The Williams Family Settles at the Spanish Fur Trading Post of St. Louis, 1794

From the Book Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man by Alpheus H. Favour (1936)

1796 map of the town of St. Louis. The Joseph and Sarah Williams family had moved from the town westward to their farm a year or two previous, after living in town for a year or more. Vincent Carrico would arrive a year or two later. Map is oriented WNW up. (Source: Missouri Historical Society digital collection.)

Introduction by Julia Morse

Many of our readers have ancestors who came to Missouri in its early settlement—some before it became a territory of the United States with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  I have often attempted to imagine what life was like for my ancestors, a family with young children from Maryland and Kentucky, in this region at a time when it was little more than a fur trading post.

The St. Louis area was first settled primarily by the French, but was under the possesion of Spain when my ancestor Vincent Carrico came with his young family in 1797 or 1798.  In 1800 the territory went back to France (though was still administered by Spain) until purchased by the U.S. in 1803.  At that time, there were said to be 150 houses and about 1500 inhabitants in what was called “St. Louis.”  This frontier population was said to be “hardy, mirthful, adventurous,” with an economy fueled by the fur trade.[1]  It was a 25-day’s jouney to Louisville, KY or a two month’s voyage (when making good time) to New Orleans along “tangled tow paths.”[2] Vincent Carrico died the year before the first steamboat arrived in St. Louis in August of 1817, opening the floodgate to economic expansion and population growth.  There were no elected officials until 1808 and the city was not incorporated until 1822, the year after Missouri became a state.[3]

A description of family life in the region prior to the Louisiana Purchase is brought to us by researcher Alpheus H. Favour in his compilation of the life of Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man.[4] Favour, a lawyer by trade, dove deeply into historical legal documents as well as other local history sources and family stories.

In the following excerpt, Favour explains the unique situation for English-speaking protestant sons and daughters of the American Revolution setting up home and farm in a land where they must pledge allegiance to both the Spanish King and Catholicism, navigating in unfamiliar languages, laws, and customs.  In spite of these challenges (or perhaps because of them), Favour and other accounts suggest a friendly and welcoming culture.

Just why Joseph Williams left his home in North Carolina we do not know. After the Revolution he had sold the government land grant of 274 acres received in payment for his thirty-six months as a private in the Continental Line, and had purchased a farm in southwestern North Carolina; he had also acquired more land in the neighborhood. Apparently he was settled with his family. It may be that the stories of land over the mountains urged them. It may be that the North Carolina farm did not turn out as he expected. Perhaps, too, soldiering had made him restless or the spirit of the time urged the move.

It has been said that Joseph Williams was an itinerant preacher in Kentucky. He might have preached on the way, for many talked on religion whenever the occasion arose. It is doubtful if he was regularly engaged in preaching, for farming was his calling before he left North Carolina and after he came into the region of the Louisiana Purchase.

. . . The North Carolinian and his wife, Sarah, sold their Horse Creek farm in the mountains of North Carolina in July, 1794, said good-bye to their friends and relatives, and with their four small boys, joined the westward march. In the fall of that year, or the early spring of the next, they had made their way to Whiteside Station, the town on the east side of the Mississippi River, opposite St. Louis. The ex-Revolutionary soldier went across the river and made arrangements for the entry of his family into Spanish territory. In taking that step, he was expatriating himself from the country for which he had only recently fought. It took a stout heart to forsake the land of his birth and go to one where a different language was spoken, but courage was common to all pioneers of that day.

St. Louis was then a village of less than a thousand people, mostly of French extraction, and their language, customs, and life were quite different from anything that Joseph Williams had experienced up to that time. Most of the activities in the Upper Louisiana district centered in St. Louis. The Spanish authorities were welcoming people like the Williams family, giving each family a lot within the village of St. Louis, where a home could be built, and the use of a larger tract outside for farming and livestock.

Into this simple, easy-going, tolerant, fun-loving French community, these strangers came, their youngest boy, William, being then some five or six years of age. They were made to feel at home, and, after all, they were not so far away from their home folks. They had relatives across the river at Whiteside, and Mrs. Williams’ father and mother and other members of the family came then or shortly after. In many ways it was a relief to them to be in a peaceful country where politics were unimportant. Then, too, the country suited them and they settled down.

The Spanish government, recognizing the desire of these immigrants to own land, set up laws by which their land hunger could be satisfied. The policy was to grant two hundred arpens to each settler or head of the family, fifty arpens for each child, and twenty for each slave, with a limit of eight hundred arpens to one applicant. An arpen was a measure of land containing .8512 of an English acre. The number of arpens which the government would grant to a settler depended on the ability of the homesteader to cultivate and improve the land.

The prospective landowner picked out the tract he wanted and settled on it, and after four years of living on the land, he was qualified to petition the government for a grant of the title, not unlike our own homestead requirements of a later date. If the preliminaries were complied with, the claimant could then petition the Señor Teniente General or “Lord High Commissioner” for a survey and at the same time take his oath of allegiance to the Spanish king. A check was made by the officials, and if everything was in order, the survey was made and the settler put in legal possession of the tract surveyed. That constituted his title.

