Wikipedia: La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was founded May 7, 1718, by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha. It was named for the Duke of Orléans of France. His title came from the French city of Orléans.All of the history books that I read in school were written by white men of European descent, like me. Like New Orleans, the founding of anyplace in America could have the postscript “on land inhabited by…” Until this day, I had no awareness of the Chitimacha. Through the magic of the internet, I now know that they were a matrilineal society – meaning that everything passed through maternal lines, everything from property to the actual acceptance of being Chitimacha (if your mother was Chitimacha, so were you …if your mother was not, you were not). Prior to the 1700s, European diseases decimated the population from perhaps 20,000 to several hundred. Between 1706 and 1718, nearly all of them were killed in a bitter war with the French, which lends a different tone to the founding of New Orleans “on land inhabited by the Chitimacha.” An interesting side note on the matriarchal aspect of the Chitimacha – as the last of their land was about to disappear to white ownership, the Chitimacha women sent out a plea that was answered by another woman, Sarah Avery McIlhenney. McIlhenney (of the Tobasco family) purchased 260 acres of their traditional land, helped petition the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition and ceded the land to them. But this is not basis for my “Women of Destiny” story.
Ignored by history books, amid New Orleans’ back and forth between French and Spanish rule is the family of Frenchman Nicolas Bourgeois and his Spanish wife, Marie Joseph Tarare. In 1733, they had a daughter named Marie-Thérèse and this is where our story begins. Shortly before she turned six, her father died. The following year, Marie-Thérèse’s mother married Nicholas Pierre Carco. History has obscured the reasons, but young Marie-Thérèse was sent away to the Ursuline Convent and then ushered into an arranged marriage at the age of 15. Today, that would generate at least some discussion but apparently not in 1748. Her new husband, René Chouteau, had recently arrived from France, was 10 years older and has alternately been described as an innkeeper, liquor dealer, and pastry chef. Let that image sit for a minute. They promptly had a child, René Auguste Chouteau, Jr. who we shall refer to as Auguste Chouteau.
René Chouteau purportedly abused Marie-Thérèse, then disserted her as he retreated to France, resulting in her return to the convent along with her son. The scandals continue. Marie-Thérèse remained Madame Chouteau, though she called herself Widow Chouteau. She did this not as a premonition, but because a widow had more legal rights than a married woman. As a widow, she could own property and have custody of her children. Madame Chouteau began living with Pierre de Laclède Liguest (we’ll call him Laclede) around 1755, so she was now 23 years old. She could not divorce or remarry due to the strict Roman Catholic doctrine, and society in New Orleans looked at them as sinners. In spite of this, the couple lived together as though they were married and bore four children together. Since Madame Chouteau could not divorce, all of the children had her last name rather than Laclede’s. I’ll choose to take this as a pseudo-matriarchal act of fate, or destiny.
Although too risqué for any history classroom, this story was not without precedence by any means. The wife of Ben Franklin, Deborah Read, was deserted by her first husband and therefore could only have a common law marriage with Ben. And like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, other wives of founding fathers and wives of so many pioneers and explorers, these women managed the businesses of their husbands while they were apart from them – making history. And in the case of the Franklin marriage, they were apart for 18 of their 44 years. The power and intelligence of these women is not well documented in traditional history books but is nonetheless self-evident, in my opinion.
Wikipedia: St. Louis was founded in 1764 by Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau and named after Louis IX of France. Claimed first by the French, the region in which the city stands was ceded to Spain following France's defeat in the Seven Years' War. The territory east of the Mississippi was ceded to Great Britain, the victor. The area of present-day Missouri was part of Spanish Louisiana from 1762 until 1803.The area was “discovered” by Jolliet and Marquette in 1673 and later claimed for France by La Salle, as I was probably taught (I may have slept through that class). Of course it was well known for centuries by several native groups. A great metropolis, Cahokia, had once existed across the river. More than simply a confluence of great river systems, this area facilitated commerce as the primary crossroads of native peoples. Groups from the upper Mississippi, the Great Lakes, the Missouri, the Wabash, and Illinois rivers all frequented the area. A network of small-scale traders, French and Métis (Canadian, First Nations), already blanketed the region. The most significant were the powerful Osages living to the west of the new city and they would play a key role in the growing fur trade. Nonetheless, I don’t recall the phrase, “on land inhabited by…” but they buried their ancestors in great mounds on this land. Mounds that were mostly destroyed during the city’s development, but let’s get back to the story. Barely 10 years old, young Auguste would join Laclede’s business ventures in the fur trade up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. As the story goes, in 1763 Laclede obtained the necessary license from the French territorial government to trade with the Native Americans living near the Missouri River. Chouteau, Laclede and some 30 other men traveled upriver from New Orleans to establish a trading post. According to his own journal, in the winter of 1764, Auguste directed the men to start clearing the area. Thus he and Laclede are given credit for founding the city of St. Louis.
