The History of the American Bottom


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Two of the nations largest rivers meet in the American Bottom. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers served as channels of change to the area, bringing outside influences of many different peoples to an Indian-inhabited land. Like the constant flow of the rivers, there was a constant change in the American Bottom. The progress eventually developed the area into a center of economic activity and gateway to the west, but also excluded native and long-time residents. The Illinois Indians long dominated the American Bottom. They were a unique and special tribe, who were complex politically, religiously, and socially. They were also an independent people until French colonizers came to settle in the area. The French Creoles became the dominant population in the region, effecting trade and implementing French Creole culture in the region. The French would not be the last group trying to develop and profit from the American Bottom. When the United States gained control of the territory, it changed even further and eventually Americanized into an U.S. State. The importance of the region increased as the U.S. continued to grow westward. The American Bottoms location between the two great rivers made it the ideal location for a center of economic growth.

Prior to the contact period, or the time when the Illinois first came into contact with Europeans, the Illinois were a great and influential tribe. They were a very interesting tribe who had a culture all their own. They were also a very autonomous bunch never having to rely on anyone but themselves for survival. This was all to change with the introduction of European missionaries and traders. The Illinois were dwelling in territory that was in heavy demand by those who wished to exploit these Indians and their land in order to turn over a dollar. The frontier was moving farther west and the Illinois eventually fell into the chaos that followed. War, disease, alcohol, and new ways of life eventually exterminated the Illinois. Although the Illinois were not to make it through the development of the American Bottom, they played a crucial and fascinating role in its history.

The land the Illinois lived was not only beautiful but also abundant with resources. The resources in the area amazed the French missionaries and explorers. Father Claude Allois, a Jesuit missionary, describes an interesting spectacle on a journey south. “The next day, we saw a rock seven or eight feet out of the water and two or three brasses in circumference, named ‘the pitch rock.

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’ Indeed, one could see the pitch trickling down in little threads on the side on which the sun was warming it. We took some and found it good for pitching canoes; and I make use of it for sealing my letters.” (Relations 159) Here we can see how the Europeans were amazed by the new treasures they were finding in the New World. The weather allowed them to grow a variety of crops including corn and other crops such as pumpkins and squash. This proved to be an important reason why the French and English both wanted control over the land. Control over this land meant control of an abundant amount of resources. More importantly though, the Illinois Country served as an important communication artery between Louisiana and Canada.

(Schmidt 5) This is another reason why their land was in such demand by colonial powers. The French had ruled trade in Illinois Country since 1673 but the English knew how important that land was to colonial success. This was likely the reason that the English supplied weapons and supplies to the Iroquois during the war with the Illinois. Although the intention of the Jesuit missionaries was just, the French traders rarely cared for the Illinois. In fact, it was the exploitation of their people and their land that ended with the eventual fall of the Illinois Confederacy. How did this happen though? What specific factors contributed to this decline and eventual end of Illinois culture?

As stated before, the Illinois were a very autonomous and strong tribe. In other words, the Illinois had always been able to provide for themselves and what they did provide was considerably better than that which other tribes could provide. With the arrival of the French, this was all to change. The French were almost exclusively responsible for the decline of the Illinois. One way in which this occurred was the introduction of Christianity to the Illinois. Christianity is a religion in which there are only monogamous marriages. This contrasted with the Illinois culture as they had always had multiple wives. Having multiple wives produced a great deal of offspring. When many of the Illinois began practicing Christianity the birth rate began to decline because many of them only took one wife. (Hauser 46-56)

Another reason for their decline was the wars that the Illinois fought. The first of which we have record were the wars with the Iroquois in the late 1600’s. This may not appear to be related to the French but one must acknowledge the idea that the English may have been supporting the Iroquois in order that they may move in and exploit the land. In 1718 the Illinois went to war with the Fox and Kickapoo. These wars, although they involved many French officials, were mainly over jealousy, anger, and revenge. They were called the Fox Wars. Both wars, though, brought heavy casualties for the Illinois.
Alcohol, introduced by the French traders, was a favorite among the Illinois. They would often spend or trade away essential items for their families. The alcohol also caused tempers to flare and in such times as those the Illinois were experiencing, many drunken rages would occur. This further decreased the morale of the Illinois as they could see themselves falling apart. (Hauser 35-41)

Smallpox and measles, brought by Europeans, also contributed to the extinction of the Illinois. Native Americans had not developed any natural immunity to these diseases. This is considered the major factor in the population decline of the Illinois. Some villages lost as many as 30 percent of their population.

