Friends and Partners: William Clark, Meriwether Lewis, and Mid-America's French Creoles

by William E. Foley*

(This article first appeared in Missouri Historical Review, 2004 98 [4]: 270–82.)

In the summer of 1789 when William Clark, then a nineteen-year-old militiaman, first laid eyes on the settlement of Vincennes in the Northwest Territory, he encountered a frontier society far different from the one he knew and understood. A Virginian by birth, the young Kentuckian was unimpressed with what he saw. Billy, as the Clark family called him, wrote in his journal: "Post Vincennes is a old and starved place the howses bas[e] but clean . . . low and bilt after the French fasion. I was astonished at seeing so larg[e] and old a Town without any Settlement round." [1] Clearly unaware that the communal French Creoles favored village life and common fields over the scattered settlements and individual farmsteads so familiar to him, Clark had much to learn. In time he would become well acquainted with French ways and customs, but for the moment they seemed strange and different to the youthful Anglo-American.

After he joined the regular army, Clark's duties periodically took him to Fort Knox, a U.S. military post at Vincennes. During his deployment there in the winter of 1793–1794, the congenial townspeople saw to it that the young American lieutenant was included on their guest lists for social occasions–no doubt in part because he was the younger brother of George Rogers Clark, whom many of them had come to know during the course of his western campaigns during the American Revolutionary War. The Creoles surely reminded their young American friend of the support they had rendered in that conflict, and he in turn may have shared stories about his brother John's brief service with the Marquis de Lafayette's forces during the war's final Virginia campaign. For William Clark the succession of balls and card games in Vincennes provided a welcome respite from the boredom and fatigue of army life. Never one to pass on a party, he was warming up to the French and their ways even as his fondness for the military life momentarily waned. [2]

Clark resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in July 1796 in search of what he once referred to as "some more honourable imployment for my youthful days." [3] He had confided to his brother Edmund that the possibilities for opening an extensive and successful trade on the Mississippi River seemed especially promising. [4] Not long after returning to civilian life, William Clark found himself back in the French settlement on the Wabash River representing his older brother George in a lawsuit that threatened the family's Indiana landholdings. After conferring with local authorities, the younger Clark traveled on to Kaskaskia in pursuit of documents that he believed might buttress his brother's defense. While there he took time to reconnoiter the French settlements across the river in Spanish Illinois. In Ste. Genevieve, Clark was a guest of the wealthy and influential Francois Valle II, a useful acquaintance for any young man of business with ambitions in that part of the world. [5]

From Ste. Genevieve, Clark traveled to St. Louis, where on September 10, 1797, he first glimpsed the city that he would call home during the final thirty years of his life. The Creole settlement with its well-built homes and commanding view of the Mississippi was already a major entrepôt of the western fur trade.

Lieutenant Governor Zenon Trudeau, a New Orleans-born French Creole in Spanish service: Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, prominent fur merchants and members of St. Louis's founding family; and their bilingual brother-in-law, trader Charles Gratiot, a special friend to Americans and to George Rogers Clark, welcomed the young Kentuckian to Upper Louisiana's thriving capital with the same gracious hospitality that Clark had come to consider a mark of French character. [6]

After supping with the Spanish lieutenant governor, Clark attended a ball at the residence of Pierre Chouteau, where he saw "all the fine girls and buckish Gentleman" and once again experienced the French joie de vivre with the amiable Gratiot serving as his interpreter and host. One may surmise that the conversation that evening was animated, the company enjoyable, and the libations plentiful, for Clark did not retire to the Gratiot home until the wee hours of the following morning. Such was William Clark's formal entrée into the world of Upper Louisiana's French Creoles. [7]

Six years later Clark had an opportunity to renew old acquaintances in St. Louis when he and Meriwether Lewis arrived in the western country to complete preparations for their Pacific expedition. Lieutenant Governor Charles Delassus's refusal to allow the American exploring party to enter Spanish territory without the approval of his superiors in New Orleans forced Lewis and Clark to abandon their plan for establishing a winter camp on the Missouri River. They chose instead a location on the eastern side of the Mississippi across from the mouth of the Missouri at Wood River, or as the French called it, the Riviere du Bois. [8]

