Up the river to destiny: Missouri’s history, told in French

03/30/2014 8:43 AM

03/30/2014 8:43 AM

Just a few pieces of March ice drifted in the current of the big channel, but the hardwoods on the overlooking bluffs weren’t even considering budding yet.

In the big village, 150 lodges of wood and earth, tethered ponies turned their rumps to the sharp wind that rattled the desiccated stalks and husks in last season’s corn patches.

It was a good day to be inside, feeding the small fires and staying wrapped in buffalo robes. But then came a shout, and everyone was suddenly outside, peering down on the river.

Huge canoes, cut and burned from cottonwoods, were pushing up against the current. This was unusual, but not unheard of. The men at the paddles were Niutachi, a people from far down the river, friendly enough.

But what the oldest old women stared at hard was the face of one of the travelers. It was pale and — the rumors were true — framed by twisting hair on lip and chin.

Étienne de Veniard, sieur de Bourgmont, stepped on shore exactly 300 years ago this month. The first European to visit this area, he later would make a positive report:

From all the Missouris River can be gotten furs of every kind, very fine and good, as the climate there is very cold. Higher up is found another river which flows, into the Missouris, called the Ecanz River, on which there is a tribe of the same name, allies and friends of the French.

These friends of the French we recognize today as the Kansa, whose big village actually was on a hill above Atchison, Kan. Only later would they move south closer to the mouth of the Kaw.

Bourgmont today is remembered by historians for his “Exact Description of Louisiana” and “The Route to Be Taken to Ascend the Missouri River.” That year in 1714, he pushed on north to find the “Rivière Nebraskier,” which we know as the Platte.

His writings would delight Parisian cartographers and impress the French king and his ministers, who were striving, from across an ocean, to impose their will on those limitless forests, lakes, bayous and prairies they called Nouveau France.

When Bourgmont came through in 1714, it was four years before New Orleans was founded, 50 before St. Louis, even longer until the first Frenchman stepped foot in the village named for wild onions: Chicago.

What the plaques and markers will not tell you is that at the time, Bourgmont officially was still a wanted deserter from the Troupes de la Marine, a disreputable fornicator and what they called a coureur de bois — runner of the woods.

But this trip was a turning point in his success story.

This bold rogue had the honor of introducing the Old World to the 433,000-square-mile Missouri River basin, a territory twice as large as France itself.

Dog bites man

One might say Bourgmont’s life, if not our history, was shaped by a surly cur.

Bourgmont came from Normandy. He had been caught poaching on a monastery’s lands, and rather than pay the 100 livre fine, he ran to the coast to catch a ship.

New France — which started more or less at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway and ended somewhere south and west when one bumped into a touchy Spaniard — meant new opportunities for the brave and quick. Of course, it never hurts to have connections. He was the grandnephew of the grand vicar of the bishop of Quebec.

We know he worked for a while at a tannery and was mustered into the Troupes de la Marine, a naval force that put the only French soldiers on American soil until 1754, the start of what we know as the French and Indian War, Europeans called the Seven Years War and the Canadians the War of the Conquest.

Ensign Bourgmont was sent from Quebec far west to a new raw post, Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, where tribes would come and go as their capacity to swap furs for trade goods — bad brandy was a big hit — held out.

His commander was Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, an ambitious, tough officer of the frontier called “Le Faucon” for his prominent beak. In 1706, Cadillac left the 26-year-old Bourgmont in charge while he traveled back to Montreal and Quebec.

One unfortunate day, June 6, to be exact, a mongrel took a bite out of an Ottawa warrior. Some say it was Bourgmont’s animal, others say it came from another tribe’s camp.

This did not go down well with the Ottawas. They decided to take it out on some Miamis — the two tribes had not been getting along.

The Miamis fled to the protection of the fort, and Bourgmont ordered his soldiers to fire on the Ottawas, who apparently killed Constantin del Halle, a Franciscan priest caught outside the stockade.

At least 15 Ottawas, six Miamis and a soldier died before the shooting stopped.

Oops.

Rather than face Cadillac, Bourgmont did what came easy to him when he was in trouble. He fled, taking along a few soldiers and Tichenet, the mixed-blood wife of a man at the fort.

