4
HOW THE WEST WAS SOLD

During the decade after the War of 1812, with settlers rushing into the Old Northwest, St. Louis became both a regional emporium and the central headquarters of the national quest for empire. Put another way, St. Louis became a clearinghouse for regional settlement, a jumping-off place for new pathways to the Far West—especially New Mexico and the Upper Missouri—and the center of the nation’s defense business. The city occupied a central position on western transportation routes, and the city’s merchants controlled the western fur trade. The military frontier and the trading frontier were bound together as both soldiers and fur traders served as the primary intermediaries between native peoples and the republic after the war. The dream of an American empire envisioned by Charles Gratiot back in 1796 was about to become a reality.

The fur trade remained the central enterprise of the Chouteaus until the 1840s, but the nature of the business would change profoundly after the war. One change was internal. Two powerful companies, heavily capitalized, drove out or absorbed smaller enterprises and exercised an ever-increasing amount of control over the business. The two companies were John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, incorporated in New York City in 1808, and a succession of Chouteau-family firms, eventually operating as Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company in St. Louis. In the end, there was one: Chouteau bought out the American Fur Company. Capital and organization were two keys to growth. Another was the ability to incorporate a new technology—steamboats — that further tightened and centralized the control of the trade. The final factor was the ability to influence government policy. This last factor would become increasingly important as the other change in the fur trade—this one external—became more apparent.

As the settlement frontier reached the Mississippi and new states joined the Union—twelve between 1816 and 1848—the chorus of voices demanding Indian removal grew louder and louder. Even as the debate in Congress over policy was playing out, treaties providing for immediate or gradual removal were being signed. In 1830, Andrew Jackson ended the debate and pushed through the Indian Removal Act. As negotiators began the process of forcefully persuading tribes to move to new lands west of the Mississippi, it became clear that they would need the services of those who knew the native communities best, the traders. At the same time, traders recognized that there was as much money to be made in supplying annuity goods as there was in furs. Moreover, the Chouteaus had realized that treaties provided the perfect occasion to extinguish Indian debts. This practice they put into place with the Osage treaty of 1825. (The 1825 Osage treaty marked the true beginning of this practice, which expanded and “had become a fixed policy at Indian treaty negotiations by 1831.”1 ). This new way of handling debts stabilized their profits as importers and retailers to the Indians; the federal government now became, in effect, the guarantor of this end of the business, and it paid in cash. At the same time, the fur merchants continued to extract profits from the wholesale marketing of furs, primarily in Europe. The fur trade then became, in part, the Indian business.

Success in such a business depended on having friends at court in Washington, D.C., to secure confirmation of costly treaties; friends at the local level of government bureaucracy, that is, Indian agents, treaty commissioners, governors and the like; and friends within the Indian tribes themselves. Although many merchants prospered from such dealings, it was the Chouteau family in St. Louis that blazed the trail, if you will, to New York and Washington. Their primary friend at court was Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, a young lawyer from Tennessee, had arrived in St. Louis in 1815. The first person he met in the city was Charles Gratiot, who was so impressed with the young man that he invited him to stay at his home. A few days later, Benton was employed as a land claims attorney in the office of the Chouteaus’ primary counsel, Edward Hempstead. The Chouteaus and their relatives and friends sponsored Benton’s rapid rise to political prominence. In 1819 Benton assumed the editorship of the St. Louis Enquirer, a paper friendly to the Chouteau interests. He was elected to the Senate in 1820 and never failed his patrons.2 In 1824, he pushed through a bill that provided for the reexamination of Spanish land claims by the district court of Missouri. This approach failed when a local judge named Peck proved obstinate. (The Chouteau interests had him impeached.) Benton, meanwhile, persuaded Congress to appoint a new Board of Land Commissioners. That board eventually submitted its final report in 1835, and its liberal treatment of Missouri claimants drew howls from some in Washington; nevertheless, Benton pushed it through to confirmation.3 As Benton noted in an 1824 letter to Bernard Pratte, another member of the Chouteau extended clan, “It will give me a pleasure, in the discharge of my public duties, to oblige at the same time my individual friends.”4

