Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dating The Gratiot Reference

Henry Gratiot
The Gratiot reference is the oldest known reference to ball-playing in St. Louis and it comes from a deposition that Henry Gratiot gave to Theodore Hunt, the United States recorder of land titles in Missouri, in 1825.  In the deposition, Gratiot was asked if he had any knowledge about a windmill in St. Louis owned by Joseph Motard, to which he answered 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."  When I first came across this reference a couple of years ago, I assumed, based on Gratiot's age, that the ball-playing he referred to in the deposition had taken place in the 1790s or the first decade of the 1800s.  Based on more research, I can confirm that the ball-playing mentioned in the Gratiot reference should be dated no later than 1800.

The 1800 date is a bit conservative and based on the work of Louis Houck, who put together a timeline in his two volume history of Missouri and placed the Gratiot reference with other events in 1800.  However, based on research into the life of Joseph Motard and his mill, I think that the mid-1790s is a more likely date for Gratiot's ball-playing days.  There are several sources that date the building of Motard's mill to 1784 or 1785 and there's another source that confirms that it had been built by 1788.  Also, there are several sources that state that the mill only stood for about a decade and there are contemporary sources from 1798 that reported that the mill had fallen into disrepair and disuse.  Therefore, I think it's safe to say that Gratiot's ball-playing took place before 1800, by which time the mill had most likely been torn down.

Henry Gratiot was born in 1789 and I think it's fair to assume that by the age of five or six, he could have been out playing ball games with the other boys of the town.  That would place the activities mentioned in the Gratiot reference to around 1795.  St. Louis was founded in 1764 so we have evidence of ball-playing in the city just thirty years after Laclede and Chouteau set foot in the area and several years before St. Louis became part of the United States.

I think that, generally speaking, when talking or writing about the Gratiot reference, I'll probably use Houck's date mostly because I have a great deal of respect for Houck's work and, also, 1800 is a nice round number.  But the reality is that there was ball-playing going on in St. Louis in the 18th century and we can date specific instances of ball-playing to around 1895. 

The picture, above, of the young Gratiot comes from the Wisconson Historical Society images collection and I don't want them to think that I would ever imagine using their images without permission and there's no way that I have a copy of the picture anywhere on my computer.  Because that would be wrong.   

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