The First Ladies of Frenchtown


By  Cleta Marie Flynn

(This article is a revisiting of an article first published in the St. Charles County Historical Society Heritage Journal  (Volume 22, No. 2, April 2004, Life at Duquette Mansion) and my Frenchtown Museum Newsletter article First Lady of Frenchtown and my book St. Charles County Missouri History Through a Woman’s Eyes, 2014, published by the St.Charles County Historical Society.)

If you throw a dart at a map and then research the point of land struck by the dart, in say, St. Charles, MO, you will almost always find a story. The point of land I metaphorically struck with my dart hit a motherlode where two of the strongest French women of early St. Charles shared the same house, one after the other, in what will later be called Frenchtown in north St. Charles.

Local history books often focus on the men of any given place and women are mentioned in a formulaic way of name, father’s name, and how many children she bore before dying. Yet we know quite a bit about both of these French women.[i] Why? Both had something going for them: both were raised in wealthy families and both could read and write on the basically illiterate frontier. Neither woman will have children of her own and yet children will be a focus of each of their lives. They were adversaries over a house and in a way they were two big fish in the same small pond. One, Madame Marie Louise (nee Beauvais) Duquette, was from a wealthy Ste. Genevieve family and was married to a prominent St Charles man, and the other woman is Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, also from a wealthy French family who became St. Charles’ own saint.

The story begins, according to local history books, with the earliest settlers of frontier fur trading Petite Cotes. Francois Duquette was a French-Canadian trader who came to the

Duquette MansionDrawing from Society of the Sacred Heart website ash1818.org
ash1818.org

 

Spanish fort/French trading post established by Commandant Louis Blanchette by way of Ste. Genevieve. Blanchette had died in 1793 and other traders moved in like Duquette; Auguste and Pierre Chouteau of St. Louis and Antoine Reynal also of Ste. Genevieve. We don’t know how early Duquette came but he is documented in Petite Cotes in 1794. In that year he made a contract, still in existence today[ii], to have a house built on one of his growing number of Spanish Land Grants and purchased properties in San Carlos du Misery by “the fifteenth of next May.”[iii] He then set off for Ste. Genevieve to marry Marie Louise Beauvais and bring her back to their new “mansion;” this is where the dart hit the map. He was twenty years old and she was seventeen.

That is the positive side of a decision to move to this outpost. Now the negative side: As Spanish Lieutenant Governor Zenon Trudeau wrote of San Carlos in 1795, probably as Marie Louise was just reaching her new home…

St. Charles is too distant from St. Louis… the customs are so depraved there due to its being in a most out-of-the-way location and its residence of the savages, mongrels and the worst scoundrels…[i]

Duquette had his home built out of town and up a wooded hill. On a map from the 1820’s, the street in front of their home will be called “High Street (Third Street).”[ii] Even seventeen years later in 1812, Baptiste Jeaneuse, gave up his home at what would become 920 N. Third Street, saying that he wanted to live where there is life and activity and people. I tell you it is a lonely life living way up on the hill.[iii] It may have been lonely up there but it was probably also safer. It was the first suburb. A rutted trail called a “gully” coming down the hill to the river will later be named Decatur St.

The basic house was of the French style of upright logs called a poteaux en terre. It was a fairly large log cabin for its day, earning it the term “mansion.” The main room had a loft over it, two fire places and a large porch. Marie Louise would have arrived with her trousseau and her slaves and set to work to make her home the center of a growing French community up on the hill…we know that because that is exactly what will be reported about her home later.

As we talk of footage for the house, though, there is, amazingly, a “human interest” story about Marie’s family in the book Spanish Regime in Missouri by Louis Houck. Marie’s mother was a “Janis,” her brother was Antoine Janis. It appears that he broke a cardinal rule of the Spanish regime because Governor Carondelet in New Orleans sent the following letter to Lt. Governor Trudeau in St. Louis on a day in January 1796.