Benton was most valuable to the Chouteaus as an advocate of their fur-trading and Indian business interests. He pushed through countless favorable Indian treaties. When he took a stand against the confirmation of a Sioux treaty in 1843, a timely loan of one thousand dollars from Pierre Chouteau Jr. induced him to change his position.5 Benton’s first important service to the Chouteaus occurred in 1822 when he succeeded in having Congress abolish the government factory system, a thorn in the side of private fur-trading companies. With one stroke, the government withdrew from this important aspect of Indian relations, allowing the private sector to dominate the field. The federal government thereafter became increasingly dependent on the traders.

Out in the field, in Indian country, the supervision of Indian relations—in essence, the coordination of private interests and government policy—was handled by federal Indian agents. That same year, 1822, Congress created the Superintendency of Indian Affairs at St. Louis. William Clark, the former territorial governor of Missouri and a fast friend of the Chouteaus since his expedition days, held this critical post from 1822 to 1837.6 Clark reported directly to the secretary of war until 1824 when then Secretary of War John C. Calhoun established the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Acts of Congress periodically created new superintendences, but the office in St. Louis remained the only “full” superintendency in the field throughout the antebellum period. In St. Louis and Washington, the Chouteau family “supervised” the appointment of Indian agents by the government. When the Whigs of Clay County in western Missouri—staunch opponents of both Benton and Chouteau—tried in 1840 to get the Indian Office to move the St. Louis superintendency farther west and out of the clutches of the Chouteaus, their efforts came to naught. They had sensed an opportunity with the election of William Henry Harrison, but they were wrong7 The Democrat Benton was only one friend at court. The company had many Whig friends as well, among them Daniel Webster, who served the Chouteaus as a legal adviser before the Supreme Court on several occasions. The Chouteaus also had permanent lobbyists in Washington. The most important was Brigadier General Charles Gratiot, Pierre’s brother-in-law, who had served as the head of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Political influence, of course, was only one piece of the strategy of the Chouteau enterprise. It was the Chouteaus’ presence in the field that commanded attention and deference. Chapter 6 details the growth of the family business, from a family perspective, but we can offer a brief sketch of it here. In 1822 — clearly a significant year—several smaller St. Louis firms (and relatives) combined to form Berthold, Chouteau & Pratte. That same year, the St. Louis group signed its first agreement with Astor’s American Fur Company. The St. Louisans agreed to import all their trade goods through Astor, and Astor in turn would buy their furs at a guaranteed price. At this point, the St. Louis family consortium was strictly a regional business with important connections to Missouri River tribes such as the Osages, Omahas, Poncas, and Arikaras relatively close to home. Over the next few years, they would begin to specialize and expand their operations. Jean Pierre Cabanné took charge at Council Bluffs to manage the Lower Missouri trade; Bartholomew Berthold supervised the Upper Missouri posts; Jean Sarpy handled the books in St. Louis; Bernard Pratte took charge of external affairs; and Pierre Chouteau Jr. oversaw the entire operation.

Image

Bvt. Brig. Gen. Charles Gratiot (1788-1855), oil on canvas (1830), by Thomas Sully (1783-1872), 30 by 25 inches. Gratiot, the eldest son of Charles Gratiot and Victoire Chouteau, was one of four young men from leading French Creole families appointed to West Point by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. Gratiot graduated with honors in 1806, became a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1808, and served as the chief engineer from 1828 to 1838. Stationed in Washington, D.C., Gratiot also served as the point man for the family company’s interests in land claims and Indian treaties. This portrait, and the companion piece of Gratiot’s wife Ann Belin, both by Sully, captures the sense of an emerging aristocracy in the United States. The couple’s two daughters married well. Marie Victoire married the Marquis de Montholon, a member of the French legation in Washington, D.C. She became a lady of honor to the Empress Carlotta in Mexico. Julia married Charles P. Chouteau, son of Pierre Jr. West Point Museum Art Collection, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.]

