NOLA Tricentennial Con’t- Missouri Valley

French Exploration of the North American Prairies

and Relations With The Indians of the Great Plains.

It is an oft repeated cliché that the French colony of Louisiana “was a failure,” and while this argument may hold some water, especially under the regime of the Crozat company and the successor Company of the Indies up until 1732, the colony showed every sign of growth and improvement from 1734 until the Seven Years War ended in 1763.

This reputation needs correction in that the colony was not a failure. The failure was in the actions, or more to the point, the INACTIONS of the ruling boards (the regie ) of the Company(s). This in turn can be seen as a symptom of the failure of ancien regime which finally fell in 1789. These aristocrats on the “boards of directors” of the these companies consistently made promises of support to the colonial government, and their appointed soldiers and explorers of Louisiana who mapped out and built the vast colony.

Promises were made as well to the Native Americans with whom they desired trade relations and peace, and the actual settlers and colonists whom they shipped over to the New World. These promises were only rarely fulfilled and even then often at partial levels. Is it not any wonder that the actual “boots on the ground” in French Louisiana were able to make any progress at all with virtually no promised help, aid, or supplies from the homeland?

It appears that the real people here, Bienville, Boisbriant, Bourgmont, the rest of the “government”, the colonists, the settlers, the voyagers and coiuriers de bois, as well as the unheralded and forced Africans, really made a success of this “failed” colony. When the “companies” finally gave up. The decades of Bienville (1730’s), Vaudreuil (1740’s), and Kerlerec (1750’s) actually saw an economic and political stabilization comparable to any Spanish or British colony in North America.

An excellent example of this point is the case of Etienne V. De Bourgmont, who may be properly be called “The Discoverer of the Missouri Valley”. Not only did he travel and explore the Missouri and connected waterways, he treated with and established positive trade and military relationships with the Native communities along those rivers. He planted a settlement upriver from the Missouri/Mississippi confluence, Fort d’Orleans. The fate of this fort is also a case-in-point of the above mentioned “failed” policies of the home government in France.

Bourgmont‘s adventures in the New World read like a modern action thriller. His career began in 1702 when he was convicted at age 19 of poaching on monastery land and fined 100 livres. He decided instead to take ship to New France (Canada). Once there he ingratiated himself with the authorities and by 1706 he was placed in command of Fort Pontchartrain (modern Detroit) where shortly a flare up between two Native groups resulted in the death of a French priest and sergeant.

In true ancien regime fashion the aristocrats quickly passed the buck to Bourgmont, who, choosing the better part of valor quietly decamped into the vast forests of North America. Bourgmont and some companions became coureurs des bois around the eastern Great Lakes for a few years and finally made a return to Fort Pontchartrain where he became successfully involved in an inter- Native war between the Fox Indians (enemies of the French) and a coalition of Algonquin, Missouria, and Osage communities. By 1713, even though technically still outside the law, Bourgmont was once again in the aristo’s favor.

The French colonial experience in Louisiana has been seen by many as an expression of that cultural phenomena sweeping through France (and Europe in general) in the 17th and 18th centuries known as the “Enlightenment.” Bourgmont’s career in New France and Louisiana offers an excellent example of what it means to be an “enlightened” explorer and trader in the New World. While living the rough and tumble life of a voyageur, hunting, trapping, and trading, Bourgmont also added writing to his repertoire. In 1713 he began writing 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. After traveling to the mouth of the present-day Platte River in March of 1714, he composed The Route to Be Taken to Ascend the Missouri River. This account reached the cartographer Guillaume Delisle working in Lower Louisiana, who noted that it was the first documented report of travels that far north on the Missouri.

