County Executive's Blog

Jul 28

[ARCHIVED] A Look Back with the County Executive: St. Charles County's Beginnings, Part 1

The original item was published from June 22, 2021 2:19 PM to July 28, 2021 10:12 AM

Missouri celebrates its bicentennial this August - but did you know that St. Charles County is actually older than the state? Our beginnings go back to 1769 when Louis Blanchette settled in this area, which he called “Les Petites Cotes” - Village of the Little Hills. The settlement was later renamed “San Carlos Borromeo” in 1791 by Manual Perez, Spanish Lieutenant Governor to honor Charles IV of Spain with the name of his patron saint, Bishop Carlos Borromeo. St. Charles County was officially organized more than 20 years later.

The trickle of American settlers coming to the San Carlos District at the invitation of the Spanish authorities before 1804 became a steady stream after the Louisiana Purchase, and a river after the pacification of the hostile Indian tribes. United States administration and American political institutions completely replaced the Spanish administrative, legal and land-ownership systems. 

People in the District of San Carlos first heard that the United States had purchased Louisiana in the late summer of 1803, and Upper Louisiana was turned over to Amos Stoddard, the representative of the United States, on March 9, 1804. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took time out from their trip preparation to attend a lavish celebration in St. Louis marking the transfer. Since December, the pair had been assembling men and supplies at Wood River, on the east bank of the Mississippi river, for their expedition up the Missouri River. The Corps of Discovery broke camp May 13, 1804, and under Clark’s guidance proceeded to St. Charles, where they stopped to await the arrival of Lewis. On May 20 he arrived from St. Louis with Stoddard, Auguste Chouteau and other prominent citizens of the territory. Crewmembers Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche joined the Corps of Discovery in St. Charles, where there was a night of partying.  Next day they heard charges against several of the men, including John Collins who was charged, "1st. for being absent without leave,—2nd, for behaveing in an unbecomeing manner at the Ball last night,—and 3rdly, for Speaking in a language last night after his return tending to bring into disrespect the orders of the Commanding officer." Collins was found guilty on all charges and given 50 lashes.1 Charles Herbert, Etienne Malboef, Jean Baptiste Lajeunesse, Pierre Roy and Jean Baptiste Deschamps, all of whom resided in St. Charles, were boatmen for the expedition, while several of the other boatmen had ties to the community. James Mackay provided the expedition with some maps, while Dr. Seth Millington, a local physician, sold castor oil to the crew.2

While concerned with exploration of unsettled western land, President Jefferson also needed to ensure the transition of settled lands to American control. While he put William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, in charge of Upper Louisiana, he did not make it a part of Indiana Territory, since the Northwest Ordinance had outlawed slavery there. The president recommended to Harrison that the existing governmental divisions be retained, and the governor recognized the districts of St. Charles, St. Louis, St. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau, and New Madrid. Each of the five districts had a Court of Common Pleas, a Court of General Quarter Sessions, a probate court, and individual justices of the peace.  Jefferson commissioned Return Meigs, Jr. as commandant of St. Charles. He commissioned Francois Saucier, Arend Rutgers, Daniel Morgan Boone, Francois Duquette and Robert Spencer, “or any three of them,” to hold a Court of Common Pleas for the District of St. Charles.  Duquette leased the old Spanish fort in St Charles to the Court of Quarter Sessions for use as a jail. After President Jefferson appointed James Wilkinson governor, the territorial government began functioning on July 4, 1805. Jefferson also appointed Commandant Return Meigs Jr. of St. Charles, judge of the Superior Court, making him a member of the territorial legislature along with John B. C. Lucas and Rufus Easton.3

In addition to a new form of government, the French-speaking inhabitants of the St. Charles District were also educated in the spirit of American liberty. In 1808, attorney John Heth gave a “Fourth of July Oration” in St. Charles, explaining:

