La Rivière des Moines
Metals and Pelts
The French 'agonized' toward the Western Sea — toward Japan and China.
Of two routes, a northern and a southern, the southern beginning with the Missouri River (Pekitanoui) passed below Iowaland, then northward, till, met by the river Platte, it bore away through Nebraska into Colorado. There it came into relations with the sources of the Colorado River, the outlet of which, through caverns measureless to man, was the Western Sea in the guise of the Gulf of California.
The northern route was less simple. It had two beginning points: one, the St. Peter's (Minnesota) River, up which it led till, gaining the headwaters of the Red River of the North, it followed that stream down to Lake Winnipeg; the other, Lake Superior, whence the route passed to Lake Winnipeg by way of Rainy Lake and the Lake of the Woods.
As for the southern or Missouri route, Jolliet and Marquette looked into the mouth of the Missouri River and, horrified, recoiled. At least the Father recoiled, for what he beheld was a flood bearing along 'large and entire trees, branches, and floating islands'. p74 'I have seen', he writes, 'nothing more dreadful'. Jolliet was calmer. By the Missouri, he says, 'one will be able to enter into the Red Sea [Gulf of California]'. Delphic, however, and dark the Missouri (Missouri-Platte-Colorado) remained till 1739‑1740 when two brothers (the frères Mallet) spelled from it the Rocky Mountains.
Exploration by the north (illumined though it was by lakes and by the Arctic sky) made headway little faster than by the darkened south. The Jesuit fathers, traders Radisson and Groseilliers, Sieur Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut, Baron de Lahontan, Father Louis Hennepin, Pierre Le Sueur — these were the pathbreakers. They came early and they came brooding on the Western Sea; but beyond Lake Superior they won no way.32 Then in 1731 came Gaultier Varennes La Vérendrye. By 1740 he had gained the upper Missouri (Mantanne), a stream which he, mistaking its course, called 'River of the Setting Sun'. 'I have discovered', he writes, 'a river flowing to the west'. The Western Sea, La Vérendrye felt, was almost in sight.
But this matter of the Western Sea and of a route to it, how bore it upon Ioway?
Not a little — after a sort. Ioway lay between the southern route and the northern, and was regarded p75 by the French as negligible, devoid of geographic import. Sphynxlike in that it was unplumbed, it was without lure in that it was obvious. Less obvious, however, was Ioway than it seemed. It, too, had a river. This river rose near the Red Pipestone Quarry of southwestern Minnesota, not far from the sources of the Big Sioux which emptied into the Missouri, and not far from the sources of the Blue Earth which emptied into the St. Peter's. Its name was Moingouena (Des Moines) from the Indian tribe heard of in 1673 on the Iowa River. Across Ioway it stretched in a course so straight, so free of affluents, as to be called by the French sans fourche (without fork).
Just when the French first heard of the Des Moines it is not easy to say. An early map shows the river unmistakably, and this map, the work of Franquelin from findings by Duluth, bears date 1688. Is 1688, then, the earliest date for ascribing to the white man some knowledge of Iowa's principal stream?
'In Marion county, in the central part of the State', writes the geologist Charles Rollin Keyes, 'the [Des Moines] river flows through a deep canyon'. The canyon is of 'red sandstone'; the walls are 'gorgeous vermillion'. Now when Jolliet and Marquette discovered Ioway, Jolliet on his part was in quest not of souls but of copper. Copper shows red; so in 1674 p76 Jolliet indicates Des Moines by the words pierres sanguines (red or blood stones).33 To the Indians, also, (such of them as were Sioux or Siouan) the river was the Red Stone (Inyan-sha-sha-watpa).34 And even Charlevoix notes that 'a hundred and fifty leagues' from the mouth of the Des Moines, 'there is a very large cape, which causes a turn in the river, in which place its waters are red and stinking'. The river, then, which in 1688 became known to the French as the Moingouena, was known to at least one Frenchman as the Red Stone as early as 1674.
But the Des Moines and the Western Sea?
In 1688 there journeyed toward the Mississippi from Mackinac a French nobleman, Louis-Armand Baron de Lahontan. Lahontan was young and withal strenuous. Like Theodore Roosevelt he sought adventure in the wilds, and like him he carried with him the classic authors. 'I was likewise entertain'd', he writes, 'in the Woods with the company of the honest old Gentlemen that liv'd in former Ages. Honest Homer, the amiable Anacreon, and my dear Lucian, were my inseparable Companions'.
