Pierre Chouteau Jr., scion of the powerful early St. Louis family and the most influential of its secondgeneration progeny, amassed a substantial fortune and attained considerable notoriety as a fur merchant, railroad builder, and financier. Chouteau, an amiable French Creole who could be as ruthless as the occasion required, subjugated his life to his business. In contrast with his father, Jean Pierre Chouteau, and his uncle, Auguste Chouteau, he eschewed involvement in public and community service, though he did represent St. Louis County in Missouri’s 1820 Constitutional Convention. Aside from lending his unqualified support to the defense of slavery, however, he played no significant role in the convention’s proceedings. Afterward, he generally left such matters to others, preferring to concentrate on business affairs. In his later years the wealthy but aging entrepreneur confided to his daughter Julie that for reasons of “ambition or advantage or even perhaps a little vanity,” he found himself unable to withdraw from business, noting that he could not remain stationary while everything around him appeared to move ahead. Drive, ambition, and audacity clearly were the hallmarks of the prominent merchant-capitalist whose life spanned an era that began when St. Louis was still a part of imperial Spain and ended shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War.
Pierre Chouteau Jr., the son of Jean Pierre and Pelagie Kiersereau Chouteau, was born in St. Louis on January 19, 1789. Like his father, he was frequently called “Cadet,” a nickname the French employed to designate a second-born son. He was schooled in St. Louis, where he learned the essentials for a man of business along with an ability to read and speak English, even though to the consternation of his American correspondents he persisted in the practice of writing all his letters in French.
Chouteau began his career in the fur trade at about the age of fifteen as an apprentice in the office of his uncle Auguste. He accompanied his father on trading expeditions with Native Americans, and in 1807 was granted a license to trade with the Osages, who had long been the mainstay of his family’s Native American business operations. He occasionally handled matters for his father when the latter was away from St. Louis, and by 1810 young Chouteau had proved himself sufficiently to be sent to the lead mines near present-day Dubuque, Iowa, to look after the Chouteau interests there. He attended to those duties until the onset of the War of 1812 forced him to return to St. Louis, where the following year he opened a store selling crockery and hardware in partnership with his sister Pelagie’s husband, Bartholomew Berthold.
The Chouteaus had long favored keeping business in the family. A complex system of commercial partnerships, linking them with members of their extended family, enabled the Chouteaus to pool their assets, retain control of their trading operations, and avoid the pitfalls of working with strangers. Chouteau’s 1813 marriage to his cousin Emilie Anne Gratiot continued that tradition and expanded the family network. Emilie’s sister Julie was married to Jean P. Cabanné who later joined Chouteau in a business partnership. Another sister, Isabelle, was the wife of trader Jules DeMun, and Emilie’s brother, Charles Gratiot, was an officer in the US Army with valuable governmental contacts.
Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Emilie Chouteau had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood. He was a devoted husband and father, but he did not allow family responsibilities to interfere with his obligations to his company’s expanding mercantile operations. The firm of Berthold and Chouteau had begun dispatching traders into Native American country. Not all the ventures it outfitted were successful. Chouteau’s brother, Auguste Pierre Chouteau, and his partners, brother-in-law Jules DeMun and cousin John B. Sarpy, sustained losses and found themselves deeply in debt to Berthold and Chouteau. Auguste Pierre Chouteau left St. Louis in 1822 and took up residence in what is now Oklahoma, where he oversaw Berthold and Chouteau’s “Osage Outfit” staffed by a host of younger members of the Chouteau clan.
Berthold and Chouteau, sometimes called the French Company, struggled to hold its own in the increasingly competitive St. Louis fur market. It established additional trading posts, including the one operated by Cadet’s brother François Chouteau near the junction of the Kaw and Missouri Rivers on the site that became Kansas City. In the 1820s William H. Ashley’s trading operations in the Rocky Mountains and John Jacob Astor’s St. Louis–based western department of the American Fur Company (AFC) posed new threats to the French Company, which reorganized itself in 1822 when Bernard Pratte, who was married to Cadet’s cousin Emilie Labbadie, became a partner. This was the first of many reorganizations for the firm that operated under several different names, including Berthold, Chouteau, and Pratte; Bernard Pratte and Company; Pratte, Chouteau, and Company; and eventually Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company, but as the firm evolved it was Pierre Chouteau Jr. who took charge of directing its operations.