Antoine Janis, son of Nicolas and brother-in-law to Vital Bauvais (sic), all inhabitants of Ste. Genevieve, has with no discretion and in front of all the people of that parish maintained a scandalous relationship with Marie-Louise, a mulatto slave of Vital Bauvais. Despite all the painstaking efforts of the Janis family, the parish priest…it continued and two children were born of it. This has compelled the mulatto woman’s owner to rent her to his son-in-law…at St. Charles, thirty leagues from Ste. Genevieve, in order to separate them…

The son-in-law was Francois Duquette. So for a while there were two women living in his new home named Marie Louise/Marie Louisa; one the mistress and one the slave. Since Marie Louisa was Marie Louise’s father’s slave, the two women had probably grown up together in Ste. Genevieve. But Janis followed his Marie Louisa to less regulated St. Charles and somehow freed her and married her. They had a total of eight children and baptized about 17 slave children over the years. They moved just down the hill on Janis’ Spanish Land Grant at the S.E. corner of Main and Decatur.[iv] Marie Louise and Francois though childless will baptize eight slave children and became god-parent to dozens of children of French Catholic friends and neighbors on the hill.[v] Both couples were very active in setting up and running a Catholic Church extension in Duquette’s parlor.

Times were Changing

But times were changing. The San Carlos District was quickly becoming hunted out of fur by the turn of the century. The glory days of the fur trade in the “land between the rivers” were winding down.[vi] The future would go to large traders like Manual Lisa and John Astor as they moved farther west to follow the beaver and to trade with the Osage for their pelts. Antoine Janis and his son will later go out West[vii] but Francois himself stayed home. He was at home when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met up at St. Charles to begin their Voyage of Discover just as the American was taking possession of their new Louisiana Purchase in 1804. Clark described the town and the Duquettes in his journal:

Clark, Wednesday May 16th…we arrived at St. Charles at 12 oClock  a number Spectators french & Indians flocked to the bank to See the party. This Village is about one mile in length… at the foot of a hill from which it takes its name Petiete Coete  or the Little hill. This village Contns. about 100 houses, the most of them Small and indefferent and about 450 inhabitents Chiefly French, those people appear pore, polite & harmonious—I was invited to Dine with a Mr. Ducett this gentleman was once a merchant from Canadia, from misfortunes aded to the loss of a Cargo Sold to the late Judge Turner he has become Somewhat reduced, he has a Charming wife an eligent Situation on the hill Serounded by orchards & a excellent gardain.[viii]

As small individual fur traders in the district were slowly going bankrupt, the American Court of Common Pleas coming to St. Charles in 1805 will allow small traders to sue each other for lost goods. Duquette was picked to be among the first circuit court judges. He in turn sued 15 different fur trappers for money owed.[ix].[x] The Duquettes were like everyone else on the frontier, literate or illiterate…Spanish Land Grant rich but money poor as the focus of the town began to change from trading post to a district center for the American court system and later the first capitol.

 The Widow Duquette

Francois Duquette died in 1816 at the age of 46 leaving Madame alone for the next 25 years. Often a person’s probate is all we know about a man or woman, giving an insight into what their life had been like by the inventory of their personal property. After Duquette’s debts were cleared, Madame Duquette received a widow’s dower of $442.50 worth of her own household goods, a slave woman named Mary and her own clothes…and her mansion. She was allowed to keep her home because she had no son to inherit before her.

Madame—as most widows on the frontier learned—had to do something fast. She could not live long on her “dower.”[xi] Her husband’s probate shows exactly what she did to survive. The list of items she kept for herself consisted mostly of sheets and curtains and feather beds so she could turn her mansion into a boarding house. Marie Louise had come to now St. Charles with nice things but it was twenty-two years later and though her husband had been a judge, everything in their household inventory was marked “old.”

