BEFORE LEWIS AND CLARK by Shirley Christian


The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America’s Frontier
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A fine history of a French family that enjoyed great influence—and deservedly so—in the early trans-Mississippian West.

In this ballyhooed bicentennial year of the Corps of Discovery’s departure for the Pacific, it may surprise some readers to learn that Lewis and Clark traveled in territory already heavily traversed, mapped, and studied by other whites. When they entered the lands ceded to the US under the Louisiana Purchase, writes former New York Times Latin America correspondent Christian, they knew almost nothing about the region. “But William Clark, thanks to the path opened in the Illinois country by an older brother some twenty years earlier, knew an important person in the little French Creole village of St. Louis. . . . The name of the man was Chouteau, which neither Clark nor Lewis could spell.” It was largely through the good works of the aristocratic brothers Pierre and Auguste Chouteau, writes Christian, that the Corps was able to pass unhindered through a huge swath of territory, which was terra incognita to them but quite familiar to generations of French and French Canadian trappers, miners, and traders. “The Chouteaus,” Christian asserts, “had worked to create an environment where Indians generally respected white men and believed they could be trusted.” Regrettably, she adds, the American government seemed unaware of past relationships “that had existed for generations,” and American agents, administrators, and soldiers swiftly broke the peace; Christian usefully notes that in the Louisiana Purchase territory under Spanish rule, not a single Indian was killed or executed by soldiers, whereas wholesale war was the hallmark of the American presence there. That more Indians and whites did not die on the frontier was also due to the Chouteaus and their descendants, who helped negotiate important treaties that the Americans broke again and again.

A useful tonic to a literature suddenly full of books on Lewis and Clark, but with only passing references to those who came before them.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-11005-0
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2004