The French partners learned their lessons from Astor. Astor understood that fur trade profits could be maximized only by reducing competition in the field — thereby stabilizing the prices paid for furs—and increasing market share—thereby obtaining the ability to respond to world fur markets. Ruthless in the field, Astor and his first lieutenant, Ramsay Crooks, absorbed a host of smaller enterprises in the Great Lakes region. At the same time, Astor and his son William supervised the marketing end, holding particular pelts in storage in their New York warehouse, to be released when prices rose in London and Leipzig.8 Through a series of partnerships and an overall rationalization of coverage and information, Astor brought a form of corporate control to the seemingly chaotic trade. At its height, the American Fur Company had more than twelve regional operations, called outfits, at least seven hundred employees, and agents in three continents.

The Chouteau-managed St. Louis company followed Astor’s lead in integrating and rationalizing the business. Beginning in the 1820s, Chouteau’s company either built or purchased trading posts that served a variety of Indian customers all over the West. After the marriage of Ramsay Crooks to Bernard Pratte’s daughter Emilie in 1825, the St. Louis firm—which remained a family partnership—signed an agreement with Astor in December 1826 to share the Western Department of the American Fur Company. In alliance with the nation’s largest monopoly, the Chouteau clan took over the Columbia Fur Company in 1827 and renamed its operation the Upper Missouri Outfit. They converted the Columbia Fur Company’s shabby Fort Tecumseh in the heart of Dakota country to Fort Pierre in 1832. They built Fort Union in 1829 at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, thereby linking the trade of the northern Rockies with that of the Missouri River system. In the 1830s they built Fort Clark in Mandan country and acquired Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming on the northern fork of the Platte River.

In 1834, when Astor retired, the Chouteau company bought out the Western Department of the American Fur Company. By this point, the Creole family company had achieved what economic geographers call a highly articulated system. They had extended the reach of their commerce and integrated the various links of the chain. When the company’s steamboat, the Yellowstone, reached Fort Union in 1832, the picture was complete. Thereafter, the company sent several company-owned or -chartered steamboats up the Missouri every year until 1865. With hundreds of employees; a host of trading posts large and small; and provisions, lumber supplies, and trade goods on hand at every establishment, the company had consolidated its control over the western fur trade. Chouteau was arguably the most famous name in the West during the antebellum period. Even today one can find a town named Chouteau in Oklahoma and a Chouteau County in Montana. By controlling the flow of information and goods, indeed, by holding the keys to survival for any traveler or government agent, the Chouteau company was in a perfect position to profit from both commerce and expansion.9

When the American Fur Company failed in New York in 1842, Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company bought its Upper Mississippi Outfit, thereby gaining hegemony over the Minnesota trade. It also opened an office in New York City to handle the export-import end of the business with Europe. In 1851, Chouteau would send his son-in-law John F. A. Sanford to London to control the flow of furs going to the annual fair at Leipzig, bypassing the former marketing agent, Curtis Lampson of London.10 From the company’s New York city office at No. 40 Broadway and from its headquarters in St. Louis, Chouteau controlled the flow of furs going to London and Leipzig on a scale that surpassed his predecessor, John Jacob Astor. Even when the market for beaver and muskrat crashed in 1841, the Chouteaus floated along—the value of the trade’s exports continued to rise mostly because of the increasing importance of buffalo robes. (The Chouteaus had pioneered this market back in the 1820s.11 ) And during the depression years that followed the Panic of 1837, the Chouteaus capitalized mightily on the government’s need to secure Indian lands and remove remnant tribal groups west.

