Ste. Genevieve gets National Park status

The Jean-Baptiste Valle House in Ste. Genevieve.

Years ago, when I was teaching Ozarks Geography, my students were frequently surprised when I mentioned the French colonial settlements along the Mississippi River as part of the historical narrative of the Ozarks. 

While French place names are frequent in the region, their impact on the region was somewhat limited, apart from specific places like Ste. Genevieve, which is one of the oldest permanent European settlements west of the Mississippi River.

Ste. Genevieve was founded in the 1730s by French Canadian settlers who moved across the river in search of better farmland. 

They established a 7,000-acre area in the river bottoms known as Le Grand Champ, or “The Big Field,” where the French farmed in common until a series of floods forced the settlers to move the settlement 3 miles to the northwest in the 1780s.

Main gate at Fort de Chartres State Historic Site, Prairie de Rocher, Ill.

For the first 50 years of its existence, Ste. Genevieve, much like its sister French colonies in Illinois, Detroit, New Orleans or Quebec, retained a majority of its traditional European culture, from its distinctive vertical log houses mounted in the ground or on timber sills (known as poteaux en terre or poteaux sur soles) to the traditional Roman Catholic faith, marked by the parish church in the center of the settlement.

It was also a multi-cultural society, with French and Spanish Europeans (Spain gained the west bank of the Mississippi in 1763) intermingling with First Nations, African slaves and a smattering of Americans like the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone, who fled to Missouri escaping creditors. 

Eastern Woodland Indians like the Shawnee and Delaware, as well as Americans like Boone, were allowed in to create a buffer against the Osage Nation to the west.

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the “Americanization” of the Upper Louisiana Country began, and Ste. Genevieve’s first culture was soon overrun by the new arrivals, along with a sizable number of German immigrants who arrived in the Mississippi River Valley in the mid-19th century, turning it into a typical Mississippi River town.

Ste. Genevieve was recently given a National Park status by the National Park Service, to help local historical societies and local governments preserve the remaining French architecture and culture that hides just under the surface of her building’s sidings. 

The creation of the park was formally announced in October 2020, just a few days after our visit.

The post chapel at Fort de Chartres.

The French settlements of the Mississippi River Valley helped outfit the earliest explorers of the Ozarks; William Marshall, who owned a factory, or store at Delaware Town along the James River just west of modern-day Nixa, Missouri, and frequently traded with the firm of Menard and Valle in Ste. Genevieve. 

The Valles were one of the founding families of the village, and its patriarch, Canadian-born Francois Valle, was the personification of Ste. Genevieve’s transformation from colonial village to American river town. His son Jean-Baptiste’s house is still standing today.

Like Henry Schoolcraft, the French priests and traders of the Illinois County gave us vivid descriptions of the landscape they observed. 
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John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie,” chronicles several accounts of these habitants of the tallgrass prairie they came across as they moved westward.

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