IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1781. Jacques Clamorgan was not supposed to be in St. Louis and he knew it. He had tried to get the necessary licenses from the Spanish authorities in New Orleans to travel up-river, but the alcalde, the city’s chief administrative and judicial officer, had forbidden him to leave until he had paid off a substantial debt he owed. Clamorgan rarely accepted being told he could not do what he wanted. He had his trade goods surreptitiously loaded onto a flatboat and then sneaked out of the city to board the bateau at a remote spot, away from the eyes of officialdom.1
For many weeks he followed the Mississippi north, the boatmen straining against the current, poling the bateau and occasionally dragging it along the riverbank. Finally the vessel reached its destination, a settlement of about a thousand people set high on a limestone bluff overlooking the great river. Back in New Orleans, Clamorgan’s friend François Marmillon had assured him he could make his fortune in St. Louis, but Jacques Clamorgan was beginning to have his doubts. His first sight of St. Louis did not inspire confidence. This brash new community, with its cluster of homes and warehouses, a church, and a few taverns, had an unfinished look, and its inhabitants, even the wealthiest of them, a decidedly backwoods appearance.2
A longer look and a moment’s reflection restored his faith. The town was strategically located at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers. The homes might be rough-hewn, but they were neat. Some families had an entire block to themselves, and others at least a quarter or a half block. Most had gardens, where the women raised vegetables and herbs, and a few had their own orchards. The site had been well chosen. When the rivers flooded, as they were bound to from time to time, the town’s elevation would spare it. The street plan was coherent enough. Three largish unpaved streets, Rue Royale, Rue de l’Eglise, and Rue des Granges, ran parallel to the Mississippi and were intersected by a series of small cross streets. Beyond the town were the Great and Little Prairies, where the town’s inhabitants planted crops and pastured livestock.3 And everywhere were the very visible signs of the wealth on which the community had been built. Outside almost every home were drying racks festooned with furs of every kind—beaver, bear, wolf, and others that Clamorgan could not immediately identify. As a rule, not many native people turned up in St. Louis to exchange their furs. White voyageurs went out to their villages with a selection of trade goods and did the bargaining. Once the furs had been obtained, they were carefully dried, packed, and taken down to New Orleans to be shipped to Europe. There was also an illegal trade—illegal as far as the Spanish authorities were concerned—with British-held Montreal.4
Jacques Clamorgan assessed the potential of this new community. It might be possible to push farther into the interior, establish ties with more distant peoples, and even challenge the monopoly of the allpowerful Hudson’s Bay and North West companies trading out of Canada. There might be other commodities worth dealing in besides furs. It was all a matter of opportunity, of talking to the right people, and of greasing a few palms. A man with vision and a modest amount of capital could indeed make his fortune here. Clamorgan’s friend Marmillon had not steered him wrong.
Well traveled and well informed, Jacques Clamorgan understood that this was contested terrain. For eight decades France had laid claim to a swath of real estate that stretched from the present-day border between the United States and Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. To the east French land extended to the “Ohio Country,” the region of western Pennsylvania and Ohio so hotly disputed with the British. To the west … well, no one was quite sure. French authority had come to an end as a consequence of the French and Indian War. When Louis XV saw defeat staring him in the face, he secretly offered his ally Carlos III of Spain the whole of Louisiana, including the “Illinois Country,” the land on the eastern side of the Mississippi. Carlos knew France was offloading an unprofitable colony. However, Spain wanted to expand its hold over Texas, and that could be jeopardized if France was forced to surrender Louisiana to the British. On the advice of his ministers, Carlos agreed in 1762 to the Treaty of Fontainebleau.5
Peace negotiations with Britain the following year resulted in a modification of that treaty. The British got the Illinois Country, but Spain was confirmed in its ownership of the Louisiana Territory. The news of the land swap caught many people off guard, among them Pierre Liguest Laclède. When he left New Orleans in 1763 to stake a claim to the lucrative fur trade in Upper Louisiana, Laclède carried with him a license from the French authorities. On reaching his destination he discovered two things: first, none of the existing French settlements suited his needs, and second, he was now in Spanish territory. Undeterred by the regime change or the lack of trading facilities, Laclède established his own base of operations. He marked out the site of what would become St. Louis and set his teenage stepson, Auguste Chouteau, to work to build him a store and a house. He also began attracting settlers. Many of the French in the Illinois Country were appalled at the thought of being under the dominion of Britain. If they had to swear allegiance to Carlos III in order to join Laclède in St. Louis, that was vastly preferable to becoming subjects of George III.