During the Spanish regime, the Chouteaus had persuaded client Osage leaders such as White Hair and Big Track to relocate for purposes of trade. They continued to manipulate and negotiate tribal politics and movements throughout the antebellum period. For example, the Sac and Fox Indian agency in Iowa distributed $40,000 in annuities every year, most of which went to the Chouteaus. When a rival band influenced by a rival trader threatened to decrease profits, Keokuk, the most highly regarded chief, urged his people to purchase goods from “their friend Chouteau.”12 On May 25, 1837, as the country suffered from financial anxiety, Pierre sat in a hotel room in New York City smoking cigars and drinking sherry. Perhaps he was anticipating the bill he was about to present to Congress for claims on the Sac and Fox Indians to the tune of $89,697.65.13 In 1842 the Sac and Foxes signed a new land-cession treaty, and the Chouteaus were allowed more than $100,000 in compensation for past debts14 The Chouteau Indian business that began with the Osages in 1825 gradually included a long list of tribes: the Sioux, Cheyenne, Ponca, Potawatomi, Seneca, Sac and Fox, Miami, Osage, and Cherokee, among others.15 In 1851, the Santee Sioux of Minnesota signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in which they ceded much of their homeland. Through the machinations of Chouteau’s son-in-law Sanford and Chouteau allies Henry Sibley and Governor Alexander Ramsey, the treaty provided $210,000 to pay traders’ debts. It was ratified the following year, and the Chouteaus and their partisans received the entire sum. Eleven years later, Congress appropriated more than $100,000 to remove these same Santee Sioux, who had gone to war with newly arrived settlers in Minnesota the previous year, and a group of Winnebago people. Chouteau received the contract to transport them to south-central Dakota Territory and charged the government twenty-five dollars per passenger and ten cents per person per day for provisions. Baggage was free up to one hundred pounds, and Indian agents traveled free. The company moved a total of 3,251 Santee Sioux and Winnebago people to their new reservation at Crow Creek.16

In this tragic story of removal, powerful merchants such as Pierre Chouteau were certainly complicit. It was a complicated story, however, and the brokering of French fur traders and métis chiefs such as Jean-Baptiste Richardville of the Miamis may have mitigated, to some degree, the potential for genocidal violence that occurred in other frontier areas.17 Native people, of course, had limited options. On the other hand, the rapid pace of expansion played into the hands of those powerful merchants who controlled the interaction. They knew what native people needed and wanted, and they spoke their language. They knew that the Crows were taller than their neighbors and needed larger clothes. They knew that the Kansas Indians preferred green blankets.18 They had provisions on hand and were often the only ones able to prevent starvation during lean months. They also spread the terrors of alcoholism. From an Indian standpoint, credit was a necessity because native economies had been disrupted by non-Indian settlement. As one trader noted: “[We were] forced into the credit system by government policy. The average tribesman receives less than $10 per annum from annuities, not enough for survival as tribal resources have declined.”19 What had begun as an adjunct to the fur trade during the 1820s became a business in its own right by the 1840s. By 1842, the federal government was paying out more than two million dollars a year in cash to satisfy traders’ claims.20 Many tribes were forced to move three or four times in the space of two decades. As Spotted Tail observed, “Why does not the Great Father put his red children on wheels, so he can move them as he will?”21

