Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Reenactment of St. Louis founding offers informative glimpse into city’s past

John Lin | Student Life

A reenactor plays the violin by the Gateway Arch on Saturday, Feb. 15, as part of a mock encampment commemorating the city’s founding 250 years ago.

A colorful crew of living history portrayers gathered near the Arch grounds to reenact the founding of St. Louis Saturday. Although deterred by wind and temperatures in the 20s, the modest encampment managed to draw a small crowd, inviting children and adults to step back in time briefly as they tried their hands at blacksmithing, log hewing and various other activities.

Whether they were retired fighter pilots, curious sixth graders or hospital nurses, all those who participated in the festivities shared a common belief in the necessity of keeping these narratives alive.

Many referenced the importance of not repeating the same mistakes made in the past while also pointing out the iterative nature of human history.

Tom Connor, a nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and a participant in the reenactment, hoped that through his participation, he could help children in attendance take pride in their city and appreciate its history.

“You have to learn from what was there. If you tell the story to young kids about what happened here, [it] actually builds their pride in [the city] where they live,” Connor said. “We thought it was something that needed to be brought out for the children as they were growing up so they would know what happened here before them.”

Others were simply passionate about the subject. Stuart Carol was attending the Association of Teacher Educators conference nearby at the Hyatt Regency when he stumbled upon the encampment during his lunch break.

“I love stories and am interested in social theory and how the world works,” Carol said. “I always thought history was like sociology in motion. How social forces act on people and affect how they act in response fascinates me.”

Behind Carol, a small group of spectators huddled into a small white tent. Inside, there sat a motley mosaic of older gentlemen in Viridian coats, camel breeches and a few tricorn hats, although several simply wore nontraditional red beanies.

Beside the entrance, Brooke Brown, a sixth-grader from Overland, Mo., tried her hand at a flintlock rifle as a spirited colonial jig was danced to the tune of a wizened trapper’s fiddle outside.

“It felt very cool, pulling the trigger back and watching it spark. It was a bit heavy though,” Brown said.

“If you had an Indian coming after you, you would be dead before you had your gun loaded,” Brown’s grandmother joked.

The absence of a portrayal of natives and the use of the term “Indian” in the language of spectators and portrayers hinted at a troubling psyche toward the indigenous that perhaps has not changed even after decades of reformation.

John Murphy, who portrayed Alex Picard, appeared to use similar language as he explained the things a history portrayer cannot understand.

“What we can’t really understand is the experience of living under the constant threat of being attacked by Indians in addition to other factors such as the lack of medical knowledge,” he said.

Murphy, a Chicago native who has lived in St. Louis for many years, explained that the city was named after Saint Louis because Auguste Chouteau, the founder of St. Louis, considered his mission similar to the saint’s crusade against the “Muslim infidels.”

The founding of St. Louis is just one episode in the larger narrative of western expansion and indigenous displacement of U.S. history, which can be a difficult one to teach to 9- and 10-year-olds

The story that is told tends to involve a pioneering action followed by friendly economic relations with natives. In reality, the full narrative is more than just these two acts, with the third being war and social relocation.

This two-act structure was echoed by Murphy.

“St. Louis was an open city. Anybody that would work, produce and keep the peace was welcome. The Indians were good here. The Osage were good. They were capitalists, like all of us, so they were doing furs and bringing furs to Chouteau,” Murphy said.

This is often where the story ends.

Saturday marked the 250th anniversary of St. Louis and festivities are underway. Hundreds of custom-decorated cakes have been planted around the city. Throughout the year, the city will feature talks and other live performances of Chouteau’s founding. But in the undertow, Saturday also marks more than 250 years since the beginning of a difficult past.

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  • Merry Matchmaker says:

    FYI, Native Americans were instrumental in the physical construction of St. Louis, both as slaves and free workers.

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  • deb cole says:

    enjoyed learning more; even if it may not have proper vernacular, due to individuals raised in various ways….

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878