Where have you heard the name “Chouteau” before?
If you live in the Northland you might recognize it as a street name in your territory. If you live elsewhere in the area, it may not even ring a bell, and yet it’s a crucial name in the founding of Kansas City.
The pop quiz is over; now for the history lesson; and it’s one that should hold great meaning to all who love this city, according to members of a group that wants to create a monument in the name of Francois Chouteau — a man many consider Kansas City’s founding father.
In 1819, Chouteau and his bride, Bernice, spent their honeymoon trip on the lookout for a hospitable site to set up a fur trading post. They were sent by his father, Pierre, a member of a prominent St. Louis family.
The couple was headed to Black Snake Hills (now St. Joseph) but went no farther than a spot called Randolph Bluffs north of the river. In 1821, the post was established between the present-day sites of Harrah’s Casino and Cerner Corporation in North Kansas City.
There, Native Americans traded their furs with the Americans for European goods. The post was relocated to the south side of the river after flooding in 1826, and the city developed from there.
That’s Kansas City History 101 according to Keith Nelson, a leader in efforts to create the Francois Chouteau and Native American Heritage Fountain in the Northland, where a monument will depict Chouteau trading furs with Native Americans on the banks of the Missouri River.
“This fountain would be honoring Kansas City’s founding father and Native Americans who lived in the area,” Nelson said. “What better way to celebrate our city’s founding than with a water fountain, because we were founded on water and through our international trade? We’re not good at promoting our history, and in Clay County we have some extremely rich history.”
Although the dream is a long way from fulfillment, he can picture a schoolbus unloading students on a field trip at the site of the proposed fountain
“I hope they’ll get inspired about local history,” he said. “I think we should be teaching local history to get kids interested in national history and world history.”
Nelson, who lives east of Winnetonka High School in a neighborhood along North Bennington, is a seventh-generation Clay County resident. His grandfather arrived in the late 1820s. The volunteer at the Clay County Archives is well-versed in the history of the area.
At an April public introductory meeting about the proposed fountain, Nelson’s narration was enhanced by three re-enactors, one playing the role of Francois Chouteau, one a boatsman and another an Osage Indian woman.
It’s been five years since Nelson and the North Bennington Neighborhood Association began forming their fountain plan. Since then, the City of Fountains Foundation has established an account on their behalf and organizers have met with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department commissioners, its director Mark McHenry and its development staff.
The group has also hired an artist and an engineering firm to provided conceptual drawings, and Nelson continues making presentations on the proposed fountain to area organizations. He has a notebook filled with official endorsement letters from area neighborhood and history groups.
A committee now forming will include the 12 people who volunteered out of about 50 who attended the April meeting. Subcommittees will guide the artist, organize fundraising and reach out to potential donors. The price tag for the art alone is $260,000, Nelson said, and the estimate for the entire project is around $1,900,000. The city requires an additional 25 percent for future maintenance, he said.
According to the Kansas City Public Library website, the City of Fountains Foundation has registered 200 fountains in the metropolitan area. Nelson said the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department counts 46 of those as “major” ones. Only two of those are located in the Northland: the Children’s Fountain and the Northland Fountain. “The Northland wants to be a part of ‘The City of Fountains,’ and this will help the inequity,” he said.
If all the pieces fall into place, artist Kwan Wu will sculpt the monument’s realistic figures. Kwan’s work includes the “Bill of Rights” sculpture at the Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, the George Brett sculpture at Kauffman Stadium and some of the busts on display at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. A model of one of his works has been displayed in the White House and the Smithsonian.
A target date for construction is not yet designated, but Nelson hopes to see it happen in three years. He noted some dates that would be in sync with that: the 200th anniversary in 2019 of the Chouteaus’ landing, the 200th anniversary in 2021 of both the founding of the State of Missouri and the establishment of the fur trading post, and the 200th anniversary in 2022 of Clay County’s founding.
“It’d be wonderful to be able to stand at this fountain for all of these occasions and talk about it,” he said.