Saturday, October 19, 2013

250 Years Ago ... Meanwhile, somewhere along the Mississippi River

When we last left our story about the founding of St. Louis, Governor D'Abbadie of Louisiana had confirmed the trading license for Maxent and Laclede's company granting them the exclusive right to establish a trading post at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and to trade with the Indians in the area.  At that time Maxent must have already been putting together the merchandise that would be taken upriver to be used as presents for the Indian tribes and for trade. Laclede, as the partner who would be "on the ground",  must have already been making final arrangements for the journey.  Laclede would take with him 14 year old Auguste Chouteau, the son of Laclede's life partner Marie Therese Bourgeois. There is a myth that Laclede also took colonists with him, but this was a merchant trading trip.  The colonists would arrive later.

A good account of the journey may be found in Frederick Fausz' book Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West. On August 10, 1763 (which Fausz assures us was a Wednesday) Laclede left a power of attorney with Judge Nicolas Forstall of New Orleans so that his affairs in New Orleans could be handled in his absence. He and Chouteau were to leave with the royal convoy that carried provisions upriver to Fort de Chartres.  Despite the surrender of the French and the subsequent treaties, the Fort was still under the control of the French military as no British troops had yet arrived in the Illinois to take possession of it.

According to histories, five bateaux left New Orleans in the royal convoy in the "first days of August" that year.  A bateaux was a shallow draft boat which could carry up to 40 tons of merchandise.  Fausz writes:

The typical crew of each "king's boat" consisted of a patrone (experienced skipper), a "royal slave" as an expert pilot and at least twenty well-armed marines, who rowed and defended the convoy. 
According to Fausz, the merchandise that Maxent & Laclede were sending upriver was valued at nine thousand livres which "was enough to provide lavish presents for twenty Indian nations."

Presents for the Indian nations were essential.  Indians only traded with allies and anyone who wasn't an ally was an enemy.  Enemies could be robbed and even killed.  Friends presented each other with presents as symbols of their goodwill.  Being on the good side of the Indians was essential for trade and also for safety.  Reports of the attacks on the British in Detroit and throughout the Illinois country in May of 1763 by Pontiac and the formerly French allied tribes reached New Orleans just before the royal convoy was scheduled to depart. Neyon de Villiers, the commandant at Fort de Chartres, reported that Pontiac and his warriors had captured seven British forts, beseiged Detroit and seized "a hundred thousand pounds" of English merchandise including ammunition. Villiers urged the Governor to maintain a full complement of troops at Fort de Chartres until the British could arrive to take control.  But the French evacuation of Louisiana was underway and would not be stopped.

Laclede and Chouteau were bound for Ste. Genevieve, the French settlement almost directly across the river from Kaskaskia and just downstream from Fort de Chartres.  Ste. Genevieve was primarily an agricultural community which also housed some French who worked the lead mines on the western side of the Mississippi.  Ste. Genevieve was the only port on the Mississippi, above the Ohio River, that the French still legally controlled (although, of course, the King had already secretly ceded the land to Spain). Laclede planned to winter in Ste. Genevieve while he selected a site further north for his trading post.

By the end of October of 1763, the royal convoy was still on its way upriver but getting near Ste. Genevieve. Laclede's journey to Ste. Genevieve took 85 days, which wasn't particularly long in the days before steam powered vessels had been invented.  The convoy would have made only about one mile per hour, operating under human power.  The boatmen had to row or pole their way against the current.   A large portion of the trip involved cordelling, a process by which ropes would be tied to trees along the shore slightly upriver from the location of the bateaux and the men would pull the boats along.  This sometimes involved zigzagging back and forth across the Mississippi.  And always they were laboring against the strong current of the Mississippi River.


The bateaux itself would have little shelter from the elements (whether hot sun or rain) - only a tent. Anyone who has lived through the heat of August along the Mississippi (not to mention the mosquitos) can imagine how hellish the trip must have been. But travel in late summer was preferable to travel during the winter when ice flowed down the Mississippi, or travel during the spring floods.  And throughout the trip the men in the convoy would be under constant pressure to keep watch against attacks from Indians allied with the English.

There is no record that this royal convoy was attacked by Indians. But perhaps the attention of the English-allied Indians was directed east during this period.   

In September, a month or so after the convoy left New Orleans, a British infantry captain arrived in New Orleans to begin the process of the handover of the land east of the river, beginning with Mobile.  On October 16, former Governor Kerlerec would report:  "The English have at last taken possession of Florida, where I think the Indians will give them some work." Also in October Kerlerec reported that the British were planning the process of taking possession of Fort de Chartres via the long trip up the Mississippi:

The English are intending to go and take possession of the Illinois and dependencies by way of the river, and according to the conferences that I have had on this subject with the captain of infantry whom Major Farmar has dispatched to me, it has been arranged that the latter will deliberate about this operation at Mobile with M. D'Abbadie and that they will be able to have the English convoy depart toward the first days of January.  They will be at the Illinois about the 20th of March, and our troops will return here at the end of April.

Laclede and Choteau were unaware of this as they continued their long journey upstream.  By this time in October they would probably have been somewhere near or above the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi.  They knew that Ste. Genevieve was not much further upstream.  I imagine they were dreaming of the day that the journey would be complete. But the leg of the journey between the Ohio River and the Kaskaskia River contained, in Fausz' words, the greatest navigational challenges, partly because quicksand lined the river's edges.  Often bateaux would make only one mile in two hours. Once they reached the mouth of the Kaskaskia River, it would only be 15 miles to Ste. Genevieve. The end was near.

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.