Shirley Christian and the Choteaus: Before Lewis & Clark

Written by Brad Tennant, Associate Professor of History at Presentation College

In September 2017, the community of Fort Pierre will celebrate 200 years of Euro-American settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Bad Rivers.

Of course, the area has not been home to its namesake fur trading post all of that time; rather, the region has been the site of several notable trading posts such as Joseph LaFramboise’s Fort LaFramboise, the Columbia Fur Company’s Fort Tecumseh, and eventually Fort Pierre Chouteau. Named for Pierre Chouteau, Jr., the trading post soon became an integral part of the operations for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.

In addition to numerous explorers and fur traders who visited at least one of the early 19th century fur trading posts located in the area, such famed artists as George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and John James Audubon captured images of post activities, the landscape, wildlife, and impact of the early fur trade on the native populations.

In short, the history of the Fort Pierre area is an important part of not only South Dakota history, but the history of the American West. It is actually a story that begins much earlier with the founding of St. Louis and the role of the Chouteau family whose influence extended great distances and over several generations.

As part of the Pulitzer Prize Campfires Initiative, the Presentation College American Studies program, through the South Dakota Humanities Council, is excited to host former Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Shirley Christian to the Presentation College campus for two presentations on Tuesday, Sept. 20. In the afternoon, Christian will give a presentation on her career as a journalist to area high school and college/university students as well as the general public.

02-Christian, Shirley - Before L&C 3.jpgIn 1981, she received the Pulitzer for her work about the conflicts occurring in Central America at the time. As a journalist, her articles appeared in the Miami Herald, for whom she wrote at the time of receiving her Pulitzer, and a variety of magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. In the evening, Christian will give a public presentation to discuss her popular book Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty that Ruled America’s Frontier (2004).

Although the title, Before Lewis and Clark, might make one think that the subject of her book is set entirely before the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, the book covers a variety of individuals, time periods and notable events that readers will find interesting.

For starters, while the emphasis is obviously on the Chouteau family, it becomes apparent early in the work that Pierre Laclede Liguest, or simply Laclede, rightfully deserves a great deal of attention and credit whether one is interested in the early stages of development in what became St. Louis, the early political and economic ties with Indian nations such as the Osage, or as the de facto patriarch of the Chouteau family as surrogate and biological father to Auguste and Pierre Chouteau respectively. Christian’s handling of Laclede’s influence and role in the Chouteau dynasty is thorough, and it will reinforce details about the man’s life for those who already know about him and entice those who do not into learning more.

Laclede did not live to see St. Louis come under American jurisdiction, but he did experience the shift in political authority over Louisiana from the French to the Spanish.

In contrast, half-brothers Auguste and Pierre Chouteau experienced the changes in the political control over the region, along with the resulting political challenges it presented, as it went from the French to the Spanish, back to the French, and finally to American jurisdiction. Throughout these shifts, the Chouteaus continued to epitomize how well the French were able to live in relative harmony with the Indian populations - a characteristic that proved key to the success of the Chouteau family.

For instance, in the case of the Osage nation, Christian stated that “the frustrated United States government would find itself endlessly turning to them [the Chouteaus], as the Osages’ best white friends, for help and guidance.”

Furthermore, as her title reflects, before Lewis and Clark, it was Laclede, the Chouteaus, and those with whom they became associated in the fur trade who led the way as explorers of the river systems found throughout the heart of North America. In addition, Laclede and the Chouteaus established friendly Indian relations that remained unmatched in their overall success.

In late May 1778, Laclede passed away as he was ascending the Mississippi River from New Orleans. However, August and Pierre, 28 and 20 years of age respectively, had been well-prepared to pick up where Laclede left off. Auguste oversaw the family interests from St. Louis, while Pierre maintained a strong presence and influence among the Indian nations in the area, primarily among the Osage.

For those interested in the early fur trade among the Upper Missouri valley, Christian’s book includes a good overview of the Spanish Missouri Company and agent Jean Baptiste Truteau, who led a small expedition through present-day South Dakota up to the Arikara villages despite encountering the notorious Tetonwan Lakota (i.e., Teton Sioux) along the way.

Truteau’s 1794-1796 experiences would later be shared with Lewis and Clark while they were in St. Louis preparing for their own expedition, during which time the Chouteaus often served as their hosts.

Although it is difficult to anticipate what Shirley Christian will discuss during her presentation on the Chouteaus, it is important to note that her book covers a variety of topics that readers will find interesting.

For example, Christian addresses the competitive nature of the fur trade between the Chouteaus and Manuel Lisa, and in doing so, she creates the impression that Lisa often did whatever it took to advance his personal interests even if they came at the expense of others, such as the Chouteaus.

Likewise, Christian includes details about John Jacob Astor, the Louisiana Purchase, and, yes, even Lewis and Clark. The concerns over regulating liquor as a trade good with the Indian nations and the treasonous actions of General James Wilkinson also provide ample opportunities for discussion during her September presentation.

Auguste Chouteau led a long life dying in 1829 at the age of 78 and likely the wealthiest person in St. Louis at the time. Meanwhile, his half-brother Pierre’s two oldest sons, Auguste Pierre and Pierre, Jr. continued the family’s prominent role in the fur trade.

In 1831, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and nearly 100 other men left St. Louis aboard the Yellow Stone, the first steamboat to make its way to Fort Tecumseh near the confluence of the Bad and Missouri Rivers. When the Yellow Stone reached Fort Tecumseh in the latter part of June 1831, Pierre, Jr. noted the poor condition of the trading post and ordered a new post to be constructed. During 1832-1833, the American Fur Company built its new fur trading post, which was named Fort Pierre Chouteau for Pierre Chouteau, Jr.

The Fort Pierre community has had Euro-American inhabitants dating back to 1817. As such, a number of bicentennial activities are currently being planned for September 2017.

For those who plan on attending any of the events or who simply want to learn more about the significance of the Chouteau family, Shirley Christian’s Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty that Ruled America’s Frontier is highly recommended. 

Brad tennant.JPGDr. Brad Tennant is an Associate Professor of History at Presentation College in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In addition to his teaching assignments, Tennant is an active researcher, writer, and presenter on a variety of state and regional topics. Effective April 2011, Governor Dennis Daugaard reappointed Dr. Tennant to the Board of Trustees of the South Dakota State Historical Society, where he currently serves as the president of the Board. He is also a member of several other national, state, and local historical organizations and serves as the Director of Presentation College's Wein Gallery.