Women’s History Month event highlights prominent women in colonial St. Louis
A group of French merchants came up the Mississippi in 1763 to set up a trading post and found an ideal spot on a 30-foot escarpment overlooking the west bank, 18 miles south of the confluence with the Missouri.
There they founded St. Louis.
Women were not part of the tour group with Pierre Laclède and René Auguste Chouteau when they are said to have founded the village on February 14, 1764 – on land that had been ceded to Spain at the time. But women would quickly take on a notable role as the village grew and a melting pot of people of diverse backgrounds – Creole French, Canadian French, enslaved Africans, enslaved Indians, and free Indians – right across from the English-controlled area.
A virtual presentation of Women’s History Month, titled “Living on the Edge: Colonial Women in St. Louis,” gave members of the University of Missouri – St. Louis Community a chance to learn about this early history. Sponsored by the Black Futurity Group, the English and History Departments, and the Gender Studies Program, the event drew a few dozen spectators at a Zoom conference last Wednesday evening.
Amanda Clark served as the guide for the evening. She is the former owner and operator of the history and architecture travel company Renegade Tours STL, which has been the Community Tour Manager for the Missouri Historical Society since January 2020. She is responsible for creating, organizing, and managing See STL Tours, a series of unusual walking and bus tours that help connect participants with the region’s past, present, and future.
Clark highlighted the stories of several prominent women from the period.
Perhaps the most colorful figure was Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau, often called the mother of St. Louis, who was abandoned by her husband René Auguste Chouteau after giving birth to their son René Auguste Chouteau Jr. in New Orleans in 1749.
As Clark explained, Marie Chouteau claimed to be a widow, a position that gave her greater social status and a greater financial agency in French society at the time. She later began a relationship with Laclède who had four more children, although they never married.
She followed Laclède to St. Louis after he and her eldest son established their trading post.
“Once she settles in St. Louis with Pierre, she begins to get her own property,” said Clark. “She has a very high social status because she is familiar with Laclède, although she is still called a widow.
“In 1767, just three years after they founded the village, René comes back and says, ‘Hey, this is my wife and it’s all her property and it’s mine. ‘However, her status is high enough to convince the Spanish lieutenant governor that she is indeed an independent widow, and he agrees. Although her husband is standing right there, she is his widow and he has to return to France with empty pockets. “
Clark also spoke about Ester, a former enslaved woman who was freed by the well-known fur trader Jacques Clamorgan.
“Esther is considered to be the most successful of the women of color to own property,” said Clark. “She was born enslaved. She was bought by Jacques Clamorgan to pay off a debt, and he’s a character who deserves his own presentation, probably his own movie. He’s a big, big figure in St. Louis history. She becomes his lover and a kind of business partner. He’s a great personality, and it turns out she is a great personality too. The two meet and, and he respects her and gives her complete control of his home and business affairs when he’s not in St. Louis. “
As Clark explained, Jacques Clamorgan, trying to protect some of his real estate assets, freed Ester in 1793 and moved some of the real estate in her name, including an entire city block that is now part of Lacledes Landing.
Ester left after engaging in a number of public affairs and taking away all of their deeds, and the Spanish government upheld their property rights.
Clark also told the story of the Scypion sisters, African natchez women who successfully gained their freedom in court – an example Harriet and Dred Scott would later follow.
“There are so many women I could highlight,” said Clark. “But these are just a few examples of their lives and how they have changed. The changing core of everything – the change in inheritance and property – has the most profound implications for women. “
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