Missouri Historical Review, July 2003, 97 # 4: 363
Reviewed by Jeff Gall, associate professor of history, Truman State University, Kirksville, MO.
Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois and Berenice Chouteau.
By Dorothy Brandt Marra and Marie-Laure Dionne Pal (Kansas City: Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City, 2001). xiii + 304 pp. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Selected Bibliography. Index. $24.95, paper.
Students of Missouri can readily identify Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau as the founders of St. Louis. Who to honor for a comparable role in Kansas City is less clear, but this book makes a compelling case that such a designation should be given to Francois and Bernice Chouteau. Francois was the grandson of Laclede, and Bernice was the daughter of Pierre Menard, a significant pioneer, politician, and merchant in Kaskaskia, Illinois. Together they brought the family’s fur business to western Missouri in the early 1820’s, ultimately founding “Chouteau Landing.” Francois died in 1838 at age forty-one; Bernice lived on in Kansas City until 1888.
This book is organized around seventy-eight letters from Francois and Bernice to Menard, who acted as Francois’s business partner (all but six are from Francois). The letters are translated and published here for the first time. The title comes from the way the Chouteau’s addressed Menard. The face that Francois use “Oncle” rather that father-in-law speaks to the close relationship that existed between the two men.
After an excellent introduction that puts the family in historical perspective, the author lets the letters drive the narrative. Presented in chronological order, the letters take the reader on a journey to western Missouri during a period when the fur trade rose and fell and when French culture dominated and then quickly disappeared. At first glance the letters appear to be of special interest to students of the business of fur trade. Indeed they give a remarkable picture of what it was like to manage an operation largely dependent on partnerships with Native Americans. Chouteau had to continually build trust with local tribes and encourage them to “hunt” for precious furs. He did this by offering credit and by redeeming the annuities the tribes received from the government. It is fascinating to see how the business became more complex as competition increased with the coming of American traders who did not feel bound by customary licensing and territorial divisions. Francois referred to the most notorious of such traders as “rascals.”
Beyond the fur trade, the author does a superb job of gleaning from these letters a colorful picture of life in early Kansas City. The letters illuminate the hardships of travel, sickness, and facing the lost of children to childhood diseases. One glimpses how the French organized business along family lines and the respect in which the held each other. The reader senses the dependence the settlers had n the environment through the descriptions of brutal winters and dry periods in which river travel was impossible. But the most intriguing part of these letters is how often they mention names and events famous to the history of the state and the nation. The author has done a wonderful job of providing historical context for these characters through meticulous research.
Marra is often solving a very complex puzzle as she brings these letters to life, and she does so remarkably well. The narrative might sometimes go too far in making assumptions about family actions (as in speculating on the reasons one of Francois’s sons wounded his own foot with a hatchet), but such cases are rare. This is outstanding scholarship and a compelling read. The glossary alone makes the book a must addition on Missouri history.