For the French of the Creole Corridor, kinship ties were a necessity; and community, secular and religious, a given. As a primarily urban group with commercial aspirations and genteel cultural practices, Creole merchant capitalists valued continuity and reputation more than spontaneity and democracy. In the words of one historian, they established “the regional economic and social foundations upon which subsequent settlers and entrepreneurs would build outposts of capitalist middle-class society.”1 The difficulty of finding an appropriate framework in which to place the activities of these Creole merchants is nowhere more evident than in the historiography of the fur trade. When I first began to study the fur trade, I was somewhat mystified by the application of the label “mountain man” to the likes of Pierre Chouteau Jr. and his son-in-law John F. A. Sanford. The former lived in St. Louis his entire life; the latter spent the last sixteen years of his life living on Fifth Avenue in New York City and the last six years of his life as director of the Illinois Central Railroad. Both men died millionaires.2 I was further puzzled by the debate over the characteristics of such “mountain men” — were they romantic heroes, social outcasts, or expectant capitalists? Why debate over such a useless category that failed to distinguish between employees, small businessmen, and wealthy shareholders?3 How could one hope to understand the actions of individuals without examining the social and economic contexts in which they operated?
North of the Canadian border, the history of the fur trade has been written differently. Multivolume histories of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company exist.4 Such efforts take as their frame of reference the structure of this vast and complex enterprise. More than forty years have passed since Dale Morgan called for “a useful history of the company which bore various names at different times but was always dominated by the Chouteaus of St. Louis,” and still we have had no progress on this front.5Indeed, Morgan’s statement itself indicates the difficulty historians have had in knowing how to approach the subject—do we study the career of one man such as Pierre Chouteau Jr.?; do we investigate the history of the Western Department of the American Fur Company, which from 1827 until the dissolution of the company was run by the Chouteaus and their relations?; or do we instead focus on that confusing collection of enterprises and partnerships that together contained the interests and investments of this aggressive extended family?6
Sophie Amanda Benoist (born 1809) embroidered this piece in 1823 to preserve the memory of her father, François Marie Benoist, who had died in 1819. The sampler, with its standard representations of grief, demonstrates that the French Creole world of St. Louis, though distinct, had much in common with other North American centers of bourgeois life, encompassed from cradle to grave by commerce, urbanity, and the web of affectionate family relations. Pigment, beads, and embroidery on silk. Photograph by Cary Horton. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
I believe that the third choice is the proper one. Unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company, the various Chouteau family businesses, with the exception of several later industrial enterprises, were not chartered corporations with limited liability. Rather, they were a series of multiple partnerships or family firms. In the early nineteenth century they might have been referred to as “sociétés générale" or “common-law companies.”7 Whereas some of the Chouteau companies were simply reorganizations of previous partnerships, others existed simultaneously for the purpose of handling distinct fur-trade activities such as foreign trade or the channeling of investments unrelated to the fur trade. In form, the Creole partnerships of St. Louis resembled the combinations of Scottish merchants who ran the various editions of the North West Company. Unlike the North West Company, the Chouteau firms were predominantly French from top to bottom. Moreover, unlike the North West Company partners, who viewed settlement in the West as a threat to their economic future, the Chouteau entrepreneurs made great capital, literally, out of their positions on the frontier of a nation dedicated to Indian removal. They helped to shape and facilitate the government policy of extracting Indian land cessions in exchange for annuities and migration. As we have seen, they reinvested profits from this Indian business in real estate, railroads, and other ventures. In this respect, the Chouteaus were similar to the Astors; but unlike the Astors, the Chouteaus were westerners themselves. As the business interests of the Chouteaus prospered and expanded, so did the western communities in which they lived and in which they invested. For the Chou-teaus, economic prosperity and social prosperity were inextricably linked, and the foundation of both was the family.
This chapter examines the expansion of the Chouteau business enterprises and the family itself over three generations in order to provide a useable chronology of the company or companies Dale Morgan found so difficult to describe and to extract an accurate model of family structure and marriage strategy over time. Three related topics emerge: first, the education or apprenticeship of younger family members and the problem of continuity; second, the problem of profligate sons and the stress engendered by such a close relationship between family and business; and third, the role of women within the family. Finally, I would like to suggest a few ways in which focusing on families on the frontier can alter our traditional view of western expansion.
