Henry Gratiot and Early St. Louis Ball-Playing
by Jeffrey Kittel
“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Those words, spoken by baseball commissioner Ford Frick upon the retirement of Stan Musial, are inscribed on the base of a statue honoring the greatest Cardinal of all-time. The Musial statue, which now stands at the main entrance of Busch Stadium, home of the team for which Stan the Man played for twenty-two years, was originally located near the corner of Walnut and Broadway, outside of what was the right-field entrance to old Busch Memorial Stadium.
Opening in 1966, Busch Memorial Stadium was built as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown business district in St. Louis, an area which had fallen on hard times in the years after the Second World War. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which includes the Gateway Arch and opened a year earlier, was part of the same effort to bring people, tourists and dollars to the downtown area. These two great monuments captured the essence of what St. Louis was: a baseball town with a frontier past. Sitting in the grandstands at old Busch or the new park, looking across the infield and the spacious green of the outfield, one could glimpse the Arch towering over the city and capture, in one image, what St. Louis was and what it is.
However, to make room for the new downtown ballpark and the Arch grounds, the city tore down blocks upon blocks of its history. A great deal of the architectural history of St. Louis has been lost, only to be caught in glimpses around Cupples Station, just west of the ballpark, or on Laclede’s Landing, a bar and restaurant district just north of the Arch. The St. Louis that once existed was swept away in hopes of building a new and better city.
Two buildings that survived the revitalization efforts and afford a visitor a glimpse into the old St. Louis are the Old Cathedral and the Old Courthouse. The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, built in the 1830s, was the first Catholic cathedral west of the Mississippi and the site was used as a place of Catholic worship going back to the founding of the city. The Old St. Louis County Courthouse, best known as the site where Dred Scott sued for his freedom, was built in the 1820s. Both of these buildings, which are located just west of the Arch, were constructed on land donated by some of the most prominent men in St. Louis history. The Old Cathedral is located on a plot that was given to the city by Auguste Chouteau, just west of the Chouteau/Laclede family home, while the Old Courthouse stands on land donated by Chouteau and Jean Baptiste Charles Lucas. By the beginning of the 19th century, these two men were the wealthiest men in the city, as well as the two largest landowners, and their progeny would play important roles not only in the history of St. Louis but also in the history of 19th century baseball.
The St. Louis of Chouteau and Lucas no longer exists and has been replaced by a modern city. Their St. Louis, the St. Louis that existed at the beginning of the 19th century, was a fur trading village that hugged the Mississippi River. It was a small town with only a few dirt streets, mostly wood buildings and around a thousand people. Walking the modern, paved streets of St. Louis today and visiting the downtown landmarks such as the Arch, Laclede’s Landing, the Old Cathedral, the Old Courthouse and the ballpark, you trace the outlines of the old colonial French trading village, an area where the city was born and were baseball in St. Louis has its origins.
Auguste Chouteau first came to what would become St. Louis in December of 1763, arriving on the west bank of the Mississippi, just south of where the Missouri river flowed into the Father of Waters, along with Pierre Laclede Liguest, the common-law husband of the fourteen-year-old Chouteau’s mother, Marie-Therese Bourgeois. Laclede’s company had gained the rights to “the exclusive trade with the savages of the Missouri, and all the nations residing west of the Mississippi”i and he and his step-son had traveled upriver from New Orleans to find a suitable site to establish a center for the new company’s fur trading enterprises. As Shirley Christian wrote in Before Lewis and Clark, “[the] founders of St. Louis were not fleeing injustice, nor were they driven by religious sentiments or political ideals. Neither did they aspire to become gentleman farmers overseeing vast plantations worked by slaves. They simply wanted to make money and provide well for themselves and their families. The business of St. Louis, and of Laclede and the Chouteaus, was to be the fur trade…”ii
The two men had traveled as far north as the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, “studying topography and the quality of land extending inland from the river,”iii before Laclede found the perfect spot a few miles south of the confluence. Historian James Neal Primm described what Laclede and Chouteau had found. “A gently sloping plateau,” he wrote, “terminating in a rocky bluff safely above the river’s flood presented an ideal site for his headquarters. A break in the bluff afforded easy access to the river; and there was plenty of timber for firewood and lumber, outcroppings of stone for building, flowing springs, good drainage, and no deep ravines to hinder the laying out of streets.”iv “He was delighted to see the situation,” Chouteau later remembered, “[and] he did not hesitate a moment to form there the establishment that he proposed. Besides the beauty of the site, he found there all the advantages that one could desire to found a settlement which might become very considerable hereafter.”v Marking the site, Laclede notched several trees before returning with the young Chouteau to the French colonial settlement of Fort de Chartres, fifty miles downriver, where Laclede spent the winter “procuring all things necessary for the settlement – men, provisions, tools, &c.”vi
Busy with the planning and organization of his new business enterprise, Laclede placed Chouteau in charge of the construction of the new trading village. “You will proceed and land at the place where we marked the trees,” he instructed his teenage step-son, “[and you] will commence to have the place cleared, and build a large shed to contain the provisions and the tools, and some small cabins, to lodge the men.”vii The boy headed north, up the cold river, in February of 1764, along with thirty men, and arrived at what would become St. Louis on March 14. “[On] the morning of the next day,” Chouteau wrote, “I put the men to work.”viii Quickly the small group began clearing away trees on land that would one day become the grounds of the Gateway Arch, constructing the buildings that Laclede, who would join his men in April, had ordered, and laying the foundation of a future great city.
