The first reference to ball-playing in St. Louis is found in the papers of Theodore Hunt, who was the recorder of land titles in Missouri for the United States government, and, in the early part of the 19th century, played an important role in settling complicated and muddled colonial land claims in St. Louis, a city that had been governed, in its short history, by the French, Spanish and United States. Hunt also happened to have been married to Anne Lucas, the daughter of J.B.C. Lucas, one of the two largest landowners in St. Louis, and one can imagine that, given the nature of his job, he was a rather influencial figure in a city were wealth and power was tied closely to land ownership.
In 1825, Henry Gratiot was deposed by Theodore Hunt regarding a disputed land claim and, in the course of the deposition, Gratiot was asked if he was familiar with Motard’s Mill. He answered that he had “a perfect knowledge of the situation of Motard’s windmill, for when a Boy he has frequently played Ball against this same Mill.” Gratiot’s testimony is significant because it is the earliest known reference to ball-playing in St. Louis and Missouri and is also one of the earliest references to ball-playing west of the Appalachian Mountains. Louis Houck, in the second volume of his history of Missouri, mentions Gratiot’s testimony, adding that Gratiot considered the mill as “a sort of resort” for the boys of the village, a place where they often congregated and played.
-Henry Gratiot and Early St. Louis Ball-Playing
The significance of the Gratiot testimony that I quote above is that it is the first reference to ball-playing in St. Louis that we have. Based upon things such as the details given in the testimony and Gratiot's age, we can argue that ball games were being played in St. Louis by the 1790s, at the latest. St. Louis was founded in 1764 and, therefore, we can state that you had ball-playing going on within a generation of that founding.
Of course, this was not baseball as we know it and was probably not some form of an early baseball variant. I've speculated before about what kind of game it was based upon my knowledge of early French ball games and my best guess is that they were playing something like la balle au mur. In the Gratiot piece in the sidebar, I included a description of the game:
You draw a horizontal line along the length of the wall, a meter or a meter and a half above the ground…The simplest version is for two players. One will serve the ball, that is, throw it against the wall. The other one sends it back against the wall, either hitting it on the fly or after it has bounced once. The first player hits it back…and it goes thus from one to another…
Every ball that is missed, that is to say, every ball that a player cannot return against the wall, is a fault and counts for a certain number of points for his adversary. It is likewise a fault to hit the wall above the line. Finally, it is useless to say that it is not permitted to return the ball on the second bounce, or the third.
The other really interesting thing about the Gratiot source is that it comes from a French colony in the New World. St. Louis was a French city and the culture of the city was French. Most early baseball history focus on the influence that English games had on the American baseball tradition and rightfully so because that influence was profound. But if you read Ball, Bat and Bishop or Baseball Before We Knew It, you will find that there is the very real possibility that the French ball-playing culture influenced the English ball-playing culture. The opposite is also true and it appears that the English culture influenced the French. So you have this wide variety of influences coming to the New World, already jumbled up, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to sort it out. The point is, however, that there was a significant French ball-playing culture and it was transported to America during the colonial period. I'm not arguing that this Creole ball-playing culture influenced the development and evolution of American baseball because I don't see any evidence for that. But the Gratiot source, I believe, is evidence of the existence of a Creole ball-playing culture and that is something that I believe has largely been overlooked when we're talking about the early game.