Saturday, February 1, 2014

250 Years Ago ... Let's Meet Auguste Chouteau*

As January turned into February in the little village of Nouvelle Chartres, Laclede and his companion, Auguste Chouteau, no doubt were in the midst of planning for the building of Maxent & Laclede's new trading post and settlement at the location they had chosen a couple of months previously.  In fact, later in February Laclede would send Chouteau to start the building process while Laclede remained at Nouvelle Chartres, no doubt trading. 

Who was this young man, Auguste Chouteau? 

In 1764, Chouteau was no more than fourteen years old, which seems a young age to be entrusted with the tasks that Laclede entrusted him with. But in the 1700's, boys of 14 were eligible to serve in the militia and it was not unusual for them to leave home and become apprenticed to a master craftsman or, if they were literate and knew their numbers, be hired as a clerk to a merchant. 

Chouteau was the son of Rene Auguste Chouteau, who had emigrated to New Orleans some time prior to September 20, 1748 when he married 15 year old Marie Therese Bourgeois. She was born in New Orleans on January 14, 1733 to Nicolas Charles Bourgeois and Marie Joseph Tarare. Rene Auguste Chouteau kept an inn and tavern in New Orleans. His son, Auguste Chouteau was probably born the year following the marriage.  

By 1752 the elder Chouteau had abandoned his wife and baby son and returned to France. There was a family tradition that Chouteau was abusive to Marie Therese.  But whether he was physically abusive, he abandoned a very young woman and small child leaving her to fend for herself.  By 1763, Marie Therese was calling herself Veuve (Widow) Chouteau, more an indication that no one expected Chouteau to return to New Orleans rather than any real knowledge as to whether he was alive or not. In fact, Chouteau was not dead.  In 1767 he returned to New Orleans, only to find that his wife and son had moved to the new settlement of St. Louis with Pierre Laclede. 

Within a few years after the elder Chouteau abandoned her, Marie Therese met Pierre Laclede.   She was still legally married to the missing Chouteau, and in any event divorce was not allowed in French Catholic territories, so they could never marry.  But Laclede and Madame Chouteau (as she was always known) seemed to be as committed to each other as any married couple and they had four children together:  Jean Pierre (1758), Marie Pelagie (1760), Marie Louise (1762) and Victoire, born March 3, 1764 when Laclede was in the Illinois country.  As Shirley Christian says in her book Before Lewis and Clark, Laclede and Marie Therese "followed a policy of never admit and never explain."  Thus, even though everyone knew that Chouteau had been missing for years, Marie Therese had all of her children baptised as the legitimate children of Rene Auguste Chouteau and so none of Laclede's children bore his name.  (This would cause confusion for historians and geneologists in the future). 

Laclede became, in fact if not by law, the step-father of Auguste Chouteau and it seems that they had a close relationship.  Laclede  was a well educated man and he saw that Auguste Chouteau became educated.  When young Auguste Chouteau was old enough, Laclede employed him as his clerk.  He took Chouteau with him on the 700 mile journey up the Mississippi to found St. Louis, leaving behind (temporarily) the pregnant Marie Therese and the other three children.  Eventually Laclede would send Chouteau and a group of men up the river to begin the process of building the new St. Louis.

In his old age, Auguste Chouteau would write his memoirs in which he is unfailingly complimentary of Laclede.  He called him "a man of great merit, capable from his experience, of conducting with skill and prudence the interests of the company."  It was Chouteau himself, however, who would  become the patriarch of St. Louis, its leading citizen and a very rich man.  

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.