Bellefontaine Neighbors Article

(Although this article is about Bellefontaine Neighbors, much of it refers to the Community of Spanish Lake.* Our comments and additions are in italics)

Urban settlement has caused the discovery of the North American continent and the exploration of its various areas. Many important events have taken place that eventually had their effects on what is now the City of Bellefontaine Neighbors. This urban settlement was established in North St. Louis County in the mid 1800s.

The Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River was ceded by France to Spain in the year 1762 and this is where the history of Bellefontaine Neighbors (and Spanish Lake) has its real start. The Spanish military authorities in Madrid looked at their available maps and decided to construct forts on either side of the mouth of the Missouri River. They felt that this would strengthen their hold on this area and discourage intruders from the east from entering.

Captain Rios was dispatched to this area and he constructed the forts (one in Spanish Lake) as best he could, although the banks of the Missouri River at this point were mostly swamps and quicksand. Captain Rios sent glowing reports of his activities back to Madrid in spite of the fact there were really no invaders to fight. In reality, the Spanish soldiers lived in two entirely different places while they were here. A number of them lived around a lake near the mouth of the Missouri River and this area is still known by the name Spanish Pond or Spanish Lake. The rest of the soldiers stayed at Fort San Carlos, at that time just on the outskirts of the little town of St. Louis, near where we now find Fourth and Walnut Streets.

Spain, in the year 1800, ceded the area west of the Mississippi River back to France. The then rapidly growing United States looked upon this transaction as one of great importance and, as a result of transactions with Napoleon, the ruler of France, the Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States in 1803.

In November of 1804, a treaty was made with the Sac and Fox Indians. One part of this treaty provided that a trading post would be located by the government where it would be convenient for these tribes. General Wilkinson selected a spot on the south bank of Missouri River, about four miles west of where it joins the Mississippi River (in Spanish Lake). This location had several natural advantages. It was on the low ground near to the river and nearby Cold Water Creek provided a safe and convenient place for small boats and canoes to be moored safely. A large clear water spring nearby furnished a supply of fresh water for the garrison. This spring had long been called la belle fontaine (which means beautiful spring) by the early French.

In the spring of 1805 a Colonel Kingsbury, with a body of troops, was ordered from Fort Milchilimackinac to the spot selected by General Wilkinson. Colonel Kingsbury’s orders were to construct a cantonment for troops and trading place for the Indians. By the winter of 1805, the soldiers had built log cabins for the officers and an Indian Agent, a trading house, a bakery, a blacksmith shop and a row of huts for the enlisted soldiers.

General Daniel Bissell, commander of Fort Massac on the Ohio River, was made military commander of that part of the territory which is now Illinois and Missouri and he moved to Fort Belle Fontaine where he served as commander for several years.

A trail led from Fort Belle Fontaine to about where Sixth and Franklin Streets are now in the City of St. Louis. This trail evolved through the years into what is now known as Bellefontaine Road.

In 1808, the Indian trade was transferred to Fort Osage further up the Missouri River and to Fort Madison further up the Mississippi River and Fort Belle Fontaine remained only as a cantonment for troops. In the spring of 1810, a flood swept over the low lying fort and the main channel of the river moved over to traverse the original location of the fort. It was then decided to rebuild the fort on the nearby bluffs but this caused it to lose all of its original advantages and now made it difficult to reach from St. Louis. By 1834, the troops were moved to a new and better location named Jefferson Barracks and Fort Belle Fontaine was abandoned and allowed to revert to its original condition.

Following the departure of the soldiers from Fort Belle Fontaine, the surrounding land was divided up into many land grants.

Land ownership of what is today the City of Bellefontaine Neighbors (and Spanish Lake) was made up of land grants issued by the Spanish, French and American officials. General Daniel Bissell returned to this area after his retirement and purchased land through public land sales. His original home is now a St. Louis County Parks museum.

With the coming of the building boom at the end of World War II, this area, which had remained rather dormant as far as population increases are concerned, suddenly found itself being transformed into an area of individual residences. An area which for many years had only a few residents, suddenly found it was the residential area for many.

