In the previous chapters I have tried to show that the French in a variety of places in mid-America, in what I have dubbed the Creole Corridor, were not only able to survive the transition to American sovereignty and avoid marginalization under the new regime, but many were able to profit by brokering the transition from Indian country to a settlement frontier. In Indiana and Missouri, Illinois and Michigan, French traders with the means to do so accumulated parcels of land that they assumed would rise in value as droves of American immigrants headed west. They also held political capital as their connections to a variety of Indian tribes ensured their usefulness in the decades after the War of 1812 that saw local and federal officials desperate to sign treaties and obtain one land cession after another. Many of the French continued to pursue the fur trade, but as forests gave way to farms, those with means began purchasing town lots and shares in canals, steamboats, and railroads. Because their collective story has never been told, but rather lies in the fragments of midwestern local history, the pattern has eluded our textbooks. The successful métis businessman Antoine LeClaire, the same man who recorded Black Hawk’s autobiography, developed Davenport, Iowa; Louis Campau played the same role for Grand Rapids, Michigan. They are well-known in the cities they founded, but their actions have not been seen as part of a larger narrative.

It seems clear that the French in St. Louis, above all the Chouteaus and their many relations, followed a similar trajectory on a grand scale and with spectacular success. Above and beyond their skill as entrepreneurs and their political acumen, they occupied a most fortunate position in time and space. Decades of Spanish rule had allowed them to accumulate connections and land claims. And, of course, their geographical position in Missouri allowed them to squeeze the profits out of frontiers in transition even as they were consolidating their hold over the fur trade on the Upper Missouri and elsewhere in the vastness of the new American Far West. Chapter 4 provided an overview of that dramatic example of private empire-building, shaped by company consolidation and control and the needs of the federal government pursuing a policy of westward expansion. Chapter 6 will examine the ways in which family formation and generational succession shaped business interests, for the Chouteau companies, unlike Astor’s American Fur Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, remained, throughout this period, family businesses.1 But this chapter will pursue not the grand strategy from the perspective of French merchants stationed in St. Louis, coordinating operations and connections in Indian country and eastern centers of power, but the actions of the French on the ground in the various Wests beyond St. Louis—specifically, the role of the French as brokers of frontiers in western Missouri; in the present-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma; and also in a Hispanic region on the international border between two young republics, Mexico and the United States. Here and elsewhere in the Far West, the French were often the first in the field, the advance guard of U.S. expansion pursuing a variety of economic opportunities though often starting with furs. In following the activities of the French and their role in this story of western expansion, I hope at the same time to provide a case study not only of the dispersion of the French, but also the French in the process of middle-grounding, of occupying a cultural and social space of accommodation while pursuing an economic agenda of development and change.

So let us return briefly to 1803 and St. Louis, the capital of the American fur trade in the newly acquired territory, the place Jefferson called “the center of our western operations.”2 No group had a keener appreciation of the resources of this new American empire than the French Creoles of the city that would soon become known as the Gateway to the West. The timing of the Lewis and Clark expedition was in many ways perfect for the French Creole elite of St. Louis. A new generation of Chouteaus and their many cousins would reach their maturity in the following two decades, and the new American West would provide a host of opportunities for them to test their abilities as frontier entrepreneurs. During the 1820s, established French families such as the Chouteaus, the Menards, the Papins, the Sarpys, and the St. Vrains sent sons and daughters to establish western branches of family enterprises up and down the Missouri River, into the Rocky Mountains, and into Texas and New Mexico. Others ventured out from Lower Louisiana, especially from the border town of Natchitoches.

It was also time, from a business standpoint, for a new regime. The Chouteaus had mastered the system of Spanish imperial patronage and had enjoyed a six-year monopoly on the lucrative Osage trade from 1794 to 1800. Although the French already had a long history of trading in western Missouri and present-day Kansas, they had been unable to establish a strong presence there and faced competitors supplied with British goods at Michilimackinac in the Great Lakes region. A number of attempts to reach tribal peoples living on the Upper Missouri in the 1790s had failed to get beyond the Mandan villages in west-central North Dakota. The Chouteaus and other French traders were ready to cast their lot with the new American regime. The Spanish had viewed Missouri as a defensive borderland; the French Creoles, like the Anglo-Americans, were ready to expand.

The Lewis and Clark expedition seemed to break the ice. After their return to St. Louis, reports of a wealth of fur-bearing animals in the Rocky Mountains prompted Manuel Lisa to lead a party to the Upper Missouri in 1807. That venture enjoyed limited success, enough to prompt Pierre Chouteau Sr. to join a new venture with Lisa, the Missouri Fur Company, in 1809. Over the next decade and a half, the scramble to exploit the Upper Missouri trade would see a variety of individuals and companies establish posts with varying results. The Chouteaus focused their interests on consolidating their position in the central portion of the Velley from the mouth of the Kansas River to the area north of the Platte around Council Bluffs near present-day Omaha.3

In 1808, with war looming between Great Britain and the United States, many of the Indian nations were threatening to join forces in a pro-British alliance directed against American settlers. Pierre Chouteau Sr., acting in his capacity as the U.S. government’s agent for the Osages, negotiated a treaty with that nation that secured the cession of a huge tract of land between the Missouri and Arkansas rivers. Many of the Osages agreed to move to the west and southwest in search of better hunting grounds. The treaty thus moved this potentially dangerous group safely away from the pro-British tribes and opened central Missouri for white settlement. At the same time, the treaty included a provision confirming the Chouteaus’ title to thirty thousand arpents of land in the ceded area.4This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the Chouteaus would show themselves to be masters of combining their personal interests with the diplomatic agenda of their new government. That same year, the first town in central Missouri, Cote Sans Dessein, was settled. The residents of the town — mostly métis families who worked as interpreters, hunters, and voyageurs in the fur business—were partisans of the Chouteaus.5 They included people like the Phili-berts. One Philibert daughter, Constantine, would later marry Daniel Boone’s grandson and move to the new Chouteau town of Kansas City. Their daughters, Elizabeth and Eulalie Boone, were baptized in the Catholic Church and presumably spoke French.6

Most of the families at Cote Sans Dessein had come from the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Missouri. At one point, St. Charles had been the place where fur-trade workers lived, the center of a French-Indian kinship network that facilitated commercial relations. Some forty years after the founding of St. Louis, the center of gravity in the fur trade was shifting westward.7 But it was not simply the lure of pelts, and later buffalo robes, that pulled French traders west, it was also the push of American settlement driving their customers and producers out of their homes.

Additional land-cession treaties negotiated in 1818 and 1825 with the Osages, 1823 with the Ioways, 1824 with the Sac and Foxes, and 1825 with the Kansa Indians removed all those peoples who were indigenous to the area from the boundaries of what became the state of Missouri in 1821. To further complicate matters, Indians who had immigrated into the region, having been driven from homeplaces farther east, were also removed from Missouri. The Shawnees and Delawares had lived in southeastern Missouri since the 1780s and received a Spanish land grant in 1793. In 1815, more than twelve hundred Shawnees occupied comfortable cabins along Apple Creek (north of Cape Girardeau) with flourishing fields, land rich in game, and livestock and slaves, but white squatters had begun to make life miserable for these immigrant Indians. Robberies and beatings increased in frequency, and the Shawnees and Delawares began to seek new lands farther west. Despite protests from French traders such as Pierre Menard and Auguste Chouteau8and attempts by territorial governor William Clark to create a new reservation for the Shawnees and Delawares in western Missouri, the majority of Missourians would have none of it. Clark’s attempts to protect native rights secured his defeat in the first gubernatorial election of 1820. A final land-cession treaty in 1825 forced the Shawnees to exchange their lands in Missouri for fourteen thousand dollars and a tract of land beyond the western border of the state near the junction of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. And while Congress debated, but failed to pass, a measure to create an Indian Territory in 1825, more Indians were on their way west. The potential for hostilities between tribes on the move and under pressure was palpable, and only a few gave voice to any humanitarian concern for the refugees: Pierre Menard warned officials that Shawnees from Ohio heading west “are naked and starving and will be unable to join their friends in time to raise a crop, if they are not assisted.”9

As Indians moved west, traders followed. In short, during the decades after Lewis and Clark, and especially during the 1820s and 1830s, traders in pursuit of furs expanded into vast new territories—up the Missouri to the edge of present day Montana, into the northern and southern Rockies—acquiring new groups of Indian clients such as the Assiniboines and the Crees. Traders also established new posts among familiar groups such as the Osages along a new and tenuous border separating Indian country from an expansionist republic of land-hungry settlers. In these new borderlands from the Three Forks of the Arkansas to the mouth of the Platte River, the fur trade would become as much a business of providing annuity goods for cash — or providing goods on credit in hopes that debts might be paid later, often through the medium of an additional land-cession treaty—as a gathering of skins and pelts. This somewhat tedious business of keeping retail accounts for increasingly impoverished customers might be supplemented by providing goods and services for the army posts that began to be established to keep the peace between hostile Indian groups (Fort Smith in 1817 in western Arkansas, Fort Gibson in eastern Oklahoma in 1824) and to ensure the safe passage of traders heading up the Missouri or southwest along the Santa Fe Trail (Fort Atkinson at Council Bluffs in 1820, Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in 1827).

The fur trade had always combined aspects of wholesaling and retailing, opening new markets and linking western resources with the rest of the world while serving local retail customers, Indian and non-Indian. The bourgeois who ran a trading post was at once a shopkeeper and a link in a larger wholesale network. As the new western edge of trade from eastern Oklahoma to the far reaches of the Upper Missouri took shape during the 1820s and 1830s, it would become clear that the potential profits from furs were greater farther north, in trading regions that would remain distant and isolated from overland trails and the pressures of American settlers until after the Civil War.10 On the eve of selling the Astor interests in the western fur trade to Pierre Chouteau Jr. and his associates—the two companies had been working in tandem since 1827—William Astor noted in 1833 that the Upper Missouri Outfit had recently been credited with sales of furs amounting to $20,322.63. The Kanzas [sic] Outfit account, by way of contrast, had amounted to $2,288.77.11 “ (Such figures do not provide an annual summary of profits but do indicate the relative value of the outfits.)