Over the next forty years, the small village would prosper, adding over a thousand people to the population, as Laclede’s fur trading enterprise grew in profitability. Physically, Laclede layed out the new town in a gridiron pattern, with three streets running parallel to the river, from the modern Laclede’s Landing in the north to just south of where Busch Stadium stands today, intersected by shorter streets running east to west. To the west of the village lay the Commons, a wide stretch of prairie that was used for farming and pasturage. Among the new buildings of the village was a public Market house on First Street, the large, stone Chouteau/Laclede home on Second Street, which originally served as a governmental office, and a stone fort tower, on Walnut Street, just west of Third Street. While the rest of the village was dominated by individual dwellings, a new structure would be erected in the 1780s that would play a prominent role in the history of baseball in St. Louis.
A French soldier, cartographer and engineer named Nicolas de Finiels arrived in St. Louis in 1897, at a time when the city was under Spanish governance. Finiel, traveling from Philadelphia with his wife and mother-in-law, had come to St. Louis to oversee improvements to the city’s defenses. While his appointment would, in 1898, be rejected by the Spanish government in Madrid, Finiel’s time in the area produced “two of the most valuable source documents pertaining to Upper Louisiana in colonial times: a lengthy memoir titled An Account of Upper Louisiana and a meticulously drawn map of the central Mississippi River valley.”ix In Feniel’s memoir, he mentions a windmill “[built] of wood in St. Louis on the slope of the plateau where the fort is located…”x The wooden windmill that Feniel had seen in St. Louis in the late 1890s and that had fallen into disrepair and disuse by the time he had arrived in the city was locally referred to as Motard’s Mill. It’s at Motard’s Mill that the history of St. Louis baseball begins.
Born in Avignon, France around 1722, Joseph Motard immigrated to St. Louis within the first decade of the city’s founding, seeking his fortune, like Laclede and others, in the fur trade. Described as one of the “principle merchants”xi of the city, “a major St. Louis fur merchant for twenty years,”xii and as a “goldsmith,”xiii Motard, in the late 1780s, received a grant of a lot measuring two hundred square feet just south of the fort tower. Through the lot flowed a creek that ran from a large pond, down into the Mississippi, and Motard was granted the land, by Don Manuel Perez, the Spanish lieutenant-governor, under the stipulation that he develop a mill on the property, in order to process the grain grown by the community on the Commons.
When, specifically, Motard built his mill and what, exactly, the mill looked like is a subject of debate. It’s clear that the mill was built in the mid to late 1780s and it is possible that it was built as early as 1784xiv or as late as 1789xv. It is known that a gentleman by the name of Francois Cotard was living on what was by then known as Mill Creek in 1788 and working for Motard, cultivating an orchard of apple trees.xvi Based on this account, it appears that Motard was already in possession of the land on Mill Creek before 1888, had already taken steps to develop it and, therefore, the mill most likely had already been built by the time Cotard was living there. The mill itself was described by Feniel as having been built of wood and Charles Peterson, in his history of colonial St. Louis, agrees that it was a wooden structure.xvii However, there is at least one source that describes Motard’s Mill as having been built of stone.xviii To complicate the matter even more, it is entirely possible that the base of the mill was built of stone and the upper structure of wood.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the date of the construction of the mill and what materials were used to build it, all sources agree on its location. Motard built his windmill just south of what would become known as Fort San Carlos, the old fort tower that once stood near the modern intersection of Walnut and Fourth Street. Just one block west of that is the intersection of Walnut and Broadway, where Stan Musial’s statue once stood, and one block south of that is the modern site of Busch Stadium. Motard’s Mill most likely stood on the grounds now occupied by the St. Louis Cardinals and where millions of baseball fans come to watch their favorite team play the game they all love. In an interesting display of convergence, the present history of St. Louis baseball takes place at the site of the earliest known instance of ball-playing in the city. The modern Cardinals play ball at the same location where the young Henry Gratiot and his friends played ball in St. Louis over two hundred years earlier.