When Jacques Clamorgan arrived in St. Louis in 1781 he was, to all intents and purposes, in a French town, even though it was under Spanish rule. The mix of French from the Illinois Country, French from British-controlled Canada, and French from the mother country ensured that French would remain the dominant language for decades, especially since the Spanish Crown saw the wisdom of appointing officials who were themselves of French extraction. The French-speaking inhabitants did not seem resentful of Spanish authority. The most serious threat to Spanish power came from the British. Spain had backed Britain’s thirteen rebellious American colonies in the War for Independence, and in the spring of 1780 the British and their Indian allies had launched an assault on St. Louis. But the attack failed, and by the time Jacques Clamorgan stepped ashore and began unloading his merchandise, things seemed to be quiet enough.
He quickly assessed where the real power lay. He was already familiar with the Spanish governmental structure. Presiding over the whole of the Louisiana Territory was a governor, a royal appointee headquartered in New Orleans. Taking into account the factor of distance and the difficulties of communication, the king of Spain and his ministers had seen the sense of splitting the Louisiana Territory in two. The northern part became Upper Louisiana. St. Louis emerged as its administrative center, and it was from St. Louis that the lieutenant governor operated. He had charge of all sorts of matters that related to the security and good order of his region, although he was ultimately answerable to the governor and was expected to send reports to him on a regular basis and to defer to him on all major issues.
Jacques Clamorgan understood that if he hoped to make his fortune in St. Louis he would need to be on good terms with the lieutenant governor, but there were other individuals besides the lieutenant governor whom Jacques quickly realized he had to cultivate. The half-brothers Auguste and Pierre Chouteau were two of the richest and most influential men in Upper Louisiana, and arguably in the whole of the Louisiana Territory. Pierre was the unacknowledged son of Pierre Laclède and his chère amie, Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau. Married as a teenager to the New Orleans tradesman René Chouteau, Marie-Thérèse had found herself abandoned with a small child, Auguste, when René took off for France. Before long she had moved in with Laclède, but since she was still tied to the absent René, each of the children she bore received the last name Chouteau, although no one was in any doubt as to their true paternity.6
Clamorgan never met Pierre Laclède, who died in 1778, but he may have been introduced to Madame Chouteau, and he certainly made the acquaintance of her sons. Auguste and Pierre were men to be reckoned with. From their youth they had lived for months at a time with the Osage, the most powerful native people of the region. They spoke their language and knew their ways. And although both would eventually marry white women, they had Osage wives and children, too, which made them real as well as fictive kin of many of the Osage hunters they traded with. Spanish officials recognized the influence the brothers wielded, and the two men got all manner of trading licenses to work with the Osage. The Chouteau brothers could prove useful allies or dangerous adversaries if Clamorgan followed through on his plan to settle in St. Louis. First, though, he had other matters to attend to.
Once he had sold his merchandise, Clamorgan asked the lieutenant-governor, Francisco Cruzat, for permission to return to New Orleans. Cruzat refused at first, but eventually relented. Clamorgan got a passport for part of his journey, and Cruzat put into his hands some documents to be delivered to his superior in New Orleans. Clamorgan was instructed to go only as far as Arkansas Post, a fort located at the point where the Arkansas flowed into the Mississippi, and wait there while officials assessed the danger posed downriver by British Loyalists operating out of Natchez. Cruzat was not especially worried about Clamorgan’s safety...