But, unlike Roosevelt, Lahontan mocked at life. Jonathan Swift, his contemporary, was to mock the world with weird creatures; Lahontan would mock it with a weird river. 'I am now ', he writes, p77 'return'd from my Voyage upon the Long River, which falls into the River of Missisipi. . . . The Channel is so straight, that it scarce winds at all . . . most of its Banks have a dismal Prospect, and the Water it self has an ugly Taste'. The Long River — sometimes called la rivière morte (the dead river) because of its placidity — flows, he tells us, eastward from certain mountains (the Rockies); but to the west from these mountains flows a different stream, the river of the West.
Now the 'Long River' (la rivière morte), what river was it? A river of the brain doubtless. Still for archetype may it not have had the St. Peter's, or even the Des Moines? If the latter (and the Baron speaks of it as scarcely winding at all and as having 'an ugly [copperish] Taste'), he was at pains to discourage the idea, for he distinguishes the Long River from the Des Moines, calling the latter R. des Otentas (River of the Otentas or Otoes).35
Cartography, however, declared for the Des Moines. In 1703 the worthy M. de l'Isle makes note of three Iowa streams: the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Des Moines (R. des Moingona); all of them broad; all of them 'long'; the Des Moines, which he evidently means to be taken for Lahontan's river, as broad and as long as either of others.36 Indeed from 1703 to p78 1763, even to 1783, the Des Moines, under patronage of M. de l'Isle, appears on maps as the mysterious river of Lahontan — the Long River, the river that is dead.37
No drive for the Pacific by way of the Des Moines, be it said, was ever made. Yet two early incidents there are which relate the Western Sea to Iowa.
In 1723 Father Charlevoix advised the French Crown that the Western Sea might best be reached by the northern route (the St. Peter's), and in 1727 France established a post on Lake Pepin. But the Father was a bit tardy. Already there had claimed the royal ear a priest of Versailles, Father Bobé. Father Bobé thought well of the northern route, especially the St. Peter's River. But the St. Peter's, he pointed out, was not the only link by the north between the Mississippi and West. There was, said the Father, the 'Manigoua' (Des Moines).38
It was Bobé's advice that the French preëmpt both the St. Peter's and the Des Moines rivers by posting on them two loyal fur traders (traders sages et entreprenants) who should patrol the streams to their sources. They should build on each a fort for French security and for preventing others from seeking by way of either stream 'to pass to the Sea of the West'.
Father Charlevoix failed to signalize the Des Moines. p79 Father Bobé did signalize it. But while the plan of the former won at least a trial, that of the latter was quietly put by.
As late as 1763‑1783 the upper reaches of the Des Moines lay unsearched. Not till the time of Jean Nicholas Nicollet (1843) was the Des Moines followed to its source; but by 1795 or earlier the names 'Moins' and 'Des Moins' were beginning to supersede Moingouena or Moingona despite the use of 'Moingonan' by Nicollet; and today there lingers in Iowa a bare vestige of 'Moingona', to wit, the hamlet of that name on the banks of the Des Moines in Boone County.
Of problems connected with the river Des Moines, not the least is that of its name.39 Three derivations confront us: 'Des Moines' as part of the French phrase la rivière des moines, river of the monks;40 'Des Moines' as part of the phrase la rivière du moyen, river of the intermediate, middle river;41 'Des Moines' as simply a French contraction of the Indian name Moingouena or Moingona.42
At the head of metals in a wild land ranks lead. Yet, wrote Father Jacques Gravier in 1700, 'I do not know what our court will decide about the Mississippi, if no silver mines are found. . . . They care very little for mines of lead, which are very abundant'.
There was lead in Iowa, and Radisson and Groseilliers had heard of it as early as 1658‑1660. In the country of the Boeuf (Buffalo) band of the Yankton Sioux there are, writes Radisson, 'mines of copper, of pewter, and of ledd'.43 This Yankton Sioux country (Minnesota below the Mille Lacs) included northeastern Iowa, and what Radisson has to say about lead and 'a kind of Stone [alabaster] that is transparent and tender', found near Dubuque, has been thought to lend color to the claim that he himself had beheld the promised land.44
Be that as it may, between 1690 and 1700, Nicolas Perrot and Pierre le Sueur found lead in Ioway.45 Indeed by 1720 a French director-general of mines, P. François de Renault, was operating lead mines in Ioway; and by 1770 these mines, together with mines in Illinois, p81 whether yielding 'thirty dollars per day, for weeks together'. Before such wealth a young French Canadian, dark (la petite nuit), dapper and capering, Julien Dubuque by name, took heed, and in 1788, with the formal consent of certain resident Fox Indians, set vicariously to delving.46
Dubuque in 1796 besought confirmation of title to his mines from the Spanish Governor at New Orleans, Baron de Carondelet. The tract, comprehending the site of the present city of Dubuque, was •about twenty-one miles by about nine miles on the west bank of the Mississippi. But in 1810 Dubuque died and the mines were again worked by the Foxes. Ultimately, in 1853, the claims of Dubuque's successors were denied by a decision of United States Supreme Court.47 The mines of Julien Dubuque — 'Diggings of Spain' — may be regarded as Iowa's recognition of the prime serviceability of lead.