Furs, however, were only part of the story. There was, of course, a great potential for profit in brokering the transition from Indian country to a settlement frontier—profits derived from the payment of accumulated Indian debts, transportation services, wholesaling, and land speculation—but to gather such profits, traders had to be on the ground both before and after the transition. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his dissertation on the fur trade, had noted that the French trading posts had pioneered the sites of future American cities, but he thought that the traders themselves and the French-Indian world in which they operated were essentially washed away by the tide of American settlement.12 He was wrong. French traders not only broke the cake of custom, they often began the process of baking the new cake.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The decade following the end of the War of 1812 saw an enormous increase in the population of the Old Northwest and Missouri—the latter rose from 19,783 in 1810 to 66,586 in 1820 to 140,455 in 1830. The westering line of settlement drove a corresponding line of Indian resettlement. And the second generation of Chouteaus and their various cousins followed. As the youngest of Pierre Chouteau Sr.'s sons, Frederick, observed later in his life: “In 1830 I made my house on the American Chief creek, on the south side of the Kansas river, about fifteen or twenty miles above [present-day] Topeka. American Chief had a small band living there, twenty lodges. ... They remained there until 1845. I remained there till that time; then I went with them to Council Grove.” But if the traders followed the Indians, it was also true that native customers were influenced by the location of traders. Frederick Chouteau wrote: “Hard Chief had his village, in 1830, about a mile above the American Chief, away from the creek, and nearer the Kaw [Kansas] river, on the highland. ... These two bands built their villages there because I was going there to trade, as I told them.” Chouteau later added: “I was up at the trading-post most of the time. The [government] agent never lived there, or at any of the other Indian villages. He only went there once a year, to make the payment—about Christ-mas—when the Indians returned from their hunt. All the Indians of the tribe of all the villages traded with me. I was the only trader.”13

Frederick first arrived in Indian country in the fall of 1825 at the age of fifteen. He states that he landed at the trading post of his brothers, François and Cyprien, at Randolph Bluffs in Clay County, Missouri, “about two miles below Kansas City, on the opposite side of the Missouri river.”14 The first of this second French Creole generation to arrive had been Paul Liguest Chouteau, the third son of Pierre Sr. Liguest, as he was known to his family, set up shop with the Osages, the people most well-known by the Chouteaus and the source of the first generation’s fur-trade wealth. Liguest’s first post was established in 1816 on the Marais des Cygnes, a tributary of the Osage River. A Frenchman traveling through the United States in 1840, Victor Tixier, left us a description of Liguest, referred to as Major Chouteau: “The Major is one of those men whose faces show natural kindness. For a long time he lived the life of the Osage on the prairie ... ‘now that old age is approaching,’ he said, ‘I am resting from my hardships; formerly I wasted little of my time at school, and I completed my education at the Osage academy.’”15 Liguest maintained the post on the Marais des Cygnes until 1823. At this post, he apparently schooled his half-brother François and his cousin Gabriel Sylvestre Chouteau—known as Cerré, after his mother’s maiden name—in the fur-trade business. Cerré was the second son of Auguste. Cerré and François apparently arrived at Liguest’s post as early as 1816. By 1819, they were ready to strike out on their own and set up a post known as Four Houses twenty miles above the mouth of the Kansas River. They also had a post at Randolph Bluffs. Two more brothers arrived to work under François. Cyprien came in 1822 or 1823 and by 1828 was operating a trading post for the Shawnees and Delawares near present-day Turner, Kansas, slightly west of Kansas City. Frederick arrived for his apprenticeship in 1825 and set up his own post for the Kansa Indians in 1829.

In the meantime, Liguest had moved with the Osages to the Neosho River in Kansas. Here he was joined by yet another cousin, Pierre Melicourt Papin, who ran a trading post linked to White Hair’s band. Liguest received the government appointment as subagent, then agent, for the Osages. Papin had been at the Marais des Cygnes post, which became known as Papin’s Town then Papinsville in western Missouri. Married to Sophie Mongraine, whose family had close relations with White Hair (Pawhuska), Papin had settled down at the Neosho post in Kansas by the fall of 1825 and remained there for most of his life, though he died in St. Louis in 1849.

As if there weren’t enough brothers and cousins in what was becoming a busy crossroads region bounded by the Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri rivers, the oldest son of Pierre Chouteau Sr., A. P. Chouteau, would arrive, probably in 1822, having taken out a license to trade with the Osages with his brother Liguest in July of that year. A.P., a graduate of West Point, is—with his younger brother, Pierre Jr.—the most famous of the second-generation Chouteaus, primarily because of the description by Washington Irving of him and his “frontier plantation” at La Saline, “a big salt spring some thirty-five miles up the Neosho from its mouth in eastern Oklahoma.”16 A.P. and Jules de Mun, another family relation, had led an unsuccessful trading venture to New Mexico from 1815 to 1817 (more on that later) and upon their return to St. Louis had borrowed money from Berthold & Chouteau (Bartholomew Berthold and Pierre Chouteau Jr.) to open a store in St. Louis. At this time, A.P. also built a two-story frame house in town. In short, it would appear that he had opted for a more permanent place in the city of his birth. The business had failed by 1821. As historian Janet Lecompte observed in her biographical sketch of A.P., the debt to Berthold & Chouteau “amounted with interest to $66,000 fifteen years later ... a veritable fortune requiring a lifetime of work or a windfall of good luck to repay. A.P. was a failure unprecedented among the vigorous and ambitious Chouteaus.”17 A.P. already had much knowledge of and experience with the Osages so relocating to Osage country was a logical next move. In 1822, he arrived in eastern Oklahoma and bought a house recently constructed at La Saline by Joseph Revoir. (Revoir had traded in partnership with Liguest, but he was killed by the Cherokees in 1821.)

The field, however, was becoming rather too crowded for so many relatives. Pierre Chouteau Jr. wrote from St. Louis to “mon cher cousin” Cerré on July 19, 1822, that Gesseau (the family usually referred to François by his middle name) “wanted to take the merchandise for his own account, because he alleges, with reason, that the profits are so limited that it is not worth the trouble to increase the number of partners in a small operation; we are leaving it to you and to him to settle it.” Pierre offered Cerré his choice of other posts, suggesting that he spend the winter with the “Otos or the Mahas” farther north.18 Cerré took his cousin up on the offer and spent the next seven years upriver. When his father, Auguste, died in 1829, Cerré returned to St. Louis and took over the operation of the Chouteau flour mill until Chouteau’s Pond, one of the city’s landmark places, was drained in 1852 for health reasons and rail yards. Far from Indian country, he became known as “the miller” and died, unmarried, in 1887.19

A new sense of structure and permanence emerged in 1822. As we have seen, it was a pivotal year: a new consolidated family firm, known as the French Fur Company20 , signed a marketing agreement with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, and the Chouteaus’ political ally, Senator Benton, pushed Congress to abolish the government factory system, thus abandoning the federal government’s most direct connection to the tribes and leaving the field to private companies, most notably those run by Astor and the Chouteaus. The Chou-teaus’ privileged position was reinforced that year by the creation of the Superintendency of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, directed by their fast friend William Clark. And that same year, the new family firm, in one of its first acts, put François Chouteau in control of the family operations at the junction of the Kansas and Missouri rivers in what would become a second Chouteau’s Town, Kansas City.21

Let us try to make some sense of all the Chouteaus and their cousins. In 1822, François brought his wife, Berenice Menard Chouteau—a cousin by marriage— their two young sons, several slaves, and a number of employees to the Randolph Bluffs post. After a flood in 1826, he built a large warehouse and several other buildings in a place on the south side of the Missouri first known as Chouteau’s Landing—the nucleus of Kansas City. This complex would become the clearinghouse for the family’s activities in the West, midway between the trade in New Mexico and the Upper Missouri posts on the one hand and the eastern terminus of St. Louis on the other. A supply center and a place for receiving bales of furs, Kansas City began its urban life in a manner quite similar to its parent city.

François supervised the operations centered around this region that, by the end of the 1820s, included the warehouse in Kansas City, the Kansa Post managed by Frederick Chouteau, the Shawnee Post managed by Cyprien, and several smaller posts serving the Wea and Kickapoo emigrants. For supervising this area, François received a salary from the home office in St. Louis; in effect, he was a branch manager. But he was also a shareholder in the Kansas Outfit. In addition, he “bought and sold real estate, and served as a one-man banking system on the frontier.”22 Likewise, the brothers who managed the various posts— the bourgeois or head traders of those posts—were both managers of the company’s interests, keeping track of inventory at all times, and semiautonomous entrepreneurs, ready to invest on their own accounts. To complicate matters, François also looked after the interests of his father-in-law. The marriage of François and Berenice not only created the social and cultural foundation for a new city, it united the business interests of the Chouteau family and their long-time associate, Pierre Menard of Kaskaskia. Menard, who served as the first lieutenant governor of the state of Illinois, had been a “key figure in the relocation of the Shawnees and Delawares” to Kansas.23

The trading assignments of the various head traders and supervisors were both human and geographical in scope. Investments in client bands and tribes were especially mobile during a period characterized by multiple land cessions and relocations. For example, in a letter written to Pierre Chouteau Jr. in August 1829, François noted that “the chiefs of the Shawnee came to see me upon my arrival to ask me if I had brought their annuities. I told them ‘no.’ Captain Vashon [their agent] took two thousand dollars to them. They have taken a thousand of them. They took a thousand and a thousand was reserved for Mr. Menard.”24 The money for Menard was likely intended to pay off past debts. Menard’s interest in the Shawnees, both humane and financial, continued over time and was maintained — in this case by his son-in-law—over long distances. The increasing importance of annuity payments only reinforced the need, in this complex phenomenon we tend to oversimplify by using the phrase “fur trade,” for capital reserves as goods were often sold on credit. In a similar vein, Victor Tixier noted in 1840 that a recent treaty with the Osages (concluded in 1839) had promised a sum of eighteen thousand dollars annually for twenty years in exchange for a further land cession. Though he was slightly off with that figure, his remarks were telling: “This annuity comes back to the Fur Company almost in its entirety; in 1840, $16,000 went into Mr. [Pierre Melicourt] Papin’s coffers.”25

To the south of these operations centered in Kansas City was the territory known as the Osage Outfit supervised by A. P. Chouteau. This trading turf included the old post at Marais des Cygnes, Papin’s post on the Neosho in Kansas near White Hair’s village, the home at La Saline where his cousin Auguste Aris-tide Chouteau (Auguste Sr.'s oldest son) helped out, and a post near the Three Forks on the Verdigris River where another brother (half-brother), Louis Pharamond Chouteau, came to work as a clerk. Later on, Edward Chouteau, a son of Liguest, built an additional post at Flat Rock Creek and traded with the Beaver band of the Osages, a group connected to his métis wife, Rosalie Capitaine.26 Tixier noted that Edward “was the only white man who spoke [the Osage language] like an Osage.”27

The post on the Verdigris near the Three Forks was the business center and contained a warehouse, a boat landing, and fields of wheat and corn. This post served Clermont’s Osages and increasing numbers of Cherokees, Creeks, Choc-taws, and white settlers, all—in the words of historian Janet Lecompte—“push-ing the frontier west from Arkansas.”28

It should be clear by now that the various Chouteau relatives were in a perfect position to dominate the trade in both furs and annuity goods in this region by the mid-1820s. But were they successful economically? Socially? What constituted success in this new frontier zone? The first generation of French Creoles in St. Louis had not only achieved success in the volatile fur business, they had also positioned themselves perfectly for the transition to American rule, accumulating Spanish land grants in anticipation of American settlers and serving as valuable go-betweens in the negotiations with Indian tribes in the path of settlement. On less of a grand scale, French merchants such as Hyacinthe Lasselle and Alexis Coquillard in Indiana and the Campaus in Michigan played a role similar to that of the Chouteaus in St. Louis. One rather significant complication of life on this new frontier, this new middle ground, was that St. Louis remained the financial epicenter of the business, and also the center of the French Creole social world. Many of these Chouteau traders had not only left brothers, sisters, and parents behind, they also, in a number of cases, had wives and children in St. Louis. The first generation of French fur traders in St. Louis often had marriages or partnerships à la façon du pays with Indian women. Such alliances cemented trade relations and built trust between communities.29 But the distance between Indian communities and St. Louis in the 1790s was much shorter, and the separation less severe. There was simply no question that the maisonthat mattered was in St. Louis, and for businessmen such as Auguste and Pierre Chouteau and their various brothers-in-law, the children of their marriages with French Creole women were the future. But now many of those children had traveled to a new Indian country far from home. What would the future beyond St. Louis look like?

Tanis Thorne, in her book The Many Hands of My Relations, has done a wonderful job of tracking the construction of a métis world in this frontier region and the history of a number of mixed-blood communities after the decline of the fur trade. Here we are more concerned with French Creole traders themselves and their outcomes. Indeed, Thorne suggests that many of these second-generation Creoles left St. Louis because the French population there was being “rapidly overshadowed by the Anglo-American population. ... [that many sons of the] leading families chose a life in the Indian country, rather than struggle for social position in St. Louis.”30 This, I would suggest, was not the case, but it is a point worth addressing. It can be argued more successfully that a number of French and métis people who lived in places like St. Charles, a place where those we might describe as the proletariat of the fur trade lived, were, to some degree, pushed out by rising land values and competition from incoming Anglo-American farm families.31 But what of the leading families?

