August 12, 2014

Lost in Translation?: Pierre Menard’s 1810 letter from the Three Forks—Part Two

By Rich Aarstad, Senior Archivist, Montana Historical Society Research Center

Pierre Menard's April 21,1810 letter from the headwaters of the Missouri is the earliest documentation the Montana Historical Society holds regarding the American attempt to open Montana for business. Taken on its own, the letter only hints at the compelling story hidden just below its surface.* 
Pierre Menard's letter written in French to Jean Pierre Chouteau
[From Montana Historical Society (MHS) Archives, MC 4, Box 1, Folder 1]

But of equal interest is how the letter ended up traveling, through history, from the headwaters of the Missouri to the Montana Historical Society Research Center Archives. The Menard letter is only one of a number of items in the archives collection that has made a circuitous journey beyond the state’s borders only to return as a donation. In this case, the letter belonged to the Chouteau family of St. Louis, Missouri—a name that has a long association with the history of the Missouri River fur trade and Montana.

The letter first surfaced when Hiram M. Chittenden, then a brigadier general in the Army Corps of Engineers, was researching his seminal work on the fur trade - The American Fur Trade of the Far West - published in 1902. In the third and final volume of that work, Chittenden quoted the letter in its original French; he also included a corrected French version and an English translation. He described the original as “written upon a sheet of fine light blue paper, full letter size, and still in excellent preservation.” Chittenden noted that the original letter was in the possession of the St. Louis Chouteau family. Chittenden presented the family with a signed copy of his French and English versions, which prompted a descendant of Jean Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849) and his son, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. (1789-1865) to give Chittenden “an old missive made famous in the “Fur Trade” (Pierre Chouteau letter to Hiram M. Chittenden, March 13, 1902, MHS Archives MC 4, Box 1, Folder 2.) —this very letter from Pierre Menard to Jean Pierre Chouteau.

Chittenden's English translation of the original French version.
[From Montana Historical Society Archives, MC 4, Box 1, Folder 1]
[Scanned by MHS staff]
Chittenden donated the original letter, along with his English translation, to the Montana Historical Society in 1902, shortly after receiving it from the Chouteau family. Both versions are now part of the Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company Records, Manuscript Collection 4, an amalgam of donations from Granville Stuart (1894), Paris Gibson (1905), and Hiram Chittenden that outlines the Chouteau family business interests in Montana 1810-1864.

*To learn more about the story, the previously published article by Rich Aarstad, "'This Unfortunate Affair': An 1810 Letter from the Three Forks,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 2008), pp. 62-67, 96, provides an in-depth description of the situation at Three Forks.