By Jeremy Drouin. Manager, Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
Two decades after Lewis and Clark reached the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas (Kaw) rivers in 1804, French traders settled the area that would become Kansas City’s earliest community. But French presence in the region dates back much further.
Explorer Etienne de Véniard, Sieur de Bourgmont traveled the lower and middle Missouri River in 1713 and documented the expedition in Routte Qu‘il Faut Tenir pour Remonter la Riviѐre de Missoury (Route to Be Taken to Ascend the Missouri River). His detailed account of the waterway, from the mouth at the Mississippi River upstream to the Riviѐre Nebraskier (Platte River), was the first survey of its kind of the Missouri.
Bourgmont oversaw construction of Fort Orleans in 1724, thought to be located near the convergence of the Missouri and the Grand rivers. The fort was a launch point for Bourgmont to lead an expedition to a Kansa village at the mouth of the Kansas River and then venture inland to establish relations with the “Paducas,” or Plains Apache, who were impeding southwest trade routes.
Twenty years later, in 1744, Fort de Cavagnial was built near present-day Leavenworth for the same purpose of protecting French trade interests. It remained until 1764, when the French ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain.
The prized commodity that brought French traders to the area was fur. The Kansa Indians (now the Kaw Nation) were the primary trappers in the region and traded with the French for tools, weapons, and other goods. By establishing outposts in Indian territory and maintaining friendly relations with the Kansa people, the French were able to secure a dominant position in the Middle Missouri River fur trade.
In 1821, a newly married couple, Francois and Bérénice Chouteau, journeyed upriver from St. Louis to establish a trading post east of the Kawsmouth. The Chouteaus were the most prominent and powerful family in St. Louis. Francois’ uncle, René Auguste Chouteau, co-founded the city and was a pioneering fur trader, and his father, Jean Pierre, founded the Missouri Fur Company.
Chouteau chose the location for its proximity to Indian trading partners—the Osage to the south, Kansa to the west, and Sauk, Iowa, and Kickapoo to the north—as well as ease of access to the Kansas, Missouri, and Platte river valleys. The outpost was located at Randolph Point on the north bank of the Missouri River, near the current location of the Chouteau Bridge.
A flood in 1826 forced Chouteau to relocate and rebuild. Because the Osage ceded territory south of the river the year prior, Chouteau secured a more advantageous location at the foot of what is now Harrison Street on the southern bank. Conveniently located near two Indian trails, the new post offered overland trade access with the Osage and Kansa tribes.
Chouteau’s holdings grew to include the river landing, a warehouse and store, and several hundred acres of farmland with livestock. By the 1830s, Chouteau’s Landing, as it came to be known, was a hub for the French-speaking community. The Osage and Kansa referred to the new settlement as Cho-To-To-Wan or Chouteau’s Town.
The earliest settlers were a mix of trappers, traders, merchants, and farmers – some French-born but long removed from their homeland, and others of French-Canadian and Creole descent. A small population of French-Kansa also inhabited the region. Mon-Chonsia (White Plume), the principal Kansa chief, had four French-speaking granddaughters. One of them, Josette, was raised in the home of Francois and Bérénice Chouteau.
An 1825 treaty with the U.S. government relocated the Kansa Nation to a 2-million-acre tract of land west of Topeka. A special concession, however, was given to tribal members of French-Kansa descent, who were awarded plots of land near Lawrence and Topeka along the Kansas River.
The small French settlement founded by the Chouteaus extended from their homestead in the East Bottoms west to the Kansas River. As fur trading waned, many settlers turned to farming for their livelihood and cleared land near the mouth of the Kansas River, an area that became known as the French Bottoms.
Farmland would have likely been plotted in arpents, narrow parcels of land extending inland from the riverbank. This surveying system was commonly used to plot other French settlements along Missouri waterways.
French settlers led a rugged frontier life. To farm the land and build a community, the heavily forested West Bottoms first had to be cleared. The timber was used to construct homes and other buildings.
The Chouteau family operated as bankers and realtors for the budding, yet largely poor, French community. The first parish priest of the fledgling settlement, Father Benedict Le Roux, labeled it Nouveau Vide Poche (New Empty Pocket) upon his arrival in 1833.
