Before Lewis and Clark is, according to the book's subtitle, the story of the Chouteaus, the French dynasty that ruled America’s frontier after the fledgling United States bought enough land from France to double its size and become the area housing fifteen states. The village of St. Louis was home to two brothers, Auguste Pierre and Pierre (Cadet) Chouteau, who were very influential in the village. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began preparing for their journey up the Missouri River in the hopes of finding a route to the Pacific Ocean, the Chouteaus joined in welcoming them despite being uncertain of how this trip would ultimately affect their village and lives. The winter months were pleasant as the Chouteaus extended their considerably hospitality and imparted vital information about the dangers, beauties and challenges of the area.
The dynasty of the Chouteaus guarded the gates of the West for three generations. They came from St. Louis and began their rise to prominence four decades before Lewis and Clark showed up. Their fortunes arose from being land speculators, financiers, Indian agents, and fur traders. They eventually went into partnership with John Jacob Astor and pushed steamboats to their limits and beyond. They were the earliest Europeans to settle in Kansas City and Oklahoma; their presence was even evident on Canadian borderland.
August Pierre Chouteau is one of the more fascinating characters in Before Lewis and Clark. He managed to combine the most appealing characteristics of the cultures surrounding him. He had impeccable French manners, a rowdy American spirit, and the character to win the trust of the Osage Indians. He could spin a story to enthrall an audience, and he was never lonely for female companionship. While still a callow youth, he won the respect of William Clark, something that many men much older than he had never been able to do. He drank and gambled with Sam Houston, and together they plotted to thwart the devious behind-doors dealings in Washington. He was even admired by Andrew Jackson.
Before Lewis and Clark is a rollicking ride across the plains of history. Shirley Christian does an amazing job of bringing the Chouteau saga to life. Traveling through time with this influential family could easily become dizzying and disjointed, yet Christian deftly weaves each generation through their time line without missing a beat. The attention to historical detail is remarkable. The pacing of the book flows effortlessly. Before Lewis and Clark is a must-read for American history lovers.