“6 old sheets, 8 not so old, 6 still better, 5 very old…”[xii]

One of her first boarders was Rev. Timothy Flint, in the same year Francois died. He raved about the view and the orchards in his journal for September 1816, a well-known quote:

The town is partly visible from this retirement, although the noise is not heard. The river spreads out below it in a wide and beautiful bay adorned with an island thick set with…cotton [wood] trees…The trees about the house were literally bending under their load of apples, pears, and the yellow Osage plumbs.  Above the house and on the summit of the bluff is a fine tract of high and level plain covered with hazel bushes and wild hops, a great abundance of grapes, and red prairie plums…[xiii]

But two years later, the house was again empty and was exactly what Bishop Dubourg Archbishop of St. Louis, was looking high and low for…an empty house in which to deposit five French nuns freshly arrived from Paris.

Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne

If Madame Duquette had still been living in her mansion or if she had had a renter already, the Sacred Heart Academy in St. Charles might not have happened. Because she was a Catholic who figured largely in the running of her church, she offered her whole home to Archbishop Dubourg in September 1818. He had gone to Paris expressly to bring back nuns who could help him tame the “scoundrels” of the frontier town. Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, daughter of a wealthy French family of lawyers in Grenoble, an educated woman and an official in the new order of the Sacred Heart in Paris, had always dreamt of going to the Wild West and working with the “savages.” Dubourg promised her she would get her chance. He rode beside the charrette of the nuns as they made the same trip that young Marie Louise Duquette did twenty-two years earlier. The women had just survived a harrowing 70-day voyage to New Orleans, scurvy, and another harrowing steamboat ride up the Mississippi to St. Louis.[xiv]

Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, while she “sweetly dreamt” of a mission to the savages, was charged by her Mother Superior Sophia Barat in Paris, with starting the Sacred Heart Society in America. The first step toward that lofty goal meant starting a school for girls in this scruffy little village as a way to reach their parents. Mother Duchesne had brought four other women with her from Paris; Octavie Berthold, Eugenie Aude, Catherine LaMarre and Marguerite Manteau. They were left in St. Charles with virtually nothing but a sack of rice and their bare hands to make it happen. They gamely set to work. Eugenie and Octavie “laughed as they helped arrange our poor little house.” A description of the mansion reworked for boarders by Madame Duquette was written down for posterity by one of the later sisters:

It had one larger central room as 28 ft. across the front of house and almost square, with six little rooms, three on each side of the big room, 8 x 5 ft. each. One could enter the house by either the front or back door of the central room or one could come in from the gallery by any one of the small rooms for each had an outside door.  Fourteen windows, two for each room, looked out on the gallery that circled the house. All the ceilings were low. There was a loft over the central room with a ladder against one wall.  There were two fireplaces in the central room that also opened into two of the small rooms one on each side….[xv]

Soon one of the side rooms was designated a chapel and the central room became their convent parlor and just six days later, on September 14, 1818, the nuns opened the first free school west of the Mississippi by basically declaring it so.

They began to teach the few French girls who trickled in reading, writing, arithmetic, and catechism in a day school for a small fee. On October 3, the boarding school opened with three girls from wealthy families in St. Louis, Emilie and Therese Pratte and their cousin Pelagie Chouteau. Their boarding school fees were to feed the women and subsidize a free school. The central room was now a parlor and a very busy schoolroom during the day and a study room and dormitory at night.

Mother Duchesne was not happy, though. She saw herself as greatly “reduced” to live in such a small wilderness log cabin at the “exorbitant” rent Madame Duquette was charging them; $2000 francs annually…God was surely testing her resolve. She determined to stick it out and accept the deprivations as penance for her own sadly lacking self. But she was mother superior to her little band and therefore responsible for their survival. Her one solace was writing letters of her troubles to Mother Superior in Paris…

By this time you know that Providence has brought us to the most distant village in the United States.  It is…frequented only by people trading with the Indians who are not far away. In spite of this fact, I have not seen any small Indian girls, though a half-breed is promised as a domestic or postulant, according to her capacity.

They needed help. They had no tools and as religious nuns were cloistered to the house and yard. They had tree branches for the fireplace but no axe to cut them to size. The women tried to hire local people but discovered that even the poorest Creoles considered such work fit only for slaves. Also, many of the locals were not too happy about nuns showing up in their town. Mother Duchesne complained that Americans scorned those who didn’t speak English; the nuns spoke only French. That winter when their spring dried up, they had to pay 12 cents for someone to go down to the Missouri River and get them a bucket of water, fearing they would die of thirst while overlooking all that water.