In a November 23, 1833, letter titled “From the Mouth of the Kansas,” Father Roux reports to Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis about his progress in creating a parish:
It is in Jackson County that we have most of our Catholics; still their number is very small. We have here only a dozen French families; but they will keep me occupied for some time, as there are many children to baptize and prepare for first communion; the instructions will take up not a little of my time.
Father Roux persisted and purchased 40 acres of land on the bluff tops overlooking the West Bottoms in what is now Quality Hill. There he built a small log church, St. Francis Regis, near the present-day location of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This was a historic move away from the river and over the bluffs—a precursor to the founding of Kansas City.
The French Bottoms community continued to grow in the 1830s. The Chouteau family expanded their warehouse operations, Gabriel Prudhomme opened a store and tavern, and a ferrying business operated by the Rivard family transported customers across the Missouri River.
Although the exact population during this period is unknown, there were at least two dozen French Catholic families by 1840 and many more trappers and traders who resided in the area on a semi-permanent basis. Father Nicolas Point, a Jesuit missionary and artist visiting in 1840, documented the French families in hand-drawn map of the parish, which he called “Plan de Westport.”
Father Bernard Donnelly, who would later be instrumental in building Kansas City, described the French residents as sociable people who held many balls and dances, especially in the winter, with music, dancing, and feasting.
Despite living on the edge of the western frontier, proper etiquette was displayed at social gatherings in the French enclave. “There was no liquor drank, nor boisterous talk, no unbecoming word or act seen among them. All were happy; all danced; all partook of bouillon” Donnelly said of French celebrations.
The Flood of 1844
Tragedy struck in 1844 when heavy rains caused the Kansas and Missouri rivers to overflow their banks, ravaging the French Bottoms settlement. The Chouteau warehouse and homestead were destroyed and the family matriarch, Bérénice Chouteau, had to be rescued from the rising waters (Francois died six years earlier). The Chouteaus rebuilt and remained a prominent family. Other residents relocated homes and businesses to higher ground.
The flood spelled the end of the French Bottoms community. Within a decade, much of the area was overgrown and only small clearings remained where homesteads once stood. But there remained a French presence in the newly established Town of Kansas, as many descendants of the early French settlers stayed in the Kansas City.
The Chouteaus remained closely identified with the city. When the Milwaukee Railroad Bridge—built in 1887 near François Chouteau’s first trading post site—was purchased in 1950 to be repurposed for highway traffic, it was renamed for the pioneering French family who built the first permanent settlement of what would become Kansas City.
Chouteau’s French Settlement, Scrapbooks 1-3 (microfilm). Native Sons of Kansas City Collection. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.
Dalton, William J. The Life of Father Bernard Donnelly with Historical Sketches of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Independence, Missouri. Kansas City, MO: Grimes-Joyce Printing Company, 1921.
Donnelly, Joseph P. Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains: 1840-1847.
The Journals and Paintings of Nicolas Point, S.J. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1967.
Garraghan, Gilbert J. Catholic Beginnings in Kansas City, Missouri: An Historical Sketch. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1920.
Hoffaus, Charles, E. Chez Les Canses: Three Centuries at Kawsmouth, The French Foundations of Metropolitan Kansas City. Kansas City, MO: The Lowell Press, 1984.
Shortridge, James R. Kansas City and How it Grew, 1822-2011. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012.
Jeremy Drouin is manager of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the local history department and archives of the Kansas City Public Library. In his position, he oversees collection acquisitions, exhibits, programming, and outreach.
By Rebecca Smith
A new (2020) National Geographic limited series, “Barkskins”, based on the novel by Annie Proulx, gives a portrait of New France in the 1690s. It can be viewed on National Geographic TV, Amazon Prime and HULU.
The French reached North America in the 1530s and 1540s and immediately made trading connections with the natives, who had been trading amongst themselves for centuries. The French preceded the English, who settled on Hudson Bay in Canada and the Dutch, in the north Atlantic region - both of whom arrived in the 1600s. The Spanish, of course, had come even earlier but were concentrated in the area of Florida and west of the Mississippi and did not pursue fur procurement.
The French, English and Dutch exploratory groups offered goods unavailable to the native Americans, including metal cookware, tools, cloth, horses, weapons and sometimes alcohol, and in return they collected furs in volume – of bears and wolves, but especially of water-resistant beaver, much sought after for hats in the old country. They sent back ships full of hides to the continent each season.