Delassus may not have been accommodating, but the same could not be said for most of Upper Louisiana's other francophone residents. When Lewis and Clark's little fleet sailed up the Mississippi on its way to Wood River, proudly flying the American colors, Clark reported that as it approached St. Louis "the admiration of the people were So great, that hundreds Came to the bank to view us." The captains ordered the boats to drop anchor along the riverfront so they could briefly pay their respects in the capital city. During a courtesy call at the lieutenant governor's residence, Clark encountered several former acquaintances. Whatever reservations they may have harbored about the pending American takeover of Louisiana, the Creoles seemed eager to make a positive impression on the young officers. [9]

In private conversations out of the governor's hearing, Auguste Chouteau and Upper Louisiana's surveyor general, Antoine Soulard, exhibited a surprising willingness to be helpful. Soulard allowed Lewis to peruse his copy of Upper Louisiana's 1800 census, and Chouteau loaned him a manuscript map depicting the Missouri River as far as the mouth of the Osage. [10] Their tacit cooperation fostered the creation of a cordial relationship between Lewis and Clark and Upper Louisiana's francophones. The pragmatic Creoles, apprehensive about their prospects under a new American regime, exhibited remarkable adaptability as they braced themselves for the necessary adjustments to the requirements of an alien culture, government, and language. As gentlemen renowned for their conviviality and as businessmen with an eye on the future, St. Louis's French-speaking merchants and traders wasted no time in extending the hand of friendship to the incoming Americans.

During their stay at Camp River Dubois, which extended from December 1803 to May 1804, both Lewis and Clark often traveled to St. Louis, where they passed many pleasant hours in the comfortable homes of the Chouteau brothers. The foursome got along famously, notwithstanding their need to rely on translators to facilitate their conversations. Neither Lewis nor Clark spoke French, and the Chouteaus were not fluent in English. Auguste, the quieter, more calculating, and less outgoing of the Chouteaus, somewhat resembled Lewis in his demeanor and deportment, whereas the more extroverted Pierre and the easygoing and affable Clark seem to have been kindred spirits.

Though the linguistic and cultural divide that separated the French Creoles and the Americans was deep, Lewis and Clark and the Chouteau brothers soon discovered that they also had much in common. As seasoned veterans of frontier life, they shared mutual interests in Native American peoples and natural history. None had attended an institution of higher learning, but they were well educated and knowledgeable about many things. Ambitious and eager to achieve economic success, they also enjoyed the benefits and advantages of social standing within their respective communities.

The Chouteau gentility and gracious hospitality favorably impressed both Lewis and Clark. Besides providing a welcome diversion from camp life, the visits also gave them an opportunity to learn more about the immense trans-Mississippi territory they were preparing to traverse. The Frenchmen used these get-togethers to acquaint Lewis and Clark with their personal views on matters ranging from appropriate forms of government—they preferred a military one—to Indian policy. They also took advantage of their ripening friendships to strike bargains for the sale of merchandise to outfit the upcoming expedition. The Chouteaus' renown as businessmen and their vast experience in dealing with the Missouri River tribes made them excellent advisers. [11]

The frequency of these contacts increased in mid-February when Delassus received orders to proceed with the region's transfer to U.S. authorities. At the lieutenant governor's invitation, Captains Lewis and Clark joined Spanish officials for an inspection tour of the local military fortifications, which Clark judged to be in a wretched state. According to Clark, the outgoing Spanish official received Captain Amos Stoddard, the incoming American commandant, with a great deal of formality and parade. [12] Clark was likely present in St. Louis to observe the ceremonies of transfer on March 9 and 10, 1804, during which Lewis signed the official transfer document as a witness.

