Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Jean Couture: The Forgotten Coureur De Bois of South Carolina

Rivers became the “road to empire” in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Lewis and Clark expedition was focused on finding an east to west water route to the Pacific. In countless other examples of the uses of rivers to move and transport men and materials or trade goods the picture is clear of their importance and their strategic value in nation-building.

By the year 1700 the competition between the English and French in North America was heating up. The French discoveries of La Salle and Tonti had revealed the Mississippi River Basin. It was believed that control of this river could be of great importance to trade and a key to control of the entire North American continent. Both European powers wanted to project their influence and power among the native peoples living on the Mississippi and on rivers that connected with it. The Ohio was one of those rivers and would become the flashpoint for the future French and Indian War. To a lesser extent the Tennessee River was also recognized as important to control since it flowed through the Cherokee lands, home to a major southeastern tribe, and then converged with the Ohio River which in turn led to the Mississippi River. Soon, thanks to the efforts of a Frenchman named Jean Couture, it was discovered that the Savannah River was a short portage away from the Tennessee River and could lead to a useful water route to the West for the English traders from the colony of South Carolina. To these Englishmen the Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route held the potential to be a “road to empire” or an unwanted invasion route for a hostile power.

The man who discovered this route was later known as a coureur de bois and because he was involved with the famous expeditions of La Salle and Tonti we have information on him that we do not normally have on many other courerus de bois. Jean Couture was born in Rouen in the Normandy region of France and his occupation was listed as a carpenter. We do not know his date of birth. At some point he migrated to Canada and became involved in the fur trade. Couture was a trapper who was a veteran of one of La Salle’s early expeditions. In 1684 La Salle had identified this man who had accompanied him as a resident of Canada. Two years later in 1686, Couture followed the Italian explorer Henri de Tonti, who was in the employ of the French, down the Mississippi in an unsuccessful attempt to join up with La Salle. On the return journey Tonti appointed Couture as a commandant and ordered him and four other Frenchmen to build a post at the mouth of the Arkansas River which would later be known as Arkansas Post. This post was to serve as a way station between the French Illinois country and La Salle’s projected French colony in Louisiana. It would also help to maintain a trade alliance with the Arkansas tribes and help to protect them from raids from English-allied Iroquois. In July 1687, the survivors of La Salle’s ill-fated expedition found Couture at this frontier post. After learning of La Salle’s death, Couture made his way to Fort Saint Louis in the Illinois country to await the return of Tonti and inform him of La Salle’s death. Because of these events Couture appears most prominently in the French records.

Several years later his name reappears in the colonial records for the English colony of South Carolina. It seems that he had deserted from his military service to New France and become a coureur de bois, a “runner of the woods”, who illegally and without the permission of the French authorities, went into business for himself trading furs to the English colonists and others. Desertion from New France by men like Couture was not uncommon. It was illegal to engage in unlicensed trading. English prices for furs, however, paid more than French prices and this tempted some like Couture to carry their furs to the English or to even desert to the English colonies. Couture appears to have been a deserter and he may have also been looked upon as a traitor for his cooperation with the English. His far-flung exploits had gained him a reputation among Englishmen who called him the “greatest Trader and Traveller amongst the Indians for more than Twenty years.” His reputation attracted attention and he became involved in two schemes that if successful would have profited the English at the expense of the French.

The first scheme was a complete failure. Some South Carolina investors had heard myths of ancient Spanish mines in the Appalachian Mountains and wanted Couture to help them discover these mines and their deposits of precious metals such as silver. Though, Couture had his own story to tell and claimed that there was a gold mine somewhere in the region, all attempts to locate these mines or precious metals failed.

The second scheme succeeded in the short term but failed in the long run. It was an attempt to develop and expand the English deer skin and fur trade to the Mississippi River and beyond by way of a water route. This trade brought in enormous profits to the Carolina colony and was used to cement alliances with Indian tribes and project territorial power. Before Couture the only known way to the west was a long and challenging land route skirting the Appalachian Mountains to the south. In 1700 Jean Couture led a party of Englishmen up the Tennessee River to the Ohio and then onto the Mississippi River. These men hoped to divert a large proportion of the waterborne Western trade in furs from New France to the colony of South Carolina. These traders carried presents of ammunition and merchandise to establish trade with the Mississippi tribes and others they met along the way. They also carried papers from the South Carolina Governor Joseph Blake claiming the Mississippi country as a part of the territory of England. By February 1700 the party reached the mouth of the Arkansas River where Couture had years ago built a post. The Carolinians recruited the local Quapaw Indians to raid a rival group for slaves and deerskins and set out for Charles Town with their booty. The word was spread far and wide that the English had found an east to west water route to the heart of the continent.

