St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Friday, January 28, 2005

A thorough new look at St. Louis roots

A new history of St. Louis, hopefully just the first volume of it, is now in bookstores. Beyond the Frontier: A History of St. Louis to 1821 is a comprehensive in-depth study of St. Louis from area civilization in the last ice age until Missouri statehood. The 676-page study is written by lifelong St. Louisan Dr. Frederick A. Hodes, who is also a friend of mine. It is published by Patrice Press, a publisher of western history books.

Starting with evidence of civilization in the last ice age, Fred traces our history through the arrival of European settlers, the city’s founding, Spanish rule, the American Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase and early territorial years. The Oracle went straight to the chapter on government and politics in these early years. The 1820 election of the Board of Trustees presented a fascinating glimpse of St. Louis history, as all 12 of the candidates for the five seats bear surnames that we now find on our streets, neighborhoods and landmarks. The competition must have been tough: Thomas Hart Benton came in dead last!

Many will enjoy the final chapter, a virtual walking tour of St. Louis in 1820. Fred depicts an afternoon walk in 1820, starting a few blocks south of what is now the Poplar Street Bridge. He takes us north along the riverfront nearly to the Big Mound, and then returns by another street a block west, pointing out each house or business, on both sides of the street—introducing us to the people who live there and telling us what they do for a living.

The publisher may have done the book a disservice with its promotional description. It’s opening words, “This is a scholarly book” may needlessly scare off some potential readers. While the book is well researched and well documented (and therefore well deserving of the intended compliment), “scholarly” does not equate to “boring” or “over your head.” It is actually quite readable. Mrs. Oracle (not a history wonk but an artsy person with a degree in fine arts) is reading it, and she is finding it quite interesting.

This book is the first volume of a proposed five-volume set. The next volume will cover 1821-1850.

The author went to night school at St. Louis University while working full time as a mapmaker for the Defense Mapping Agency, earning a Ph.D. in history in 1979. Currently serving as 16th Ward Republican Committeeman, he was one of the stakeholders who offered last year’s proposed charter reform amendments.