We start with Madame Chouteau’s sons. By 1775, twenty-five-year-old Auguste Chouteau was shipping furs on his own account. He had gained experience in the field and in the comptoir as a clerk for his stepfather. He also gained experience in surveying as an assistant for Martin Duralde in 1770. Real estate, banking, and the fur trade would prove to be the sources of his fortune and that of his children and grandchildren. In 1776, Auguste began to acquire an invaluable resource: relatives. That year his sister Pelagie married Sylvestre Labbadie, a native of Bearn who had arrived in St. Louis in 1769 and had established a partnership with Joseph Marie Papin. Papin, whose father had been the royal commissary at Fort Frontenac in Canada, married Marie Louise Chouteau in 1778. Auguste and his brothers-in-law engaged in a number of short-term ventures beginning in 1777.8 Labbadie, at his death in 1794, was said to be the richest man in St. Louis.9 Papin inherited a sizable estate from his father in 1792 that was handled by Admyrauld and Sons, an important Protestant firm of the French seaport of La Rochelle.10
The next kinsman the Chouteaus acquired also had Huguenot connections. In 1781, Charles Gratiot, a native of Lausanne, Switzerland, married Auguste’s youngest sister, Victoire. Although Gratiot was beset by debts for most of his life, he “eventually accumulated a fortune through land speculation.”11 Gratiot brought to the Chouteau family a willingness to travel, a perfect knowledge of English, and connections in London and eventually with John Jacob Astor in New York.
The most important kinsman Auguste Chouteau was to acquire during this period was his father-in-law, Gabriel Cerré. One year younger than Chouteau’s mother, Cerré was born in a suburb of Montreal to a family of rather modest farmers. He volunteered for a militia expedition to Ohio in 1751 and settled several years later in Illinois. He moved his family to St. Louis in 1780. From 1768 to 1771, Cerré entered the fur trade in partnership with Jean Orillat, a native of Saintonge near La Rochelle, operating out of Montreal. On his own account, Cerré operated a trading post at New Madrid in Spanish territory and at present-day Nashville in Tennessee. He was respected by American, English, and Spanish officials and became by 1791 the largest slaveholder and one of the wealthiest merchants in Upper Louisiana.12 When Auguste Chouteau married Marie Thérèse Cerré in 1786, the bride’s dowry nearly doubled the couple’s net worth.13 Three years later, after the birth of the couple’s first child, Chouteau purchased and renovated Pierre de Laclède’s old headquarters, and this new Auguste Chouteau mansion became the centerpiece of old St. Louis.14
Chouteau’s relationship with his new “papa” signaled the beginning of his independence in several ways. Until his marriage, Chouteau had marketed his furs and bought his goods primarily at New Orleans. During the early 1780s, a partial British blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, an unfortunate run-in with river pirates near Memphis, and increasing competition from traders operating out of Canada convinced Chouteau that he needed to deal directly with merchants in Michilimackinac, Montreal, and London. Following the suggestions of Cerré and Gratiot, Chouteau began doing business with the firms of Grant, Campion and the McGill brothers of Montreal; Bryan and Morrison of Philadelphia; and Schneider and Company and Inglis, Ellice and Company of London. In 1807,Chouteau was invited to become a partner in the recently formed Michilimackinac Company. He refused. He also resisted the advances of John Jacob Astor. Indeed, throughout his business career, Chouteau seems to have been intent on avoiding any long-term commitments outside of his family.15 In his land ventures, he was helped immeasurably by his brother-in-law Antoine Soulard, the town surveyor. Soulard had married Julie Cerré in 1795. At the time of his death in 1829, Auguste Chouteau was the area’s largest landlord.16
Like his brother, Pierre Chouteau became a large landholder. Much of his land was acquired through his first wife’s grandfather, Joseph Michel dit Tayon.17 Unlike his brother, Pierre remained committed to the fur trade and spent much of his time among his Indian customers18 François Saucier, the father of his second wife, was a valuable source of information as the commandant at Portage des Sioux.19