Aside from the loss of population the Illinois experienced, ultimately they lost the war of survival when the French pulled out of the area and the Americans took over. This took place in 1765. Ever since the French had colonized, the Illinois became ever more dependent on the French for many of the things they relied on. Rather than working for many of the things that they needed they would just trade with the French for whatever it was. Over the years of French colonization, the Illinois had learned to become dependent on the French. When they left, the Illinois were in a vulnerable and hopeless state. With the French exit there was even less hope.

In the history of the Illinois we can see how a once great and influential tribe was turned to nothingness by way of several factors, most of which were brought about by French colonization. The Illinois did play an important role in the development of the West though because of their location. The land they lived on was in high demand and eventually this demand took precedence over the Illinois’ desire to keep their traditional way of life.

Beginning in 1718 the French dominated the area of the Illinois County and Lower Mississippi Valley. French Creoles, settlers with ancestry from France or French Canada, came to this region in hopes of settling the area and gaining great material wealth through the fur trade. In order to establish the trade centers and later agricultural villages that they desired the French needed to rely on the help of the Illinois Indian tribe. The French affected the relations with the Indians, and they left a lasting impact on the territory they settled. Together these two groups of people would create a unique atmosphere in which the French Creole society would lay the foundation for years to come.

When the Creoles first began to settle the Louisiana Territory they moved onto land that had previously been Illinois Indian land. They set up trading posts and later villages without thinking too much about the Indian way of life. Though the Creoles did not demand a complete change of lifestyle for the Indians, they did disturb their way of life. However their lives change the two groups adapted well to each other and their relationship grew into a symbiotic one which revolved around trade. One French Enlightened thinker wrote that, “…Indians and whites of widely different social class and status had, for a variety of reasons, to rely on each other in order to achieve quite specific ends” (Balesi, 233). The French Creoles and Illinois Indians relied on each other for trade, for protection, and for friendship in a rough frontier world. The two groups would intermarry and in the end, would be wiped from the territory together.

The French settled the Lower Mississippi Valley for the purpose of gaining total control of the fur trade. With the control of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers the French wanted to dominate all trade to this territory and whatever lay beyond as well as provide a link between their settlements in Canada and those in Louisiana. The French Creoles wanted to build off the already successful fur trade that had previously been the primary source of wealth from this colony. In order to more firmly establish themselves in the fur trade and to create good relations with their Native American neighbors, communities were established in the Illinois Country. When a slump in the fur trade occurred many of the settlers in the towns had to turn towards farming as a way to support themselves.

The French Creoles did not, for the most part, take to farming well. They had no desire to farm the land, but only did so to survive. Nicolas de Finiels wrote that, “They turn to it [agriculture] only out of necessity or old age and never by preference” (113). The farming communities the Creoles established were never strong or very successful villages. They did provide the basic staple food for the rest of the colony but that was the extent of their farming skills. Many of the French settlers looked to farming as a way to bide time before the fur trade picked up again, so the villages that surrounded these farms never prospered the way other villages of the time did.

The French settled the Lower Mississippi Valley in hopes of finding a great source of material wealth, and they were sorely disappointed. Not only was there no material wealth but what little money was coming in from the fur trade slowly dropped off. The French settlements never prospered or grew very big, but they laid a foundation. The Creoles began the farming of the land, they established permanent trade routes, and allied themselves to the Illinois Indians.