Thorne uses the example of A. P. Chouteau’s store in St. Louis to illustrate her case. No doubt, A.P. seems to have been a rather poor businessman, and he certainly removed to Indian country after his mercantile establishment in St. Louis failed. His hard luck would continue in eastern Oklahoma. A flood on the Verdigris in June 1833 destroyed his central business buildings, causing losses of more than ten thousand dollars. It also swept away most of a local Creek village, further impoverishing his customers.32 But beyond mere luck or lack of business acumen, A.P. was in a tough place to make a profit. The nearby Osage villages were pressed by incoming groups of Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees; Comanches and Pawnees to the west did their best to keep all of these groups away from their hunting grounds; and white squatters were an added annoyance. The 1820s and 1830s were years of constant, if intermittent, bloodshed. A.P. was called upon to act as a peacemaker on numerous occasions. The establishment of Fort Gibson at the Three Forks in 1824 provided some measure of assistance, and additional customers, but no respite from the violence. To make matters worse, the arrival of newcomers to the area had made game scarce. And when a group of Creek emigrants arrived in 1828 and 1829, A.P. found that the government had failed to provide them with the goods and money promised. He supplied them with food, clothing, and other items to the tune of more than five thousand dollars. He was not reimbursed during his lifetime. Heading east in 1835, he formed a new partnership to trade with the Cherokees, the only native group in the area with money, purchasing thirty thousand dollars worth of goods on credit from a firm in Philadelphia and taking an additional loan of ten thousand dollars. (At this point, he was already deeply in debt to the family company in St. Louis.) Back in Oklahoma, he found that the Cherokee agent would not let him rent a store on the Cherokee reserve. The goods remained unsold, and in January 1838, the Philadelphia firm, Siter, Price & Company, sued him to recover the forty thousand dollars. This forced his brother Pierre Jr. to bring suit for the older and larger debt of sixty-six thousand dollars, and A.P.'s property in St. Louis was attached. A.P. died on Christmas Day of that year.33 By the standards of St. Louis and his family, he was utterly unsuccessful, but the context of his business actions was a most difficult one. By way of contrast, his brother Pierre Jr., who spent most of his life in St. Louis and New York City, died leaving a fortune estimated to be worth “several millions,” including more than four hundred thousand dollars worth of railroad bonds.34

The oldest son of Auguste Chouteau, Auguste Aristide, a rather helpless soul, went to Indian country in hopes of finding some useful employment. He had been a disappointment, a problem child, from the start.35 He fared no better out west. Working as a farmer on La Saline, he wrote to his father the year before the latter’s death in 1829:

Dear Papa,

This is to inform you of the unfortunate situation I have been in for three years. I work on a farm and by my work and the diligence which I devote to it I flatter myself to see the moment arrive when I could meet my engagements, but the treaty the Government has just made with the Cherokees has taken away all means. I have made a quantity of corn, for which I can get nothing because the settlers have been obliged to leave the country. ... I do not know what to do; I hope that you will tell me.36

The son died in 1835. The last Spanish lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana, Charles Dehault Delassus, went to visit his mother that year in St. Louis and observed in his diary: “She is at the moment in sorrow, having learned of the death of her eldest son—a sorry person, who had abandoned wife and children here to live with the Osages in the greatest disorder, but he was her son!”37 Again, by way of contrast, the three other brothers spent most of their lives in St. Louis. Cerré ran the family flour mill. Henry or Henri served as the county clerk and recorder and was a very successful businessman. Henri and two of his sisters married members of an elite Paris-educated family from St. Domingue and settled down to comfortable lives as well-respected citizens of St. Louis.

To cite one other example, the Papin family, cousins of the Chouteaus, had eleven children who lived into adulthood. Of the seven sons, three spent most of their lives engaged in the fur trade (we have already encountered Pierre Melicourt Papin). The other four stayed in St. Louis and had successful careers in real estate and wholesale groceries. One brother-in-law worked in the fur trade. Another, Marie Philippe LeDuc, born in Paris and the former secretary for Spanish lieutenant governor Delassus, became the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Court.

This is a limited survey, to be sure, but the evidence seems to suggest that the elite French Creole families retained their status in the city they had established. Most second-generation sons and daughters stayed in St. Louis, and many made fortunes in real estate as the city grew and prospered. We may, however, suggest that the fur trade continued to provide opportunities—for adventure, if not always for great fortune—for some. It was, after all, the original family business. Notably, the one member of the first generation who spent the most time in Indian country, Pierre Chouteau Sr., seems to have had the highest percentage of sons who lived most of their lives in Indian country—seven of eight. The eighth was Pierre Jr., and under his guidance in St. Louis, the family firm reached its pinnacle of power and profit. It is also noticeable that Indian country provided an outlet, a place to send those few who were not very capable. Not surprisingly, they had little financial success away from home.

If St. Louis remained the home base for French Creole society and business, then how did those who worked in the field deal with the separation? Pierre Melicourt Papin, stationed on the Neosho River in Kansas near White Hair’s Osages, seems to have had a stable relationship with his métis wife, Sophie Mongraine. They had a son, Edward, and their household — described by Tixier in 1840 — included Sophie, “a rather pretty half-breed,” their son, Sophie’s mother (who herself had been married to a Frenchman and then an Osage man), Sophie’s half-sister, and several slaves. Papin later had another child by a different Osage woman.38 French traders rarely put into words their thoughts about their circumstances, but Tixier recorded, how faithfully we cannot know, a conversation with Papin about how he came to acquire a glass eye. In telling the story, Papin observed that “all my friends in Saint Louis insisted upon my going to the city, where since my mother’s death [1817] I had decided never to return, because I like living in Nion-Chou [Neosho] and because I would have found sorrowful memories there, everywhere. In short, I had not been there for nine years when one day Major Chouteau [Paul Liguest] came and took me back with him. After spending two months with my family, I came back with two eyes which moved almost in the same manner, with the difference, however, that the glass eye is somewhat lazy.”39 Papin, unlike many of the other French traders in the region, never married a French Creole woman. He seems to have been content, in a wistful way, with his life in Indian country. He kept in contact with his family in St. Louis and regularly received letters full of family news. A letter to Coucours (apparently the family nickname for Pierre Melicourt) from his brother Theodore Dartigny Papin in 1833 described the ravages of a cholera epidemic, but quickly—since all had recovered — moved on to family news and gossip. Describing a recent visit by brother Laforce (Alexander Laforce Papin), who was a trader for the Chouteau company around Council Bluffs, Theodore observed: “Laforce left with some worries that his son caused before his departure. This young man, dear friend, I am afraid will cause him much anxiety. His disposition is that of a young man chained to dissipations. Unfortunately his father, because always absent, could not guide his early steps, and that his mother, like other mothers, was a little too weak towards him.”40 The son in question, Alexander, eventually died while serving as a captain during the Mexican War. The separation dictated by the business of the fur trade during this era clearly had a cost. Laforce, in the meantime, transferred some property to one of his sons-in-law. (Laforce and his Creole wife, Julie Brazeau, had three adult daughters and one son.) Another son-in-law, Dr. Henri Masuré, born in Belgium, was, according to Theodore, “still in Mexico [on business] and we are pleased to hear that he is doing well.” Laforce also had six children in Indian country with Pawnee, Otoe, and Omaha women but did not pay much attention to their futures.41 It was undoubtedly easier for the four brothers who remained in St. Louis to watch over their children. Theodore noted in his letter that Sylvestre and Timothy, sons of brother Sylvestre Vilray Papin, were in college and doing well. Timothy ultimately studied medicine in St. Louis and Paris and became a professor of clinical gynecology.42 Theodore closed his letter by saying: “I beg you to write us and give us more details of your affairs, which can only interest us. I am not saying that you should come down next spring. If you have the misfortune of giving excuses we will quickly declare war against you.”43

Pierre Melicourt Papin left a substantial estate in Bates County, Missouri, to his son by Sophie Mongraine, Edward.44 Having no other children in St. Louis, his choice may have been a relatively easy one. A. P. Chouteau, on the other hand, had a wife, Sophie Labbadie, back in St. Louis and seven children who survived into adulthood. He also had at least seven children with five Osage women in Indian country.45 Perhaps because of his financial difficulties, A.P. seems to have become increasingly estranged from his St. Louis family by the 1830s. When his property was attached in 1838, the year of his death, his wife and children were apparently put out of their home. But in 1851, the United States paid the claims of its citizens against Mexico, and A.P.'s losses from his 1815-1817 trading expedition were indemnified to the tune of $81,772, 10 percent of which went to Thomas Hart Benton for his services and the rest to his brother and creditor Pierre Jr. and to A.P.'s St. Louis heirs. His wife Sophie also inherited property from her family. We know that she clearly landed on her feet for in the late 1840s she built a lavish mansion in the genteel Frenchtown district of St. Louis. There she was said to have held court as the “acknowledged matriarch of the town.”46 Daughter Emilie Sophie married an eminent doctor from France, Nicolas De-Menil, and they built their own mansion nearby. (The DeMenil mansion still stands, one of the only places left in St. Louis where one can get some sense of the rather elegant and gracious manner of elite Creole life during this period.)

A.P.'s efforts on behalf of his St. Louis family were negligent at best. On a trip east in 1835, he enrolled his son Pierre Sylvestre at a school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He left him there for three years without any correspondence to the schoolmaster and let his brother Pierre Jr. pay the bills.47 But in Indian country, where he apparently enjoyed a strong relationship with his métis wife, Rosalie Lambert, he made careful efforts to provide for her future and that of his métis children and relations. The Osage Treaty of 1825 — negotiated by Pierre Chouteau Sr. — had set aside two reserves for people of mixed blood, one at Marais des Cygnes and the other at the Three Forks near A.P.'s post. A.P.'s métis family members were listed by name as the recipients of the Three Forks reserve, and he was appointed to be their guardian. Ten years later, in a treaty negotiated by John F. Schermerhorn to secure a place for emigrant Cherokees, A.P. exchanged the eight sections of land held by his métis family for fifteen thousand dollars. A.P., in his capacity as “agent and guardian,” not to mention paterfamilias, bought thirty-two slaves with the money as an investment, but after his death, most of the slaves returned to their former owners, the Creeks, who would not give them up.48 A government agent, Montford Stokes, recognizing the legitimacy of A.P.'s métis family, helped them to recover their losses, which were secured by an act of Congress.49

If the experiences of Pierre Melicourt Papin, his brother Laforce, A. P. Chou-teau, and his cousin Auguste Aristide Chouteau—whose St. Louis wife divorced him in 1830—show some of the strains of maintaining connections to St. Louis, then the experience of François Chouteau illustrates an alternative, which was to start a new French Creole town in the West. In essence, this is what he did when he brought his French wife with him to the settlement that would become Kansas City. This act of bringing his wife was not simply symbolic; it meant that all of his resources could be applied to the construction of one family, one maison. It also meant that Berenice would work to build a cultural environment appropriate for a French family. Though she was no doubt comfortable with Indian practices and a métis society—she was, after all, the daughter of Pierre Menard — she was a bourgeois Frenchwoman who expected her children to have a usable education and a Catholic upbringing. But the Chouteau settlement at Kawsmouth, as it was called early on, was also distinctive in two other ways. Because it was adjacent to Indian country, but located in Missouri, it would be possible to accumulate property there in anticipation of a settlement frontier. This is precisely what François did, purchasing and patenting large tracts of land amounting to some twelve hundred acres at government sales.50 Moreover, François’s warehouse was a central place, its permanence underwritten by the operations of the family firm back in St. Louis, rather than being subjected to the movements or actions of any Indian community. It was on the water route, a satellite community with direct access to St. Louis. And when the family company began operating regular steamboat service to the Upper Missouri in 1831, travel, communication, and commerce became much easier. The travel time between Kansas and St. Louis was reduced from several weeks or more to fewer than ten days.51

François and Berenice played the roles of urban pioneers with great success. Berenice returned to St. Louis for the birth of three of her children; the last four were born in the West. They had nine all together, but four died in childhood.52 The younger family members remained connected culturally, socially, and economically to their home base in St. Louis. Several of the boys were sent to St. Mary’s of the Barrens for schooling, an institution some eighty-seven miles south of St. Louis run by the Vincentian fathers. Berenice sent her sons several pairs of Indian moccasins to wear, which suggests that they had acquired frontier habits and were comfortable in an environment informed by both French and native cultures.53 The first resident priest in Kansas City, Father Benedict Roux, arrived in 1833. François Chouteau wrote his father-in-law on the occasion, observing that “the thing cannot be anything but advantageous. We will then later on certainly have a small group of fine people. The riffraff perhaps will improve as this will be a cause of betterment for the area.”54 Chouteau’s Church, as it was first known, was constructed in 1835; on that same site today stands the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.55 Father Roux turned out to be a mixed blessing as he criticized the small community’s fondness for dancing. Berenice ignored him and continued organizing balls, importing the settlement’s first piano to augment the Rivard brothers’ fiddles56 In short, François and Berenice, as their parents had done a generation earlier, laid the foundations for a new French Creole city on the frontier. They gathered capital and relatives, built a church, and provided leadership for the new settlement’s social life.

