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THE THEATRE
ON THE FRONTIER



THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS



THE BAKER & TAYLOR COMPANY



THE CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS



THE MARUZEN-KABUSHIKI-KAISHA

TOKYO, OSAKA, KYOTO, FUKUOKA, SENDAl

THE COMMERCIAL PRESS, LIMITED



THE THEATRE
ON THE FRONTIER

THE EARLY YEARS OF THE
ST. LOUIS STAGE

By WILLIAM G. B. CARSON




THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
CHICAGO • ILLINOIS



COPYRIGHT 1932 BY THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. PUBLISHED MARCH I932



. V\\ ^r






TO MY WIFE
ELIZABETH CHAPIN CARSON



PREFACE

TN COLLECTING material for a work of this sort one
must inevitably call upon others for assistance and ad-
vice. Such has assuredly been my experience, and I
cannot let this book go from my hands without acknowledg-
ing some at least of this aid. Throughout the years devoted to
my research and to the actual writing of the pages which
follow I have had the benefit of the sympathetic counsel of
Professor George C. D. Odell of Columbia University, and
from his colleague Professor Ralph Leslie Rusk I have also
received valuable suggestions. To the Missouri Historical So-
ciety in St. Louis I am indebted for the use of its library, its
newspaper files, and the manuscripts and prompt-copies in
the Gundlach Collection, without which my work could not
even have been begun. I must also most gratefully acknowl-
edge the personal assistance of Mrs. Nettie H. Beauregard,
the curator and archivist who guided me through the society's
collection of manuscripts, and of Miss Stella M. Drumm, the
librarian, whose untiring patience and wide familiarity with
the historical literature of the Louisiana Purchase proved of
invaluable assistance in establishing leads which frequently
led me to valuable finds.

The kindness of Mr. Sheridan S. Smith, of Webster Groves,
Missouri, in placing at my disposal the great collection of
documents and letters left by his grandfather, Sol Smith, has
not only enabled me to unearth many details which must
otherwise have remained unseen but also given me access to
the records, formal and informal, written on the spot at the
time by the very persons engaged, though they did not sus-
pect it, in making the history which we are studying today.
For further information concerning Sol Smith I am indebted
to his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Thaddeus Smith. Miss Cornelia
Maury has generously permitted me to use her portraits of



viii PREFACE

her grandfather, Mr. Matthew C. Field, and her great-
grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Noah M. Ludlow. Mr. Charles
R. Staples, of Lexington, Kentucky, allowed me free use of
his manuscript article on "The Early Entertainments and
Diversions of Lexington" and also rendered me great as-
sistance in other ways, as has also Judge Samuel S. Wilson
of the same city. To Mrs. Lillian A. Hall, custodian of the
Harvard Theatre Collection, I owe the use of certain play-
bills quoted in my book, and to Mr. Roy Day, librarian of
the Players, New York, and Mr. Otis Skinner access to the
library of that club. The Columbia University Press gave me
permission to quote from Odell's Annals of the New York
Stage and Rusk's Literature of the Middle Western Frontier.
Other information I owe to Miss Leona Gray of McGill Uni-
versity, Montreal; Miss Emma D. Poole, librarian of the
Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania at Pittsburgh;
Miss Leila Awnspaugh of the Mobile Public Library; Miss E.
Abbot of the Cincinnati Public Library; Mr. L. H. Fox of the
New York Public Library; the Reverend Gilbert J. Garra-
ghan, St. Louis University; and the Reverend John Rothen-
steiner, St. Louis.

Finally, in closing, I desire to express my very deep and sin-
cere appreciation of the interest manifested in my work by my
colleagues at Washington University and of the encourage-
ment they have given me on all occasions. I am especially
grateful to Professor W. R. Mackenzie and Professor George
B. Parks for valuable suggestions and advice; to Professor
Ralph Bieber for sharing with me his knowledge of frontier
history; and to Professor Richard F. Jones for the many
hours he has devoted to helping me to the solution of knotty
problems and the effective presentation of my material.

As I said in beginning this acknowledgment, without this
co-operation my purpose must have failed of accomplishment.



