On the Fringe of Fame, by Elizabeth Fleming Rhodes, Chapter 3

On the Fringe of Fame


St. Louis

ST. LOUIS was a town to excite an adventurous young army officer. It was the gateway to the West, the crossroads to adventure. The great waterways of the Mississippi and Missouri brought their commerce to this dominating center: up from the Ohio came steamboats; downstream floated keelboats, pirogues, barges, and canoes.

The old French trading post, started in 1764, had grown into a bustling town of over seven thousand. Locust tree-lined Rue Royale, Rue de l;Eglise, and Rue des Granges were becoming Americanized and were known as Main, Second and Third. Here the French aristocrat, New England puritan, Virginia cavalier, homespun settler, and buckskin-clad mountain man rubbed elbows. Negro slaves, Mexicans, and Indians also thronged the narrow sidewalks and shops, ignored and scorned by the aggressive whites. There was excitement in the air, and tall tales to be heard on every corner. Charles Hoffman, a visitor in 1835, was entranced to overhear, “you slapped him over with your rifle, and I took the fellow’s hair.”1

Washington Irving’s Astoria describes the “motley population” of St. Louis vividly:

Gay, grimacing, singing, good humored Canadian voyageurs. Vagrant Indians, of various tribes, loitering about the streets. Now and then a stark Kentucky hunter, in leathern hunting dress, with rifle on shoulder and knife in belt, strode along. Here and there were new brick houses and shops, just set up by bustling, driving and eager men of traffic from the Atlantic States; while on the other hand, the old French mansions with open casements, still retained the easy indolent air of the original colonists, and now and then the scraping of a fiddle, a strain of an ancient French song, or the sound of billiard balls, showed that the happy gallic turn for gayety and amusement still lingered in the place.2

Another traveler, Charles Latrobe, also mentions the sound of fiddles, billiard-tables and “old little coffee-houses.” He was greatly intrigued with the variety of alcoholic beverages in 1833 and speaks of “drinking and stimulating with mint-julep, mint-sling, bitters, hailstone, snow storm, apple toddy, punch, Tom and Jerry, egg-nog.” he considered the recipe for Mint Juleps to be so dangerous that he refused to give it to his English readers, because “if you get hold of the recipe, instead of being an orderly sober member of society, a loyal subject, a good Tory, you will get muzzy and hot brained and begin to fret about reform.”3

Along the waterfront whiskey flowed freely, however, and adventurers and gamblers became involved in brawls. Tempers ran high, even in the upper classes, and many duels were fought on Bloody Island where Senator Thomas Hart Benton, John Charles Fremont’s future father-in-law, had shot and killed Charles Lucas in 1817.

The city was like an unplanned quilt, a conglomeration of differently shaped and colored patches sewn together, haphazardly, with rather crude stitches. Tobacco factories, manufactories of red and white lead pigment, tanneries, and other industries were springing up beside the huge stinking warehouses of the fur trade. The old city was being nudged by the new. In the center of the town stood the cathedral and five other churches of different denominations, a calm, spiritual core in the wild ebullience. Here the lees found another Christ Church, “a small brick edifice with a cupola in the center and looking more like an academy than a church building.”4 Here they have worshipped in one of the forty-eight high-walled pews, behind General William Clark, General Ashley, and other Episcopal worthies.

Richard and Julia would have met General William Clark, the principal citizen of St. Louis. This hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and brother of General George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame, was a tall, erect man with a fine physique. His long, aristocratic face was handsome and animated, usually bubbling over with laughter and jokes. Because his once abundant red hair had become thin and gray, the Indians now called him “Sand-Haired Father,” instead of the former name of “Red-Headed Chief.” His hospitality to whites and Indians was legendary throughout the West: the big Indian Council Room adjoining his house generally was filled with visiting Indians. Everyone loved and respected him, except those trappers who felt that he coddled the Indians, and that the only good Indians were dead Indians.