The French Creoles had made a home for themselves in St. Louis and the Louisiana Territory, while changing the environment of the native Indian groups. As time passed, the French would experience similar changes to themselves. They would have to incorporate both Spanish and American interference and influences into their ways of life. The transfer of lands from the Spanish and eventually to the United States
had a great effect on the peoples of the region, culminating in the creation of an American state named Missouri.

The Spanish took power of the area from 1770-1800, but the French culture and influences remained strongest (Foley 46). Changes began to take place when the Spanish began to recruit Americans to Louisiana so they could help provide protection from the British. Then, the Spanish gave control of the territory back to France, which because of Napoleon’s military problems elsewhere, sold the territory to the United States for $15 million. Therefore, there were many mixes of culture in the region, from the Indian to French to Spanish, with the growing influences of the Americans. American-ownership and American people began to change the culture and environment of Louisiana Territory, but slowly.

Americans tended to settle on isolated farms instead of in settlements as the French Creoles did. But perhaps of even more importance initially was the form of American government imposed on the territory and its attempts to deal with the problems caused by the transfer from French to Spanish to French and then to American government (Foley 115). There was bitter fractionalism and dissent with how to handle such issues as Indian relations, slavery and Spanish-land claims. Land ownerships were called into question because of the increase in value of land after the transfer of the territory to U.S. hands (Foley 115). French elitist groups vied to win the favors of the new American governors, who struggled immensely in dealing with the issues.

To this point, St. Louis and Missouri did not experience a flood of new inhabitants from the United States because of the uncertainty of the Indian situation and the land claim controversy (Primm 85). Still Creoles and Indians were feeling the effects of the American influences. Indians were being pushed further and further west, while Creoles witnessed changes in architecture – mostly to brick structures—in St. Louis and more violence and vulgarities on the streets. In 1804-1806, 64 families came to St. Louis, 80 percent of which were Americans (Primm 86). The first newspaper west of the Mississippi was published in 1806, and it was an American one, The Missouri Gazette and Louisiana Advertiser (Primm 89). The paper discussed some local issues, but mostly ran stories from other American papers back east. This is a very important factor in “Americanizing” the territory. There was a steady increase of subscriptions, from 174 to more than 1,000 in 1819.

While the American influence was becoming more apparent, the French did not want to lose any of its own, including the Catholic Church’s power in the area. The Church had seen its influence lessening, while American Protestants were growing in number in the area.
Catholic Bishop William Louis Valentine Du Bourg set up French-Catholic Missionaries (Waal 13) that worked mostly with the poor, but did not do much work with the Indians.

Still, American progress continued. After the War of 1812, most of the Indians had been forced to move west and there was less violence in the area. The Americans were determined to get the Indians out of their way. In 1815 St. Louis Merchant Christian Wilt wrote, “It is the opinion of the people here that we shall not have peace with the Indians until we drub them soundly into it (Foley, 161).” The increase of stability finally lured floods of American settlers to the area (Primm 107). The economy flourished as land prices rose and Missouri took large steps towards earning the title of statehood. In 1818, St. Louis consisted of 5,000 residents and increasing wealth was
evident in the settlements and in the stores, which offered more luxurious products and delicacies (Foley 167). The average frontiersmen were mostly concerned with making their own successes and stayed out of politics for the most part. In 1821, Missouri achieved statehood.

Missouri settlers from 1804-1820 saw the birth of not just a new state, but also a new identity. Missouri grew from a frontier settled by French Creole and Indians, under a Spanish crown, to an American state. While its ties to the past were strong, the settlers were defining what it meant to be a Missourian, while excluding other groups, such as the Indians native to the region, and lessening the influences of the long-time resident French Creoles. The span of 16 short years in the early 19th Century was one of the most influential and important in Missouri’s transformation to an American State.

As more and more Anglo-Americans arrived in the early to mid 19th century, these areas began to undergo a significant change. Those who had been dependent on the fur trade continued to be so, but others were trading such things as goods from the east and from New Orleans as well as minerals and alcohol. The use of the steamboat on the two rivers also allowed trade in this area to prosper like never before since goods could more easily be moved from one point to another. As a result, St. Louis became an important center of commerce and business for those immigrants headed westward and became known as the “Gateway to the West.”

