Before Lewis & Clark

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

French missionaries were complaining that Bourgmont "lived like a savage" and spread "scandalous, even criminal behavior" throughout the Illinois country. Despite his reputation, Bourgmont was commissioned in 1714 to conduct an expedition to provide a detailed description of the route from the mouth of the Mississippi up the Missouri as far as he could travel.

Bourgmont's "Route To Be Taken To Ascend the Missouri," does just this. Written as if describing a route for a cartographer, his account provided the basis for one of the earliest maps of the region _ by DeLisle in 1718. In addition, his "Exact Description of Louisiana" was more descriptive of the land, flora, fauna and native peoples.

As did other early explorers, Bourgmont spoke highly of the lands in the Mississippi Valley. "It would be impossible to speak too highly of this river with respect to its abundance of beasts, game, fruits, roots and pot herbs." The Missouri River traversed lands that were equally bountiful. "From all the Missouri River can be gotten furs of every kind, very fine and good, as the climate there is very cold." However, navigation of the river was made challenging, not only by the numerous islands and side chutes, but more so by countless snags and huge rafts of entangled trees.

The Lower Missouri (below Kansas City) also differed from the Mississippi in having only two tribes living along its banks. The Missouri Indians, whom Bourgmont had lived with, had a sizable village situated on prairie-laden hills overlooking the river in present day Saline County. The Osage, whose main villages were in the upper reaches of the Osage River Basin, (Bates, Vernon counties), had a small faction (the Little Osage) living on the Missouri near the mouth of the Lamine.

Bourgmont respected the Missouri Indians and their ways. "They are not very numerous, they are of very good blood and are more alert than any other tribe." The yearly ritual of these tribes was adopted to take advantage of the bounties of nature available to them. In early spring, they would hunt for deer, buffalo, elk, bear and other wild game. In April, they would plant gardens of corn, squash, pumpkins and beans.

Hunting throughout the summer was followed by a fall harvest, then a fall hunt. The skills of these and other native Americans was instrumental in the survival of many coureuer de bois and the subsequent growth of the fur trade.


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