A 30-foot-wide view of St. Louis from 1875 is part of “Mapping St. Louis History,” an exhibition in celebration of St. Louis’ 250th birthday at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis has existed for only a fifth of St. Louis’ 250 years, but has been a treasure trove of information and resources when celebrating the city’s sestercentennial.

A journal by Auguste Chouteau, one of St. Louis’ founders, offers some of the only clues to the city’s start, and it’s counted among the vast holdings of UMSL’s St. Louis Mercantile Library. His family donated the papers to the Mercantile nearly 150 years ago.

“Chouteau’s hand-written account of the founding of St. Louis not only recounts an event that is at the heart of our city’s history, but the document itself is a starting point for all the published histories that have been produced about St. Louis,” says Julie Dunn-Morton, curator of the Mercantile’s Fine Arts Collection.

Fred Fausz, associate professor of history at UMSL, pored over the papers for his books, including “Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West.” Fausz’s name typically pops up in the news media each Valentine’s Day for his deciphering of Chouteau’s poor penmanship to determine St. Louis’ birthdate. Fausz says Chouteau wrote Feb. 15, 1764, and most academics agree while a few still claim it’s Feb. 14.

The fragile pages of Chouteau’s journal were displayed early this year, and the library loaned a page to the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis. View an online copy at Mercantile Library Special Collections. The Mercantile is the oldest library west of the Mississippi River and offers a large collection of historic books and documents. The facility and its collections were housed in downtown St. Louis before moving to the UMSL campus.

“I find the early journals and letters in our collections to be particularly fascinating, such as the journal of Edward Hempstead, clerk of the legislature of the Louisiana Territory, describing early procedures leading up to the naming of the Missouri territory,” Dunn-Morton says. “Also, the articles of the Missouri Fur Company and letters written by John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company tell so much about the economic processes of the region prior to and early in St. Louis history.”

Hempstead and the fur company appear in Fausz’s new book, “Historic St. Louis: 250 Years Exploring New Frontiers,” which UMSL published as part of the yearlong STL250 celebration. Fausz produced a historic feast with much to devour in the book’s 47,000 words and 174 images.

“Great illustrations, 57 in color, help interpret stories rather than being merely decorations,” he says. “I would be most pleased if my oversized ‘coffee table book’ was never left on a coffee table but read for enjoyment as well as education.”

In April, more than 150 historians gathered at UMSL to share that story. Presenters at the conference “St. Louis Metromorphosis: The Significance of a City Across Centuries” were a who’s who of St. Louis experts, including UMSL faculty members Priscilla Dowden-White, Louis Gerteis, Steven Rowan and Todd Swanstrom.

“We don’t unclog pipes or repair roofs, but we do share the joy of text – both reading it and writing it – in the belief that historical accuracy matters within and between every generation,” Fausz said in his kickoff speech.

Laura Kuehling, a UMSL student pursuing a master’s degree in history, says the conference addressed the city’s nationally significant past and challenged the audience to contemplate a progressive future. She enjoyed access to some of the top minds in history.

“History can sometimes be a solitary experience. Often we research, write and read alone,” she explains. “Interacting with other historians – prominent and amateur – reminds us that we are part of a larger pursuit to uncover and make sense of the past.”

St. Louis anniversary events at the Mercantile Library:

“Mapping St. Louis History”
Open through June 2015
Exhibit of historic maps, rare books and images tracking the city’s development and expansion over 250 years.

“St. Louis in its Golden Age, 1840-1880”
Open through March 2015
A speaker series honoring the founders of the Mercantile Library and the founding of St. Louis.
More information: umsl.edu/mercantile, 314-516-7240

Additional St. Louis history books of note by present and past UMSL faculty and staff:

“Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980” by James Neal Primm
“Auguste Chouteau’s Journal: Memory, Mythmaking & History in the Heritage of New France” by Gregory P. Ames
“Civil War St. Louis” by Louis Gerteis
“Groping toward Democracy: African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis, 1910-1949” by Priscilla Dowden-White
“From Neighborhood to Village: A History of Old North St. Louis” co-written by Andrew Hurley
“Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments” by Terry Jones

Public Policy Research Center’s “St. Louis Metromorphosis” series:
“St. Louis Metromorphosis: Past Trends and Future Directions ” edited by Terry Jones and Brady Baybeck
“Hidden Assets: Connecting the Past to the Future of St. Louis” edited by Richard Rosenfeld
“St. Louis Plans: The Ideal and the Real St. Louis” edited by Mark Tranel

This story was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of UMSL Magazine.

The UMSL Experience

Ryan Heinz

Ryan Heinz