The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood

The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood

by William E. Foley

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The story of the blending of diverse cultures in a land rich in resources and beauty is an extraordinary one. In this account, the pioneer hunters, trappers, and traders who roamed the Ozark hills and the boatmen who traded on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers take their place beside the small coterie of St. Louisans whose wealth and influence enabled them to


The story of the blending of diverse cultures in a land rich in resources and beauty is an extraordinary one. In this account, the pioneer hunters, trappers, and traders who roamed the Ozark hills and the boatmen who traded on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers take their place beside the small coterie of St. Louisans whose wealth and influence enabled them to dominate the region politically and economically. Especially appealing for many readers will be the attention Foley gives to common Missourians, to the status of women and blacks, and to Indian-white relations.

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The Genesis of Missouri

From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood

By William E. Foley

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 1989 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6053-6



It hardly seemed an auspicious beginning as the small, seven-member French expedition departed from St. Ignace, a remote mission station near the Straits of Mackinac in present-day Michigan. The venture, under the direction of the seasoned Canadian trader Louis Jolliet and his Jesuit partner, Father Jacques Marquette, had set out in mid-May of 1673 in search of the river that the Indians referred to as the Mississippi, an Algonquian word meaning "the father of waters." Unbeknownst to the explorers, the stream they were seeking intersected with another great waterway to form a strategic junction in the North American heartland at the place now called Missouri. Marquette and Jolliet were not the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi, but they were the first known to have set foot on Missouri soil.

On the map he drew of the region, Father Marquette penned the word Missouri, a French rendition of an Algonquian term that is best translated as "those who have big canoes." He used it to locate a group of Indians residing along the lower reaches of the stream most commonly known as the Pekitanoui—the river of the muddy waters. That was what the Indians called it, but even though the French newcomers frequently mentioned the waterway's thick or muddy appearance, they chose to name it the Missouri.

The French attached the borrowed Indian word Missouri to the river and to the Indians who resided along its banks, but they seldom used the word as a general place name. For them and for their Spanish successors, the territory encompassing the present-day state of Missouri was a part of the Illinois Country. During the eighteenth century, the term Illinois was applied to the lands on both sides of the Mississippi between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, and after 1770 the territory on the west side of the Mississippi was commonly referred to as Spanish Illinois. It was also sometimes called Upper Louisiana, following the usage of the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de la Salle, who had christened as Louisiana all the lands drained by the Mississippi. When the Americans purchased the immense trans- Mississippi tract from France in 1803, they followed that tradition and named the area north of present-day Arkansas's southern boundary the Territory of Louisiana. The name Missouri was not officially adopted until 1812, when Congress renamed the territory in order to avoid confusion with the new state of Louisiana, formerly known as the Territory of Orleans.

Spanish conquistadores had penetrated portions of North America's interior more than a century before Marquette and Jolliet, but insufficient inducements for further exploration and settlement in the region kept them away from modern-day Missouri. Hernando de Soto explored the lower Mississippi in 1541 while searching for new sources of riches and wealth, but in all likelihood the veteran of Spain's Peruvian conquest never ventured farther north than Arkansas. A similar treasure-hunting expedition, commanded by the youthful and energetic Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541–1542, abandoned its search for the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola and returned to Mexico after reaching an unprosperous Indian village in what is now western Kansas. These and other dismal results confirmed the Spanish decision to concentrate colonial efforts in areas that could promise more immediate returns in the form of gold and silver mines and stable Indian populations to operate them. Mexico and Peru became focal points in the thriving Spanish colonial empire, but a century and a half following Christopher Columbus's entry into the Western Hemisphere, much of the North American continent, including Missouri, remained untraversed by Europeans.

Spain successfully monopolized New World colonization until England, France, and the Netherlands became serious contenders in the race for overseas possessions and planted permanent colonies in North America at the opening of the seventeenth century. The English and Dutch colonizers confined themselves to relatively compact settlements along the Atlantic coast while French settlers, with scarcely a tenth of the numbers of their English counterparts, slowly spread into the great expanses to the west after Samuel de Champlain established France's first permanent North American settlement on the banks of the St. Lawrence at Quebec in 1608.

Although France's Canadian settlements developed very slowly during the early years, French fur traders and missionaries explored the continent's immense interior, seeking contact with the Indians inhabiting those regions. Jean Baptiste Colbert, the renowned mercantilist who took charge of French colonial affairs in 1663, attempted to discourage westward expansion because he believed it would retard development in eastern Canada by draining off badly needed colonists. But Colbert's well-laid plans for controlled settlement could not stay the lure of the West, and a growing number of coureurs de bois slipped off into the wilderness to engage in the lucrative fur trade. The term coureur de bois, which applied to anyone who ventured into the wilds to traffic in furs, initially carried a pejorative connotation because of the legal sanctions against unauthorized participation in the trade.

