Kansas City likes to call itself the City of Fountains, but only two of approximately 200 fountains are north of the Missouri River. For years this has rankled northland officials and neighborhood leaders who have felt the entryways to their communities lacked inviting art and monuments.
Civic, neighborhood and political leaders hope that will change with The Francois Chouteau & Native Americans Heritage Fountain, currently scheduled to be completed in 2021.
If fundraising goes according to plan, the site will include historical markers and green space to commemorate the complicated yet rich relationship between the person many consider the founder of Kansas City and the American Indians who were living here when Francois Chouteau and his French traders arrived.
“I feel passionate about this story because it feels like an American story, people working together to create American culture,” says Kwan Wu, the Kansas City artist commissioned to create sculptures around the fountain.
"People will see the fountain and surrounding statues as public art, but there will also be historic information that tells the story of the Native people and Francois Chouteau," says Mark McHenry, the former director of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department who was an early proponent of the fountain.
Francois Chouteau was the son of the entrepreneurial fur trader whose family founded St. Louis, Missouri. In the late 1700s, he ventured westward to the frontier, his fur-trading network ultimately reaching throughout the Missouri and Arkansas River areas. He established a post that became known as Chouteau's Landing not far from the mouth of the Kansas River in present-day Clay County, and historians eventually considered the Frenchman a founding father of Kansas City.
Chouteau expanded his business into the Kansas Territory, trading goods shipped from New Orleans for the furs and animal pelts hunted by Osage, Kaw, Missouria and Otea tribes.
Shirley Christian, the author of "Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America's Frontier," says Chouteau’s relations with the Indians were relatively good compared to those between many other Native tribes and their European colonizers.
“The Chouteaus and their Indian trading partners were, in fact, mostly peaceful and amiable,” she says. “Each had something the other wanted, so it was mutually beneficial.”
But Jimmy Beason, professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, says the relationship was more complicated.
He says the French nurtured trust with Native tribes, which ultimately created their dependence on European goods. It was part of what he called Thomas Jefferson's "passification through commerce" policy, designed to make it easier for the European settlers to take Indian lands.
"Definitly (the Europeans) were working in their own interest and the interest of the government," he says. "If they were working in the interest of the (Osage and other tribes), we'd still have our land in Missouri and Eastern Kansas."
The site for the fountain
Three years after the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department approved $1.6 million for a fountain, historical markers and green space on the west side of the Chouteau Parkway south of I-35, construction might soon begin.
On November 15, 2019, community members, public officials and representatives of the Osage and Kaw nations came together at the site for a ceremonial groundbreaking. They saw a rendering of the project — a limestone bluff on which two members of the Osage tribe and one Kaw Indian are standing. While the Osage engage in a trade with Francois Chouteau, a waterfall spills into a stream below where a walkway displays plaques and historic markers.
Among the speakers at the ceremony was Vann Bighorse, director of the language program for the Osage Nation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Bighorse read a blessing asking the Creator to be with the community and the Native people as the project progresses. He delivered the remarks in the English as well as in the Osage language.
“To me it was an honor,” he says. “Any time I’m asked to come and give a prayer in our native language it’s very important and a privilege.”
Bighorse emphasized that his perception of the event and the site may not be shared by others.
"I am part Chouteau,” he says. “I have Chouteau blood in my ancestry.”
It was not uncommon for white men to marry women from the tribes with whom they were trading, according to author Christian. She says the brutal treatment of Indians came later, when “white settlers came in search of land.” It was a policy codified by the United States government in the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
The idea for the site
The site will cover some 7,000 square feet on the west side of Chouteau Parkway near Parvin Road.
Richard Davis, 83, who served as 1st District Kansas City Councilman from 2011 to 2015, began advocating for the site after a community meeting where he heard a presentation by amateur historian Keith Nelson, 73, a neighborhood activist and seventh-generation Clay Countian.
“I was sitting next Mark McHenry,” Davis says. “I looked at him and said ‘This is a good idea!’”
Davis started to study the history of the French trader whose name is attached to the bridge and road he’d been traveling for years. He saw the project as a way to stay engaged in civic life once he was no longer in elected office, and as a way to help people understand the Northland's history.
“We’re working closely with the North Kansas City School district,” he says, “as a way to engage Northland students in their history.”
Nelson had studied his own family history in the region. He was a volunteer at the Clay County Archives and committed to educating people about history north of the Missouri River, including a way to honor Chouteau and the Native people.
"This is an opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity between the French and the Native people," Nelson says. "This was the western frontier of the United States. It was only a short distance between the boundary of the state of Missouri and the Indian Territory."
He says Francois Chouteau acquired more than 1,000 acres to establish a fur trading warehouse and steamboat landing somewhere between the current Harrah’s Casino and Cerner headquarters.
“If you want to talk about entrepreneurism in the area,” Nelson says, "Chouteau probably established the first commerce in the city.”