Home >> Spotlight >> What’s a sestercentennial? Here’s a hint: Saint Charles is having one

What’s a sestercentennial? Here’s a hint: Saint Charles is having one

By: Brian Birdnow


Don’t look now, but Saint Charles, that tree-rich city nestled along the Missouri River and, incidentally, Missouri’s first capital, is celebrating its 250th birthday.

The city traces its origins and development to 1769 when Louis Blanchette, a fur trader of French-Canadian ancestry, established a settlement he called “Les Petite Cotes” or “The Little Hills.” And it is that anniversary that the city is celebrating with a two-day festival, May 18 and 19, dubbed “Saint Charles, an Adventure 250 Years In the Making.”

Main Street Saint Charles [Photos courtesy of the Saint Charles County Historical Society]

Community celebrations

The event kicks off at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 18 with a parade featuring 25 floats bringing to life some iconic moments from each decade of the city’s history.

“It’s a living timeline of Saint Charles history,” explained festival director Ryan Cooper.

The parade follows the same route as the city’s annual Fourth of July parade: Stepping off from Bales Park and proceeding south on N. Main, right on Tecumseh, left on N. Second, left on Clark and right on N. Main.

“We also have a nod to the old Lewis & Clark Heritage Days Festival that used to take place along the riverfront in May. So, we have many of the reenactment and demonstrator groups that were involved with that set up along the river and teaching people what life was like back when Saint Charles was a Spanish territory and a French territory,” Cooper said. [Spain ruled the region when Blanchette founded “Les Petite Cotes,” following France’s defeat in the French & Indian War.] “Demonstrators, including basket weavers, dulcimer players, candle dippers, things like that, will be in the back yard of the First Missouri State Capitol so visitors can get a taste of what early life in Saint Charles was like.

“We’re also doing little scenes on the street. For example, we might have a scene about abolitionists, who worked along Main Street to end slavery during the Civil War, taking place in front of one of the buildings that was iconic to that fight.”

Cooper listed several other scenes and explained that the goal was to celebrate not only the major figures in Saint Charles history but also its common men and women.

“We’re also going to celebrate Saint Charles sporting history with vintage baseball games taking place both days, all day long in Frontier Park [provided the river doesn’t rise too high],” Cooper said.

A schedule of all the events will be available on discoverstcharles.com. Festival hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday, May 18 and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday, May 19.

In addition to the two-day celebration, Saint Charles is celebrating the sestercentennial with statues of Seaman, Lewis & Clark’s Newfoundland dog, planted around the city. A map to Seaman’s location is available on the city’s website [stcharlescitymo.gov] under the “250 Years in the Making” tab.

Also available on the city’s website is a link to a “flat Lewis and Clark,” coloring page that young and older residents alike can print out, color and take on their adventures in the city in 2019.

Photos taken at any of the city’s events or with Seaman or Lewis and Clark can be shared via social media using the hashtags #stc250. And don’t forget to share with Mid Rivers Newsmagazine on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Finally, the Foundry Art Centre will present an exhibition of local architectural and artistic works celebrating the community, entitled “250 Years of St. Charles.” The celebration kicks off on July 26 with a public reception from 6-8 p.m. and continues through Sept. 13.

Main Street Saint Charles

Saint Charles then and now

When Blanchette set up his village by the little hills in 1769, the region was under the nominal jurisdiction of the Spanish government, although the residents were primarily Native Americans and French-Canadian trappers and fur traders, with a small number of drifters and adventurers thrown in for good measure. Blanchette served as the military and civil governor of the territory until his death in 1793.

During the chaos and upheaval of the Napoleonic Era, Saint Charles passed from Spain back to France in 1800, and, ultimately, to American rule with the famed Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The formal transfer of power came in spring 1804.

The town quickly became a jumping off point for the exploration, and eventually the settlement of central and western Missouri. Boone’s Lick Road, running alongside the Missouri River offered easy access to fertile farmlands in the region that came to be known as “Booneslick Country.”

