Laclède and Chouteau Land at the Present Site of St. Louis, 1763, mural by Frank Nudersche. Courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri.
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Like the states east of the Mississippi,
Missouri has a colonial history, but unlike them, Missouri was never part of the British Empire. Instead, its European colonizers were French and Spanish, and they left a complicated legacy for the future state.
France claimed the Mississippi Valley following the explorations of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet and immediately established amicable relations with the Native people of the region. In the early 1700s, French missionaries and settlers from Canada and New Orleans began to colonize both sides of the Mississippi River, establishing the towns of Cahokia and Kaskaskia in present-day Illinois and Ste. Geneviève, Missouri. The habitants of the “Illinois Country,” as the French called the region on both sides of the Mississippi River, made a living by growing food for the French sugar colonies further south, mining lead, and trading European-made goods, such as pots, cloth, and guns, to Native Americans for animal pelts.
The most problematic legacy of the French regime was the establishment of colonial slavery in the region. French settlers brought enslaved Africans north from New Orleans. They also bought and enslaved Native American captives seized by their trading partners, the Osage. Káh-kée-tsee and Shé-de-ah were Wichita women who were taken captive by the Osage.
The Illinois Country had no large plantations, but enslaved people worked in all areas of French colonial life, including in the lead mines and fur trade.
Káh-kée-tsee, Thighs, a Wichita Woman by George Catlin, 1834. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Shé-de-ah, Wild Sage, a Wichita Woman by George Catlin, 1834. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Spanish Interlude
"An Original Spanish Land Grant” from the Historic Documents of Cape Girardeau. Courtesy of Cape County Archives Center.
Negotiations at the end of the French and Indian War left Spain in control of the west bank of the Mississippi. Few Spanish settlers came to the land that became Missouri, and thus the European population of the province remained largely French. During the Revolutionary War, Spain led the defense of St. Louis against a British-sponsored attack in 1780. Nevertheless, Spain struggled to attract settlers to the area and thus offered land to those who promised to be good Catholics and loyal subjects of the Spanish crown. Millions of acres were dispensed by Spanish land grants, including some of the best lands along the Mississippi River.
The Battle of St. Louis
During the Revolutionary War, Spain allied with France in aiding the United States against the British. Spanish governor Fernando de Leyba led the defense of St. Louis against Native American forces under British command.
“The Valle Brothers and the Ste. Geneviève Militia at the Battle of St. Louis, 1780” painting by Mitchell Nolle. Courtesy of THGC Publishing.
Did you know?
Paw Paw French, or Missouri French, is a dialect originating from early French settlers and was once widely spoken throughout eastern Missouri. It was spoken by hundreds of people in the area until the 1890s. Today it is considered an endangered language, spoken by less than a dozen people.