Letters offer glimpse into Chouteaus
Author and editor frame KC
settlers through writings
Author: MONROE DODD; The Kansas City StarEdition: METROPOLITAN
Estimated printed pages: 5Article Text:
No portrait, sketch, photo or other likeness exists of Francois or Berenice Chouteau, founders of the settlement that became Kansas City. For decades, little was known of their story beyond a hazy mix of old settlers' memories and latter-day speculation.Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois and Berenice Chouteau fills the gap. Using correspondence sent by the frontier merchant and his wife to their relatives from 1827 to 1840, this study casts light on the people of that community and their stressful times.
Most of the letters are from Francois Chouteau to his father-in-law and business associate, Pierre Menard. Menard was a prominent merchant and politician in southern Illinois; it was the discovery of Francois' and Berenice's correspondence with him that led to this volume. (It is part of the respectful attitude Francois held toward Menard that he addresses him as cher oncle - "dear uncle.")Yet the scores of letters published here are just the starting point. Author Dorothy Brandt Marra and editor David Boutros enrich the businesslike prose that dominates the letters with background about the people who carried on the fur trade of the Missouri Valley.
Francois was not the first trader of European descent to do business in this area but, as Marra points out, he stayed the course. He established his business, built a home and with Berenice raised a family here.By turns, Francois showed optimism, determination and frustration - at his fellow French-speaking settlers, at the Indian tribes on whose trapping and hunting skill and productivity his business depends, and on the newly arrived English-speaking Americans, whose business practices he sometimes detested. He and Berenice also faced a constant struggle with natural forces, including diseases such as cholera.
The 78 letters on which Cher Oncle is based were written with pen and ink in an idiomatic French that sometimes perplexed translators trained in the Parisian version of the language. Indeed, only after a translator whose first language was Canadian French joined the project could many of the letters' hurdles be overcome. The Chouteaus spelled many names phonetically, used little punctuation beyond occasional dashes and rarely paragraphed.Francois' primary job was to act as frontier agent for his Chouteau relatives in St. Louis, western fur traders of the first order and by the late 1820s representatives of the powerful American fur company and also for his father-in-law in Illinois.
But within that definition lay room for independent action. Francois negotiated with Indian tribes to keep them delivering pelts. He managed employees so those pelts would be prepared for shipment east to European markets. And he bought land and collected debts - often on behalf of kin but sometimes in his own interest. He acted as merchant and banker for local settlers, French or English-speaking.Frontier business practices were little standardized. The weather, river levels and reliability of various tribes shifted constantly. So did Francois' relationship with U.S. government agents who could help him, ignore him or impede him. Those shifts affected Francois' ability to gather and ship furs.
In the early 1820s he erected his first shipping and trading warehouse on the north side of the Missouri River at Randolph Bluffs - just west of today's Chouteau Bridge. In spring 1826 a flood swept away the warehouse and the rest of his settlement. By autumn of that year Francois had rebuilt, this time on the south bank, probably near the foot of today's Harrison Street. Francois' world of commerce, the authors say, was "as stressful and unforgiving as any" since.Berenice Chouteau was tall, strong, resolute. Because of her upbringing in Illinois, she was accustomed enough to life on the frontier that she was willing to accompany her husband to settle an outpost in the midst of wilderness. The trip alone was daunting, by keelboat pushed by long poles against the bottom or tugged by ropes from the banks of a swiftly flowing, snag-filled, mosquito-laden Missouri River.
Once in their new settlement, life was chancy. Four of the nine children born to Berenice and Francois died in infancy. Cholera struck in many years. Each summer was accompanied by unspecified fevers. Medical care was questionable."I can assure you that in this country, when you have a lot of illness," Francois wrote in 1835, "it is very risky to be in the hands of the doctors who are here."
References in the letters are obscure and misleading to a modern reader; Cher Oncle overcomes obstacles with research and logic.One example: Francois writes of dealings with "Loup Indians." Most students of the West understand that to mean a group of Pawnees from the Loup Fork of the Republican River in Nebraska - about 200 miles from the hub of Chouteau operations, making them unlikely trading partners. Who were these "Loups"?
The researchers for Cher Oncle found references in later letters to a "Loup" village 25 miles from Fort Leavenworth. They determined that the agent dealing with these "Loups" had no authority over Pawnees and reasoned that the frequent references to these Indians must have meant that they were nearby.Finally, they explain, "Loup" is French for "wolf," the totemic animal of a subtribe of Delaware called the "Minsi," which not only settled in this vicinity but also gave its name to the community of Muncie, now part of Kansas City, Kan. Most likely, then, these "Loups" were Delawares.
Despite the new understanding these letters provide, parts of Francois Chouteau's life remain a mystery. Among them is his death. It occurred April 18, 1838, when he was 41, yet there is no official record of a cause.Joseph Chick, son of the early day merchant William Chick, told an interviewer in 1908 that Francois "died suddenly while down on the river bank watching some cattle swim across the slew." Letters written by Francois in 1833 and 1834 contained complaints of chest pains and weakness, and these hint that he died of a heart attack. The slew, or slough, probably was that part of the Missouri that flowed between the south bank and a mid-river island where cattle often grazed.
After burying her husband in St. Louis, Berenice Chouteau returned to western Missouri, where in 1844 the biggest flood in recorded history washed away the Chouteau warehouse and home, and with it all Berenice's possessions. After the flood, American immigrants from Kentucky and Tennessee settled the area; many of the French-speaking community headed west or southwest.Yet with money from sale of the Chouteau farmland, Berenice built a new home. In 1860, probably because of dangers created by border warfare over slavery, she moved to Ste. Genevieve. A decade later she was back in Kansas City with her son, Pierre Menard Chouteau, and his family. In 1888 she died at 87. Her body was returned to St. Louis for burial next to Francois.
Cher Oncle is straightforward but not always easy sailing. The browser will appreciate the full explanation provided with each letter; the front-to-back reader may find it a bit repetitious.Yet this is no historical novel, staged to transport the reader to a stunning climax. This is real life, exciting at times, humdrum at times. The Chouteaus' lives are spent like our own - only with more physical difficulty attending every task.
Meet the editorDavid Boutros, editor of Cher Oncle, Cher Papa, will sign and discuss the book at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Shawnee Indian Mission Historic Site, 3403 W. 53rd St. in Fairway. (913) 262-0867.
Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois and Berenice Chouteau, by Dorothy Brandt Marra; translated by Marie-Laure Dionne Pal and edited by David Boutros (320 pages; Western Historical Manuscript Collection; $24.95)Caption:
Copyright 2002 The Kansas City Star Co.
Record Number: 10159571