Mother Duchesne described in detail the 1818-1819 winter from hell they barely survived, eating only rice, potatoes, and dried apples from the orchard and a barrel of spoiled dried fish, giving the rich St. Louis girls boarding with them only coffee for breakfast…often the nuns went without. She recorded small earthquakes and two fires in the house, laundry freezing by the fire and candles blown out by wind coming in the chinks in the walls…and a financial banking crisis leaving even wealthy residents broke with nothing to spare to send their daughters to school.

Mother Duchesne was recalled by Paris to a cabin in Florissant when the one year lease on the Duquette mansion was up. She saw it as a personal defeat, though, and it nagged at her.[xvi] Mother Superior sent her on to St. Louis to begin the work of establishing the Society of the Sacred Heart in America there. The Duquette mansion was abandoned for nearly six years until Jesuit Father Van Quickenborne next took on the taming of St. Charles.[xvii] To do this he very much wanted to build a better church than the “tumbledown” original old log church between Main and Second Street at Madison. To that end, having received some money from Europe, he bought the nine-acre Duquette tract bordered by Clark, Decatur, Second and Fourth Streets on March 28, 1825, which included Madame Duquette’s old mansion. Although the price of $650 was not excessive, Madame Duquette’s terms forever enhanced her reputation as a sharp trader.[xviii]

By November of 1827, Father Verhaegen wrote to the Sacred Heart in Paris to allow the nuns to return to St. Charles but at first Mother Superior refused, fearing they still “might starve to death out there.” But again times were changing. Now the people wanted a church and the financial situation was better. With the church actually being built, Mother Barat finally agreed to let the nuns return.

Mother Duchesne accompanied Father Quickenborne and Bishop Rosati to inspect their once and future convent—again it would be the now decrepit Duquette mansion—surely it was a millstone around her neck. This time, though, she demanded assurances that the old building would be renovated before the women set foot in the place again.

On October 10, 1828, Mother Duchesne, Mother Octavie Berthold, Mother Lucille Mathevon and Mary Ann O’Conner again rolled down Main Street in a carriage. What a difference 10 years can make. Church documents recorded the event:[xix] “At eight in the morning the nuns crossed the Missouri River and the strange procession entered the town which, although the population had doubled since 1818, could still boast of only one street. All the ladies of the city,” an old manuscript relates, “were at their windows to see us pass…” The women of town enthusiastically offered their help, first by supplying hot roasts for the women and the visiting priests that accompanied them for the dedication of the new St. Charles Borromeo Church.

But when the wagon cleared the hill and rolled up to the old Duquette mansion that was to be their “new” convent, it was clear that it had not been touched as Mother Duchesne had been promised. It was the same old log house in which they had spent their first year at St. Charles…only worse. It had been vacant for those years as Madame Duquette now lived in town and apparently did not rent it out again. The Father Superior who had come to dedicate the new church went in first and looked back saying “Courage! Enter.”. They were welcomed by pigs and sheep that had rooted away the houses’ foundation stones. The windows had no glass and the rotted floorboards had partially fallen through…the atmosphere was foul with musty dampness and decay. No one slept that first night…on the floor under an old moldy rug with mice scurrying over them.

Of course, they set to work but this time they had brought an Indian woman to help with the cleaning and…with eight dollars, a cow, a sack of sugar, one of coffee, one of rice and with the cooked meat left by the ladies of St. Charles, they coped. Mother Duchesne went back to St. Louis and two weeks later the nuns whose mission it now was, opened a day school with thirty pupils this time. This time the day school fees were paid by work around the house, pounds of butter and buckets of water and spare pennies. By 1833 Mother Mathevon, supplementing their income by selling butter and eggs, sewing, and giving occasional retreats, raised enough money to start building a “pretty” new convent and school—it would take three years to build but they were finally able to move out of the Duquette mansion in 1836. The old building would continue to be used as a day school and then a wash house.

