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The Contribution of the "Frenchmen" to the Lewis and Clark Expedition

An address given by Denis Vaugeois at the Lewis and Clark Symposium, St. Louis, Missouri, March 2003. In May 2003 Véhicule Press will publish Denis Vaugeois' America: The Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Dawn of a New Power.

Two centuries ago, in 1803, in St Louis, it would have been possible to speak French and to be understood by all; today it is necessary to speak English. So...Who were the "Frenchmen" who were there to welcome Lewis and Clark when they arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 1803? Clearly, the two captains were surprised to find such a large number of White people west of the Mississippi. Especially French-speakers!

Hadn't President Thomas Jefferson advised Lewis to urge any Whites he met west of the Mississippi to head back east? This seems surprising to us today, but at the time, the United States was a fledgling country turned resolutely toward the Atlantic--therefore, eastward. The push west had begun, but as soon as settlers had cleared the Appalachians they looked south. People in Kentucky and Tennessee felt isolated from the Atlantic seaboard and, quite naturally, had set their sights on the Gulf of Mexico. Free navigation on the Mississippi River was considered essential in their mind, and we must remember that it was provided for under the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Perhaps it is probably useful to go back to that crucial time.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England had much in common--or at least enough in common to covet the same things. The histories of their North American colonies, however, are quite different. English settlers set sail for the New World in large numbers; indeed by the time of the last French and Indian War, in 1760, they outnumbered their French rivals by 20 to 1, with a population of one million and a half compared with about 75,000. Despite this huge demographic superiority, the outcome of the war was long uncertain. The French had made up for their small number by forging a surprising network of alliances with Indian nations, from the St. Lawrence Valley and the Great Lakes all the way to Illinois Indian territory and the Mississippi Valley.

It took a wise British Prime Minister like William Pitt to grasp the situation. Pitt decided to intercept not only military reinforcements, but also treaty goods. Thanks to his Atlantic blockade, William Johnson, Indian affairs superintendent in England's northern colonies and a figure in U.S. history who deserves more attention, was able to break the major French-Indian network of alliances. In the absence of French "presents," he managed to convince the Indians to end their alliances or, at the very least, to agree to a certain neutrality.

The British Conquest sounded the death knell for New France. In extremis, in November 1762, Paris had secretly signed away its vast Louisiana territory to Spain, prior to saying goodbye to the rest of its North American empire. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in February 1763, there was a great deal of confusion. England inherited everything east of the Mississippi, and France--or Spain; it is no longer clear which--kept the territory to the west. One thing, however, is certain: New Orleans, although located on the east bank of the Mississippi, was politically included in the territory to the west. According to Article VII of the Treaty of Paris, "the navigation of the river Mississippi shall be equally free, as well to the subjects of Great Britain as to those of France, in its whole breadth and length, from its source to the sea, and expressly that part which is between the said island of New Orleans and the right bank of that river, as well as the passage both in and out of its mouth."

By the time that Lewis and Clark set forth on their expedition, however, the control of Louisiana territory had passed from Spain to France and the United States were no longer English colonies. Was Article VII of the Treaty of Paris still valid? In fact, to go freely along New Orleans was a major challenge and a possible source of war. When Jefferson, a Francophile, learned that there was a possibility of France regaining the territory of Louisiana, he decided to take the bull by the horns. He dispatched two emissaries, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, to Paris. Their mission was clear: buy New Orleans--failing which the United States threatened to consider the use of force.