The fugitives lurked around Lake Erie trying to figure what to do next. Just how mad would Cadillac be? They got a good clue when another deserter who had joined their band was arrested and ordered put to death. The method of execution: eight soldiers smashing his head with their muskets.

Bourgmont and the others became coureurs de bois — trappers, explorers, illegal traders. These are not to be confused with the generally licensed voyageurs, who transported all those furs east across Canada.

Bourgmont eventually headed south. In 1708, he surfaced in Illinois country in the company of an Indian girl, called today Ignon Ouaconisen — a name later given by a French newspaper.

She was the daughter of a chief of the Missouris. The romantics believe Bourgmont fell for her, but she might have been a gift from a father thinking a French in-law might be useful. Or Bourgmont might have bought her. Historians surmise she was 12 or 13, which among the tribes was about the right age for a bride.

But this arrangement bothered the “Black Robes,” the Jesuit fathers at the Kaskaskia mission down in southwestern Illinois. They tattled to the governor of Canada and he to the minister of marine in Paris about the “scandalous and criminal life” of Bourgmont’s crowd. This got back to the personal confessor of Louis XIV, the Sun King ensconced at Versailles.

Voila, an order was issued for the arrest of Bourgmont “at the first favorable opportunity” in New France.

Missouri origins

It is from Bourgmont’s in-laws that we get our state’s name.

Having migrated west from the Great Lakes region, they called themselves the “Niutachi” or “people of the mouth of the river.” Their best-known village, holding perhaps a thousand people in 50-foot lodges, was on the south side of the river across from the mouth of the Grand River in the middle of what’s now the state of Missouri.

But a Jesuit, Jacque Marquette, exploring down the Mississippi with Canadian trader Louis Jolliet in 1673, asked the Peoria about the tribe that might be encountered downstream. The answer that the priest put on his map was “ouemissourit.” This meant in Peorian tongue, “they of the big canoes,” a reference to the large cottonwood dugouts in which the Missouria did much of their traveling.

Bourgmont described the Missouria as “of very good blood … more alert than any other tribe.” He became the father of a metis, a half American Indian son called Petit Missouri. Bourgmont is said to have brought his son on his travels. This attachment to the boy did a lot for his reputation among the tribes.

Around 1713, Bourgmont slipped down to the headquarters of “La Louisiana,” the disease-ridden Fort Louis at what is now Mobile, Ala. (Nouvelle-Orléans would not become the capital of the territory until 1722.)

By this time, Cadillac was reigning as governor of Louisiana, having been eased out of Canada by powerful Frenchmen.

So Bourgmont paddled back up those south-flowing rivers to the friendly Missouri. Was he fleeing again, or was there a bigger purpose? History is not clear.

But during this voyage, equipped with papers and inks and a frontiersman’s prodigious memory for landscapes, he started writing what would be his pardon papers: “The Exact Description of Louisiana of Its Harbors, Lands and Rivers, and Names of the Indian Tribes That Occupy It, and the Commerce and Advantages to Be Derived Therefrom for the Establishment of a Colony.”

In a sense, it was a far-reaching intelligence report.

Some leagues further up, on the left side as you ascend, is the great Missouris River, so famed for its swiftness. Its water is always muddy, and especially in spring, making the Missicipi turbid for 400 leagues, and 20 leagues more towards the sea in spring at the time of the flood waters …

The first river is 30 leagues along on the left side as you go up, called the Ausages (Osage) River on account of the tribe which lives there, who bear the same name. This river leads to about 40 leagues from the Cadaudakious (Caddo of what is now the Red River area), a tribe of almost the same sort.

He noted the good soils that could support rice, wheat and tobacco. He saw in the mulberry trees the prospect of a silk industry. He noted the presence of saltpeter, from which gunpowder was made.

He wintered with his in-laws and in the spring headed upstream at least as far as Nebraska, adding to the dossier, “The Route to Be Taken to Ascend the Missouri River.” This became the basis for the first real map of the lower and middle parts of the river. About the lands of the Ecanz tribe, he wrote:

These are the most beautiful countries and the most beautiful pieces of land in the world. The prairies there are like seas and full of wild beasts, especially buffalo, cows, hinds (doe) and stags, which are there in numbers that stagger the imagination. They (Ecanz ) almost always hunt with bow and arrow. They have very fine horses and are very good horsemen.