François Chouteau died in 1838, and a flood swept away the family home in 1844. Berenice built a new two-story house with long verandas and French windows in a location known as Quality Hill. One pioneer observer described it as “a place where hospitality was dealt with a lavish hand. Inherent French politeness and wealth characterized the entertainment.”57 Their son, Pierre Menard Chouteau, known as Mack, inherited his father’s business, was a member of the committee that drew up a charter for the town in 1850, and became an owner of steamboats.58

After the death of François, his brother Cyprien took over many of his responsibilities from his Shawnee post not far from the Kawsmouth area. Rather late in life, in 1855, Cyprien married Nancy Francis, a Shawnee woman who had been orphaned at the age of seven and educated at a Quaker mission. The couple had three children. Cyprien retired from the fur trade in 1857 and sold his land in the Shawnee area. He bought a farm closer to town (Kansas City) in 1859 and moved to the city proper in 1862. His sons settled in Oklahoma, but his daughter Mary Francis or Mamie married Joseph Karl Guinotte, the son of a Belgian civil engineer, Joseph Guinotte, who had bought more than five hundred acres of land from Berenice Menard Chouteau in 1853 and formed a colonization company to bring settlers to his new subdivision known as the Guinotte Addition. Joseph Karl Guinotte became a well-known architect in the city. Cyprien Chouteau died in Kansas City in 1879 and was buried in Mount St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Cyprien’s brother Frederick had a similar trajectory. He married a Shawnee woman, Elizabeth Tooley, in 1830. The couple had three children. Frederick outlived Elizabeth; in fact, he outlived his next two wives as well. He operated a ferry and bought and sold land after the creation of Kansas Territory in 1854 and the negotiation of several land-cession treaties that same year that opened up the new territory to white settlement. He moved to Westport in 1874 and had sold his land in Shawnee County by 1877.59 He is said to have become one of the wealthiest men in the area before his death in 1891 at the age of eighty-two. Like his brother Cyprien, Frederick was buried in Mount St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. His descendants remained in Oklahoma although his son William Meyer Chou-teau, who married another Shawnee woman, Mary Silverheel, also moved back to Kansas City. William’s sons, John and Edmond, stayed in the town of their childhood, Vinita, Oklahoma. John was a storekeeper, and Edmond, who was blind, was a respected violin and piano teacher for thirty years. Edmond’s son Corbett became an oilman in Oklahoma City, and Corbett’s daughter, Yvonne Chouteau, achieved fame as the prima ballerina of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Yvonne Chouteau, the founding director of Ballet Oklahoma, served as artist in residence at the University of Oklahoma for more than twenty-five years. In a sense, she completed the circle, returning to the francophone world of the first Chouteaus; yet today she is celebrated—along with Maria and Marjorie Tallchief and Rosella Hightower—as a great Native American dancer and artist. Chouteau herself has, appropriately, celebrated both sides of her ancestry.

But how do we make sense of these various outcomes? How do we take the measure of these lives? The social and familial relationships of these Chouteau brothers and cousins seem to fall along a rather broad spectrum of plot lines. A. P. Chouteau and his cousin Auguste Aristide opted for Indian country for many reasons and were estranged from their Creole families in St. Louis. Alexander Laforce Papin felt the strain of trying to maintain relationships in two places simultaneously. Pierre Melicourt Papin and Paul Liguest Chouteau’s Creole son Edward had longstanding, stable relationships with their native wives, yet Pierre Melicourt died in St. Louis, possibly of cholera, in 1849. Edward ultimately returned to St. Louis as well and married a white woman. He left an annuity to each of his métis children that paid them $133 yearly for life.60 One of the children, Sophie, became a trader and a leader in her Osage community. She was interviewed later in her life and remarked: “I have never been to St. Louis, but I may go during the ‘World’s Fair.’ The Chouteau kindred live in St. Louis, but it has been a long, long time since I have seen any of them.”61

Aunt Sophie, as she was known, may have captured an important point. The variety of accommodations that these different French traders made regarding their familial arrangements cannot obscure one central conclusion: Indian communities in Kansas and Oklahoma and American towns of French origin such as St. Louis and early Kansas City during this antebellum period belonged to two distinct worlds, yet their social and economic connections suggest just how complex the American frontier experience was.

A. P. Chouteau, after years of operating in the red, years spent helping to negotiate settlements between competing native groups in eastern Oklahoma, turned to the West. During the last three years of his life (1835-1838), he spent much of his time around Camp Holmes, one hundred miles west of Fort Gibson, mediating peace treaties with the Kiowas and the Comanches. He built several posts and began to trade with these groups. After A.P.'s death, in the spring of 1839, Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg encountered a group of Comanches and told them the news. Gregg recorded their reaction: “Great was their grief when we informed then that their favorite trader had died at Fort Gibson, the previous winter.”62 Back at Three Forks, A.P.'s partner, Rosalie Lambert, ultimately married a Cherokee man. Lewis Ross, brother of Cherokee leader John Ross, bought A.P.'s frontier mansion at La Saline. After Ross’s death, the Cherokee Nation bought the place, and it served as the National Orphans’ Home for Cherokee children for more than thirty years until it was destroyed by fire in 1903.63 In short, everything A. P. Chouteau built was reframed, recontextualized, by Indian agency. The small towns of Chouteau and Salina (La Saline) in Mayes County, Oklahoma, are part of Cherokee country.

François Chouteau’s establishment, on the other hand, evolved into Kansas City, an urban link to the social and economic world of St. Louis. Not surprisingly, his brothers Frederick and Cyprien retired there later in life, acquired property, and were buried in the Catholic cemetery. Land values began to rise during the 1830s, and the city experienced a boom during the mid-1840s. In short, the fur trade, and the middle ground it generated, had been a phase, albeit one with human consequences. When the transition to a primarily Anglo-American settlement frontier began, the French Creole merchants were once again in a position to profit from it.

Farther north, nine hundred miles upriver from St. Louis, the same pattern unfolded. The area around Council Bluffs, the present-day Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan region, had emerged as another fur trade crossroads by the 1810s. There were Otoe-Missouri villages around the mouth of the Platte River, Omaha and Ponca villages to the north, and a Pawnee homeland to the west along the Platte and its tributaries. Ioway and Sac and Fox peoples to the east were also drawn to trade in the area. Like the Kansas area to the south, the Council Bluffs area was a jumping-off place for trails farther west. Traders and trappers seeking to tap the furs of the Rocky Mountains followed the Platte River. Located between the rich trade of the Upper Missouri and the administrative station of Kawsmouth, the Council Bluffs area was a key stop, and Fort Atkinson was built there during the winter of 1819-1820 to protect trading parties traveling north along the Missouri.

The area around Council Bluffs during the 1810s and 1820s was not as close— in time or space—to being a site of native resettlement and white immigration as the Kansas-Osage area farther south. In this sense, from a business standpoint, it was still a place primarily for gathering furs. And unlike the Kansas-Osage trading area, the Chouteaus did not monopolize the region around Council Bluffs. The result was a fierce competition that would frustrate the traders and have dire consequences for the native peoples of the area. Manuel Lisa had established a foothold there in 1817 at Bellevue, below the bluffs and near the mouth of the Platte. After an attempt to combine forces and capital with several French Creole partnerships ended in failure in 1819, Lisa formed a new Missouri Fur Company, which continued its operations after his death in 1820. Another trader, Joseph Robidoux, set up shop in the area, apparently with some backing from the St. Louis firm of Berthold & Chouteau. When the Creole family firm reorganized in 1822, bringing in Bernard Pratte as a partner, it may have established a more stable relationship with Robidoux to trade on its behalf in that area. The following year, however, Robidoux was replaced by Jean Pierre Cabanné, who had recently joined the family firm as a partner64

Cabanné entered a rough situation in 1823, and he was probably not the right man for the job.65 Born in 1773 in Pau, France, the same birthplace as St. Louis’s founder, Pierre de Laclède, Cabanné had lived in Charleston and New Orleans before coming to St. Louis in 1798 and marrying the oldest daughter of Charles Gratiot, Julie, in 1799. Roughly the same age as his first business partner, Gregoire Sarpy, and Bernard Pratte, Cabanné was sixteen years older than his brother-in-law, Pierre Chouteau Jr. One of Sarpy’s sons, Jean B., would become Pierre Jr.'s closest business associate. Another, Peter A. Sarpy, would replace Cabanné at Council Bluffs. Cabanné was fifty years old when he took over the post, and it showed.

One of Cabanné's daughters, Adele—who had married Jean B. Sarpy in 1820—wrote a loving letter to Cabanné after his arrival at Council Bluffs:

Dear Papa,

It is with great pleasure that I would like to express my love and my respect for you, but the lack of habit of letter writing and especially my ignorance take from me the power to trace with a pen what my heart thinks. ... All the children are fine except little Isabelle who is teething, I shall leave it to Sarpy to tell you the news ... Good-bye dear papa, believe that I shall be your sincere and devoted daughter as long as I live.66

Cabanné hardly needed such letters from his daughter to reinforce his longing for home. He wrote to Pierre Chouteau Jr. in 1825: “my wife wants to come up here, alas! can I contemplate her leaving the children after our recent loss? [the death of Isabelle, mentioned above, the last child born to Cabanné and his wife Julie] If it were possible, I would doubtless wish it; she must be crushed with grief. Guide her, my friend, and do what you think best.”67 Of all the French traders out in the field, Cabanné was perhaps the least ambivalent about his feelings of separation. Indeed, he was often a bit too expressive for the tight-lipped partners back in St. Louis. He wrote to Pierre Jr. in February 1831:

Your house, Mr. Sainfort [John F. A. Sanford, Pierre’s son-in-law] tells me, is a house of pleasure, where good society assembles. The young people find there amusement suitable to their age, and those of middle age play Wisik [Le Wiszl—perhaps whist] etc ... It is without contradiction a way to pass one’s time agreeably; life is short and if you do not profit by it now, at what happier time will you be able to enjoy it? As for me, my time is past; my feelings now are only ephemeral—provided I have enough food and slumber on a chair, it is all I need.68

Later that month he wrote to Pierre Jr. again—this time in a more whimsical, if rather indiscreet, state of mind:

If you can come here and if I am here, you can count in advance on the hearty reception you will receive, a good cup of coffee, some crêpes, some nymphs [une bonne tasse de café, des crêpes, des nymphes], etc. This last word is superfluous—I forgot that you had become chaste and I forgot myself. ... I am here in pretty good company, Laforce [Papin], Abadie [Peter Sarpy], Charles [possibly Pierre’s son] and Sinford [Sanford]. Food is abundant; I am in good enough health, except for some regressions, my intestines are still not perfectly right. I have the smokehouse full of deer-legs; perhaps, I will keep some to send down. If I only had the talent of a magician, I would quickly metamorphose them into so many packs of beaver.69