Notwithstanding Colbert's disparaging views, the West's attractions seduced some of New France's highest officials. Both the Canadian intendant Jean Talon, who was responsible for the administration of justice, colonial finances, and civil administration within the colony, and Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac, the provincial governor, who was in charge of military matters and Indian affairs, championed western development. When Frontenac took up his duties as governor in 1672, Talon already had dispatched licensed traders to the far reaches of the Great Lakes, where, in company with Jesuit fathers, they established a string of frontier outposts. Recurring reports about the Mississippi from the interior tribes generated considerable interest among French authorities, who were eager to learn more about the waterway.

Talon commissioned Jolliet to explore the unknown river in 1672, and shortly thereafter Frontenac added his endorsement. The prospect of discovering a water route to the southern or western sea and thereby providing Canada with access to a year-round warm-water port even won over the reluctant Colbert momentarily. Jolliet, a native-born Canadian fluent in several Indian dialects, set out for St. Ignace bearing a commission authorizing that settlement's founder, Father Marquette, to accompany him. The French priest, who had left a teaching post in France to save the souls of North American Indians, had long wanted to move southward into the Illinois Country. As the two men eagerly awaited the beginning of the spring thaw, they solicited information from the local Indians, prepared their equipment, and packed their sparse provisions of Indian corn and smoked meat.

Their journey got underway in mid-May, and by mid-June the expedition had reached the Mississippi by way of the Wisconsin and Fox rivers. As the explorers paddled downstream, they observed flocks of waterfowl and turkey, herds of grazing bison, and fish large enough to tear apart their paper-thin bark canoes. To their surprise they encountered no Indians until they left the river in present-day Iowa and followed a trail that took them to a village where they exchanged presents with a band of Peorias, some of whom were already wearing garments made of French cloth. Once they did make contact, the visiting Frenchmen found the Indians to be generous hosts who willingly shared such favorite tribal foods as boiled corn, fish, wild ox, and dog. The Europeans gladly partook of everything but the dog meat, which they discreetly declined.

After resuming their voyage downriver, the French adventurers were startled to see vivid paintings of monsters staring down at them from the towering bluffs overlooking the Mississippi a short distance above the Missouri junction. The horned, red-eyed, bearded creatures with human-like facial features, scaly bodies, and long, winding fish tails were painted red, green, and black. Father Marquette recorded in his journal that while he and the others were still puzzling over those finely drawn creatures, which they doubted could have been the work of Indians, their party suddenly came upon another wonder, the turbulent Missouri junction: "I have seen nothing more dreadful. An accumulation of large and entire trees, branches, and floating islands was issuing from The mouth of The river pekitanoui, with such impetuosity that we could not without great danger risk passing through it. So great was the agitation that the water was very muddy, and could not become clear."

The thundering river clearly made a lasting impression on the French travelers, who chose not to enter its churning waters. Leaving that challenge for those who would follow them, they proceeded southward along their intended course. By the time the expedition reached Arkansas, it had become clear that the Mississippi did not head toward the Pacific but flowed instead into the Gulf of Mexico. Fearful they might encounter hostile Indians downriver and equally hesitant to encroach upon Spanish domains, Marquette and Jolliet decided against continuing their trip and turned back for Canada on 17 July.

Following their return to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier at Green Bay in September, the trader and the priest briefly compared notes before Jolliet headed for Sault Ste. Marie. When spring arrived, he hurried off to report their findings to the authorities in Quebec. While en route, Jolliet's canoe capsized, destroying his maps and journals. Fortunately Father Marquette had retained his own papers, and they survive. To Jolliet's great disappointment, officials in the Canadian capital rejected his request for a trading concession in the Illinois Country and assigned him instead to a number of minor governmental offices. Jolliet did make trips to Hudson Bay and Labrador before he died in relative obscurity in 1700. Father Marquette resumed his work among the Indians, but the rigor of wilderness living soon took its toll. In the spring of 1675, he returned briefly to the Illinois River to establish a mission, but in May, while on his way back to Mackinac, Marquette died at an isolated campsite on Lake Michigan's eastern shore.

Meanwhile, Governor Frontenac took advantage of his connections at the French court to press ahead with plans for opening the West. He successfully backed a bid by his protégé the Sieur de la Salle to establish trade with Indians south and west of the Great Lakes. In return for a concession to engage in the fur trade along the Mississippi and its tributaries, La Salle promised that within five years he would, at his own expense, descend the great river to its mouth. Louis XIV and Colbert accepted the offer as an economical way of financing further French exploration. La Salle took the time to supervise the construction of several western trading posts before he finally ventured down the Mississippi in 1682. He reached the Gulf of Mexico on 9 April and marked the occasion with formal ceremonies proclaiming the Mississippi and its tributaries to be the possessions of Louis XIV, in whose honor he named the territory Louisiana.

La Salle's return to Canada was anything but a triumph. He discovered that France's old antagonists, the Iroquois, were threatening the Illinois Country and in the process endangering his designs for an inland trading empire. To assist in staving off their assaults, he directed the establishment of Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock on the Illinois River and placed it under the control of his faithful subordinate Henri de Tonti. More disturbing to La Salle than the reports of the renewed Indian problems was the news that the hostile LeFebvre de La Barre had replaced his friend and ally Frontenac as governor.