This weighed heavily on the French during the next several years. What if other coureurs de bois traded their furs for the better prices in Charles Town? This could disrupt the economic foundations of France’s New World settlements. The route also threatened France’s line of communication along the Mississippi between the older and more established Canadian lands and the newly established colony in the Mississippi region. In 1701 the first royal governor of Louisiana, Pierre le Moyne de Iberville, ordered a reverse journey of the Tennessee River. Four Frenchmen took up the challenge. These coureurs de bois found a portage of a league and a half (no more than 5 miles) between the westward and eastward flowing rivers of the Little Tennessee and the Savannah. The Frenchmen reported after returning to Louisiana that they had discovered Couture’s route which included this portage near the Cherokee Valley Towns in Tennessee and that it easily linked the Little Tennessee River with the Savannah River drainage system.
By this route these men descended the Savannah River to the Atlantic Ocean and then followed the coast north to Charles Town where they met with Governor James Moore and discussed a trading pact. They negotiated the opening of trade for themselves and 15 others of their fellows back in the Mississippi country. They then made their way back again following the same water route and arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi were they reported back to Iberville. The journey was a trip of some 400 leagues.

This short term success of opening an Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route fell apart over the next several years. Three causes insured that this route never became the “road to empire” for Englishmen. They included the French establishment of Louisiana, the creation of Catholic Indian missions, and the 1715 Yemasee War. The establishment of the French colony in Louisiana and the establishment of Catholic missions created Indians friendly to the French cause and retarded the attempts of the Carolina traders to divert the Western trade. Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans were much closer to trade with than with Charles Town. And then, in 1715, a major realignment of tribes and a shift in fortunes of empire occurred with the Yemasee War that devastated the Carolina colony and sheared off many of its far-flung trade connections and allies. For the first time the Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route held both the lure of profit and also the uneasy prospect of a French or French-allied Native American invasion. For the next 40 plus years this tension would remain until the French and Indian War decided the language that most Europeans would speak in North America: English. With the English colonies secure the importance of the Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route was greatly diminished. The legend of the brave coureur de bois, Jean Couture, who travelled the vast wilderness of colonial North America was also forgotten.

Andy Thomas
Sources used in the blog:

The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians Through the Revolutionary Era by Tom Hatley

“The Tennessee River as the Road to Carolina: The Beginnings of Exploration and Trade” by Verner W. Crane, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1916), pp. 3-18.


  1. Excellent post! Thank you.

  2. Most interesting... You do a great job.. Thanks

  3. There is a mix up on where Jean Couture was born and if he was a Couture at all. The mistake has been proliferated several times over the years as mistaken historian takes from mistaken historian. No person names Couture was ever born in Rouen, France. Guillaume Cousture was born in Rouen, France, a carpenter. This is who they mistake for Jean Couture, who was either born in Lauzon, New France, or is a Coututier and not a Couture. Guillaume Cousture was a chief carpenter at Sainte Marie Among the Hurons in 1639-1642. He was a engage but became a donne to the Jesuits. Each Jesuit had to be adopted and therefore needed a Huron (Wendat) name. In Iroquoian language, all words are verbs. Cousture, meaning sewn field (noun), was changed to Couture (to sew), a verb by Saint Jean de Breabuef, SOJ. Couture in Huron is Ihandich or Jhandich, to sew (a field). See JESUIT-RELATIONS 28; STECKEY, Words of the Hurons.

    Sincerely, N. Francois Couture, 9th GG of Guillaume Couture,
    Jhandich of the Kanien'kehaka and Hurons

  4. Guillaume Couture, born 1618 in Rouen France,
    is my 7th great grandfather.
    Couture Family Tree on Face Book.