The Death of Widow Duquette

When Madame Duquette, who had remained a widow, died in 1841, tradition has it that she received the largest funeral ever held in St. Charles and all the churches rang their bells for her. She was literally the godmother of the French community. Her probate shows that she was buried in a new black veil and white leather gloves and new “footings.” It is also said that a monument was paid for by her estate costing $75. Also her probate listed eleven slaves with two young slave girls being buried at the same time she was which sounds like an infectious disease. There had been a huge cholera epidemic in St. Charles in the 1830s that lingered for years. While she spent her last days on Clay Street, she owned several properties in her own name…widows could do that…and all of them were in what would one day be called Frenchtown.[xx]

The Last Days of Mother Philippine Duchesne

Coincidentally, it was 1841 when Mother Duchesne was allowed, finally, to go and work with her beloved “savages.” She had become friends with Father De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit priest briefly stationed at Florissant, who was to become famous as a “Black Robe” for his knowledge of and missions to the Indians out to the West Coast and back. He requested four women religious of the Society of the Sacred Heart to come to the Potawatomi mission at Sugar Creek, Kansas, to minister to the girls and women. By then Mother Duchesne was too weak to work but her people wanted her to be able to satisfy her dream…so they let her go but her orders were to pray only. She prayed day and night and the rumors began that she was a saint. She wanted to stay and die among the Indians but was recalled back to St. Charles, this time to spend her last days in the new brick convent where she could still see the old Duquette mansion off the back porch. But now she was known as a touchstone for those going to work with the Indians. Young and old priests would stop by St. Charles to get her blessing before heading west.

After her bad experience in that first awful year she had written to her Mother Superior on July 19, 1819: If a saint had been in charge, all would have gone well…” And while low self-esteem often plagued her, she was right. By the time she died in 1852, many of her fellow religious and parishioners in St. Charles thought of her as a potential saint. Her body was laid in the tiny parlor near her room in the convent and many came to pray for her. A daguerreotype was taken of her “in case,” so said her community, “she may one day be canonized.” Her longtime friend Father DeSmet came himself to bless the first stone of the little round chapel built to house her remains.[xxi] Over the centuries her remains were checked to see if she met the rigid requirements of canonization. Tribunals of priests and Bishops were formed to visit her and to document her progress on that long road.

In April 1918, Philippine, as she was often called, was placed first on the list of pioneer women of Missouri, inscribed on a bronze table in the Jefferson Memorial Museum in St. Louis…Then the next year on November 9, 1919 Pope Pius X admitted the cause of her beatification. Pilgrims flocked to St. Charles to visit her from all over the world. She was now called “Beata,” Blessed Mother. Again the years pass…then in 1952 her casket was moved into a new shrine built on the old Duquette Spanish Land Grant just a few feet from where the old “mansion” had stood.

In 1988 hundreds of St. Charles and St. Louis Catholics and friends made the pilgrimage to the Vatican in Rome for Mother Duchesne’s canonization including local historian and writer Terry Rau. In an article for the St. Charles Journal for July 10, 1988 she described what she saw…Throngs of people waited outside the hall…Brightly colored banners from Hungary, Africa, Malta, Madrid, Detroit, Houston, France and St. Charles that showed Mother Duchesne’s work…had spread to the four corners of the world…Pope John Paul II “called her canonization “a special moment in the history of the church”…

While there are other women from early St. Charles who made it into the history books; Catharine Collier and Mary Sibley, to name two, no other dart thrown at a map on a wall could have told a story quite like this one…

[i] Spanish Regime in Missouri by Louis Houck

[ii] Map—see map at the end of the article.

[iii] McElhiney’s Guidebook Historic St. Charles, Missouri

[iv] As seen on the 1825 map at end of article.

[v] Madame Duquette’s will (SCCHS Will Books #147) and probate leaves all her estate to Marie Louise Cerre (Thomas) Copes, daughter of a very early wealthy French family, Toussaint and Marie Cerre/Serre. There’s was the first marriage recorded in Petite Cotes. Madame Duquette was the Copes children’s godmother, making there now three Marie Louise’s on Decatur Street as the Copes were neighbors, living across the street from each other. St. Charles Borromeo, 200 Years of Faith by Jo Ann Brown and St. Charles Borromeo Church records at the SCCHS Archives.