With support waning in Canada for his plans to colonize Louisiana, La Salle, who was a nationalist and a dreamer with grand plans, sailed back to France, where the reception was friendlier. A recent outbreak of hostilities between France and Spain heightened interest in his scheme for establishing a French outpost at the mouth of the Mississippi. Once he had garnered the necessary backing, he set out for the New World with a small fleet and headed directly for the Gulf Coast. La Salle missed his intended destination and disembarked instead in Texas in early 1685. After wandering in the wilderness for nearly two years while searching for the Mississippi, he fell victim to a mutiny that cost him his life. Despite the tragic ending to La Salle's enterprise, his discoveries had strengthened France's claim to the Mississippi valley and set the stage for a successful French occupation of the Gulf Coast thirteen years later.

A quest for economic gain through furs, precious metals, and new trade routes and a desire to bring salvation to North American "savages" had propelled France's initial westward advances. But by the dawn of the eighteenth century, the nation's growing rivalry with England increasingly dictated the terms of its American colonial policy. Imperial aims loomed ever larger as the French attempted to keep the Anglo-American colonies confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Having concluded that England's domination of North America would upset the balance of power in Europe, Louis XIV and his ministers endorsed new measures designed to secure French control over the continent's vast central region. The added Spanish threat caused by a dispute over succession rights to that country's throne further underscored the need for action to uphold France's American interests.

To secure the southern flank two brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean- Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, established bases on the Gulf Coast at Biloxi in 1699 and at Mobile in 1701. In the latter year Antoine de Lamothe, sieur de Cadillac, also founded Detroit in a corresponding effort to shore up French control in the north. With its limited resources, the French government counted heavily upon the support of Indian allies for holding its North American positions.

That the strategy worked so well was a tribute to the French aptitude for forest diplomacy, trade, and proselytizing. A special talent for winning Indian cooperation and assistance enabled a handful of French soldiers, fur traders, and priests to retain control of large sections of North America for over 150 years. Missionaries were a key component of the successful coalition, and within that group the Jesuits were especially adept in their relations with the Indians. The Black Robes, as the native Americans called them, willingly employed the Indians' own languages and cultural symbols in their preaching.

The frontier missionaries faced enormous challenges. For Europeans unaccustomed to walking long distances through trackless forests and paddling for hours in the cramped quarters of a canoe, the rigors of frontier travel were extremely taxing. Drafty, smoke-filled, and vermin-infested lodges, unpalatable food, and inclement weather often added to their discomfort. Because the acceptance of Christianity required the Indians to reject many parts of their religion and culture, they were ofttimes reluctant converts, hostile and resentful toward those who attempted to spread the message of the Christian gospel. Missouri's first resident Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel Marest, reflected on the difficulties and frustrations of his tasks in a letter to his Canadian superiors: "Our life is passed in threading dense forests, in climbing mountains, in crossing lakes and rivers in canoes, that we may overtake some poor Savage who is fleeing from us, and who we do not know how to render less savage by either our words or our attention."

Father Marquette had passed by Missouri in 1673, but in the fall of 1700 Father Marest accompanied a band of Kaskaskia Indians to the west bank of the Mississippi at the mouth of the River Des Peres, just within the present southern limits of St. Louis. The Kaskaskias had abandoned their village on the Illinois River to escape harassment from westward-moving Iroquois tribes. Encouraged by reports that the Le Moyne brothers had occupied the Gulf Coast, the Kaskaskias anticipated receiving greater French protection and support at the new location. Father Marest had devoted himself to mastering the languages and studying the ways of the Illinois Indians, whom he characterized as intelligent, naturally inquisitive, and able to turn a joke in an ingenious manner.

At the Des Peres location the French priest directed the construction of several cabins covered with rush mats in the Indian fashion, a chapel, and a primitive fort. The following spring a number of French traders and a sizable band of Tamaroa Indians joined Father Marest and the Kaskaskias on the west bank. The influential Kaskaskia chieftain Rouensa had enticed the newcomers to abandon their settlements across the river in favor of the Des Peres site. The departure of the Tamaroas came as a blow to the Seminary Priests of the Foreign Missions, a rival religious order that had established a mission station at Cahokia in 1699 in defiance of Jesuit claims to exclusive ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Illinois Country. The Jesuits protested the Seminary clergy's entry into the region, but church authorities in Canada dismissed the complaints and in 1702 ordered the Society of Jesus to leave the work at Cahokia in the hands of the competing priests.


Excerpted from The Genesis of Missouri by William E. Foley. Copyright © 1989 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William E. Foley is Professor of History at Central Missouri State University.  He is the coauthor of The First Chouteaus:  River Barons of Early St. Louis, the coeditor of An Account of Upper Louisiana by Nicholas de Finiels, and the author of A History of Missouri, Volume 1:  1673-1820.

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