- A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Journal and Description of Jean-Baptiste Truteau, 1794–1796 ed. by Raymond J. DeMallie, Douglas R. Parks, Robert Vézina
This magnificent edition is the fruit of many years’ labor, and it shows in every possible way. Originally conceived in 1981 in discussion between Raymond J. DeMallie and Douglas R. Parks, on the one hand, and Mildred and Waldo Wedel, of the Smithsonian Institution, on the other, the work proceeded by fits and starts through the 1980s and 1990s until the deaths of the Wedels in the mid-nineties. DeMallie took up the project again in 2000–2001, and a major boost was added in 2004 when Robert Vézina, a graduate student at Laval University in Quebec specializing in voyageur French, joined the project. Work continued through the final editing done in 2013–14.
Jean Baptiste Truteau was born in Montreal in 1748, fifteen years before New France ceased to exist through British conquest. A Frenchman by heritage, he became a British subject with the conquest of Canada, and an American following the Louisiana Purchase. This transnationalism was characteristic of his life, since he spent his most productive years working in formerly French territory administered first by Spain, and later, after the Louisiana Purchase, by the United States.
Truteau was a scion of one of the oldest French families in New France, among whose descendants are the present Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He received a better than average education in the Seminary of Quebec, where he excelled in Latin and mastered the literary French of his day. He worked in the fur trade at least from the time of his arrival in St. Louis in 1774, and quite likely before that in Canada and the Illinois country. During the period between 1774 and 1794 he explored extensively along the Mississippi-Missouri watershed and learned both the Dakota and Arikara languages, as well as a great deal of ethnographic detail about all of the nations resident along the two rivers and the geography of the region.
In June of 1794, Truteau was chosen by the newly constituted “Commercial Company of the Missouri for Trade Farther Up [the Missouri] than the Poncas” to lead a two year expedition to the Upper Missouri. The goals of the expedition were very similar to those of the later Lewis and Clark Expedition: to explore and describe the territory and the country to the west of the river, even to the Pacific; to collect scientific data on the flora and fauna of the Upper Missouri region; to meet and document the Native tribes resident in the area, and promote good relations with them; to evaluate the trading potential of the area and establish trading posts at appropriate sites; and to counter and neutralize as much as possible the influence of British traders, who were penetrating the Northern Plains from their posts near Hudson’s Bay. (Truteau was working for a company with Spanish registry, so the British traders were agents of a competing foreign nation.) Jefferson had read a version of Truteau’s journal, so it is possible that some of the goals for the Corps of Discovery expedition were inspired by the instructions given to Truteau before his visit to the Upper Missouri.
In June of 1796, after completing his expedition to the Upper Missouri, Truteau settled in St. Louis, where he established the first school, with himself as headmaster and “instituteur” (‘teacher’). He lived and taught there until the end of his life in 1827. [End Page 191]
A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri consists of several sections, each of which could constitute a separate book, and each fascinating reading in its own...