“Some leagues further up, on the left side as you ascend, is the great Missouris River, so famed for its swiftness. Its water is always muddy, and especially in spring, making the Missicipi turbid for 400 leagues.”
Etienne Véniard de Bourgmont’s Exact Description of Louisiana is one of two unsigned reports—the first was Route to be Followed for Ascending the Missouri River—that the explorer wrote based on his personal diary following journeys up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, undertaken in 1713 or 1714. Bourgmont’s Exact Description was one of the first detailed accounts of the immense territory contained within what would pass to the United States in the following century as the Louisiana Purchase. Bourgmont enumerated and located American Indian tribes, noted their disposition toward the French occupiers of Louisiana, and listed resources for possible commercial exploitation.
Bourgmontembarked on the expedition and compiled information at the behest of his commander in New France, Antoine Laumet, Sieur de LaMothe Cadillac, who was governor of Louisiana at the time. Several years after his journey, Bourgmont was recommended for the Cross of Saint Louis in recognition for his service to France.
In the 1660s, under pressure from the British in the north at Hudson’s Bay, and in the south from colonies along the Atlantic coast, the French began moving outward from bases at Montreal and Quebec in their colony of New France. They sent traders, missionaries, and explorers into the North American interior to find profitable natural resources, convert Indians to Roman Catholicism, and search for the Northwest Passage, a route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that had been sought after for centuries. By the early 1680s, explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle had descended to the mouth of the Mississippi River and claimed the entire river basin for France. The new territory of Louisiana (named for King Louis XIV of France), extended the domain of New France from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as the Rocky Mountains, encompassing one-third of the land area within the borders of the current United States.
By the early eighteenth century, the French had established missions and forts at the northern and southern ends of the territory. In Upper Louisiana, mission-based settlements were founded along the Mississippi River at Cahokia (1696) and Kaskaskia (1703), and defensive posts were built at strategic locations, such as Fort Pontchartrain at Detroit (1701). In Lower Louisiana, the Le Moyne brothers (Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville) built Fort Maurepas (1699) in present-day Mississippi and Fort Louis (1702) at Mobile in present-day Alabama, which served for a time as capital of Louisiana. Token contingents of soldiers helped anchor each of the missions and military outposts.
Between the northern and southern extremes of Louisiana, however, lay vast areas where no Europeans lived and indigenous peoples dominated. The entire area of Louisiana, particularly the uninhabited middle portion, was vulnerable to encroachments from other European powers, which, like the French, were battling for control of North America. Moving from their colonies to the east, west, and south of New France, the British and the Spanish continually probed the uncharted territory, seeking the same things as the French colonists: natural resources and American Indian allies.
With limited manpower and financing available to consolidate claims and deflect rivals, the French desperately needed an accurate, current picture of the terrain and the diplomatic situation that prevailed in the land they possessed. Detailed data was necessary in order to concentrate efforts on areas that showed the most promise in terms of commercial potential and the disposition of indigenous populations toward working in concert with French colonizers. To obtain that vital information, Louisiana governor Cadillac commissioned Bourgmont to undertake a journey up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Etienne Véniard de Bourgmont was born in 1679 in Cerisy-Belle- Étoile, Normandy, France. He was the son of surgeon Charles de Véniard. In 1698, Bourgmont was arrested for poaching on the grounds of the local monastery. He fled the country, leaving his relatives to settle the debt. He surfaced in New France in 1702 as a soldier on an expedition to the Ouabache River in the American Midwest.
Bourgmont lived among Americans Indians as a fur trader for the military. Promoted to ensign (sublieutenant), in 1706 he was put in command at Fort Pontchartrain, the site of the future city of Detroit, Michigan. He fended off an Ottawa attack but was criticized because a French missionary was killed in the battle. Facing disciplinary action, Bourgmont deserted with several other soldiers.
Bourgmont lived as a fugitive for several years, trading illegally with tribes around Lake Erie. In 1712 he returned to Pontchartrain to fight in the Fox Wars, armed conflicts between Fox Indians and French settlers. The following year he became attached to a Missouri tribal chief’s daughter, fathered a son by her, and lived with the Illinois confederation of tribes at the Kaskaskia mission. Jesuit missionaries, scandalized, wrote to the French authorities about his behavior, and a warrant was issued for Bourgmont’s arrest. He fled to the distant French outpost of Fort Louis in Mobile Bay (in present-day Alabama).
In 1713 and 1714, Bourgmont explored and reported on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for Louisiana governor Cadillac. In 1719, new Louisiana commander Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville sent Bourgmont as an ambassador to form alliances with the American Indians of Illinois country. He returned to Mobile Bay in time to participate in military actions against the Spanish in Pensacola (in present-day Florida).
In 1720, Bourgmont and his Indian son sailed for France, where he collected a significant amount of military back pay, was commissioned a captain, and was granted a parcel of land in Louisiana as Sieur de Bourgmont (or Bourgmond). The following year, before returning to America, he married Jacqueline Bouvet des Bordeaux. Named commandant of the Missouri River, he built Fort d’Orleans in 1723. The following year he explored the Great Plains and negotiated peace with several Indian tribes.