The first reference to ball-playing in St. Louis is found in the papers of Theodore Hunt, who was the recorder of land titles in Missouri for the United States governmentxix, and, in the early part of the 19th century, played an important role in settling complicated and muddled colonial land claims in St. Louis, a city that had been governed, in its short history, by the French, Spanish and United States. Hunt also happened to have been married to Anne Lucas, the daughter of J.B.C. Lucas, one of the two largest landowners in St. Louis, and one can imagine that, given the nature of his job, he was a rather influencial figure in a city were wealth and power was tied closely to land ownership.xx
In 1825, Henry Gratiot was deposed by Theodore Hunt regarding a disputed land claim and, in the course of the deposition, Gratiot was asked if he was familiar with Motard’s Mill. He answered that he had “a perfect knowledge of the situation of Motard’s windmill, for when a Boy he has frequently played Ball against this same Mill.”xxi Gratiot’s testimony is significant because it is the earliest known reference to ball-playing in St. Louis and Missouri and is also one of the earliest references to ball-playing west of the Appalachian Mountains. Louis Houck, in the second volume of his history of Missouri, mentions Gratiot’s testimony, adding that Gratiot considered the mill as “a sort of resort”xxii for the boys of the village, a place where they often congregated and played.
The young ball-playing Henry Gratiot was a member of one of the most prominent families in St. Louis. His mother, Victoire, was the daughter of Pierre Laclede and the half-sister of Auguste Chouteau while his father, Charles Gratiot, was a member of a wealthy Swiss Huguenot family. The elder Gratiot came to the New World around 1764 and, like his father-in-law, made his fortune in the fur trading business.xxiii During the American Revolution, he was living in Cahokia, across the river from St. Louis, and supplied George Rogers Clark with $8,000 worth of supplies, support that insured the success of Clark’s expedition and helped gain the Illinois Country for the new American nation.xxiv In 1781, after his marriage, the successful merchant moved to St. Louis, were he lived the rest of his life, serving at various times as a judge and accumulating large landholdings in the city.
His son, Henry, who was born in St. Louis on April 12, 1789, inherited Charles Gratiot’s entrepenurial and adventurous spirit. At the time of his birth, George Washington had not yet been inaugurated as President of the United States, the British still held forts in the newly organized Northwest Territory, the French Revolution was about to break out and St. Louis was part of the Spanish Empire, after the French ceded their territories in Louisiana to Spain following the French and Indian War. While the young Gratiot may have been born under Spanish rule, St. Louis and her citizens “were thoroughly and completely French, in language, habits, and thought.”xxv A Frenchman by culture, a subject of imperial Spain, and, after March 10, 1804, a citizen of the United States, he grew up in a cosmopolitan, frontier environment that was unique in American history and he would make his mark as a pioneer in the new American West.
In 1821, Gratiot married Susan Hempstead, the daughter of Stephen Hempstead, a hero of the American Revolution who had served, gallantly and honorably, with his friend, Nathan Hale. Hempstead, whose son would serve as Missouri’s first representative in Congress, had moved his family to a farm just north of St. Louis at the beginning of the 19th century, on land that is today Bellfontaine Cemetery, and strengthened the business and political interests of his family by marrying his daughter into the Chouteau/Laclede/Gratiot family.xxvi The union of Henry and Susan produced more than a political and economic union between prominent St. Louis families, as the fruitful marriage also produced seven children.
With a young family of his own, Henry Gratiot’s thoughts turned to how best to provide for them. Since its founding, business in St. Louis had boomed regardless of who was ruling the river town. St. Louis was a commercial center, focused on trade and land speculation, and trade around the turn of the 19th century, specifically the fur trade, had been good, as families such as the Chouteau/Lacledes and the Gratiots made fortunes and cemented their position as the economic elite of the city. However, St. Louis faced a serious problem as a commercial center and that was the lack of capital. “Capital and specie shortages,” Jeffrey Adler wrote in Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West, “imposed sharp limitations on commercial expansion, and St. Louis merchants operated at an enormous disadvantage in eastern markets.”xxvii The Panic of 1819 exacerbated the situation, formenting an anti-banking, anti-commerce attitude in Missouri that expressed itself in statewide policies that retarded economic growth in St. Louis for most of the 1820s. The first great economic boom period in St. Louis had ended and Henry Gratiot was forced to look elsewhere for the opportunities he needed to provide for his family.