When Laclede and her son left on their founding journey, Madame Chouteau was pregnant with a daughter, Victoire. Sometime soon after the baby's baptism, she left New Orleans to make the seven-hundred-mile journey upriver with her three young children and infant in tow. She reached St. Louis in September 1764. Arriving at Fort de Chartres, Madame Chouteau and the children then traveled to Cahokia in a bumpy, two-wheeled charrette and crossed the river in a pirogue. The family began their new life in the newly built stone headquarters of the trading post. Four years later, they moved to a new house down the street. She was the first white woman to live on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Laclede deeded this residence to Madame Chouteau, along with the lot, an additional piece of land in the common fields, three black slaves, and two Indian slaves, Manon and Thérèse, both in their teens. Remember that they were not legally married, so these were gifts Pierre gave to her. It’s noted that he did this in consideration of his clerk Auguste's "faithful service" and "the affection" he bore the other four children of "dame Marie Thérèse Bourgeois and of Sieur René Choutaud." Along with his step-children, she had three other children with Pierre. Despite the children to raise, she had an impressive amount of responsibility and independence. She ran a busy household, acquired property, owned cattle, kept bees, and conducted business transactions.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not given her increasing wealth and power, René Chouteau returned from France. He spent some time in jail in New Orleans in 1771 for slandering a rival baker. In 1774, he tried to make Madame Chouteau join him in New Orleans. She refused to leave St. Louis. René tried to bring legal actions against her because he wanted to claim her property as his own. Still Madame Chouteau would not leave St. Louis. René died in 1776, finally freeing her of the unwanted marriage. Imagine discussing this in history class.
Madame Chouteau did not, however, choose to marry Laclede. By this time, Laclede had fallen into debt. And she was a clever businesswoman. Though she loved him, she may have feared that she would lose her property and money to pay off his debts when he died, which happened fairly soon in 1778. Thereafter she fulfilled her destiny. After Laclede’s death, Madame Chouteau continued to manage the dynasty from their stone house. She was known to the community as the Mother of St. Louis. Her sons, Auguste and Pierre Jr., came to control the fur trade and were leaders in St. Louis business and politics for decades.
In this first generation, the growing Chouteau clan followed the time-honored patterns of mercantile families. Sons married daughters of established and mutually-beneficial families. Early transfers of property, large dowries, and a system of partible inheritance favored the entry of sons and sons-in-law into the parents’ businesses. In this remote frontier, women played a critical role in preparing their children for the complex world of international trade. It was Madame Chouteau who gave the family its sense of direction and purpose. She set the tone for the women that would follow.
Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau died at the age of 81 on August 14, 1814, leaving close to one hundred children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. [See sidebar on some of her interesting descendents.] A new generation of Chouteau women would create homes that served as gathering places and centers of socialization and education.
Lewis and Clark
Wikipedia: Napoleon sold Louisiana (New France) to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Wikipedia: The Lewis and Clark Expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark. The primary objective was to explore and map the newly acquired territory, find a practical route across the Western half of the continent, and establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. The campaign's secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area's plants, animal life, and geography, and establish trade with local Indian tribes.As you know by now, the Chouteau family controlled and influenced pretty much everything that went on in the early decades of St. Louis, the Gateway to the West. Many other prominent citizens in the area had made their fortunes off trading with various Indian tribes and thought the Americans might ruin their empires. Their previous agreements were with the French and Spanish governments. No doubt heeding the wisdom of Madame Chouteau, Auguste and Pierre were able to see that the expansion of the lands the Americans had gained in the Louisiana Purchase could bring even more riches. In the winter of 1803-04, Lewis and Clark soon became welcome guests in the Chouteau households, which were considered to be the unofficial home for the pair.
As the spring of 1804 broke, the Lewis and Clark Expedition left the Chouteau households to start their journey. Scandals continue “on land inhabited by…” Rumors persist and align with oral histories that Meriwether Lewis fathered a son with an Indian woman named Ikpsapewin during the expedition. None of this is proven, and certainly not in the history books. But oral history suggests Lewis as the father of Turkey Head (a.k.a. Long House; Zomi; Joseph Lewis DeSmet) as told by Samuel Charger, grandson of Turkey Head, in 1923. As a young adult, Turkey Head was given employment at Fort Pierre as a trader, perhaps as a business favor and lending some bit of confirmation to the rumor.