Bourgmont returned to France in 1725, accompanied by numerous chiefs and his Indian wife (whom he called “La Sauvagesse”) and son. After touring the country, the chiefs and La Sauvagesse returned to America. Bourgmont, elevated to the nobility, stayed in France with his legal wife and retired from service. He died in 1734.
Despite Bourgmont’s nonconformist lifestyle and military record, he took a serious approach to his exploratory responsibilities. Though he occasionally revealed his opinions on the progress and prospects of colonization in Louisiana, the bulk of his report was based not on speculation or rumor, but on firsthand observations. Through his matter-of-fact, occasionally colorful narration, Bourgmont served as one of colonial America’s earliest travel writers.
The full title of Bourgmont’s document outlines the task at hand: Exact Description of Louisiana, of its Harbours, Lands and Rivers, and Names of the Tribes Which Occupy It, and the Commerce and Advantages to be Derived Therefrom for the Establishment of a Colony. The author prefaces his remarks with his observations about the advantages and disadvantages of his starting point, Dauphin Island (formerly known as Massacre Island because of the number of Indian skeletons found there), a harbor some twenty miles from Fort Louis on Mobile Bay capable of sheltering numerous ships.
The opening comments are historically invaluable. While his document is undated, Bourgmont provides internal evidence that helps narrow the period of time in which the exploration must have occurred and been recorded. For example, Bourgmont notes that Dauphin Island contained no fort when he saw it. Cedar stake fortifications were erected there late in 1715, so this fixes the time of his exploration prior to that date.
Bourgmont lists the tribal names, populations, and characteristics of the American Indians living along the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries. His recommendation may be presumed to have been in whole or in part responsible for the 1714 establishment of a major trading post at Natchez (in present-day Mississippi) and the construction of Fort Rosalie two years later.
The document features numerous points of environmental interest, particularly in the early stages of the narration. Bourgmont writes of the Indians’ cultivation of tobacco, also noting the “quantities of apples and wild plums and similar fruits” to be found in the prairies. Although he goes into more detail later in the report regarding the natural resources specific to each tribe and region along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, Bourgmont concludes his early remarks with the statement “it would be impossible to speak too high” of the area’s “abundance of beasts, game, fruits, roots, and pot-herbs.”
One unfortunate omission in Bourgmont’s narration is information about the number and nature of his companions on the journey. Nor is there a record of whether they packed all the necessary supplies or traded as needed with Indians they encountered.
The ascent of the upper Mississippi and the Missouri
After paddling nearly one thousand miles from his starting point, Bourgmont’s expedition arrived at the Ouabache (Wabash) River. This was territory familiar to the author from a decade earlier, when he was a soldier and fur trader living among the Maskoutin and Kaskaskia tribes. Bourgmont fondly reminisces about his days in the area and demonstrates that he bears no grudge against the priests who precipitated the legal action that caused him to flee to Mobile Bay. His mention of Fort Jucherot agrees with historical fact: Bourgmont was indeed among the military party that built a tannery and a defensive position to protect it on the river, and he did live for eighteen months among the Indians, trading in furs to supply the facility.
With an eye to commercial potential, Bourgmont remarks in passing on the presence of natural resources for possible exploitation. He mentions such minerals as slate (useful in roofing and flooring, as whetstones, blackboards and tombstones), rock crystal (used in the production of abrasives, ceramics, jewelry, and other items), and copper (a versatile metal with many applications by itself or as an alloy).
Bourgmont subsequently turned off the Mississippi in the vicinity of present-day St. Louis, Missouri, and became one of the first Europeans to travel for a distance on the Missouri River—North America’s longest river at more than 2,300 miles—and to explore some of its major tributaries. As he had done on the Mississippi, Bourgmont records American Indian tribes he has encountered, describing their attitudes toward the French. He praises the Missouri Indians as being “of very good blood,” noting that they “are more alert than any other tribe.” This preference is not surprising, given that Bourgmont had lived among them for many years, observed their customs, and fathered a child by the daughter of a Missouri tribal chief.
While it is difficult to know exactly how far Bourgmont penetrated along the Missouri, there are clues that help trace part of his journey. He certainly passed the Osage (Ausages), Kansas (Ecanzé) and Platte (then called Nebraska or Nibraskier) rivers. Bourgmont’s language grows murky in describing the end of his route, but given the distance involved, he apparently reached the spot where the Missouri forks in South Dakota, with one branch heading north and the other west. It is unclear which fork he followed from that point, but since he was supposed to search for a passage to the coast, it may be presumed he took the westernmost waterway. If so, he may have gone as far as modern-day eastern Wyoming, via the Belle Fourche or Cheyenne rivers.
Many of the American Indian tribes Bourgmont names have been identified. However, their presence along the Missouri River is of little assistance in recreating the explorer’s path in Exact Description, since most were nomadic or seminomadic peoples who moved across the Great Plains in search of buffalo and other game. The Maquetantatas (Otos), Panis and Panimahas (Pawnees), Ayowests (Iowas), Mahas (Omahas), and Aricaras/Caricaras (Arikaras) are all known to have ranged hundreds of miles in the American Midwest.
