Last week I had the opportunity to be in Kansas City, and devoted some time to researching Louisiana’s colonial presence in “the heartland” during the 18th century. Even before there was a Louisiana, the French presence at the mouth of the Arkansas was well established by LaSalle and Tonty (more on this in the future). And by 1716 (300 years ago), Upper Louisiana aka the Illinois Country aka the western end of New France had several active settlements. But it is the Missouri Valley, believed in 1716 to be the passage west to the Pacific, that is being considered today. A century before Lewis & Clark, the explorers of Louisiana were making their way up the great river to the Rockies. Even earlier, throughout the 17th century, the coureurs des bois (runners of the woods) from New France were trapping and trading the furs that formed the basis of much of the wealth which provided the Bourbon North American empire with its raison d’etre. There is a myth in Louisiana history that these coureurs des bois were the romantic nomads of Upper Louisiana who finally settled the mid Mississippi valley and became the economic basis of river trade through the mid 18th century. But the truth is, by the heyday of French Louisiana, the coureurs des bois were already fading into history. New France and Louisiana began to exert more control over the lucrative fur trade by licensing the formerly free trappers. Almost simultaneously with the establishment of New Orleans the coureurs were steadily being replaced by voyageurs (often the same individuals carrying official licenses). Regardless of what we moderns call these folks, the fur trade continued well into the twentieth century as an essential part of the Louisiana and New Orleans economies.One such individual who lived through these changes and went on to be rightly called the Discoverer of the Missouri Valley was Etienne V. De Bourgmont.
Like many European explorers in this timeframe, De Bourgmont travelled up the Missouri looking for the northwest passage to the Pacific. He lived among the Missouri Indians near the mouth of the Grand River from 1712-1719. (Dictionary of Missouri Biography, p. 108) Working under the aegis of the governor of New France and out of New Orleans under Bienville himself, he travelled up the Missouri to the Yellowstone and provided the data to DeLisle in New Orleans to create the first reasonably accurate map of the region. Later traveling back to France he wrote his journal and “opened the eyes of the Europeans to a new world within the New World: the 433,000 fertile square miles of the Missouri River basin, twice as large as France, and readily accessible via navigable rivers. ” (p. 109 DOMB)
Later, during Louisiana’s Spanish period, Bourgmont was followed into the Missouri valley by James Mackay and John Thomas Evans. Their travels provided much of the more contemporary information that Lewis and Clark used on the opening stages of their expedition. They made it to Three Forks, Montana but were forced to turn around due to resistance from the Sioux.One fun fact we can draw from their expedition was that Evans, a Welshman, was searching for descendants of a medieval legend which told of Welshmen arriving in North America in the 12th century. There were tales of an Indian group up the Missouri who exhibited Welsh racial coloring, and whose language contained words and sounds akin to Welsh. Sadly though, Evans found no evidence of this on the wide Missouri.
More info on all of this may be found in:
Frank Norall. Etienne V. De Bourgmont. (1988, U. Of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.) ISBN: 0803233167
Wood, W. Raymond. Prologue to Lewis & Clark. (Norman, OK: U. Of Oklahoma Press,2003.) ISBN 0806134917
And a very good website at:
Finally, I must note a sad fact about all of this European activity in the Missouri Valley. The Mandan Indians, the first significant nation up the river and the trading partners to all of the above mentioned explorers, had disappeared from the West by 1840 due to the European diseases that followed the explorers upstream. Of course, more description and info can be found in George Caitlin’s book, the great painter and chronicler of the Western Indians before “manifest destiny” brought about its terrible effects.