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Prior to the French settlers, indigenous peoples known as the Mississippian culture and earlier cultures had been living in the region for over a millenium. At the time of settlement, however, no native tribe lived nearby on the west bank. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin's map of 1755, the first to show Ste. Genevieve in the Illinois Country, showed the Kaskaskia natives on the east side of the river, but no Indian village on the west side within 100 miles of Ste. Genevieve. Osage hunting and war parties did enter the area from the north and west. The region had been relatively abandoned by 1500, likely due to environmental exhaustion, after the peak of Mississippian-culture civilization at Cahokia, the center of the mounds culture.
French colonial rule
Ste-Geneviève was founded around 1735 by French-Canadian settlers and migrants from settlements in the Illinois Country just east of the Mississippi River. It was named for Saint Genevieve (who lived in the 5th century AD), the patron saint of Paris. While most residents were of French-Canadian descent, many of the founding families had been in the Illinois Country for two or three generations. It is one of the oldest colonial settlements west of the Mississippi River. This area was known as New France, Illinois Country, or the Upper Louisiana territory. Traditional accounts suggested a founding of 1735 or so, but the historian Karl Ekberg has documented a more likely founding about 1750. The population to the east of the river needed more land, as the soils in the older villages had become exhausted. Improved relations with hostile Native Americans, such as the Osage, made settlement possible.
At the time of its founding, was the last of a triad of French Canadian settlements in this area of the mid-Mississippi Valley region. About five miles northeast of Ste. Genevieve on the east side of the river was Fort de Chartres (in the Illinois Country); it stood as the official capital of the area. Kaskaskia, which became Illinois’ first capital upon statehood, was located about five miles southeast. Prairie du Rocher and Cahokia, Illinois were also early local French colonial settlements on the east side of the river.
During the 1770s, Little Osage and Missouri tribes repeatedly raided Ste-Geneviève to steal settlers' horses. But the fur trade, marriage of French-Canadian men with Native American women, and other commercial dealings created many ties between Native Americans and the Canadiens. The Peoria moved near Ste. Genevieve in the 1780s but had a peaceful relationship with the village. It was not until the 1790s that the Big Osage pressed the settlement harder; they conducted repeated raids and killed some settlers. In addition, they attacked the Peoria.
While at one point Spanish administrators wanted to attack the Big Osage, there were not sufficient French settlers to recruit for a militia to do so. The Big Osage had 1250 men in their village, and lived in the prairie. In 1794 Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet, the Spanish governor at New Orleans, appointed brothers Pierre Chouteau and Auguste Chouteau of St. Louis to have exclusive trading privileges with the Big Osage. They built a fort and trading post on the Osage River in Big Osage territory. While the natives did not entirely stop their raids, commercial diplomacy and rewards of the fur trade eased some relations.
Following the great flood of 1785, the town moved from its initial location on the floodplain of the Mississippi River, to its present location two miles north and about a half mile inland. It continued to prosper as a village devoted to agriculture, especially wheat, maize and tobacco production. Most of the families were yeomen farmers, although there was a wealthier level among the residents. The village raised sufficient grain to send many tons of flour annually for sale to Lower Louisiana and New Orleans. This was essential to the survival of the southern colonies, which could not grow sufficient grain in their climate.
In 1803, in the midst of the French Civil War, New France declared independence, splitting into Louisiana and Canada. Ste-Geneviève, along with St. Louis, would continue to grow as trading hubs on the Mississippi.