Besides depressed economic opportunites, there was another reason why Henry Gratiot left St. Louis in 1825. Slavery had been introduced into French Louisiana by 1719 and, since their inception, the small towns in the Illinois Country had always had a large population of slaves, both African and Native American. A 1732 census of French towns in the area counted 159 men, 39 women, 190 children and 284 African and Native American slaves.xxviii A 1773 census of St. Louis noted 285 men, 159 women, 193 African slaves and did not count the number of Native American slaves, as it was technically illegal to own them under Spanish law.xxix Charles Gratiot owned a large number of slaves and Henry had grown up in a culture that accepted slavery as something that was not just legal but normal, proper and vital to the functioning of society. However, Henry had a different view of the subject and “had imbibed such a hatred of the institution that he had determined in his own mind, without consultation and without advice from any source, that he would not live in or bring up his family in a slave-state.”xxx With the combination of depressed economic opportunities in St. Louis and Missouri entering the Union as a slave-state in 1821, Henry Gratiot left the city of his birth and struck out to find his fortune in the American wilderness.
Interestingly, Gratiot, unlike his father, his father-in-law and millions of Americans who came after him, did not go west to find new opportunities, instead he headed north, to the wilderness of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. With his brother, Jean Pierre Bugnion Gratiot, Henry left St. Louis in October of 1824 and headed across the Illinois prairie for the Fevre River lead mining region, near present-day Galena, Illinois. “Their outfit consisted of a two-horse wagon, with supplies and implements, and three trusty ‘voyageurs,’” wrote E.B. Washburne. “They camped at night in the groves or on the prairie; shooting a variety of game for their subsistence, and jerking their meat before the camp-fire, Indian fashion. After an interesting trip, crossing Rock River at Dixon’s Ferry, they arrived at their destination. The two brothers pitched their tent about a mile from the river in a ravine, and near a beautiful spring, since known as Sunny Spring, and there they commenced building cabins and log-smelting-furnaces.”xxxi Negotiating with the native Winnebago tribe, with whom Gratiot would have good relations the rest of his life, he and his brother obtained the right to mine lead-ore on lands claimed by the tribe. A year later, in a move that shows the strength of the relationship between Gratiot and his Native American neighbors, the Winnebagos petitioned the United States government to name Henry Gratiot, a man they described as their “friend and wise counselor,” as their agent.xxxii
However, all did not go well with Gratiot’s initial attempt to exploit the natural resources of the Fevre River area. “From the dearth of timber in the immediate vicinity of Fevre River, the Messrs. Gratiot soon found out that smelting could not be made profitable where they had established their first furnace…The brothers then determined to abandon their smelting operations at Fevre River, and commence them in a magnificent grove of timber, which from that time to this has been known as ‘Gratiot’s Grove.’”xxxiii Because of the lack of available wood to stoke his smelting furnaces, Gratiot moved his operations fifteen miles north of Galena, into what would eventually become Lafayette County, Wisconsin. Just as his father had sought opportunites as a pioneer in the Illinois Country a generation earlier, Henry Gratiot looked for his opportunites as a pioneer in the Northwest Territory and just as his father had found success in new lands, so to did his son.
As his lead mining and smelting operations flourished and Gratiot found the success he was looking for, in 1826, he moved his family from the city of St. Louis to the burgeoning, frontier wilderness of southern Wisconsin. Interestingly, with his family came two slaves owned by Henry Gratiot, a man who had left his native land, in part, because of his opposition to the practice of slavery. Gratiot, who felt a great amount of shame and regret over his role in what he and his wife both considered a sinful practice, freed both of his slaves as soon as they arrived at Gratiot’s Grove and he was forced to put up a bond at the courthouse in Galena, guaranteeing that the new freedmen would not become a burden on society.xxxiv While the abolitionist movement was slowly growing in the United States and there were many people opposed to the practice of slavery, Henry Gratiot took a principled, active stand against slavery a decade before William Lloyd Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society.
A further testament to the man’s character is the relationship that he had with the Native Americans in the area in which he settled. As mentioned, he had a long-standing relationship with the Winnebago tribe and acted as an intermediary between the tribe and the United States government. As an official Indian agent and as someone who had done fair business with the local tribes, “it was conceded that [Gratiot] had greater influence with the Indians than any other man in the Northwest.”xxxv He was instrumental in the negotiations of several treaties between the local tribes and the United States and, as hostility and resistance among the Native population to the spread of white settlements grew and war loomed, Gratiot attempted, through negotiations, to maintain the peace. In late April 1832, as the Black Hawk War was breaking out over an attempt by the Sauks and other Native tribes to settle in lands east of the Mississippi that had been ceded to the United States in the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis, Gratiot visited the Sauks as an emissary of the United States government, bringing with him a letter from General Henry Atkinson, the commander of U.S. forces in the area, in an attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the hostilities. It was the relationships that Gratiot and his family had forged in the past with the Native tribes that most likely saved his life, as the negotiations fell apart.
