19th-century letters tell of fur trading and the
Correspondence is part of new book on the Chouteaus
Article Text:Her third son had died at only 18 months old.
Her fourth child was expected in about three weeks - that is, if all went well."I am on the verge of delivering, which torments me much," she wrote from St. Louis on Jan. 25, 1827. "Recently, several women in my condition have died."
She had not heard from her husband, an entrepreneur back home near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers - a place still decades away from being called Kansas City.The anxious voice belongs to Berenice Chouteau, wife of fur trader Francois Chouteau and considered one of the Kansas City area's first female European residents.
Until recently, local historians never had encountered Berenice's views because they knew of no existing letters of hers.But area researchers discovered several of her letters in an Illinois archive. They have been translated from French and published in Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois and Berenice Chouteau. The book should be available by early January.
"We felt that it was important to let the voice of these early settlers be heard and then give context to those voices," said David Boutros, the book's editor and associate director of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.Frontier tough
Francois Chouteau was a fur trader, a scion of the Chouteau fur-trading family, which earlier had founded St. Louis. He died of an apparent heart attack in 1838.Berenice would live 50 more years.
She proved as tough as the frontier. In the autumn of 1824, upon the impending delivery of her third child and before the Missouri River froze, she rode a pirogue, or small boat, from western Missouri to St. Louis with a pilot and her two young sons.Berenice wrote her January 1827 letter from St. Louis, where she had returned again for another child's birth. She ultimately had nine children and outlived them all, dying in Kansas City in 1888 at age 87.
The letters in Cher Oncle, Cher Papa refute several myths about the Chouteaus, such as the nature of Francois' death and the precise location of the first Chouteau trading post in what would become the Kansas City area.An initial Chouteau post had been built in 1819 on the Kansas River, near present-day De Soto. Some 19th-century Kansas City historians, such as John Calvin McCoy and J.S. Chick, place the first Kansas City area Chouteau post on the Missouri River's south side.
The authors, however, cite published recollections of Frederick Chouteau, a brother of Francois who worked at the post, that its location was on the river's north side, in Clay County.A flood in 1826 washed out this site. The Chouteaus soon moved to the river's south side, near the foot of present-day Harrison Street.
Second, some historians had wondered whether Francois had died in a stampede of horses. But evidence points more toward a heart attack. Some of Francois' letters from 1833 and 1834 include references to chest pains and weakness. The recollection of one contemporary, as told in a 1908 interview, describes Chouteau dying suddenly on the bank of the Missouri River.It's clear that the fur trade was stressful. In an 1829 letter, Francois describes the sinking of a keelboat near Independence. While almost all of the furs were recovered, three boat hands drowned.
"You can judge of the terrible situation in which I find myself at present and the continual reflection that I make concerning this wretchedness," he wrote. "To sum it up, I am almost discouraged."The book contains 78 letters, 72 belonging to Francois and six to Berenice. They detail the demands and frustrations of the fur trade and, in a cumulative way, debunk a larger assumption that Kansas City was predestined for greatness.
Boosters like McCoy, who platted Westport and chronicled local history in area newspapers, suggested that Kansas City was blessed not only by geography - with its meeting of two rivers - but with the presence of such prominent pioneers as the Chouteaus.The authors demonstrate, though, that however great Kansas City might later become, such greatness was not inevitable. Critical to the prospects of young Kansas City was the complex and demanding work of trading furs with Indian tribes.
"We tend to think of the overland trails as being the impetus for the development of Westport and, to a degree, of Independence and Kansas City," Boutros said. "In fact, the more important trade, at least early on, was the Indian trade."Fur business blossoms
In 1821, the same year Missouri became the 24th state, Francois Chouteau began trading along the Missouri River under a federal government license.Francois and Berenice, with two small children, probably arrived in the Kansas City area in 1822.
Francois managed a branch operation of the Chouteau family fur syndicate based in St. Louis. Traders like Chouteau were sending furs to St. Louis, then to the northeast United States and ultimately to fashion manufacturers in London and Paris.In 1826, John Jacob Astor formed the American Fur Co., and members of the Chouteau family supervised the company's western department.
Members of some tribes from which the Chouteaus acquired furs received regular annuities, or payments, from the federal government, as negotiated in treaties. These annuities hastened trade with merchants such as Francois , who also stocked his warehouses with merchandise such as calico cloth, brassware, tools, knives, guns and powder.Sometimes Francois issued the Indians equipment for their trapping expeditions on credit, later taking payment in annuity money. Other times government agents authorized Francois to distribute the annuities to the Indians in merchandise.
Over time, such trade and exchange drew more and more traffic to the settlement that later became Kansas City.The Chouteau letters recently translated were known in Illinois, but not Kansas City.
In 1989, Dorothy Brandt Marra, then researching the history of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, grew curious about the Chouteaus, who were Catholic. She traced Berenice to her family home in Kaskaskia, Ill., and discovered the prominence of her father, Pierre Menard, a fur trader and Illinois lieutenant governor.The search led to a Menard archive at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield.
The archive held letters from Francois and Berenice. A 1990 donation from the Chouteau Society of Kansas City financed the purchase of the letters on microfilm.The documents, besides being faded and smudged, featured whimsical punctuation and other idiosyncrasies. Francois apparently had the habit of re-inking his pen in the middle of a word.
Marra and Marie-Laure Dionne Pal, a retired area French teacher, worked in two-hour increments, squinting at microfilm and transcribing the text.The book's title refers to how Francois and Berenice would begin their letters. Menard was also related to Francois, since Menard was married to Francois' mother's half-sister.
"These letters open up a whole new picture of what our history is," said Marra, who wrote the book. "We so often tend to start with John McCoy and Westport, and there was just so much more before that."- To reach Brian Burnes, history writer, call (816) 234-7804 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A book expected to be out soon, Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois and Berenice Chouteau, was the work of (clockwise from top) David Boutros, Sylvia D. Mooney, Dorothy Brandt Marra and Marie-Laure Dionne Pal, who held a proof of the book's jacket.
KEITH MYERS/The Kansas City Star