When Clark confided to Pierre Chouteau that Thomas Jefferson, the American president, was eager to meet some western tribal leaders, the enterprising Frenchman promptly volunteered to escort a delegation of Osage chieftains to the federal capital. Well aware of Chouteau's long experience with the Osages and his influence in their camps, the American captains did not hesitate to accept the offer. They knew that no other non-native could serve so well in persuading the headmen from the powerful tribe to visit Jefferson or to observe American authority. [13] Shortly before Chouteau's departure for Washington. D.C., Lewis drafted an effusive letter of introduction for the French merchant, detailing the hospitality and assistance he had extended to both of the American officers during their months of preparation for the Pacific expedition. Clark used that letter to fashion similar ones he sent to his Kentucky relatives. He may have borrowed his partner's flowery phrases, but the sentiments expressing his warm personal regard for Pierre Chouteau and his wife, Brigitte, were genuine. [14]

A final flurry of preparations for both the eastward-bound Osage delegation and the westward-bound Corps of Discovery kept both Chouteau brothers in close contact with the American explorers. At the last minute, Lewis advised Clark that the Chouteaus had procured seven engagés to accompany the expedition as far as the Mandan villages. Lewis reciprocated such favors by recommending Auguste Pierre Chouteau, Charles Gratiot, Jr., Augustus Bougainville Lorimier, and Louis Lorimier, Jr., all scions of prominent Upper Louisiana Creole families, for appointment to the newly established U.S. Military Academy at West Point. [15]

Lewis tarried in St. Louis long enough to see Pierre Chouteau and the Osage chieftains off to Washington. Once they were safely on their way, he was ready to join Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery in St. Charles, a rustic Creole village on the banks of the Missouri. On May 20, 1804, Lewis bade farewell to his St. Louis friends and set out on horseback accompanied by an escort that included some of St. Louis's most prominent Creoles, including Auguste Chouteau, Charles Gratiot, Sylvestre Labbadie, and Dr. Antoine Saugrain among others. They braved a driving rain to reach St. Charles in time to attend a bon voyage celebration arranged by local dignitaries there. The following day the Corps of Discovery began its historic trek to the cheers of well-wishers who had come to see them off. As the French Creoles mingled freely with the Anglo-Americans on the Missouri riverbank, the expedition's departure symbolized the beginning of a long and successful partnership uniting the old French inhabitants and the American newcomers in a common effort to develop the trans-Mississippi frontier. [16]

It was hardly surprising that upon their return twenty-eight months later, Lewis and Clark picked up where they had left off. When they put ashore in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, an impromptu crowd lining the riverbank shouted its approval. On their first day back, Clark recorded in his journal: "We accepted of the invitation of Mr. Peter Chouteau and took a room in his house[.] we payed a friendly visit to Mr August Chotau and Some of our old friends this evening," where no doubt they regaled the St. Louisans with tales of their experiences during their lengthy absence. [17] Two days later St. Louisans feted the expedition's leaders with a sumptuous dinner and ball at William Christy's Tavern, during which the happy revelers drank no fewer than eighteen toasts. [18] For Pierre Chouteau the occasion was doubly enjoyable because, at the invitation of the U.S. government, he was preparing to join the American explorers on their trek eastward for his second trip to the national capital. Neither Lewis nor Clark knew that St. Louis was about to become his new home, but both men clearly welcomed the opportunity to celebrate the completion of their journey with their Creole friends.

Once the applause died away, President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to replace the controversial General James Wilkinson as governor of the Louisiana Territory, and he named Clark as brigadier general of the territorial militia and as U.S. Indian agent for all trans-Mississippi tribes except the Osages. Pierre Chouteau, recently named as their agent, was to continue in that post. Residents of the territory hailed the decision to assign the well-liked explorers to the vacant governmental posts. For Clark, the association with Missouri would be a long and rewarding one, but for Lewis it would be only a brief interlude that was about to end tragically.

