Fur Traders Descending the Missouri by George C. Bingham, 1845. Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Diane Euston
After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans led by William Clark established Fort Osage, 25 miles east of the future site of Kansas City, in 1808. Its purpose was to provide a military presence in the territory and to develop a healthy relationship with Native American tribes- especially the Osage. In addition to its purpose as a fort, it also functioned as a government-operated fur trading post that was in operation until 1822.
The end of Fort Osage in Missouri meant that business for independent fur traders could begin. This early commerce on the western side of Missouri was launched when a newly-married couple took a risk by settling on the edge of the frontier. The future of fur trading in western Missouri would be directly connected to them, and Kansas City likely wouldn’t have developed without the Chouteau’s enterprising spirit.
Early History Intertwines with St. Louis
As fate would have it, the Chouteau family is linked to the two largest cities in Missouri. Francois Gesseau Chouteau was born in 1797 in St. Louis, Mo., son of Jean Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849). The area at the time was under the control of the Spanish. His uncle, Auguste, had co-founded St. Louis 33 years before his birth.
His family was strengthened by their relationship with Native American tribes. As French fur traders and merchants, the Chouteau family operated St. Louis Fur Company which held the rights to fur trade with the Osage tribe in that area.
In 1819, Francois further connected his enterprises by marrying eighteen-year-old Therese Berenice Menard, simply known as Berenice to family and friends. Berenice was the daughter of Pierre Menard, a French-Canadian fur trapper who settled across the river from Ste. Genevieve, Mo. in Kaskaskia, Illinois and served as the first lieutenant governor of that state.
A Honeymoon on the Missouri River
St. Louis traders were ready to take over the fur business abandoned by Fort Osage. Twenty-two year-old Francois and his eighteen-year-old wife, Berenice opted for an interesting honeymoon. Kansas City founder John C. McCoy wrote in his memoirs, “Berenice first saw this place in 1819, when on her way from St. Louis to the frontier trading post of the Black Snake hills (St. Joseph). It was her bridal tour with her husband on a keelboat, requiring about six weeks to make the trip.”
On this journey, the young Chouteau couple saw the opportunities that could arise along the convergence of the Missouri and Kaw Rivers and planned to return to the area to establish a new trading post for the American Fur Company.
The First Trading Post
Originally known as Chez les Canses (village of the Kanza), the region offered many chances to expand the Chouteau’s St. Louis fur-trading business. In the fall of 1821, Louis Berthold was sent up the Missouri with his wife, two employees and his stepson to prepare for this new trading post on the south bank of the Missouri River just opposite of Randolph Point. Randolph Point was a famous crossing place for the Indian tribes of the north and south sides of the Missouri River.
Just a short time later, “a party of Indians came along and tore down their cabin and ordered them to leave the country on pain of losing their scalps or lives if the order was disobeyed.” Instead of leaving, the little company moved to the north side, built a simple structure, and awaited the arrival of the Chouteaus.
In early 1822, Francois Chouteau came back to western Missouri with around 35 employees, three keelboats of supplies and merchandise for the Indian trade, his wife, and two young children. They erected extensive log buildings on the north side near Randolph Point in Clay Co., cleared the dense forest of river bottom lands and began trade with the Native Americans. Two Indian trails ran nearby, offering trade from every direction.
In April 1826, a flood destroyed all six buildings at the trading post. As luck would have it, the land to the south- which was on higher ground and had better river access- had been ceded a year prior by the Osage and was open for settlement.
Chouteau’s Town and the French Bottoms
A second post in 1827, only in operation for one season, sat at the foot of the river on the south bank near Troost Ave. The Chouteau’s acquired several hundred acres, including a working farm. Francois moved his trading post a final time to the south bank of the Kaw about two miles above the city of Argentine.
A major cholera outbreak in 1827 slowed the Chouteau’s progress. Berenice baptized 75 dying Indian children, lost two of her own children, sewed shrouds for those that died (including using her own wedding gown as fabric), and established relationships with the Kanza, Seminole and Osage tribes.
By the early 1830s, at least one hundred French Catholic families settled into the area. The Chouteau trading post was the center of activity. All these families were involved in the fur trade, and most lived in the West Bottoms near the mouth of the Kaw River. Most of the French fur traders inhabiting the area were married to Blackfoot Indian women. This became known as the “French Bottoms” and the Native Americans called it “Chouteau’s Town.”
This sociable society was renowned for having regular dances and celebrations that could be seen- and heard- for miles. Most ran small farms; no large businesses existed except for a grocery store and tavern. The old square- vieux carre– was erected and used as a common area for the French Catholic families. As Kansas City would later develop, this old town square was kept in-tact and is now known as the River Market today.
The Father and Mother of Kansas City
Francois continued his business ventures by acquiring several hundred acres in the East Bottoms and a steamboat landing spot known as Chouteau’s Landing. In 1838, tragedy struck when Francois- later coined “The Father of Kansas City”- passed away (some records indicate it was a heart attack while others state he was killed by “a stampeding horse”), leaving his trading post, 1,200 acres and his sons to take over the business.
In June 1844, another tragic flood destroyed much of what was left of the French traders in the area. Berenice was forced to move the warehouses, her homestead and the large farm to even higher ground.
The original families living in the French Bottoms suffered as well; the flood swept away their cabins. Many young men never rebuilt and opted to move to the mountains to the west. Other early settlers, including Berenice Chouteau, decided to stay in the area and was able to live long enough to see Kansas City blossom into a metropolis on the bluffs. Although the trading post was closed in 1857, the impact of the Chouteau’s on the future site of Kansas City is unmistakable today. Berenice, coined “The Mother of Kansas City,” died in 1888 and was buried next to her husband in St. Louis. She outlived all of her nine children.
The Chouteau Heritage Fountain Project
The Chouteau name is synonymous with “The City of Fountains,” and it is more than appropriate for there to be a project in the works that tells the story of the Chouteau’s, their fur-trading business and their relationship with the Native Americans.
In partnership with the City of Fountains Foundation and Kansas City Parks and Recreation, three statues, designed by sculptor Kwan Wu, will depict a scene of Francois Chouteau trading with the Native Americans. They will be perched atop water cascading over eight foot limestone rocks. The Francois Chouteau and Native American Heritage Fountain will be on the west side of Chouteau Parkway south of I-35 and north of Parvin Rd.
The sculpture of Francois Chouteau is already complete and on display in the Rotunda of City Hall. The Foundation has already raised half the money needed for this extensive project, and the hope is to have all funding in place so that the fountain will be complete before the 200th anniversary of the first trading post, established on the north bank of the Missouri River. To learn more about this project and to donate, go to www.chouteaufountain.org.
Telling the story of Kansas City is intertwined with the ambitions of Francois and Berenice Chouteau, who without much fear, uprooted their lives to live in the wilderness of western Missouri. These French-Catholic fur-traders are the very foundation of the City of Fountains.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com. Also you can hear Diane on her monthly podcast with host Bob Fescoe of Sports Radio 610.