By 1718, Bienville had replaced Cadillac as commandant. On September 25, he recommended that Bourgmont receive the Cross of Saint Louis for service to France, for the value of his explorations and documentation of river travel. A year later the Council of the Colony of Louisiana also officially praised Bourgmont’s work with the Natives. Drawing upon his years of experience in what is now “the heartland,” he established long lasting positive relations with the locals. Tribes were said to have valued the products Bourgmont offered, as he traded gunpowder, guns, kettles, and blankets, in contrast to the Spanish whom were said to trade a few horses, knives, and “inferior axes.” He once described his knack for for dealing with the native Americans,

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

{N.B. Within the same time frame Bourgmont was connecting with the Indians and exploring the Missouri valley, Bienville and a small group of workers were busy building a new city, destined to become the capital of the French colony, New Orleans. As we celebrate our Tricentennial, it may be useful to remember that – thanks to Bourgmont – New Orleans, as it was being built, was also the capital of the Missouri valley.}

By 1720, Bourgmont had become a fixture in Louisiana, both Lower and Upper. He was recognized as a leader in Native American relations, as well as an explorer and geographer of note in the Missouri Valley. That year he and his son (by his Missouria wife) travelled to Paris. Remember, he was still technically an outlaw. Luck was still on his side, for simultaneously with his arrival, news reached France that Natives allied with the French had defeated a Spanish expedition invading the mid continental prairies where there were no established European claims.

Our not-so-reluctant hero, was commissioned as a captain in the French army. In August he was named “Commandant of the Missouri River” and was commissioned to build a fort on the Missouri River and negotiate with the tribes to allow peaceful French commerce. In 1723, he established Fort Orleans, the first Europeaniu fort on the Missouri River, near the mouth of the Grand River in present-day Missouri. The fort was to be the staging base for a planned visit to the Padouca on the Great Plains and Bourgmont hoped to open a trade route to reach the Spanish colony in New Mexico.

{N.B. -again – Trade between New Mexico and Louisiana was strictly forbidden by the two empires’ mercantile policies. Take note that nobody in either (colonial) government paid much attention to the two empires’ mercantile policies.}

Bourgmont sought aid from the Kaw (aka the Canzas) to facilitate his expedition. He sent 22 Frenchmen and Canadians by boat from Fort Orleans to the Canzas village on the Missouri with supplies and gifts. The explorer himself set out by land, marching with 10 French colonists, and over 150 Natives. Prior to this first official French visit, many voyageurs, including Bourgmont, had visited them in the first two decades of the 18th century. The Canzas had also likely journeyed to trade in Kaskaskia.

This grand expedition reached the Canzas village at the beginning of July, 1724. After innumerable speeches and feasts, the talk turned to trade, the Canzas were hard bargainers. Bourgmont wanted to buy some horses. With only five horses to trade, they extracted a high price. The Canzas also traded six slaves (likely American Indians of other tribes captured in battle), food, furs, and skins. At the end of July, in the high summer heat of the American prairie, Bourgmont, his original party of French, Missouri, and Osage, now swelled by most the Canzas village left on their quest to find the Padouca, (almost certainly the French name for the Apache).

The explorer became ill during the trip and had to return to Fort d’Orleans to recover. By autumn, Bourgmont was once again able to travel. Not surprisingly, his Grand Expedition by this time had shrunk considerably. After all, most of the Natives and even the colonists had gotten on with their lives. So, with fifteen Frenchmen and twenty-four Natives, including five Apache who had joined him as guides, the “Commandant of the Missouri Valley” set out to finally, hopefully, connect with the main Apache settlements.

Heading southwest across the Kansas prairie, and crossing the Kansas River on Oct. 11, Bourgmont recorded in his journal a sight that would dumbfound European and American travelers for the next two centuries, the buffalo. As they passed through the innumerable beasts, they saw unfolding before them “a hunter’s paradise. Recording 30 herds in one day, each herd consisting of 400-500 buffalo. Bourgmont wrote, “Our hunters kill as many as they please.” Deer were also abundant. In one day they saw more than 200, plus numerous turkeys near the streams. On October 18, Bourgmont encountered the Apache. Eighty of the village rode out on horses to meet the French and took them back to the camp.