CONTENTS

PAGE

List of Illustrations xi

CHAPTER

I. In the Nature of a Prologue i

II. Amateur Nights, 1814-17 12

III. "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" 1818-19 19

IV. The Coming of Ludlow and Drake, 1820 ... 32
V. Feasts and Famines, 1820-26 60

VI. Caldwell Takes Over THE Salt House, 1827-28 . 84

VII. The Stars Come Out, 1829-31 107

VIII. The Salt House in Its Glory, 1832-35 .... 134

IX. A Famous Partnership Is Formed, 1835-36. . 160

X. The First Real Theatre, 1837 180

XL "The Winter OF Our Discontent," 1838 . 218

XII. A Season of Spectacles, 1838 246

XIII. A Tree, a Forrest, and a Galaxy, 1839 • ^^4

XIV. On the Eve of the Fabulous Forties, 1839 293
XV. By Way of an Epilogue 307

Appendi.x 318

Bibliography 331

Index 337



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

The First Theatre in St. Louis Frontispiece



FACIN



The Green Tree Tavern 22

Playbill Advertising a Performance bv the Turner

Company in i8i8 24

Bennett's Mansion House Hotel, 18 19 43

Playbill Advertising a Performance by Drake's Com-
pany IN 1820 48

Julia Drake (Mrs. Edwin Dean) 5^

Playbill Advertising a Performance in the Salt House

BY Caldwell's Company 89

The First Mrs. Sol Smith 96

Playbill Advertising McCafferty's Benefit in the

Salt House in 1828 103

Noah M. Ludlow 163

Sol Smith 174

New St. Louis Theatre (Ludlow and Smith) .... 200

Matthew C. Field 226

Eliza Riddle (Mrs. Joseph M. Field) 252

Mrs. Noah M. Ludlow 275

Fourth Street, St. Louis, in 1840 297



CHAPTER I
IN THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE

WHATEVER may have been its theatrical fortunes
since, it was — I think undoubtedly — St. Louis
that on January 6, 1815, witnessed the birth of
the drama in the vast territory west of the Mississippi.' For
more than a century, theatricals had been given in the cities
of the original thirteen states, and commercial companies had
long been fairly well established. It is no easy matter to de-
termine definite facts concerning the early history of the
theatre in this country, particularly of the amateur phase,
puritanical prejudices having been sufficiently potent to draw
a veil over the identity of those who had the temerity to take
part and indeed over the activities themselves. But out of
the obscurity, painstaking research has been able to bring
certain facts to light. Just when the first play was acted in
the present territory of the United States, it is impossible to
tell; nor is it likely that we shall ever know. It was, however,
almost certainly late in the seventeenth or early in the eight-
eenth century. The first extant references to theatricals in
New York City are cited by Professor George C. D. Odell in
his thorough and comprehensive Annals of the New York
Stage. "Somewhere between 1699 and 1702, Richard Hunter
received permission to give plays in New York; in 1703-4
.Anthony .Aston acted here; in 1709, play-acting was legally
forbidden; on December 6, 1732, The Recruiting Officer was
performed at the New Theatre; a map, 1732-35, shows the
Playhouse in Broadway."^ That other productions had been

' I refer here, of course, to the English dram.T, and do not overlook the plays
given as early as 1598 in the Spanish colonics to the west. Cf. Winifred Johnston,
"The Early Theatre in the Spanish Borderlands," Mid-America, Vol. XIII; N.S.,
Vol. II, No. 2.

'George C. D. Odell, Jmuils of the Sew York Stage, I, 31.



2 THE THEATRE ON THE FRONTIER

given previously in Virginia or elsewhere is possible, but not
probable. The Hallam family, and its associates, once be-
lieved to be the first actors to perform in the colonies, did not
land from the "Charming Sally" until 1752. But, whatever
may have been the date of its inception, the drama gained a
foothold, and, in spite of the opposition of the Calvinistic
elements of the population, the theatre, both amateur and
professional, became, before many years had passed, an im-
portant source of entertainment particularly for the wealthier
classes in the larger centers. The War of Independence neces-
sarily caused some interruption in its development, but as
soon as peace was restored, the interest was revived and even
intensified.

With the opening of the frontier lands west of the AUe-
ghenies, there came a great migration into the valley of the
Mississippi. It was still a savage country to be braved only
by the courageous and the hardy, but it was settled with great
rapidity. Among the pioneers who poured down the western
slopes of the mountains were hundreds of young men who
carried with them a love for the drama both in book form and
on the stage, and doubtless many who had actually par-
ticipated in amateur performances in their native cities.
Despite the rigors and privations of their new life and the
dangers of their surroundings, they did not forget this love
for the muses of tragedy and comedy, and it was not long
before "Thespian societies," as they were termed, were
springing up in these remote and rough-hewn settlements,
the entire populations of which could, in many instance^ be
comfortably seated in some of our present-day theatres.

