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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 11, No. 2
June, 1933
Their Commercial Enterprises
Part I


Page 786

The Choteau family played so important a part in the economic history of the western frontier, its power was distributed so well throughout a large family, with the younger members ever ready to carry on the work begun by the older ones, that we may well describe this family by calling it an economic dynasty. René Auguste Choteau founded the dynasty which dominated, for so many years, the city of St. Louis and the fur trade in the Missouri valley.

We know little about the very early life of René Auguste Choteau, except that he was born in New Orleans and was the son of René and Marie Therése Bourgeois Choteau.l Pierre Laclède Liguest became his step-father, when Auguste was still a young boy.2 The dates given for the birth of René Auguste vary greatly. This is not an especially important point, but it is interesting to note that some authorities say he was born in 1739,3 some say 1750,4 but the generally accepted year seems to be 1749.5

Auguste [the René was soon dropped] Choteau was joined by his half-brother, Pierre, in directing the family fortunes. Another pair of brothers, sons of Pierre the elder, carried on the work begun by the earlier pair. These younger brothers were Auguste Pierre and Pierre Choteau Jr., known to his family as "Cadet."6 These four men were ably assisted by many others, related to them by blood or marriage. A brief survey of some of these connections will help us to understand the family history.

Page 787

Auguste Choteau married Marie Therése, daughter of Gabriel Cerré, a fur trader who had moved from Kaskaskia to St. Louis. Auguste Choteau had a son, Augustus Aristide Chouteau.7 Pierre Chouteau the Elder is described as the younger half-brother of Auguste.8 Since Auguste's mother was living and since Pierre Laclède Liguest was step-father to Auguste at the time of the establishment of St. Louis, we may surmise that the little half-brother was the son of Pierre Laclède Liguest, although he was called "Chouteau." This theory is strengthened by references to Pierre Chouteau Jr. as a grandson of Liguest.9

Pierre Chouteau the Elder, so called, was the father of several sons. Auguste Pierre, Pierre Jr., and Paul Liguest are reputed to be his sons by one marriage.10 By another union he was the father of Cyprian11 and Louis Pharamond.12 Francis and Frederick Chouteau, who were part Osage, were probably his sons. Pierre Chouteau Jr. became a great merchant prince, probably the best known of the dynasty.

Auguste and Pierre Chouteau Sr. had a sister who married Sylvester L'Abbadie, also interested in the fur trade. Their daughter, Emilie, was married in 1794 to Bernard Pratte, another fur trader. Bernard Pratte Jr., offspring of this union, made the third generation in this direct line to enter the fur business.13 Sophie L'Abbadie, sister of Emilie, married her cousin Auguste Pierre Chouteau.14 Later in life, A. P. Chouteau married an Osage girl, called Rosalie, and by her had several children.15

Pierre Chouteau Jr. married Emily Gratiot and her sister married Jean Pierre Cabanné, a trader associated with the Chouteau company. Charles P. Chouteau was the son of Pierre and he in turn had a son Pierre Jr., to whom we are entitled for much knowledge about this interesting family.16 Paul Ligueste Chouteau, brother of Pierre Chouteau Jr., was succeeded by a son, Edward L. Chouteau.

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The first recorded step toward founding this commercial empire in the west was taken in the latter part of 1763 when an expedition sponsored by Maxent, Laclède and Co. sailed from New Orleans up to Ft. Chartres. Here their supplies were stored for the winter. Laclède, the leader of the group, and his young stepson went on up the river looking for a desirable spot on which to build a trading post. In December, 1763, they decided upon a point near the mouth of the Missouri river. Then they returned to Ft. Chartres to await the coming of milder weather.17 During the months of waiting, men were recruited from Ft. Chartres, Cahokia, and Ste. Genevieve and on February 15, 1764, about thirty of these men were sent across the river to clear the land for the new post. In spite of his youth, Auguste Chouteau was put in command of these men.18 Young Chouteau was then hardly fourteen years old but the Chouteau men, like many other pioneer youths, have been able to assume responsibility at an early age.