Napoleon, who had set target on Spain soon after his rise to power, was ready to pick up the pieces of Spain's colonial empire. But even Bonaparte couldn't do everything at the same time. Humiliated in Haiti, threatened by the English, he decided to please the Americans--perfectly aware of creating a strong rival to England- by offering them Louisiana as a true bargain (the bargain of the century). On April 30, 1803, in Paris, the Americans finalized the purchase of some 900,000 square miles, at a price of $15 million dollars. At the same time, Captain Meriwether Lewis was completing the preparations for his expedition. From François Baillet (or Francis Bellet), a french chef of Philadelphia, he bought 193 pounds of "portable soup" for $289. In late summer 1803, when he arrived at the mouth of the Missouri River, the transfer of Louisiana to Washington was imminent. Lewis's Spanish passport was of no great use, and he was advised to wait for the political situation to be clarified. The transfer of authority took place on March 9 and 10, 1804, in the presence of a handful of Spaniards, a few Americans, including Lewis and Clark, and, above all, Creoles and Canadians.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Canada had been wiped off the map. But even though there was no more Canada, there were still Canadians. For them, the British conqueror created a new colony, the small province of Quebec, along the shores of the St. Lawrence River. In 1774, the Quebec Act pushed the borders to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, including the vast Great Lakes territory. But Canadians, descendants of the French, quite well adapted to the New World, were not to be confined even within those new limits.

In the wake of 1763, and even more so following American independence in 1783, many of the Canadians living in Illinois Indian territory, along the Ohio and Wabash rivers, as well as on the east bank of the Mississippi in the villages of Cahokia, Fort de Chartres and Kaskaskia, headed west to Ste. Geneviève and St. Louis, where they joined up with their Louisianan compatriots.

This is the small French-speaking community that Lewis and Clark stumbled upon in 1803. The St. Louis Frenchmen were a mixture of Louisianans from the south, Frenchmen, some of whom had fled the French Revolution, and Canadians from the east and north, in some cases from as far away as the St. Lawrence Valley. Curiously, neither Lewis nor Clark use the word "Canadian" in their journals to describe these people; instead, they prefer the term "French" or "Frenchmen." One of the few times that Lewis uses the term "Canadian French" in his journal is in a comment about the 450 inhabitants of St. Charles, a village located near St. Louis, dated May 20, 1804: "Those people," he writes, "are principally the descendants of the Canadian French, and it is not an inconsiderable proportion of them that can boast a small dash of the pure blood of the aboriginies of America." This complicated wording shows that Lewis was ill at ease explaining that much if not most of the population was of mixed blood.

At the urging of Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis had applied himself to mastering astronomy, botany and medicine during the two years leading up to his expedition. Following his arrival in St. Louis, he received other lessons, this time, in geography and anthropology. Indeed the Louisiana territory and its aboriginal inhabitants held few secrets for the Frenchmen of St. Louis.

Lewis listened especially closely to the members of the Chouteau family, who, over the previous 40 years, had forged family ties with Spaniards, Canadians and Indians. He pored over the documents and maps drafted by Frenchman Antoine Soulard, general surveyor of Upper Louisiana. All of this gave him a fairly good idea of the western Mississippi basin. One of the maps in particular drew his attention: it showed the Missouri flowing from a source in a range of mountains. At the same latitude, on the opposite side of the mountains, another river flowed straight to the Pacific. This was "the Oregan or River of the West" of which Jefferson had spoken. The estimated distances were reasonable, and there was cause for optimism. Lewis noted down a bit of toponymy: the Ausage (Osage), Kansaz (Kansas), Plate (Platte) and Petit Missouri rivers, etc.

In November 1803, Thomas Jefferson, who was keeping a personal eye on the preparations for the upcoming expedition, sent Lewis "copies of the Treaties for Louisiana, the act for taking possession [...] & some information collected by myself from Truteau's journal." Ever since his extended stay in France, Jefferson had been collecting maps and books about North American geography. He had read and reread the accounts of the explorations of La Salle, Joutel, Hennepin, Charlevoix, LaHontan and, most recently, Jean Bossu, and had delved into the Histoire de la Louisiane written by Le Page du Pratz. Always on the lookout for new information, he had laid his hands on a copy of the journal of Jean-Baptiste Trudeau (or Truteau), a former Montrealer settled in St. Louis, who had led a major expedition up the Missouri, from St. Louis all the way to Mandan country.

Invited to spend the winter of 1803-1804 at Camp Dubois, or "Wood Camp," located across from St. Louis, Lewis and Clark made good use of their time. They got to know people who had plied the Missouri and even spent time with Oto, Omaha, Arikara and Mandan Indians. The fog was starting to lift over the land west of the Mississippi. Various Indian nations were beginning to emerge from the mist and take on a face.