       We have met to celebrate a day in commemoration of the Independence of the United States of America; a day on which the goddess of liberty waved in the air with hilarity, the glorious banner of liberty, the workmanship of the gods; a day on which the fair daughters of America rejoiced with gladdened hearts, in concert with their protecting patriotic heroes; a day in which Great Britain was seen in sackcloth and morning (sic): a day the name of which alone palsies the highest mirth.”4

Several American settlers were more in need of patriotic speeches. Aaron Burr was disappointed when Rufus Easton showed no interest in his conspiracy to create an independent country in the transappalachian region. There is evidence, however, that Joseph Blennerhasset of St. Charles County attempted to recruit several associates from the county for the unsuccessful plot.5            

Congress established a Land Commission to validate land titles, nullified all land grants made after Oct. 1, 1800, and sanctioned the use of force to remove unauthorized settlers from the public land. These measures were a real threat to the French ruling elite, who immediately petitioned Congress for changes. Rufus Easton explained in a letter to the president that the petition did not represent the wishes of the general public, but only those of a small group seeking confirmation of questionable land claims. Two factions emerged concerning the land title question. One faction supported Governor James Wilkinson, and included the territory’s French inhabitants and the Americans with the largest Spanish land claims. Edward Hempstead of St. Charles was one of the leaders of this group, known as the “Junto.” Thomas Hart Benton, who arrived in St. Louis in 1815, joined Edward Hempstead and built a law practice around the defense of technically defective Spanish land titles. Benton filed suit in 1817 on behalf of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, seeking to establish good title to certain lands also claimed by recent American arrivals Andrew Wilson and Uriah Devore. The opposing group was composed almost entirely of Americans who had arrived since the purchase, including a group of young and energetic American lawyers who sought advancement through land speculation, as well as politics. One of them was David Barton, who arrived in St. Charles from Tennessee in 1809. He had close ties to St. Charles, residing there for several years and serving as judge from 1815 until 1818 in the circuit that included St. Charles, St. Louis and Washington Counties. Another was Edward Bates, who came to Missouri in 1814, practiced law with Rufus Easton, was the younger brother of Territorial Secretary Frederick Bates, served as prosecuting Attorney for the circuit that included St. Charles County, and became a political opponent of Edward Hempstead.6  

After their successful return, President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis territorial governor, and William Clark Indian agent for the territory. It took Lewis over a year to arrive at his post and, when he committed suicide in 1809, the president replaced him with Benjamin Howard. That same year, the push for second-class territorial status began, and Congress made the Territory of Louisiana the Territory of Missouri in 1811, thus avoiding confusion with the recently admitted State of Louisiana. Congress authorized the voters to elect a territorial legislature composed of a House of Representatives and a Council. John Pitman and Robert Spencer represented the people of the District of St. Charles in the 13-member House of Representatives. The House nominated eighteen citizens, from which the president chose nine to serve on the Council for five-year terms. Benjamin Emmons III and James Flaugherty represented the District of St. Charles in Council. Voters elected Edward Hempstead the territorial delegate to Congress in 1812.7

The pace of American immigration to St. Charles County picked up after the Louisiana Purchase. As these settlers came into contact with Native American tribes, the primary concern of the territorial government became public safety, as the residents of scattered settlements in St. Charles County were in constant fear of Indian raids. When Sac and Fox warriors killed some settlers in northern St. Charles County, tribal leaders turned over one of the guilty warriors and asked Governor Harrison to pardon the other three, and release a fourth on a technicality. These negotiations, deeply rooted in the custom and tradition of the “middle ground,” were opposed by the military commander of the regular troops in the district, who demanded that the crimes be prosecuted. Nevertheless, Harrison, whose main concern was the cession of Indian lands, obtained a presidential pardon for the Indians. He also negotiated a treaty with a delegation from the Sac and Fox tribes, who ceded a vast area between the Mississippi, Illinois and Wisconsin rivers, as well as a sizable portion of their hunting grounds on the west bank of the Mississippi River, which included all of the present Missouri counties of Ralls, Pike, Lincoln, Warren and St. Charles, along with parts of Marion, Shelby, Monroe, Audrain, and Montgomery counties. The treaty stated, “As long as the lands that are now ceded to the United States remain their property, the Indians belonging to said tribes, shall enjoy the privilege of living and hunting upon them.” The 1804 Sac and Fox Treaty contained other contradictory statements, and some tribes contended that the delegation did not have the authority to cede the land.8

