Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America’s Frontier
A few years ago I grumbled in these pages that until around 1970 historical studies having to do with the American West were mainly the work of semipros: “Country editors, prairie schoolmarms, county historians, retired lawyers, lone professors here and there, and not a few raving eccentrics” who left us a few good books while operating in a kind of conceptual emptiness, with neither much rigor nor much reach.
What a difference thirty-five years makes! The country editors and prairie schoolmarms no longer have a chance, and even the raving eccentrics are living on borrowed time. Several university presses—Yale, the University of Nebraska, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of California—have poured forth a steady stream of western studies that are conceptually combative and far from lacking in reach. The scholars who have produced these studies, a kind of new Wild Bunch, now mostly growing somewhat long in the tooth, have so shot up the old discipline that those such as myself who have mainly investigated the American West through casual reading sometimes feel as if they might as well forget everything they once thought they knew and just start over, if only we could figure out where the beginning is.
When that feeling began to grow in me perhaps five years ago I tried to start over by immersing myself for a year or two in the superb recently completed thirteen-volume University of Nebraska edition of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. That was certainly good fun, but, as the two books under review and quite a few others make clear, Lewis and Clark were in fact latecomers to the West, unable to witness or even guess at most of the many great dramas that took place there one thousand or even ten thousand years before they embarked on their journey in 1804.
In their contact with various tribal societies as they passed on their way to the Pacific, they at least glimpsed people who practiced a corn economy, a buffalo economy, and a salmon economy but they knew little of the evolution of these never-static ways of life.
They saw plenty of arrowheads but had probably never seen a Clovis point—neither had we until the early 1930s when a road crew working near Clovis, New Mexico, dislodged a number of fluted projectile points, along with the bones of an extinct bison that these distinctive points had killed perhaps ten thousand years back. (Folsom points had been unearthed a few years earlier.) Nowadays a long and useful career can be devoted just to the complexity and the distribution of projectile points in North America alone.
Lewis and Clark of course saw plenty of beaver on their trip but were happily not troubled by the notion that in the time of Clovis Man the beavers might have been the size of bears, though still among the least fearsome of the megafauna that lumbered over the plains in those years, most of which Clovis Man ate.
Lewis and Clark were fortunate in their route, which took them up the Missouri River to the great trading entrepôt of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara tribes, a sort of Mall of America of its time:
Originally a market where corn, beans, and squash were exchanged for meat and hides, the farming villages on the upper Missouri developed into an exchange center for European goods and Plains produce as well and for guns and horses in particular. The villages were well positioned to take advantage of the northeast-moving horse frontier. From the Northeast they obtained manufactured goods, either direct from French and British traders or via Cree and Assiniboine middlemen…. Assiniboines, Crees, Ojib- wes, Crows, Blackfeet, Flatheads, Nez Perces, Shoshones, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, Kiowa Apaches, Pawnees, Poncas, and various Sioux bands all visited the upper Missouri villages, either regularly or intermittently. The visitors passed on what they obtained to more distant neighbors, often at vastly inflated rates. In this way the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara trade center interconnected with other exchange centers—the Wichita, Caddo, and Pawnee on the prairies to the south; the Comanche network on the southwestern plains; the Pueblos on the Rio Grande; the Columbia River networks beyond the Rocky Mountains; and, via British traders and Montreal, the fur houses and markets of Europe.
That’s from Colin G. Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark, the first volume of a projected six-volume history of the West which the University of Nebraska Press proposes to bring us over the next several years. In my opinion Mr. Calloway has provided those of us who want to begin again and really study the American West with a very good primer.
For most of my reading life, for example, I’ve managed to think of the great spaces of the American West as having been more or less empty until Lewis and Clark arrived. Far from it. The West teemed; there were something like 143 languages along the Pacific coast alone. Mesa Verde, Pueblo Bonita, and the great two-thousand-room Casas Grandes complex in northern Mexico were home over time to thousands of people. One scholar, Neil Judd, claims that the five-story ruin at Pueblo Bonita (Chaco Canyon) was the only apartment building of comparable size in America or the Old World until the Spanish Flats were erected at 59th Street and Seventh Avenue in 1882. I don’t know if he’s right, but it’s certainly a notion to chew on. And as for Lewis and Clark, Colin Calloway’s basic contention is that the captains didn’t bring the West into America, they brought America into the West.