Although Cabanné's offer of “some nymphs” would suggest that he had most probably had sexual relations with Indian women, it does not seem that he had any long-term or useful partnerships. This may explain why he did not seem to ever have a good hold on the trade of the area and why he seemed to be dependent on personnel he could not trust. His letters are full of complaints about the men under his command; indeed, he complained about partners and relatives in the field as well—which could not have endeared him to the partners back in St. Louis.70 But Cabanné’s problems were mostly generated by competition. William Ashley had begun sending an annual brigade of trappers out to the Rocky Mountains in 1822. The success of his rendezvous system surprised the Chouteau company partners, and Pierre Jr. worked out an arrangement with Ashley in 1827. The Missouri Fur Company put up fierce opposition, but the company finally folded in 1828.71 Then there was Joseph Robidoux. His relationship with the Chouteau company was a rocky one. After being replaced at Council Bluffs in 1822, Robidoux persuaded the partners to partially back a trading venture to Santa Fe and the southern Rockies in 1824. Cabanné pleaded with Chouteau in April 1825: “I ask you in the name of the friendship that is between us, no more Robidoux! This man will bring about our ruin! His competition is no more to be feared than any other’s; disabuse yourself, my friend, it is buying him at too high a price.72 Robidoux was back on the Missouri with Jean Baptiste Roy by 1826. Cabanné complained that Robidoux and Roy were using whiskey to trade with the Indians and were “hurrying on to their own destruction.”73 Increasingly exasperated, Cabanné wrote in January 1828 that “Robidoux is always in competition with us.”74 That same year, Pierre Chouteau bought out—or at least tried to temporarily muzzle — Robidoux, who was given a salary of one thousand dollars per year for two years in exchange for restraining from direct or indirect competition. Cabanné, who had suggested the idea in the first place, also expressed reservations: “It is better to have Robidoux against us than for us because he is always making new demands upon us for family, etc.”75

Personalities aside, the fierce competition had resulted in serious game depletion. Intertribal warfare had become endemic by the late 1820s, especially between tribes such as the Omahas, who lived on the western side of the Missouri, and tribes such as the Ioways and Sac and Foxes, who were being pushed from their hunting grounds on the eastern side. To make matters much worse, the trade in alcohol was increasing as the supply of furs declined. Despite an official restriction on the liquor trade, smuggling was easy, and companies and the government itself brought substantial quantities of whiskey upriver for the use of their own men. Drunken binges became commonplace among Indians and fur-trade personnel.76 Congress passed a bill in 1832 banning liquor from Indian country, whether intended for Indians or fur traders. That year, Cabanné took it upon himself to seize the cargo—which included alcohol — of a rival trader, Nar-cisse Leclerc. Leclerc had eluded the authorities at Fort Leavenworth, which infuriated Cabanné. Leclerc returned to St. Louis to report the illegal seizure and sued the Chouteau company, which settled with Leclerc for ninety-two hundred dollars. Cabanné was banned from Indian country for a year, although the alcohol trade, after a brief pause, continued unabated.77 Cabanné remained a partner in the firm until the reorganization of the company in 1839 and died at his home in St. Louis in 1841. He may never have been well-suited for his position as a field partner. Unlike the second-generation traders of the Chouteau clan, he had grown up in France, not in the cross-cultural world of St. Louis and its environs. Yet as he noted in 1825: “None of you can replace me here and it would be with greater difficulty that I could fulfill my task at St. Louis. What I do is simple and easy and demands only attention, and your part, on the contrary demands a knowledge of business and a greater soundness in transactions that present themselves.”78

Cabanné's younger assistant, Peter Sarpy, would assume responsibilities at the company’s post. Sarpy seems to have been much more successful at Bellevue, the new location of the company’s post, than Cabanné had been at Council Bluffs. This may have been partly due to his marriage to Nicomi, the multilingual daughter of an Ioway chief and an elite woman of Otoe-Omaha lineage. Their relationship was long-lasting, if occasionally stormy. On one occasion, Sarpy tried to limit his household spending and had apparently refused Nicomi some blankets and calico. According to one eyewitness: “Madame Nekoma marched into the store, with that look on her face that bade the clerks stand aside, and grabbing several bolts of calico, she made for the Missouri river and heaved them in, declaring, in Indian, she would clear the store out in the same way. Before she got her second load to the bank Sarpy gave in and told Englemann [the clerk] to let her have anything she wanted.”79 Unlike Cabanné, Sarpy was unambivalent about being in Indian country, though he remained connected to his kin in St. Louis. His letter to his niece, Virginia “Mimi” Sarpy, in 1847 on the occasion of her marriage to Frederick Berthold was affectionate and, perhaps surprisingly, religious. He ended with a profound wish that God would bless her union.80 In his will, Sarpy left the bulk of his estate to his brother Jean B. Sarpy. Peter and Nicomi had no children, but he provided for her with an annuity that would pay two hundred dollars per year “for and during the term of her natural life.” He added that “if the said ‘Nicomy’ should ever wish to live in the said city of Saint Louis, it is my will and desire that my said Executor ... shall provide her with suitable lodgings and pay the rent for the same out of my Estate.”81


Multicolored serape (wearing blanket) from Saltillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, presented to Peter Sarpy, circa 1840. Sarpy, stationed at a Chouteau post near present-day Omaha, was also involved in the trade of the southern Rockies. The blanket exemplifies the cross-cultural, border-crossing nature of the fur trade. Photograph by Cary Horton. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

Though he remained connected to St. Louis, Sarpy stayed in the West. From 1836 to 1838, he actively pursued the fur trade in the area between present-day Denver and Fort Laramie. This joint venture between Sarpy and his partner, Henry Fraeb, and the company (known as Pratte, Chouteau and Company at this time) enjoyed success, but it ended when the partners in St. Louis decided to join forces with Bent, St. Vrain and Company, a competitor in the region82 Meanwhile, conditions around Council Bluffs had worsened for native people. With Indian communities suffering and the fur trade in decline, alcoholism became a growing concern, and Sarpy asked for government assistance in controlling the flow of whiskey83 Even the mountain fur trade had passed its peak years. By the late 1840s, the Upper Missouri and Minnesota would supply most of the furs and robes for the company back in St. Louis.84 The 1840s and 1850s in the Council Bluffs region brought on the full force of what Tanis Thorne has described as a “parasitic economy.” The Indian land base shrank, liquor sales continued, and the traders began to rely on annuity payments85 Sarpy’s accounts in the St. Louis records for 1851 show collections of debts from the U.S. Indian Department ($58.27), the Sac and Fox Indians ($7,048.75), and the Potawatomi Nation ($11,106.26)86 The emigrant Potawatomis had arrived in the area in 1837. Mary Gale, Sarpy’s stepdaughter, remembered that the trade was now “not for pelts ... but for specie.” The Potawatomis had received fifty dollars per capita in gold in exchange for a land cession. It quickly fell into the traders’ hands.87

Sarpy, as his cousins had done downriver, began to profit from the transition. He laid out new towns for settlement at Bellevue, Tekamah, and Decatur in Nebraska and St. Mary across the river in Iowa.88 At the latter, he founded a newspaper, the St. MaryGazette. He also began a highly profitable ferry service across the Missouri for immigrants and travelers. It was Sarpy who sold supplies to Brig-ham Young’s Mormons in 1846 and 1847 when that group began the famous trek that would land them in the Velley of the Great Salt Lake in present-day Utah.89 And in 1854, he helped negotiate land-cession treaties with the Omahas and the Otoes. Though Sarpy and his cousins such as Frederick and A. P. Chouteau were often the only people available with the resources to help Indian communities during difficult times, and though they themselves might have had strong personal ties to those communities—bonds that would be remembered generations later—in the end, there was always a bill to pay. At the moment the Omahas were ceding much of their land in Nebraska in 1854, Sarpy used his influence to try to collect on a claim for ten thousand dollars.90 At a similar point of desperation for the Kansa Indians in 1846, Fool Chief expressed his concern that their debt of fifteen hundred dollars to Frederick Chouteau would have to be paid from their last annuity payment under the terms of an 1825 treaty. They signed a new treaty that year ceding more land.91 Even A.P.'s bill came due, though after his death, as Gabriel Franchere secured an acknowledgment of a debt of $18,231.68 owed by the Cherokee Nation to the firm of Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company in January 1847.92 This painful transition phase for native groups produced a windfall for French traders. In grateful recognition of Peter Sarpy’s role, the Nebraska legislature named Sarpy County for him in 1857.93

Perhaps no single French Creole trader embodied the moral ambiguities and extreme changes that occurred during this period of frontier transition more than Joseph Robidoux. Robidoux, Cabanné's nemesis, was the oldest of six sons of Joseph Sr. — a baker and fur trader in St. Louis. Robidoux gave the Chouteaus fits for decades. He was independent and somewhat unsavory, but he was obviously a capable trader. Despite their intermittent hostilities, Robidoux and Pierre Chouteau Jr. continued to do business together for most of their lives. In truth, it was hard to avoid Pierre Chouteau Jr. as he had a reliable source of capital. Chouteau remained the proper bourgeois merchant in St. Louis. Robidoux was hardly proper. He had many casual relationships with Indian women; Thorne estimates that he had fourteen children by different Indian and white women before 1830. Later reports had the total as high as sixty94 One Indian agent identified Robidoux in 1832 as having engaged in sales of Indian girls to traders95 Robidoux also liked to gamble and drink, and his trading activities with Jean Baptiste Roy during the 1820s had contributed to the rise of alcoholism in the region. But Robidoux protested in a letter to Pierre Chouteau Jr. in 1833 that he had “a horror” of whiskey and its effects. Essentially blaming Roy for the use of liquor in the trade, Robidoux pleaded his case: “You will tell me that I have not always thought thus—but I assure you that for many years I have known the consequences and how little profit there is in it.”96 Perhaps he had always thought this way. More likely, his changing views were a reflection of the changing conditions of his life.

Despite his period of contractual inactivity from 1829 to 1831, Robidoux had remained active. By 1831 he had resurfaced at Blacksnake Hills, a post between Kawsmouth and Council Bluffs. A post had certainly existed there earlier.97 Between 1829 and 1834, Robidoux and his French Creole wife, Angelique Vaudry,98 were selling off their assets in St. Louis—mostly real estate. In 1834 they signed a deed with Pratte, Chouteau and Company, mortgaging their property in St. Louis in exchange for a loan of $16,500. Although much of this money probably went to underwrite different trading ventures on the Missouri and in New Mexico, it seems clear in retrospect that Robidoux was also building up his post at Blacksnake Hills.99

In 1836 Missouri’s two senators pushed through a bill to attach a large tract of land—more than three thousand square miles bordering the river—to the state of Missouri. This area, known as the Platte Purchase, had been given by treaty to the immigrant Prairie Potawatomis. It was also a homeland for the Ioways and Sac and Foxes. Efforts to remove white squatters failed, and a few land-cession deals later, the Indians were pushed north and west of the area. It was opened to white settlement, and by 1844, the area contained thirty-seven thousand people.100

Robidoux was ready. In the summer of 1836, he borrowed $2,019 from another St. Louis merchant, Henry Shaw.101 In September of that year, William Clark signed the land-cession treaties. Robidoux, according to one source, had tried to get a donation of land to himself by the Indians inserted in the treaty. When that failed, he bought two quarter sections at a public sale.102 The idea of platting the town and building a future city may not have occurred to him right away, but when several other speculators proposed buying his land to lay out a town in the fall of 1839, Robidoux decided to do it himself. He considered two different town plans—one designed by Simeon Kemper with wide streets and parks, the other designed by Frederick W. Smith, who had grown up in Germany in places with narrow streets. Robidoux apparently liked the Smith plan and was reported to have said, “I want to sell my land in lots, not give it away in streets.” He filed his plan in St. Louis in 1843, had it lithographed, and began selling lots.103 By 1845, the town had several hotels and boarding houses, a newspaper, blacksmith shops, and more than a dozen stores.104 St. Joseph was incorporated that year with Joseph as the president of the board of trustees. His son, Julius C. Robidoux, began to take over more of his business at that point. Julius had been serving as the first postmaster since 1840 and also kept a ferry on the Missouri at Robidoux Landing.105 The town became one of the principal jumping-off points during the California Gold Rush, and the railroad arrived in 1859, assuring the future importance of the city. Joseph Robidoux died a prosperous man in 1868. Several of his buildings, known as Robidoux Row, are still standing.106

St. Joseph became the new gathering place for the Robidoux family. Joseph and Angelique had seven children, Julius C. being the oldest. Angelique may have moved the family there as early as 1831, since her youngest son was born in Blacksnake Hills in 1831.107 Angelique’s sister, Suzanne Vaudry, was married to Joseph’s youngest brother Michel. Suzanne moved their family there as early as 1839, for their third daughter, Octavia, was born there that year. Octavia later entered the convent of the Sacred Heart and served in St. Joseph; Marysville, Kansas; and Chicago. Suzanne died in the St. Joseph home of her nephew Julius C.108 Another brother, Antoine, also retired to St. Joseph.