We now find located in Bellefontaine Neighbors approximately 4,500 residential homes (and 6,000 in Spanish Lake).

As the history of St. Louis County was first recorded, we find that the lands granted were of quite large size. Some farming was carried on, with the main crops being maize and wheat. Enough cotton and tobacco was grown to supply each individual’s need and each family usually had their own small garden. The early settlers had no market for surplus crops and this was probably a strong reason for farms of several hundreds of acres having only four or five acres under cultivation. Some few farm animals, such as milk cows, hogs, and sheep were raised usually few in number and they were pretty much left to fend for themselves in the finding of food.

As the years passed by, the area became more and more under cultivation and the grain crops, corn and where became more prominent. Eventually, corn became about the only crop raised and this continued until the corn shocks were replaced by homes during the 1950’s.

In the early 1900’s, some truck farming was carried out to a limited degree, but the difficulties connected with converting crops to cash were many. Usually, these were of a rather perishable nature and a trip to the St. Louis market was such as is hard for us to imagine today. As much of the produce as possible was gathered late in the evening and was loaded in the farm wagon. Early the next morning, the more perishable produce was gathered as soon after daylight as possible, and the trip to St. Louis was started. This trip would take the greater part of the day, if not the entire day. Late that evening and the next morning, the farmer would attempt to sell his produce as soon as possible, knowing that the return trip home would consume most of that day. If he spent too much time either selling or shopping in the stores, his return home would be accomplished only long after night had fallen. It is rather difficult for us today to think in these terms when the entire trip can now be accomplished in less than a half hour.

From the original rather large land grants, the complexion of land ownership turned towards smaller and smaller farms, and this, in the main, continued until about 1950. This condition more or less continued until after World War II, when the first sub-dividers looked upon this area. By 1950, the year in which Bellefontaine Neighbors was incorporated as a fourth class city, the population had grown to 766 people. Bellefontaine Neighbors at that time had 18 streets, one public school, and one church.

The one church in Bellefontaine Neighbors in 1950 was the Bellefontaine Methodist Church. This church has a recorded history dating back to the year 1854 when the original church building was erected on land donated by James R. Bissell, son of General Daniel Bissell. Bricks for the building were made from clay found on the land, fashioned by hand and burned on the site. Trees felled for the clearing were used for the fuel. The entire congregation, together with their slaves, worked on the building. The architectural plans for the building cost $10.00 and the total cost of the building was $2,313.61. A place, a gallery in the church, was provided for the seating of the slaves who wished to attend the services although there is no indication that any ever became members.

Although the Bellefontaine Methodist Church make no claims to dating before 1854, it is believed that the original group of Methodists, from which this church formalized, had met and held meetings even previous to the time of the Louisiana Purchase. A John Clark preached to the Methodists in what is now the northern part of St. Louis County around the year 1800. A group of Methodists is said to have held meetings in the home of one of its members in 1805, just east of where Bellefontaine Road is now located. It is also indicated that a Miss Piggott was married to a Mr. Patterson in the year 1806 and this is thought to be the first Protestant marriage held west of the Mississippi River.

John Clark was a resident of Illinois and, as a Methodist preacher, risked imprisonment or worse for conducting services while this area was under the control of the Spanish. Spain had decreed that only those of the Catholic faith, or those who promised to attend Catholic services and to raise their children in the Catholic faith, could enter the area and settle there. When John Clark asked permission of Delassus, the Spanish Governor, to conduct Protestant services of Delassus, he was warned of the consequences of his proposed action.

But, evidently, a bond grew between the two men, for it is told that when John Clark crossed the river to hold services and his tour usually lasted two or three weeks, it would be several days before Delassus received word of it. Delassus would usually wait a few days and then send a soldier to Clark warning him that he had three days to remove himself from the area. By the time he would receive the warning, Clark was usually about ready to return to his home in Illinois anyway. As this went on repeatedly over a period of several years, and as Clark was never arrested, we can see that a feeling of mutual respect must have existed between the two men.