now saw a way to sell them.

Laclede did not ask the Osage to bring the goods to St. Louis, nor did he establish a military post to protect the city. Instead, he sent traders west into Osage country, where Indian tanners had prepared the bear and deerskins that would be shipped first to St. Louis, then to New Orleans, an arrangement that benefited the Crescent City as well as St. Louis. Maxent became a rich man, the natives (at least for a time) prospered. As did St. Louis, which for the period before the United States takeover in 1803 was a unique city with a unique culture.

Colonial St. Louis fell through the cracks of authority. After losing the war, the French no longer owned the western side of the river. The British agreed to allow their allies, Spain, to run everything formerly French west of the river. Spain’s interest, however, lay in New Orleans where a big remodeling job was done on the French Quarter, adding the distinctive wrought iron everywhere. The British had their hands full with a colonial rebellion that began in 1775. Thus the St. Louis locals, the French, were allowed to do whatever they wanted, getting plenty of help from their Osage trading partners. The Americans were fighting the hated enemy of France, Great Britain.

In The Founding of St. Louis: First City of the New West, University of Missouri-St. Louis historian J. Frederick Fausz maintains that St. Louis is the real city on a hill built by Europeans in the New World, creating a far freer society than the English settlers did in New England. He maintains that in St. Louis, the founders avoided harsh corporeal punishments, witch-hunts, pulpit harangues, and Indian massacres. He argues that the early residents of St. Louis did not need a Mayflower Compact to build a civilized nation; instead the French brought their civilization with them.

In St. Louis, he says, there was a hearty pursuit of earthly pleasures that has met opposition from generations of self-righteous citizens. The settlers played billiards at all hours, danced on Sunday, celebrated every holiday they could think of, did without a church for the first six years and without a priest for the first eight, consuming large amounts of rum and wine, gambling and gamboling.

They did not care about the secret of Laclede’s non-marriage. They did not care that their first leader was not married to the mother of his children, or that the second leader, Auguste Chouteau, was not related to his mother’s lover and housemate. Most of the early inhabitants of the city were French men from other parts of North America. Many of those men married Osage women and many had several children. No one looked askance, except the British across the river or the soon-to-arrive Virginians from the East.

The pelts filled the canoes. Millions went down the rivers to St. Louis then on to New Orleans, then on to France. The English were astounded that even though they had won the Seven Years’ War, the vanquished libertine, lazy French, under the non-rule of the Spanish, were recovering so fast economically.

Laclede built a second house in 1768, and eventually deeded the property over to his stepson Auguste Chouteau and the four Chouteau sons he had fathered. Laclede had to constantly fight against British poachers on his monopoly and faced cutthroat British and Americans who undercut the tribes with guns and purposely spread disease. Laclede loaned money and borrowed money and his finances grew more and more tangled. His accounts were ripe with IOUs. He reduced his trading and decided to tend to St. Louis. He took over a gristmill on Mill Creek with borrowed capital from Maxent he couldn’t pay back. He lived on his good will not his cash.

Laclede died in 1778, age 49, on the river traveling home from New Orleans. He owed more than he was worth. Maxent, meanwhile, had become the richest man in New Orleans, building several lavish homes. After Laclede’s death, Auguste Chouteau bought the old gristmill at a public auction and eventually made enough money to pay Maxent back.

Around St. Louis, a series of towns supported the fur trade -- St. Charles, Florissant, Bridgeton and Corondelet. By 1804, the St. Louis District had grown to a total population of 9,373 (which included 1,497 free and slave blacks). A new Ste. Genevieve and New Madrid were also established by 1800 to the south. In St. Louis itself many white residents were living in high style, with houses made of stone and decorated with furniture and other finery imported from Paris. The city attracted European-born citizens including doctors, lawyers and merchants. Many of them brought libraries as large as 3,000 books, including volumes banned by the Catholic Church.

Marie Chouteau lived until 1814, the Mother of St. Louis. Her legacy was one of wit, will, strength and common sense. She was the maternal instinct of the town. She made wise investments from money she had kept separate from Laclede. When she died all but one of her children was still alive and she had 52 grandchildren and 69 great grandchildren. The family dominated the western fur trade throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, led by Auguste, his brother Pierre (born in New Orleans in 1758); Pierre’s son, Auguste Pierre, known as A.P., born in St. Louis in 1786; and Pierre Chouteau Jr., A.P.’s brother, born in St. Louis in 1789. These men controlled the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, sending trappers to the Columbia River and joining the business empire of John Jacob Astor.

In St. Louis relatives named Soulard, Carre, Gratiot, Cabanne, Labadie and De Mun had considerable influence. The Chouteau family extended around the world. Marie insisted on prenuptial contracts and business alliances sealed with marriage, extending the family wealth into the twenty-first century. Her pelt princesses -- a long line of Chouteau wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, and granddaughters -- took her tough business acumen wherever they went on down the generations.