Lewis, who had been reluctant to accept the governorship, sent Clark ahead to St. Louis to take up his duties and to assist the incoming territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, a Virginian with a pronounced anti-French bias. In striking contrast with Lewis and Clark, who genuinely liked and respected Upper Louisiana's older inhabitants, Bates confided in a letter to his brother Richard: "The very name of liberty deranges their [the Creoles'] intellects, and it appears absolutely impossible for them to form accurate conceptions of the rights which Justice creates on the one hand, and the obligations which it imposes on the other." [19]

When Clark returned to St. Louis in early May 1807, the French Creoles must have considered him a welcome antidote to the acerbic Bates. In his attempts to counter the growing British influence among Upper Louisiana's Indian tribes and to shore up the territory's inadequate defenses, Clark did not hesitate to solicit advice from his francophone friends. But an affair of the heart soon called Clark back to Virginia, where early the next year he married Judith (Julia) Hancock, in whose honor he named a scenic Montana stream the Judith River. When the newlyweds arrived in St. Louis to set up housekeeping the following June, Lewis had seen to it that all was in readiness for the couple. [20]

Shortly thereafter the governor dispatched his friend Clark up the Missouri River to negotiate with the Osage Indians and to supervise the construction of a combined trading factory and military outpost, first called Fort Clark, but later known as Fort Osage. Those negotiations led to one of the few serious disagreements between Clark and the Chouteaus, and it momentarily threatened to dissolve their developing alliance. When the Osages came to St. Louis to protest the terms of the treaty they had signed in his presence, Clark blamed Pierre Chouteau for having instigated their defiance in order to solidify his personal trading interests with the tribe. Meriwether Lewis remained undecided about Chouteau's role in the proceedings, but he noted that the affair had produced "a want of cordiality and confidence" between Chouteau and Clark. [21]

Their misunderstanding was soon set aside, perhaps over a few drinks and a friendly game of whist. Relations between Clark and Pierre Chouteau were sufficiently improved later in the year to enable them to join together with Manuel Lisa, Pierre Menard, Reuben Lewis (Meriwether's brother), Pierre's son Auguste Pierre, and several others to establish a new business venture—the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company. In all likelihood Lewis was also a silent partner. Clark brought to the enterprise sound judgment, a reputation for integrity, and the possible benefits he might be able to bestow in his official capacity—assets his partners deemed equally valuable to a large capital stake. As a sign of their trust and confidence in the methodical Clark, they made him the company's agent in St. Louis and assigned him to take care of its books. Throughout his public career, Clark worked to promote the fur trade, and that support further cemented his relationship with the St. Louis Creoles who continued to dominate the business. Clark's control over the issuance of U.S. trading licenses did not lessen the value of his friendship.

Governor Lewis's decision to pay the new company $7,000 to escort the stranded Mandan chieftain Shehekshote, or White Coyote, back to his village on the Upper Missouri drew fire from his superiors in Washington and was one of several factors that plunged the already despondent official into a still deeper despair, leading him to take his own life in the fall of 1809. Lewis's tragic death was a blow to Clark who continued to live in St. Louis. [22]

The management of Indian affairs was one of Clark's primary concerns during his Missouri years. As historian Jay Buckley has demonstrated, Clark was arguably the federal government's most important representative in deliberations with Indians in western America. He personally negotiated thirty-seven Indian treaties, more by far than any other U.S. official, and he never hesitated to look to Creole leaders for advice when it came to matters of Indian diplomacy. It was no mere coincidence that Auguste Chouteau assisted with twenty-six of the Indian treaties that Clark helped arrange. [23]

Following Lewis's death, Clark's political fortunes in the frontier territory were momentarily in the ascendancy. In 1813, President James Madison appointed him governor of the Missouri Territory—an office he retained until Missouri became a state. During his tenure as governor, Clark presided over a frontier territory where personal feuds and animosities frequently exacerbated disagreements over public policy. In the rough-and-tumble arena of Missouri territorial politics, Clark generally sided with members of the St. Louis junto, an elite group of leaders dominated by influential French fur merchants and land claimants with substantial holdings in unconfirmed Spanish land titles. [24]