By 1816 both Pierre and Auguste had begun to withdraw from an active role in the fur trade. The records show that the two brothers had kept separate accounts since 1804.20 Although it seems obvious that the brothers had cooperated in pursuing the Osage trade, the exact nature of their business relationship is not clear from the documents, which are rather limited for the decades before 1800. Cooperation rather than partnership seems to have been the rule. The Chouteaus and their kin in this first generation seem to have avoided long-term associations in favor of episodic ventures. For all the attention historians have given to the fur trade, it seems clear that profits from other investments such as real estate, lead, and slaves and from basic, less romantic activities such as retailing, milling, and banking provided an important edge in the accumulation of estates. The fur trade could be a risky business, dependent on fluctuations in a European market. Wars in Europe had disrupted those markets during the last decade of the eighteenth century and first decade of the nineteenth.21
By the second decade of the nineteenth century, the estates of the first Chou-teau generation were being passed on to the second generation. It is important to note at this point the ways in which such estates were passed from the first generation to the second. The Chouteaus and their kin followed time-honored traditions among mercantile families. Estates were divided equally among all children, sons and daughters. Dowries and the transfer of property to children before the death of the parents “assured the reinvestment of funds in those ... commercial activities upon which the survival of the families depended.”22 The documents in the Chouteau collections provide many examples of early transfers of property. When Marie Louise Chouteau married Gabriel Paul, a native of St. Domingue, in 1818, her parents, Auguste and Marie Thérèse Cerré Chouteau gave her a slave and two parcels of land worth more than five thousand dollars. Her Uncle Pierre added one thousand dollars in cash.23 That same year Pierre Chouteau and his wife sold more than six thousand acres of land to their son Pierre Jr. and his partner, their son-in-law, Bartholomew Berthold. The elder Pierre also favored the young partners with many contracts for goods required by the Indian Department. Even Madame Chouteau got into the act by giving a number of town lots to her grandchildren before her death in 1814.24
As might be expected, early transfers of property and large dowries, and the rejection of primogeniture in favor of a system of partible inheritance, favored the entry of Chouteau children into commercial ventures at an early age and also encouraged the formation of many trial family partnerships, particularly between sons and sons-in-law. This is exactly what happened in the Chouteau family during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. David Herlihy has noted the same phenomenon among the mercantile families of Italy during the middle ages. According to Herlihy, “the great urban consorterie combined solidarity of spirit with policies of pronounced economic individualism.” Such policies led to “the early identification and encouragement of their most talented, most energetic youth.”25 Such policies, in short, led to the formation of a new consortium in each generation. Among Chouteau kin such a reshuffling of talent and resources occurred from approximately 1808 to 1823, and occurred again during the 1840s.
The first new family firms to come of age centered around three kinsmen of approximately the same age, Bernard Pratte, Jean Pierre Cabanné, and Gregoire Sarpy. Pratte, born in 1771, came from a prominent family in Ste. Genevieve.26 Pratte opened stores in St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve, traveled extensively in the East, and was acknowledged to be one of region’s most successful merchants by 1815. Sarpy, whose brother was a commission merchant in New Orleans, entered into a partnership with Cabanné in 1800 to trade with the Kansa Indians27 Cabanné had arrived in St. Louis in 1798 by way of Charleston and New Orleans. Born in 1773, he married the eldest daughter of Charles Gratiot, Julie, in 1799.28 What we should notice here is the patterns. Though it is never discussed in the documents, origins must have provided some level of trust and familiarity: Ca-banné came from the same province in France as Pratte and Sarpy’s father-in-law, Labbadie—Béarn, the birthplace of Pierre de Laclède, the town’s founder. Business connections also mattered. Sarpy’s brother provided a useful and reliable outlet in New Orleans.
