Since the late 19th century, historians and the general public have been entranced by the American West, the last frontier that so captured the attention of the world, and according to many, shaped the character of contemporary America. Novelists, artists, and early historians romanticized the frontier experience into a story of rugged persevering individualism and lawlessness preceding the advance of civilization. Frederick Turner's frontier hypothesis, an explanation of the progression of settlement and rise of modern western cities, was the dominant interpretive theme. Turner pointed to the Mississippi River region as a scene of typical frontier evolution:

"First comes the pioneer who with a horse, cow, and one or two breeders of swine ... strikes into the woods with his family, and becomes the founder of a new county, or perhaps state. He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits, and occupies until the range is somewhat subdued... and he lacks elbow room.... [then] he 'breaks for the higher timber, clears out for the New Purchase, or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over. Emigrants of the succeeding class develop farms, build more substantial houses, occasionally plant orchards, build mills, school-houses, court-houses, etc., and exhibit the picture and forms of plain, frugal, civilized life. In the third wave come the "men of capital and enterprise... The small village rises to a spacious town or city ... Broadcloths, silks leghorns, crapes, and all the refinements, luxuries, elegancies, frivolities, and fashions are in vogue" (McDermott 1967:2).

Turner has failed to consider that before there was a rural frontier west, there was an urban frontier. At the same time settlers were making initial forays across the Appalachian Mountains, urban settlement in the American Bottoms, a thousand miles into the wilderness, was already over a half century old. it was the men of capital and enterprise who were the spearheads of settlement in the Mississippi region. Based in towns such as Cincinnati, Louisville, Frankfort, Lexington, and St. Louis, wealthy entrepreneurs exerted control over the commercial activities of regions from centralized economic power bases (McDermott 1967:2,13). Early business ventures provided the impetus for settlement and competed for survival against the schemes of other enterprising visionaries. On one level, the West was a big arena in which urban rivals vied for control of extractive fur, agricultural, mineral and lumber resources, and pushed roads, canals, and railroads into the hinterland to capture and direct the flow of national trade. Company towns emerged almost overnight as support areas for manufacturing and industry, and western business interests were often controlled by eastern capitalists. East St. Louis developed from a ferry landing to a vital link in the transcontinental transportation network and growth as a manufacturing center, yet most of the commercial enterprises and wealth of the city was controlled by St. Louis, Chicago, and northeastern investors. The expansion of settlement and taming of the West must be viewed in light of this theme of the centralized growth of the national and world market and evolution of the urban frontier, if a true picture of 19th century America is ever to emerge.  

East St. Louis became an adjunct of St. Louis economic interests very early in its development and has evolved from this early frontier economic mode up to the present. It should come as no surprise that the demography, politics, economics, and physical layout of East St. Louis and the east side in general can be traced directly to 19th century developments. This realization has occurred in East St. Louis and elsewhere as many current problems with the American city are examined and found to be deeply rooted in early American urban traditions. As the problems of the modern city become more and more the central issues of society, the historical perspective of the urban United States takes on new significance and relevancy.

This historical background will examine the development of East St. Louis, and attempt to shed light on the complex interplay of factors involved in this evolution and the resulting effect on the physical layout of the town, business and institutions, and the local population. Research themes that will be developed are the role of East St. Louis as a hub in the transportation network and as a manufacturing center, the internal development of city politics and commercial policy, socio-economic status and ethnicity of the various enclaves of company workers, and the interplay between the natural forces of the Mississippi River and human aspirations. This background begins with the initial colonization of the American Bottoms by the French.




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