Map by Section of “Map Illustrating Events in the Life of Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man,” by Alpheus Favour, William Bork, and Julian Dorsey (1936). Source: [4]

On August 26, 1796, Joseph Williams made application for the survey of a tract of eight hundred arpens northwest of St. Louis. The authorities waived the requirements as to residence on the Williams application—not an unusual thing for them to do. Indeed, in numerous instances it was not demanded that the requirements be carried out to the letter, especially if a settler gave promise of becoming an addition to the community. If a settler had a wife and family, in addition to other qualifications, his application was sure to receive favorable attention. Even after Joseph Williams selected the land for his farm, the family continued to make their home in St. Louis, for on September 23, 1795, another son, John W., was born there, claimed by the family to be the first American white child born in St. Louis.

Since the Catholic religion was the only faith recognized by the government, and its observance was a part of the oath of allegiance to the king, it was required that one should become a bon Catholique before he could become a citizen. We do not know how this Protestant North Carolinian squared his conscience in this particular; it may be he took the oath with mental reservations as others had done.

At any rate, on April 10, 1800, the survey having been made and all formalities having been complied with, Zenon Trudeau, the lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana, granted to Joseph Williams eight hundred arpens, or some six hundred and eighty acres of land, on the south bank of the Missouri, designated Survey No. 282.  Williams did not get anything of great value, for land was then selling for a few cents an arpen, the total value being less than one hundred dollars. The tract selected by Joseph Williams was situated at the point of a sweep of the river, on the west side of the old Boone Trace, the main highway from St. Louis up the Missouri River, and was some twelve miles distant from St. Louis, about opposite the town of St. Charles.

. . . Some time between 1796 and 1798, the family moved from St. Louis to the farm, or plantation, as Joseph Williams called the place. He built a log house, cleared some ground, and settled down. Other children came along, and here the boy William grew up in a family of nine children. 

Both Joseph Williams and his wife could read and write and had a fair background in the fundamentals and in history, all of which gave them a standing in the community where few had any education whatsoever. Following the practice of the period, the parents passed on to their children such knowledge as they had in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Besides the help of their parents, these Williams children at various periods had the advantage of a limited school training, in which they received instruction from hired teachers.

. . . The Williams children had the advantage of a regular school, at least during one year. It was opened at Owen Station, close by their farm. Here the children of the neighborhood, of all ages, along with some children of Indians, received instruction in fundamentals. Bill Williams in his later life indicated he had received more education than the average boy of that period. He could read, keep accounts, had an excellent general knowledge, and wrote a good hand.

During the period of Williams’ boyhood, St. Louis was the center of the fur trade and the distributing point for such trading and trapping as went on west of the Mississippi. Important in the fur trade were the French voyageurs, with their keel boats and barges going up and down the river, within sight of the Williams home. The coureurs de bois traveled over the old Trace, past the Williams cabin, going into trapping country and returning to St. Louis laden with their packs of furs. All this became part of young Bill Williams’ life. He grew up, from his first remembrance, in the atmosphere of that trade and early began to realize its importance. His father, however, never seemed to have identified himself with the trade, but occupied himself with farming, stock-raising, trading, sugar-making in season, and buying and selling real estate when the opportunity arose.

Life in the Joseph Williams household was indeed simple; to get sufficient to eat was the main thing. Whatever business was done was carried on by barter. It was a time when there was little or no formality in such dealings, and even in real estate transactions when the trade was settled, we find the contracting parties shaking hands and considering the bargain complete without any written document.

. . . Even more simple than the business method, was the home life under which Bill Williams grew up. A one or two-room log house, with either a dirt floor or rough boards, constituted the living quarters. The cooking was done at the fireplace, or over a fire built outside the cabin. The furniture of the house was of the very crudest sort—all made from such lumber as could be cut on the premises with a whipsaw. As a rule there were few cooking utensils—an iron kettle, a skillet, and a few dishes. All of the utensils of the housewife in many families could be packed on horseback with no inconvenience.

The family retired after supper, as soon as darkness came, and were up before sunrise. With little or no money, and with imported cloth goods selling at prohibitive prices, it was but a natural consequence that homespun cloth should be used. Each family kept a few sheep, from which a supply of wool was obtained, and a little cotton was raised. Each family carded its own wool, spun the thread, and made homespun cloth on the rude looms. Many followed the practice set by the Indians in the use of dressed skins for making their moccasins and clothing.

If surplus produce were raised, it could not be sold, since there were no markets, or any people with the means to buy. Consequently each family supplied its own needs, and if there were an excess, it was given to friends or neighbors. Nature had endowed this section with a lavish hand. There was no need to provide feed for the stock during the winter months, since the native grasses furnished plenty of forage the year round. The country was teeming with game, and such time as men could get off from the work about the plantation was spent in the woods and on the river.

Bill Williams was a boy at the time of the above events.  As an adult he eventually gained notoriety as a “mountain man” whose experience with natives and fur trade life assisted in the development of new trade across the Santa Fe Trail.  He started his young adult life as a traveling preacher who eventually lived with the Osages and had a young family with an Osage wife.  He played an early role as an Osage language translator for Harmony Mission in what is now Bates County, Missouri until becoming disillusioned with the proceedings. 

You can read more of the Bill Williams story at


[1], [2]  B. Gratz Brown, “Saint Louis,” in Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopaedia:  A Scientific and Populat Treasury of Knowledge (New York:  Alvin J. Johnson & Son, 1878, IV:26.

[3] Wikipedia, St. Louis,, retrieved 22 May 2021.

[4] Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1936.

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