When Gratiot and his party, which included several chiefs of the Winnebago tribe, arrived at the encampment of Black Hawk’s warriors, at Prophet’s Town, named after Wabokieshiek, a member of the Winnebego tribe and one of the leaders of the uprising known as the Prophet, they were immediately taken prisoner. “No sooner had the canoes landed than the Indians surrounded the party with every demonstration of violence, and made all of them prisoners. At the moment of seizing Col. Gratiot, the Prophet appeared on the scene. Seeing his old friend in danger, he rushed upon his people and interfered in his defense…”xxxvi While the Prophet refused to receive Atkinson’s letter or negotiate, Gratiot’s previous work on behalf of the Winnebagos and his standing as a member of the Chouteau family, who were respected as fair-dealing businessmen by Native Americans on both sides of the Mississippi, ensured that the Prophet would not allow any harm to come to Gratiot and his party. However, “the Prophet powerful as he was, could not quell the war spirit of his young braves and after three days they demanded that the prisoners be handed to them. The Prophet knowing what their fate would be, secretly told Colonel Gratiot of their plans and begged him to steal away at a given signal in their canoes in the early dusk. They did so, well knowing that death was just around the corner if they failed in their escape. They started down the river but the Indians were soon in hot pursuit and it was an all night race for life until daylight came when the enemy gave up the chase…”xxxvii Gratiot had failed in his diplomatic mission and Black Hawk’s warriors and the Americans waged war through August, with the Native side suffering fifty percent casualties before the war ended with Black Hawk’s decisive defeat at the Battle of Bad Axe.
Before the war ended, however, Gratiot had one more role to play, acting again as emissary between the Natives and the Americans. On May 21, 1832, a band of Sauk and Potawatomi warriors attacked the house of William Davis, in what became known as the Indian Creek Massacre, one of the most publicized events of the Black Hawk War. Like most violent incidents between Natives and Americans, the attack on Davis’ house, while tragic, had a more complicated backstory than was reported in the press. Near his home, Davis had “erected a blacksmith shop and a mill. To obtain water power for his mill it became necessary for Davis to put a dam across [Indian Creek]. Six miles farther up Indian Creek there was an Indian village, and as the fish naturally went up the stream every spring, there was good fishing at the village for the Indians. The dam prevented the fish from going up, and the Indians protested against this invasion of their rights. Davis, however, insisted on his rights to build and maintain the dam, and bad feelings were engendered.”xxxviii A month before the attack on the Davis home, William Davis caught a Potawatomi man attempting to remove the dam and attacked him, beating him off with a stick.
While the elders of the Potawatomi, a tribe that had not taken part in Black Hawk’s war, advised the tribe not to seek retribution for the attack on both their fishing rights and a member of their tribe, after the Battle of Stillman’s Run in May, a party of sixty or seventy Sauk and Potawatomi warriors attacked the Davis house, where twenty-three people had sought shelter as the countryside raged with violence. The party killed everyone in the house except for sixteen year old Rachel Hall and her sister, eighteen year old Sylvia Hall, who were taken prisoner. “[The sisters] state, that after being compelled to witness, not only the savage butchery of their beloved parents, but to hear the heart-piercing screeches and dying groans of their expiring friends and neighbors, and the hideous yells of the furious assaulting savages, they were seized and mounted upon horses, to which they were secured by ropes, when the savages with an exulting shout, took up their line of march in Indian file, bending their course west…”xxxix Henry Gratiot was tasked with using his influence with the local Native tribes to secure the release of the Hall sisters.
Gratiot immediately approached the Winnebagos and asked them to act as an intermediary between himself and Black Hawk, at whose camp the girls were being held. “They could not refuse the request of their ‘father,’ Col. Gratiot; and armed with full authority and ample means to ransom the prisoners, their rescue was affected, after six days of detention and the most frightful maltreatment. But to the credit of these murderous and cruel Indians, it can be said that during all the time they held the girls as prisoners, there was never offered the least affront to their modesty. The rescue occasioned universal joy.”xl While the Indian Creek Massacre had nothing to do with the Black Hawk War and was an act of personal vengeance enacted by members of the Potawatomi tribe against William Davis, it was a highly publicized and sensationalized story that, ripe with violent and sexual overtones, was used to rationalize the war against Black Hawk and his followers. Gratiot, of course, was portrayed as a hero who had managed to rescue the two young girls from certain peril.
