Jean Pierre Chouteau, known as Pierre, was a pioneer settler in St. Louis and the territory that was to become Missouri. The son of Pierre de Laclède Liguest and his common-law wife, Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau, Pierre and his half brother, Auguste Chouteau, carved out a trading empire in the Mississippi and Missouri valleys and pioneered in the settlement of a vast portion of North America. First under the authority of Spain and then the United States, Pierre and Auguste developed the fur trade among the Native American nations in the trans-Mississippi region and helped establish Spanish and American authority. No man did more than Jean Pierre Chouteau to push the trade frontier up the wide Missouri, nor to negotiate understandings with Indigenous peoples.
When the American government acquired Louisiana in 1803, Chouteau overcame his misgivings concerning the democratic republic and became an effective, if controversial, Indian agent for the new government. He also contributed substantially to outfitting the Lewis and Clark expedition, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Purchase lands. Accepting the permanence of the American presence, Chouteau persuaded the Osage nation to remain faithful to the United States during the War of 1812, an achievement of some importance on the western American frontier. Ever the entrepreneur, Chouteau enriched himself both as a merchant and as an official, played a significant part in the development of St. Louis’s civic institutions, and sired many children, some of whom were to enlarge upon the financial and mercantile dynasty their father had helped create.
Pierre Chouteau was born in New Orleans on October 10, 1758, the oldest of four children produced by the Laclède-Chouteau union. His mother was married to René Chouteau, who abandoned her and their son, Auguste, sometime after 1752 and returned to his native France. She eventually assumed the title of “Widow” to gain property rights and custody rights under French law. Shortly after 1755 she formed a liaison with Laclède, which both considered to be a binding marriage. As a Catholic, and as her husband still lived, she could not remarry, and to retain their rights the children she bore Laclède received the Chouteau name.
At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the territory of Louisiana was ceded by France to Spain. Laclède formed a partnership with Gilbert Antoine Maxent to exploit the fur trade with Native Americans of Upper Louisiana. Maxent had received exclusive trading rights in the area, and Laclède was to establish a trading post for the purpose. In August 1763 Laclède, along with Auguste Chouteau, began the voyage upstream. An outpost was established in February 1764 near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers and was called St. Louis. By September, Marie Thérèse Chouteau had arrived with Pierre and his three younger sisters, Marie Louise, Marie Pelagie, and Victoire. Pierre was not quite six years old. Although he would visit New Orleans many times in later years, his true home was now St. Louis.
St. Louis’s existence depended upon the fur trade with the Native American nations, especially the Osages. But Spanish officials made the town the administrative center for Upper Louisiana as well, and the village began to expand. French settlers from the eastern side of the Mississippi, which had become British territory as a result of the Seven Years’ War, helped boost the population, and the hope of profits attracted other trappers, merchants, professionals, artisans, and drifters. Laclède and Auguste Chouteau sold goods to these settlers, sent out agents to the trapping grounds, carried on negotiations with the Native Americans, and enjoyed the Spanish system of restricted trade. As the years passed, their operations spread far and wide up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Despite his trade advantages, Laclède found it impossible to collect on many notes and died in debt in 1778. Auguste and Pierre had gained much business experience by then, however, and began to work to clear the family of obligations and make the trade a lucrative one. Growing up in a frontier town, Pierre was constantly in contact with Native Americans and often accompanied his father and brother to their villages. When he was seventeen he took up residence in an Osage village, as Auguste was needed in St. Louis to conduct business because Laclède’s frequent trips to New Orleans and declining health absented him from the store. His almost continuous contact with the Osages allowed Pierre to master their language, learn about their culture, and gain their friendship and confidence. It served him well, for the Osages were the largest and most powerful tribe in the region, and the Chouteaus’ exclusive right to trade with them was the basis for the family fortune.
The Osage people treated Pierre Chouteau with generosity, and not the least of their gifts to him was a large tract of land along the Lamine River during the period of Spanish rule. In return, Chouteau obtained trade goods, weapons, and tokens of esteem for the chiefs from both the Spanish and the Americans. After the American annexation he also escorted a delegation of Osage leaders to Washington to meet with President Jefferson. Influential American officials in the nation’s capital distrusted the Chouteaus, however, uncertain of their loyalty to the United States and resentful of their request for a virtual trade monopoly with the Indigenous tribes of Upper Louisiana. Even so, the Jefferson administration named Chouteau the American Indian agent in the area. In that post he did a fine job of administering Native American affairs, but after leading a dangerous mission to return a chief of the Mandan to his village in 1809 following a visit to Washington, he was charged with misappropriation of War Department funds. He eventually cleared his name with federal officials and then performed outstanding service in maintaining the US alliance with the Osages during the War of 1812.
Whether he was a government official or not, Pierre Chouteau never ceased in his primary role as an entrepreneur. Over the years he acquired real estate in St. Louis, large land grants in various locales, mills, stores, thousands of promissory notes, and interests in lead mining. He became a founding partner in the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company in 1808 with successful frontier traders such as Manuel Lisa, William Morrison, and Sylvestre Labbadie. This company began the organized exploitation of the fur trade far up the Missouri toward the Rocky Mountains.
Besides his activities in commerce, Chouteau was active in St. Louis political and civic life. A strong advocate of maintaining slavery in an American Missouri, he and his half brother were prominent in the debate in 1820 over Missouri’s statehood. He was also a justice of the peace, several times a member and chair of the St. Louis Board of Trustees, and, though failing to be elected mayor in 1826, he was elected to the Missouri State Senate in 1821 shortly after the territory achieved statehood. By then, however, the Chouteaus’ political power was in decline as large numbers of Americans succeeded the old French families in positions of authority. Yet the Chouteau brothers and their expanding progeny continued for many years as social and economic leaders in the new state. Few famous visitors to St. Louis refused the hospitality of their sumptuous homes or failed to remark upon their lively conversation and gracious hospitality.
Like his half brother Auguste, Pierre Chouteau was a devoted father and husband and sired a large family. He married the wealthy Pelagie Kiersereau on July 26, 1783, and their union produced four children: Auguste Pierre Chouteau, later a West Point graduate and trader in the Native American territory of Oklahoma; Pierre Chouteau Jr., who rose to become a partner and then owner of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and one of the richest men in the West; Pelagie Chouteau, who married into the influential Berthold trading family; and Paul Liguest Chouteau, who became an Indian agent. After the older Pelagie died in 1793, Pierre married Brigitte Saucier in 1794. Together they produced five sons—François Gesseau, Cyprien, Pharamond, Charles, and Frederick—all of whom were involved in the family business operations.
Chouteau lived to an old age and died on July 9, 1849, full of honors and the rich experiences of a long and eventful life. Yet though he lived and died a legendary figure, he was not a universally loved man. He antagonized many with his shrewd business practices, and he perturbed many American officials and businessmen after 1804 with his fierce defense of contested Spanish land grants. It is well established that he was admired and respected. He was undoubtedly a consummate merchant, and he was certainly a vital force in opening much of the western continent to trade and settlement. Pierre Chouteau stands with his half brother Auguste Chouteau as a patriarch of the “Royal Family of the Wilderness.”
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Foley, William E., and C. David Rice. The First Chouteaus: River Barons of Early St. Louis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
McDermott, John Francis, ed. The Spanish in the Mississippi Valley, 1762–1804. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Nasatir, Abraham P. Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804. 2 vols. 1952. Repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Stoddard, Amos. Sketches, Historical and Descriptive of Louisiana. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812.
Gitlin, Jay. The 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, 2022.
Published February 1, 2023
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