Ste. Genevieve – Europeans West of the Mississippi River

Ste. Genevieve Catholic Church, Kathy Weiser.

The 1876 Catholic Church in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2010.

In 1793, the old Ste. Genevieve Catholic Church was disassembled from the first townsite and moved to present-day Ste. Genevieve. In 1831, the vertical log church was replaced by a stone church on the same site. In 1876, construction of the present church began around the stone church and the stones from the former church were removed. The 1876 church continues to stand displaying its clock tower and steeple that rises 193 feet above the street level and houses four massive bells that chime throughout the day. It continues to serve a congregation today.

In 1800, the population was estimated at 1,163 of which, 350 were African American and mulatto. Ste. Genevieve’s importance began to decline after the Louisiana Territory passed to the United States in 1803 and St. Louis became the area’s major port and commercial center.

One of the most important events in the early nineteenth century was the establishment of the Louisiana Academy. This institution may have been the first public school west of the Mississippi River. The Academy was organized in a meeting of subscribers in September, 1807. Father James Maxwell was chosen to be chairman of the Academy’s Board of Trustees. From the beginning, Maxwell planned an academy in which instruction was given in both French and English. The Academy began instruction in 1810 and not only welcomed area settlers, but, also Native American and black students. Today, the building continues to stand as a private residence.

In 1812, Missouri became an official territory with a governor and general assembly. The County of Ste. Genevieve was established as one of the five original territorial districts. In the early years of the town, before the formation of an island on the western side of the Mississippi River, boats could moor at the foot of the town streets. In 1817, the steamboat Pike tied up at Ste. Genevieve.

During these years, Ste. Genevieve experienced moderate growth as Anglo-Americans and Germans located in the community. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the French-speaking population and the French language were losing their hold on the city and new buildings were erected in American and German styles. A sizeable influx of Germans into Missouri began in the 1840s with a German settlements concentrated in an arc along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, including the cities of New Madrid, Cape Girardeau, and Ste. Genevieve. It was during this period that the most recently built French vernacular dwelling, the Jean Baptiste Birke House, was built in 1846.

The first major effort to diversify the community’s economy beyond farming occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. Enterprising local investors viewed the town’s future as linked to the mines located further west. If efficient means could be developed to bring products of the mines to the Mississippi River in Ste. Genevieve, the town could develop as a major river port. In 1851, construction of the Ste. Genevieve, Iron Mountain and Pilot Knob Road was begun. Completed in 1853, the 42-mile long thoroughfare was the longest plank road in the United States. It had five toll gates and was used primarily to haul iron ore; however, other materials transported included marble and granite from quarries, and agricultural products. For a brief period, Ste. Genevieve became a major Mississippi River port, serving as the shipment point of the products of the mines to the west. Just four years after the road was completed, it was made obsolete by the completion of the Iron Mountain Railroad, which, unfortunately for Ste. Genevieve, diverted much of the produce and traffic to St. Louis.

Bauvais-Amoureux house Sainte Genevieve MO

The Beauvais-Amoureux House was built in 1792 by Jean Baptiste St. Gemme Beauvais,
Jr. overlooking le grand champ, the agricultural fields of Sainte Genevieve. The home was constructed in the French creole vernacular post in ground (poteaux-en-terre)
manner that was common in the 18th century in Ste. Genevieve.

By 1860, the majority of heads of households in Ste. Genevieve were of German birth or ancestry. A significant minority (34.8%) were Missouri-bom French, with the remainder of the population consisting of Anglo-Southern whites, a smaller number of northern whites, and enslaved and free African Americans. The large proportion of French and German residents differentiated Ste. Genevieve from the surrounding countryside and nearby communities. In these areas the overwhelming majority of the population was Anglo-Southern in origin.

With the Emancipation, any enslaved African Americans who remained in Ste. Genevieve were freed. Several African American communities developed in and around the town. The only such community still represented by standing buildings is that on St. Mary’s Road in the vicinity of the South Fork of the Gabouri Creek. Two residences remain from the community at  309 St. Mary’s Road and the Brooks House at 311 St. Mary’s Road. Both are two-story, wood-framed vernacular house types placed on raised foundations, and both were erected during the second half of the nineteenth century. A third property historically associated with the African American community is the Lincoln School on Washington Street. This school, built in about 1860, served as the community’s only African American public school between about 1894 and 1929.

For much of the second half of the nineteenth century, Ste. Genevieve’s economy continued to be dominated by agriculture. In 1876, the town boasted a grocery store, a watchmaker and jeweler, a banker, two boot and shoe manufacturers, a tailor, an attorney, a tin shop, a stove and tinware store, a dressmaker, a general merchandise store, and a hotel.

In 1876, work began on the construction of the present Gothic Revival Catholic church. Services continued in the earlier rock church as the new brick building was built around and over it. The rock church was eventually dismantled, but its foundation is still visible in the present church basement. The new church, which still dominates the skyline of the city, was dedicated in 1880 and cost $24,000 to build.

A review of advertisements in an 1879 issue of the local newspaper, The Fair Play, listed additional businesses including John L. Bovarie’s drygoods store, Joseph Vorst’s People’s Hack Line, C.W. Hamm’s Clothing Store; the Ste. Genevieve Livery, Feed, and Sales Stables; Leo Jokerst’s Union Hall, a saloon and a dancing hall; as well as a number of professionals including several attorneys; real estate agents; a surveyor; druggists; a dentist; a physician; two barbers, a painter, and an architect.

By the 1880s, Ste. Genevieve sported several industrial businesses including the Ste. Genevieve Brewery, Cone Mills, and a barrel maker. In 1894, local businesses included three meat markets, three saloons, two bakeries,  two cobblers, a blacksmith, a wagon shop, two grocery stores, a jeweler, a drug store, two restaurants, a notions shop,  four general stores, a livery, harness shop, a furniture and cabinet shop, an agricultural implements warehouse, a hardware and tin shop, a lumber yard, a barber, an undertaker and more. The city also boasted two hotels – The Southern Hotel and Meyers Hotel. Civic buildings included a post office, the county courthouse and jail, a public school, and an unfinished Catholic school building.

An 1897 letter to the editor of the Ste. Genevieve Herald stated: “Without a railroad, Ste. Genevieve must pass into history, a relic of the past”. This deficiency was rectified at the turn of the century when the Illinois southern Railroad, constructed in 1901. This line, which later became part of the Missouri-Illinois Railroad, provided service into the Lead Belt area of St. Francois County, west of Ste. Genevieve. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad established a line along the west shore of the Mississippi River and connected Ste. Genevieve to many cities to its south. In 1904, the Illinois Southern Railroad began operating a ferry at Little Rock Landing north of Ste. Genevieve to carry railroad cars across the Mississippi River to Kellogg, Illinois. The transfer ferry operated until 1961. The landing was also used for river transportation of the city’s products.

In 1900, the city had a population of 1,707. In the first decade of the twentieth century the population grew to 1,967.40, primarily driven by the expansion of the lime industry, including the establishment of the first large-scale lime production company in the community. However, agriculture remained a preeminent part of the economy of Ste. Genevieve and vicinity in the first decade of the twentieth century. Commercial facilities included two flouring mills, two cigar factories and an ice plant. Beginning in the 1920s, industrial and population growth of the city increased again when four lime companies established operations in and around Ste. Genevieve. The growth of industry necessitated the growth of housing. Neighborhoods that had been platted decades before were developed with houses in then popular styles and forms, such as the American Foursquare and the bungalow. by 1930, the number of residents had increased to 2,662.

Ste. Genevieve ferry

A ferry still operates on the Mississippi River in Ste. Genevieve. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The railroad continued to be important in the 1920s and 1930s. A 1932 report indicated that “excellent passenger service: was maintained on the St. Louis-Memphis branch of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad. Passenger service was provided by all-steel coach, diner and Pullman cars drawn by oil-burning locomotives. Four passenger trains stopped daily in Ste. Genevieve and freight service was provided by six daily trains, three in each direction.

The Great Depression slowed both the economic and population growth of the city. Due to the economic downturn and labor strife, the city’s limestone producers were forced to consolidate. During the 1930s, the population increased to 2,767.

With the end of the Second World War and the return of veterans to their home communities to find civilian jobs and start families, the population growth of the city again accelerated. The 1950 population was 3,992. To accommodate this growing population, the city expanded its boundaries southward and new subdivisions began to be developed. The largest employment sectors were manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, communications and other public utilities. Agriculture, the historic mainstay of the city’s economy, employed less than two percent of its residents.

Today, a visit to Ste. Genevieve is a step back in time, where visitors may visit French-Colonial homes, a museum and downtown historic district filled with unique specialty shops, cafes and restaurants, antique stores, and art galleries. The city is called home to about 4,500 people.

Ste. Genevieve Tourism
66 South Main St.
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri 63670

Source: National Register of Historic Places
Multiple Property Documentation

Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

Also See: 

The Mississippi River and Expansion of America

Missouri (main page)


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