After the war, Gratiot built a large stone house at Gratiot’s Grove, sold his mining and smelting interests, resigned his position as an Indian agent due to the deteriorating relationship between the United States and the Winnebagos and spent his remaining years as a gentleman farmer. During the fall of 1835, he was approached by several local chiefs who explained to him how the United States government had reneged on several treaty promises, particularly the payment of annuities, and that, due to this, the tribes were in a desperate situation and near starvation. They asked Gratiot to go to Washington, D.C., and present their grievances to the government. Touched by the suffering of his long-time friends, he agreed to do so, leaving what was then the Michigan Territory for the nation’s capital in the spring of 1836, where, upon arrival, he took the opportunity to visit his oldest brother, General Charles Gratiot, who was then serving as the head of the Corp of Engineers. Sadly, while in Washington, there was little that Gratiot could do for his Winnebago friends, as the Indian policy of the United States government had shifted to removal rather than negotiation.xli
While in Washington, Henry Gratiot contracted a cold, which only grew worse as he began the return trip home – a trip which he was making on horseback. By the time he reached Baltimore, the cold had turned into pneumonia and he was too ill to continue, stopping at Barnum’s Hotel, “where he grew rapidly worse, until he died, April 27, 1836. Though away from his family, he had every attention which care and affection could suggest. He was surrounded during his illness by his brother, Gen. Gratiot, Justice Taney of the Supreme Court of the United States, [and] Gen. George W. Jones, delegate in Congress from Michigan Territory…”xlii He was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Baltimore and a large meeting was held in Galena “to pay tribute to his memory and his service to his state and nation.”xliii
A pioneer settler of both Illinois and Wisconsin, Henry Gratiot is remembered, if at all, for the role he played in a short, obscure conflict between Native Americans and western settlers that is best remembered, if at all, because Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois militia unit did not see any combat in it. However, Gratiot must also be remembered as one of the most significant pioneer-era, St. Louis ball-players, whose deposition before Theodore Hunt gives us the earliest reference to ball-playing in the city’s history and one of the earliest references to ball-playing in the American West. Because of this testimony, we know that the children of St. Louis engaged in ballgames in the 18th century, a hundred years before the St. Louis Cardinals ever took the field. But Gratiot’s testimony raises one rather important question: What kind of ballgame were the young Henry Gratiot and his friends playing?
While it’s an impossible question to answer with any certainty, there are clues in Gratiot’s testimony and his circumstances that allow for speculation. What we can say for certain, however, is that he was not playing baseball. The New York game of baseball, as defined by the rules codified in 1857, obviously did not exist during Gratiot’s lifetime and therefore he had to have been playing a different type of ball-game. As we’ll see, a series of bat and ball games, roughly defined as the American family of baseball games, developed in North America over the course of several centuries. These games, from which the New York game of baseball evolved, came over to the New World with the first colonists and spread across the continent, as Americans settled the Trans-Appalachian West. Since this form of proto-baseball did not reach St. Louis and the Illinois Country until around 1810, at the earliest, it’s unlikely that Gratiot was playing any of the variants of American baseball that were in existence at the time. Since he wasn’t playing baseball or early American baseball variants such as town-ball, trap-ball or cat, what kind of ball-game was Gratiot playing?
An important clue comes from an address that Elihu Washburne, a former congressman from Illinois, minister to France and the shortest-serving Secretary of State in United States history, gave to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1884. Washburne, who was also Henry Gratiot’s son-in-law, stated that the people of St. Louis, when Gratiot was a young boy, “were thoroughly and completely French, in language, habits, and thought.”xliv St. Louis, in the 18th century, was culturally a French city and Gratiot, being a St. Louisan, was a Frenchman, regardless of whether he was a subject of the French or Spanish empires. As someone who was French in habit and living in a town that was thoroughly and completely French, it seems likely that Gratiot would have been playing a French ball game.
It’s important to note the influence that culture had on the spread of baseball across the United States. When the first colonists arrived in the United States, they brought their culture with them and ball-playing was part of that culture. In 1609, a group of Polish laborers at the Jamestown Colony are known to have played a type of bat and ball game called pilka palantowa that was popular in Central Europe.xlv William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, noted that, in 1621, some members of the colony were playing stool-ball, a bat and ball game that had been popular in England for over a hundred years.xlvi The European settlers of the New World were ball-players and came from a culture that embraced ball-playing. That culture of ball-playing flourished in the new colonies, evolving into a unique family of American baseball games that would spread across the continent. This is specifically true of the English colonies but is most likely also true of the French colonies in America.
While there are an abundance of sources that support the idea that the English settlers brought their ball-playing culture to America in the 17th century, there is much less evidence of ball-playing among the French settlers and Gratiot’s testimony is particularly unique in that respect. Almost all of the references to ball-playing that appear in the earliest histories of New France involve Native American ball games but, while the history of Native American ball-playing is fascinating and worthy of study, it does not appear to have had much of an impact on the development of the American family of baseball games. There are also numerous references to the way in which the French settlers of the Illinois Country spent what little leisure time they had but they do not mention ball-playing, instead stressing the French love of card-playing, horse-racing and gambling on both. So the evidence of French ball-playing in the Illinois Country is scant but it does exist.