Lewis and Clark also had all the time they needed to study the latest map by Aaron Arrowsmith, which had been sent to them by an excited and no doubt impatient Jefferson after so many false starts. This was not the first map of North America prepared by the British cartographer. Since an initial version in 1795, Arrowsmith had tirelessly upgraded his knowledge, based on the journals and reports of Canadians Peter Fidler, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson. While Arrowsmith's 1802 map, which Lewis and Clark reportedly took with them on their expedition, cannot have provided them with much useful information, it highlighted the fact that Britain had a considerable head start in this part of the continent. Little by little, they must have realized the role played by Canadians, who had been plying North America's great waterways for over a century.

On the way to St. Louis, Meriwether Lewis had met a man called Georges Drouillard, who had been strongly recommended to him. He invited him to join the expedition as an interpreter. Born from a Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, Drouillard was at ease in French and English and mastered many Native languages, including the sign language used by the Plains Indians.

Was it Drouillard, the St. Louis Chouteau family, merchant John Hay, formerly of Montréal, or Frenchman Antoine Soulard who urged Lewis and Clark to recruit some Canadians? Probably all of them. Roy Appleman has pointed out in a highly instructive essay that Drouillard arrived at the camp on May 11 1804 with seven boatmen recruited in Kaskaskia and Ste. Geneviève. One or two other boatmen were recruited, perhaps in St. Charles, just before the expedition set sail, along with two Métis, Pierre Cruzatte and François Labiche, both of whom had an Indian mother and a Canadian father. Born and raised in the region, Cruzatte and Labiche were jacks of all trades. While serving as interpreters and hunters, their prime duty was to man the keelboat, the expedition's "flagship," built according to Lewis's specifications: "Labiche and Cruzatte will man the larboard [meaning the keelboat] alternating [according to the detachment orders] the one not engaged at the oar will attend as the bow-man."

Without Drouillard, Cruzatte and Labiche, one wonders whether Lewis and Clark could ever have completed their mission.

The contribution of the eight or nine boatmen was certainly more modest and much less significant. Lewis and Clark have little to say about them. We know, however, that in addition to their navigational duties, they were occasionally called on to facilitate relations with the Indians.

The expeditionary corps had barely left St. Charles before a convoy led by trader Régis Loisel appeared upstream on the Missouri. Loisel had much to tell the two captains, who were feeling somewhat apprehensive about their upcoming journey. He provided them with abundant information about the navigational obstacles and people they could expect to meet along their way. A few days later, Loisel's vessel was followed by two rafts piloted by "Old Dorion," who agreed to turn around and accompany the expedition upstream at least as far as the territory of the Yankton Sioux, with whom he had been living for many years.

In less than three weeks, Lewis and Clark encountered at least eight convoys of trappers and traders. They had to travel two-and-a-half months and over 600 miles (1,000 kilometres), however, before they met their first Indians since the Kikapoos at St. Charles.

An attentive reader of the journals of Lewis, Clark, Ordway, Whitehouse and Gass can only be surprised by the presence of such a large number of White travellers on the Missouri, combined with the absence of Indians.

Finally, on July 28, Drouillard brought with him a Missouri Indian back to camp. The members of the expedition had spotted signs of Indians over the past few days. Empty villages had been sighted at the mouths of the Kansas and Platte rivers. Their inhabitants were off hunting--and the rest were dead, struck down by the epidemics that coincided with the arrival of White men. Lewis and Clark discovered that the Missouri Indians were nearing extinction, and that the last survivors had joined the Otos. Farther upstream, the Arikaras occupied only three villages compared with 18 in better days, and the Mandans had regrouped in two out of five of their former settlements. And the populations of these villages were small, according with the captains' journal.

Relations with the Missouri Indians were generally trouble-free, except for dealings with the Teton Sioux. One should keep in mind, however, that Lewis and Clark had no interpreters when they met the latter tribe. Dorion had stayed behind with the Yanktons. While it is probably true that the Tetons were somewhat aggressive, the lack of interpreters certainly didn't help things. The two captains were well aware of the problem, and made sure that the situation did not repeat itself. In dealings with the Arikaras, this responsibility was entrusted mainly by Joseph Gravelines and Pierre-Antoine Tabeau. And as soon as they arrived in Mandan country they recruited René Jussaume, followed soon after by Toussaint Charbonneau.