Clark was not averse to using his gubernatorial office to assist old friends and allies as well as family members. In one celebrated incident, over the strenuous objections of backers of the struggling Bank of St. Louis, he exercised his political muscle to secure legislative approval for chartering the rival Bank of Missouri headed by Auguste Chouteau. Clark later became a shareholder and officer in the new institution. His open identification with the city's Creole establishment eventually proved costly in Missouri's rapidly changing political climate. Rightly or wrongly, Clark's loyalty to longtime friends and members of the territorial establishment, coupled with his belief that their support served the national interest, guided his political choices. Ultimately his close association with individuals representing the old order proved to be a serious political liability that contributed to his defeat in the contest to elect Missouri's first governor following statehood.

During the gubernatorial campaign, the opposition portrayed Clark as a stiff, reserved Virginia aristocrat who had been far too cozy with the Indians. [25] Missouri voters embraced his opponent, Alexander McNair, by the droves, but Clark's Creole friends remained steadfast in their support. In a letter published in the St. Louis Enquirer only in French, the author, who signed himself a Louisianan, reminded Missouri's francophones that during the War of 1812 when Clark's predecessor, Governor Benjamin Howard, had accused them of favoring the savages over the government, their longtime friend had rushed to their defense and unequivocally vouched for their loyalty. [26] Unfortunately for Clark, the overwhelming support he enjoyed among the old French inhabitants was insufficient to counter the influence of the state's burgeoning Anglo-American majority, and McNair handily trounced him by a margin of nearly three-to-one.

Though disappointed, the steadfast Clark took his loss in stride and turned his attention to the practical need for securing employment, preferably in St. Louis. His friends in the national government obliged by continuing him in his position as U.S. Indian agent, and in 1822 they gave him the title of superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis. Clark's power and political influence may have been waning, and many of Clark's rank-and-file Missouri constituents may have long since consigned his exploits as an explorer to the dustbin of history, but he still retained a modicum of fame. Distinguished guests visiting the West routinely called on Clark, who delighted in showing them his museum filled with Indian artifacts and other curiosities. A notable example was the Marquis de Lafayette, who made it a point during his brief 1825 stopover in St. Louis to see Clark and visit his museum. [27] Their cordial meeting helped offset any embarrassment resulting from Missouri Governor Frederick Bates's refusal to receive the visiting French dignitary, and Clark subsequently sent him a live grizzly bear that became something of a sensation following its delivery in Paris. [28] Prophetically, five years earlier in the heat of Clark's unsuccessful 1820 gubernatorial campaign, a staunch Creole partisan had reminded his fellow francophones that Monsieur Clark had never forgotten Lafayette's assistance during the Revolutionary War or the role that French forces had played at Yorktown. [29]

It was fitting that in his final years Clark shared honors as St. Louis's elder statesman with Pierre Chouteau. A friendship and alliance born many years before persisted to the end. Clark's 1820 campaign statement addressed to the people of Missouri perhaps best summarized his Creole connection: "I came to this country, then Upper Louisiana, in the fall of 1803, before the change of government, in company with the expedition which was planned by Mr. Jefferson and led by the late governor, then Captain Lewis, to the Pacific ocean. On the return of that expedition I made Missouri the home of my choice and the country of my permanent residence. This long residence has given me a personal acquaintance, which time has ripened into friendship, with most of the old inhabitants and early settlers: and to them I refer [you] for answers to any enquiries which may concern my individual and private character." [30] To Clark's way of thinking, they knew him as well as anyone.

*William E. Foley is professor emeritus of history at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. He received the BS and MA degrees from Central Missouri State and the PhD in history from the University of Missouri-Columbia. His most recent book is Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark , published by the University of Missouri Press.