Among the people of the northern plains, a winter count is a tribal history, usually painted on a buffalo skin. Other forms of tribal history also existed. An old Sioux man who surrendered with Crazy Horse in the spring of 1877 carried a stick with hundreds of notches in it—this too was a history.
Calloway’s excellent, nothing-if-not-ambitious book doesn’t attempt to tell one tribe’s history; it attempts to survey all the tribes’ histories in terms of the broad changes that their cultures underwent over time: a shift from hunting-gathering to the cultivation of corn, for example. Unlike many scholars, he doesn’t take the Mississippi as the eastern boundary, either, but argues that the Appalachians provide a better frame. This allows him to give some attention to the mound builders, whose greatest achievement was perhaps Cahokia, near where the Missouri and Illinois rivers enter the Mississippi. Cahokia, about AD 1000, may have supported the largest population center north of Mexico before there was contact with the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Ironically, Lewis and Clark camped not far from Cahokia the winter before they departed, but they didn’t know about it.
In the 1950s the usually readable critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, in his myth-theory phase, used to toot his horn loudly for a book called The Hero, by the English anthropologist Lord Raglan, a cranky scholar if there ever was one. The one thing I remember about the book, which I dutifully read, was Lord Raglan’s complete disdain for folk memory. Only those with writing could claim to have a history—I doubt that a notched stick or a winter count on a buffalo skin would have convinced him. And yet, in his book on invention and diffusion, How Came Civilization?, he is frequently dependent on archaeological interpretation: the stones once thought to be mute in fact manage to speak and they have been speaking ever since the first spade of dirt was turned over at Troy or Knossos or Mesa Verde or Palenque. Curiosity has somehow been bred into our species: people will just keep digging. Now there’s a site in Chile where people lived 15,000 years ago, and a 9,500-year-old skeleton recently turned up near the junction of the Snake and the Columbia Rivers; it’s now being fought over by scientists and tribal people. Road crews along the interstates sometimes expose whole geologic areas.
In the matter of deciding what’s history I think Lord Raglan cut his cloth too thin: the disciplines developed by Champollion, Lyell, Darwin, Frazer, and others have conspired to make the term “prehistory” not only useless but derogatory. The tribal peoples Colin Calloway discusses in his book are “in” history, no “pre” about it, even though their “history” may not be so much individual as social and spiritual. The notched stick and the painted buffalo hide may refer to literal, usually terrible, events—war, fire, epidemic (lots of epidemics)—but they also describe the tribal peoples’ ways of adjusting the ever-shifting relations between men and gods.
One Vast Winter Count is made up of eight broad studies that bring us, via Clovis Man and the mound builders and cliff dwellers, near to the time at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the captains were about to push off.
Of these eight long, complex studies the first and, in my view, best, is Colin Calloway’s study of the diffusion of corn among the native cultures of North America. It also demonstrates how rituals, coupled with the constant effort to make spiritual judgments, are necessary if the universe and the people are to remain in harmony:
Wichita, Arikara, and Pawnee stories all include references to Corn Mother and to some form of odyssey that takes the people out of darkness on the path to becoming human beings. Since corn cultivation did not become widespread on the central plains until about AD 1000, these stories likely recall not the creation of the world itself but the creation of a new world in which a new ideology revered corn as a staple of life and women as its cultivators were becoming economically empowered.