It is no secret that the first meeting between Charbonneau and the captains was less than cordial. The interpreter showed a certain arrogance or independence, but later changed his attitude. The expedition leaders found it all the easier to excuse his initial attitude, seeing that one of his wives, the pregnant Sacagawea, was to accompany him on the journey. Lewis and Clark were aware of her personal history. Her original tribe, the Shoshones, were horse traders. They lived near the source of the Missouri, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains — in a place where horses would be particularly useful, if not essential, for the success of the expedition. The presence of Charbonneau's Indian bride would doubtless facilitate negotiations.

Toussaint Charbonneau, a Canadian born near Montréal, would later be shadowed by Sacagawea, who (thanks to the enthusiasm of historian Grace Raymond Hebard and novelist Emery Dye) was to be become a figure of legend. Charbonneau, the interpreter, was not only relegated to the background: when historians remember to mention him, it is usually to highlight his failings and mistakes.

This isn't the time or place to bury Toussaint Charbonneau in criticism, nor to rehabilitate him. Let's say, quite simply, that he was far from ordinary. He didn't go unnoticed. The main events of his life can be reconstituted from numerous indications in documents of the time, particularly the logs of Francis A. Chardon and Prince Maximilian. Quite clearly, both of these men appreciated the company of the "Canadian." Years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, the German prince was impressed by the interpreter and pumped him for information about Indians and their customs. In his entry for February 4, 1834, for instance, he comments with humour Charbonneau's conduct: "Charbonneau is gone again. This 75-year-old is still chasing after women!"

The word "squawma"n suits perfectly to Toussaint Charbonneau. He had a number of Indian wives--and he picked them very young. However it should be added that Charbonneau was younger than the age generally assigned to him. He was born--not circa 1759, as often reported--but on March 21, 1767 in Boucherville, a village near Montréal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. In 1838, at the time of his union with a 14-year-old Assiniboin girl, he wasn't close to 80 years old, as claimed by Francis Chardon, the head of Fort Clark, he was barely 70!

Toussaint Charbonneau was a man of his time and a product of his society. He was loyal to his new country, the United States, particularly during the War of 1812. He showed a certain attachment to his religion, and had his son Jean-Baptiste baptised in St. Louis in 1809. Although Lewis's only good words about him had to do with his skills as a cook, the more affable William Clark developed real respect and affection for the coureur des bois. A personal letter sent by Clark to Charbonneau in August 1806 reveals a moving testimony. The captain opens up his heart. He loves Sacagawea, adores Jean-Baptiste and feels great gratitude toward the Frenchman. He misses the little family and makes a number of proposals to Charbonneau. If the latter wants to live with White people, Clark will help him; if he wants to stay with the Hidatsas and earn his living as a trader, Clark is prepared to become his associate; if he wants to go to Montréal to see his friends, Clark will find him a horse and look after his little family during his absence. Above all, Clark hopes to oversee the education of Jean-Baptiste.

Lewis, on the other hand, speaks particularly highly of Georges Drouillard whom he sums up in his report as "a man of much merit." "He has been peculiarly useful for his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman; those several duties he performed in good faith, and with an ardour which deserves the highest commendation," writes the captain. On all occasions, Drouillard carried out his duties "with honor."

By the end of the expedition, when Lewis ended his journal and drafted his report, the boatmen of the summer of 1804 were long forgotten. Some of them had gone back to their families in the fall of 1804; others had waited until the following spring. In any event, they are not included in Lewis's September 1806 wrap-up.

Who were they? What do we know about them? "It is impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy the number or names of all French boatmen at any point en route to or returning from the Mandan villages.[...] Any list (...) must be highly speculative," writes Roy Appleman in his work on Lewis and Clark. The captains' respective lists not only give different numbers (Lewis states that there were eight boatmen, while Clark refers to ten),but even the spelling of their names varies. These sorts of discrepancies punctuate the logs kept by the captains and their officers. More often than not, the boatmen are simply referred to as "Frenchmen." In most cases, neither Lewis nor Clark mentions their names. According to an entry for November 14, for instance, "At dusk, two Frenchmen arrived from trapping ..." The next day's entry indicates, "we dispatched another Frenchman ..." And so on and so forth.

