When the Revolutionary War Came to St. Louis

When we think of the American Revolutionary War, we usually imagine the action taking place on the East Coast and involving just the British and the American colonists.  But the battles west of the Appalachian Mountains, though less well known, also helped shape the destiny of the nation; and they involved various indigenous tribes as well as the French and the Spanish.  The Battle of St. Louis in 1780 – which took place near what is now the western border of Gateway Arch National Park – was one such conflict.

The small village of St. Louis was founded by French traders in 1764 but became a Spanish settlement when the French ceded the territory to Spain.  Most of the approximately 900 St. Louisans were still of French heritage, overseen by a small number of Spanish soldiers.  They were far outnumbered by the various Native American tribes who lived nearby as trading partners of the Europeans. 

Map of the village of St. Louis c. 1790

When the American Revolution broke out in 1776, the British sought to control not only the Mississippi River but also St. Louis, which was a trading hub and the political capital of the region. Because the British had only scattered troops in the Midwest, they recruited nearly 2,000 Native Americans from several tribes near the Great Lakes, who began traveling downriver in early May of 1780. 

After fur traders warned the Spanish Lt. Governor Fernando de Leyba about the impending British attack, he began developing plans for his town’s defense.  De Leyba made plans for four round defensive towers to be built on which to place sharpshooters and cannons.  Only one tower – named Fort San Carlos –was finished by the time the attackers neared St. Louis.  The locals managed to place five cannons on its roof as well as trenches along the outer walls of the town.

Once the British and their Native allies began attacking on May 26, the villagers were greatly outnumbered – as many as 100 were killed – and the outlook looked grim.  However, thanks to their cannons and other defenses, St. Louis was able to overcome their attackers and win the battle.  This meant the British were not able to gain control of the Mississippi River during the Revolutionary War, a key victory for the American colonists.

The National Park Service commemorates the Battle of St. Louis every year near the anniversary date.  The event takes place this year on May 28th from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the south end of the Gateway Arch grounds.  Interpretive rangers and living history volunteers in 18th-century attire will be on hand to explain the story of St. Louis’ role in the American Revolution and the implications of the settlers’ victory.  There will also be periodic musket- and cannon-firing demonstrations. Reservations are not required.

An exhibit at Gateway Arch National Park

More information on the Battle of St. Louis can be found in the Arch Museum.  Also, check out an extensive new exhibit, The American Revolutionary War in the West, which just opened at St. Charles County’s Heritage Museum.

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