Bourgmont Expedition

The French were ever seeking to develop trade with the Indians, and when commercial relations were established they were fostered and closely guarded. As early as 1718, Sieur Presle, now supposed to have been a stockholder in the Company of the Indies, had suggested that Etienne Venyard Sieur de Bourgmont be sent to arrange trade relations with the Missouris, living at that time near the mouth of the Grand River, and possibly on that stream in the present bounds of Livingston or Carroll counties, in Missouri. To insure the stability and permanency of the trade so arranged, Bourgmont established Fort Orleans in 1723. The exact location of this fort had long been a matter of controversy, though it was probably on an island in the Missouri River, near what is now Malta Bend. It had been located by different writers as far down as the mouth of the Osage. If the Missouri villages were up the Grand River, as some suppose, there would be reason to locate the site of the fort on an island near the modern Brunswick, Mo.1 At that time the French, having in mind the Villazur expedition against the Pawnees, recognized the possibility of a conflict with Spain for the Great Plains. It was supposed that a French fort on the Missouri would check further infringements by the Spaniards living on the Rio Grande. An outpost at the edge of the plains would serve to develop trade with the Indian tribes, causing them to bury their tribal animosities and act in unison in the interests of the French, to whom all would look for the manufactured articles becoming daily more indispensable to the Indians. Another object to be attained by this fort was the winning of the Padoucahs (Comanches) to the French interest. These plains barbarians roamed all the regions from below the Rio Grande to the Upper Platte. They were, mainly by theft, securing horses from the Spaniards. Mounted on these, they became the whirlwind of the deserts and the buffalo plains. To a people to whom the possibility of commerce appealed, their friendship was considered desirable, and Bourgmont was charged to visit and conciliate them. Their nearest towns were on the head waters of the Kansas River, beyond the hunting-grounds of both the Kansas and the Pawnees.

In the summer of 1724, Bourgmont occupied himself with the performance of his charge concerning the plains Indians. To accomplish the first stage of his objective, he divided his expedition into two detachments. The first he led in person. One part of it was made up of one hundred Missouris, then firmly bound to the French. They were commanded by a head-chief and eight war-chiefs. There were sixty-four Osages, commanded by four war-chiefs. Of Frenchmen in the party, there were Sieur La Renaudiere and his Canadian engage De Gaillard, De Bellerive, a cadet, Simon, the servant of the commander, and troopers D’Estienne Roulot, Derbet, and the drummer D’Hamelin. This division did not march until the 3d of July. The other detachment had set out in batteaux on the 25th of June to ascend the Missouri. It was commanded by St. Ange, an ensign of the fort. It had an escort or guard of eleven soldiers—La Jeunesse, Bonneau, Saint Lazare, Ferret, Derbet, Avignon, Sans-Chagrin, Poupard, Gaspard, Chalons, and Brasseur. Two of the engages of Sieur La Renaudiere, Antoine and Toulouse, were of the company, as were five Canadians—Mercier, Quesnel, Rivet, Rolet, and Lespine.

The first stage of the expedition was to end at the Canzes village on the west side of the Missouri, where the town of Doniphan, Kansas, now is. This destination was reached by Bourgmont on the morning of the 8th of July, after a pleasant march over beautiful prairies. The reception of the Frenchmen was cordial. The Canzes feasted their distinguished visitors and made them presents, excepting rich gifts in return. The river detachment had to push against rapid currents augmented by the summer floods in the Missouri from the melting snow in the Rocky Mountains. And it was slow in appearing at the Canzes town. Many of the men were attacked by the fevers incident to such a life in a new country. On the day of his arrival among the Canzes, a courier from St. Ange presented himself before Bourgmont to report conditions and ask that food be supplied him. This request was granted, and St. Ange was sent an exhortation to hasten up the river. He did not arrive until late in July. During the tedious waiting courtesies were continually exchanged between Bourgmont and the Canzes, and two captive Padoucahs—slaves—were turned over to the French. It was the intention to gain the good will of the Padoucahs by returning these captives, but they died of the prevailing fever.

Upon the arrival of St. Ange the French distributed presents to the Canzes, Bourgmont requesting them to go with him to visit the Padoucah towns. The Indians were not satisfied with the quantity of presents received from the Frenchmen, and they said they did not wish to go out against the Padoucahs. This difficulty was finally overcome, and Bourgmont sent his sick back to Fort Orleans. On the 24th of July he started across the plains to visit the Padoucahs. The army got under way at six in the morning. Three hundred Canzes warriors, commanded by two head-chiefs and fourteen war-chiefs, went along. The Indian contingent had also three hundred women, five hundred children, and three hundred dogs taught to draw the travois. The march was to the southwest over a beautiful country. The days were very hot, and the nights were cool, and on this account, on the 30th, Bourgmont became so ill that he had to be carried in a litter. Becoming no better, he was compelled to return to Fort Orleans, but before his departure he sent Gaillard with two ransomed Padoucah captives to the Padoucah towns. These captives were to be returned to their tribe with the compliments of the French commandant, who also sent word that he would appear there as soon as his illness had ceased and he was able to make the journey. On the 4th of August Bourgmont departed for his fort in a pirogue and arrived there the following day. On the 6th of September it was reported to him that Gaillard had performed his mission with success, having reached the Padoucah town on the 25th of August and delivered the captives to their own people—and that the French would be welcomed there in consequence.