While this seems like a gratuitous departure from our story, let me tie it back together for you. Madame Chouteau’s daughter Marie Pelagie married Sylvestre Labbadie. Their daughter, Marie Pelagie Labbadie (confusing, I know) married Gregoire Sarpy. Their son, Thomas Lestang Sarpy, was therefore the great grandson of Madame Chouteau and Pierre Laclede. Skipping his scandalous youth, the earliest records found on Thomas after his less than history-text-worthy exit from St. Louis, show him as a company clerk at the Oglala post near the mouth of what is now called Rapid Creek in South Dakota. A marriage was arranged for him shortly after his arrival to Woman Ahead of the Clouds, daughter of Chief White Swan of the Minneconjou band of the Teton Sioux. They had a daughter, also named Pelagie; and shortly after her birth Woman Ahead of the Clouds died.
With a small baby to take care of, Thomas Sarpy soon remarried, this time to Her Good Ground a daughter of Rotten Body Stinking Ribs (English translation that was probably incorrect), a chief of the Sans Arc Band of Teton Sioux. Her Good Ground gave birth to Mary Sarpy (a.k.a. White Woman) in 1831. But within a year Her Good Ground would find herself a widow with two young girls to raise on her own. Following the tradition of her culture, Her Good Ground took her two daughters and returned to her family.
When word of Thomas Sarpy’s death reached the Chouteau family in St. Louis, the first rule of order was to make sure that his children would be cared for. Although the family did not formally acknowledge the half-Indian daughters Thomas had left behind, they apparently did feel responsible for them. Turkey Head and Her Good Ground found themselves in an arranged marriage very shortly after the death of Thomas Sarpy. Perhaps the extended Chouteau/Sarpy family believed that by having the children raised by a son of their former associate, Meriwether Lewis, they had fulfilled their responsibility to their mixed blood relatives Pelagie and Mary Sarpy.
By 1833 Turkey Head and Her Good Ground had Wowacinye (later known as Martin Charger, half brother to Mary Sarpy) the first of their four children together. But the union was to be fairly short; by 1850 Her Good Ground had left Turkey Head and married a man named John Split. “She was a fickle woman,” a niece once said of her, when asked about the numerous marriages. But fickle or not, Her Good Ground managed to raise her two daughters by Sarpy, and Martin Charger and the other children she had by Turkey Head, and instill them with strength and pride.
|Martin Charger & Basil Claymore|
Basil was a mixed blood, part French and part Cree from Canada. His parents had come from Saskatchewan to St. Louis and then back up the Missouri River to what is now South Dakota. Although Mary Sarpy and her connections and money from ‘down the river’, may have been very appealing to Basil, it appears their common backgrounds brought them together. They were originally married by Indian tradition and the marriage was later ‘solemnized’, the union produced nine children.
Basil went on to become a legend as a trapper, interpreter and a mountain man. He was a guide of Jim Bridger’s expedition, worked as an interpreter and was well respected by both the Lakota people and the government as well. But while all this went on, it was Mary Sarpy Claymore that raised their children and saw to their needs as her husband roamed the west. As with many women of her day, she was relegated to the background as her husband made a name for himself on the pages of history.
Had it not been for Mary Sarpy Claymore, Basil and his children would never have had the strength and connections to succeed as they did. For although she was far from St. Louis, her connections to the Sarpy family as well as Basil’s background, brought the pride of both the French and Lakota ancestries to the family.
|Mary "White Woman" Sarpy|
And if you will indulge me further, I’ll follow one specific descendent path among the thousands to the current generation. Mary and Basil had 13 children, one of which was Julia Jollette Claymore. Julia married Julius Pearman and had 14 children. Their granddaughter, Catherine Muriel Pearman married Raymond Fogarty. And they had 15 children in rural North Dakota. One of which, married my brother. And to my two nieces, is a matriarchal destiny and heritage of strength and intelligence and independence almost beyond comprehension. You won’t find this in any of the traditional history books but is nonetheless self-evident, in my opinion.
Children of Marie Chouteau and Pierre Laclede:
- Victoire Chouteau: She married Charles Gratiot, Sr., financier of the Illinois campaign during the American Revolutionary War. Charles Chouteau Gratiot, Jr. was a West Point graduate and an engineer in the War of 1812 and had a fort named after him. Gratiot Avenue in Detroit is named for that fort.
- Jean Pierre Chouteau, known as Pierre: Fort Pierre is named after Pierre Chouteau, Jr., his son. The capital of South Dakota, Pierre, was founded in 1880 on the Missouri River opposite Fort Pierre. Junior is more famous for consolidating the family firm's dominant position in the fur trade, eventually superseding and even acquiring John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. Another of his sons, Francois Chouteau, founded Kansas City. Francois’ widow, Bérénice Chouteau, was called the "Mother of Kansas City."
- Marie Pelagie Chouteau: In addition to her connection to my sister-in-law, was grandmother of Emilie Pratt, wife of Ramsay Crooks, General Manager and President of the American Fur Company and business partner of Jean Pierre Chouteau (above).