A trading post run by François Choteau marked the first permanent non-First Nation’s settlement near the great bend of the Missouri River.
A frontier quickly pushing west brought several other French families following his lead to homestead on the rich riverine bottom lands of the area by the 1820s.
The town of Kansas, named after the area’s indigenous Kansa people, grew up in the 1840s on riverfront farm land originally broken by Gabriel Prudhomme and his family a couple of decades earlier.
Shifting European fortunes of war and the sale of the Louisiana territory by Napoleon in 1803 had dealt the once-thriving French communities along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers a bad hand.
Cut off from supportive political and cultural linkages with Quebec and France, they quickly became a remnant minority overwhelmed by the flood of non-francophone immigration pushing into the area.
Today, Kansas City’s first French settlers are only remembered in a few street names, a bridge and a few public buildings.
My father’s filling station and garage occupied a piece of floodplain land in the West Bottoms, not far from the site of Choteau’s original trading post.
By the 1950s it had become the industrial heart of a rapidly growing city.
Depending on which way the wind blew the smell of ‘progress’ could be overwhelming.
A wind from the west brought the stench of the stockyards. From the north the refineries and petro-chemical plants added a sour taint to the air and a southern breeze carried an indecipherable mélange of industrial vapours.
Fortunately the high limestone bluff, which held the downtown skyscrapers blocked any gust from the east.
In the boom days of the late 1950s, I remember as a gradeschooler helping my father out in the summers by pumping gas for customers. At 19.9 cents a gallon you could fill up a tank for under $5.
Those days of prosperity didn’t last.
By the 1970s industry had almost completely moved out of the area, the stockyards closed and small independent businessmen like my father faced economic ruin accelerated by the squeeze coming from the phenomena of increasing corporate concentration.
Bad economic times and illness struck my father at the same time.
A poor private healthcare plan necessitated accessing the government veteran’s benefits.
To do so regulations demanded the liquidation of all assets before the federal program would cover the cost of his hospitalization.
These requirements lead to the sale of the family business and home for a fraction of their real value.
The hand he had been dealt seemed good to start with but it played out badly for him.
Every generation is dealt a hand by history.
Geo-political factors and socio-economic reality can set the limits on our ability ultimately to achieve our goals and live out our lives in peace and security.
Despite residential schools, mining boom-bust cycles, in general as Yukoners we have been extremely lucky.
Will that luck hold?
Antoni Lewkowicz, Professor of Geography at the University of Ottawa and Chair of the International Advisory Committee of the International Permafrost Association, spoke at a Yukon Science Institute gathering a couple of weeks ago.
His talk, titled Hidden Changes and Visible Impacts: Permafrost in a warming Yukon, provided a good technical overview for the layperson of the subject.
Change is happening.
The data he provided doesn’t leave a whole lot of doubt on that front.
“The cards are already on the table,” Professor Lewkowicz noted, for the changes that will be occurring over the next 30 years.
The choices we are making now, our willingness to act and act decisively will determine what cards will be laid down for the next generation to deal with.
Our generation has the ability to see over the generational horizon.
Chouteau, Prudhomme and even my father’s couldn’t.
They basically had to live with their hand and any wild cards in it.
We now can at least choose more of the cards to be dealt.
How will we play our cards?