At this early stage, the inhabitants of the St. Charles District and vicinity were not at war with the tribes, but the tribes were at war with each other, and American settlers sometime got caught in the middle. In spite of a treaty signed in St. Louis in 1805, hostilities continued between the Osage and a confederation of Algonquian tribes led by the Sac and Fox. Indians killed one French and nine American settlers in the District of St. Charles between 1805 and 1808. The governor threatened to cut off all trade and supplies for the Osage, but the situation did not improve. With worsening relations between the United States and Great Britain increasing the threat of Indian attacks from the north, the federal government worked to ensure the loyalty of the Osage to the west. The Superintendent of Indian Trade sent an expedition, under the leadership of George Sibley, to set up a new trading post at the mouth of the Osage River in 1808.9 Sibley was under orders from Washington to, “Be conciliatory in all your intercourse with the Indians and so demean yourself toward them generally, and toward their chiefs in particular, as to obtain and preserve their friendship and secure their attachment to the United States.”10   

William Clark and a company of dragoons from the District of St. Charles under the command of Nathan Boone began an overland march to join the expedition at the proposed trading post. When the party arrived at their intended destination, the Missouri Gazette reported, “It is with heartfelt pleasure that we announce the patriotism displayed by the St. Charles troop of horse, a few days ago; they offered their services to accompany General Clark up the Missouri, in order to protect and assist in the building of the intended Fort.”11 A treaty was negotiated in which, in addition to other sessions, the Osage ceded all lands north of the Missouri River. When war came against the British and Indian tribes to the north, the treaty guaranteed the security of the left flank of the Missouri settlements.12

Governor Lewis also placed the militia on a war footing, ordering the enrollment of 41 riflemen, and construction of a series of blockhouses, in the District of St. Charles. He stationed the 3rd Regiment of the Territorial Militia in St. Charles, under the command of Colonel Timothy Kibby.  The governor’s policy was not as successful along the Mississippi River, where he had to dispatch volunteer companies of militia to relieve the garrison at Fort Madison. As early as 1805, the Sioux had suggested a confederation of ten Indian nations that would unite with the British to defeat the “white devils.” The British declined to join the proposed alliance until war broke out between Great Britain and the United States in 1812.13        

The prophet Tenskatawa and his brother Tecumseh had, for several years, been carrying on a desperate war against the American settlers in the Wabash region in what is now Indiana. Indian attacks on the frontier were becoming widespread by 1809, and the people of the St. Charles District had learned that Tenskatawa was inflaming the tribes against the American settlers. Settlers remained on edge and, in 1811, Governor Howard traveled to St. Charles as part of an inspection tour to select sites for further fortifications in the event of war. When the war came, local residents receive the news with mixed feelings. Meeting in St. Louis and St. Charles, they adopted a series of unanimous resolutions supporting the war, and calling upon the national government to supplement local military resources. The Sac, Fox and other tribes in the Mississippi River country, made common cause with the British. Under the leadership of Blackhawk, their base of operations was on the upper Mississippi River near the mouth of the Rock River. Companies of rangers formed in St. Charles County and proceeded to the northern frontier of the state. Secretary of State James Monroe commissioned Nathan Boone to command one of the companies.14 The biographer of Nathan Boone notes, “In July 1812, the editor of the Louisiana Gazette hailed Boone’s Rangers as ‘Spartan Warriors,’ who deserved well of their country. However, had an Indian army moved into Missouri, Boone’s Rangers would have needed to be Spartans to stop them, because as late as June 6, only 241 regular soldiers were stationed on the Mississippi.”15 Court records indicate none of the witnesses could appear at a trial that same July, “thro fear of Indian hostilities.”16