The first permanent French settlement was among the Iroquois tribes in Quebec in 1608, founded by Samuel de Champlain. In 1663, amidst unrest and uncertainty due to disputes with the natives and the daunting challenges of assimilation and the climate, Louis XIV took control over the trading companies, investing significantly in the development of the settlements with considerable funding. He paid passage to the new world - most importantly with 800 women. At the time women represented only 1/6 of the 3,000 emigrants. The “filles du roi” were generally poor women, whose fortunes improved dramatically with the move. They were encouraged to have as many children as possible; it is said that most French Canadians are their descendants.
Along with the women, 1200 soldiers were sent by the King to provide protection and security.
Trade developed along the St. Lawrence River and continued into the Great Lakes region. “Voyageurs” were employed to move the goods throughout the extensive territories and to larger eastern cities where they were prepared for shipment to France.
By the end of the century, with 20,000 citizens, the French presence had moved into the central plains nations where it came to control the fur trade. Prospectors came up from New Orleans, following its foundation, and later west from St. Louis. One of these from St. Louis was François Chouteau who, in 1822, came with his wife and children, 35 employees and loads of supplies and merchandise for the Kanza, Seminole and Osage tribes. By the early 1830s the Chouteau trading post and settlement numbered roughly 100 French Catholic families. A majority of the traders were married to Blackfoot women. The community on the Kaw was called the “French Bottoms”; the Native Americans referred to it as “Chouteau’s Town”.
The major trading centers were located on the middle Missouri River and involved the Cree, Assiniboine, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Plains Apache, Commanche and Sioux tribes. Pawnee, Kansa and Osage Indians constituted secondary centers but were especially important in ousting the Spanish; the Pawnee massacred expeditionary forces sent by the Spanish governor and helped to end Spanish influence in the area. That did not put an end to the fur competition, however, and the French were not so lucky with the more powerful British, who ultimately brought their downfall. Greatly outnumbered, the French floundered in the Seven Years’ War. In the end, all French lands and holdings were turned over to the British with the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
The native Americans at times had the upper hand, pitting the different European groups against each other and benefiting economically and politically. Wars on the European continent spilled over into North America and the tribes used the situation to better their own situations, as an example, signing a treaty with the English, when they vanquished the Dutch at New Netherland, which became New York. They maintained relations with both the English and French, particularly welcoming French Jesuit missionaries into their settlements, but lost out when the French and English went to war.
Reportedly, the French established better relations with the Native Americans than the English, the Spanish or the Dutch. Their arrangements were mutually beneficial; they frequently went out on hunting trips together.
They did not attempt to build large colonies, as the English did. They did not arrive with large armed forces to enslave or Christianize the indigenous peoples (or to find gold), as the Spanish did. And they generally were more receptive to native culture, as opposed to the Dutch who saw themselves superior and closer to God. The French were not determined to change the natives, nor to take their lands. They were more likely to learn native languages and to indulge in the “ritual of the calumet”, the ceremonial pipe ceremony uniting people and cultures. There were more interracial marriages between the French and the Native Americans than with any other groups. The French and native populations often lived together as equals, eating and dressing the same and suffering the same challenges. Large communities were filled with a mix of diverse heritages and New France stretched from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
While the French were reportedly more humane in their treatment of the native tribes, their intrusion into North American territory was, as with all Europeans, destabilizing. Overall, the fur trade disrupted native life and traditions. A dependence on European goods weakened tribes. Trapping overtook traditional hunting. Slavery practices between the different peoples increased. Overhunting depleted natural resources. European weapons often inflamed intertribal relations and increased fighting between the tribes. Most disastrously, contagious diseases decimated native peoples. And the introduction of alcohol became a problem that continues today.
In any case, by the mid 19th century, European fashion had changed and furs were no longer in such demand. The great fur trading boom was a thing of the past.
by Felicia Londré
Book Review: "In telling their remarkable story, Professor Backer reveals why these very ladies who sighed over shallow literature, spoke in contrived metaphors, and ultimately became the target of Moliere's satire, were nevertheless the first women anywhere to band together in consciousness of their womanly plight."