The identification of the Padouca/Padocca tribe is more problematic, and the name has been variously attributed to the Apache and Comanche peoples. Bourgmont mentions that the Padoucas were allied with the Spanish. However, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the Apaches and Spanish were often on hostile terms. Furthermore, by the early 1700s the Apaches had been driven from the Great Plains into the Southwest by their traditional enemies, the Comanches—who are thus the most likely candidates to be the Padoucas of the text.
Bourgmont ends his narration with a brief summary of the natural resources that present the most potential for exploitation in each of the areas he has explored. Some of his suggestions (tobacco cultivation, buffalo hunting, wheat farming, and mining) were later followed, especially by later waves of colonists. Bourgmont’s closing remark—”If one wants to settle these countries, it is necessary to place plenty of people there, without which it is impossible to succeed”—could have served as the rallying cry for the successive colonizers spreading west to the Pacific.
Bourgmont’s Exact Description and Route to be Followed (which included the earliest documented naming of the Missouri River) had a lasting impact on continental exploration. In 1719 French cartographer Guillaume Delisle used Bourgmont’s twin accounts to create the first maps that filled in many of the blanks in colonists’ understanding of North American geography. The information Bourgmont provided proved invaluable to numerous northwestern explorations conducted by French Canadian fur traders before the end of the eighteenth century. The accumulated data in turn served as the basis for the intelligence collected to help guide the 1803–4 Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery along the Missouri during their journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Though important for pioneering chronicles of discovery and first contact between American Indians and Europeans in the American heartland, Bourgmont’s 1713–14 reports actually pale in comparison, to the written account of the expedition he led a decade later, which was posthumously published in 1757.
In 1723, Bourgmont built Fort d’Orleans on the Missouri River at the junction of the Grand River near present-day Brunswick, in north-central Missouri. The post was intended to solidify trade arrangements with local inhabitants and to discourage Spanish incursions into the area. The following year, Bourgmont was sent from Fort d’Orleans as king’s envoy (complete with a supply of French flags to present as gifts in proof of agreements) to further strengthen trade by forming alliances with American Indian tribes along the Missouri River. The four-month land-and-water expedition, which included large contingents of friendly Missouri and Osage Indians to assist in interpreting and encouraging treaties, journeyed as far as the western boundaries of the present state of Kansas. The expedition resulted in trade agreements between the French and numerous tribes, including the Illinois, Pawnee, Oto, Kansa, Omaha, Iowa, and Padouca tribes.
The entire expedition was recorded on a day-by-day basis. The Journal gave the names of participants (down to the expedition leader’s servant and the troop’s drummer boy), provided weather reports, noted Bourgmont’s debilitating bouts of fever, and included anthropologically interesting descriptions of the habits and culture of the indigenous peoples (such as the observation that the Padoucas practiced polygamy.)
Upon returning to Fort d’Orleans in November 1724, Bourgmont traveled down the Mississippi with chiefs from the new Indian allies, and in company with his Indian wife and son, sailed with them to France. The American Indian chiefs were presented at the court of King Louis XV, where they caused a sensation. They performed tribal dances at Paris operas and theaters, hunted deer with bows and arrows in the royal forests, and were clothed in the finery of the day. Before she returned home with the other Indians, Bourgmont’s Indian wife, “La Sauvagesse,” was baptized and married at Notre Dame Cathedral to a French sergeant serving under Bourgmont.
The military, political, and commercial links that Bourgmont had forged between the American Indian tribes and the French were considered so strong that the explorer was able to remain in his homeland with his French wife, never again to return to the colonies. Furthermore, Fort d’Orleans was afterward deemed unnecessary. In 1726, just two years after the military post was established, the last soldiers marched away. The fort was offered to French missionaries, but they too declined to occupy the facility, so it was abandoned and left to return to nature. Despite several archaeological excursions, the exact location of Fort d’Orleans—the first European outpost on the Missouri River—remains unknown.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Bourgmont’s life and work was the rehabilitation of his reputation in the latter half of his career. A criminal, adventurer, deserter, and outlaw in his youth, he managed to contribute greatly to French colonial efforts in the Louisiana district of New France. His time spent living among the Indian tribes of the Midwest proved particularly useful later in communicating with tribes he encountered during his expeditions along the Missouri River. His intimate knowledge of American Indian traditions, customs, and rituals undoubtedly helped him form working relationships with the indigenous peoples so vital to colonial trade in the eighteenth century.
Likewise, it is to the credit of the French colonial government that they forgave Bourgmont’s youthful indiscretions and recognized his valuable contributions by according him promotions, increased responsibilities, honors, and financial remunerations in his later years. Though the French colonization of the New World ultimately failed, France’s influence is still felt in many ways, from the architecture of New Orleans (founded in 1718) to the French Canadian culture of the province of Quebec.
A significant part of Bourgmont’s enduring legacy to US history was his use of Indian nomenclature. The explorer was the first European to systematically record the names of the territories and waterways of the occupying tribes as he heard them.
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