Trade as the French and Indians knew it was beginning to change in the early 1800s. Since French fur trappers had married Indian women and gained economic and political alliances with their tribes, trade had always been especially profitable. This was true until “paltry resources diminished along the lower Missouri River towards the mid 19th century, and survival became more difficult for everyone dependent on the fur trade” (Thorne 5). As noted earlier, the new immigrants were exchanging new types of goods - with the Indians now being a minority in terms of trade. No matter what was being traded, the need for a proper medium of exchange became necessary. A traveler reported in 1819: The furs and peltries which are collected during repeated excursions in the woods, are taken down the river at certain seasons in canoes, disposed of to traders who visit the lower parts of this river for that purpose. Here they receive in exchange… articles of primary importance. Very little cash is paid, and that in hard money only, no bank bills of any kind being taken in that quarter (Thorne 7).

This excerpt from Letters and Articles of the Missouri Historical Society indicates that most trades were made by barter. Even the officer who took possession of Louisiana for the United States in 1804 was surprised by the fact that Upper Louisiana was practically destitute of a circulating medium based on the level of commerce activity that was taking place at this time (Missouri 440). Thus this growth of commerce and trade fueled the demand for banking facilities and bills of exchange drawn on their new federal government.

In 1816 and 1817 both the Bank of St. Louis and the Bank of Missouri were chartered and opened. Still, even though there was much need for them, the two banks only stayed open for a few years before closing their doors due to inability to collect debt, and dissension among management and stockholders. Loan offices, and later, the Second Bank of the United States opened easing some of the commercial problems in St. Louis. As time went on more loan offices were opened, but this time collateral was taken in various forms. Inflation had somewhat curtailed and a new element, the steamboat, was introduced which helped to expedite trade and the need for banking facilities. Finally in 1829 St. Louis had its own branch of the 1st Bank of the United States which did fairly well based on the new conditions that were based less on speculation and more on sound principles.

As mentioned, the steamboat helped in the rapid development of the midwestern states. A westerner at the time remarked that “the introduction of steamboats has contributed more than any one single cause to advance the prosperity of the West” (Gleick 439). The steamboats operating along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers served not only as a means of transporting the population, but afforded a trade connection between Pittsburgh and St. Louis and all the intermediate points, and New Orleans (Foley 73). Mark Twain noted in his book, Life on the Mississippi:…the steamboats so increased in number and in speed that they were able to absorb the entire commerce. In the heyday of the steamboating prosperity, the river from end to end was flaked with coal-fleets and timber rafts, all managed by hand… (Twain 63).

No discussion on the American Bottom would be complete without a look at the first mercantilists and merchants who helped to create this boom in commerce during this time. The Chouteaus (named after Auguste, who was the president and partial founder of the Bank of Missouri, and Jean Pierre Chouteau) were the first people (Frenchmen) to contribute to westward expansion before the Anglo-Americans entered the area.
They “established commercial relations with key Missouri and Mississippi Indian tribes, and initiated a variety of business and financial enterprises west of the Mississippi” (Foley ix). Even as the new immigrants came to the area, the Chouteaus managed to retain substantial power in the years after the Louisiana Purchase. Chouteaus were even partly responsible for the financing of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As a result of their accomplishments, the Choteaus have become famous for their important and influential roles in the history of business and commerce at this time.

St. Louis and the American Bottom have experienced much change in the last three hundred years. This area is rich in history and culture, growing from an Indian and then French-inhabited land to an American State. As Indian culture was subdued, French fur trading posts grew into American cities, which were founded by settlers who developed commerce and economic growth in the area. The combination of cultures has created a unique environment that has made the American Bottom what it is today. As Mark Twain put it, with regard to life on the Mississippi River, “I believe there has been nothing like it elsewhere in the world” (71).


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