The American takeover of the region also resulted in the Anglicizing of the town’s name from San Carlos to Saint Charles in 1804.

William Clark arrived in town on May 16, 1804, with 40 men. Meriwether Lewis arrived four days later and their Corps of Discovery Expedition set sail on May 21. Saint Charles was the last established American town the exploring party would see for over two years.

A local “Newfie” poses with one of the many statues of Seaman scattered throughout Saint Charles. [Instagram photo]

The early national period saw Saint Charles grow by leaps and bounds. The city was incorporated in 1809. Missouri achieved statehood in 1821, and the legislature decided to build a capital city in the center of the state, named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. However, the project would take time to develop, so a temporary capital was necessary. Saint Charles, offering the inducements of free meeting space for the legislature above a hardware emporium, bested eight other cities for the honor of becoming Missouri’s capital city. The building is preserved today as the First State Capitol State Historic Site, where government continued to meet until 1826.

The next period of growth for Saint Charles followed the immigration path, paralleling the country, at large. Gottfried Duden, a young German writer, visited the area in the 1820s and wrote glowing descriptions of the Missouri River valley, comparing it the Rhine River valley. He praised the soil, climate and general culture of the area to his readers. However, he had visited during an exceptionally warm period and, therefore, underplayed the severity of Missouri winters.

The result was widespread migration to Missouri by officially sanctioned German emigration societies, who set up shop in Saint Charles and as far west as Hermann, Dutzow and Washington, Missouri.

The German influence on Saint Charles and the Missouri Valley region is impossible to overstate. The Germans emigrants were very much opposed to slavery and supporters of the free-soil movement. During the bitter years of the late 1850s, they were unabashed supporters of abolition and strongly supported President Abraham Lincoln and the northern states, working to keep Missouri in the Union during the Civil War. The German cultural influence also spurred the development of the region’s wine and beer industries.

The Post-Civil War era saw Saint Charles return to its former self as a river port of some significance, and later as a rail center.

A continuing theme throughout the history of the Saint Charles area has been its rising population. The 1850 U.S. census put Saint Charles’ population at slightly under 1,500 while 2016 estimates have placed its population at roughly 70,000. Only twice – in 1880 and 1920 – did a census show decline in the number of city residents, and those declines presaged population booms in the next decades.

The city’s population quintupled between 1940-1990. Some of this growth undoubtedly paralleled the national experience of improved transportation networks and rising personal incomes giving boosts to large urban areas. Saint Charles claims the distinction of being the spot where Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system began construction in 1956.

The urban sprawl of the post-1950 period proved a boon to Saint Charles in terms of residents, wealth, political influence and other factors, but brought serious questions to the public attention, as well. Longtime inhabitants of the city readily welcomed the new suburbanites, but behind the cheerful façade, many wondered how, or if, the city would maintain its separate identity. Would Saint Charles remain a distinct enclave, with its own traditions, history and sense of community, or would it be swallowed up by the leviathan to the south and east?

Download a”flat Lewis & Clark” to take on your travels around Saint Charles; then, load your selfies to social media using the hashtag #stc250. [Discover St. Charles photo]

The next 250

So where does Saint Charles go from here? Prognostications of this type are never easy, and almost invariably inaccurate. Would anyone, looking into their crystal ball in 1960, have accurately foreseen the Saint Charles of today? That is very unlikely, and this improbability makes predicting the Saint Charles of the future increasingly difficult. However, there are several exciting projects on the horizon, some at the exploratory stage and a few much further along. Among those are the ongoing development of the Streets of St. Charles and the future development of Bangert Island, a multi-phase, multi-use project area located immediately east of the Streets of St. Charles and bounded on the south by the city-owned Family Arena.

Growing and adapting to meet the future needs of its residents and visitors is the city’s future, but for now, let’s concentrate on its glorious past. Happy birthday, Saint Charles!

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