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“Catfish and Crystal,” by Ernest Kirschten, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1960. This is a comprehensive popular style history of the city of St. Louis and of that region of the US from its beginning in the 1700s to 1960. It is nicely written, and highly readable, but has a few flaws. There are no references. The index is quite extensive, but covers mostly surnames with few other topics included. The book’s, 460 pages does a very good job with many topics. Some are in considerable detail and seem unique to this book.

As expected, we get a good telling of the story of St. Louis’s founding by Pierre Laclede, and his wife Madame Chouteau and her children. This was a French family from New Orleans. But the story is complicated by the fact that they were Catholic and Madame Chouteau’s husband was still living. Laclede founded the city of St. Louis in 1764. He was aware that the French had ceded its territory on the east side of the river to the British following the French and Indian War. He settled on the West Bank of the Mississippi hoping to remain in French territory. But he did not anticipate that that land had already been ceded to Spain.

The main business in St. Louis was fur trading. Of course, John Jacob Astor of New York City is famous for his fur trading. Inevitably, there was a conflict between the New York-based fur business and the St. Louis-based fur business. In 1822 the St. Louis operation became the Western Department of Astor’s American Fur Company. Astor quit the fur trade in 1834, thinking that the then stylish silk hats would displace beaver pelts in popularity.

Kirschten gives us a nice summary of the Aaron Burr conspiracy. Aaron Burr and one James Wilkinson, undertook to split off the US territories west of Pittsburgh as a separate nation with the assistance of the Spanish government. Wilkinson was named Governor of the northern portion of the Louisiana purchase territory called the Territory of Louisiana, with headquarters in St. Louis in 1803. There he worked his mischief, until eventually he was found out. Both Burr and Wilkinson were tried for treason, but they were not convicted.

In the movie “How the West Was Won,” we learn of river pirates, who attacked innocent travelers on the nation’s rivers. Kirschten tells us, one of these was Jamie Colbert. In the 1780s, his band was found in what is now eastern Arkansas and Western Tennessee along the Mississippi. Even the U.S. Army had trouble eliminating these pests.

Senator Thomas Hart Benton is the subject of a chapter. He is well known as a Western booster. He promoted the transcontinental railroad. He was active in many western affairs. He came to St. Louis after a military career that included a run-in with Andrew Jackson in the days when that could easily result in a duel. He became a prominent citizen of St. Louis, acting as an attorney for prominent citizens. When Missouri became a state in 1820, he was selected one of the first US Senators. He served for over 30 years in the U.S. Senate until he was finally defeated. Then he served as a Congressman and finally died in Washington, DC in 1858. John C. Fremont was his son-in-law.

Cholera was the scourge of the age. The first cholera epidemic reached St. Louis in 1832 and lasted for five weeks. The worst epidemic arrived in 1849 and killed 4317 people. Another outbreak occurred in 1866, when Arsenal Island was apparently used to quarantine victims. Cholera was known as early as the fifth century B.C., but became a major epidemic in India in 1816. By 1830, it reached Russia, and two years later, the rest of Europe. It arrived in Canada in 1832 and followed the river down the Hudson via Lake Champlain to New York City. The disease also arrived in New Orleans in 1832. It came to St. Louis from all directions from the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, down the Ohio River, and up to Mississippi.

Many of the various aspects of St. Louis are well described. This is the home of Joseph Pulitzer, of General Sherman, of US Grant, and of Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. When the Civil War came, the governor and the state legislature were determined to secede and join the Confederacy. In a key development Col. Lyons was able to capture the Confederate troops sent to St. Louis to take arms from the US arsenal. No shots were fired, but in marching the prisoners down the street bystanders rioted and several were killed.

The book gives us a cursory summary of numerous prominent people in St. Louis, but details are quite sketchy in many cases. We do learn some interesting details. The gaslight was introduced in St. Louis in 1837; the first waterworks began in 1830; the first steamboat arrived at the St. Louis levee in 1817; a major fire burned much of the city in 1849; the city fire department was formed in 1857; the B&O railroad arrived in East St. Louis in 1856 (construction began on the depot there in 1853); the first radio station KSD began broadcasting March 7, 1922.

This book is a classic. Those who enjoy Midwestern history will want to read it. It must be regarded as a standard reference of the area.
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