250 Years of History: Excavating Colonial St. Louis

In 1763, a small group of French traders made their way up the Mississippi River and established a settlement that would become Saint Louis. This colonial village, unfortunately, has been lost to time and urban development, as the city of Saint Louis has grown around and over it. However, just in time for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city, archaeologists with the Missouri Department of Transportation have found the first evidence of these earlier settlers. Now, let me welcome you to a day of archaeology at the Poplar Street Bridge project in the heart of Saint Louis, Missouri.

French ceramics

Eighteenth-century artifacts recovered from under the Poplar Street Bridge.

Since February 2012, we have been conducting archaeological investigations around the downtown area, preparing for a variety of road and highway construction project. Today (July 10, 2014), marks the end of the 27th week of fieldwork (including remote sensing, testing, and full data recovery) on what has quickly become two of the most significant archaeological sites we have ever identified.

Excavation of the Madam Haycraft Site.

Excavation of the Madam Haycraft Site.

Despite widely held belief, archaeological field work is showing that a surprisingly large amount of colonial Saint Louis remains buried and intact in the downtown area. Working in less-than-ideal conditions, we find that each new area that is exposed by our excavation is better than the last. As we carefully work by hand, with shovel and trowel, our work is juxtaposed with the heavy construction (and demolition) going on just a few meters away.

Possible cellar

A colonial-period pit feature.

Although we initially believed that our research would focus on the mid- to late-19th century, today we find that most of our time and effort is spent on studying the remains of an 18th-century frontier community. Careful hand excavation has currently uncovered a (relatively) dense scatter of colonial-period French and English ceramics; these small shards of pottery are found associated with the remains of a large, French-style (i.e. poteaux en terre or post-in-earth) structure. Within our excavation area, we appear to have the east, west, and south walls of a building (possibly a house); under the floor of that building is a large feature, likely a cellar, that contained a significant quantity of food bone, a fragmented wine bottle, musket balls, and faience (i.e. a French ceramic) sherds.

Archaeological excavation under the Poplar Street Bridge is ongoing, and it is anticipated that additional evidence of the early occupation of Saint Louis will be discovered. 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 Saint Louis will be safely encapsulated and preserved for future generations.