The "patron" of the pirogue entrusted to the Canadians, on the other hand, is clearly identified: his name was Baptiste Deschamps, and he was probably recruited at Kaskaskia. The captains' lists also identify Paul Primeau, Jean-Baptiste La Jeunesse, Étienne Malbeuf, Charles Hébert, Joseph Laliberté, François Rivet and Pierre Roy, alias "Rokey" or "Ross" (according to Moulton). La Jeunesse, Primeau, Rivet, Hébert and Malbeuf were apparently born in Canada.

Étienne Malbeuf's father had other children from two or three successive unions with Indians, and one of these offspring, Élisabeth, Étienne's half-sister, was later to marry Jean-Baptiste Lajeunesse. Primeau was the son of a Canadian father and a Missouri Indian mother. Fragments of the boatmen's personal histories have thus been reconstituted. The hardest work is still to be done, but it is also less important. The essential is already known.

Recruited along the Mississippi, the boatmen who took part in Lewis and Clark's expedition upstream to Mandan country lived with White people in the St. Louis area. They were experts in navigating the challenging waters of the region, skilled at using poles and tow ropes. Humble, but physically demanding work. Even without their contribution, the expedition would have reached the Upper Missouri--but it would no doubt have arrived later in the fall and in worse shape.

he contribution of the bowmen and interpreters, on the other hand, was quite different. Clark and Lewis, each in his own way, told their admiration toward Drouillard. They also greatly appreciated Labiche, for a lot of reasons. He was a good hunter and, when required, could serve as an interpreter. Cruzatte was short-sighted but had a finely tuned ear. In my opinion, his violin had more impact on the Indians than Lewis's air gun. Lewis's failure to mention him is surely linked to an accident that happened near the end of the expedition: Cruzatte was probably the culprit responsible for a gunshot wound to the captain's buttocks.

Drouillard, Cruzatte and Labiche were all French-speaking Métis. The three main interpreters recruited during the expedition, were Canadians who lived with Indian women; they are Toussaint Charbonneau, René Jussaume and Pierre Dorion.

These Canadians perpetuated the ties between French and Indians forged during the early years of New France. In 1603, in Tadoussac, the Indian chief Anadabijou invited the French to settle on their Indian land. Thirty years later, in Trois-Rivières, chief Capitanal was even more pressing. Samuel de Champlain's answer was, "Our sons will marry your daughters; together we will form a single people." In no time at all, the French had spread across the continent. More than one explorer who thought he was the first to reach a given place was surprised to find Frenchmen already there. This is what happened to Henri de Tonty, a companion of La Salle, who found five of his compatriots already living at Kaskaskia. Louis Jolliet and the LaVérendryes had similar experiences.

Out of the 20-odd Canadians who took part in the Lewis and Clark expedition, half had family ties with Indians. Some of them were Métis, others lived with Indian women.

The French and their descendants, the Canadians, followed a similar path. Outside the province of Québec, inter-racial marriage was common. For example, when Manitoba entered the Canadian federation, in 1870, 80% of its population was Métis.

A well-loved song in Québec--un Canadien errant- tells the tale of wandering Canadians, who have become French-Canadians when the British became Canadians, then Franco-Canadians, Franco-Americans and, in some cases, Québécois.

History has deprived the French Canadians of their own country. Some of them have been assimilated by the White or the Indian populations of the United States. Others survive as minorities in various Canadian provinces, and a solid contingent of them make up about 80% of the population of present-day Québec. Many of those dream of independence. The greatest exploit of theirs ancestors has been to criss-cross, explore and map a continent, live in harmony with Indians, and pave the way for the expansion of the United States of America, to-day called "America", a name that was coined by French cartographers, in 1507, in Lorraine in France in reference to Amerigo Vespucci.

Copyright Denis Vaugeois 2003

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