When Bonnie and I visited St. Louis in the summer of 2003, we toured the Chatillon-DeMenil House, just one of several historical houses open to the public in the city. Construction of the house began in 1848 on property that had been the communitiy's original common ground and in 1861 Emilie Sophie Chouteau, the great-granddaughter of one of the city's founders moved in with her husband Nicolas DeMenil. To begin our tour our guide told us the story of the Chouteau family and their role in settling the city and the region. It was a great story worthy being preserved in a good book. Before Lewis and Clark is the book.
Most American history is written as though there was nothing of significance before the English colonists or the early American frontiersmen arrived in a territory. The plots of these books center on explorers and settlers headed west. This book is different. It focuses on the Chouteau family of St. Louis, who saw the Americans headed their way. The Chouteaus settled St. Louis for the French in the 1760s and stayed through the Spanish ownership of the Louisiana territory. They moved up the Missouri River as far as Montana decades before Lewis and Clark came. Lewis and Clark had to get their supplies and directions from the Chouteaus. The title is deceptive in that the story does not end with the American explorers passing through the Missouri region. Some of the Chouteaus head east and become rich and powerful, dealing in furs, real estate, steamboats, and railroads. Others remain on the Missouri River as important citizens of St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Paul, and Pierre. Subplots in this family epic include the introduction of slavery into Missouri, the rise and fall of the fur trade, and the unreliability of the American government to meet obligations to traders, French settlers, and the native tribes. The reader even learns about the introduction of luxury goods into the Midwest. I recommend this book to history readers and anyone who likes epic family stories.