Fort Cavagnial (Leavenworth), the French Connection to Santa Fe

Joseph Deruisseau, a French-speaking merchant, erected a fortified trading post near the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers on August 8, 1744. The site may have been about a few kilometers north of current Fort Leavenworth (an American fort built in 1827), in front of Weston near Kansas City International Airport.

An artistic vision of the Missouri River in 1804 from the site where Fort Cavagnial was located (photo Arthes)

The site was named Fort Cavagnial in honor of Pierre de Rigaud Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, the 10th Governor of Colonial French Louisiana. The first commander of the fort was François Coulon de Villiers, born in Verchères (Quebec). After the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the fort was abandoned, but Villiers continued his military functions under the Spanish administration of Louisiana (1762-1802). He was garrisoned at Natchitoches and became alcade (mayor) of the Spanish cabildo of New Orleans. During their discovery expedition, Lewis and Clark visited the remains of the old French fort on July 2, 1804. They wrote having seen “the remains of chimneys and the design configuration of the fortifications”.

A strategic location

At the height of its operations, no less than 50 marine troopers and several civilians lived in Fort Cavagnial and its surroundings. The fort was strategically located allowing control of the Missouri River. A large number of Native Americans put up their teepees in close range of the fort for greater protection and ongoing commerce with the French. The site was discovered in 2012 on a farm in the immediate vicinity of the Kickapoo Community Cemetery near the Santa Fe Trail and Old Fort Leavenworth.

The Canadian River flows parallel to the Santa Fe Trail (US National Park Service Map).

More than 80 years before the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, the Montreal born brothers Pierre-Antoine and Paul Mallet were the first non-indigenous men to cross in 1739 the Great Plains of Kansas from east to west to reach Santa Fe, founded in 1607 in what is now the State of New Mexico. They started their journey from Kaskaskia in the Illinois Country. In Kansas City, an historical plaque from the Chouteau Society entitled THE FRENCH AND THE SANTA FE TRAIL indicates that as early as the 1690s the trail was used by many French-speaking voyageurs from Illinois to attend the centuries-old Taos (Annual) Fair.

The Santa Fe Trail near Watrous, New Mexico (Photo National Park Service)

In the first half of the 18th century Étienne Véniard de Bourgmont held a large gathering (pow-wow) with the Comanches and other Native American tribes in the Kansas Country. He successfully obtained from them a treaty by which the French could travel the Santa Fe Trail safely. Trips in organized groups followed, notably in 1749 and 1752. The French group leaders accurately predicted in 1752 that “caravans of horses” would soon carry “food and clothing“ directly overland to Santa Fe from Kawsmouth (Kansas City).