The earliest performances west of the mountains of which
I have been able to discover any trace took place, naturally
enough, in Pittsburgh, the easternmost of the western towns.
A writer in the Pittsburgh Gazette, of 1903, calls attention to a
production of Cato (doubtless Addison's dreary tragedy) and
a farce, All the World's a Stage, by the officers garrisoned at
Fort Pitt in April, 1790. "Although Pittsburgh had at that



IN THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE 3

time less than 1,000 inhabitants there were cultured ladies
and gentlemen who featured as actors and audiences."^ By
1808, "according to old accounts there were two dramatic
societies giving occasional plays in Pittsburgh. One was com-
posed of law students and the other of respectable me-
chanics."-' The next appearance of Thespis of which anything
is known today was probably made at Detroit in 1798, eight
years later, and again we find the soldiers responsible. Dr.
Ralph Leslie Rusk, who in The Literature of the Middle
Western Frontier has traced the growth of the fine arts be-
tween the Alleghenies and the Western prairies, notes a refer-
ence by Silas Farmer, in his history of Detroit and Michigan,
to "military and civic entertainments, at least some of which
were dramatic," though the source of the latter's information
is uncertain.^ About the same time there were. Dr. Rusk
has discovered, amateur performances in Lexington, Ken-
tucky, the first specific reference being to 1799.^

Of the other important towns in the West, the first to show an
interest in amateur theatricals was probably Cincinnati, where
on October i, 1801, .... the "Cincinnati Theatre" was opened
with the performance of O'Keeffe's comic opera The Poor Soldier
together with an unnamed musical interlude.'

It will be observed that these productions were all, it would
seem at least, by amateurs. The professional players had not
plunged so deep into the forest. But the actor is no laggard,
and he was not far behind. Of his native temerity and per-
severance, and his almost religious devotion to his art, one
can find few better instances than those recorded in the per-
sonal recollections of the men who took part in these early
histrionic campaigns.* The second decade of the nineteenth

3 Pillsburgh Gazette, February, 1903. Exact date unknown. Scrap book in pos-
session of Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh.
< Ibid.

5 Ralph Ixslie Rusk, The Literature oj the Middle H'estern Frontier, I, 361.
» Ibid., p. 352. ' Ibid., p. 354.

' See, for example, Noah M. Ludlow, Dramatic Life as I Found It.



4 THE THEATRE ON THE FRONTIER

century witnessed the invasion of the region by groups from
Montreal and Quebec, Albany, Philadelphia, and perhaps
elsewhere. Naturally enough, they sought out the towns
where the amateurs had preceded them and a hunger for the
drama had been revealed. As they traveled, they picked up
and added to their bodies histrionic various and sundry stage-
struck individuals who felt the fires of genius burning within
them and were convinced that it was on the stage and not in
the printing-office or some other such prosaic setting that
Fame was destined to find them out. The writer in the Pitts-
burgh Gazette whom I quoted above asserts that "about 1808
also occasional actors from the East began appearing in Pitts-
burgh but there was no regular theatre building and they had
to play in halls, taverns, rooms of private residences or any
other usable quarters."' Lexington, according to Dr. Rusk,
entertained its first professionals in 1810,'° and these soon in-
cluded Frankfort and Louisville in their spheres. In Cincin-
nati, the professional appeared a year later." There is no
evidence of any others than amateurs in Detroit for a number
of years after this, the remote location of the town being no
doubt responsible. By 18 15, the principal towns of the Ohio
Valley were enjoying the productions of plays, and even the
work of experienced actors, for by that year there were a few
of them already in the field." To the south, New Orleans had
been for nearly a quarter of a century harboring regular per-
formers. Alcee Fortier in his History of Louisiana states that
among the refugees fleeing from a negro insurrection on the
island of Santo Domingo in 1791 "was a troupe of comedians
who gave dramatic representations, and were the first actors
in Louisiana."'^ From these towns, however, St. Louis was
far removed, and between lay many miles of dangerous and

' Pittsburgh Gazette, February, 1903. Cf. n. 3, above.

'"> Rusk, op. cit., I, 353. " Ibid., p. 356.

" Francis Blissett, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Drake.

'3 Alcee Fortier, History oj Louisiana, II, 146. These actors, of course, per-
formed in French plays.



IN THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE 5

almost trackless wilderness. For its first taste of the delights
of the theatre, it had of necessity to wait till a later date.