Joseph Robidoux, having led a life of considerable debauchery, donated a lot for the building of a Catholic church in 1849. Peter Sarpy did the same in Belle-vue, as did Pierre Melicourt Papin in Papinsville, Missouri.109 In short, much like the Chouteaus in Kansas City, the Robidouxs in St. Joseph had created another link in the urban chain from St. Louis. Capital provided by Pierre Chouteau and guaranteed by property in St. Louis nurtured the growth of the infant city. Transportation links were quickly established. The new place had all the birthmarks of a French Catholic child, yet clearly there would not be an adequate critical mass of Francophones necessary to sustain French culture on this evolving frontier. We should remember, however, that during this early period, Blacksnake Hills was La Post du Serpent Noir, and Council Bluffs was written Ecors au Conseil. One Anglo-American trader wrote in desperation to Pierre Chouteau in 1833: “Please observe that all communications to me must be in english as I do not read french.”110

What we have here is not a dramatic narrative like the Lewis and Clark adventure, but rather a series of smaller stories about the founding of critical western places by shrewd French-speaking merchants. Throughout the middle decades of the antebellum period, the Chouteau companies and other French traders were consolidating their positions from Oklahoma to the Dakotas. By the 1840s and 1850s, as frontiers once again began to converge, thousands of ordinary Americans were moving west. Families searching for new homes in Oregon and forty-niners seeking gold and adventure in California were making their ways to jumping-off places for the overland trails that would take them to the West Coast. What they found along the way were ferries across the Missouri and Platte rivers operated by Frenchmen, some former Chouteau employees and others who had been independent traders. One of them, John Richard, built several bridges, including one over the Laramie River.111 All across the first half of the trail, the emigrants found trading posts—the rest stops of their day—run by French Creoles.112 These men, mostly from St. Louis, had spent twenty years in the western fur trade by this time and had built posts and ferries throughout the region. As the fur trade began to decline, they turned their attention to the new greenhorns. In the words of one historian, they were “canny entrepreneurs who anticipated the profit potential in catering to the many needs of overland travelers.”113

This new western edge marked the frontier of the United States during the 1830s and 1840s, but it is best understood as the advance of an economic sphere of influence, a network of social and political connections, and a set of cultural practices emanating from Missouri — specifically, from the French Creole world of St. Louis. But to complete the picture and to gain additional perspective on this French Creole modus operandi, one must describe the activities of the French in one additional western region that occupied their attention during this same period of the 1820s to the 1840s. That is the Southwest, which included the animal-rich southern Rockies and the Spanish province of New Mexico. In that place, forty thousand New Mexicans lived at too great a distance from the political center of their world, Mexico City. From St. Louis and from their newly established base on the western border of Missouri, French merchants eyed the commercial possibilities of yet another frontier.

French merchants in Upper and Lower Louisiana had long dreamed of supplying the New Mexicans with manufactured goods in exchange for Mexican silver dollars. Two Frenchmen reached the provincial capital of Santa Fe in 1739. Then in 1792, Pierre or Pedro Vial, a native of Lyons in France employed by the Spanish governor of New Mexico, had blazed the pathway between St. Louis and New Mexico that would become known as the Santa Fe Trail. But Spanish regulations kept the trade an illegal and adventurous one for decades. As mentioned earlier, a trading venture led by A. P. Chouteau and a Chouteau in-law, Jules de Mun, from 1815 to 1817 was captured by Spanish troops, who confiscated thirty thousand dollars worth of furs and trading goods.114

Though Spanish imperial officials had kept French merchants from both Upper and Lower Louisiana at bay throughout the eighteenth century, they had not been able to block the influence of French traders. On the contrary, Spanish policy; the French supply of guns, cloth, and other manufactured goods; and the French demand for furs and horses had stimulated the rise of a powerful intermediary—the Comanches. Dominating the trade throughout the southern Great Plains by the mid-eighteenth century, the Comanches, in the words of historian Pekka Hämäläinen, had forged a “major trade center” on the upper Arkansas basin.115 The center of this Comanche world filled a critical space, described by historian Ned Blackhawk as “the emerging imperial borderlands between New Spain and French Louisiana.”116 Combining trading and raiding activities, the Comanches accumulated large herds of horses—their primary export—and “ran a major redistribution point, which absorbed and sent out various commodities to all directions.” The commodities included horses, mules, Indian slaves, guns, tools, produce, furs, hides, and many other items.117 After a brief interruption in their trading power during the 1780s—caused by a more resourceful and aggressive Spanish policy, the rising power of the Osages to their east, and the declining importance of their Wichita connection to the southeast—the Coman-ches rebounded after a negotiated peace with the Spanish in 1786. By the early nineteenth century, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had been drawn into this Comanche trading world, serving as intermediaries with Indian villages on the Upper Missouri.118 West of the Comanches in present-day Colorado and Utah, the Utes also had entered the geopolitics of this borderlands complex, first as allies of the Spanish against the Comanches, and later as uneasy partners in a thriving trade in furs and Indian slaves.119

In short, an intricate and potentially volatile world of trade and episodic violence existed in the region between Missouri and New Mexico. The forces of change were unleashed in 1821 when Mexican independence and Missouri statehood combined to put the prospects of trade back on the agendas of Missouri merchants. After achieving independence, Mexico welcomed foreign traders. The following year—that same pivotal year of 1822—the rush of traders from Missouri began in earnest. Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton persuaded Congress to establish a protected road between Santa Fe and St. Louis in 1825, and merchants from Missouri joined their wagons together and traveled in caravans to increase their defensive capacity against Indian raids. Trade would reorient Taos and Santa Fe away from Chihuahua and link them in an economic chain to the United States through St. Louis.120 At the same time, New Mexicans were now burdened with providing for their own frontier defenses, and their fragile alliances with the Indian groups on their borderlands, often cemented with gift-giving, would disintegrate.121 The fragility of the alliance system in this borderlands region would be further tested by the intensity with which American traders and trappers competed for furs, skins, and hides, exhausting the supplies to be found in the region’s river Velleys and “often also depleting Indian subsistence foods.”122

Historians have long recognized the critical role traders played in advancing the cause of U.S. expansion into the Southwest, but they have paid less attention to the demographics of that advance guard. A recent study of intermarriage in New Mexico between Anglo-Americans and Hispanic New Mexicans from 1821 to 1846 includes a list of approximately 115 such marriages. Sixty-four of the so-called “Anglo” husbands were in fact French, most of them from the St. Louis region.123

Though it is hard to come up with exact numbers or percentages, the French became a significant presence in New Mexico during the 1820s. One was Charles Beaubien, a native of Quebec, who along with Ceran St. Vrain of St. Louis probably entered the Mexican province for the first time in 1824. In that year, the Mexican government became somewhat alarmed at the increasing number of foreign traders and trappers. Over the next several years, Americans—many of them French124 —would spread out over the present-day states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in search of furs, and the Mexican government took several measures to control the situation. They established import duties and required foreign merchants to obtain trapping permits and guiasor mercantile passports from the governor at Santa Fe.125

One way around such measures was to become a citizen of Mexico, and the Mexican congress established specific guidelines for this process in 1828. New citizens needed to have been residents for two years and were also required to be Roman Catholics. This latter condition, of course, presented no obstacle to the French. In 1829 Charles Beaubien and Gervais Nolan became the first foreigners to be naturalized. Later that summer, brothers Antoine and Louis Robidoux followed suit. The following year, they were joined by Abraham Ledoux, Antoine Leroux, Joseph Bissonette, Pierre Laliberté, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, and a host of other Frenchmen.126

Did it matter that many of the Americans in New Mexico during this period were French? Given the positions of economic and political authority (or leadership) they were to occupy (as we shall see), I think it did. Moreover, by focusing briefly on the French in this region, we might understand that from their perspective, New Mexico was not so much an exceptional place, but rather one of several zones of frontier development. What I am suggesting is that the American presence in New Mexico was in part an extension of a French Creole approach to the West. Let’s take a look at three family operations in New Mexico and see how they fit into the broader context, not simply of American expansion, but specifically of French expansion.

One of the most active families in this region was the Robidoux family. From his various stations on the Missouri River, Joseph channeled capital, much of it secured by mortgages on family property in the St. Louis metropolitan area, to New Mexican trading ventures. All five of his younger brothers spent a considerable amount of time in New Mexico but with varying degrees of success and commitment. The next brother in age, François, appeared on a list of foreigners “without passports” prepared by the New Mexican governor’s office in 1826.127 François appears to have gone back and forth with great regularity, spending much time during the 1820s in New Mexico, returning to the Missouri River trade during the early 1830s, and perhaps returning to New Mexico after the death of his Creole wife around 1833. François also had a common-law relationship with a New Mexican woman, Luisa Romero.128 He apparently spent the last decade and a half of his life with his older sons, trading at Fort Laramie and at Scott’s Bluff. Isadore, the next in age, also went back and forth. He managed business details in Santa Fe and may have been living in Taos after his wife in the St. Louis area, Julie Desjarlais, divorced him around 1837-1838. In a deed with their wives in Missouri, four of the Robidoux brothers (François, Isadore, Antoine, and Louis) relinquished all title to the lands of their father’s estate in St. Louis in 1837.129 The brothers were listed in the deed as “residing at present at Santa Fe in Mexico.” As historian Heather Devine has observed, Julie Desjarlais had apparently “had enough of the role of faithful fur-trade wife.”130 Isadore, however, like François ended up back in the area of the North Platte between Scott’s Bluff and Fort Laramie.

The next two brothers in age, Antoine and Louis, would commit to more permanent lives in New Mexico. They were there as early as 1823. Outfitted by their older brother Joseph, they established a fur-trading post, Fort Uncompahgre, on the Gunnison River in western Colorado in the mid-1820s. They then extended their intermontane fur-trading empire to the Green River area of northeastern Utah, building Fort Uintah or Fort Robidoux in the 1830s. Here in Ute territory, the Robidouxs outfitted trappers, collected furs, and after the fur resources of the southern Rockies had declined by 1840, provided supplies for overland travelers passing through the region. They also traded with the Utes, exchanging guns, metal goods, beads, and tobacco for horses, furs, and, increasingly, sheepskins.131

At the same time, the Robidouxs solidified their position within New Mexico. Antoine married Carmel Benavides, and Louis married Guadalupe Garcia. Both brothers became naturalized citizens of Mexico in 1829. Antoine served as the alcalde of Santa Fe in 1830 and built a warehouse, store, and tannery in the town. He also speculated in various mining operations. Louis served on the town council or ayuntamiento of Santa Fe in 1834 and was elevated to the position of alcalde in 1839. Sharing the chameleonlike qualities of other French Creoles, the brothers spoke perfect Spanish and got in the habit of spelling their names in the Spanish style — Rubidu. Matt Field, a reporter for the New Orleans Picayune visiting Santa Fe in 1839, wrote that Louis Robidoux “shares the rule over the people almost equally with the Governor and the priests.”132 Louis constructed the first modern gristmill in Santa Fe in 1839 and also operated a ferrería or iron works.

