By Catherine Rush Thompson
Kansas City has had strong French connections since its beginnings. Kansas City’s strongest French connections relate to its founding by French descendants, Mr. and Mrs. François Chouteau. François Gesseau Chouteau was born in St. Louis to French parents, Jean Pierre Chouteau, a prominent fur trader, and his wife Brigitte Saucier. Auguste Chouteau, his uncle, was also a fur trapper and notably founded the city of St. Louis 33 years earlier than Kansas City’s founding. In 1819 François married Bérénice Thérèse Ménard of Cahokia and French descent. In 1821 François Chouteau and his bride travelled west from St. Louis to set up a trading post at a strategic point along the Missouri River. That site along the Missouri river would be situated at what is presently at the northern end of Grand Avenue, near the mouth of the Kaw River. Their trading post became known as the “village of Kansa,” but was later referred to as “Chouteau’s” or “Chouteau Landing” after Native Americans agreed to “leave the westernmost six miles of Missouri to the confluence of the Kansas.”
Chouteau’s business acumen and leadership skills and his wife’s community engagement helped to develop a community that would soon become the largest city west of St. Louis. The Chouteau settlement drew trappers, traders, scouts and farmers to the region and French was the first European language used in the area. After a major flood in 1826 Chouteau moved his trading post further west along the river near Troost Avenue. In 1827, his trading post became the headquarters for the American Fur Company’s western trading routes. Chouteau traded European goods for furs throughout the Kansas Territory and established a good reputation with local tribes including the Shawnee, Kickapoo and Sioux, among others. François Chouteau is now called the “Father” or "Founder of Kansas City," however during his lifetime, he knew the city as "West Port."
The Chouteau's place of worship was a log cabin built in 1835 and called the Church of St. Francis Regis. The Chouteau family, including nine children and a large extended family, became active members of the first church in this community, so congregants became known as “Chouteau’s Church.” French missionary Father Bénédict Roux became its first parish priest. Kansas City’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was built on the same site, located near 11th and Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 1838 François Chouteau likely died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one, leaving his widow who would survive him by fifty years. After Chouteau’s death his widow, Bérénice, continued the trading business to support her family and she remained active in her community, ministering to children of all races. She was considered the “Grande Dame” of Kansas City. Bérénice outlived her nine children, passing away in 1888 at age 87.
Want more information?
Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph. https://kcsjcatholic.org/start/about-the-diocese/
François Gesseau Chouteau. Geni. https://www.geni.com/people/Fran%C3%A7ois-Chouteau/6000000012482283573
Francois Chouteau. Revolvy. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Fran%C3%A7ois-Chouteau
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