Long before the French ever set foot in St. Louis, the Florissant Valley nurtured the indigenous tribes of the Mississippi valley. The Osage and the Missouri tribes lived in villages and grew a variety of crops, and also hunted bear, deer, and elk. The artist George Catlin, who painted many Osage, described them as having been “…until quite recently, a powerful and warlike tribe: carrying all their arms fearlessly through to all these realms; and ready to cope with foes of any kind that they were liable to meet.” As the “Gateway to the West”, the St. Louis area was a primary point of contact between European settlers and Native peoples, and Florissant was no exception. The complex relationship between these peoples and early Florissant residents would characterize much of the beginning of their settlement.
All French territory west of the Mississippi had been ceded over to the Spanish in a secret treaty in 1762, and the Spanish were not exactly meticulous with record keeping and administration. We likely will never know who the first French settlers of Florissant were, as almost no written records exist from this time. The first settlement in Missouri was Ste. Genevieve in the 1740s, and St. Louis was officially founded in 1764. The earliest testimony that we have for a Florissant resident is that of Nicolas Lecomte, who claimed to be in the area around 1763, but he did not claim to permanently reside there or to be the first resident. A Spanish census in 1787 entitled “Havitaciones del Esbel Establecimento de Florizan” counted 7 plantations with 40 total farmworkers, but this was not a complete census of the town itself. Florissant had existed as an informal farming community for some time before it was officially organized under Spanish rule in 1786 as San Fernando. Although the Spanish technically ruled the territory, it was settled and administered largely by the French. The first commandant of Florissant was François Dunegant. He could neither read nor write, but was renowned for his moral character and for taking in numerous orphans. He held his position until 1804 when St. Louis flew under the US flag for the first time.
As with other French settlements, the village of St. Ferdinand included a massive common field that was leased out in small narrow strips to its residents for farming and grazing livestock. The narrowness of the strips enabled early residents to work closely together in the event of a sudden attack by Native Americans, and since the strips were plotted out radiating from the river, it gave residents equal access to the river as well as collective responsibility for repairing the levee. Outbreaks of violence between Native Americans and the French were not uncommon: however, they also intermarried and traded with each other. Early marriage and baptismal records from around St. Louis indicate that a number of residents had mixed families. And there are records of Osage who made trips down to Florissant to trade for supplies well into the 19th century.
It is impossible to discuss Florissant history without discussing its church history. In 1788, Commandant François Dunegant gave a land grant for the purpose of building a church, which was constructed by Hyacinth Deshetres out of logs. This church was the parish of St. Ferdinand, and it was the center of community life. It was where residents were baptized, married, and buried, where they conducted business affairs and learned the news. Its records date back to 1790 and are an invaluable source of information for piecing together the story of Florissant. For a period of time in the 19th century, Florissant hosted the only resident clergy in the entire Missouri territory until the 1818 installation of Bishop Dubourg in St. Louis. Florissant is also home to one of the first Saints in North America, St. Philippine Rose Duchesne. She and the Society of the Sacred Heart arrived in 1819 for the purpose of establishing a girls’ school. The brick church that we know today as the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine was constructed shortly after in 1821.
The Jesuits then arrived in 1823 and cultivated the land that would eventually become St. Stanislaus Seminary. St. Stanislaus was a Jesuit novitiate akin to a medieval monastery: it was entirely self-sustaining, with farmland, orchards, and a bakery, even producing its own wine. Florissant was central to Jesuit missions to the West, which served a key role in initial diplomatic outreach and negotiation with indigenous tribes. The famous missionary Pierre DeSmet was ordained at St. Ferdinand, who frequently represented the United States government in brokering oft-violated agreements with Native Americans. “President Lincoln once said he would rather have Father DeSmet negotiating with the Indians than a regiment of soldiers.” Both the Jesuits and the Society of the Sacred Heart operated schools for indigenous children in Florissant, neither of which were particularly long-lasting. The legacy of government and ecclesiastical dealings with America’s indigenous population is a dark one, but it is worth noting that Father DeSmet and the Jesuits were comparatively culturally sensitive and well-regarded by many tribal leaders then and even by some today.
Florissant incorporated into St. Louis County as the village of St. Ferdinand for the second time in 1843 and established its charter in 1857. The French were first to settle in the Florissant Valley in its early years, and German immigrants arrived in multitudes towards the middle of the century. By 1866, there were 35 German Catholic families in Florissant, and Sacred Heart Cathedral and school were built to meet their spiritual and educational needs. There was no love lost between the Germans and the French: their schools even had to release at separate times during the day so that the children wouldn’t fight in the streets. Regardless, many Germans achieved great success and became prominent fixtures in Florissant’s business and political life.
Being twenty miles north of St. Louis, Florissant was isolated from urban life. However, in 1878 the West End Narrow Gauge Railroad connected Florissant to the city of St. Louis, providing a much more comfortable journey than a horse-drawn carriage or wagon. This enabled families to work in St. Louis but live out in the significantly less polluted countryside. St. Louis’ wealthy would travel out to socialize at the country estates in the Florissant Valley for Sunday leisure. The train line was always in financial straits, and eventually discontinued service to Florissant in 1931. But it had played an essential role in fully integrating Florissant with the rest of the St. Louis area.
What would catapult Florissant’s population from that of a small agricultural community to St. Louis’ largest suburb was the aftermath of World War II. Federal Housing Administration loans and GI Bill grants incentivized the construction of large tracts of housing. Florissant, with ample swathes of flat farmland, was a prime location for suburban development, and its population exploded from 1,369 in 1940 to 38,166 by 1960. In response to this growth, a new St. Ferdinand’s was built in 1955. A new city charter was also passed in 1963, making the job of mayor full-time and incorporating administrative adjustments to address the needs of a much larger community.
Even though much about Florissant changed, its people cherished their history and took several measures during this time to ensure its preservation. Numerous different civic organizations dedicated to educating about local history and landmarks were formed during this time. When the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine fell into disrepair and was at risk of being torn down, members of the community rallied and formed Friends of Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in 1958, which saved and restored the structure. In that same year, the Florissant Valley Historical Society was organized. It was able to save and restore the historic Taille de Noyer home in 1960 and also publishes the Florissant Valley Quarterly for articles on local history. Historic Florissant Inc. was founded in 1969 and has worked to save important buildings such as the old Narrow Gauge Railroad Depot and several historic homes. The city government also established a Historic District and a Landmarks Commission in 1965, enshrining protections for Florissant history in its laws. Thanks to these dedicated efforts by the Florissant community, we have been able to keep important pieces of the past with us and can readily learn about the Florissant story today.
Ashley Maempa, B.A. History and Philosophy from UMSL’s Pierre-Laclede Honors College. “A Brief History of Florissant” was researched and written thanks to archival and secondary sources provided by Historic Florissant Inc.’s research center, as well as the Missouri Historical Society, State Historical Society of Missouri, and the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
St. Ferdinand de Florissant by Gilbert J. Garraghan, S.J
Florissant, Missouri by Rosemary Straub Davison
Rail, Mail, and Dreams: The Story of the West End Narrow Gauge Railroad by Rosemary Straub Davison
These materials and more are all available for purchase at Historic Florissant Inc., located at the Gittemeier House (1067 Dunn Road, Florissant, MO).