By the 1840s, Pierre Chouteau Jr. had indeed become the master of movement. As early as 1835, he began to turn his attention to profiting from the transportation needs of incoming settlers and a growing industrial nation. Like the Astors, the Chouteaus and their relatives diversified their investments, taking money earned in the fur and Indian business and applying it to future-oriented enterprises. In 1849, Chouteau established a new firm in New York to market railroad iron. His son-in-law John F. A. Sanford, a native Virginian who wed Emilie Chouteau in 1832, became a partner in this venture. Sanford had begun his career as a clerk in the superintendent’s office of William Clark in 1825. He worked for the Indian Service until 1834, at which point he joined the Chouteau family firm, becoming a partner in the fur-trading operation in 1839. By 1852, Sanford had withdrawn from the St. Louis branch of what was by now an investment company. Living in New York City, he managed the Chouteau interests in railroads and railroad iron. The Chouteaus had substantial holdings in the Illinois Central and Ohio and Mississippi railroads. Sanford served as the director of the Illinois Central from 1851 to 1857. (He was also the defendant in the Dred Scott case.) Like the Janus-faced Genoese merchants, the Chouteau clan now faced both east and west. Dealing in railroad bonds, Pierre Chouteau acquired a substantial share in the Cincinnati, Logansport, and Chicago line sold by disgruntled British bondholders in 1860.22 England also provided a market for furs and railroad iron. In 1849, Chouteau, along with James Harrison and François Vallé, founded the American Iron Mountain Company to produce the ore he was brokering in New York. (Their silent partners included Samuel Ward, William Astor’s wealthy son-in-law, and August Belmont, the American agent for the House of Rothschild.23 ) In 1851, that company completed a plank road to transport the ore, replacing that road with a branch of the Illinois Central seven years later. By the late 1850s, the company owned several blast furnaces and the Laclède Rolling Mill in St. Louis.24

At the same time, the family firm continued its stranglehold on western development and capitalized on the position of St. Louis as the headquarters of western defense. When the army needed a post along the Oregon Trail from which to protect emigrants, they purchased Fort Laramie in 1849 from Chouteau for four thousand dollars.25 Six years later the army purchased Fort Pierre from the company for the inflated price of forty-five thousand dollars. One company official had warned the army quartermaster of St. Louis that the fort was rather worn out, but Chouteau himself pressured the quartermaster general in Washington to complete the transaction.26 Troops stationed in the rickety fort that first winter reportedly sang the following verse:

Oh, we don’t mind the marching, nor the fight do we fear,

But we’ll never forgive old Harney for bringing us to Pierre.

They say old Shotto built it, but we know it is not so;

For the man who built this bloody ranche

is reigning down below.27

As late as 1861, we find John Mullan contracting with Charles Chouteau, Pierre’s son, for the construction of a military road in Montana.28 The Chouteaus finally sold their fur-trading business in 1865. Before they did, however, gold was discovered in Montana, and the Chouteau outpost in that territory, Fort Benton, became the center of a new mining frontier. The last company boat on the Upper Missouri returned to St. Louis in 1865 with twenty-nine hundred bales of buffalo robes, seventy passengers from the mines, and more than $250,000 in gold dust.29

The Chouteaus, of course, were exceptional in their wealth, power, business acumen, and good fortune. Can we draw any conclusions about francophone merchants in general from their story alone? To help us answer this question, let us look briefly at the careers of several francophone merchants in Indiana.

The situation in Indiana after the War of 1812 was comparable to that in Missouri, and the career of Senator John Tipton in many ways paralleled that of Senator Benton. Both men consistently supported the cause of expansion and development. To encourage commerce and the availability of land was to encourage the vision of merchant and settler alike. In Indiana, no single French merchant or family had the resources and connections of the Chouteaus. Indeed, if there was one family that compared, it was the Anglo-American Ewings.30 However, without the presence of numerous French merchants in Indiana, the process of Indian dispossession and removal would not have been nearly as smooth nor as prolonged and lucrative for all involved. It was the Lasselles, the Lafontaines, the Chandonnais, Navarres, Godfroys, and Bertrands who persuaded their Miami, Potawatomi, and Shawnee friends and relatives to sign treaty after treaty from 1818 to 1833.31 The money acquired from such treaties capitalized the construction of canals, roads, ferries, and bridges during the 1830s.32 Prime real estate, located near canal and road sites, was of course reserved by the merchants.