In 181 5, when it witnessed its first dramatic performance,
St. Louis was fifty-one years old, and had been under the
American flag for a little more than a single decade. The site
of the settlement had been selected by Pierre Laclede Liguest
in December, 1763, and actual building begun under the
supervision of his lieutenant, the boy Chouteau, in February
of the following year. The territory of Louisiana was at this
time, although the settlers did not know it, Spanish, and, de-
spite the fact that in 1801 it was re-ceded to France, the
Spanish governors, the first of whom had assumed command
in 1769, remained in control until March, 1804, when formal
possession of the region was taken by Major Amos Stoddard
of the United States Army, and the dismayed citizens found
themselves under another and almost wholly unwelcome alien
rule.

Eleven years after the transfer, St. Louis was nothing more
than a crude frontier settlement, a far-flung outpost of the
civilization which was advancing past the Alleghenies and up
the Mississippi from the south. Although the largest town
west of the Father of Waters, it had at that time a population
of only about a,coo, and the settlements beyond it were, with
the exception of St. Charles, about twenty miles to the west,
on a bend of the Missouri, and one or two others, simply posts
for the prosecution of the Indian trade. It covered a narrow
strip of land along the bank of the river from what is now
Washington Avenue to the present Chouteau Avenue, a dis-
tance of about a mile. Parallel with the river ran three streets,
the names of which had but recently been Anglicized from
Rue Royale, Rue de I'Eglise, and Rue des Granges, to Main,
Church, and Barn streets. In spite of the fact that "fruit
trees and shade trees planted along the streets and around
the houses .... gave to St. Louis that charming freshness of



6 THE THEATRE ON THE FRONTIER

aspect which nature alone can bestow,"''' and that the town
was "full of gardens and fruit trees, and the air in the proper
season was filled with fragrance 'highly pleasing,' "'= con-
temporary accounts do not give one the picture of a wholly
idyllic setting. The houses were of log, mud, and stone, the
more pretentious mansions of the Chouteau family being
embellished, after the fashion of their New Orleans models,
with broad galleries. The streets, which were cramped and
narrow, were also for the most part unpaved and after dark
without light. In fact, according to a writer in the Missouri
Gazette, conditions were such that "neither paved, nor light-
ed, nor cleansed, St. Louis presents to the stranger .... no
inducement to remain, and to those who are its permanent
inhabitants offers no comfort out of the verge of their own
habitations."'*

Turning from the physical aspects of the town to the people
who made up its heterogeneous population, one finds interest-
ing contrasts. St. Louis was, of course, originally a French
settlement, although its government had been, for years prior
to the transfer, Spanish. The inhabitants had been, for the
most part, sturdy, unlettered Frenchmen, in great proportion
immigrants from the Canadas, who had sought refuge there
after the British acquisition of the territory east of the Missis-
sippi. But there were some from the West Indies; some, like
the Chouteau family, from New Orleans; and a few, like the
Saugrains and Lucases, cultured emigres from France itself.
There were also, both in town and in the country beyond, a
number of American pioneers. A few years before the pur-
chase there had set in a steady flow of immigration into the
region which after its annexation was at first organized as
the Territory of Upper Louisiana, but which in 1812 was
rechristened the Missouri Territory. According to Louis

'< Pierre Chouteau, The Early Inhahilnnts, Their Manners and Customs, Missouri
Historical Society, St. Louis.

'S Thomas Ashe, Travels in America, p. 291.

'' Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, December 6, 1820.



IN THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE 7

Houck, these American immigrants were perhaps on the
whole not all that a hundred-percenter might wish.

For the peace and quiet that prevailed in the Spanish settle-
ments, agitations, loud and boisterous discussion of politics —
national and territorial — drunkenness, profanity, abuse of con-
stituted authority and government, the floating of fraudulent land-
titles, lawyers fomenting litigation, duels, mayhem, assaults with
intent to kill, and murder became the order of the day. But [he
goes on to say], it would be a mistake .... to suppose that at that
time there were not many refined and intelligent residents of the
new territory. St. Louis, especially, possessed a refined and cul-
tivated society."

