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Document Number: AJ-093
Author: Véniard, Etienne de, sieur de Bourgmont, born 1679
Title: Etienne Véniard de Bourgmont's "Exact Description of Louisiana"
Source: The Bulletin (Missouri Historical Society), volume 15 (October 1958). Pages 3-19.
Pages/Illustrations: 18 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-093/

Author Note

Born in Normandy, France, in 1679, Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont (born 1679) was arrested as a teenager for poaching on the grounds of the local monastery. Rather than pay the fine, he fled to New France about 1695, and in 1702 was listed among soldiers fighting in the Ohio Valley. In 1706 he took command of Fort Ponchartrain at Detroit; censored for his conduct there, he deserted when his superiors came to inspect the situation.

For the next several years Bourgmont was on the run from French authorities. He lived in the wilderness as a coureur de bois (an illegal trader) around Lake Erie, where he met visiting Missouri Indians and married the young daughter of a Missouri chief. Traveling in Illinois with another coureur de bois and their Indian women, the group was denounced by church and government officials for its debauched and dissolute behavior. In 1712, perhaps to escape the mounting unpleasantness, Bourgmont fled south to the remote French outpost at Mobile, Alabama.

In 1719, with the French at war with the Spanish, Bourgmont helped capture Pensacola, Florida. In 1720 he returned to France and married a rich widow, but military affairs soon took him back to the American west. Under instruction from government officials, he left France in 1722 to establish Fort Orleans a few miles east of modern Kansas City, Missouri. In 1724 he arranged a fragile peace among the Comanche, Osage, Oto, Iowa, Kansas, and Omaha nations that allied them to France rather than Spain. In 1725 he led a delegation of their chiefs to France to cement the agreement (including his Indian wife disguised as the spouse of a servant), when he was elevated to noble status by the King in reward for his services. Sick and exhausted from his travels, however, Bourgmont soon retired, and details of his later life and death are unrecorded.

Missouri Expeditions of 1714

The French commander in Mobile hoped that with the aid of the Indians his country might eventually drive the Spanish from Texas and New Mexico and extend French control from Montreal to California. Bourgmont offered to use his tribal connections to bring the Plains nations under French influence.

In the spring of 1714, therefore, Bourgmont accompanied the Missouris back to their homeland, making him the first European known to have explored the Missouri valley. He traveled as far as present-day Pierre, South Dakota, describing the tribes who controlled the Plains and mapping the route carefully. From the notes made on this trip he drafted the report reproduced here.

Document Note

Bourgmont drafted two documents about the 1714 trip, “Route to be followed for ascending the Missouri River” (“Routte qu’il faut tenir pour remonter la riviere de Missoury”), which was a source for Delisle’s 1717 “Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Missisippi”; and “Exacte Description de la Louisianne” which is given here in English translation. Both manuscripts are in the French national archives.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

Bourgmont’s very detailed account of his later 1724 trip is online at www.nebraskastudies.org/0300/stories/0301_0112_00.html. It provides some of the earliest facts about Indian nations in the central and southern Plains.

A timeline of Bourgmont’s career is available from the National Park Service at http://www.nps.gov/jeff/LewisClark2/TheBicentennial/Symposium2002/ Papers/Hechenberger_Dan.htm

The standard biography is Bourgmont: Explorer of the Missouri, 1698-1725, by Frank Norall (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

Other early documents are printed in English in Abraham Nasatir’s Before Lewis and Clark (St. Louis: Historical Documents Foundation, 1952)

For another early account of the Missouri and Plains, see AJ-092.

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