From 1833 to 1855, when most native people in Indiana were removed to Kansas and the final scramble for treaty payments and Indian land occurred, another Frenchman emerged as a key figure, Alexis Coquillard. Coquillard used his removal profits to develop South Bend, Indiana, and endow a new college, Notre Dame. Considered the most capable leader of Indian emigration parties by government officials, Coquillard was also respected by the Indians, who hoped to avoid the various calamities that could and did occur on some of these unhappy journeys.33 Indian sentiment is hard to document, but Father Benjamin Petit, escorting a band of Potawatomis in 1838 on the infamous “march of death,” did record two incidents that seem revealing:

When the Indians arrived at Quincy, the inhabitants ... could not help expressing their surprise at the modesty of our Christians. ... A Catholic lady, accompanied by a Protestant friend, made the sign of the cross, symbolizing religious fraternity. Immediately the Indian women came up to shake their hands cordially; the savages never fail to do this when they encounter Catholics. The Protestant lady wanted to do as much and tried the sign of the cross, but, betrayed by her lack of practice, she could not succeed. At once an Indian, who knew some English, went up to her and said, “You nothing.”

One day Judge Polke, our principal officer, introduced one of his friends, a Baptist minister. I was in my tent, surrounded as usual by Indians. He wanted to shake hands with the Indians, and I told them to approach—that he called himself their friend. Then, as if he must make a sensation, this minister, with that commanding enthusiasm in which his kind are never lacking, cried: “Ah, they are the bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! I truly feel here [putting his hand on his heart] that I love humankind. Young man, may God bless your labors among them—make them better than they are.” When he had gone, I told my Indians that he was a Protestant minister. At this all who had shaken hands with him replied with a grimace.34

The French traders continued to be trusted by their Indian clients. The Winnebago Prophet is reported to have said to one trader, a Gratiot, that if he “came as a ‘Chouteau’ ... [he] welcome[d] him to his village; but he if came as a white man he must consider him, like all whites, an enemy.”35

If the Indians of the state trusted the French, one might well wonder why the French did not try to prevent their removal. This is a complex question to which we could not begin to do justice here. Some of the French did, in fact, remove to Kansas with their Indian clients and relatives36 Others, especially certain members of the clergy, did intercede on the Indians’ behalf.37 Most French traders, however, were actively involved in the treaty-making process and complicit in the hardships Indian communities experienced during removal. Some traders may have felt that they represented a mediating force between American settlers and native communities, justifying their own actions as facilitators of removal with the same logic employed by the advocates of this policy—that is, native groups would be better off in some distant place out of the path of settlers and “progress.”38 It is also possible that powerful business leaders such as Pierre Chouteau Jr., who spent most of his time in St. Louis and New York City and much less time than his father and brothers cultivating personal relationships out in Indian country, were physically and emotionally more removed from the consequences of their actions on native clients.

The correspondence of such merchants reveals little. Pierre Chouteau Jr.'s letters focused on financial matters and the details of the trade. Apart from inquiries and comments about the health and activities of family members, he kept his opinions and reflections to himself. He was notoriously tight-lipped. Here and there in the letters we may catch an oblique glimpse of the sympathy some traders may have felt for their native customers. For example, in a letter from one of Chouteau’s former agents in Detroit, Frederick Buhl, to trader Antoine Campau in Grand Rapids, Buhl admonishes Campau for paying too high a price for furs and having high collection costs: “We are sorry the amount in the hands of the Indians is so large. You wish us to send you $87.84 the balance due you as per statement. We would much rather you would collect this amount from some of the Indians, and think you might easily do so and collect much more of them. At the rate you have been managing with them you will never get the Indians out of your debt.”39 Antoine and Louis Campau, the founder of Grand Rapids, were said to be friends of the Indians. Perhaps such a letter indicates some sympathy on their part. On the other hand, as a newspaper article on the early days of Grand Rapids written in the 1970s observed, the Campaus also sold alcohol to local native communities and were deeply involved in various Michigan treaties that resulted in the loss of Indian land and substantial profits for the traders. Pierre Chouteau Jr. had an “English made Gold Watch” engraved and presented to Antoine Campau as “an acknowledgement of services rendered” several years after the Treaty of Detroit in 1855 with the Ottawas and Chippewas. The expensive present was not given to reward humanitarian endeavors.40 A sense of connection to and sympathy for long-time native neighbors and clients must have existed, yet I think it is safe to conclude that such feelings for most French traders were balanced if not outweighed by the bottom line.