Numerous trees were growing on the site of the new post. Under Chouteau's direction these were felled and from them were built the first houses where St. Louis now stands. In April, Laclède brought a stock of goods and joined the pioneers at the post. Laclède named the place St. Louis, in honor of Louis IX, the canonized former king of France.l9 For some years, however, the nickname Pain-court (short [loaf of] bread) was in more common use. It may have described the scarcity of provisions during the first year.20

The settlement at St. Louis had probably been made more than a year before news of the cession of this territory to Spain reached the little outpost. During this year a number of other proud Creole families had come from New Orleans. There ensued several years of friction between them and the Spanish authorities.

Laclède and Chouteau began at once the two-fold policy of expansion which led to the supremacy of their trading company. The objectives of this policy were, first, to win the confidence and allegiance of the Indians, their principal customers, and, second, to improve the physical conditions of their headquarters post.

Page 789

Auguste Chouteau began to form friendships with the Indians, friendships which were to be followed by many others between the Chouteau family and Indians. He began to build up a reputation for integrity and wisdom which was to make the Chouteau name symbolical of leadership among both red men and white on the frontier.

Laclède devoted some time to establishing an estate for his family in St. Louis. He built an imposing house surrounded by a masonry wall with loop holes and guard towers. He dammed a stream which ran through his estate and there built a gristmill. He supervised the construction of other buildings in the post and took an active part in the fur trade. But he did not live to enjoy for many years the fruits of his labors. In 1778 he died at Arkansas Post.

For nearly forty years the activities of the Chouteau family were directed by Auguste and Pierre Chouteau Sr. After Laclède's death, his St. Louis estate was bought by Auguste Chouteau, who retained it until his own death in 1829.21 Chouteau enlarged the dam, making quite a lake.22 He built a larger mill and took further steps toward fortification. Pierre Chouteau Sr. established an estate in St. Louis, also. An air of feudalism clung to these pretentious homes on the edge of the frontier. Here was born the other pair of brothers who were to hold sway over the trading interests of the Chouteaus. Auguste Pierre was born on May 9, 1786, and Pierre Jr. on January 19, 1789.

By 1769 Auguste Chouteau's influence over the Osages was recognized as is shown by a letter of that year written to him by De Villemont complaining of some depredations committed on the latter's property by some Osages.23 Between 1765 and 1803 the Spaniards made various attempts to hold the Indians in check. Don Francisco Cruzat ordered Chouteau to make plans for better protection of St. Louis and in 1781 this was done.24 In 1794 Auguste Chouteau proposed to the Spanish official, Carondelet, that he would build a fort as a protection from the Osages in return for the grant of a mon-

Page 790

opoly on the Osage trade. Since the proposition required no expenditure of money on the part of the Spanish, Carondelet agreed. Choteau erected the fort at Halley's Bluff in Missouri and named it Ft. Carondelet.25 His half-brother Pierre was left in charge. For eight years the Chouteaus held the monopoly on the Indian trade along the Osage and the Missouri rivers but in 1802 Spain gave the monoply to Manuel Lisa.26 At this point, the Chouteau influence with the Osages proved its worth. A large band of the Osages moved to the "Three Forks" in Arkansas Territory27 where Pierre Chouteau had a license to trade. Clermont was the leader of this band.

When Louisiana Territory was sold to the United States there was considerable unrest among the leading French Creoles. They resented being handed to Spain and then to the United States without their own wishes being consulted. Thomas Jefferson had lived long enough on the edge of the frontier to appreciate this situation. He immediately set about conciliating the Creole leaders. In the summer of 1804 he appointed four young men from this group to the newly established military academy at West Point. A. P. Chouteau, Charles Gratiot, Louis Lorimer Jr., and Pascal Vincent Bouis were the ones so honored. At the same time Jefferson appointed Pierre Chouteau United States Indian Agent for upper Louisiana.28

A. P. Chouteau was graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1806 with the rank of ensign in the United States Infantry. He served for a little while as aidede-camp on the staff of General James Wilkinson. In 1807 he commanded a trading expedition up the Missouri river accompanied by a military unit under Nathaniel Pryor. At this time young Chouteau was twenty-one years old. This Chouteau-Pryor expedition was a direct outgrowth of the one led by Lewis and Clark. Pryor was attempting to escort safely home the Mandan chief, Shahaka, who had visited Washington

Page 791


Page 792

at the request of the president and Lewis and Clark.29 Pryor's purpose was defeated by the active hostility of the Sioux Indians, but two years later Shahaka was safely returned to his people by an escort led by Pierre Chouteau Jr. who was then twenty years old.30 Thus by 1810 we see the younger Chouteau brothers taking an active part in family affairs but the older brothers are important factors for nearly two more decades.