Bourgmont did not make a complete recovery from his attack of malarial fever, but on the 20th of September he set out by boat for the Canzes town, where he arrived on the 27th. Gaillard came in on the 2d of October, accompanied by three chiefs and three warriors—Padoucahs—to escort the French chieftain into their country. The head-chief and seven war-chiefs of the Otoes came to the Canzes town on the 4th of October; and on the 5th six chiefs of the Iowas came very early to the Canzes village. Bourgmont departed for the country of the Padoucahs on the 6th, but he curtailed his Indian force to forty persons. Gaillard and Quesnel were sent on in advance with two Padoucahs to announce the approach of the French commandant. The route of Bourgmont was again to the southwest to the Cauzes River, which was reached and crossed on the 11th. This stream was ascended until the elevated plains at the head of the Smoky Hill were attained. On the 18th of October the country of the Padoucahs was reached. A great smoke from the burning grass of the plain was descried and answered by setting ablaze the prairies around them. Scon the Padoucahs appeared mounted, thundering over the plain at full speed, bearing the French flag left with them by Gaillard. The French were conducted to the Padoucah town, which consisted of one hundred lodges—having eight hundred warriors, fifteen hundred women, and two thousand children, as computed by Bourgmont. Polygamy was in evidence, some of the warriors having as many as four wives. The council at which a formal peace and alliance were concluded was held on the 18th, an account of which is quoted.

The day after their arrival at the Padoucas, M. de Bourgmont caused the goods allotted for this nation to be unpacked, and the different species parceled out, which he made them all presents of.

After which, M. de Bourgmont sent for the Grand Chief and other Chiefs of the Padoucas, who came to the camp to the number of two hundred, and placing himself between them and the goods, thus parceled and laid out to view, he told them he was sent by his Sovereign to carry to them the word of Peace, this flag and these goods, and to exhort them to live as brethren with their neighbors, the Panimahas, Aiaouez, Othouez, Canzas, Missouris, Osages and Illinois, and to traffic and truck freely together, and with the French. He, at the same time, gave the flag to the Grand Chief of the Padoucas, who received it with demonstrations of respect, and told him, “I accept this flag which you present to me on the part of your Sovereign. We rejoice at our having peace with all the nations you mentioned, and promise, in the name of our nation, never to make war on any of your allies; but to receive them, when they come among us, as our brethren; as we shall in like manner the French, and conduct them when they want to go to the Spaniards, who ere but twelve days’ journey from our village, and who truck with us in horses, of which they have such numbers they know not what to do with them; also in bad hatchets of a soft iron, and some knives, whose points they break off, lest we should use them against themselves. You may command all my Warriors. I can furnish you with upwards of two thousand. In my own and in the name of my whole nation, I entreat you would send some Frenchmen to trade with us. We can supply them with horses, which we truck with the Spaniards for buffalo mantles, and with great quantities of furs.

These people are far from being savage, nor would it be a difficult matter to civilize them—a plain proof they have had long intercourse with the Spaniards. The few days the French stayed among them they were become very familiar, and would fain have M. de Bourgmont leave some Frenchman among them, especially they of the village at which the peace was concluded with the other nations. This village consisted of an hundred and forty huts, containing about eight hundred warriors, fifteen hundred women and at least two thousand children, some Padoucas having four wives.

Bourgment left the Padoucah town to return home on the 22d of October, reaching the banks of the Missouri on the first of November. There a canoe made of buffalo hide was prepared. On the 2d he embarked for Fort Orleans, which he reached on the 5th, after having accomplished a remarkable and difficult mission on the Great Plains. He had traversed the future State of Kansas from end to end—from the Missouri to the plains bordering the front range of the Rocky Mountains. He noted the streams, the boundless prairies, the rolling, surging millions of buffalo. He had bound the roving savage tribes to the fortunes of France and the interests of Louisiana. Henceforth the Kansas country was to be as familiar to the coureurs de bois as the woods and streams about their native towns.

The commercial and political arrangements perfected by Bourgmont seem to have been substantial and lasting. It was found to be unnecessary to maintain Fort Orleans. In 1726 its commandant was M. Perier, and on the 30th of September he was directed to abandon the post as a military establishment and turn it over to the missionaries. Even these must have declined to assume the burden of its maintenance, for silence envelopes it from that time. There are indeed stories that all the garrison were massacred and the buildings destroyed by the Indians because of the mistreatment of a Missouri squaw by some Frenchmen, but they are probably without foundation. The fort most likely decayed and disappeared, and the island on which it stood was washed into the ever gnawing, wasting Missouri.

The incident of Fort Orleans closes an era or period in the founding of the French province of Louisiana. The preliminary conquest of the wilderness and its savage inhabitants had been accomplished. Future events were to follow a different course. And even this had been foreseen by La Salle, the primal genius of the Mississippi Valley. Of him it had been justly said:

The explorer’s eagle eye had fixed upon the most commanding points between Quebec and Mexico. He chose LaChine as the outpost and bastion of Montreal; he selected Kingston (Fort Frontenac) as the best place to control Lake Ontario; he chose the site of the fort on the Niagara River afterward known as Fort Erie; his eye appreciated the advantages of Detroit and Mackinac; Chicago, Peoria, St. Joseph’s, Natchez, New Orleans, and Matagorda Bay were all points of his choosing; and, as was the case with Alexander, the places which he selected for forts and trading-posts have most of them grown to be cities by the natural process of the “Survival of the fittest.”


1. See Houck’s A History of Missouri, Vol. I, pp. 260, et seq. Also Kansas Historical Collections, Vol. IX, pp. 252, et seq.

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