As the company battled to stave off its numerous competitors in the volatile fur business, Chouteau found it necessary to reassess his insistence on complete family autonomy. He cautiously began doing business with the powerful AFC and in 1826 signed an agreement with Astor designating Bernard Pratte and Company as the AFC’s exclusive western agent. Following the merger of the two firms’ western operations, Chouteau perhaps consoled himself with the knowledge that Ramsay Crooks, who headed the AFC’s western department for Astor, had chosen Pratte’s daughter Emilie as his wife. Under the terms of the agreement with the AFC, Chouteau was named to superintend business activities in the Native American country, for which he received a salary of $2,000 per year plus expenses.
The union proved beneficial for Chouteau and his St. Louis firm. He wasted little time in mastering the ruthless techniques that had made Astor the greatest American fur merchant. The strategy was simple: eliminate competitors by buying them out and putting them to work. With the AFC’s backing, Chouteau was ready to challenge his principal rivals in the western trade. One by one they found themselves compelled to give way to the powerful new combine whose reach extended from the upper reaches of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the Rockies. Chouteau played a key role in the introduction of steamboat traffic on the upper Missouri, and was a passenger along with artist George C. Catlin when the Yellow Stone completed the first successful steamboat voyage to the upper Missouri country in 1832. Scientists, artists, and foreign dignitaries frequently traveled on AFC steamboats as guests of the company. It was good publicity, and their favorable reports helped offset the company’s generally poor image.
Chouteau and his operatives had a not-wholly-undeserved reputation for utilizing questionable business practices in their pursuit of profits. Most notably, the firm employed numerous subterfuges to circumvent federal efforts to discourage the use of liquor in the trade with Native Americans. The shrewd and crafty fur merchant was willing to do whatever was necessary to counter the opposition. Nor did he hesitate to use his money and influence to affect US policies. He and his agents involved themselves in making treaties with Native Americans in an effort to profit from the annuities that the government paid the tribes in return for the surrender of their lands. Chouteau frequently traveled to New York and Washington, DC, where he conducted business and lobbied for favorable treatment for the company and its interests. He also served as a director for the short-lived St. Louis branch of the Bank of the United States.
When John Jacob Astor retired from the fur business in 1834, Chouteau and his partners had purchased the AFC’s western department. Everything did not go smoothly for Chouteau once he was on his own in handling the company’s western operations. He terminated the company’s involvement in the mountain trade after silk hats had replaced the fashionable beaver tall hats, and made the traffic in buffalo robes the staple of Pierre Chouteau and Company’s fur and hide business. He relied heavily on his son-in-law John F. A. Sanford (best known for his involvement in the Dred Scott case) and also began preparing his son Charles to take charge of managing the St. Louis fur business for him. The younger Chouteau officially took up those reins in 1849, an eventful year for the family that also saw the death of Chouteau’s elderly father and the loss of some of the firm’s business buildings in a catastrophic fire that devastated large sections of St. Louis.
Pierre Chouteau Jr. was not yet ready for retirement. Instead, he turned his attention to new ways of making money in an America that was in the throes of industrializing: building railroads and making iron. In 1849 he founded a firm in New York—later known as Chouteau, Merle, and Sanford—that supplied railroads with iron. That same year, he joined François Vallé and James Harrison in their iron-making ventures at Iron Mountain in St. François County, not far from Ste. Genevieve. The firm of Chouteau, Harrison, and Vallé subsequently developed extensive operations that included mines, smelting plants, and rolling mills. Following the construction of a railroad to Iron Mountain in the 1850s, Chouteau touted the locality as a summer resort for vacationing St. Louisans. The Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad was a branch of the Illinois Central in which Chouteau also had interests.
Chouteau’s diverse financial holdings forced him to spend more of his time in New York than in St. Louis, but the powerful business magnate never forgot his French Creole origins. Failing health that rendered him completely blind during the last six years of his life eventually forced him to curtail his activities. When he died in St. Louis on September 6, 1865, Chouteau was a wealthy man who had succeeded in elevating the Chouteau family’s fame and fortune to new heights. Not everyone approved of the way he had done it, but he was not unique in that regard. He was in most respects a man of his times, albeit a highly successful one.
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Lecompte, Janet. “Pierre Chouteau, Junior.” In The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1971), 9:91–123.
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Gitlin, Jay, Robert Michael Morrissey, and Peter J. Kastor, eds. French St. Louis: Landscape, Contexts, and Legacy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021.
Hoig, Stanley W. The Chouteaus: First Family of the Fur Trade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.
Published November 10, 2023
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