When this material got back to France, it raised eyebrows. No one had traveled so far for France in this wilderness. Cartographer Guillaume Delisle, on the first map of the region, inked in “Missouri” for the river.

In 1719, the Council of the Colony of Louisiana praised Bourgmont’s useful dealings with the tribes. This included having led a large band of Missouria, Oto and Osage into a fight with the Fox, who were threatening Detroit.

In five years, Bourgmont had gone from deserter and disgrace to “a man of incomparable value.”

With such new-won prestige, he was put in charge of building Indian alliances. Bring the chiefs to meet the governor, he was told. He got them as far as the Isle Dauphine, part of what’s now Alabama, where all but one promptly died of something, probably yellow fever.

Bourgmont dutifully made the long trip to take the survivor home.

Building relations

In 1720, Bourgmont embarked for France with his 5-year-old son but not Petit Missouri’s mother. He promised to return.

Waiting for him in Paris was an award of 4,278 livres and the thanks of a grateful nation. Turns out that tribes friendly to Bourgmont had just defeated a Spanish expedition.

He was commissioned a captain of the colonial troops, made commandant of the Missouri River, given a land concession in Louisiana and, to top it off, the king anointed him chevalier (knight) of the Order of the Cross of St. Louis.

And at age 41, he got a French wife, too, one Jacqueline Bouvet des Bordeaux, a wealthy 29-year-old widow.

“He might have stayed there, rich and landed and pursuing gout, but French officials hoped to press their new advantage, or at least stiffen defenses against New Spain, so in 1722 Bourgmont was sent back,” wrote Elliott West in “The Essential West.”

Bourgmont’s popularity had been benefiting in part from what today we know as the Mississippi Bubble.

France was carried away by a clever Scot named John Law, who saw the future of paper money and set up a powerful French bank. This in turn gained control of the Company of the Indies, which held exclusive rights to develop the vast French territories in the Mississippi River valley. Virtual linkage between Law’s monopoly and the French government itself led to wild speculation in shares in the company.

Bourgmont arrived in New Orleans just as the bubble burst, wrecking the French economy and most of the enthusiasm or money for any other big plans upriver.

So the new commandant’s reduced expedition — the rowers deserted — sailed or paddled up the Mississippi. Supposedly, just as they made the left turn into the Missouri, Petit Missouri saw his mother and grandfather and much of the tribe who had come down to welcome them home.

Once back up at the Grand River, Bourgmont and his remaining 15 French soldiers began to build Fort Orleans on the north side of the river (no one is sure exactly where today, too many floods, but not far from Brunswick, Mo.) across from the big village on the ridges.

As the fort and the first Catholic church in the Missouri valley were rising in 1724, Bourgmont again went west — by horse with pirogues loaded with goods following — into Kansas to use his influence among warring plains tribes to restore the peace and trade.

He stopped at the Kaw village, where he was celebrated for having crossed the great lake (Atlantic Ocean) and returning as promised. He was offered another young bride (he declined), horses and slaves, that is, captives from western tribes, such as the Padouca or Plains Apache.

It shows Bourgmont’s skills at building relations that he accepted the slaves, gave them gifts for their people and sent them home. Then, flag flying, drum beating, the column of a couple dozen Frenchmen, a dozen Missouri and Osage war chiefs, and hundreds of Indians, including women and children, began marching southwest across Kansas.

But the commander fell ill with fever and had to be borne back to Fort Orleans. A dedicated man, Bourgmont was soon marching across those endless prairies again. This time, he reached the Padouca villages, where the chief dramatically pledged to be his ally against New Spain.

He raised a fistful of soil and declared: “Now I regard the Spaniards as I do this dirt,” according to West, the historian. Then turning to the French commander, the Indian said: “And you, you I regard as the sun.”

“For me,” Bourgmont once boasted, “with the Indians nothing is impossible. I make them do what they have never done.”

The chiefs head for France

Certainly, they had never walked the streets of Paris. In January 1725, a delegation of chiefs — Osage, Illinois, Missouri and Oto — were waiting in New Orleans for a ship to France. The one they boarded promptly sank at Isle Dauphine. They would not arrive in Paris until September.