With the passing of the years, the immigration gained new
impetus, and Americans crossed the river in ever increasing
numbers, some to stop in St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, or Cape
Girardeau, on the west bank, others to push on into the beau-
tiful wilderness beyond, which, in the aftermath of the Lewis
and Clark Expedition, was gradually being opened up. In
181 1, H. M. Brackenridge wrote: "St. Louis contains ac-
cording to the last census (18 10), 1,400 inhabitants. One-
fifth Americans and about 400 people of color. There are a
few Indians and metifFs, in the capacity of servants, or wives
to boatmen."'* Yet the old French stock was still potent. In
1818, according to John F. Darby, about two-thirds of the
inhabitants were French and one-third American. "The pre-
vailing language of the white persons in the streets was
French,"" and as late as 1820, there were sufficient French-
men in Missouri to warrant the translations of the Missouri
constitution into the French language.-"

In the second decade of the nineteenth century St. Louis
was probably the most isolated community of its rank in the
United States. There was no other town of equal size within
several hundred miles. The chief avenue of approach was the

" Ixjuis Houck, A History of Missouri, III, 55-57.

■' H. M. Brackenridge, yiews of Louisiana, pp. 122-24.

■' John F. Darby, Personal Recollections, p. 5.

'" Floyd Shoemaker, Missouri's Struggle for Statehood, p. 173.



8 THE THEATRE ON THE FRONTIER

Mississippi, up which travelers were cordelled from New Or-
leans, or from the mouth of the Ohio which they had descend-
ed usually by flatboat. The first steamboat did not come
until 1 8 17. Journeys were long and fraught with hardship
and danger.

In 181 1 it took Stephen Hempstead from the 12th day of April
to June 13th to make the journey from New London, Connecticut,
to St. Louis, traveling all the time. Rev. John M. Peck consumed
nearly a month passing through Pennsylvania when he came west
in 1818, and, reaching the Ohio on the loth of September, he did
not arrive in St. Louis until December ist.^'

Moreover, the town was surrounded by a savage wilder-
ness. To the east lay Illinois, sparsely settled, where the red
man still appeared from time to time on marauding expedi-
tions, and to venture any distance to the west or north was to
take one's life in one's hands. The issues of the Gazette prior
to 1 8 16 carry unnumbered accounts of Indian depredations
in the surrounding country, and, indeed, occasions were not
wanting when the citizens felt none too safe from the toma-
hawk and the scalping-knife in their very homes. It did not
tax the memories of the older inhabitants to recall the fa-
mous Indian attack of 1780, when a number of St. Louisans
were massacred while attending to their crops. The last issues
of the Gazette in 181 1 are full of King Philip's War and dis-
cuss precautions against a threatened attack by the dreaded
Tecumseh. The War of 1 8 1 2 brought upon the little town the
very serious menace of an attack by the aboriginal allies of
the British. The Gazette of February 20, 18 13, contains the
report of a committee of prominent citizens advising that
the town put itself in a state of defense, and subsequent issues
describe in vivid detail the operations of the redskins to the
east and north. In fact there are accounts of Indian outrages
in almost every issue. In 18 14, one Eugene Leitensdorfer, of
whom more hereafter, was compelled to leave his home about
twelve miles west of town as "his wife grew timid by the

" Houck, op. cit.. Ill, 197-98.



IN THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE 9

frequent murders perpetrated by the savages."" After the
close of the war, however, these distressing items ahnost dis-
appear from the press.

r_Nor was Hfe in the town itself free from the turbulent
features apt to characterize frontier communities. It was the
day of superlatives both of praise and of damnation. Of mod-
eration there was little, as a perusal of the newspapers will re-
veal. There were many causes of disagreement, feeling ran
high, and the crudest personalities were indulged in by irate
editors and correspondents.] Duels were so frequent that the
usual scene of these often fatal encounters was frankly known
as Bloody Island. These affairs of honor were by no means
furtive, practically the whole populace knowing of them in
advance and many of the citizens crowding the banks of the
river to see what they could make out by straining their
eyes across the muddy waters. Murders were common. Slav-
ery flourished, and the papers carried notices of sales and
countless advertisements informing the public of the escape
of desirable negroes.

For all this, life was not without its pleasanter side. From
the first, it would seem that there was what is known as
"society," originating no doubt among the cultured French.
Writing of a visit to the village as early as 1807, Christian
Schultz asserts that "the ladies of St. Louis were celebrated
through all the lower country for their beauty, modesty, and
agreeable manners as well as for their taste and the splendor
of their dress. """^ Turning again to Brackenridge, we find:

"The manners of the inhabitants are not different from those of
other villages; we distinctly see the character of the ancient in-
habitants, and of the new residents, and of a compound of both.



Online LibraryWilliam G. B. (William Glasgow Bruce) CarsonThe theatre on the frontier; the early years of the St. Louis stage → online text (page 1 of 33)