In August of 1763, Pierre Laclede Liguest, partner in the New Orleans trading firm of Maxent, Laclede and Company drifted down the Mississippi from its intersection with the Missouri and Illinois Rivers, looking for a new trading post. He stopped at the first elevated site he saw on the west bank, where the river was overlooked by limestone ledges, and a sandy shore provided a landing place. George McCue writes, "Laclede thereupon executed the first St. Louis city plan, by notching some trees to mark building sites and streets." *
St. Louis was far from the first French outpost in the New World. The French had colonized Haiti and other Caribbean islands, as well as French Canada, before making New Orleans their primary settlement in the present day United States. Laclede's relocation to St. Louis was a successful bid to profit from the apparently unlimited resources of the American continent.
In February, August Chouteau, not quite 14 and Laclede's stepson, returned to the site with thirty men to begin construction of the new post. They laid out three north-south streets: La Grande Rue; Rue d'Eglise and Rue des Granges (now First, Second and Third Streets) and narrower east-west streets: Rue de la Tour, Rue de la Place and Rue Missouri (Walnut, Market and Chestnut). A one-story stone building with a high cellar was erected to serve as both Laclede's business and residence. The next block west was dedicated for a church and graveyard. (The Old Cathedral, built in 1834 still occupies this site.) A central public plaza for assembly and a public market was drawn up between Laclede's house and the river.
Laclede took up residence in the new village later in the year, naming it St. Louis in honor of Louis IX, patron saint of France. He subsequently enticed about forty French families from the earlier Illinois settlements of Cahokia and Kaskaskia to join him in the new village. Some came carrying doors and windows of their former houses to use in new ones.
These settlers were the more easily attracted since the Illinois side of the river had been ceded by France to Great Britain in 1763, and they were uneasy under English jurisdiction. But St. Louis had really been in Spanish control since the previous year, when France surrendered the west bank of the Mississippi with the Treaty of Fontainebleau. As Spain was considered a French ally, perhaps their rule seemed preferable to the English. In any case, it appears that the original village laid out by Laclede and Chouteau was planned in accordance with Spanish directives for new settlements, and that street widths and block dimensions corresponded to Spanish requirements. But it would be six years before Spanish officials reached St. Louis.
Culturally, the town remained French. Lots were granted freely to individuals, starting in 1766, on the condition that a building would be constructed and the lot fenced within a year and a day. Lots were granted adjacent to already occupied blocks for security, and owners enclosed their property with high walls of vertical logs (called palisades), creating a continuous defensive stockade.
By 1804, when the Louisiana Purchase made St. Louis part of United States territory, the village had grown from three east-west streets to nineteen, and its population from 40 in 1764 to over 1,000.
Most of the first residents of St. Louis made their living from the fur trade; however, provisions for the division of land for farming were laid out as early as the village itself. In a tradition which probably comes from Canadian settlements, a large tract of partly wooded land southwest of the village became the St. Louis Commons, and was shared jointly by all inhabitants. The land was used for cattle grazing, and timber was logged for building materials and fuel. Originally, the Commons occupied the area now bounded by 4th, Clark and 10th Streets, and Park Avenue, but increased in size along with St. Louis, eventually reaching the River des Peres seven miles away.
Five other tracts of land were set aside for agriculture. The first, the St. Louis Prairie, was laid out by Laclede at the same time as the village. It was located approximately in the area between Market and O'Fallon and 4th and Jefferson. The largest tract was the Grande Prairie, created about 1765. It was 2 miles northwest of the village and so far away that inhabitants could not make the trip there and back the same day, and constructed small huts for shelter. (Laclede had a country house there). Following European tradition, the land in these fields was divided into long narrow strips and assigned to individuals based on the amount of property they held in the village.