Friday, February 19, 2010

Ball At Motard's Mill

...Henry Gratiot says as a boy [he] played ball against Motard's mill with other boys, was a sort of resort for them...
-A History of Missouri, Volume II

Towards the end of the Spanish colonial era in Louisiana, Nicolas de Finiels observed from the west side of the Mississippi that there was a functioning windmill on the Missouri River at St. Charles, which was "the only one that has succeeded in the Illinois Country, and it had several false starts before it began to function. There was an attempt to build one of wood in St. Louis on the slope of the plateau where the fort is located, but in this case ingenuity tried to liberate itself by blazing a trail beyond its capacities." This unsuccessful windmill was undoubtedly that built by Joseph Motard, which Henry Gratiot fondly remembered in 1825, claiming that he had "a perfect knowledge of the situation of Motard's windmill, for when a Boy he has frequently played Ball against this same Mill."
-French Roots In The Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times

I'm still attempting to run down the original 1825 quote but what we have here is the earliest reference to ball-playing in St. Louis that I'm aware of. This is exciting stuff.

Henry Gratiot (pictured above) was the son of Charles Gratiot, a merchant who moved to St. Louis in 1781 and married into the prominent Chouteau/Laclede family. Henry (or Henri) was born in 1789 and lived in St. Louis until 1825. Joseph Motard began operating his mill on Mill creek in St. Louis in 1788.

Assuming that Gratiot would no longer be considered a child after 15 or 16 years of age (if not younger), we can place his ball-playing at Motard's mill sometime in the last decade of the 18th century or in the first few years of the 19th century. Lets call it sometimes between 1795 and 1805. Considering that St. Louis did not become part of the United States until 1804, I think that it's safe to say that ball-playing was taking place in St. Louis while it was still under French or Spanish rule.

What kind of ball game was this? It's impossible to say without more information. My first thinking was that this was a form of barn ball, which was played in Illinois in the early part of the 19th century. But, given the cultural differences between the people who settled St. Louis and those who settled Illinois, I'm not particularly confident about that. While we may never know what specific kinds of ball games were being played in St. Louis in the 18th century, at the very least we now have evidence that there was ball-playing going on. And that's the important point.

I've also found a great deal of information about ball-playing in the Illinois country in the 1820s and 1830s that, I believe, speaks to the spread of the pre-modern game in the Midwest. It's reasonably interesting stuff and, one of these days, I may write something up and post it. While it isn't specifically about St. Louis or the greater St. Louis area, I think it sheds some light on what may have been happening in St. Louis with regards to pre-modern ball-playing.

Just to tease you a bit, I'll say that the arrival of Yankee settlers in central Illinois in the 1820s had a profound impact on the amount of ball-playing that was taking place in the Illinois country and it appears that they brought many of their ball games with them when they moved to the frontier. My thinking at the moment (which may very well change) is that these Yankee settlers influenced the ball games that were being played in St. Louis in the antebellum era rather than the Creole St. Louisans infuencing the Illinois and Missouri hinterland.

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