A guide to exploring Kansas City's French influences and history
You can find nods of acknowledgment to French influence throughout the Kansas City metro.
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A few hundred years ago, rather than “hello” or “howdy,” many folks living in and around the Kansas City area would have greeted each other with a hearty “bonjour.”
Like many cities along river corridors in the midwest, Kansas City shares a French heritage dating back to the 1700s. French fur trading families founded the first permanent white settlements in the area in the early 1800s, trading (and sometimes intermarrying) with Native American people, and established the basis for what would become the largest city in Missouri.
But unlike St. Louis, St. Joseph or New Orleans, that French heritage is a bit harder to spot nowadays. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of French culture to experience and French heritage to explore about town.
L'histoire de Kansas City
Three hundred years ago, the European explorers, missionaries, soldiers and traders wandering the forests and plains in the middle of North America were either French or Spanish. They arrived to the area from Mexico, up the Mississippi River, and down from the Great Lakes.
With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, what had been nearly exclusive opportunities for the French to trade and explore, opened up to the nascent United States.
Lewis and Clark’s journey is thoroughly recorded. But decades prior, Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont — who lived his life in and out of favor with the French authorities — documented this part of the country, describing the confluence of the rivers, the majestic bluffs and the people who lived here.
He established Fort Orleans along the Missouri River in 1723. Located about 100 miles east of present-day Kansas City, it was the first European settlement in Missouri. French forces also established Fort de Cavagnial, a military fort and trading post north of Leavenworth, Kansas, in operation from 1744 to 1764.
Françios and Bérénice Chouteau are widely acknowledged as the “Father” and “Mother” of what grew into Kansas City. After scouting a few different places along the Missouri River, the Chouteau family established the first permanent European settlement in the area in 1821 on a bend of the river. It became known as Chez les Canses for the Kanza people who already lived in the area, and later, Chouteau’s Town.
A francophone community formed from the few dozen families who settled along the river bluffs and in the French Bottoms. In 1838, 14 merchants (including "West Port" founder John McCoy) bought acreage from French farmer and blacksmith Gabriel Prudhomme in what is now the River Market.
Throughout the area, the Chouteau family and others set up trading posts, though only the building at 504 Westport Road remains. Originally built by Cyprian Chouteau and partners around 1850, it was later sold to (and currently named for) Jim Bridger, and remains one of Kansas City’s oldest buildings.
Before she died in 1888, Chouteau matriarch Bérénice outlived her husband and children, survived the Civil War, administered to the sick during the cholera epidemic and saw railroads replace the riverboat that had brought her to the region. Through that time she witnessed an explosive amount of growth as the small settlement reached a population of nearly 130,000, though no longer predominantly French.
You can find nods of acknowledgment to French influence throughout the city.
The Chouteau Society, which operated from 1984 to 2008, erected 11 historical markers around the metro for a self-guided tour of significant spots. From the River Market to Loose Park, these markers (inscribed in English and French) outline the early lives of French settlers in broad strokes, with little remaining of their settlements.
A parking garage covers what was once an old French cemetery at 11th and Pennsylvania. Flooding in 1844 destroyed the cabins in the French Bottoms (now known as the West Bottoms, and filled with luxury lofts and haunted houses).
Pearl Hill (the original “Quality Hill” where Bèrènice Chouteau lived at 1st and Grand) was flattened to allow for easier access to the riverfront, and what was once Chouteau’s Landing is now part of Riverfront Park.
The area’s first church, St. Francis Regis (also known as Chouteau’s Church) was erected in 1834-1835. Though the original log structure is long gone, the location on 11th Street has continued to serve as a space for spiritual and community activities, eventually growing into the golden dome splendor of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The original bell is preserved at St. Teresa’s Academy.
François Chouteau was more recently honored with the unveiling of the François Chouteau and Native American Heritage Fountain along North Kansas City’s Chouteau Trafficway. A handful of other NKC landmarks bear the Chouteau name, including an elementary school, a park and a grain elevator, all located near the trafficway.
For the William Volker Memorial Fountain in Theis Park, artist Carl Milles chose a depiction of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of France and of generosity, to honor Volker's philanthropy.
Is reading about French culture making you crave French conversation? Alliance Française Kansas City offers language classes and events to help learn, practice and enjoy the French language, with events such as Walk & Talk “en français” on Saturday, Jan. 15 at Mill Creek Park. International Relations Council (IRC) also hosts “Lexicon Language Intros,” with this video exploring the basics of French.
Celebrate KCMOlière: 400 in 2022
Over the past few years, the organization KCMOlière has initiated scads of partnerships and events throughout the metro in celebration of the 400th birthday of the French Baroque playwright, Molière.
The organization tapped the talents of hundreds of artists in honoring French culture and Kansas City’s French heritage, with theatrical performances, Baroque music, specialty wines and desserts, a unique KCMOlière mascot “MoMo,” educational resources and even a coloring book.
Members also participated in Kansas City’s celebration of the Missouri Bicentennial with the world premiere of Philip blue owl Hooser’s “Tartuffenthrope!”, a farcical imagining of mashed up Molière plays and the founding of Kansas City.
The Kansas City Actors Theater begins its production of Molière’s 1661 “The Pests” (in a new translation by Felicia Londré) at City Stage at Union Station, which runs Jan. 12-30.
Unfortunately, the official 400th birthday party on January 15 (originally scheduled at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) was postponed due to health and safety concerns.
Perhaps your interest in French culture is more gastronomique? Kansas Citians have plenty of options for authentic and French-inspired cuisine, from charming to funky to elegant — sometimes all at once.
For over two decades, local bistros have offered a range of authentic French dining: Le Fou Frog in the River Market, Café Provence in Prairie Village, Aixois in Brookside and Café des Amis in Parkville, Missouri.
In Westport, there’s champagne bar Ça Va and Parisian cafe options from Westport Café. The Westside boasts two crȇperies with Chez Elle and Seven Swans. Macarons — the modern icon of attainable decadence — are found in many venues where you can find sweet treats, such as Annedore’s Fine Chocolates.
Perhaps you fancy yourself an oenophile? Did you know the Missouri grapes had a hand in saving French vines? Learn more on KCUR's podcast Hungry for MO.
Once you have a taste for it, you might try making some of the beloved dishes yourself. Along with a bakery, French foodstuffs and in-house dining options, French Market in Prairie Village has grab-and-go kits to prepare at home. On Saturdays, hear live music at the market, including the French-speaking Made In France Band on Jan. 29th.
The Culinary Center of Kansas City offers classes for various French staples and styles. Of note are macaron classes with pastry chef Natasha Goellner.
Whether or not you’re a francophile, as you traverse Kansas City’s avenues and boulevards it never hurts to embrace a certain joie de vivre.
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