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.
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