The Missouri Department of Transportation began conducting archaeological investigations in 2013 for proposed highway improvements in downtown St. Louis. The construction project is situated on the periphery of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and coincides with the location of the original village of St. Louis as platted in 1764. Based upon a preliminary analysis of the project area conducted in 2012, the Poplar Street Bridge Project was anticipated to impact significant archaeological deposits dating from the late-eighteenth through the early-twentieth centuries. Over the years, very little archaeological work has been conducted in the City of St. Louis. In fact, since 1966 there have been roughly a dozen projects—excluding MoDOT’s recent investigations for the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge—that involved even limited excavation of significant historical archaeological sites. With this in mind, the Poplar Street Bridge Project presented MoDOT archaeologists with the rare opportunity for studying every part of the city’s rich history.
During the past 250 years, this segment of the city has contained a mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial properties. In addition to properties such as the Apollo Garten Theater (a biergarten and German theater potentially located along the western edge of the study area), the highway project likely contains numerous residences dating to the early to mid-nineteenth century. At least two of these residences were owned by Elizabeth or Eliza Haycraft—St. Louis’ most famous madam and noted philanthropist—and used as brothels from the early 1850s through the 1880s. Additionally, the project area also includes a malt house, brewery, flour mill, brass foundry, sausage factory, cooper, and several grocers.
As of February 2015, excavation has been conducted on two archaeological sites: the Madam Haycraft Site (named after Elizabeth Haycraft), and the Louis Beaudoin Site (named after one of the early inhabitants of the city). Excavation first began on the Haycraft Site where features dating from the mid-nineteenth century through to the early twentieth century were immediately identified. These features include several residential building foundations, a metal-working forge, and numerous cisterns and privy vaults. In regard to the eighteenth-century occupation, testing of the Haycraft Site focused on three properties originally owned by Joseph Bouchard, Simon Coussot, and Gabriel Becquet. The first lot was originally conveyed to Joseph Bouchard in 1769. It is likely that Bouchard constructed the first residence on the block at this time, described as a “house of posts, 20 by 18” (Scharf 1883:147). Excavation uncovered a number of wall trenches (Figure 2) and two features tentatively identified as earthen ovens or cooking pits, similar to those identified at the St. Ferdinand Church Site (Harl 2006).
Excavation in the southeast corner of the block uncovered a second and larger structure, possibly the remains of the house owned by Simon Coussot. Hand excavation of the Coussot house identified a relatively dense scatter of colonial period artifacts including French and British ceramics, window pane and container glass, lead shot and sprue, and a single seed bead. In addition to numerous wall trenches and post molds, excavation also uncovered an apparent cellar pit.
Limited excavation conducted in 2013 within the Louis Beaudoin Site identified two historical components: Structure 1 (a brick residence probably constructed during the second quarter of the nineteenth century) and Structure 2 (a French post-in-earth cottage constructed c.1770). Structure 1 is the remainder of a brick residence once located at 604 S. Second Street. Portions of the structure that fall within the excavation area include a brick foundation and floor, a brick privy, a possible ash pit, and exterior brick and limestone pavements. A second, older privy (or possibly a cistern) might be related to either an earlier occupation of Structure 1 or to a residence as yet unidentified.
The lower site component—below features and strata associated with Structure1—appears to be associated with the original occupation of the site (c.1770-1820) by Louis Beaudoin. According to historical records, the northwest quarter of the block was first granted on April 30, 1768, to Martin Duralde. It apparently reverted back to the government, and was granted to Jean Salé Lajoie on July 3, 1769 (Scharf 1883:143). There is no record of the property reverting again, which suggests that the property was improved (i.e. a house was built) at that time. By 1780, the property appears to be owned by Louis Beaudoin, who probably resided there until his death in 1820 (Houck 1909:196; Scharf 1883:142-147). The improvements on Beaudoin’s property in 1804 were described as a “house of posts, 18 by 15, barn, 20 by 30” (Scharf 1883:147). Features identified during the archaeological investigations appear to match the historical description and represent typical French poteaux-en-terre construction. Two features appear to be exterior wall trenches, while a third possibly represents a “sleeper” or floor joist trench as described at the Jarrot Nordique Site in Illinois (Mazrim 2012:176) and Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan (Halchin 1985:77-92).
Fifteen post molds were identified within the west wall trench, and an additional five within the “sleeper” trench. Although no post molds were identified within east wall trench, this might have been a result of excavation methods rather than the actual absence of features. With the exception of one rectangular post mold within “sleeper” trench, all post molds were circular with diameters varying between 6 and 24 cm. Outside of the three building trenches, an additional ten post molds were identified: four rectangular, three circular packed with limestone , and three circular with no apparent limestone. The circular post molds all appear to be stratigraphically associated with the French house, though the relationship of the rectangular features is less certain. This difference in the form of the post molds is likely diagnostic, and suggests either temporal or functional variation.
Two additional features identified during the excavation were a possible subfloor cellar within the Beaudoin house, and a shallow, basin-shaped rectangular pit located approximately 1 m west of the house. Artifacts recovered from in and around these two features include several pieces of Rouen-tradition faience (Mazrim 2012:32-39; Walthall 1991:93-94), a single sherd of Provence Yellow on White faience, lead-glazed coarse earthenwares, a gun flint, and a lead seal (Figures 3 & 4).
Archaeological data recovery for the Poplar Street Bridge Project is ongoing, and it is anticipated that additional evidence of the early occupation of St. Louis will be discovered in the coming months. Perhaps more importantly, however, it is expected that at the conclusion of the latest round of highway construction, intact remains of the French occupation of St. Louis will be safely encapsulated and preserved under pavement within MoDOT’s right of way.
Additional information about the sites and investigations, including two 20-minute interviews, can be found at:
Ekberg, Carl J. and Sharon K. Person
2015 St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive. University of Illinois Press, Champaign. [link]
1985 Excavations at Fort Michilimackinac 1983-1985: House C of the Southeast Row House. Archaeological Completion Report Series Number
11. Mackinac Island State Park Commission, Mackinac Island, Michigan.
2006 Archaeological Investigations at the Original St. Ferdinand Church Complex Site (23SL2246), City of Florissant, Missouri. Research Report
#412A. Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis.
Houck, Louis (editor)
1909 The Spanish Regime in Missouri. Volume 1. Edited by Louis Houck. R. R. Donnelly and Sons, Chicago. [link]
Mazrim, Robert F.
2011 At Home in the Illinois Country: French Colonial Domestic Site Archaeology in the Midwest 1730-1800. Studies in Archaeology No. 9. Illinois
State Archaeological Survey, University of Illinois, Urbana. [link]
2013 Introduction to Colonial Era Lead Seals. Le Journal 29(4):1-6.
Meyer, Michael J.
2014 The Lost City Found: Archaeology in Downtown Saint Louis. Le Journal 30(3):7-9.
Scharf, J. Thomas
1883 History of Saint Louis City and County: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Day Including Biographical Sketches of Representative Men.
Volume 1. Louis H. Everts and Company, Philadelphia. [link]
Walthall, John A.
1991 Faience in French Colonial Illinois. Historical Archaeology 25(1):80-106.