Chapter 1 – Senator Benton and the St. Louis Junto

The key to understanding the motives behind the various enemy groups that developed against the Mormons is to become aware of the understanding of the people regarding the western frontier in the 1830’s and 1840’s and the focus of a few prominent leaders to gain quick profits from a transcontinental transportation network.  This chapter begins with letters between President Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor, president of the American Fur Company regarding developing Indian trade and finding direct western access to the Pacific Ocean.  Astor built the settlement of Astoria on the Pacific Coast to stake a claim for an American presence in the unsettled western frontier.  Astor financed an expedition to cross through the Rocky Mountains and establish a practical route to Astoria.  On the return trip of his expedition the group discovered South Pass in present day Wyoming but orders his people to keep their discovery secret.

Thomas Hart Benton came to St. Louis before 1817 hoping to gain political prominence.   Benton pushed early for a “Road to India” across the United States to link eastern U.S. trade routes and western routes to the Pacific Ocean for trade with the Orient. In this plan he joined efforts with John Astor and the Missouri representatives of the American Fur Company owned by Astor. Members of the Chouteau family were early founders of St. Louis and their extended family dominated the fur trade and trade with the Indians.  They too joined Astor in the American Fur Company. Benton joined August Chouteau in forming the Bank of Missouri in 1817 with Lilburn Boggs as cashier.  Promoting his political ambitions, Benton published in a local newspaper his 13 point agenda which included plans to push for a canal to link Lake Michigan with the Illinois River and a canal to link Lake Superior to the Mississippi River.  He sought other initiatives to aid his Chouteau friends and associates who were later referred to as the St. Louis Junto.  In St. Louis Benton demonstrated his ruthless determination to realize his ambitious plans.  He killed an adversary in a duel and forced a closure of a competing bank. Benton was elected to the US Senate in 1822 and quickly secured passage of key legislation to aid his friends and allies.