This “Red-Headed Chief,” who had worked with Lewis Cass on the prairie du Chien treaty, had been greatly disappointed when this peace had been broken twice, the second time by Black hawk; like Cass, he was anxious to see peace between the Indian tribes.

St. Louis had been wearing a frightful pall: the dreaded cholera epidemic, which had been circling the globe, had crept insidiously up the American rivers, and after nearly wiping out Winfield Scott’s soldiers in the Black Hawk War, had hit the city, decimating whites, blacks and Indians alike. Funeral bells had clanged continuously as the healthy crept apprehensively about the gloomy city, holding handkerchiefs over their noses to ward off the noxious vapors. Julia had kept little Mary Elizabeth and Julia close to her side while waiting for the birth of Evelina Prosser on September 24, 1832, and during the first critical months of the infant’s life. As spring approached, the cholera began to abate, and the family rejoiced that little Evelina had escaped the omnipresent scourge of dysentery.

St. Louis also had that bane of the modern world, smog. As early as 1823, the Missouri Republican records this evil, stating, “It is well known that this smoke has been in some instances so dense as to render it necessary to use candles at midday.”5 Moreover, Sir William Drummond Stewart complained in 1832 that the town was poorly paved and unlighted, that there was no theatre, and that fires were the only amusement.

Just a little to the north of the town were the famous Indian mounds, which were visited by all newcomers and tourists. Until as late as 1826, the Indians had returned regularly to mourn at these “truncated pyramids with perfect rectangular shape.”6

Jefferson Barracks was situated on a high bluff above the Mississippi, about ten miles outside the city, and here Richard found many of his old Army friends. The Lees also met many of the wealthier citizens of St. Louis, who had beautiful homes and farms in the “grand Prairie” outside the town, where rich alluvial soil made a fertile plain eighty miles long and five miles wide. Fruit trees, corn, “gigantic sycamores and grapevines, the spice wood, the pawpaws and pecan-nuts, the groves of wild plum and crab [apple]—the game with which the surface abounds” 7 made the country lovely, indeed. Here Julia found a gentle society, similar to that of her tidewater Virginia, and she could forget the strangeness and roughness of the frontier town.

At this time the government was busy moving Indian tribes out of the way of the settlers and found that the tribes were not enthusiastic about being ousted from their ancient domains. In April 1832, Black Hawk led his displaced tribe back east of the Mississippi, and from April until September the Army, under Winfield Scott, pursued the embittered Indians until Black Hawk was brought to terms.

Later, Black Hawk was imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks. Along with the Indian mounds, old church, and newly chartered university. Black Hawk had become a showpiece of St. Louis, exhibited to Washington Irving and other visitors. Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, described him as “a little old man, perhaps seventy years of age, with gray hair, and a light yellow complexion; a slightly curved nose and Chinese features, to which the shaven head, with usual tuft behind, not a little contributed.”8 Somehow, Richard acquired Black Hawk’s peace pipe; it became one of his most precious possessions. According to family tradition, he smoked this pipe with Black Hawk and later Black Hawk gave him the pipe.9

The St. Louis Republican had been full of news about the tariffs and the debates of Calhoun, who favored states rights, and Webster and his “union now and forever.” Now in 1832, impetuous South Carolina declared the new tariff null and void and passed acts to enable the state to purchase arms to prevent enforcement of the tariff by Federal Authorities. (South Carolina was giving a preview of the future; she was demonstrating her independence and her scorn of the Federal government.) Because of his “Southern proclivities,” Richard felt that he would not be returned to his Artillery company which was then stationed in the harbor of Charlestown, South Carolina, nor would his name win approval for the appointment to the senior captaincy of the Corps of Ordnance being formed at St. Louis. His future looked dark.

Andrew Jackson’s new Secretary of War was engrossed by the West. As Governor of Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass had worked with General William Clark to bring about a permanent peace with the Indians by the treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1825. (A strong believer in temperance, Cass had poured the liquor provided for the Indians on the ground, and now in 1832, as Secretary of War, he substituted coffee and sugar in place of liquor for the Army, which had formerly maneuvered in an alcoholic vapor.)