In 1844, the Robidoux trading venture in Ute territory ended abruptly. That year, amidst growing hostilities between the New Mexicans and the Navajos and Utes, a Ute delegation visited the inexperienced federally appointed governor from Mexico, Mariano Martínez, at Santa Fe. A fight broke out, several Utes were killed, and the rest hurried northward, leaving a trail of destruction on their way. A period of violence ensued, and the Utes destroyed the Robidoux’s Fort Uintah later that year, killing all of the New Mexican employees at the fort.133 Louis subsequently sold his various properties in New Mexico and moved his family to California where he became a successful land developer in the San Bernardino area east of Los Angeles and lived comfortably on a flourishing farm. He served on the county board of supervisors there for years and liked to refer to himself as Don Luis. His wife Guadalupe was less pleased. Louis reported that she thought California was too spread out and that she missed the fandangos and churches of New Mexico.134 Antoine also left New Mexico. After leading several expeditions and wagon trains to California, he retired to the Robidoux family complex in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Let us make three quick points about the Robidoux brothers. First, they were all frontier developers, moving comfortably into a variety of economic activities, with the fur trade often serving as an initial base. Second, they were uncanny in their ability to move between cultural and political contexts. They understood a variety of Indian languages and cultural practices. One might add that having multiple sexual partners clearly presented no problem. And in the Southwest as in Missouri, they operated from an urban base, linking influence in non-Indian centers with alliances in Indian country. Whereas Joseph had created a new urban center, St. Joseph, in western Missouri, brothers Louis and Antoine became prominent citizens rather quickly in a preexisting urban center, Santa Fe. Finally, the Robidouxs saw no problem becoming citizens of Mexico while retaining their status as citizens of the United States. Like their parents, who at different times had to swear loyalty oaths to several different imperial regimes and the United States, they felt that political allegiance was simply situational. Their ultimate loyalty was to family, the maison of Robidoux, and all of the brothers except Louis, who seems to have enjoyed his persona as a Spanish don, ultimately returned to the orbit of St. Joseph.

Another Frenchman of critical importance in the history of New Mexico during this period was Ceran St. Vrain. His uncle, Charles Dehault Delassus, had served as the last Spanish lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana. When his own father died in 1818, St. Vrain went to live with Bernard Pratte Sr. — one of the many Chouteau cousins and partners. His niece later married a grandson of Auguste Chouteau; his brother married a Menard.135 Connections mattered, but so did competence in the field. St. Vrain, who had already been to New Mexico, joined an 1827 expedition financed by Pratte and the Chouteaus and led by Pratte’s oldest son Sylvestre. Sylvestre, who did not inspire confidence, died during the trip, and St. Vrain took over. His command of men and commerce marked him as a good credit risk in the future.

In 1831, he added a partner, Charles Bent, the son of Silas Bent, a Missouri judge and close friend of Auguste Chouteau. The new company of Bent, St. Vrain soon began taking in the lion’s share of buffalo robes and furs from the southern Rockies. That same year, St. Vrain built a store and a home in Taos and became a Mexican citizen. The partners were successful from the start and had accumulated enough capital by 1833 to begin construction on what would become the centerpiece of the New Mexican trade. Bent’s Fort overlooked the Arkansas River, the international boundary between Mexico and the United States. From this combination frontier hotel, fortified castle, and merchandise mart, the company of Bent, St. Vrain dominated the flow between New Mexico and Missouri of furs and robes; horses, mules, and silver; and food supplies and trade goods.136 Many factors contributed to the company’s success, including the business acumen of the two partners and their relations with a variety of tribal peoples, especially the Cheyennes because of brother William Bent’s marriage to Owl Woman. William managed Bent’s Fort while Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain lived in Taos, supervised the company’s operations, and made trips to St. Louis at least once a year to buy goods. Two younger Bent brothers, George and Robert, also became partners in the company, and Marcellin St. Vrain, Ceran’s brother, managed the company’s outpost on the South Platte River.

In 1840, the company arranged a truce between the Cheyennes and Arapa-hoes, their primary Indian trading partners, and the Comanches and Kiowas. This was a major coup for the company and doubled their trade. They built a post on the South Canadian River near the Comanches and Kiowas in 1842, and Ceran St. Vrain helped establish a more permanent adobe post there in 1846. By the 1830s, buffalo robes had surpassed beaver pelts as the most marketable item of the fur trade, and the company’s returns in 1842 included eleven hundred packs of buffalo robes (ten robes to a pack), almost five hundred packs of beaver (approximately eighty pelts to a pack), and more than three hundred buffalo tongues, a delicacy for the eastern market.137 Buffalo robes alone were worth five dollars to six dollars apiece in St. Louis. At the height of their power in 1842, the company employed fifty-four traders.138 As Pekka Hamalainen has observed, Bent’s Fort was “a most serious blow” to the trade of the Western Comanches. With an annual trade of “15,000 hides and large quantities of horses,” Bent’s Fort “was an American sequel to the once flourishing Western Comanche trade center” and “had put an end to their role as major traders.”139 In short, Bent, St. Vrain and Company had usurped the Comanches’ role, although the latter remained important suppliers and a force to be reckoned with. Thereafter, the Comanches increasingly relied on raiding. Indeed, their population began to decrease at this point because of game depletion, drought, and increasing competition for resources from white settlers140

Possibly the most important factor in the success of Bent’s Fort was its connection to Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company back in St. Louis. In 1838, Bent, St. Vrain and Company formalized an agreement to divide the fur trade in the Rockies between the two companies. From that year until the dissolution of Bent, St. Vrain ten years later, the business operated as a partnership within a partnership. The Chouteau company in St. Louis kept the books; marketed the furs and other items collected by Bent, St. Vrain; and provided the trade goods. Above all, Chouteau and Company provided a line of credit for all salaries and supplies. Bent, St. Vrain controlled its own operations, but the two companies also engaged in joint ventures and divided the profits in thirds—two-thirds for

Bent, St. Vrain and one-third for the Chouteau company. The two companies, for example, purchased a farm in Kansas City to use for pasturage for the livestock being transported between St. Louis and New Mexico. Other Santa Fe traders used the property, and it became a lucrative investment141 In New Mexico as in the Upper Missouri country, capital was obviously in short supply. The American Fur Company of the 1830s and 1840s (the Chouteaus) controlled the flow of information, goods, and credit throughout this region during the first phase of its commercial development. It was, indeed, the “fist in the wilderness,”142 and that fist belonged to Pierre Chouteau Jr. and his various relations in the elite world of Creole St. Louis. Their partnership with Bent, St. Vrain—the dominant company in the New Mexican field of operations—strengthened the position of both firms.

Clearly, the economic pathway for Bent, St. Vrain and Company led back to St. Louis. For the Robidouxs, it led there through the intervening center of St. Joseph. But how did these men connect to the social and political worlds that encompassed their business activities? The Bents and St. Vrain, like the Robidouxs and many other St. Louisans—French and Anglo — mostly connected with Hispanic New Mexican women. Charles Bent had a common-law marriage with Maria Ignacia Jaramillo from a “good Taos family.”143 (Kit Carson married her sister, Josefa.) Ceran St. Vrain lived successively with three partners. He left the last, Luisa Branch, an annuity on the condition that their child be left in his care. Another Bent brother, George, left to his partner, Maria de la Cruz Padilla, his property in Taos with a similar restriction, that she allow their two children to be raised in St. Louis. William Bent also sent his métis sons (George and Charles) by Cheyenne sisters to an academy in Missouri—in Westport near Kansas City, where the family maintained a farm144 The partnerships with Hispanic women seem to have resembled the marriages à la fagon du pays contracted between so many French traders and Indian women. Although many of these partnerships seem to have resulted in long-term stable relationships, the wills left by the men seem, in the words of Janet Lecompte, to “show a concern for the children, but contempt for the mothers.”145 Put a slightly different way, the objective that shaped family construction was the building of one’s house—the ability to accumulate and maintain property and provide an education and orientation that would allow children to prosper in the future—and that future would include a regime change, the westward expansion of the world of St. Louis in which almost all of these traders had been raised. But whereas partnerships with Indian women provided access to the fur trade, those with Hispanic women in New Mexico cemented a trader’s position in the polity and society of a place that could also provide another valuable addition to the investment portfolio of frontier entrepreneurs—land. In short, for these businessmen, the New Mexican frontier zone was a site, literally and figuratively, of translation and transition, of cultural and social adaptation and economic action and anticipation.

A third and final example of this model is provided by the activities of Charles Beaubien. Beaubien, a native not of Creole St. Louis, but of Quebec, came to New Mexico in 1824.146 In 1827 he married a New Mexican woman from a well-to-do Taos family, María Paula Lobato, and their first child, Narciso or Narcise, was born six weeks later. Narcise attended the same school as many other French children, St. Mary’s of the Barrens, south of St. Louis in Missouri. (The same school to which François and Berenice Chouteau of Kansas City sent their boys.) Charles—now Carlos—and Maria had six other children, and Beaubien became one of the most successful merchants at Taos, operating a store for Bent, St. Vrain among other activities.147 He was naturalized in 1829 and became the alcalde of the town in 1834. Despite increasing opposition from native-born New Mexicans, Beaubien received several huge land grants from Governor Manuel Armijo in 1841 and 1844. The first grant included a large portion of northeastern New Mexico and was taken out in connection with a government official, Don Guadalupe Miranda. The second grant, the Sangre de Cristo grant, was patented in the name of his son Narcise and an American merchant named Stephen Lee. This grant included a large part of the San Luis Velley in southern Colorado. Anticipating future settlement, Beaubien began improving his land from 1843 to 1846. At that point, however, regime change put his plans on hold.

One might well ask how local New Mexicans reacted to the growing political influence of French and other Americans such as the Robidouxs in Santa Fe and Beaubien, the Bents, and St. Vrain in Taos. Historians have seen this period, from the mid-1820s to the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, as a kind of economic transition, preparing the ground for the imperial expansion of the United States. Howard Lamar, in his book The Far Southwest, observed that the “real conquest had been made over a thirty-year period by traders and merchant-adventurers.”148 Historian Andres Resendez, in a more recent book on the incorporation of Texas and New Mexico from 1800 to 1850, reaffirms Lamar’s interpretation, suggesting that “two and a half decades of vigorous commercial and demographic relations” had resulted in the “Americanization of New Mexico.”149

Several months after the Army of the West’s arrival in Santa Fe in August 1846, an American on the scene wrote the following: “I have no doubt that there prevails, among many of the New Mexicans, a very bitter feeling towards our Government and people.”150On the morning of January 19, 1847, a crowd of angry Taos Indians and New Mexicans stormed the house of Charles Bent, who had been appointed the acting U.S. governor of New Mexico. The rebels murdered Bent and other officials of the new American regime. Narcise Beaubien and his friend Pablo Jaramillo—brother of Bent’s partner Ignacia Jaramillo— were stabbed to death while trying to hide in a barn. Attacks on Americans in other parts of the area followed. Eight traders heading east were killed in Mora, two died at Rio Colorado. The mill and distillery belonging to Simeon Turley at Arroyo Hondo were torched by a rebel force numbering in the hundreds. American reaction was swift: Colonel Sterling Price, stationed in Santa Fe, marched five companies of volunteer and regular army soldiers toward Taos. This group of 479 men fought three battles, the last at the Taos Pueblo. When the smoke had cleared, some 282 Mexican and Indian rebels were dead.151

Trials soon followed. A court martial began on February 6, 1847, and fifteen rebels were tried and hung for the crime of treason. After these trials, the Circuit Court for the Northern District of New Mexico was convened at Taos, with none other than Charles Beaubien, father of the murdered Narcise, acting as the presiding judge. Ceran St. Vrain served as the court interpreter, and a number of Frenchmen sat on the jury.152 The lines of allegiance were clearly drawn. It should come as no surprise that the Frenchmen, who had anticipated the transition, were lined up, to a man, on the side of the new regime represented by American officials. What we are more interested in here is their activities after the dust had cleared.

