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The Chouteaus: First Family of the Fur Trade

Author(s):Hoig, Stan
Reviewer(s):Fender, Ann Harper

Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

Stan Hoig, The Chouteaus: First Family of the Fur Trade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. xi + 337 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8263-4347-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ann Harper Fender, Department of Economics, Gettysburg College.

As befits a Professor Emeritus of Journalism (University of Central Oklahoma), Hoig provides in impressive detail the who, what, where, and when of his book?s title. The who are the Chouteaus, the founding family of St. Louis. Hoig explains that the Chouteau name erroneously gets credit (or blame) for the family?s deeds. Marie Bourgeois married Rene Auguste Chouteau around 1749 in New Orleans. After the birth of son Auguste, Rene returned to his native France, abandoning his North American family. Marie a few years later began cohabiting with Pierre de Laclede Liguest (known as Laclede); together they had three children. Although Laclede proved a steady, loving father to his biological children and to his adopted stepson, all the children were known by their mother?s married name, Chouteau. The French Creole Chouteaus (Lacledes) were prolific, with six to eleven children common. They stuck with a few names and keeping track gets confusing quickly. Hoig fortunately includes a genealogical table, which also starkly indicates the era?s child mortality rate.

The what, where, and when cover this family?s involvement in the fur trade and related activities from the family?s North American origins c. 1750 to the mid-1860s, when the Chouteaus had become a leading St. Louis family. Shortly after the French turned the Louisiana Territory over to the Spanish in 1764, Laclede received a Spanish license for trading up the Mississippi River. He and his stepson established a trading post in a place they named St. Louis. That trade was substantial, eventually reaching up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone and its tributaries, and also to the west and south through Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. That trade triggered exploration and transportation developments, notably the use of steamboats on the upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. It provided financial capital for other business activities.

Hoig gives brief histories of an amazing number of Chouteaus, but focuses on the activities of Auguste and his step-brother Pierre, and two of Pierre?s sons, Auguste Pierre (A.P.) and Pierre, Jr. (Cadet). Although both Auguste and Pierre spent time in the field, Auguste specialized in the St. Louis based portion of operations, while Pierre was actively involved in fur trading. Similarly, A.P. spent most of his career carrying out the trade while Cadet?s activities centered on St. Louis and New York. A.P. and Cadet had separate companies, but their activities intertwined.

The Chouteau?s fur trade activities coincided with the confusing transfer of Spanish Louisiana Territory to France, and shortly thereafter from France to the U.S. in 1803. Because the agreement between Spain and France prohibited the latter from selling the territory, the Spanish did not recognize the Louisiana Purchase. A.P. became ensnarled in this dispute when he was arrested and imprisoned for a few months by the Spanish for trading within disputed territory. The Chouteaus took this country shifting in stride, however, proclaiming allegiance to the U.S. after 1803. As acknowledged white experts on the geography and Indian tribes west of the Mississippi, they provided information, advice, and hospitality to many distinguished visitors to St. Louis, including Lewis and Clark.

A.P. lived many years in Indian country with Osage wife and children, while his Creole family lived in St. Louis. He witnessed many problems created by resettlement of eastern Indian tribes into the territories of the Osage and other tribes. He also witnessed conflicts among Prairie tribes. Sympathetic to the plight of the Indians, A.P. often mediated among the warring factions. The U.S. government sought his and his Chouteau relatives? language skills and close familial and friendship ties with the natives for help in negotiating treaties with the Indians.

Despite A.P.?s field experience and contacts, he was not successful in business, eventually going bankrupt. In contrast his brother Pierre, Jr. (Cadet) became the richest man in St. Louis. He ran the American Fur Trade Company?s Western Department, amalgamating it into his own company upon J.J. Astor?s retirement. He was entrepreneurial in the fur trade, introducing the use of the steamboat up the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers and their tributaries. Cadet followed his father in diversifying his economic interests. He and his brothers found it increasingly difficult to trade for furs with the tribes in the Missouri/Kansas/Oklahoma area. Crowding among the tribes and encroaching white settlement depleted fur sources; warfare interfered with trapping. The trade in this area had been in deerskins and buffalo robes and tongues. The mountains above the upper Missouri and Yellowstone and their sources continued to provide lush furs, but demand was falling. Cadet?s firm, as had his brothers?, increasingly provided trade goods in exchange for the annuity payments paid by the U.S. government as part of treaty settlements. As miners and settlers moved west, Cadet supplied them. The Civil War dislocated the fur trade, but created provisioning of government troops. The diversion of troops for the Indian wars in the mid-1860s and thereafter created additional demand for the Chouteau family?s transportation and provisioning services, even though their Missouri home and slaveholding past led some to question their loyalty to the Union.

Hoig?s earlier work on Oklahoma and Kansas history and on the Plains Indian wars perhaps led him to the Chouteau family history. This book is information oriented, not hypothesis driven. Hoig supplements the text with appendices on Chouteau fur trade posts, on Indian treaties with which the Chouteaus were involved, and on the women of the Chouteau family. The last chapter does offer an evaluation of the family?s contributions; the author seems apologetic about the Chouteau?s interest in making profits, but argues that they did much good despite this orientation. For a reader only familiar in passing with the history of the Missouri River trade, the book offers information about this burgeoning region of the U.S. From a fur trading post of a few buildings in 1764, St. Louis grew to a population of 310,000 by the end of the Civil War, bigger than Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, and Cincinnati. It was a massive gateway to the west, especially when wagons and steamboats provided the route to that west. Hoig?s story of its founders is both important and interesting.

Ann Harper Fender?s latest manuscript is ?Games Played by the HBC and the NWC: What Kind Did They Play and Why Did They End?? about the competition between the two companies in the Isle a la Crosse region of northern Canada. She is transcribing, editing, and commenting upon the Hudson?s Bay Company journals for that region, 1805-1823. She has also been studying post 1989 telecommunications in Bulgaria, where interesting games have been played too.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century