Ignon Ouaconisen, Bourgmont’s old flame, was on this trip. Petit Missouri had been left with his family. By this time, Ouaconisen may have been the love interest of Bourgmont’s second-in-command, Sgt. Dubois.

The newspaper Mecure de France reported the Indians were “in the ceremonial costume of their country … utterly nude but with all their body daubed with different colors and with a feather head-piece and … a red loin cloth attached to a belt.”

They carried weapons (some accounts say war clubs, other bows and arrows) and a huge calumet, or peace pipe, that hung with feathers. Menspere, the Missouri chief, proclaimed: “I love prayer and the French. Thus you should love me and my nation.”

Menspere also asked through the Jesuit translator for help in fighting the Fox and requested that the French not push them out of the lands “where we have placed our hearths.”

The chiefs were given red knee breeches and blue coats with silver buttons. “La Savagesse” got a “flame-colored linen dress with a design of gold flowers,” a hoop petticoat, two corsets, blouses, puffed sleeves and silk stockings.

They marveled at the cabins on wheels (carriages), enjoyed the opera twice, were impressed by the carved stones spewing water at Versailles and repelled by the strong perfumes of the Parisians, which they later described as smelling like alligators.

A high point was the rabbit hunt in the royal forest with Louis XV. They offered him a necklace of friendship. The 15-year-old king gave them medallions, rifles, swords, watches and paintings depicting the moment.

Ignon Ouaconisen was taken to the Cathedral of Notre Dame where she was baptized, given the new name Francoise and married to Dubois, newly promoted to captain.

After two memorable months, the delegation returned home — but without the commandant of the Missouri River.

Epilogue

Bourgmont’s works here were all carved in sand, of course.

Fort Orleans lasted only until 1728, then was abandoned.

In 1804, the year after France unloaded the Louisiana Purchase on Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and ‎William Clark came through. They did not find any trace of Fort Orleans or the people who had thrived across the river.

Upstream, they noted the empty village of the “Kanzas.”

The expedition did finally come across the Missouria on the Platte River in Nebraska villaging with the Oto for protection. Their journal noted that the tribe, once one of the most numerous nations in this part of the continent, was reduced to about 80 fires (families).

The white man’s diseases had taken their toll and, with the French gone from mid-Missouri, the Fox — the “Renards” as the French called them — and the Sauk had made deadly raids.

About all that is left is a mural in the Missouri Capitol. Most who gaze at it have no knowledge of this obscure part of Missouri’s history.

It shows Francoise as a demure Indian bride in a fine yellow dress and bonnet (a mistake, as she always went bareheaded on the Parisian boulevards) being examined by sober warriors. Beside her is a Frenchman, loomed over by the Indians so tall the artist might have been thinking of the Osage, as the Missouria were not tall at all.

This is not Bourgmont, of course. The Frenchman is the unlucky Dubois, who either perished in an ambush on the party’s Mississippi return trip or was soon killed by Indians.

The widow Dubois later married another Frenchman, a captain of the militia, and lived around the mission in Illinois until she died in 1752. Her son, Petit Missouri, is lost in time.

A traveler to Kaskaskia wrote of meeting Francoise and being shown her chiming watch that the Indians regarded as “a spirit, because its movements seemed to them supernatural.” It was beautiful, as befits a gift from a king to a princess du bois.

Bourgmont settled in Cerisy. Church records in the little Normandy town indicate that on that 1724 trek to the high plains, he either hadn’t returned all the Padouca slaves, or perhaps that worshipful chief had offered him a daughter that he couldn’t refuse.

A baptism was recorded in 1728 for one “Marie Angelique, Padouca slave of E. Veniard de Bourgmont.” Her Indian name might have been Pilate. A few years later, she was married to a Frenchman. An Apache living out her days in Normandy.

After all his great travels, Bourgmont died in 1734, a sedentary squire.

None of his French children survived, so his small, hard-won piece of the aristocracy was dissolved. Pity. The azure coat of arms this great coureur de bois created would have been something to see: a reclining Indian warrior against a silver mountain.

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