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Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West: The Rise and Fall of Antebellum St. Louis.

Historians have long offered the rivalry between Chicago and St. Louis as a textbook example of the impact of geography on urban growth. Chicago was both the primary western beneficiary of the Erie Canal, which linked the West with New York City via the Great Lakes, and the hub of a vast, new railroad network that tapped the Midwest and provided multiple outlets to the Northeast. St. Louis, by contrast, was a steamboat city tied economically to New Orleans and other southern markets by the Mississippi River. Geography was destiny, and amid the industrial and transportation revolutions, Chicago's ascendance as the Second City was assured. Now Jeffrey Adler gives this familiar geography lesson a new twist by offering a national rather than narrowly regional perspective and emphasizing political rather than merely economic rivalries.

Adler's narrative is simple yet elegant. St. Louis, like Chicago, was not a creation of the West but of the East. Yankee entrepreneurs, determined to dominate the western trade, were the real "city boosters" of the urban frontier. During the 1840s, New York and Boston merchants settled on St. Louis as their primary western outpost. Eastern boosters propagandized on the city's behalf, and northeastern migrants and capital poured into the city. Operating through partnerships, branch firms, and family ventures, eastern merchants controlled the local economy. St. Louis boomed in the mid-1840s, but a legislature dominated by rural slave owners spurned state-operated banks and railroads and thus left the city too dependent on outside investment, a virtual "colony" of the Northeast. By 1850, St. Louis was a "Yankee outpost in a Southern province and a Northern city in a slave state" (p. 109).

Neither geography nor transportation but the sectional conflict toppled St. Louis. As the antislavery movement grew, St. Louis suddenly became a "southern city," drawing fire from influential eastern abolitionists who favored free-soil Chicago as a more worthy and hospitable outpost. After peaking during 1845- 47, northeastern investment declined. Both urban rivals sought eastern funding for railroads, but in the midst of the brewing sectional conflict, Chicago won out. The Kansas imbroglio further tainted Missouri in the minds of already skittish northeasterners. Many left the city, returning to the East or moving directly to Chicago. The local economy collapsed in 1856, a victim of a political rather than economic rivalry on a national scale. Buoyed by the Northeast, Chicago boomed during the 1850s, and its railroad network captured the upper Mississippi and Missouri markets. St. Louis languished as a regional entrepot with an increasingly southern clientele.

Adler concludes that "The sectional crisis undermined the economic foundation of St. Louis and remade the urban West" (p. 142). His evidence is persuasive. An exhaustive survey of popular perceptions of St. Louis in travelers' accounts and newspaper editorials reveals a dramatic decline in the city's crucial eastern reputation, the result of a deliberate antislavery campaign to punish Missouri during the Kansas conflict. Migration patterns, teased out of the manuscript U.S. Census, show the movement of northeastern migrants, especially young businessmen from Boston and New York City, into and out of St. Louis during and after the city's boom years. Most persuasively, a careful analysis of R. G. Dun and Company's credit reports demonstrates that northeastern investments fueled the economic boom. Eastern merchants supported the largest and most successful St. Louis firms during the boom but joined a virtual Yankee exodus after 1850. Yankee investors made St. Louis during the 1840s and then unmade it during the following decade.

Despite these strengths, one can fault this study for focusing too narrowly on St. Louis. Any urban rivalry is inherently a tale of two cities. Even a cursory comparison with Chicago's parallel development would have greatly enhanced the value of Adler's dissection of the St. Louis experience. A comparative approach would also have addressed the question of St. Louis' representativeness or uniqueness. Dare we generalize from St. Louis to "the urban West"? Examination of an entire "city system," to borrow a concept from historical geography, would have put this admittedly important rivalry in broader perspective. Indeed, by highlighting the conflict between North and South, Adler slights western geography. Surely any urban history ought to include at least one map to guide the reader. Adler's statistical evidence also warrants greater attention to graphical presentation, certainly more than the two tables allotted to it here.

This study of one city's rise and fall nevertheless represents an impressive attempt to synthesize several tenuously related historical genres, including urban history, western history, community history, migration studies, and even Civil War history. Such a broad sweep avoids the monocausation that has plagued previous studies. In this debate over "nature vs. nurture," Adler answers "both" but emphasizes nurture. In this respect, Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West is an essential companion to William Cronon's sweeping study of Chicago's ascendance, Nature's Metropolis, also published in 1991.1 In his brief discussion of the St. Louis-Chicago rivalry, Cronon not surprising emphasizes nature over nurture, overlooking the sectional conflict entirely to focus on the impact of railroads on urban growth. Unlike Adler, Cronon also borrows quite effectively from historical geographers to present vivid maps and charts of Chicago's inexorable triumph over St. Louis. Cronon notes in passing, however, that "the story could hardly be more familiar."[2] Yet Adler's study demonstrates beyond doubt that the familiar story is incomplete. Demoting geography and transportation, particularly railroads, as decisive factors in the winning of the West, Adler grants the sectional crisis credit, long overdue, for helping to shape western development.
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Author:Winkle, Kenneth J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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