In the early history of St. Louis and its trans-Mississippi hinterlands, Auguste Chouteau occupied a place of singular importance. Following the Louisiana Purchase, incoming US officials recognized the French Creole merchant’s prominence and promptly declared him to be Upper Louisiana’s first citizen. A clever entrepreneur, Chouteau pioneered in the development of the trans-Mississippi fur trade, the establishment of commercial relations with key Native American nations on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and the initiation of varied business and financial enterprises west of the Mississippi. He also participated directly in the growth of St. Louis and Upper Louisiana as an adviser to governments, a public servant and officeholder, a civic benefactor, and a social and cultural leader.
Ambitious and calculating, Chouteau knew how to drive a hard bargain, but he was also a man of his word. That combination helped make him St. Louis’s principal merchant and wealthiest citizen. The reserved and enigmatic Chouteau was a complex man sometimes difficult to fathom. Friends and admirers lauded his contributions and touted his achievements, but enemies and rivals resented his influence and feared his power. No one doubted his ability to get things done.
The exact month, day, and year of Auguste Chouteau’s birth in New Orleans cannot be determined with certainty, but the best evidence points to September 7, 1749. In all matters regarding Auguste’s early years, the surviving record is scant. His father, René Auguste Chouteau, was a New Orleans inn and tavern keeper who had immigrated to North America from his native France sometime prior to his September 20, 1748, marriage in New Orleans to Marie Thérèse Bourgeois. The fifteen-year-old bride was a native of that city and ten years younger than her husband.
For unexplained reasons, sometime after Auguste’s birth René Chouteau abandoned his wife and son and returned to France, leaving them to fend for themselves. During her husband’s extended absence, Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau styled herself as Widow Chouteau and formed a liaison with Pierre de Laclède Liguest, a well-born Frenchman and aspiring merchant who had come to New Orleans in 1755. The couple had four children who, like their mother, had to use the name Chouteau since neither French statutes nor church law sanctioned divorce and remarriage.
Laclède took a special interest in his companion’s eldest son Auguste Chouteau and employed him as a clerk. Even at his young age, the lad appears to have thrived among the books and ledgers that Laclède valued. Taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded him, Auguste had attained a solid educational foundation and a healthy respect for learning by the time he joined Laclède for an expedition up the Mississippi in 1763. Laclède’s business associate Antoine Maxent had dispatched him upriver to oversee the establishment of a trading headquarters in Upper Louisiana.
Decades later Auguste Chouteau penned a narrative that purported to be a firsthand account of that expedition and their subsequent hacking out of a wilderness settlement on the west bank of the Mississippi River. In that rendition of the founding of St. Louis, Chouteau carefully situated himself at the side of Laclède, whom he ascribed to be the principal author of the enterprise. Following its initial publication in 1858, Chouteau’s so-called Journal gained ready acceptance as an eyewitness account of the city’s origins and effectively enshrined Laclède and Chouteau as St. Louis’s cofounders. But recent scholarly investigations have cast doubt on the accuracy of Chouteau’s well-entrenched version of the founding story and challenged its assertions regarding Laclède’s pivotal role in the creation and early history of St. Louis. While Auguste Chouteau’s late-in-life recollections may not justify his designation as a “cofounder of St. Louis,” his unparalleled successes as a frontier entrepreneur and civic leader undeniably validate his prominent placement in the annals of St. Louis and the American West.
However limited his role may have been during the frontier town’s earliest days, young Chouteau found ways to prove his worth. While Laclède struggled to make a go of the trading ventures he conducted in partnership with Maxent, his youthful protégé busied himself learning the ropes for conducting commercial transactions with the Native Americans who often came to St. Louis to trade. By his early twenties, Chouteau had attained the business acumen and managerial skills that became hallmarks of his successful mercantile career.
The confident would-be trader established a particularly strong rapport with influential members of the powerful Osage nation. Its leaders came to view him as an ambitious but fair-minded person whose word they could trust and whose business and governmental connections they could use to their advantage. Their decision to invite him to join them for a conference with Spanish officials in St. Louis sometime around 1770 helped launch his lifelong involvement in Native American diplomacy. In subsequent years, Indigenous people and Europeans alike solicited his support and assistance. He readily obliged, but as with most things that he did, Chouteau remained ever mindful of his own interests.
Chouteau took advantage of his growing ascendancy among the Osages to build a thriving trade, often in partnership with his brother, (Jean) Pierre Chouteau, and other trusted relatives. These extended-family business arrangements were a complicated but integral feature of the Chouteau mercantile empire. Although the traffic in furs remained the mainstay of the family’s business operations, Chouteau also ventured into retail merchandising, real estate, and banking.