Several generations of French traders observed the transition from Indian country to settlement frontier in a variety of places. For the most part, the French merchants of Indiana and elsewhere in the Creole Corridor behaved in a rather consistent manner. When land showed signs of becoming a valuable commodity, those French merchants with the resources to do so were not about to lose out to the newcomers from the East. They used their priority to gather land at important geographical sites and platted towns. Although the fur trade had overshadowed all other business pursuits during the eighteenth century, even before the War of 1812 most French merchants seemed quite ready and eager to lessen their dependence on this one volatile international market. When the smoke cleared and American settlement began in earnest, the French were in the forefront of the new economic activities. St. Louis, we should remember, was conceived as a French city. Indians were neighbors, not residents.

The post-War of 1812 careers of most French merchants in Indiana followed predictable paths. The career of Hyacinthe Lasselle Sr. was typical. Born at Kekionga or Fort Wayne in 1777, the youngest son of Jacques Lasselle and Thérèse Berthelet, Hyacinth was baptized in Detroit later that year. After schooling in Montreal, he returned to Indiana to work for his older brothers Jacques and François. Hyacinthe moved to Vincennes in 1804 and the following year married Julie Bosseron, daughter of the unfortunate Captain Bosseron already mentioned. Two other Bosseron daughters married merchants who had been born in France and immigrated to Vincennes at the turn of the century. Like other centers of French settlement in the United States, Indiana attracted immigrants from France and refugees from St. Domingue who contributed to the survival of French culture in those locations.41

Image

Portraits of Louis Campau (1791-1871) and Sophie de Marsac Campau (1807-1869) painted by Charles Moore in 1852. Louis began his career in the fur trade at an early age, working for his Uncle Joseph and his father, Louis Sr. He fought in the War of 1812 on the American side and was an active participant in the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819. A shrewd purchaser of lands at key locations, he filed plats of two future Michigan cities, Saginaw (1822) and Grand Rapids (1833), and is considered the founder of both. He built a permanent home in Grand Rapids in 1827, and a number of brothers and nephews followed him there from Detroit. Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Hyacinthe Lasselle served as a lieutenant of the Indiana Rangers during the War of 1812. He was apparently of great use as an interpreter and Indian scout s42 He had operated an inn as early as 1810,43 and by war’s end, this newly refurbished inn was the principal public gathering place in Vincennes. Lasselle’s Ball Room, as it was called, was the site of many patriotic bashes, and Lasselle was on his way to becoming an honored American patriot and pioneer.44 In 1816, Lasselle and a number of other merchants, French and Anglo-American, formed the Terre Haute Land Company, surely a convincing sign of dedication to the American future.

Lasselle had always maintained cordial relationships in the Potawatomi and Miami Indian communities. The Miamis called him Kekiah and celebrated his athletic abilities. Those friendships paid off. He served as administrator of the estate of John Old Owl or Ma-son-pe-con-gah in 1817. He arranged for deed transfers from various Potawatomi Indians at the treaty negotiations of 1826 and 1832.45 In 1833, he purchased shares in the Wabash and Erie Canal and moved his family to Logansport, the county seat of newly created Cass County. This appropriately named county became the focal point of the Indian-related business in 1828 when John Tipton moved the Indian Agency to Logansport.46

Lasselle died in 1843. He was not the most famous or successful of Indiana’s French merchants; the brothers-in-law François Comparet and Alexis Coquillard are perhaps better known for their civic and economic contributions to the cities of Fort Wayne and South Bend, respectively. The history of the Lasselle family, however, makes a number of points most clearly. Hyacinthe’s Uncle Antoine was almost shot in 1794 as a British spy. His older brother François was accused of treason during the War of 1812. Yet Hyacinthe was elected major general of the militia in 1820 by his fellow citizens, many of them Anglo-Americans.47 Were the Lasselle brothers that different? Had their goals and values changed? I think not. The year of Hyacinthe’s election, the Indiana Supreme Court declared in The State v. Lasselle that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the new state constitution48 (Lasselle was defending his property rights.) What changed was simply Hyacinthe’s decision to invest in the new order.