Another new arrival brought a connection to a critical supplier in Italy. Bartholomew Berthold arrived in St. Louis in 1809 and married Pierre Chouteau’s only daughter, Pelagie. Berthold, born Bartolomeo Bertolla in 1780 in northern Italy, entered into a partnership with his brother-in-law, Pierre Chouteau Jr., in May 1813.29 Berthold and Chouteau were successful from the start, beginning with a retail store, St. Louis’s first brick building, and expanding into the fur trade. They were helped by Pierre’s father and Berthold’s connections on the East Coast and in Italy, where his brother Alessandro manufactured glass beads for the Indian trade in Murano, a suburb of Venice and the traditional site of the Italian glassmaking industry.30
By 1819, it was becoming clear within the family circle which kinsmen had the talent for business and which did not. The failures will be discussed later. In 1819, Cabanné and Berthold left for Indian country, where they would stay until the 1830s. Pierre Chouteau Jr. ran the store in St. Louis, and Pratte went east in search of buyers and suppliers31 By 1823, the four men had formed a new firm, Bernard Pratte and Company, which lasted until 1833. In December 1826, the firm signed an agreement with Astor’s American Fur Company;32 and this important business association, to be fully understood, must also be viewed from the perspective of family ties.
As early as 1816, Charles Gratiot was busy trying to negotiate a deal between the American Fur Company and the firms headed by his two sons-in-law, Cabanné and Company and Berthold & Chouteau.33 It was not until after Ramsay Crooks, Astor’s right-hand man, married Bernard Pratte’s daughter Emilie in 1825 that the Creole family businessmen were persuaded to strike a deal. Unlike Astor, who remained distant and formal, Crooks soon began addressing Chou-teau as “cher cousin” and in many ways undertook the responsibilities of kinship that went beyond the comptoir. In a revealing note to Astor in 1827, Crooks wrote: “I cannot close this letter without adverting to your remarks on the conduct of Mr. Pratte. ... I do think you might have recollected he is my father-in-law and not have forced the subject upon me in all of your last three letters.”34 In short, much like the ties of kinship, real and fictive, that implied both social and economic obligations between French traders and Indian communities in Indian country, family connections also shaped business dealings among Americans and Europeans. This may seem obvious, but we tend to assume that the latter, unlike native people, could separate the concerns of the family sphere from the cutthroat sphere of business. No doubt, Crooks had to be concerned for the welfare of his wife’s Creole relations or suffer the consequences. Moreover, as the French Creole firm was a société générate, a family partnership, and not a limited-liability corporation, partners were financially responsible for the company’s obligations. Trust and reliability were huge considerations. Family relations at least had the potential to temper anxieties over issues of mutual welfare. Kinship mattered in St. Louis and New York as much as in Indian country.
In 1834, Pratte, Chouteau and Company bought out Astor’s interest in the Western Department. Crooks reincorporated the American Fur Company of New York and continued to supply goods and market furs for the St. Louis company. In 1842, when Crooks failed, the St. Louis company established its own New York office. The family firm had, in essence, swallowed up Astor’s old American Fur Company. The partners were also grooming members of the next generation to assume control of the business.35 The reshuffling increased in frequency during the years from 1838 to 1842.36 From 1842 to 1852, the company was managed primarily by Pierre Chouteau Jr., his son Charles, and his son-in-law John F. A. Sanford. Sanford withdrew from the St. Louis-based company in 1852 to manage Chouteau’s railroad interests out of the New York office37 Charles Chouteau ran the St. Louis firm until its sale in 1865.38
Mrs. Ramsay Crooks. The marriage of Marianne Pelagie “Emilie” Pratte (1806-1863), daughter of Bernard Pratte and Emilie Labbadie, to Ramsay Crooks, right-hand man of John Jacob Astor, in 1825 facilitated the business arrangement between the French Creole family firm in St. Louis and the American Fur Company in New York City. The couple raised their family in New York. Emilie’s sister Thérèse also lived in New York, having married a native of France, Louis Peugnet, who with his brother established a fashionable private school in the city. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
The consortium of second-generation cousins lasted for almost two decades and had served the family well as both a vehicle for the accumulation of wealth and a training ground for countless family members. By the 1840s, many third-generation cousins had already served their apprenticeships and were, as we saw in Chapter 5, managing outfits and departments in Kansas, present-day Oklahoma, and the Missouri River valley. Indeed, it seems that the Chouteau interests expanded as fast as the frontier itself. The West provided a vast field of opportunities in both the fur trade and land speculation. No group or family had a better position from which to view the potential investment possibilities.
