French-Canadian missionaries arrived in the mid-Mississippi River Valley in 1698 and established a settlement at Cahokia the following year, the same year that the village of Williamsburg, Virginia, was founded. The missionaries left Quebec on a mission to convert Tamaroa Indians to Christianity.
Besides Cahokia, other settlements sprang to life in the rich bottomlands along the Mississippi River: Kaskaskia (1703), St. Anne’s (1719), St. Philippe (1723), Prairie du Rocher (1721), and Sainte Genevieve (1749). These settlements were compact in size with small populations organized around agriculture. Each family farmed its own plot, but there were also common fields that residents shared to graze cattle and harvest wood. The residents of these communities often included blacks—some free, some enslaved—and a substantial number of Indians. A brief summary of the development of the main communities is in the next section.
One of the oldest communities along the Mississippi River, Sainte Genevieve was founded around 1749 by French-speaking farmers who relocated from Kaskaskia, Illinois. Nearly three centuries later, the center of town still resembles a French colonial village.
At the time of Sainte Genevieve’s founding, there were no resident American Indians, although Osage Indians occasionally hunted in the area. Long before that, the Mississippian culture centered upriver around today’s St. Louis built settlements in this area. Early Ste. Genevievens found eight large platform mounds in the area where they decided to farm; those mounds have been nearly erased over time by continual cultivation on top of them. Late in the 18th century, some American Indians conducted occasional raids on the village, but trading relationships eventually developed around fur that blunted much of the hostility.
The village got a boost around 1763 after Britain gained control of France’s Illinois country. Many French families relocated across the Mississippi River to places like Sainte Genevieve to avoid British rule. In 1773, Sainte Genevieve counted 676 residents, 276 of whom were enslaved blacks; forty percent of families owned at least one enslaved worker.
The first farmers built on the floodplain about two miles south of the current town site. After a major flood in 1785 (l’année des grandes eaux), most of the residents relocated to the higher ground (les Petites Côtes or little hills) where the city is today. Residents lived in town while farming long, narrow lots in fields on the edge of town. Tobacco, maize, and wheat were the most common crops. Folks made a pretty good living, but they also knew how to have fun. The village had three billiard halls in the 18th century, and gambling was popular, especially on Sundays after church.
English-speaking settlers began moving to Sainte Genevieve at the end of the 18th century. In 1800, Sainte Genevieve’s population had grown past 1,100 residents, nearly one-third of whom were enslaved. The famous naturalist and artist John James Audubon moved to Sainte Genevieve in 1811 to set up a mercantile business with his friend, Jean Ferdinand Rozier. Rozier took to the business world well (and still has many descendants in the area). Audubon did not, but he later found his niche drawing and studying wildlife.
German Catholics began settling in Saint Genevieve around 1840. They built sturdy masonry structures with locally-fired bricks, like the Firmin Rozier Store (c. 1850) and the John Hael house (c. 1860). By the mid-1800s, there were more people in town with German than French ancestry.
For a brief time, Ste. Genevieve had a busy river port for shipping iron ore from the Missouri mines, as well as granite and marble, but the railroad eventually captured that business.
After the Civil War, newly freed African Americans settled in the south part of the city; in the 1920s, a small wave of African Americans migrated to the city from the South to work at the lime factory. In 1930, three of the newer residents were accused of robbing and killing two white men. The three were arrested and jailed in St. Louis, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy a group of white vigilantes, who stormed the black neighborhoods, going door-to-door and ordering everyone to leave town. Virtually all did. The state sent in the National Guard to restore civil order, and long-time black residents were invited to come back (but not the newer migrants). Many returned, but most no longer felt welcome and didn’t stay. By 1960, the city’s black population had declined from two hundred to just sixteen; it has rebounded somewhat since, now numbering around seventy people.
Ste. Genevieve threw a big party in 1935 to celebrate its bicentennial, back when most people identified the founding year as 1735. Dignitaries from around the country visited the city; even President Franklin Roosevelt called to congratulate residents. The highlight was a live show called Fair Play, which was written and directed by a priest from nearby Perryville, Missouri—the Reverend JB Platisha. The city dammed Valle Spring to create a lake for the production and built a 14,000-seat arena around it. In the middle, they built a triangular stage with a model of the old village. The show premiered on July 27, 1935, with a cast of 1,200— yes, 1,200! During the show, the little island was covered with water to simulate the 1785 flood. The whole celebration was a big hit. The Frisco line ran a charter train from St. Louis, and thousands of people rode it every day. The event was among the first efforts to promote Ste. Genevieve as a tourist destination.
Today, tourism plays an important role in the city’s economy, as does lime processing, which is still going strong.