Chouteau waited until 1786 to marry, and in selecting his future wife he chose well. His bride, Thérèse Cerré, the daughter of a wealthy and successful merchant, brought a handsome dowry with her into the marriage. The couple had nine children. The first two, Marie Thérèse and Catherine Emilie, died in infancy, but the remaining seven, Auguste Aristide, Gabriel Sylvestre (also known as Cerré), Marie Thérèse Eulalie, Marie Louise, Emilie Antoinette, Henry Pierre, and Edward René all lived to adulthood. To accommodate his growing family, Chouteau purchased Laclède’s original stone trading headquarters from Maxent in 1789 and transformed it into a stately residence befitting someone of his rising status. The elegant two-story mansion quickly became a focal point for business and social activity in early St. Louis.
Chouteau proved adept in cultivating the favor of the Spanish officials who governed Louisiana. His cordial hospitality rarely failed to impress, and with friends in high places he fared well under a paternalistic system that bestowed special favors on a select few. In 1794 Auguste persuaded the Baron de Carondelet to grant his family a six-year monopoly of the lucrative Osage trade in return for their agreement to construct, equip, and operate a fort in the heart of the Osage country. In making the offer Chouteau cast himself in the role of a public benefactor, but in effect the arrangement enabled the Chouteaus to capture a major portion of St. Louis’s dwindling fur supply.
The agreement to establish Fort Carondelet pleased both Spanish officials who appreciated the subsequent decline in Osage depredations directed against Upper Louisiana’s settlements and tribal members who welcomed the opening of a permanent trading post near their villages on the Osage River. The principal objections to the deal came from disgruntled rival traders who found themselves shut out of the profitable Osage trade. Their protests fell upon deaf ears until near the end of the Spanish regime when the Chouteaus’ equally audacious competitor Manuel Lisa took a page from their book and wrested the Osage monopoly from their control. But that surprising development came too late in the Spanish era to be of much consequence.
Auguste Chouteau consistently followed a conservative course in matters of business. He declined to participate in efforts by Jacques Clamorgan and others to penetrate the risky upper Missouri trade in the 1790s. Chouteau also turned aside business overtures from the powerful American fur merchant John Jacob Astor. He clearly preferred to keep business in the family.
The historic Louisiana Purchase in 1803 confronted Chouteau with new and unexpected challenges. Keenly aware of the probable effects of Louisiana’s transfer to the United States, St. Louis’s leading merchant determined to make the best of a situation not of his choosing. Desirous of maintaining his family’s preeminent position and its well-established influence, he wasted little time in offering his services to the incoming American authorities. Chouteau exhibited remarkable adaptability in adjusting to the requirements of an alien government and culture.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, then preparing for their expedition to the Pacific, were among the first Americans to take advantage of Chouteau’s offer. The Chouteau brothers opened their homes to the American explorers and assisted them in outfitting and financing their expedition. Not only had Auguste Chouteau and his family successfully ingratiated themselves with representatives of the incoming government, but predictably they also turned a profit to boot.
Following the departure of Lewis and Clark on their mission, Chouteau continued to build good relationships with American officials. He lavishly entertained William Henry Harrison, Upper Louisiana’s first civilian territorial governor, who had appointed him as a justice of the peace and a judge of the court of quarter sessions for the St. Louis district. Governor Harrison was sufficiently impressed with his new appointee to commend him to President Thomas Jefferson as the most influential citizen of Upper Louisiana.
Despite this auspicious beginning, the transfer of authority presented the Chouteaus and their French Creole cohorts with serious new problems. They clearly would have preferred to retain a military government in place of the republican framework that Congress authorized for the territory. Reports that US officials might not confirm the land titles granted by French and Spanish authorities greatly alarmed the Chouteaus and all other large land claimants. Auguste Chouteau responded by spearheading a series of public meetings to protest congressional attempts to limit confirmation of Spanish land claims and to seek a hearing for their concerns.
Chouteau’s public activities did not prevent him from continuing to oversee his business operations. Although the volume of Chouteau’s fur shipments slowly declined in the years following the American takeover, he continued to dispatch sizable quantities of furs and peltries from his St. Louis warehouse to firms in New Orleans, Canada, and Europe. He also entered the US market for the first time.
The rising US interest in the trans-Mississippi West prompted British operatives in Canada to take steps to counter the growing American competition in the fur trade. Chouteau declined an invitation from a group of Michilimackinac-based merchants to join them in a venture intended to capture a greater share of the trade in the Old Northwest and in the region west of the Mississippi. Eager not to alienate US officials, Chouteau turned down the proposed partnership but continued to do business with the northern British traders.
