FORT CARONDELET, A Mystery in Time

Think of this as an historical detective story. Remember that scene from the first Indiana Jones movie where the Nazis are digging in the dessert in one place, while Indy and his friends dig somewhere else? Something akin to that may yet take place not too far from here. No, there are no Nazis involved, neither is the prize the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, the mystery involves the site of an old Spanish fort, dating to the late-1700s. Archeologists think they know where it was located. They’ve got a few pieces of evidence. But they overlook a critical clue. And that clue may yet prove them wrong.

In the year 1794, the United States was a young nation of fifteen states. Missouri wasn’t one of them. In fact Missouri at the time was an ill-defined colonial possession of Spain. And the Spanish had their hands full trying to control the Indians within their domain. Principal among these were the Osages, who occupied the area between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers. The Osages had been such a threat to the few settlers within the region that the Spanish government declared war upon them. But there was a good deal of hesitancy among the colonial subjects to make war on the Osage, for though they were feared, they were nonetheless a valuable trading partner. And in those days, men grew rich from trading with the Indians.

One of the richest and most influential was Auguste Chouteau, of St. Louis. He had many times been among the Osages, knew their ways, and profited handsomely from it. Instead of supporting a war that no one wanted, Chouteau took some Osage chiefs with him to New Orleans to confer with the governor general there — the Baron de Carondelet. Chouteau proposed another means to pacify the Osage. He would build a fort amongst them to control their behavior and most importantly to gain complete control over their commerce. For it was well known that the Osages coveted white men’s goods and were eager to obtain them in exchange for peltries — mostly beaver fur. The Osage would not object to a fort in their midst if it meant easy and constant access to trade goods.

Auguste Chouteau

And so the Baron de Carondelet, in the name of His Majesty Charles IV, King of Spain, entered into a contract with Chouteau. The contract specified that Chouteau construct “a fortified building (which will serve as barracks for the garrison)…defended by four cannon and four swivel guns.” In addition there would be a large warehouse, a lodging for the commander, a powder magazine built of brick or stone, a bakery, a kitchen, and privies — “the whole surrounded with a strong [timber] stockade of six inches in thickness and sixteen feet in height (of which four feet shall be left in the ground) forming a square.” The work was to be placed “on the height or hill which commands the village of the Osages.” Additional documents detailed exactly how the thirty-two foot square, two story fortified building was to be constructed.

The villages of the Osages were at that time spread out on either side of the Little Osage River, near the mouth of the Marmaton, in today’s Vernon County. Those streams were the key to the area, for they formed the Osage River, which flowed eastward and northward, through today’s Lake of the Ozarks, before spilling into the Missouri River. All commerce went up and down the Osage and Missouri Rivers between the Osage towns and the white settlement of St. Louis.

Fort Carondelet, as it would be called, was completed in 1795. There were some twenty-four militiamen stationed there, commanded by Pierre Chouteau, brother of Auguste, and a small settlement of French families who mined mineral deposits and farmed the nearby fields. By the end of the year, Baron de Carondelet, though never having seen the fort, declared it a complete success. “The savages have let our settlements alone during this year,” he wrote.

The exact location of the fort was never clearly delineated, save for its description as being on a high piece of ground. All the high ground in vicinity was located on the south side of the Osage River. The fortress was abandoned in 1802, though a trading post continued to function there, or nearby, for a couple of years longer. It is presumed that the Indians striped the fort of its hewn logs and cut stones until nothing was left of it. When the explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike passed by in 1806, he wrote that “not a vestige” of it remained, “the spot being only marked by the superior growth of vegetation.”

Pike had made survey notes of his progress up the Osage River, including a reference to the site of the fort. But Pike was not a lucky man. Some months later, he and his near-starving exploring party were captured by the Spanish in today’s New Mexico. Though he was treated with civility, the Spanish authorities accused him of spying for the United States. They seized his detailed notes and returned only his personal diary. They kept his “traverse table,” from which one could construct a reasonably accurate map of his journey, along with weather observations, descriptions of plant and wildlife, and celestial observations that could be used to determine longitude and latitude. Pike and party were later released and returned to the United States, but those several documents remained in Spanish hands. When Pike came home, he published a book about his journey. Some of the book was based on his personal diary; the rest was attributed to memory. Without the support of his survey notes, the book read like a fanciful tale.

Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike

In more modern times, specifically in the 1960s, archeologists became interested in locating the site of Fort Carondelet. Local legend placed the fort atop a rather prominent eminence called Halley’s Bluff. The bluff overlooked a very sharp bend in the Osage River, about five miles northwest of Schell City. Archeological digs unearthed several enticing bits of evidence, including some stone foundation work, a piece of an ancient musket, and several pits at the base of the bluff that were thought to be used for storing peltries.

But the Halley’s Bluff investigation left as many questions as answers. For one thing, the topsoil was only two feet deep. Below that was solid rock. How could a stockade wall be set four feet into the ground? Nor did the stone foundation match the size of the blockhouse description. In general, nothing about the site mirrored the Spanish descriptions and specifications for the fort.

One prominent authority, archeologist Carl H. Chapman, at first accepted Halley’s Bluff as the site of Fort Carondelet, but then changed his mind. And in a separate study, historian John Francis McDermott conceded that although the “supportive evidence” made Halley’s Bluff the “most likely” location of the fort, there was still room for doubt. He concluded that if Halley’s Bluff were not the site, “it must have been an important trading post of about the same period.”

Curiously, the one and only survey that might hold the key to locating the fort was never consulted. Pike’s traverse tables, lost for a century in Mexico, were discovered in a Mexico City archives in 1907. But even after their discovery, they were largely ignored. Pike’s nearly forgotten book of a century earlier had been discredited as an unreliable and inaccurate source. It wasn’t until 1966 that Pike’s complete notes were published, and by then no one bothered to trace his actual route.

Perhaps they should have. Pike followed the Osage River westward. In most places the river is confined by hills and bluffs; its course has not appreciably changed over two hundred years. If one takes the time to trace his compass bearings and distances, the resulting line is remarkably similar to today’s Osage River. And when his descriptive remarks and diary entries are factored in with his survey notes, it is easy to figure out where he was at any given time, and what he may have been looking at.

Pike's traverse table for August 17, 1806, shows his entry for Fort Carondelet. Notation near the bottom reads: "10 French wintering houses on the E[ast]. Old Fort of P. Chauteau & Cole [sp] Hills E from which the [Indian] village bears S W 7"

Pike’s survey puts Fort Carondelet three miles east of Halley’s Bluff, in an area that never was searched by archeologists. He indicated the presence of ten French houses in the close proximity to the fort site. He passed Halley’s Bluff the next day and made mention only of high cliffs — not the site of a fort.

So why didn’t Chapman and others search Pike’s location? The only rational explanation is that they were misinformed as to the availability and validity of Pike’s notes. Many historians have mistakenly believed that Pike’s lost documents were never recovered. Others simply dismiss the man as an uneducated frontier officer who had made errors on a previous expedition and was likely to have made errors on this one. Even some of Pike’s biographers have contributed to Pike’s tarnished reputation by referring to him as “the lost pathfinder,” and “the poor man’s Lewis and Clark.”

But until Pike’s site, which is on private property, is examined by archeologists, it cannot be ruled out. The true site of Fort Carondelet may still be out there, waiting to be discovered. Indiana Jones, where are you when we need you?

© 2009, 2011 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.