One of the first things Cass did, as Secretary of War, was to make a study of the fur trade and the trade with Mexico. This report had been submitted to the President and Congress in 1831, and was soon republished in the local newspapers. This report stated that the posts in the fur trade had been “established by the orders of the War Department.”10 There was also reference to the bill before Congress to mount a part of the Army to protect the caravans, Cass stating that “it is quite time that United States should interpose, efficaciously, to put a stop as well to the depredations of the Indians against our own citizens, as to their hostilities among themselves.#&8221;11

Included in the document were reports of William Clark, William Gordon, Major John Dougherty, and letters from Thomas Forsyth and one of John Jacob Astor’s veteran fur traders, A. P. Chouteau. Residents of St. Louis were especially interested in Chouteau’s report, dated November 12, 1831.

Should peace [between the warring Indian tribes] be restored the different tribes would then turn their attention altogether to hunting, consequently the Arkansas River would become a highway as the Mississippi and the Missouri for the transportation of furs and other articles of Indian trade. It is an acknowledged fact that the nearest and best route to Sante Fe is up the Arkansas River. The safety of navigation must however be secured by treaties with the wild Indians or else the lives of traders would be in imminent danger.12

Richard would have read the reports and pored over maps of the West, which showed the Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas rivers, but little marked west of the rivers, except for a few names such as Santa Fe, Taos, Rocky Mountains, California, Oregon, and Mexico. The wide area in the Rocky Mountains and to the west was where the American fur company had been sending trappers since 1823; above in the northwest was the territory claimed by Great Britain through the Hudson Bay Company; in the southwest was the land belonging to Mexico which was hostile to American intrusion. The American Government could not show official interest in the foreign areas, but it could not stop western expansion.

Like Senator Benton, Cass was very much aware of the “manifest destiny” of his country. He had dreams and schemes, and as a result a few Army officers were taking leaves of absence to go trapping in the West. for example, Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, whom Richard had known at West Point, had just asked for a two-year furlough from the Army to trap beaver and to build a fort, ostensibly just a trading post. This fort was to be built in a strategic spot which would protect the western approaches to South Pass and would cover the main routes to Oregon and the Humboldt River route to California in case of a future war with Great Britain. Although Bonnerville was now nominally a civilian, he was busy sending to his old commanding officer regular letters which discussed the problems of a possible military invasion of Oregon.13 The U.S. Army’s sponsorship of Bonneville’s fort was kept confidential so as not to alarm the British: Fort Bonneville was close to the contested border between two nations.

The news that General Cass was sending officers into the West in the guise of trappers would have set Richard afire. This would be an opportunity to serve his country, explore the great unknown West, and recoup his shaky finances.

Following his father’s death, March 17,1827, Richard had requested several furloughs to attend to his father’s “much embarrassed and unsettled affairs.” His father’s estate had been saddled with a debt of $24,000, the assets had proved to be nebulous or difficult to convert into cash.

Elizabeth’s brother, Zaccheus Collins, had been able to advance $3500 towards a house and lot at 416 6th Street, N.W.[,] in Washington, and had given other funds to the distressed family. When he died suddenly in 1831, Elizabeth knew that she was his heir but was unable to prove this because the will was never found. Once again, the family finances seemed desperate. Consequently, at the end of 1832, Richard wrote for a year’s furlough, explaining that it was “the only means within my power of rescuing my property from ruin.”14

Although he asked for this furlough ostensibly for financial reasons, the mysterious hand of the War Department was visible. General Alexander Macomb authorized Brigadier General Henry W. Atkinson to furnish Lee with equipment; the Commander in Chief made veiled promises to extend the furlough if necessary,15 and Richard later asserted that General Cass had sent him to negotiate with the Indian tribes and to work out some means of communication between them and the government.16



