Kansas History: a journal of the Central Plains, Summer 2002, 25 # 2: 168
Reviewed by William E. Lass, professor of history (emeritus), Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois and Berenice Chouteau
by Dorothy Brandt Marra, translated by Marie-Laure Dionne Pal, ed. by David Boutros
xiii + 304 pages, appendixes, notes, bibliography, illustrations, index.
Kansas City, Mo.: Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City, 2001, paper $24.95.
From 1821 to his death in 1838, Francois Chouteau managed various fur trading posts near the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. His business was essential to the foundation of Kansas City, Missouri. Francois, the son of Pierre Chouteau Sr. and the half-brother of the famous Pierre Chouteau Jr., often worked cooperatively with his St. Louis kin. But he also had a close business association with his father-in-law Pierre Menard, the “Cher Oncle, Cher Papa” of this work.
Menard, a prominent Kaskaskia, Illinois, merchant, who also served as the first lieutenant governor of Illinois, had a longstanding interest in the Missouri River fur trade. As Marra emphasizes, business alliances of the old French families were customarily reinforced by family ties. Thus, Menard was more than a father-in-law to Francois. Menard’s second wife was the half-sister of Francois’ mother. Berenice Menard, Who married Francois in 1819, was a daughter of Pierre Menard and his first wife. The marriage of Berenice and Francois seems to have resulted from the social relationship of the Chouteau and Menard families. Francois’s letters to Menard emphasized business affairs and allied matters. They contained information about the costs of trade goods, steamboat transportation from St. Louis, rival traders, the federal government’s Indian service, and relations with various Indian tribes of eastern Kansas. Berenice, however, wrote primarily about such personal matters as the health of her children and family tragedies.
Since most of Francois’s trade was with Indians living west of Kansas City, his career coincided with the removal of tribes from north of the Ohio River to present eastern Kansas. Although the relocated native peoples were partially supported by the federal government, they also traded animal hides (primarily deerskins) to private traders. Some traders such as Chouteau also served periodically as the contract suppliers of government annuities. This involved aspect of Indian relations should prove to be of particular interest to anyone concerned with Kansas’s era as an “Indian Frontier.”
Marra’s perceptive and well-researched commentary on the Chouteaus’ letters ably explains the transition of the frontier in the Kansas City area. Initially, Francois Chouteau managed a fur trade outpost in lands still controlled by the indigenous tribes. But during his career, such new factors as Indian land cessions, relocation of many tribes and the Santa Fe trade, transformed Kansas City into a significant base for American expansion beyond the Missouri. As an outfitting point for freighters, adventurers, settlers, and missionaries, the town’s business became diversified. Chouteau himself adjusted to the new environment by expanding into farming, money lending, and steamboating.
By the time of Chouteau’s death, the rapid infusion of Anglo Americans had effectively closed the French period of Kansas City’s history. Coincidentally, the city’s heavy dependence on the fur trade had ended. Since Francois Chouteau dominated the first phase of Kansas City’s history, Marra makes a strong case for him being considered the city’s founder.
This work will be of greatest pertinence to those interested in the history of Kansas City and its adjoining hinterland. But it also is highly recommended for a broader audience. Its significant insights into the fur trade and the evolving frontier should benefit anyone concerned with America’s westward expansion.