In many cultures corn was and is considered kin. In ancient stories, corn and people emerged together from the same preworld; corn could become human, and humans could transform into corn. Nahua people who still grow corn in the central highlands of Mexico liken themselves to corn in that they sprout from the earth and return to the earth when they die. Working in the fields not only cultivates the crops, but also maintains a healthy spiritual relationship with the earth…. “Corn is our blood,” they say. Navajo origin stories tell that when First Man was made, white corn in a perfect shape was formed with him; First Woman was formed with a perfect ear of yellow corn…. Corn, concludes one anthropologist, “pervades every aspect of Pueblo life from birth to death and from past to future.” An ancestral clan introduced corn to the Zuni people, telling them that the ears came from the flesh of seven maidens. Each of the corn maidens represents a corn plant; yellow corn, the oldest, represents winter and the North; blue corn represents water and the West; red represents summer and the South; and white represents daylight and the East. During the winter solstice Zuni farmers who were heads of their households “danced the corn,” placing six perfect ears of corn in a basket and singing to them so the corn would not feel neglected.
Singing to corn was an integral part of indigenous agriculture as a way to bring the crop to maturity and ensure its health and productivity: “There were songs when the corn was knee-high, songs when the tassels were formed, songs when the ears were formed, songs when they were ripe,” wrote Pueblo anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz, echoing…Ruth Benedict. Indian farmers nurtured corn with management, prayer, and song. In the process, they transformed their world.
They may have transformed their world, but they didn’t make it Eden. Agriculture is hard, chancy work, no less so in corn-dependent societies than in many others. Corn is vulnerable to drought, flood, hail, blight, and bugs. Working closely with the Corn Mother may have increased social cohesion and stability but it could have decreased physical stability. It is true that the Pueblo peoples also had beans and squash, and that some hunting was possible; but the big change that came with corn was that its cultivators became locals, settled folk, devoted to their place and their plots. The Anasazi peoples of Arizona and New Mexico established what were in effect urban centers, and Cahokia too was a sort of urban center. People who had long been nomads stopped being nomadic; they grew their corn and developed their ceramic arts to a high degree of brilliance, but then, nine hundred or a thousand years ago, they moved. Colin Calloway thinks they probably moved south, in the direction of the Casas Grandes, but why they moved has long been and may always be debated. Calloway seems to see the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest not as the bottom rung of the western Native American ladder, but as the top rung of a cultural ladder whose bottom rung is in Central America.
Colin Calloway writes intelligently about many Native American cultures, but to my mind his deepest analyses and most arresting speculations have to do with the cultures of the Pueblos and the cliff dwellers. After the corn chapters the study that I found most gripping is his account of the great Pueblo Revolt of the 1680s, a twelve-year war against the Spanish so bitter and ferocious that it makes our own revolution about one hundred years later seem like a church picnic. The Indians killed at least twenty-one priests, at least one of whom was flung off a cliff, and the Spanish, once they regrouped, staged a number of mass executions.
The essay on the arrival of the horse in native cultures, particularly plains cultures, is also very interesting. For one thing, horses immediately increased the vulnerability of the buffalo; the hunters were faster than the animal being hunted. Possession of horses also stimulated an extensive raiding culture; raiding became the fastest way to procure more horses. Throughout these studies the reader is always made aware of the fragility of the cultures being described, such as that of the aforementioned Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara trading complex. Horses and guns no doubt seemed like very good things at the time, but very good things have a way of mutating into not so good things; then, before you know it, Doomsday:
But even as earth lodge villages on the upper Missouri buzzed with the activity of visiting trading bands and the babel of a dozen different languages, the future was slipping away from them. The horses, guns, and trade networks that enhanced their power and prosperity also, in time, unraveled the world they had built around their earth lodge villages. Horses, guns, and epidemics empowered enemies to challenge the once-formidable villages. Friends and neighbors moved out onto the plains and took up a horse and buffalo way of life, but sedentary farming people with huge cornfields lacked sufficient pasturage to amass large herds. Earth lodge villages that had been palisaded for safety became death traps when European diseases ran along trade routes that formerly brought prosperity.