Since Congress had given the territorial governor the power to organize counties in those areas cleared of Indian title, Governor William Clark organized St. Charles County on October 1, 1812, making no mention of northern or western boundaries. A year later, the first territorial legislature fixed those boundaries to conform with the 1804 Sac and Fox Treaty – a line on the Missouri River beginning opposite the mouth of the Gasconade River, and extending due north to the Mississippi River. The legislature also provided, “That if the Indian title shall be extinguished to any land bordering on the north or west of the county of St. Charles, in the recess of the General Assembly, it shall be the duty of the Governor for the time being by proclamation to annex the same to said county – and the territory so annexed shall, to all intents and purposes be within the limits and compose a part of the county of St. Charles.”17

1.“The Missouri Reader, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, Part I,” Ed By Helen Devenau Finley, MHR, Volume 42 Issue 3, April, 1948, 249

2. Peg Tucker, “A Rendezvous with America’s Future Greatness,” Times Past, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1984, 14. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 18, 2004, Metro Section; Jo Ann Brown, “New Light on Some of the Expedition Engages,” We Proceeded On, August, 1996, 19.

3. 1885 history 125; Banner-News, December 17, 1948; Foley, A History of Missouri, 1683-1820, 88-89. Return Meigs Jr. previously served as a judge in the Northwest Territory and chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.  He later served as a governor, a United States senator and postmaster general of the United States. Ibid. 98-99.

4. John Heth, “Fourth of July Oration,” Gazette, August 2, 1808, cited in Francies L.McCurdy, “The Genius of Liberty,” MHR, 334.

5. Dennis J. Hahn, “Rufus Easton, Attorney, Public Servant, and First Postmaster,” St. Charles County Heritage, February 27, 2000, 4; 1885 history, 208; Banner-News, March 1, 1934.

6. Foley, A History of Missouri, 1683-1820, 94.  Rufus Easton was also appointed the first postmaster of St. Louis and served in that capacity from 1805 until 1814. Primm, Lion of the Valley 115; History of St Charles County, 206-207; “Three Missouri Statehood Fathers,” MHR, January 1980. 267; Cain, Lincoln’s Attorney General, 7, 19.     

7. When the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Charles 132 days after its departure,  Lewis and Clark were guests at the home of Basil Praulx.  Gregg, “A Brief History of St. Charles,” 1. See Daniel T. Brown, Westering River, 207; 1885 history 186-188. Benjamin Emmons III, senior member of the first Council, was a native of New England, while James Flauherty was a native of Virginia.  John Pittman had gained fame as a colonel in the 15th Missouri State Militia.  His family came from Pennsylvania, by way of Virginia.  The fourth member, Robert Spencer, was an early pioneer to the county and the first judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the District of St. Charles. Ibid.  

8. Place Names, Western Manuscript Collection, HSM; Foley, A History of Missouri, 1683-1820, 92; Daniel T. Brown, Westering River, 160; Foley, A History of Missouri, 1683 to 1820, 94; Flynn, St. Peters at its Best, 34.

9. 1885 history 150; Hurt, Nathan Boone, 54.

10. Hurt, Nathan Boone, 54-55.

11. Ibid., 59.

12. Ibid., 76.

13. Ibid. 78. Richard White, Middle Ground, 512.

14. Hurt, Nathan Boone, 79-81. Tenskatawa rose to power after 1809 by exploiting the hostility that had been developing and resurrecting the doctrine of the common ownership of land.  He threatened village chiefs with death for their cessions to the Americans and preached a return to the old ways. Richard White, Middle Ground, 18. Foley, A History of Missouri, 1683-1820, 152; 1885 history, 96.

15. Hurt, Nathan Boone, 91.

16. William Thompson v. Jacob Coons, February 1811, St. Charles County Circuit Court Records.  

17. Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, Missouri and the Missourians, Vol.1, (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company 1943), 219.