The new American Territory of Illinois was created in 1809, with the old French town of Kaskaskia as its capital. That summer, the new territorial legislature, under the guidance of Governor Ninian Edwards, met in the capital to create a new law code for the territory, relying heavily on the law codes of Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia.xlvii One of the new laws passed was “An Act to prevent unlawful gaming” and outlawed gambling on “cards, dice, tables, tennis, bowles or any other game or games whatsoever, or at any horse race, cock fighting, or any other sport or pastime…”xlviii This law gives a rather interesting look at what the people in the Illinois Territory liked to do with their free time and specifically mentions two ball games: tennis and boules. Both were popular French games and the fact that they were played in Illinois at the beginning of the 19th century shows the influence of French culture in the old Illinois Country.
Tennis developed from a French game called jeu de paume, whose origins may date to the 14th century, and variants could be played indoor or outdoor and with or without a racket.xlix Boules was another French game, known as jeu de boules, that was being played as early as the 15th century and developed from an earlier game known as jeu de mail. The modern games of bocce, petanque and billards are all descendants of jeu de boule.l If tennis and boules were being played in the old French towns of Illinois in 1809, it’s quite likely that they were being played in the old French town of St. Louis during Henry Gratiot’s youth and it’s possible that Gratiot and his friends were playing some variant of jeu de paume or jeu de boules in St. Louis during the late 18th century.
Within two 19th century French children’s books are other possibilities. The fourth edition of Les Jeux des Jeunes Garcons, which in English translates to Games for Young Boys, was published in Paris in 1815 and within the book was a description of a game called la balle empoisonee, or poisoned ball. David Block, in Baseball Before We Knew It, has a description of the game:
Eight or ten children divide themselves into two teams. In a courtyard, or in a large square area, four corners are marked, one as the home base and the others as bases which the runners must touch in succession. Straws are drawn; the team that wins occupies the home base. The players of the other team place themselves among the other bases at suitable distances. One of their team serves the ball to one of the players at home base. This one repels the ball, and runs to the first base, to the second, and to others if he has time…
Players from the team on the field must pick up the ball as promptly as possible in order to touch or hit one of the runners before he reaches base. In that case, the player who has bee hit by “the poisoned ball” suspends his running, and his team has lost the home base. His team then becomes the serving team…li
Add a bat and poisoned ball seems rather familiar. Robert Henderson, in Bat, Ball and Bishop, implies that there actually was a bat used in the game and states that poisoned ball “is clearly a fore-runner of baseball.”lii
However, there are problems with implying that poisoned ball was played in St. Louis in the late 18th century. For Henry Gratiot to have been playing poisoned ball at Motard’s Mill, the game would have had to have been a popular, tradition bat and ball game played in France in the 18th century and transported to the New World with French settlers. This is possible but there is no evidence supporting the idea. It’s also possible, according to both Block and Henderson, that this was not a French game at all but rather an English game that crossed the Channel sometime in the 18th century.liii So while one must entertain the possibility that this clear fore-runner of baseball was being played in St. Louis in the late 1790s, it appears unlikely.
Another book that gives clues as to what kind of ball-games a young French boy may have been playing in the late 18th century is Jeux des Adolescents, or Games for Youths, published in 1856. This wonderful book contains descriptions of numerous French ball games, along with illustrations of the games being played. Block finds the book significant for its description of la balle au baton, or stick-ball, a game similar to theque, which he believed was a possible direct ancestor of American baseball games.liv But another game mentioned in the book was la balle au mur, or wall ball:
You draw a horizontal line along the length of the wall, a meter or a meter and a half above the ground…The simplest version is for two players. One will serve the ball, that is, throw it against the wall. The other one sends it back against the wall, either hitting it on the fly or after it has bounced once. The first player hits it back…and it goes thus from one to another…
Every ball that is missed, that is to say, every ball that a player cannot return against the wall, is a fault and counts for a certain number of points for his adversary. It is likewise a fault to hit the wall above the line. Finally, it is useless to say that it is not permitted to return the ball on the second bounce, or the third.lv
La balle au mur sounds like a simple game that a group of young children could play against the wall of windmill but, again, there is an obvious problem with the implication that one of the ball-games mentioned in Jeux des Adolescents could have been played in late 18th century St. Louis. While Henry Gratiot was playing ball in the 1790s, the book wasn’t published until the mid 19th century, when Gratiot was already dead. However, many of the games in the book, such as la balle au mur, appear to be simple, rudimentary and traditional children’s games and there is a good possibility that the popularity of these games go back several generations, if not several centuries, and that they were being played, in some variant, by French children in the 17th and 18th century. But there is no evidence supporting the idea that any of the games in Jeux des Adolescents was old enough and popular enough to have made it the New World by the 18th century.
