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Nearly 250 years later, founding of St. Louis remains a fascinating story

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2011 - If social media had existed back in 1764, you could almost imagine founding father Pierre Laclede first sighting the spot where St. Louis would arise and swiftly declaring himself mayor on Foursquare.

"Laclede was delighted to see the location (where St. Louis is now). He did not hesitate a moment to make the settlement there he envisioned. Besides the beauty of the site, he found there all the advantages one could desire in founding a settlement that might later become very large. After thoroughly inspecting everything, he decided on the place where he wished to make his settlement, notched some trees with his own hand, and said: 'Chouteau, come here as soon as navigation opens. Have this place cleared to make our own settlement, after the plan I shall give you.'"

The account comes from Auguste Chouteau's journal, the narrative written by Laclede's stepson and the subject of a new book, "Auguste Chouteau's Journal: Memory, Mythmaking & History in the Heritage of New France." Edited by Gregory P. Ames of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, it is designed to bring new awareness and new understanding to a point in history that will receive greater attention as the city's 250th anniversary approaches.

In an interview, Ames said the journal was given to the Mercantile Library by Chouteau's son in 1857, just 11 years after the library itself was founded. He called the acquisition "a real coup" at a time early in the history of the city and the state. And the journal itself, Ames added, "is such a unique glimpse at the founding. There really isn't much of a counterpart for most major cities. To have a document like this is very unusual."

Ames' book itself is equally unusual. It includes not only an annotated, modern translation of Chouteau's journal, which had not been rendered into English for many years, but also essays about the period that were first presented during a 2006 conference in St. Louis of the Western History Association.

It also brings back into print John Francis McDermott's "Glossary of Mississippi Valley French," first published in 1941, which Ames describes in a preface as an "impressive gathering of definitions, explanations and interpretations" of the language of the period.  Look up one word, Ames adds, and you're hooked.

"You may irresistibly be led to read others and you might even be compelled to follow up your reading by pursing some of McDermott's original sources. This is the lure of language. Few of us are immune to its magic, yet not many of us consciously come under its spell."

Perhaps the most intriguing part of "Auguste Chouteau's Journal" is the reproduction of the pages of the original, in Chouteau's own handwriting. Ames notes that the manuscript shows more than Chouteau's creative process, as he strives to use the best possible language to describe the earliest days of the region's settlements. It also provides readers fluent in French with the chance to note how the new translation renders not only the words of Chouteau but his world as well. 

What was the purpose of Chouteau's journal?

Ames: We still don't know why Chouteau wrote this. He calls it a journal, like a diary, but clearly it's not. It's not as if he sat down one day and wrote his recollection of the founding of St. Louis right after it was founded. This is a very retrospective journal. He kept a detailed diary of his life for very many years, and it is possible that he meant this as a preface or a preamble to that work. But tradition has it that it was lost in a fire.

And Journal in French also means an account book, as in a business record. It's interesting that his son remembered that Chouteau's journal as we have it, before he donated it to the Mercantile Library, was found in among his account books. But at the end of the journal, Chouteau writes, I again take up my journal, which makes it seem more like a journal than an account book.

Is it trustworthy as history? Or is it better read for its story value?

Ames: One of the neatest things about Chouteau's writing is how colorful it is. This is probably one of the best examples, about when he is talking about Pontiac, who of course is one of the major figures in American Indian history and lore. When Pontiac is attempting to recruit additional Indian tribes for his war against the British, he says he will sweep over them as the fire does the prairie.

But he doesn't use quotation marks, except for one time, and then he fails to close them. Still, he is very conscious of the dynamic narrative effect of quoting people. He knows that when you quote someone, it gives life to the story. That's what he does with that Pontiac quote. If you hesitate for a moment, I will destroy you like the fire that passes over the prairie.

Other historians have questioned this. Where does he get that quote? One historian says there is no doubt that Chouteau invented it. That could be so, but given Chouteau's close relationship with many people who knew Pontiac, you certainly need to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. He at least captured a poetic truth. 

What does it show about Chouteau as a person?

Ames: It's pretty certain that Chouteau wrote this at an older age. Historians are pretty much in agreement that it is very difficult for anyone, no matter how strong and honest a constitution, when you start writing about yourself, not to look at things with rose-colored glasses. But what comes through here is Chouteau's respect and admiration for Laclede.

The book looks at Chouteau's journal in a microcosm, but then it looks at French colonial culture in a macrocosm. I think in that respect, the book is somewhat like Chouteau's journal itself, a unique publishing venture.

Talk about Chouteau's process as a writer and how it comes through by studying the original manuscript.

Ames: Chouteau is a wonderful storyteller. This is something that our book makes clearer that had not been clear before. He has a gift for storytelling, and I think the merit of our new translation is that it's not in that high-falutin' Victorian prose style that earlier ones were in. He becomes a Frenchman, and it really brings out his personality.

He has to work hard at that. If you look at the original journal, you can see how much effort it took him. He often searches for the best way to say things, the most effective way, and you can see him composing. Of course I'm partial, but I find the journal to really be quite provocative and a fascinating study.

How will it help people have a better understanding of the French heritage of St. Louis and the area around it?

Ames: It's funny. There are some French who are attracted to St. Louis because of the name. But French men and women today, it's surprising how little they know of their country's earlier colonial times. Both here, and there, French colonial North American times are coming in for renewed scholarly interest. I don't think you can read those essays and not feel differently about them.

What is curious is that there is a remarkable dislike for the French currently. You think of the notorious "freedom fries," and there is some evidence that anti-French negativity is still extant. It has to do with notions of "the other," of different cultures. The Irish were treated similarly, perhaps worse actually.

People's minds are geared to pick out differences, like a binary code, positive and negative. We need to readapt ourselves and look at things differently. There is a wonderfulness in cultural diversity that I hope mankind will eventually appreciate.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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