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The Pilot

The Student News Site of Principia College

The Pilot

From medieval France to Cahokia, Principia sits in a region with deep roots

Story by Rhyan du Peloux
Art by Ivander Ortiz-Gil

You walk out on the bluffs and, to enjoy the view, sit on a wooden swing bench that overlooks the mighty Mississippi River. The panoramic view is spectacular, a squirrel squeaks nearby, a massive barge hums dully. If you cast an eye over the other bank, you will probably glimpse a discreet church tower, slightly on your left. This church is located in the small village of Portage-des-Sioux, whose rather unusual name bears witness to the French-Native American history of the region.

Not only does that rich history may help us understand Principia’s surroundings better, but it may also help us reflect on our values and our perceptions of the past. “History is important because if we’re able to understand where we came from, we will have a better idea of where we’re going,” says junior Marc Trinidad.

From well-known Cahokia, where 20,000 people lived in the 13th century, making it one of the biggest Native American cities in North America, to Père Marquette State Park, named after a 17th-century French missionary and explorer, both Native and French heritages permeate the Greater St. Louis area.

While not founded until 1764 by Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, the city of St. Louis has a history rooted in medieval Europe. Saint Louis, indeed, was a king who ruled over France from 1226 to 1270. He was known as Louis IX before the Catholic Church canonized him in 1297. “A lot of the reasons why he was considered a holy person in his own time is because of his devotion to charity and to ideals of humility,” says Julie Singer, associate professor of medieval French literature at Washington University in St. Louis. 

Records and artworks present Louis IX as a very mindful king, eager to help the poorest as often as possible. “He clearly had an idea that Christian behavior, as he understood it, was service to your community,” says Singer.

In France, many people know Saint Louis as the king who dispensed justice under an oak tree, a symbolic image that highlights his wisdom and solemnity. Nevertheless, today’s historians agree that this allegorical depiction does not necessarily reflect the entirety of his reign. “He repressed the liberties of Jewish people,” Singer says, “and thinking that he was following a directive from the pope, he had thousands of copies of the Talmud burned.”

How should history be perceived, then, when two sides of the same story seemingly conflict? What is taught in school or what traditions convey sometimes fail to reflect a more nuanced reality. “When you have a historical figure like Saint Louis who is well-known over centuries and centuries, I think people in every time see him in the way that resonates with themselves,” Singer says. “The simple fact that he wasn’t expelling the Jewish population could have been seen as liberal at the time, compared to what was happening in other European countries.”

Art by Ivander Ortiz-Gil. King Louis IX sits above a chimera, the mythical creature after which the Piasa Pub was named.

Last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death, history made the headlines as people questioned the legitimacy of statues spotlighting Confederate generals. After taking them down, many cities chose to place those controversial figures in local museums, in order to contextualize them, keep track of the past, and learn from it. 

In addition to the history of the Civil War, the debate pertaining to European colonialism is ongoing, symbolized in the Americas through the removal of Christopher Columbus statues. Local history indicates that the ways Europeans and Natives interacted differed depending on the time and the context.

The first Europeans who settled in Principia’s surroundings were of French ancestry. Some were born in Quebec while others hailed from western France (Normandy, Brittany, Poitou…). After passing through the Great Lakes and then following the course of the Mississippi River, they settled in the region in the late 1600s, early 1700s.

That part of what used to be called ‘Nouvelle-France’ resembled a sparse network of French settlements in Native American lands, “where the Clovis, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures successively occupied the region over 10,000 years,” says Andrew Martin, professor of anthropology and art history at Principia College. 

In fact, “a lot of their artifacts, like projectiles, are still around today; you can often find them in rises and mounds,” says Michael Towell, who works for facilities, and who has Native American ancestry. For Towell, collecting artifacts is a way to reconnect with his past.

 “The Osage tribe outnumbered the French in this region perhaps as much as ten to one,” says Geoff Giglierano, executive director of the Centre for French Colonial Life in Ste. Genevieve, MO. 

Such a numerical imbalance incentivized commerce and trade between the French and the Natives. “For the most part, the French in this region got along pretty well with Native tribes, such as the Osage and the Missouri,” Giglierano adds. Often, the Natives traded beaver furs for European goods, “such as cloth, metal, cookware, iron and steel tools, knives, and firearms.”

Besides such items, French and Native interplays resulted in an exchange of ideas and information, with habits and knowledge from both sides melding together. Giglierano further explains that “many of the French and French Canadians who came here married Osage women.” Because Osage women often oversaw business, these unions resulted in greater access to the local trading network.

In 1764, Pierre Laclède and his 13-year-old scout, Auguste Chouteau, established a fur trading post in what we now know as St. Louis. It remains unclear why Laclède and Chouteau decided to honor Saint Louis, Louis IX, in particular. “I think that, at least in part, naming the city after Saint Louis was probably a way to honor him as the patron saint of the French Bourbon dynasty,” says Singer, the professor of medieval French literature. 

In 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, the young United States bought most of New France from Napoleon. The French hold on territory officially ended, but persisted culturally. “It’s a reminder that the history of the region extends beyond its borders,” says senior Emma de Visme, who’s French.

Whether Native, African, or European, all those influences participated in building the America that we know today. “We can draw lessons from what they did,” says junior Delwys Glokpor. “History gives you a heritage, gives you roots, and you can draw inspiration from it to build the future.”

Principia College, in its Midwestern environment, is still surrounded by that rich history. Whether you go shopping in Florissant – a French word that means “flourishing” – or grab a shake at the Piasa Pub, whose name honors a Native American chimera, history is here. And learning about the lives of the peoples and individuals who made the United States that we know today is critical. “It gives me a connection to the land,” Andrew Martin, the Principia professor, says. 

“We miss out on certain perspectives when we don’t do that,” says junior Caroline Carlson.

Today, some values from the past do not resonate with us anymore. But just to understand the whole mindset of the time helps us root our perspectives. “There is always that phrase ‘History repeats itself’,” Carlson adds. “In order to get the positive to repeat, or lessen the negative impacts, I think it’s important to learn from the past.”

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