Chouteau had other more pressing matters to ponder. Plans to open US government-operated trading factories west of the Mississippi posed a threat to his well-established trade with tribes along the lower Missouri. He also kept a wary eye on Astor and his designs on the western fur market. But the most immediate threat came from rival trader Manuel Lisa. His efforts to initiate trade with tribes along the upper Missouri constituted the most serious challenge to the long-standing Chouteau hegemony in St. Louis trading circles.
In the case of Lisa, the always cautious Chouteau deferred to his more impetuous brother, Pierre, who laid aside past differences and joined forces with the family’s old nemesis to form the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company in association with William Clark, William Morrison, Pierre Menard, and Andrew Henry, among others. Although Auguste allowed his brother to take the lead in that venture, he closely monitored its operations.
The unsettled times were not propitious for the short-lived Missouri Fur Company or for inhabitants of the remote and sparsely populated western territories. Angry Native American nations sought to impede white settlers from further encroachments on their homelands, while Spanish and British agents continued to challenge US authority west of the Mississippi. The situation steadily deteriorated as the European disorders unleashed by Napoléon Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions further muddied western America’s already troubled waters.
As US officials hastily sought to improvise defensive arrangements for their exposed western territories, Chouteau responded to the call. In 1806 James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory, appointed him as a lieutenant colonel in the territorial militia, and the next year acting governor Frederick Bates assigned him to command the territory’s First Militia Regiment. Chouteau never saw active duty, but when a Native American attack on St. Louis seemed imminent following the US declaration of war on Great Britain in 1812, he headed a Committee of Safety formed to organize the city’s defenses.
When the war ended, Auguste embarked upon a belated career as a diplomat and peacemaker for the United States. In 1815 President James Madison tapped him to serve as one of three commissioners assigned to conclude treaties and extract land concessions from various western Indigenous nations. For the next six years Chouteau joined William Clark and Ninian Edwards in negotiating those agreements.
In 1816 Auguste announced the closing of his mercantile establishment and his retirement from the fur trade, but after conducting business in St. Louis for nearly a half century, it took him years to settle his accounts. After closing his store, Chouteau continued the auxiliary enterprises at his gristmill and distillery. He also devoted considerable time to banking, serving as president of the Bank of Missouri, which had its offices in the basement of Chouteau’s St. Louis mansion. He retained that post until shortly before the institution was forced to close its doors in 1821. Chouteau directed most of his remaining energies to the management of his vast real estate holdings. Through the years he had acquired extensive tracts in St. Louis and the surrounding regions. When he died in 1829, his confirmed holdings exceeded fifty thousand acres, making him one of Missouri’s largest landowners.
A large slaveholder, Chouteau was a staunch defender of the institution. When rumors began circulating in St. Louis in 1804 that slavery might be at risk in Upper Louisiana, Chouteau spearheaded the formation of a committee to petition incoming American officials to continue in effect the previous regime’s slave code. Both he and the members of his family refused to tolerate resistance from enslaved people in any form. When some of the Native Americans enslaved by him were disobedient and sought to claim their liberty, he ordered them tied and whipped, after which they no longer spoke openly about gaining their freedom. In 1820 he also dispatched an especially recalcitrant enslaved Black man downriver for sale in New Orleans and ignored his pleas to be returned to St. Louis to join his seven children. At the time of his death, the elder Chouteau held fifty people in slavery and, in accordance with the provisions of his will, his widow retained custody of twelve of them and the remaining ones were sold at auction.
During his lifetime Chouteau also found time for elective and appointive offices. In addition to his extended tenure on the St. Louis Court of Common Pleas, he served on many boards and councils, including Missouri’s Territorial Legislative Council, the St. Louis Board of Trustees, and the St. Louis Public School Board. Chouteau always displayed a keen interest in the advancement of knowledge. His private library, the finest in Upper Louisiana, contained more than six hundred volumes at the time of his death.
Over the decades, Auguste Chouteau had done many things to contribute to the public good. Undeniably, he was first and foremost a man of business, but he also maintained a sense of commitment to the public welfare throughout his long and useful life that ended in St. Louis on February 24, 1829.
A previous version of this article was published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999). This version appears here by permission of the author and original publisher.
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Christian, Shirley. Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America’s Frontier. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Ekberg, Carl J., and Sharon K. Person. “The Making (and Perpetuating) of a Myth: Pierre Laclède and the Founding of St. Louis.” Missouri Historical Review 111, no. 2 (January 2017): 87–103.
Foley, William E., and C. David Rice. The First Chouteaus: River Barons of Early St. Louis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Gitlin, Jay. Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Gitlin, Jay, Robert Michael Morrissey, and Peter J. Kastor, eds. French St. Louis: Landscape, Contexts, and Legacy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021.
Lee, Jacob F. Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.
Published January 24, 2023
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