While it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether or not Henry Gratiot played jeu de paume, jeu de boules, la balle empoisonee, la balle au baton, la balle au mur or any other French ball-game, there is enough evidence to suggest the possibility of a ball-playing culture in the French towns of the Illinois Country. There is amble evidence of French ball-games going back centuries that could have been transported to the New World by French settlers. There is the 1809 Illinois law outlawing gambling on ball-games, suggesting that these games were played in the old French towns. And there is Henry Gratiot’s testimony that he and his friends played ball in St. Louis when he was a young boy. The references to ball-playing in the old French Illinois Country are few and far between but, when added together, they present a picture of the first active ball-playing culture in an area that, less than fifty years after Henry Gratiot’s death, would go baseball mad.
Joseph Motard’s windmill failed to prosper and, by the beginning of the 19th century, it was in ruins –rotted, crumbling and soon to be torn down. But the beginnings of a ball-playing culture that took root at Motard’s Mill blossomed over the next two hundred years. Today, millions of people come every year to the spot of Henry Gratiot’s youthful ball-playing to watch a more modern form of the game. As the fans cheer the Cardinals on at Busch Stadium, they unknowingly pay tribute to the pioneers of the baseball in St. Louis. The love of the game so evident among Cardinal fans honor Henry Gratiot and the French pioneers who settled and built St. Louis and who played the first ball-games in the future Best Baseball Town in America.
i Chouteau, Auguste; Narrative of the Settlement of St. Louis; p 3
ii Christian, Shirley; Before Lewis and Clark; p 54
iii Ibid; p35
iv Primm, James Neal; Lion of the Valley; p 8-9
v Chouteau; p 3
vi Ibid; p 4
vii Ibid; p 4
viii Ibid; p 4
ix Christensen, Lawrence; Dictionary of Missouri Biography; p 300
x de Finiels, Nicolas; An Account of Upper Louisiana; p 75
xi Houck, Louis; A History of Missouri, Volume Two; p 50
xii Primm; p 58
xiii Peterson, Charles; Colonial St. Louis: Building a Creole Capital; p 27
xiv Houck; Volume Two; p 29
xv Peterson; p 27
xvi Houck; Volume Two; p 54
xvii Peterson; p 27
xviii Houck; Volume Two; p 29
xix Ekberg, Carl; French Roots In The Illinois Country; p 110
xx Description of the Wilson Price Hunt and the Hunt family papers in the archive of the Missouri Historical Society (http://collections.mohistory.org/archive/ARC:A0735)
xxi Hunt’s Minutes; 1:199; archive of the Missouri Historical Society (source originally found in Ekberg; French Roots In The Illinois Country; p 269)
xxii Houck; Volume Two; p 56
xxiii Beckwith, Paul; Creoles of St. Louis; pp 70-71
xxiv Reynolds, John; The Pioneer History of Illinois; pp 256-257
xxv Washburne, E.B.; Henry Gratiot: A Pioneer of Wisconsin; p 12
xxvi Hempstead, George Collier; Stephen Hempstead and his Descendents; pp 43-45.
xxvii Adler, Jeffrey; Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West; p 25
xxviii Belting, Natalia Maree; Kaskaskia Under the French Regime; p 38
xxix Primm; p 25
xxx Washburne; p 15
xxxi Ibid; p 15
xxxii Bale, Florence Gratiot; When the Gratiots Came To Galena; p 673
xxxiii Washburne; pp 16-17
xxxiv Bale; p 674
xxxv Ibid; p 679
xxxvi Washburne; p 26
xxxvii Bale; p 680
xxxviii Scanlan, Charles Martin; Indian Creek Massacre and Captivity of Hall Girls; p 29
xxxix Edwards, William P.; Narrative of the Capture and Providential Escape of Misses Frances and Almira Hall; pp 6-7
xl Washburne; p 29
xli Bale; p 681
xlii Washburne; p 30
xliii Bale; p 681
xliv Washburne; p 12
xlv Block, David; Baseball Before We Knew It; p 101
xlvi Bradford, William; History of Plymouth Plantation; p 112
xlvii Alvord, Clarence Walworth; Laws of the Territory of Illinois, 1809-1811; p xi
xlviii Ibid; p 18
xlix Hendeson, Robert; Ball, Bat and Bishop; pp 47-48
l Ibid; p 121-122
li Block; p 279
lii Henderson; pp 140-141
liii Block; p 151 and Henderson; p 141
liv Block; p 148
lv Beleze, Guillaume Louis Gustave; Jeux des Adolescents; pp 48-49 (translated by David Ball)