1. William Clark, journal of Hardin's Campaign, 5 August 1789–18 March 1790, box 11, folder 1, William Clark Papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. (back)
2. William Clark, journal and memorandum book, 1792-1794, box 1, folder 3. Clark Papers. (back)
3. Clark to Jonathan Clark, 25 November 1794, Lyman Copeland Draper Manuscript Collection, 2L37, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison. (back)
4. Clark to Edmund Clark, 25 November 1794, Draper Collection, 2L36. (back)
5. William Clark, journal, 20 August–6 September 1797, Northwest Territory Collection, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis. (back)
6. Ibid. (back)
7. Ibid. (back)
8. By the time Lewis and Clark reached St. Louis in late 1803, France's agreement to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States was common knowledge in Upper Louisiana, but given the lateness of the season and the expectation that Spain would soon surrender its control over the province, the American captains chose not to contest the Spanish official's decision. See Clark to Jonathan Clark, 16 December 1803, in James Holmberg, ed., Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 60–62, and Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, 19 December 1803, in Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1743–1854, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1: 145–147. (back)
9. Clark to Jonathan Clark, 16 December 1803, 60–62. (back)
10. Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, 19, 28 December 1803, in Jackson, Letters, 1: 145–155. (back)
11. See William E. Foley, "The Lewis and Clark Expedition's Silent Partners: The Chouteau Brothers of St. Louis," Missouri Historical Review 77 (January 1983): 131–146. (back)
12. Clark to Jonathan Clark, 25 February 1804, in Holmberg, Dear Brother, 76–77. (back)
13. See William E. Foley and Charles David Rice, "Pierre Chouteau: Entrepreneur as Indian Agent," Missouri Historical Review 72 (July 1978): 366–372. (back)
14. Clark to Jonathan Clark, 3 May 1804, in Holmberg, Dear Brother, 81–82; Clark to William Croghan, 2 May 1804, Lewis to William Preston, 3 May 1804, in Jackson, Letters, 1: 178–179. (back)
15. Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, 26 March 1804, Lewis to William Clark, 2 May 1804, in Jackson, Letters, 1: 170–171, 172, 177–178; Donald Chaput, "The Early Missouri Graduates of West Point: Officers or Merchants?” Missouri Historical Review 72 (April 1978): 262–270. (back)
16. Lewis and Clark, journal entries, 20–21 May 1804, in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983–1999), 2: 240–244. (back)
17. Clark, journal entry, 23 September 1806, ibid., 8: 370–371. (back)
18. James P. Ronda, "St. Louis Welcomes and Toasts the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Newly Discovered 1806 Newspaper Account," We Proceeded On 13 (February 1987): 19–20. (back)
19. Bates to Richard Bates, 17 December 1807, in Thomas Maitland Marshall, ed., The Life and Papers of Frederick Bates (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1926). I: 241–243. (back)
20. Lewis to William Clark, 29 May 1808, box 11, folder 18, Clark Papers. (back)
21. Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, 15 December 1808, American State Papers, Indian Affairs, 1: 766–767. (back)
22. On this episode see William E. Foley and C. David Rice, "The Return of the Mandan Chief," Montana, the Magazine of Western History 29 (July 1979): 2–15. (back)
23. Jay H. Buckley, "William Clark: Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, 1813–1838" (PhD diss., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2001). (back)
24. William E. Foley, The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), 283–293. (back)
25. John O'Fallon to Dennis Fitzhugh, 18 August 1820, Fitzhugh Family Papers, Missouri Historical Society. (back)
26. St. Louis Enquirer, 23 August 1820. (back)
27. St. Louis Missouri Republican, 2 May 1825. (back)
28. Marquis de Lafayette to William Clark, 1 February 1830, box 14, folder 1, Clark Papers. (back)
29. St. Louis Enquirer, 23 August 1820. (back)
30. "To the People of Missouri," 2 July 1820, box 13, folder 5, Clark Papers. (back)

This essay is reproduced with the permission of The State Historical Society of Missouri.