Unlikely though it be that the name Des Moines took origin from de or du moyen (intermediate), the Des Moines River was intermediate and the fact gave it prominence — prominence in the trade in pelts and as an axis for trails. And in serving as an axis for trails, the Des Moines served as an axis for a particular p82 Indian tribe — the Ioways. Along the Des Moines westward to the Missouri, and (on the north) eastward to the Mississippi, the Ioways figure. They figure under varying disguises: to the north as Paoute, Pahoté, Aiaouecs, Aiaouez, or Ai8a8e,48 Mascoutins Nadouessioux or Prairie Sioux; to the south as Aioureaoua and Arounoué.
But the country of the Ioways was not the source of furs — not the great source.49 That source was the country of the Sioux (Dakotas) along the James ('Jim') River. The skins (peltries) which the trader sought were beaver, otter, marten, mink, muskrat, raccoon, and cat; and he sought also skins of the bear and the deer. His choice, however, was beaver, for beaver was currency; it was cash.
By 1671 beaver, hitherto abundant throughout New France, began sensibly to decline, owing to the ravaging by hunters of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa rivers. It was with the beaver as it soon was to be with the bison. Recession had set in: from the Sagueney to the St. Maurice; from the St. Maurice to the Ottawa; from the Ottawa to Lake Huron; from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan; and from Lake Michigan (Green Bay) to Lake Superior and to the land, remote and almost fabled, of the Sioux.50
Between 1658 and 1660 Radisson, on the expedition p83 which made known to him the lead, zinc, and alabaster of northeastern Ioway, met the Sioux. All, he says, 'have a white robe made of castors' [beaver] skins . . . they present us wth guifts of Castors' skins'. Then (in 1685) Perrot, it will be recalled, met the Ioways. From that meeting sprang the Iowa fur trade. The eagerness of the Ioways, says the narrative, 'to obtain French merchandise induced them to go away to hunt beaver during the winter [1685‑1686]; and for this purpose they penetrated far inland' — that is, to the Sioux country. 'After they had ended their hunt forty Ayoës came to trade at the French fort; and Perrot returned with them to their village'. . . . He 'sat down on a handsome buffalo-skin, and three Ayoës stood behind him who held his body; meanwhile other persons sang, holding calumets in their hands, and keeping these in motion to the cadence of their songs. . . . They also told him that they were going to pass the rest of the winter in hunting beaver . . . and at the same time they chose him, by the calumet which they left with him, for the chief of all the tribe'.
Of the Sioux rather than of the Ioway it may be said that he was dégagé, archaic. A true Far Darter, he clave long to the bow and arrow — instruments wherewith he could hurtle death at well-nigh the range of guns and with ten times the rapidity.
p84 It was in 1695 that the first sought was welcomed to Montreal. Le Sueur tells of the visit, for he was escort. 'According to his orders, he went down to Montreal in Canada, with . . . a Sciou named Tioscate, who was the first of his nation who had seen Canada'. Tioscate presented to the governor (Count Frontenac) as many arrows as there were Sioux villages; and told him that all these villages begged him to receive them among his children, as he had done to other nations whom he (Tioscate) named in succession.
Frontenac himself bears witness that beginning with 1679 the land of the Sioux became increasingly the land of furs.51 Yet even so the Sioux were wont to market their peltries through an intermediate — the Siouan Ioways from along the Des Moines.
32 About the year 1688 Jacques de Noyon, a young voyageur, made (p415)an expedition westward, reaching Lake of the Woods. The Assiniboines had offered to conduct de Noyon to the Western Sea, meaning thereby Lake Winnipeg; but the offer was not followed up. — L. J. Burpee's The Search for the Western Sea, pp197 et seq.
33 Map in Thwaites's Jesuit Relations, Vol. LIX, p86.
34 Map by Jean Nicholas Nicollet accompanying his Report to Congress on the Upper Mississippi, 1841.
35 Thwaites's Lahontan's Voyages to North America, Vol. I, pp. xxxix, xl, 199, 200, and map on pp156, 284.
36 Charles Rollins Keyes in the Annals of Iowa, (Third Series), Vol. III, pp554 et seq. Jean Nicholas Nicollet in his Report identifies Lahontan's river with the Cannon River.