During the 1820s and 1830s, the Indiana French were still a distinct and different community. Political appeals were still made in the French language. In Michigan, Father Gabriel Richard was elected to Congress49 As Lasselle and others of his generation increasingly moved in non-French circles, their interest in cementing their ties to French culture and supporting their distinct institutions seems to have increased as well. Lasselle began a subscription to a new national newspaper, Le Courier des États Unis, in 1830.50 French merchants sponsored Catholic churches and schools in every part of the French Midwest during the 1830s and 1840s.51 Although the French character of these institutions was soon lost, the institutions themselves survived and prospered. Their endurance ensured the existence of a pluralistic society in the Midwest.

French traders were in the right place at the right time. Most of them had little use for noble sentiments about democracy and did not share the political values of their Anglo-American neighbors. By 1815, however, they had taken the measure of republican government and made the transition from old-regime clientage to American-style backroom deals. Unlike their Anglo counterparts, they drank brandy and wine, not whiskey. And they had a different outlook on and relationship with the Indians. It was critical that they did. Although the transition from Indian country to settlement frontier was not the only source of their wealth, many certainly made a killing on that transition.

Some diversified their investments and entered the world of industrial capitalism with enthusiasm. A substantial number held stock in canal companies, steamboats, and railroads. They were, if we may generalize, uninterested in carving out country estates. They were town founders and urban residents. Country acres were for them a source of income, not status. What mattered most to the Chouteaus, for example, was la maison, the prosperity of their house—by which they meant both the family and the family business. Ironically, millionaire Pierre Chouteau Jr. felt that the business class of New York City was too obsessed with profits. In short, the francophone merchants of this western borderland constituted a significant bourgeois elite who were flexible though cautious in their investment strategy, crafty and discreet in their political maneuvering, and utterly tenacious in their pursuit of social and economic capital.

As a group, these merchants are most interesting and most visible to historians during this dramatic period of American expansion—from Lewis and Clark to the opening of the Far West. If we try to assess the big picture, several tentative conclusions come to mind. First, the transition period in this region is perhaps best characterized not as a conquest, but as a series of negotiations between groups with unequal amounts of power. And a significant number of francophone merchants (négociants in French) — rooted in places that antedated Anglo-American settlement—assumed important roles in these negotiations.

A second conclusion flows from the first. Beyond the Mississippi River, the federal government had few resources before the Civil War. When the army needed a post, it turned to Pierre Chouteau Jr. Chouteau steamboats were used to transport soldiers as well as Indians. If native peoples were unprepared for the invasion and transformation of their homelands, then so was the federal government. In this sense, French merchants—veterans of the middle ground — served as the middlemen of American expansion in a surprising number of cases. When Stephen W. Kearny’s Army of the West entered New Mexico in 1846, it found a number of well-established francophone traders, some of whom they relied on for support. (This is the story of Chapter 5.) Indeed, French and métis traders seemed to bring the middle ground with them. In the late nineteenth century in the Jocko and Mission velleys of Montana, one can find a French town and a host of successful French and métis ranchers and traders named Allard, Rivais, Morigeau, Courville, and the like.52 In a sense, the middle ground became the “negotiable instrument” of American expansion. Frontier brokers became brokers of frontiers.

When you gaze at the portrait of Pierre Chouteau Jr. at the Missouri Historical Society, his shrewd expression smiles down on you and he seems to be saying— in French, of course—keep your log cabin, I have a mansion in town. Like so many bourgeois Napoleons of the American West, these francophone merchants helped negotiate the course of empire. Their collective story suggests not how the West was won or lost, but how it was sold.

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