That the Chouteau fur trade was extensive by 1807 is shown by old Chicago records of that year showing the vast numbers of pelts which Auguste Chouteau had transported between Mt. Joliet and Chicago during the year.31 In 1809 the Missouri Fur Company was organized at St. Louis by William Clark, Reuben Lewis, Manuel Lisa,32 the Chouteau brothers, and Andrew Henry. This company continued to exist under various heads until 1830.33 Pierre Chouteau Jr. did not affiliate with this company for some time. In 1813 he and Bartholomew Berthold formed a partnership for fur trading. They remained independent until bought out by the American Fur Company with Pierre Chouteau Jr. as local manager.34 Pierre Chouteau Jr. was one of the greatest fur traders of his day. He was largely responsible for establishing many trading posts throughout the Missouri and Mississippi valleys. When John Jacob Astor disposed of his southern holdings they were purchased by Chouteau.35 Other business associates of Pierre Chouteau Jr. were Gen. Pratte, Cabbané, MacKenzie, Laidlaw and Lamont.36

Fur trading was the principal, but not the only, business interest of the Chouteaus. Pierre Chouteau Jr. spent the years from 1806 to 1808 at the lead mines of Julian Dubuque.37 About two years later Dubuque died and we find Auguste Chouteau settling the estate and advertising for sale the mining rights in the "Saukee and Fox" nations held by the

Page 793

late M. Dubuque.38 The first distillery in St. Louis was established by Auguste Chouteau. A large land grant from the Spanish crown is said to have given him financial help in this enterprise.39 Auguste Chouteau was also president of the Bank of Missouri when it was organized in 1817.40

Laclède and the elder Chouteau brothers had established the business of fur trading for the family. It remained for the younger brothers to expand it. They found their efforts at expansion hampered, not by lack of clients, nor by lack of products, but by lack of adequate transportation facilities.

A. P. Chouteau and Jules de Munn tried to extend the Chouteau trading territory into the upper Platte and Arkansas river valleys and overland to Santa Fe. Early in 1815 Chouteau's party was returning east, well loaded with pelts from the mountains, when they were attacked by about two-hundred Indians.41 Chouteau was forced to take refuge on an island in the Arkansas near the present site of Ft. Dodge, Kansas. This place since has been called Chouteau's Island.42 Later the same year the partners decided to try their luck with an overland trade expedition to Santa Fe. To sketch that story briefly, they were captured by the Spaniards who said they had no right to be trading in that Territory, they were put into prison in Santa Fe, subjected to many indignities but no bodily harm, and all their goods were confiscated.43 These were valued at $30,380.74, according to a letter written by Julius de Munn to Gov. Wm. Clark of Missouri Territory. This letter is dated November 25, 1817.44 After many years of litigation the claims of De Munn and Chouteau were settled in 1850. A. P. Chouteau had then been dead twelve years, but his partner had been dead only seven years. This ill-fated expedition ended efforts to establish an overland trading route to Santa Fe until after 1821.

About 1820 A. P. Chouteau took charge of the family trading post on the Saline and made that his home for the rest of his life. He also had a post near the lower falls of the

Page 794

Verdigris. Washington Irving describes in some detail his stop at this place which he refers to as the Osage Agency.46 Chouteau's life on the Saline is one of the most romantic chapters in the annals of the family and we shall hear more about it when we take up the relations between the Chouteaus and the Indians.

Pierre Chouteau Jr. was the first family patron of steamboat transportation. Between 1809 and 1832 he made many trips up the upper Missouri and its branches, using pirogues, canoes and other primitive boats. He early saw the advantages of steam boat navigation in the western rivers and in 1830 caused the Yellowstone to be built at Louisville.47 This ship left St. Louis on April 16, 1831, for its maiden voyage, which ended at the mouth of Bad River in South Dakotah on June 19. This vessel was the first of a large fleet, which, for the next thirty years, plied the waters of the northwest in the interest of the Chouteau fur trade.48

Success, and sometimes tragedy, followed this fleet. In 1837 the St. Peter, owned by Pierre Chouteau and Peter Sarpy, was the unfortunate boat on which a smallpox epidemic broke out and from which the terrible epidemic spread so devastatingly among the Mandans.49 Pierre Chouteau sent runners ahead to warn the Indians and worked desperately to prevent the spread of the disease but, in spite of his precautions, one Mandan group was reduced from a population of 1700 to 31. Charles P. Chouteau inherited his father's interest in water ways and river navigation. For many years he was master of various ships engaged in the Missouri trade. One of his best known vessels was the Spread Eagle, the vessel on which Father De Smet made several interesting voyages during the years between 1857 and 1863.