37 Following the lead of M. de l'Isle, John Senex of London in 1710, Father Legrand, a Capuchin of Dijon, in 1720, and Peter Van der Aa of Leyden in 1763, each represents the Des Moines as the 'Long River' of Lahontan. The Capuchin representation is by means of a globe •seven feet in diameter. The globe was examined by Father P. Laurent of Muscatine, Iowa, who furnished a picture of it to the Historical Department of Iowa. — Annals of Iowa, (Third Series), Vol. III, p559.
The above map makers, however, display caution. 'Provided', says one, 'the Sieur de Lahontan has not invented all these things, a matter difficult to determine, as he has been the only person who has penetrated into these vast countries'.
38 Bobé's Memoir on the Western Sea, a manuscript in the Canadian Archives at Ottawa; Burpee's The Search for the Western Sea, pp195, 205 et seq.
39 Chronology of the Name Des Moines. — The name in the form Maingonis was used by Radisson to designate an Indian tribe which he had somewhere met or heard of, not necessarily within the present Iowa (See Weld's On the Way to Iowa, an address before the State Historical Society of Iowa). Dr. Weld cites as ultimate authority Radisson's Voyages as printed by Gideon D. Scull. The Des Moines River, appearing on the Marquette map of 1673‑1674 as Moingouena, (p416)and on the Jolliet map of 1674 as Minongio, appears on the Winterbotham map of 1795 as Moin River. But as early as 1750‑1751 French officers in America were writing the name in their despatches as R. des Mouens, or des Moines. Finally it may be noted that under the Spanish régime in Ioway the name Des Moines becomes Muen, or Mua, or Mouis, each without the article prefixed.
40 Jean Nicholas Nicollet in his Report of 1841 renders the name Moingona as a corruption of the Algonquin word 'Mikonang' meaning 'at the road' — a word which he says the French corrupted to Moines (monks) for the reason that a group of Trappist Monks (moines de la Trappe) were residing with Indians of the American Bottom (Illinois). See also Father Kempker's History of the Catholic Church in Iowa in The Iowa Historical Record, Vol. IV, p40; and Zebulon M. Pike's Expeditions to the Headwaters of the Mississippi River (Elliott Coues's edition), Vol. I, p13, note 17.
Apropos of the phrase rivière des moines as signifying 'river of the monks', it is the observation of the Christian Worker in an article dealing with the early history of Van Buren County that 'a band of Monks settled in an early day, before the settlement of the Michigan or Wisconsin or Iowa Territory, in the bend of the river where Keosauqua now is, and the name Riviéreº des Moines (River of the Monks) was thus derived from these early missionaries'. As early, however, as 1837, the Iowa News, published at Dubuque, took the position of modern students, that the word moins is an abbreviation of Moingonies — a nation of Indians inhabiting the country bordering on that river.
41 Charles R. Keyes in the Annals of Iowa, (Third Series), Vol. III, pp554 et seq.
42 Laenas G. Weld in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. I, pp3 et seq.
43 The Fourth Voyage of Radisson in the Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. XI, p93.
44 Louise Phelps Kellogg thinks that Radisson and Groseilliers were probably the discoverers of Iowa. — Kellogg's Early Narratives of the Northwest, p32.
(p417) That Radisson may have reached Ioway derives a certain support from the fact that the various Illinois tribes were in the present Iowa about 1656‑1657, a time at which Radisson himself may also have been there, it being time when, he says, he met the tribe of 'Maingonis' Indians.
45 Early Wisconsin Explorations, Forts, and Trading Posts in the Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. X, pp301, 330‑333; Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, Vol. IV, p97, with citations.
46 M. M. Ham in the Annals of Iowa, (Third Series), Vol. II, pp329 et seq., 470 et seq.; Thwaites's Notes on Early Lead Mining in the Fever River Region in the Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. XIII, pp272 et seq.
47 A. G. Leonard's History of Lead and Zinc Mining in Iowa in the Annals of Iowa, (Third Series), Vol. III, pp63 et seq.; Oliver P. Shiras's The Mines of Spain in the Annals of Iowa, (Third Series), Vol. V, pp321 et seq.; Chouteau v. Molony, 57 United States (16 Howard), 203‑242.
48 The character '8' is equivalent to 'ou'.
49 The quarter of Ioway in which furs most abounded was the Des Moines headwaters where that river formed part of a river complex — the luminous labyrinth consisting of the Big Sioux-St. Peter's, St. Peter's-Blue Earth-Des Moines; Des Moines-Little Sioux.
50 Benjamin Sulte's Le Pays des Fourrures in Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Québec, Vol. XII, No. 1.
51 Henri Lorin's Le Comte de Frontenac, Paris, 1895.
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