François Chouteau: The Father of Kansas City
Born to an influential, French-American, fur-trading family, François Chouteau was destined for distinction. His grandfather, Pierre de Laclede Liguest, and his uncle, Auguste Chouteau, were the founders of St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Jean “Pierre” Chouteau, was the founder of the Missouri Fur Company and was one of the wealthiest residents of St. Louis. His father was also the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs west of the Mississippi, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson. As an agent, Pierre spent considerable time with the Osage Indians, learning their language, customs, and culture. It is likely that, as a boy, François spent time among the Osage as well at the Chouteau trading post on the Marais de Cygne.
As a young man venturing out on his own, François and his bride, Berenice, spent their honeymoon traveling up the Missouri River by boat in search of a suitable site for a trading post. They found one just east of present-day Kansas City. By the spring of 1821, they had established a fur-trading post north of the river on Randolph Bluff—the first permanent European-American trading post in the area. After a flood in 1826, however, the post was rebuilt on higher ground near the intersection of the river and Troost and called Chouteau's Landing.
Like his father, François maintained good relationships and trust with the Native Americans of the area. He traveled extensively in the Kansas Territory, encouraging tribes—such as the Osage, Kansa, Shawnee, Missouria, and Otoe—to trap animals and sell their pelts at the Landing. Undoubtedly, François’ relationships with local tribes contributed greatly to his success.
François Chouteau died in 1838 at the age of 41. At the time of his death, only “West Port” had been developed; the “Town of Kansas” would not be incorporated for 12 more years. Nonetheless, in recognition of his early settlement and development of commerce in the area, François Chouteau is known as the "Father of Kansas City."
The Plains Indians
In the 1800s, the Plains Indians lived semi-nomadic lives: planting crops, such as squash, maize, and beans in the spring; traversing the plains to hunt buffalo during the summer; returning to their villages to harvest their crops in the autumn; and moving to wooded bottomlands for shelter from the storms of winter.
Labor among the Plains Indians was divided between women and men. Women were responsible for birthing children, farming and foraging, cooking, providing clothing, and constructing and maintaining the home. Men were responsible for hunting and defending the village.
The Plains Indians eagerly traded with European-Americans because they could acquire goods that often worked better and lasted longer than their own goods, and also saved on labor. Items they typically traded for include metal utensils, axes, knives, guns, blankets, and cloth. Tribes that would have traded with François Chouteau include the Osage, Kansa, Missouria, and Otoe.
Self-named Ni-u-kon-ska, meaning “People of the Middle Waters.” Dhegihan dialect of the Siouan language.
In the words of painter George Catlin, the Osage were “the tallest race of men in North America.” As a raiding tribe, the Osage attacked those they considered “invaders.” Missionary Isaac McCoy described the Osage as an “uncommonly fierce, courageous, and warlike nation.”
Self-named Kansa, meaning “People of the South Wind.” Dhegihan dialect of the Siouan language.
John C. Lutting, in his Journal of a Fur-Trading Mission on the Upper Missouri, said this about the Kansa: “They are seldom at peace with any of their neighbors, except the Osage, with whom there appears to be a cordial and lasting relationship. The Kansas are a stout, hardy, handsome race, more active and enterprising than even the Osage. They are noted for their bravery and heroic daring.”
Self-named Jiwere, meaning “People of this Place.” Chiwere dialect of the Siouan language.
Originally part of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people from present-day Wisconsin, the Otoe tribe, along with the Missouria and Ioway tribes, split off in the 1500s and moved south and west. The Otoes eventually settled in the lower Nemaha River valley in present-day Nebraska. After encountering a group of Otoe warriors, Lewis Merriweather wrote in his journal, “They are a handsome, stout, well-made set of Indians and have good open countenances, and are of a light brown color, and have long black hair, which they do wear without cutting; and they all use paint in order to complete their dress.”
Self-named Niúachi, meaning “People of the River Mouth.” Chiwere dialect of the Siouan language.
The Missouria people settled near the confluence of the Grand and Missouri rivers where they were frequently attacked by the Sauk and Fox tribes. As was the case with most tribes, the Missourias’ number were greatly reduced by diseases, such as smallpox, measles, influenza, and cholera, which were brought into the country by Europeans. Merriweather Lewis wrote in his journal, “This nation [Missouria], once the most numerous nation in this part of the Continent, is now reduced to about 80 families and that few under the protection of the Otteaus [Otos] on the River Platte, who themselves are declining.” To survive, the Missouria people reunited with the Otoe in the 1700s.