We have traced briefly the fur trading achievements of the Chouteaus over a period of one-hundred years. During

Page 795

these years many forts and trading posts were established in the interest of their enterprises. Before leaving this phase of our subject we shall mention some of these posts. There seem to have been more than twenty-five of these posts established. We have already mentioned Ft. Carondelet which was built during Spanish rule in St. Louis. In 1802 Clermont's Osage band moved to the vicinity of the "Three Forks" in Arkansas Territory and here a post was set up. About 1806 Pierre Chouteau is reported in the Grand Osage post near the present Kansas-Missouri line.50 Ft. Osage was built in 1808 at the request of the Indians and the federal government,51 and in the following year Ft. Mandan was established when the trading company returned the Mandan chief, Shahaka, to his people.52

St. Louis is not the only great Missouri city which can point to the Chouteaus as its founders. In 1821 Chouteau's Warehouse was built near the junction of the Kansas and Missouri rivers and five years later was moved a few miles to a more favorable location, which is the site of the present Kansas City. Francis or Francois Chouteau was the first manager of this post. Frederick Chouteau's post in the present Douglas county, Kansas, was moved in 1830 to the site of the present Valencia, on Mission Creek.53 Ft. Union was built in 1828 by Kenneth MacKenzie, then in command of the upper division of the American Fur Company.54 George Catlin refers to Ft. Union, the Chouteau establishment at the mouth of the Yellowstone. He was a guest at this fort in 1832 and has given us the following description of it:

"The American Fur Company have a post here, a substantial fort, 300 feet square with bastions and ordnance—we approached under continued roar of cannon for one-half hour."55

It is interesting to note what stocks of goods were ordered for the post at Ft. Union in 1840 by Pierre Chouteau.

"6000 pairs French Blankets
  300 North West English guns

Page 796

  300 dozen butcher knives
9000 pounds of blue and white chalk beads
  500 pounds of 'Pigeon Egg Beads'
A Quantity of English cloth."56

Beginning about 1828, Cyprian Chouteau had a post, among the Shawnees and Delawares, on the Kansas river opposite the present site of Muncie. In 1842 Fremont's expedition started out from that point.57 In fact, the Chouteau posts contributed a great deal to the opening up of this new territory, by acting as a supply depot for caravans and expeditions going farther west.

The Chouteau posts on the Saline and the Verdigris were about thirty-five miles apart and it was in this locality, as we have seen, that A. P. Chouteau spent the last twenty years of his life. His Osage family made their home at the estate on the Saline. During enforced absences of Chouteau at the Agency on the Verdigris, affairs on the Saline were left in charge of his cousin, P. Milicour Papin, as is shown in a correspondence carried on between these two in the years 1820 to 1825.58

On the upper Missouri river the Chouteaus built Ft. Tecumseh which was destroyed by floods. In 1831 and 1832 they replaced this fort with Ft. Pierre erected a few miles above its predecessor. This second fort was named in honor of Pierre Chouteau Jr. who christened it in the summer of 1832. In 1855 this fortification was sold to the United States government for use in the Sioux wars. In 1859 the fur company erected new Ft. Pierre, near the present city of Pierre, S. D. This was abandoned in 1863 and the company's goods moved to Ft. Sully, a government post.59

In 1835 Camp Holmes on the Canadian was set up for trading but in 1837 the equipment there was moved to Chouteau Springs60 near the present town of Purcell, Oklahoma. In addition to the forts and trading posts which we have already mentioned in connection with the Chouteau commercial interests, we find Forts Sarpy, Benton, Berthold and Lisa.

As we have already seen, the Chouteaus were people of

Page 797

considerable versatility and had outstanding ability in commercial enterprises. They built towns, erected forts, instituted new systems of transportation, and they created great fortunes. But this shows us only one side of their character. They were also skilled in diplomacy. Not only did they use this talent in dealing with the Indians, but they associated with many leading white men of their day. This other side of the Chouteau history will form the subject of our next paper.

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