The last of the eight studies that make up Calloway’s book, called “The Killing Years,” examines the devastating history of the European plagues—smallpox particularly—on the vulnerable native societies. That once dominant Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara out-let mall became a charnel house in 1837 when smallpox arrived—or, to be more accurate, arrived again and more severely. When Lewis and Clark made their way up the river some thirty years earlier they encountered tribes that were still recovering from the bad epidemic of 1779–1783, a calamity recorded on many winter counts. Neither corn, nor horses, nor guns, nor moving, nor settling protected the tribes from what the explorer Alexander Mackenzie called the “pestilential breath” of these terrible plagues.
I won’t pretend to have mastered, in one reading, this long, dense, heavily researched book but I do think it’s a splendid overview of the Native American West to the end of the eighteenth century.
Shirley Christian’s admirable group portrait of the prominent Chouteau fam-ily of late-eighteenth–early-nineteenth-century St. Louis dovetails nicely with Colin Galloway’s broad survey. The Chouteaus were French merchants in a city that since 1763 had formally belonged to Spain but would soon belong to the Americans. No doubt some Chouteaus, like many French residents of St. Louis, hoped that Napoleon would kick out the Spanish and rule them as French citizens, but after his difficult experiences in Haiti, Napoleon decided the New World was too much trouble. As soon as he found a willing buyer—us—he chose to take the money and run.
Madame Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau actually married René Chouteau but that gentleman went to France and stayed there for quite a few years, during which time his bride took up with Pierre Laclède Liguest, who founded the muddy village of St. Louis. Laclède fathered her four younger children before giving up the ghost in 1778. Madame (or the Widow, as she came to be called) favored elegant clothes and plenty of jewelry; she was said to be the first person west of the Mississippi to keep honeybees, and she seems to have had about fifty grandkids.
Her energetic sons Auguste and Pierre, half brothers, were very successful merchants in late-eighteenth-century St. Louis, but, like all successful merchants, their lives were never free from pressure, much of which stemmed from their efforts to keep on the good side of the powerful Osage tribe, then the dominant Indians on the lower Missouri. The Osage often splintered into factions and in general were what would now be called high-maintenance clients; but they were far too important to be ignored.
Fur trading, in the years when Auguste and Pierre Chouteau were engaged in it, was an extremely competitive business; by keeping in good with the Osage and a few other downriver tribes, the Chouteaus built up a thriving business but they were always under threat. First there were Spanish authorities to appease, and then American authorities to placate, first among which was the never-easy James Wilkinson, who, though in charge of what was our Louisiana, seemed reluctant to lose the handsome retainer he was paid by the Spanish.
Wilkinson was trouble enough but the Chouteaus also had to compete with the very aggressive fur trader Manuel Lisa, who forged right up the Missouri behind Lewis and Clark and had a trading post on the Bighorn River as early as 1807. At first the Chouteaus cold-shouldered Lisa, but they eventually found that they had to cooperate with him if they were to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company, John Jacob Astor, and other fur-trade powers to the north and west. Were that not enough, soon the equally ambitious Bent family would be nipping at their heels.
Read together, Colin Calloway’s and Shirley Christian’s books cohere around one theme, which is that life in the American West was always tough. The fur trade was very hard, involving as it did enormous risks, both financial and physical. Many tried it, few succeeded, and in many cases failure meant death. Growing corn in the arid lands was also tough. Even acorns, which some California tribes depended on, took a lot of grinding. There were many perils, and no free rides. Merchants came and went, and likewise tribal strength. Very careful mediation with the gods was necessary to the native peoples. As merchants the Chouteaus did better than most, and, for a time, the Plains Indians did better than most.
During the 1870s and 1880s, when the white authorities were trying to persuade the Sioux and Cheyenne that farming was their best hope for the future, the respected Sioux leader Young Man Afraid of His Horses lost patience with all this agrarian propaganda and announced that he supposed he could learn to farm if he had a hundred years. But if he had consulted the winter counts and traced his people’s history back one hundred and fifty years or so, to a time when the Sioux didn’t have horses, he would have discovered that some of his own people and their neighbors had once been semi-sedentary and not total strangers to farming.
In the always demanding American West just about every route to subsistence and prosperity has been tried by some tribe or other. Where once it might have been corn or buffalo now it’s casino gambling—just the latest notch on the history stick.