While Pierre Chouteau Sr.'s sons entered the fur-trade business, Auguste—who had always shown more interest in real estate — must have encouraged several of his sons to pursue the business of land acquisition. Cerré Chouteau, Auguste’s second son, returned to St. Louis from Indian country after his father’s death in 1829 to manage his milling operation.39 Cerré's younger brother Henri, who was clearly Auguste’s successor, served as the county clerk and recorder for many years.40 In 1842, he took his son-in-law, Neree Vallé, on as a partner. These partners accumulated land at sheriffs’ sales all over Illinois and Missouri and entered the iron business. After Henri’s death, Vallé began purchasing mining property in Colorado.41 In the 1880s, J. Oilman Chouteau, Henri’s son, was advising his nephew Azby Chouteau on the acquisition of lands in Dakota Territory. Azby, who owned a substantial amount of railroad bonds, was careful to purchase land along the planned route. He also operated a ranch near Deadwood in Dakota Territory.42 The West, the Chouteau family, and the wealth of the latter seemed to be limitless.
How can we account for the astounding success of this family? Part of the answer surely lies with their devotion to reinvestment in their children. The correspondence of four generations of Chouteau kin includes hundreds of letters written between parents and children, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews. The thematic continuity of these letters is striking, and the sentiments are touching. In 1800, Auguste Chouteau wrote the following to his brother-in-law, Judge Pierre-Louis Panet of Montreal, to whom he was about to entrust his oldest son:
The education of my children is the most important thing for a father, since it concerns their happiness or unhappiness, and, finding myself living in a country where it is impossible to get a good one for mine, I finally decided to separate myself from mine, and its particular purpose was stronger than paternal love.43
Forty-seven years later, Henri Chouteau wrote the following to his eleven-year-old son Oilman:
I hope my dear son that you give satisfaction to your dear and kind mother, and that you are making a good deal of progress in your education ... the time will come when it shall be your turn, to go into the world and work as I have been doing for many years—and without a good education, and a good moral character above all, you will perhaps find this a hard world to deal with.44
Children were considered the prime assets of the family. In a mercantile world, honor, a reputation for sound judgment, and compulsive attention to detail were the keys to maintaining credit, accumulating customers, and making wise investments. Over and over again, Chouteau parents stressed these virtues. They also spared no expense for formal education, sending their children to a variety of schools such as West Point, Oeorgetown, Bardstown, and Yale. Relatives were expected to serve as surrogate parents when required. Ramsay Crooks oversaw the progress of a number of Chouteau relatives attending the Peugnet Academy (run by in-laws of the Prattes) in New York City. In 1836 Crooks wrote the following progress report to Pierre Chouteau Jr.:
Once a fortnight he [Charles], Berthold, and Cabanné pass the day with us, and I see them all occasionally at other times. These frequent opportunities are always made available to urge upon their attention the value of education.
Crooks then proceeds to comment quite gently:
Charles’ progress is certainly fair in all he undertakes, if it be not brilliant; and in music he will probably be quite successful—his deportment is I believe free from reproach, and his manners are genteel — I think you ought to be satisfied with your son, but perhaps you have the common failing of most parents—that of expecting more than is reasonable—We all desire to see our children No 1 — though we all know that is impossible.45
Despite their efforts, not all the Chouteau children were successful. The most notable disappointment was Auguste’s oldest son, Auguste Aristide. After the child had been expelled from all the schools in Montreal, his Uncle Panet pleaded with the elder Auguste to take his son back. The child grew into an incompetent adult, incapable of handling the details of fur-trade operations and managing financial accounts. He was constantly in debt to his father and wrote a number of rather sad letters begging for his parents’ forgiveness.46 Another notable failure was Bernard Pratte’s eldest son, Sylvestre. Sylvestre died at the tender age of twenty-eight but not before piling up large debts that his father felt obligated to honor. Cabanné wrote to Pierre Chouteau Jr. in 1825 that the elder Pratte was “much to be pitied, for having children who, by their incapability, show themselves so little worthy of him.”47
It is clear from such comments that kin networks that were tied to business enterprises were a two-way street. Trust, unity of purpose, shared parental responsibility, the pooling of capital, and the expansion of opportunity were the advantages. On the other hand, poor business judgment could affect both one’s immediate family and a wider circle of relations. Criticism of a partner’s son could prove irritating if not offered diplomatically. This Cabanné found out. Above all, if a partner did not live up to expectations, which were high in a dynamic family like the Chouteaus, the sense of personal failure could be devastating. Cabanné, in need of a loan in 1825, wrote Pierre Chouteau Jr. that he felt like “a burden on the shoulders of those who have generously placed me amongst them.” Later in the year he wrote “I owe you my new existence.”48 Jules de Mun, in the midst of his unlucky venture with A. P. Chouteau in 1816, wrote to his wife that he found himself “in the role of a parasite for being related to the Chouteau family.” The strain was too much for him; he took his family to Cuba in 1819. When they returned to St. Louis in 1831, De Mun accepted a government job and stayed clear of business.49 A. P. Chouteau fared even worse; his younger brother Pierre sued him in 1838 to collect a debt of sixty-six thousand dollars (see Chapter 5).50
An additional burden for some members of the Chouteau clan was the loneliness that came with being far away from home so much of the time. Partners who traveled to New York City or Washington City (D.C.) often took their wives with them and stayed with relations. Their letters home describe art museums and operas, and receipts for cigars and sherry remain as evidence of their good times.51 Partners in Indian country, as we have seen, either felt more isolated or turned to alternate family situations with native or métis women. Many of the men, however, seemed to have felt as did Jules de Mun when he wrote the following words to his wife, Isabelle Oratiot:
I have now been camping here for fourteen days, sweetheart, and during this time my greatest pleasure has been to think of you; not a moment of the day passes without your being present in my mind. I love to imagine my pretty little Julie on your knees, playing with your breast and looking at you with her lovely little smile; ... go often to Madame Cabanné's; I cannot tell you how much I love her, her and her whole family.... Go often to kind Emilie’s too. I am, however, sorry for the contrast between our beautiful children and hers, but tell her to be consoled—perhaps she will do better next time.52
The importance of family life and children to the Chouteau businessmen cannot be overemphasized. Beyond practical considerations, a happy home was the true measure of a successful life.53 Even crusty Pierre Chouteau Jr. marveled that New Yorkers seemed “to prefer money above all else.”54 Choosing a spouse, therefore, was doubly important for upon that choice depended both one’s future business partners and one’s potential bliss. Thomas Sarpy was said to have made an undesirable marriage while drunk. The family firm sent him to a distant post, and he died at the age of twenty-two.55 Theodore Papin, in a letter to his brother, lamented the fate of his sister Emilie who had married a drunkard, noting that “mama predicted she would be unhappy.”56
For the Chouteaus, women occupied a central place in a world that was modeled around the idea and the reality of family. Sociologist Elizabeth Bott has suggested that the density of the networks the spouses maintain outside the home is directly linked to the degree to which gender roles are separated; the greater the density, the more distinct the roles.57 This certainly seems to have been true for the Chouteaus. In St. Louis, Julie Cabanné's home was known as the gathering place for women, children, grandparents, and husbands who happened to be in town.58 The great majority of Chouteau merchants also owned farms outside of town. Here the women were charged with overseeing all operations and providing a comfortable refuge from summer heat waves and periodic epidemics.59 Wives were also responsible for the education and socialization of children, who were expected to participate in the cosmopolitan world of international commerce. This was especially important in a town like St. Louis during the early 1800s that still lacked suitable secondary institutions.60 It was even more important farther west where Berenice Menard Chouteau, wife of Oesseau, was described as the “mother of Kansas City.”61
Here, then, is a very different picture of the frontier and the so-called mountain men. Here is a world of children and parents, cousins and aunts and uncles. To understand the success of the Chouteaus, it is probably more important to consider the way in which they gathered relatives than the way in which they gathered furs. Madame Chouteau began her St. Louis journey as an abandoned mother with an insolvent companion. At the time of her death, she had more than one hundred living descendants and was financially independent. For Madame and her children, success on the frontier and in pursuing the furs and other assets meant establishing connections, connections with merchants in Europe and the cities of the East Coast and connections with Indian groups. And for Creoles and Indian peoples alike, connections were best secured by marriage for that institution was sure to produce common interests. It is also important to note that the continued success of a family business, particularly a mercantile business, depended on the identification of young talent, as often as not, in-laws. The constant reshuffling that characterized the Chouteau kin companies reflected this need. Idle sons and idle capital were the devil’s work. The rather traditional practices of the Chouteaus only began to change during the 1850s when they became involved with mining and manufacturing corporations.
Silhouette of Mrs. Jean Pierre Cabanné (Julie Oratiot) and grandchildren, Mary Virginia Kingsbury (Countess Armand Robert de Giverville), Adèle Louise Kingsbury (Mrs. Alfred Morgan Waterman), and Jules Cabanné Kingsbury. Julie Cabanné's home was said to be a gathering place for members of the extended family. In her youth, she was described as an attractive woman with dark hair and a “forehead built to hold a mind.” Creole women were expected to oversee the education and socialization of children who would be participating in a world of international commerce and occupying positions of cultural and social authority in the increasingly complex and cosmopolitan city of St. Louis. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
We are still accustomed to thinking of the frontier as a temporary place without families, without children. Lumbermen, miners, and mountain men are the pioneers. Of course, we ignore Indian families. With the Chouteaus, the children literally came first, and family expansion led business expansion. And life on this frontier was not only domestic, it was downright bourgeois. When Ramsay Crooks took his new bride, Emilie Pratte, to New York City in 1825, he noted that she was “as much reconciled to her new residence as I can expect; for although we husbands think we ought to be every thing to our fair partners, still it takes some time to recover from the feelings incident to a separation from such affectionate connexions as you all are.” Hoping, perhaps, to recapture the sociability of the western family circle they had left behind, Crooks described the new home they were soon to move into as “our wigwam.”62
As fur traders, the Chouteaus became adept at calculating present costs and future returns. As bourgeois parents, the goal of all their calculations was the reputation and prosperity of their children. Their philosophy was admirably summed up by Azby Chouteau, a great-grandson of Auguste, in 1896: “I have kept my family in harmony and raised two scions to continue the propagation of the fast diminishing tribe of Chouteau—They come high, but they may become valuable in time to come.”63
But we began this chapter with the dilemma of fur-trade historiography: how do we describe the company structure of the fur trade in the American West? The Chouteau enterprise, the dominant company in the western fur trade at its height during the 1840s, was a highly articulated business with a host of trading posts, outfits, and departments linked via steamboats and paperwork to the home office in St. Louis. It seems to provide evidence of an efficient managerial regime, a perfect example of nineteenth-century bureaucratization and rationalization as described by Max Weber and others. Surely, no one can look at the voluminous and meticulous records of this enterprise and come away thinking that the fur trade was nothing more than a couple of guys named Pierre slapping each other on the back in the wilderness.
Yet this highly structured enterprise was, throughout its history, a family business, run with a sense of familial obligation as the many letters addressed to cher papa and cher cousin attest. Departments and outfits, family and bureaucracy: where had I seen this all before? And then it hit me: the Boucicaut family of Paris and the Bon Marché. As Michael B. Miller has written in his history of that first great department store, “the managerial and family ethos are not mutually exclusive. ... Household relationships were redesigned to build an organizational work force of managers and clerks.”64 The labor force was handled with the strong but presumably caring hand of paternalism, meant to ensure loyalty. The looming presence of the Boucicauts in the Bon Marché, the grande famille, also assured customers that this enormous and imposing new store was more than a machine gobbling up small shops and ateliers; rather, it offered a sense of family values, quite in line with their stock of household commodities.
Does such a model fit the Chouteau case? The head of each trading post, responsible for inventory and sales, was, after all, called the “bourgeois.” The bourgeois was, indeed, the head of a branch of what we might visualize as a vast, decentralized department store. Though native people acted as both producers and consumers, and the bottom line of this consumer culture too often was dispossession and the dire effect of alcohol, the trade as it was organized from its St. Louis home office resembled the operation of a huge store, buying goods at wholesale prices and retailing them in the West. Though they might liken themselves to a North American tribe, the extended Chouteau family was, in the end, more like a Parisian grande famille. Their enterprise was informed by both traditional family relationships and nineteenth-century models of bureaucratic efficiency.