Thanks to some sloppy penmanship, the residents of St. Louis aren’t quite sure whether their city turns 250 years old today or next month. Or maybe it was yesterday.
The city that gave us the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair, toasted ravioli, Maya Angelou, The Greatest Show on Turf, Nelly and the St. Lunatics, William Tecumseh Sherman, Jon Hamm, Miles Davis, Joe Pulitzer, Tina Turner, and, of course, Scott Bakula was founded by the French in 1764. The specific date of the Gateway to the West’s establishment remains the subject of conjecture, not because of a heated dispute among locals or the confusion of ancient calendars, but because of the most banal type of historical discrepancy imaginable: the fuzzy handwriting of a French businessman.
Auguste Chouteau was only 14 when he crossed the Mississippi River to help settle St. Louis. But it wasn’t until decades later, when he was the town’s most famous citizen, that Chouteau bothered to write about the founding of the city. Here’s a picture of St. Louis’ birthday as written by Chouteau:
Not only is it difficult to tell whether the date is “14” or “15,” but the original written month February was evidently scratched out and March was written over it. The latter issue has been dismissed by most historians. But the date has pivoted on history’s fulcrum ever since.
In 1964, when St. Louis threw a big bash for the city’s bicentennial, organizers chose Feb. 14. President Lyndon Johnson came to town. The Post-Dispatch splashed birthday greetings upon that day’s edition.
Since then, scholars who examined the original yet again have gone back to the 15th. Among them are Fred Fausz, professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Gregory Ames, retired former curator at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. They squinted at the way Chouteau wrote his 4s and 5s to come to their conclusion."
In proper Midwest fashion, nobody seems to be sweating the small stuff. This weekend will feature a blues festival, a re-enactment of the settling of St. Louis, a ball, and a lot of cake. One point of historical fascination that was touted ahead of this weekend was the 1904 World’s Fair, which remains a seminal part of the city’s legacy:
The exposition saw almost twenty million visitors during its seven-month run—about 100,000 a day. (On weekends, trains to the fairground left downtown’s Union Station on the minute.) The Fair offered an unparalleled economic boon to the city that had lost the chance to host the 1893 Columbian Exposition to its great Midwestern rival, Chicago. In 1904, St. Louis was the nation’s fourth largest city, centrally located on America’s two largest rivers, a rail and river hub that—according to the official Fair guide—claimed the biggest brewery, tobacco factory, cracker factory, and chemical manufacturing plant in the country; the largest brickworks and electric plant on the continent; and one of the grandest shoe operations in the world. The city also churned out hardware, drugs, saddles, white lead, jute bagging, hats, gloves, caskets, and streetcars. Its Union Station was the terminus of twenty-seven rail lines; its citizens read nine daily papers."
The fair also spawned both the song and film “Meet Me in St. Louis”
And then, there’s this: