Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, A French Colonial Town In America’s Heartland

When we think of Colonial America, we generally think of the old parts of Boston, lovely New England port towns such as Marblehead, or Spanish colonial towns such as St. Augustine. America’s heartland has some colonial traces too. The best preserved and most distinct is the French colonial town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Located about 60 miles south of St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve was one of the first permanent European settlements in what is now Missouri. French settlers came here in the early 1730s. The first years were tough ones. The town was poorly situated on the Mississippi flood plain and often got soaked, leading the poor Frenchmen to nickname their town Misère, meaning “misery.”

The French were mostly from Canada and copied the architecture they were familiar with. Single-story houses had walls of vertical logs set into the earth and plastered in a style called poteaux-en-terre. A roof of wooden shingles extended past the walls to bring rain away from the house and a covered porch often ran all the way around the house.

Each lot was surrounded by a palisade of vertical logs to keep out the animals that strayed unattended around town. The tops of the logs were sharpened to keep out unwanted two-legged visitors as well. Inside each of these little forts was a yard, garden, barn and an outside kitchen, placed there to reduce the chance of a fire inside the house.

Ste. Genevieve did well as the center for the fur trade and many local farmers made extra income mining for lead and salt. When the region was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase it kept its French character. Even as recently as a hundred years ago some residents spoke French in the home.

As well as keeping their culture they preserved many of their distinctive colonial houses. While you won’t see buckskin-clad trappers hauling their loads of furs onto shore from canoes, or French farmers heading out into the uninhabited woods with a flintlock over their shoulder in search of meat for the pot, Ste. Genevieve retains a strong historic feel. Many of the original 18th-century homes are open as museums and are stocked with period furniture.

Ste. Genevieve makes a good day trip from St. Louis, and an even better overnight. Several 19th century homes have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts and the shopping district is well stocked with antiques and gift items.

Being a regional attraction means the town keeps a full events calendar, including occasional reenactments, so you might just get to see those French trappers and hunters after all.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum In Kansas City, Missouri


Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri’s rivers were full of steamboats. The state’s eastern boundary is delineated by the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River cuts right through the center of the state. Steamboats brought people, crops, and consumer goods across long distances much quicker than they could have made it on the crude early roads.

Steamboat pilots, including a young Mark Twain, had to have precise knowledge of the rivers because there were eddies, sandbars, and sawyers (sunken logs) ready to wreck their ship. If he managed to avoid all those dangers, the boiler could still blow up.

In 1856, the side-wheel steamboat Arabia was heading west up the Missouri River. The Arabia was a beauty. It was 171 feet long, could carry 222 tons, and had a reputation for speed, comfort and safety. That didn’t save her, though, and she hit the trunk of a submerged walnut tree. The log tore through the Arabia’s hull and she sank within minutes. Despite the speed of the sinking and the fact that there was only one lifeboat, the crew managed to get all the passengers safely to shore. Within a few days the boat was entirely covered in silt and disappeared, another of the hundreds of casualties on the river.

In 1987, the Hawley family led a salvage crew in search of the Arabia and found her. The river had shifted since then and the boat now lay half a mile from the water’s edge and 45 feet under a farmer’s field. A massive operation began to lower the water level, remove countless tons of earth, and carefully clean off and examine the ship and its contents.

%Gallery-162722%The wet silt had preserved the ship remarkably. The storage rooms were nearly intact, with boxes full of merchandise intended for frontier shops. There were cleaned, cataloged, and preserved and the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, opened to show off the amazing find.

This museum is an amazing snapshot of history. Every possible item imaginable is there: from guns and boots to toys and a complete printing press. There are even jars of preserves. Most of the passengers’ personal belongings sank with the ship and so we have complete outfits and luggage for the hardy travelers seeking a new life in the Old West. Large sections of the boat are also on display, including the paddle wheel and anchor.

Check out the gallery for a small sample of what this incredible museum has to offer.

Another steamboat has surfaced recently. Station WLFI reports that a long drought has lowered the level of the Missouri River enough that the steamboat Montana, sunk in 1884, is now visible at Bridgeton, MO. National Geographic has an interesting article on this steamboat, the largest ever to ply the Missouri, and its ironic end. It sank after running into a railroad bridge. Railroads were what eventually killed the steamboat trade.

Adventurer completes stand-up paddle of the Mississippi River

Adventurer Dave Cornthwaite completes stand up paddle of the Mississippi RiverBritish adventurer Dave Cornthwaite, who we first told you about back in July, has successfully completed his attempt to stand-up paddle the length of the Mississippi River, setting a new distance record in the process. Cornthwaite finished his journey last week when he paddled into the Gulf of Mexico, 82 days after he first hit the river.

Dave’s journey began in Lake Itasca, located in northern Minnesota, on June 19th. From there, he navigated out onto the river itself and started his voyage south, knowing that he had more than 2400 miles to cover before he reached his ultimate destination – the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, he faced some major challenges, including oppressive summer heat, swarms of mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, and a little tropical storm named Lee. As he neared his finish, he was also forced to contend with large ships and barges, which is not easy on a stand-up paddleboard.

Stand-up paddling is a sport that is quickly growing in popularity. Participants stand on a flat, narrow watercraft that is not unlike a surfboard and use a long canoe paddle to propel themselves through the water. In Dave’s case, the board was large enough to carry his travel and camping gear as well, allowing him to travel self-supported for days at a time. It is estimated that it took him 1.3 million strokes and 485 hours of paddling to complete the journey, which officially came in at 2404 miles in length.

With this adventure now over, Dave has already returned home to the U.K. where he is busy plotting his next expedition. The Mississippi paddle was the fourth stage of his Expedition 1000 project, during which he will be conducting 25 separate non-motorized journeys of 1000 miles in length or longer. He has already crossed Australia on a skateboard, kayaked that country’s Murray River, and ridden a tandem bike from Vancouver to Las Vegas. In the future, he plans to ride across Mongolia on horseback, paraglide through the Himalaya, and ski to the South Pole, amongst other things. Along the way, he hopes to raise £1 million ($1.5 million) for charity.

[Photo courtesy: Dave Cornthwaite]

Stand up paddling the length of the Mississippi River

Stand up paddling the length of the Mississippi RiverAt more than 2400 miles in length, the mighty Mississippi is one of the longest rivers in North America. The iconic waterway, which has become an indelible part of American folklore, stretches from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through the heart of the nation in the process. Over the years, the muddy waters of the Mississippi have been explored by every kind of watercraft from steamboat and simple river raft to kayaks and modern motorboats. Now, British adventurer Dave Cornthwaite is attempting to become the latest person to travel the length of the river from source to sea, but he’s doing it on a stand up paddle board.

In recent years, stand up paddling (SUP) has become a popular activity amongst outdoor enthusiasts looking to spend some time on their local rivers, lakes, or even ocean. The sport is a combination of surfing and paddling, that has participants standing on a surfboard while using an oar to help maneuver and generate forward momentum. Most stand up paddlers restrict themselves to relatively calm bodies of water, but the more skilled athletes have taken to challenging themselves on big waves and wild rapids.

Back in early June, Cornthwaite traveled to the headwaters of the Mississippi located at Lake Itasca, and started his southward journey. By last week he had arrived in Minneapolis, having already covered approximately 500 miles. That leaves him with more than 1900 miles yet to go, and he expects that it will take him well into September before he reaches the finish line in New Orleans, where the river enters into the Gulf at last.

This stand up paddle adventure is just the latest long distance journey that Cornthwaite has undertaken. He has already traveled from Vancouver to Las Vegas on a tandem bike and kayaked Australia’s Murry River – a distance of nearly 1480 miles. Even more impressive, he once went 3618 miles coast-to-coast across Australia using only a skateboard. All of these trips are part of his Expedition 1000 project, during which he hopes to complete 25 unique journeys of at least a 1000 miles in length, while only using non-motorized forms of transportation. Along the way he also hopes to raise £1 million ($1.5 million) for charity.

So what’s it like for Dave while he’s out on the water? Check out the video below for an idea.




[Photo courtesy of Dave Cornthwaite]

Vicksburg 1863: America’s most important July 4th (besides 1776)

VicksburgThe Fourth of July has always been an important day in the U.S. It marks the day in 1776 when the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. A new nation was born, at least for a little while.

In 1861 that nation was torn apart by a bloody Civil War that saw its turning point on another fourth of July, that of 1863. On that day the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Union army had been trying to take it since the beginning of the war. The fortified city was the key to the Mississippi River. If the North could control the river it would cut the Confederacy in half, leaving Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Indian Territory cut off from the rest of the rebellious nation. The Confederate west was a major source of supplies and men, especially Texas, which had overland access to Mexico and the only reliable contact with the outside world thanks to the Union navy’s effective blockade.

It took General Grant many months and thousands of lives to take the city. He managed to capture Jackson, Mississippi, an important railroad connection, and then surround Vicksburg on the landward side. Then he launched two massive assaults on the fortifications, only to lose hundreds of men.

Grant was not one to repeat mistakes, except for the mistake of drinking too much. He decided not to waste any more men and settled in for a siege. He kept up a constant bombardment on the city as the civilians and rebel soldiers dug in. Eventually the defenders were reduced to eating rats and dogs. One local newspaper ran out of paper and issued the news on wallpaper.

%Gallery-127185%On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. Their commander John C. Pemberton surrendered, figuring the Union troops would be more merciful on that day than any other. The final and much smaller Confederate stronghold on the river, Port Hudson, surrendered on July 9. Robert E. Lee had lost the battle of Gettysburg on July 3. For the North, winning the war was now only a matter of time.

As the telegraph lines sent the news across the North, there were huge Fourth of July celebrations. There weren’t many in the South, though, and in fact July 4th wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg again until World War Two made the locals realize that the USA wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the nation’s most impressive battlefields. Parts of the city’s six-and-a-half miles of defenses can still be seen and reconstructions make you feel like you’re back in the nineteenth century. There are living history demonstrations every day as well as visits to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union gunboat that’s been raised from the water.

So if you’re not sure where to go this Fourth of July, you might consider taking a road trip to either Philadelphia, where this country was formed, or Vicksburg, where this country was saved.

[Photo of Vicksburg graves courtesy user Matito via Flickr]