The Revolutionary War had come to the city’s doorstep at the Battle of St. Louis in 1780 when British-paid tribal warriors attacked from the north. But the town was defended, largely due to information from the Osage allies. August Chouteau, running the city on behalf of his mother, was no lover of the American revolutionary cause, but was an even bigger enemy of King George.

He was unable, however, to stop the tide of change that started after the 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the Revolution. He couldn’t protect encroachment against the Osage and was forced to deal with the newly empowered Virginians on the other side of the river. There was a moment of hope that the Americans would not gain control of St. Louis when it was learned in 1802 that the Spanish had returned control to France. Chouteau had been an admirer of Napoleon, but the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi was promptly sold to Jefferson and nothing was ever the same.

Chouteau continued his personal success, however, always able to improve his position in negotiations, be it with the Osage or the string of Virginia presidents of the early American governments. He built a new house on his land near the river and surrounded it with a 10-foot wall. He helped Lewis and Clark expand the Jeffersonian Empire of Liberty. He became the unofficial banker of most of the fur trading companies in the West. He laid the ground for his city to supply the settlers heading into the prairie. He was a justice of the peace, a judge in the Court of Common Pleas and a member of the Legislative Council of the Missouri Territory. He died in 1829.

The sale of St. Louis to the newly minted United States came following 15 years of turmoil after the French Revolution. The general Napoleon was at the time much distressed by a slave rebellion in Haiti and increasingly hamstrung by mounting war debts. He made a deal with Jefferson selling the 828,000 square miles to the United States for $15 million. In 2012 dollars that converts to $233 million -- about 42 cents an acre.

And thus European rule ended and St. Louis went over to the United States on March 10, 1804, a day when French, Spanish, and American flags flew. You can be sure some drinking was done that day in St. Louis, but it wasn’t a happy one for the French citizens. Two months later, Lewis and Clark, the military men from Virginia who were camping across the river, set off to explore the land purchased from Napoleon.

The Osage word for Virginians was Long Knives and the tribes had a single word for Virginia lie, meaning a promised policy the person had no intention of keeping. In the eyes of the tribes in North America, the Virginia lie was the standard practice of the government all over the continent. For 32 of the first 36 years after the Revolution, the President of the United States was from Virginia. Jefferson, who served from 1801-1809, saw the alliance between Chouteau and the Osage as a major threat to the expansion of the American West and his vision of an agricultural society of small famers. The Osage, after all, had the land, at least for the moment.

He promised that he was a father and friend of the tribes but at the same time informed his military officers to use commerce to coerce them. He urged his western governor, William Henry Harrison, to see to it that Indian leaders go into debt to white traders, then take land as repayment. He told Harrison to go slowly while America built its military wing and once the military had strengthened, he wrote, the United States would shut our hand to crush them. When he saw the Osages weakened by attacks from other tribes he told them they better take up farming like the American settlers did. And after Lewis and Clark found beaver on land the U.S. now owned, the Osage were no longer needed commercially and were therefore doomed.

Lewis became governor of the new Louisiana Territory in 1807, headquartered in St. Louis. Just three months into his term, he suspended trade with the tribe and said they would no longer enjoy protection. He bid rival tribes to attack them and then bought 52 million acres (half of Arkansas and all of Missouri) for one-sixth of a cent per acre. Lewis died just two years later, at age 35, an apparent suicide in a remote cabin in Tennessee.

It was not long before New Englanders and other East Coast settlers began arriving in St. Louis. When the city was incorporated in 1823, the clearing by the river was still predominately French but change was well underway. As the nineteenth century progressed, thanks in a big part to a government river-dredging project overseen by a young Robert E. Lee (of Virginia), the settlement attracted thousands of immigrants looking for ways to make money at the edge of the frontier.

The remains of the Indian tribes on the western side of the Mississippi gradually disappeared. By 1872, the Osage were all pushed out of Missouri, a state that went into the Union in 1820 as a part of the southern slaveocracy. The Osage were driven south and west into what was then called Indian Territory and is now Oklahoma.

The reminders of the past were washed away under the surge of new people arriving from all over the world.

By 1899, the Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis said that the Indian mounds that had been such striking and remarkable features of the landscape in the neighborhoods of St. Louis, and that had so impressed all the early visitors to the place were now all gone. The growth of the city has obliterated all traces of the artificial earthworks of a prehistoric age, but they gave St. Louis a permanent appellation, it said. That nickname was Mound City, but even that once permanent appellation, has too been washed away.

By 2013, there was still Mound City Shelled Nut Co., Mound City Psychological Services, Mound City Screw Products, Mound City Auctions and the Mound City Bar Association. And we can’t overlook the Mound City Slickers, an old-timey band that still remembers the city’s history and plays dances around town.

In comparison no one in the city is likely to go a day without paying homage to Jefferson; the name is everywhere. Jefferson Barracks, Jefferson Avenue, Jefferson School, Jefferson Bank & Trust, Jefferson Animal Hospital,

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