1. Hoffman, Charles F. A Winter in the West, New York, 1835, Vol. 1, p. 71.

2. Irving, Washington, Astoria, New York, 1910, p. 119.

3. Latrobe, Charles J., The Rambler in North America, London, 1835. Vol. II, pp. 61–62.

Nearly everyone had a recipe for punch and the Lees wrote out the following for their closest friends and relatives. “For half a gallon of Roman punch, rub six good sized fresh lemons upon loaf sugar which, with the juice you put half a pint of the best French brandy, half a pint of the best Jamaica rum and half a pint of wine. Add water to these proportions to make half gallon in all. If too sweet or too strong it will not freeze readily.” Recipe in letter written by Julia Lee to Elizabeth Dabney, not dated (R.B.L.F. Collection).

4. Rehkopf, Charles F. “The Beginnings of the Episcopal Church in Missouri, 1819–1844,” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society. XI, 1955, p. 265.

5. Missouri Historical Society Glimpses of the Past, VI, p. 103.

6. Hoffman, op. cit., p. 73.

7. Latrobe, op. cit., p. 239.

8. Thwaites, Reuben Gold, Early Western Travels 1748–1846, Cleveland, 1905. Vol. 22, pp. 229–230.

9. This peace pipe is owned by Miss Harriot Fleming of The Plains Va., a descendant of Richard’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Lee Fleming. According to tradition, Richard smoked this pipe with Black Hawk.

10. “Report of Lewis Cass to the President of the United States.” Missouri Historical Society, Glimpses of the Past, Vol. IV, p. 5. There were three reports to Jackson, 1830–32 concerning the fur trade. Some were compiled by Eaton, some by Cass.

11. Ibid., p. 9.

12. Ibid., Vol. XI, p. 86.

13. Irving, Washington. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, Chicago, 1843, p. 300. See letter written by Major General Alexander Macomb granting Bonneville leave of absence. De Voto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri, Boston, 1947. See pp. 58–60 for location of fort.

14. Inventory of Richard Bland Lee’s estate given by Eleanor Lee Templeman to the Sully Foundation. The inventory lists: A house and lots in Washington valued at $8,000, a judgment (collectible?) against John Hopkins for $12,000, twenty-three shares in a stock with an undecipherable name valued at $1150, land on Bigbone Creek in Kentucky costing $5,000 but now worth $3,000, a life estate in the farm at Langley valued at nothing but perhaps some day accruing to $2,000. These had been enumerated on paper but that was all. As a last hope the ex-Congressman had listed General Light Horse Harry’s $40,000 bond and note as possibly being worth $10,000, adding optimisticly, “Should Genl. Lee’s bond and note be rendered effective by a recognition of a claim held by his son for the benefit of his creditors on Florida lands, add $30,000.”

15. Lee, R. B. Letter to Lieutenant Colonel Eustis, November 1, 1827; Letter to Adjutant General Jones, December 31, 1832; Letter to Major General Macomb, December 31, 1832.

16. Autobiographical sketch written in 1863 to be sent to President Jefferson Davis states “Was invited by General Cass the Secretary of War to take charge as military conductor of the Caravan of Santa Fe traders, and as the Caravan would not return until the following year, to avail myself of the occasion, to ascertain the condition of the Tribe of Indians.” (R.BL.F. Collection).

When asking for an extension of leave for his trip to Santa Fe, R. B. Lee says, “This request is made in compliance with a provision from the Commander in Chief to that effect.” Letter, August 15, 1833, National Archives, Record Group No. 94.

Another letter to Colonel R. Jones, July, 1833, National Archives, op. cit., asks for an extension of furlough “in compliance with the promise of the Commander in Chief to me to that effect.”

Lee, R. B. Letter to Adjutant General Jones, November 7, 1834, National Archives, refers to General Macomb’s letter to Brigadier General Atkinson giving him “authority to furnish me with an equipment.”

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