Scarcely a generation before Molière, Paris theatre was not at all geared to polite ladies. The plays performed in converted indoor tennis courts were full of rough-and-tumble action, fight scenes, and even indelicate language. Those tragi-comedies might have evolved into something like the barbaric works of Shakespeare if it had not been for a woman whose influence helped change the course of French drama and pave the way for Molière's genius.
Cathérine de Vivonne (1588-1665) was married at age twelve to a man nearly twice her age, Charles d'Angennes (1577-1652), who later acceded to the title of Marquis de Rambouillet. Appalled at the vulgarity of swaggering male aristocrats even at the court of Henri IV, she renounced going out in society. After dutifully bearing a few children, she acquired a convenient illness that kept her bed-ridden and free from becoming further inconvenienced by pregnancy. She remodeled the Rambouillet mansion to feature a suite of rooms leading to her chambre bleue (blue room), where she could recline on her bed to receive friends and literary celebrities who met her standards of polite manners and good conversation.
From the 1610s on, the Marquise de Rambouillet led a quiet revolution in taste. Regulars at her salon often adopted pastoral names; hers was Arthénice, an anagram of her name Cathérine. Admission to Arthénice's chambre bleue Tuesdays became so prestigious that a widening circle actively upgraded the norms of civilized social interaction. The theatrical turning point came in 1636 when Pierre Corneille wrote Le Cid, still inevitably bearing some traces of the old tragi-comic swashbuckle, but ultimately winning the day for the disciplined restraint of neoclassicism.
By the 1650s, under Louis XIV, many women were imitating Arthénice, each woman attracting her own coterie of poets or philosophers or clever pretenders to intellect. Notable among these was Madeleine de Scudéry (1608-1701), whose Saturdays are best remembered for having produced the Carte du Tendre (Map of Tenderness), a map of the human heart with such locations as the Lake of Indifference, the Dangerous Sea, the Town of Lukewarmness, and the Inclination River flowing through the center. This was a great resource for conversation on subjects like the four varieties of love, the twenty kinds of esteem, or the forty types of smiles.
Clearly the second generation of salons was fostering a more preening, self-conscious atmosphere of high-toned artifice. Fashions in dress evolved alongside flowery euphemisms in speech; men and women alike sported ribbons, ruffles, laces, and flounces. Disdaining to pronounce lowly words like "chair" or "teeth," they found substitutes like "apparatus for conversation" or "furniture of the mouth." The women began to be called précieuses and took pride in it. The "preciousness" of the 1650s-60s might be defined as excessive display of virtue and refinement. It was such excess that gave rise to Molière's 1659 one-act Les Précieuses ridicules (The Laughably Precious Young Ladies) and his 1672 five-act comedy Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies).
It is one of the many paradoxes of France's Grand Siècle (Great Century, the 17th), like its accommodation of both the Baroque and the neoclassical, that Molière flourished as a playwright for a theatre scene that had become polite enough for women, yet he went on to find fun in portraying women who practiced too much politesse.
Pictured: Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies) is a comedy by Molière in five acts, written in verse. A satire on academic pretension, female education, and préciosité (French for preciousness), it was one of his most popular comedies. It premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on 11 March 1672.
By Rebecca Smith
This will sound familiar: “a very serious contagious infectious disease caused by a virus. It takes 10 - 12 days after exposure for the symptoms to show and then 7 – 10 days for the whole thing to vanish – if one survives it.” One who almost didn't survive it was Louis XIV in 1663.
We are speaking of “la rougeole”, which sounds and looks like it could refer to a gourmet dish, a flower or a famous aria but is actually the measles (which, on second thought, makes sense with the “rouge” as the word’s base). And it was deadly in France in the 17th century.
Louis’ brother, Philippe, first came down with the illness, and was in very critical condition. The queen mother took Louis away to Fontainebleau to safeguard him. By the time they returned, Philippe had survived but barely and was unrecognizably thin and pale.
The queen, Marie-Therese d’Autriche was infected next and it was from her that Louis caught the disease. On Monday May 28 he was beset with a terrible headache, fever and sweating, exhaustion and an inability to sleep. The king’s doctor of over 10 years, the premier médecin du Roi, Antoine Vallot, immediately feared la rougeole and began treatment.