Beaubien began developing his New Mexican land grants with his son-in-law Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell in the late 1840s. Maxwell was born in 1818 on the day his grandfather, Pierre Menard, became the first lieutenant governor of the new state of Illinois.153(He also attended school at St. Mary’s of the Barrens.) His mother, Marie-Odile Menard, married an Irish storekeeper. Lucien’s great-uncle, Rev. James Maxwell, was a native of Dublin who had studied for the priesthood in Spain and been appointed vicar general of Upper Louisiana during the Spanish regime. Reverend Maxwell had received a land grant from Charles Dehault Delassus—the uncle of Ceran St. Vrain. Lucien Maxwell had grown up in a world of imperial land grants and was no stranger to the process. Between 1858 and 1867, Maxwell and his wife, Luz Beaubien, inherited or purchased the entire Beaubien-Miranda grant, accumulating the largest private estate in the United States at the time of its sale (1869)—ultimately patented as having 1.7 million acres. After spending approximately fifty thousand dollars to quiet all the various heirs and claimants, Luz and Lucien—with the help of a variety of politicians and lawyers—had the famous Maxwell Land Grant confirmed by Congress in 1860. They sold the grant to an English syndicate for $1.35 million dollars.154 Maxwell negotiated his land dealings with the aid of New Mexico’s famous Santa Fe Ring. Ultimately, the deal was brokered by Jerome Chaffee, founder of the First National Bank of Denver.155Maxwell himself was a major shareholder in the First National Bank of New Mexico.

The magnitude of this case should not obscure the theme. Frontier development was the family business, and the skill set that family members brought to the task included linguistic and social adaptability and an understanding of how to use imperial, national, and local politicians. Lucien’s brother, Pierre Menard Maxwell, and his cousin, Michel Brindamour Menard, were the founders of Gal-veston, Texas. Michel had begun his career as a trader to the Shawnees in the employ of his uncle Pierre and followed the Shawnees to the country around the Trinity River in Texas in 1833. The following year he bought a huge tract of land that had been granted to Don Juan Nepomuceno Seguin and others by the State of Coahuila and Texas. This claim was confirmed in 1836 by the Congress of the Republic of Texas and later patented by President Sam Houston. It included the east end of Galveston Island. Menard organized the Galveston City Company in 1838.156

When Ceran St. Vrain returned to New Mexico from St. Louis in 1848, having dissolved the Bent, St. Vrain Company after the murder of Charles Bent, he followed a predictable post-fur-trade career. He built several sawmills and supplied the lumber used to build the territorial capital. He moved to Mora, New Mexico, in 1855 and erected a flour mill, later operated by his sons Vicente and Felix, that supplied much of the flour used by the military and by the Colorado gold seekers during the Pike’s Peak rush of 1859.157He developed his Mexican land grant and speculated in land around Denver. He also dabbled in railroad and banking projects and owned a piece of the Santa Fe Gazette, becoming the public printer of the territory in 1858.

A pattern is clear by now. Howard Lamar has referred to such activities as “phase capitalism,” making a profit “on the actual process of ... development.”158 Beginning with extractive industries such as furs and mines, these entrepreneurs then turned to investing in land and the infrastructure of future settlement— banks and transportation. The trajectory of the activities of Beaubien, Maxwell, Menard, and St. Vrain in New Mexico and Texas was analogous to that of the Chouteaus and Robidouxs in western Missouri. What these examples suggest is that the U.S. appropriation of New Mexico in its initial phase was in part the expansion of a specific frontier community—the French Creoles of St. Louis. Though certainly not the only ones to recognize the opportunities that existed in New Mexico, the French had the resources and the experience to take advantage of them and were often the first Americans in the field. They set up a series of critical transshipment points or jumping-off places in western Missouri during the 1820s and used these bases to extend their influence in regions farther west and north. It should not surprise us that two of the lieutenants of Battery A in Kearny’s Army of the West were Edmond Chouteau and John Gratiot, sons of St. Louis’s French first families. In New Mexico, William Clark Kennerly, a French Creole on his mother’s side, referred to his unit as the “jeunesse d’orée,” the French golden youth.159 Their parents, in the meantime, pulled the financial and political strings that made others jump. But did it really matter that they were French, or was that just an accident of history?

I would argue that being French mattered for four reasons. First, they were already Catholics. Second, the French, like the Spanish, practiced the civil law, not the common law. Third, it was often easier for the French to learn Spanish. And the fourth and most important reason was that the French Creoles were steeped in the process of middle-grounding, of occupying a cultural and social space of accommodation while pursuing an economic agenda of development and change. This is how we began the chapter, and to close we must return to this idea.

This concept, popularized by historian Richard White in his now famous book about the French and Indian world of the Great Lakes, sought to explain a world of encounters between indigenous people and colonial or European people who needed something from each other, a historical landscape characterized more by negotiation than by violence and dispossession. To this I would add that the French, experienced middle-grounders by the 1820s, had an established repertoire for achieving their bottom line, which was, quite consistently, commercial exchange and frontier development. That repertoire included intermarriage, cultural flexibility, and the identification of political leaders willing to act as allies and brokers. And to this we must add a last and crucial point: the Creole French of St. Louis came from a place that had itself been the site of transition from empire to republic, Indian country to settlement frontier, French rule to Spanish rule to Anglo-American dominance. They were survivors, the sons and daughters of families who had avoided violent confrontation and marginalization and profited from change. They knew what to expect.

Occupying such a middle ground in New Mexico was, in one sense, nothing more than a smart businessman’s way of getting the proverbial foot in the door. By the 1840s, many such French traders had New Mexican wives and connections to political power.160And just as their fathers had obtained Spanish land grants in Upper and Lower Louisiana, they obtained similar grants in New Mexico. And, indeed, Mexican merchants were using their French connection as well, sending their sons to parochial schools in Missouri and sending their silver reserves with armed Mexican guards wearing sombreros to the banking house of L. A. Benoist in St. Louis.161 Frederick Jackson Turner, after all, began his own dissertation with Montesquieu’s remark that “the history of commerce is the history of the intercommunication of peoples.”162

“Communication” and “accommodation” are words with positive connotations. In the end, however, the appropriation of resources, whether furs or real estate, had negative consequences for those local groups, Indian and Hispanic, whose territories the French had entered. In the New Mexico region, as in the central and Upper Missouri River Valley, the trade in alcohol filled the economic niche left by the declining supply and demand for furs.163 One of the main objectives of the rebel force of New Mexicans and Pueblos in 1847 had been Simeon Turley’s distillery at Arroyo Hondo.164 In New Mexico, the French also encountered a political force that they could not negotiate away—an evolving Mexican nationalism. Civil, military, and religious leaders were actively promoting a “sense of Mexicanness” that would bind peripheral territories such as New Mexico to the rest of the Mexican nation.165 In Taos, its most vocal spokesman was Father Antonio Jose Martinez, or Padre Martinez, the opponent whom Beaubien, St. Vrain, and the Bents feared the most. As recent studies have shown, Martinez saw himself as a voice of the people, a liberal, even revolutionary priest in the tradition of Father Hidalgo.166 French merchants, by way of contrast, preferred to deal with power relations in an old-fashioned—one might say old-regime— way, wielding influence with politicians through personal connections. In New Mexico, men such as St. Vrain and Beaubien fought to extend the territorial regime, avoiding democracy as long as possible in favor of a pliable bureaucratic hierarchy. French elites had pursued a similar course in Missouri and Michigan, using their influence to prolong the period of territorial government. Democracy was a dangerous and unpredictable playing field for merchants who belonged to an ethnic minority in New Mexico and Missouri. Martínez, on the other hand, embraced the idea of statehood with full participation for his parishioners. Ironically, the new American bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, appointed in 1850, was a native of France. With support from both Beaubien and St. Vrain, he excommunicated the radical Padre Martínez in 1858. Lamy later commissioned the building of a new cathedral in 1869—in the French Romanesque style with stained glass windows imported from France.167

In the final analysis, the middle ground was perhaps never a stable place. At least from a French perspective, cultural accommodations were linked to economic change, and the political medium in which such middle grounds seemed to flourish was usually one of clients and patrons, lobbyists and bureaucrats. Democratic elections and native resistance movements could easily upset carefully crafted private deals. The middle ground occupied by French outsiders and native and Hispanic locals may have served as a space of mediation; nevertheless, it also existed at a midpoint in the maelstrom of change. Though all peoples involved were active agents in creating a new landscape, the profits gathered in the transition flowed into the pockets of French traders and their heirs. The middle ground in New Mexico, as in western Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska, had an American ending. A second generation of St. Louisans had extended the city’s reach along the Missouri from Kansas City to Montana and into Texas and New Mexico.

Given the importance of this group of French frontier brokers and entrepreneurs, it is surprising that their historic role has gone almost unnoticed in our western narratives. Usually, the only American we hear about during this period in New Mexico is Kit Carson. But if one looks a little closer, one can easily find the French connection. The language of this phase of the American West, in fact, contained many French words: one had a cache of furs to elude the authorities or the Indians; trappers used therendezvous system in the mountains; a thin strip of buffalo was known as parfleche; the fuel used by all who traveled along the unwooded plains of the West was called “bodewash”—from the French bois de vache, buffalo chips. This region, like the Missouri Velley, acquired French names. French trappers in Colorado referred to broad, open mountain Velleys as parcs because they reminded them of French hunting preserves—and so we find places like South Park outside of Denver. And then there are those places named after long forgotten French westerners such as Provo, Utah—named for Etienne Provost, an employee of the Chouteau company. Provost left his name in Utah and retired to St. Louis where he purchased a tavern.168 But the francophone culture had no staying power in the West. The French themselves comprised a relatively small group, and many of the French who stayed in places in New Mexico remained “translated” by their families and local contexts. Pierre Esperance, for example, a trapper who settled in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and built a sawmill and accumulated property, apparently forgot his native language and answered to Pedro Lesperanza. Even the nephew who came to live with him from Sorel, Quebec, changed his name from Pierre to Pedrito.169

But the true legacy of the French in the American West does not reside in a collection of names on our maps. Rather, it is the role they played in western expansion, in negotiating the course of American empire, that we must acknowledge. We celebrate the exploits and explorations of Lewis and Clark. They made their information public and helped establish a national vision of the West and its possibilities; as soon as they returned, French traders and merchants from the Creole world of St. Louis rushed to explore those possibilities. The western ventures of the generation that came of age around the time of Lewis and Clark are somewhat lost to us now; but from 1820 to 1850, the names Chouteau, Sarpy, Robidoux, Menard, and St. Vrain carried great weight throughout this new American domain. One might even claim that the Great West during this period was in many ways more an extension of Creole St. Louis than of Jefferson’s Virginia. This story is not one of rugged individualism and heroic discoveries; rather, it is a story of private ventures and family connections. We have seen how families were shaped by economic agendas. It is now time to look at the internal evolution of the Chouteau family companies and observe how families in turn shaped the context of business.

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