French were First to Make Their Mark

Old Settlement Area Exploration

The area of Washington County is sometimes referred to as the “Old Settlement Area” of Missouri, a region encompassing much of the earliest activity by European settlers in the Mississippi Valley. Many waves of immigrants brought new life and new development to the area. The French were first, and their colorful and historic history and names continue to color the area today.

French missionaries, explorers, tappers and traders moved down the mighty Mississippi in the late 1600’s, mostly from Canada. Reports from the Indians of mineral wealth in the land including lead and possibly gold and silver, let them inland to what was to become Washington County. Missionaries Gravier and LeSeur, in 1700 and 1701, mention lead in the area in their reports to their superiors. By 1712, Crozat, under a charter from Louis XIV, began mineral explorations.

The Illinois-Missouri country of the “Louisiana Purchase” came under the government of “New France”, or Canada, and French settlements grew on the east bank of the river. From here, Claude DuTisne set out in 1714, crossing an old Indian trail across Washington County and returning with iron ore samples. LaMotte Cadillac, Governor of Louisiana, in 1715 discovered lead fields in the area.

Early Mining Operations

The earliest Missouri activity centered around the area later to encompass Old Mines and later Mine Au Breton, or Potosi. Sieur de Renaudiere in 1719, moved down the Meramec and Big River, and his report of that year of his mining operation at “Cabanage de Renaudiere” is believed to mark the beginning of a settlement in Old Mines. The same year, 1719, major mining operations moved into the area as Philippe Francois Renault, son of prominent French iron-mining family and operating under Company of the Indies, set out from France for Upper Louisiana. He brought workmen, tools and bricks from France and slaves from the West Indies. He concentrated his operations in what is now Washington County, as he worked up and down Big River, Mineral Fork, and the stream “Fourche Au Renault” (Renault’s Fork), which was to bear his name on whose headwaters were later to be impounded in the Sunnen Lake of today.

Renault returned to France in 1742, but many of his workmen remained. Whether on a seasonal basis or in permanent settlements, documentary evidence has not yet proven, but mining continued. A wagon trail was hacked to the Mississippi bank, and the surface-mined lead was hauled to the river on two-wheeled “chariots”. As the mining activity continued, Ste. Genevieve, later referred to by some as the first permanent settlement in Missouri, grew up principally as a shipping point for lead on the west bank of the Mississippi.

West Bank Exploration

When France gave up her American territories in 1763, the French began a heaver migration into the Spanish-held territory on the west bank of the Mississippi, rather than remain in the English territory on the east bank. 

In 1763, a French hunter, Francis Azor, called the “The Breton” because of his birthplace in Brittany, discovered a rich surface outcropping of lead ore while on a bear hunt in the creek valley later to become Potosi. The “strike” drew other miners into the mines, the village and along the creek which were all later named for the Breton - Mine Au Breton - a rich mining site later to be taken under a Spanish Grant by Moses Austin.