From the Journal de La Santé du Roi we have a record of the medical crisis. The primary elements of the “cure” were those, common in the time, of bloodletting and enemas, or, “clysters”. A daily cycle of the two was begun.
Louis pushed through with his plan to relocate, with the queen, to Versailles, against the doctor’s wishes. The first day there Louis seemed improved and walked through the gardens but by night was once more tormented by symptoms and this time they were even more serious. The next few days the king was in grave danger and Vallon wasn’t sure he would survive. He reported, “All these worrying symptoms, with a fiery fever, relentless sweating, continual vomiting, a belly full of seros-matter, convulsive movements, inattentiveness and drowsiness, alarmed the whole court.” And Louis himself was panicked; Vallon claims to have had to calm down the king’s requests for a confessor and assure him he would live. Which, of course, he did. Friday morning Louis announced he felt much better and by Saturday morning felt back to his normal strength. On Sunday he received official visitors. He and the queen returned to Paris on June 9. They had conquered the illness.
Le Rougeole, however, was not finished with the royal family. In December of 1697, Louis XIV celebrated the marriage of his eldest grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, 15, in line for the throne, and Marie-Adélaïde, daughter of the Duke of Savoy, 12. The couple eventually bore three sons. The first died in 1707. In 1712 the Duke and Duchess and their second son all died of measles. Only their youngest son, born in 1710, lived. He became King Louis XV at age 5. He died of smallpox in 1774. It is often considered that the weak leadership of Louis XV paved the way for the French Revolution in 1789.
Intellectual History Review 27, 2017
By Chantal Roberts
Many people know Kansas City, Missouri was a fashion hub for a large part of the 20th century. Kansas City’s Garment District encompassed 6th to 11th Streets and Washington to Wyandotte. Not so many people know about the communal, silk plantation began by French nobleman and philanthropist, Ernest Valeton de Boissière, in the 1870s.
De Boissière was born on 9 June 1810, and after Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, he came to the United States based on the understanding he should “go abroad for his health…” although he was not, in the strictest of terms, banished from France.
De Boissière settled in New Orleans and invested in a transatlantic shipping line until the Civil War naval blockade caused the venture to fail. It was his benevolent character which forced him to uproot a second time. After the war, several Methodist ladies approached de Boissière for a donation to build an orphanage and school for black children. De Boissière wrote a check for $10,000. His donation, while it surprised the ladies, did not please the other white citizens who asked De Boissière to leave.
From 1868-1870, de Boissière bought approximately 4000 acres of land in Kansas, about 65 miles southwest of Kansas City, in Franklin County. De Boissière wanted to create a self-sufficient commune based on the social theorist, Charles Fourier. Mulberry trees were planted on 70 acres, and de Boissière went back to France to convince 40 families who were skilled in silk production to immigrate to his town, called Silkville.
Despite being a socialist campaign, destitute people were not admitted into the commune. Each worker had to pay $100, to provide for their own needs, and to pay rent for their apartments two months in advance. In 1874, a three-story, sixty-room limestone house was completed to house the workers and their families. Local Kansans thought the 36’ by 95’ house was so grand that they called it the ‘château.’ It had 2,500 books which was the largest collection at the time in Kansas. The library consisted of works by Voltaire, Rousseau, the New Testament in Greek, Charles Dickens, and Balzac. At the north corner of the property, de Boissière built a school for the children of Silkville.
Silkville was very successful in the 1870s producing 260-300 yards of silk per day. It won first place at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and third place in 1886 Exposition in Paris. Unfortunately, de Boissière’s labor for the silk was high because the American dyes would not keep their color and silk from Asia began to be imported at a cheaper price. Worse still, the laborers discovered for $100 they could purchase their own acreage from the US government and obtain higher wages elsewhere. The women who tended to the silkworms married Kansan farmers and left Silkville.
By 1886, the silk production at Silkville was abandoned. Silkville limped along for a few more years based on its cheese and creamery productions, but finally, that, too, ceased. De Boissière went back to France to live out his few remaining years. He is better remembered in his home village than here in Kanas. The public school in Audenge, France is named École Ernest Valeton de Boissière. Every year there is a festival called Sainte-Saucisse for the endowment de Boissière left the village which includes noon meals of haricot blancs (white beans) and sausages.
Nothing is left of Silkville except the schoolhouse and ghost town de Boissière built.
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