The explorer’s journal narrates an honored welcome. It tells how he and his son with two other French explorers, were seated on a buffalo robe; carried to the tent of the Apache chief for a great feast. The next day Bourgmont assembled his trade goods and divided them into lots.

The following is the list:

“one pile of fusils [guns], one of sabers, one of pickaxes, one of axes,

one of gunpowder, one of balls, one of red Limbourg cloth, another of

blue Limbourg cloth, one of mirrors, one of Flemish knives, two other

piles of another kind of knives, one of shirts, one of scissors, one of combs,

one of gunflints, one of wadding extractors, six portions of vermillion,

one lot of awls, one of large beads, one of beads of mixed sizes, one of

small beads, one of fine brass wire, another of heavier brass wire for making

necklaces, another of rings, and another of vermillion cases.” The Apache

had never seen such a variety of European goods.

After the trading sessions were done an assembly of 200 of the Apache chiefs and the Commandant discussed the need for peace among all tribes. He implored them to allow the French traders to pass through their lands en route to the Spanish settlements in New Mexico. Next, he invited the chiefs to take what they wanted of the merchandise.

The Apache were hospitable; they feasted and fêted Bourgmont and his group for three days before the French party turned toward home on October 22. By October 31, Bourgmont had reached the Canzas village again. Traveling down the Missouri in circular “bullboats”, made of buffalo hides stretched over a framework of saplings, the party reached Fort Orleans on November 5.

Bourgmont thought his expedition had been successful, but little came of it. Within about a decade, the Apache whom he had met in Kansas were gone, pushed south by the aggressive Comanche tribe migrating from the Rocky Mountains. By the end of 1724, the French, in the person of Etienne Bourgmont, had now established friendly and peaceful relations with the central Plains Indians. The Missourias, the Cansas, the Apaches, the Oto, and several other Native Communities effectively providing a secure base for the French in the Missouri Valley. Bourgmont had in reality become the “Commandant of the Missouri Valley”. But, alas, it was not to be.

The next year Bourgmont was called upon to invite and accompany representatives of the tribes to Paris. The chiefs were shown the wonders and power of France, including a visit to Versailles, Château de Marly and Fontainebleau, hunting in the royal forest with Louis XV, and seeing an opera. In late 1725 the tribal leaders returned to North America. Bourgemont stayed in Normandy with his French wife, where he had been elevated to écuyer (squire).

As usual, The French did not continue to support Fort Orleans, and it was abandoned in 1726. Bourgmont remained in France where he died in France in 1734.

The above tale of Bourgmont’s Missouri expedition is a paraphrase of :


This account of the career of Ecuyer de Bourgmont is a perfect example of “the failed colony” of Louisiana. It is also a perfect example of the successful settling of a vast territory in the midst of an even vaster continent. The French who came here in the 18th century did anything but fail. And the Creoles (of all extractions) who live and thrive here even today can take pride in their heritage, their language, their culture, cuisine, and sheer joie de vivre that has withstood every tragic and destructive circumstance thrown at them by man or nature.


4 thoughts on “NOLA Tricentennial Con’t- Missouri Valley

    1. Yeah, it is a bit long-winded but I had to get across the idea that Lewis & Clark were not the first. It was actually cut from my upcoming(Summer 2019) culinary history book, Madame Langlois’ Legacy.

  1. OK, I’m getting somewhat confused here. I follow you on WordPress, I like your website, I get your e-mails, I enjoy your book reviews, etc. I really enjoy your stories. Now, what’s the best and REGULAR way to contact you??? For instance, is there ONE best way to tell you I haven’t decided how to respond to Write, Publish, Repeat. I wish to send you a reply about your health, from our dialogue on the Bohemian Incident. I have a “simply curious” question about The Pearl Territory. Is there ONE PLACE, one communication avenue, where I can contact you about various posts, essays, thoughts, from all your wonderful scrivinings? And since I’m here, I am so sorry about you having the flu over Christmas, I do hope that you are feeling better – if not now, then very soon.

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