[vi] The Spanish Regime in Missouri by Louis Houck goes into the passing of the fur trade in Upper Louisiana extensively…did not have room for more here.

[vii] See Antoine Janis’ story in St. Peters At Its Best by Cleta M. Flynn, with Rory Riddler, author of that section and editor. Published by City of St. Peters 2009.

[viii] William and Clark Journals…these quotes are from the University of Nebraska website at lewisandclarkjournals.uni.edu/read. There are a whole set of quotes about French ladies and dancing I had to cut for lack of room…that could be another article.

[ix] The American Court of Common Pleas and for Probate for the St. Charles District was installed in 1805. First justices: Francois Saucier of Portage des Sioux, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Associate Justices were Danial Morgan Boone, Arend Rutgers, Francois Duquette and Robert Spencer. From Westering River Westering Trail by Daniel T. Brown Ph.D.

[x] Francois Duquette sued Jean Baptist DuSable, fur trader and the founder of Chicago in 1805 for a deal gone bad in 1796. His son Baptiste DuSable Jr. lived across Decatur Street from Duquette but every time his father set foot in town, Duquette had him arrested. (See my article in SCCHS Heritage, Vol. 27, No. 1 January 2009, New Pieces of the Old St. Charles Puzzle, also see Footnote 1) It turned into a vendetta until finally 15 years later DuSable had to declare bankruptcy to settle the debt he said he didn’t owe. DuSable died in August 1818 just a month before Mother Duchesne arrived on Decatur Street.

[xi] Dower: “The part of a man’s real estate allotted by law to his widow for her lifetime.” Webster’s Dictionary French law was friendlier to women than the American law using English law.

[xii] Francois and Marie Louise Duquette’s probates are at the SCCHS Archives, Number 827 & 828.

[xiii] Everybody uses this quote from Philippine Duchesne, Frontier Missionary of the Sacred Heart, by Louise Callan, RSCJ, 1957

[xiv] All the local authors have written about Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne and most are using quotes from Philippine Duchesne, Frontier Missionary of the Sacred Heart, by Louise Callan, RSCJ, 1957

[xv] St. Charles Borromeo by Jo Ann Brown quoting Philippine Duchesne, Frontier Missionary of the Sacred Heart, by Louise Callan, RSCJ, 1957

[xvi] August 29, 1819 letter…(W)e shall leave St. Charles next month with a keen regret…It will be an important place someday…” See above footnote.

[xvii] St. Charles Borromeo by Joann Brown

[xviii] Small Town by Lori Breslow

[xix] Many of the events recorded by local historians and Louise Callen, besides coming from Madame Duchesnes’ letters, also come from day books and documents kept by the Sacred Heart sisters.

[xx] Lot 32-Main-Decator-2nd, Lot 91-3rd-4th- Decatur, Lot 97-Morgan-3rd-Franklin-4th, Lot 103-French-3rd-Wood-4th, Lot 104-Olive-3rd-French-4th, Lot 107-4th-Bainbridge-3rd-Wil., Lot 109-4th-Tecumseh-4th-Bainbridge

[xxi] SCCHS Heritage Journal edited by Robert Schultz, article The Mystery of the Little Round House (Vol. 24, No.1, January 2006) using school reports and day logs loaned to me by the archivist at the Sacred Heart Academy.4799219_orig

For more information on Frenchtown.

See Also:  Original Plat of St. Charles County  for information on

The Mapmap

This is the map I “threw my dart” at…I found it in a drawer at the St. Charles County Historical Society Archives about 2009 while I was working there and used it in two articles I wrote. It has since been preserved and dated to about the year 1825. This is just a small section showing the mostly French people living in what are now Frenchtown and the Duquette property recently purchased by Fr. Van Quickenborne. And, it is where he chose to build his new St. Charles Borromeo Church… “up the hill and out of town.”

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