Three Flags Day: St. Louis’ 24 Hours in France
St. Louis is often portrayed as a city with many French influences. What with its Fleur-de-Lise emblazoned flag, grand Mardi Gras celebrations, and the multitude of Francophonic neighborhoods and streets. Despite this, the city has only existed in France proper for a confusing 24 hours. This singular complete rotation of the Earth and its attached bureaucratic nightmare is known locally as Three Flags Day, which was first celebrated on March 10th, 1804.
It may be well known that St. Louis’ roots lie in a small fur trading post established in 1764 by French trader Pierre Laclede, the namesake of UMSL’s honors college, which despite the historic name, was only founded in 1991. But what might be surprising is that at that time, the area that would become St. Louis was firmly in Spain, and it had been for nearly two years. Making Laclede’s decision to name it after a canonized king of France somewhat rebellious, if not slightly ironic.
For some background, following France’s disastrous defeat in the globe-spanning Seven Years War, the kingdom was forced to make many concessions to the victors as outlined in the Treaty of Paris. One of the largest concessions was Louisiana, the French’s name for a large swath of land that stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, occupying most of the modern Midwest and parts of the South. Home to the Mississippi River and the heart of the fur trade, Louisiana was a great prize for the victorious British and Spanish kingdoms, who promptly split it amongst themselves and got to ruling.
By the year 1800, the confidently drafted Treaty of Paris that so surely defined who owned which lines on a map, and their little-known interiors, was almost 40 years old and becoming increasingly irrelevant. The British had lost many of their North American holdings, and in some 12 years, Spain would too, in rather spectacular fashion, but that is a story for another day.
Spain, which had grown increasingly weak in the years since they annexed Louisiana, was starting to buckle under the region’s weight. Looking for a friend in France, which was no longer a kingdom, and a chance to relieve themselves of an 828,000-mile burden, they signed it back to them. The French’s new leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, was not one to turn down practically free land, but with the recent Haitian Revolution, and the threat of war with Britain, it was not a burden that he wished to have either.
Napoleon found an easy solution when the United States expressed interest in buying the city of New Orleans. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of it all at once, the captain, turned consul, turned emperor, agreed to sell all of Louisiana for the paltry sum of 15 million dollars, some 373 million today.
With such a short gap between the two treaties, and email not having been invented yet, not everyone got the memo, especially the Spanish officials who were still effectively running the area.
A few conferences were organized to expedite this confusing process, the largest in New Orleans, but St. Louis, despite being an important city in its own right, had no such events. Instead, the city played host to a rushed and haphazardly organized series of events, which goes as follows
When Captain Amos Stoddard and Merriweather Lewis crossed the Mississippi by boat to St. Louis in the early hours of March 9th, 1804, they were met by the Spanish Governor Carlos de Hault de Lassus. De Lassus had only been notified of the impending swap very recently and had spent the twilight days of his reign rapidly preparing the public for the changeover. When I say very recently, I am not exaggerating, De Lassus had only given notice to the public confirming the ceremony the day before.
Despite the rushed nature of it all, the act of handing the city over to the Americans was simple, requiring only the signing of various documents brought by Stoddard, who also acted as the French official, due to them not sending a representative.
After the administrative part of the process was over, a grand ceremony was held, with many notable St. Louisans in attendance, such as Antoine Soulard, and Auguste Chouteau. During this ceremony, the Spanish flag was lowered, and the French flag was raised to much applause.
The French flag was supposed to be lowered at dusk but following the grand celebrations, and much pleading on the part of the French St. Louisans, the flag was allowed to stay till the following midday.
The next day, the French flag was lowered, and the American flag was raised, placing St. Louis in the United States. A member of the public called for three cheers to mark this occasion but received an allegedly muted response from the crowd, who were said to be recovering from the previous night's festivities.
Though nearly 220 years have passed since this oft-forgotten ceremony was held, it still offers an interesting look into the diverse, and often strange, history of St. Louis.
Stevens, Walter Barlow, St. Louis the 4th City, The S.J. Clark Publishing Company, 1909.