Inducted in 2008
Rene August Chouteau established the best-known and most important western family dynasty of the nineteenth century. They excelled in banking, milling, railroads, and real estate but really made the family name in the fur trade. After August founded St. Louis in the 1760’s with his step-father, Pierre Laclede, he and his family pushed traders and posts far up the Missouri and other rivers of the American West. Their interest and influence ranged from the Great Lakes to the Rockies while focusing on Missouri and Arkansas River basins.
Pierre, Jr. was the first family patron and the pioneer of steamboat navigation on the Missouri River. Over the strenuous objections of fellow American Fur Company partners, he had the steamboat Yellowstone built which steamed up the Missouri in 1831 with over $50,000 in merchandise. Although the trip was not an unqualified success, it did bring back enough buffalo robes, furs, pelts and buffalo tongue (10,000 pounds of that delicacy) that a second boat, the Assiniboin, was quickly ordered. The Chouteau's then dominated riverborne commerce in hides and furs until 1865 when the family terminated their interest in the fur trade. The last Chouteau steamboat sent up river to Montana to clear out the accumulated goods, also named the Yellowstone, brought back nearly 3,000 buffalo hides and over $250,000 in gold dust.
The Chouteau's never owned a lot of steamboats, as documented by Way's Packet Directory, 1848-1983; rather they chartered boats (often financing their construction by others) and then protected their investment by insuring the boats and their contents with eastern insurance companies. They developed this practice early after the second boat Pierre, Jr., built, the Assiniboin, burned on the return trip in 1835, with over $60,000 in furs and peltries for a complete loss. For many seasons, they sent multiple boats, of varying tonnage, upriver to allow larger boats to deliver more merchandise to posts and to offload materials to lighter vessels to navigate even further upstream. This practice and their political connections allowed them to monopolize water transportation on many western rivers. Chouteau boats carried many artists and naturalists to the plains and rockies and brought back their important historical record. Names such as Karl Bodmer, John Audubon, George Catlin, Rudloph Kurz and, later, Carl Wimar, as well as naturalists Prince Maximillan zu Wied and Pierre DeSmet S.J., noted the noted the help and many courtesies extended to the artists.
Chouteaus also founded Kansas City and the capital of South Dakota. Chouteau's drive and ambition furthered river navigation and expanded American horizons to such a degree that their influence remains to this day.