Life Story: Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau2021-05-28T15:27:41-04:00

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Life Story: Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau (1764–1814)

A Founding Mother of St. Louis

The story of a founding mother of St. Louis.

Portrait of Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau

Francois M. Guyol de Guiran, Portrait of Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau, ca. 1805-15. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.

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Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau was born in the city of New Orleans in the Louisiana colony in 1733. Her father, Nicholas Bourgeois, was an immigrant from France, and her mother, Marie Joseph Tarare, was an immigrant from Spain. When Marie-Thérèse was only six years old, her father died. Although her mother quickly remarried, Marie-Thérèse was sent to live at the Ursuline convent, where she learned to read, write, and perform all the tasks expected of a French colonial housewife.

When Marie-Thérèse was 15 years old, her family arranged for her to marry René Chouteau. René was from France and owned a tavern in New Orleans. A year later, in 1749, Marie-Thérèse gave birth to a son, who they named René Auguste. But life with René must have been unhappy, because shortly after Auguste was born Marie-Thérèse moved back into her parents’ home. In 1752, René left New Orleans entirely, returning to France and leaving his wife and child behind. After he departed, Marie-Thérèse began calling herself a widow, and her friends and family treated her as one, allowing her to keep custody of her son and own and manage her own property.

In 1755, Marie-Thérèse met Pierre de Laclède Liguest, a recent immigrant from France. Pierre was a partner in a French trading company. Marie-Thérèse and Pierre fell in love, but Marie-Thérèse’s preexisting marriage to René meant that they could not be legally married. Instead, they moved into a New Orleans home together, and lived as common-law husband and wife. Relationships like theirs were not uncommon in New Orleans, but their unofficial status would have prevented them from moving in the most respected circles of the city’s society. Between 1758 and 1762, Marie-Thérèse gave birth to three children: Jean-Pierre, Marie Pelagie, and Marie-Louise. Because their parents were not married, all of the children were given the last name Chouteau, after their mother.

In 1763, Marie-Thérèse was pregnant with her fifth child when Pierre decided to move to the frontier village of St. Louis, where he would have more direct opportunities to trade and grow his business. He took Marie-Thérèse’s eldest child, Auguste, with him, and Marie-Thérèse was left in New Orleans to manage their home and other three children. After the birth of Victoire, her fifth and final child, Marie-Thérèse packed up her entire family and moved to St. Louis to reunite the family.

Pierre prospered in St. Louis. He built Marie-Thérèse a large home with a farm plot, and gave her three enslaved Black people and two enslaved Native people to help her manage the property. Since they were not married, Pierre needed to take extra steps to make sure Marie-Thérèse would control their property for the rest of her life. He put all of it in her name, calling it a gift in honor of the hard work Auguste had done for his company. Pierre moved into the home with his family. Their wealth and status in St. Louis meant that the rest of the community accepted their relationship, even if it was outside the bounds of traditional marriage. Over the next few years, Pierre and Auguste taught Marie-Thérèse the ins and outs of trade in St. Louis, and she grew to be a prosperous merchant in her own right.

Marie-Thérèse traded land, furs, and grain, accumulating wealth and status with every passing year.

In 1767, just as Marie-Thérèse was gaining a name for herself, her husband René returned from France. When he learned that Marie-Thérèse was a property owner and merchant, he went to the courts to demand that she be forced to return to his home. René hoped to use his rights as a husband to take control of Marie-Thérèse‘s property, so he could use her money for his own ventures. The governor of Louisiana issued an order requiring Marie-Thérèse to return to New Orleans. Luckily for Marie-Thérèse, the lieutenant governor of St. Louis refused to comply, stating that Marie-Thérèse had lived as a widow for many years, and earned all of her property and fortune independent of her husband.

Protected by the local government, as well as her own status and private fortune, Marie-Thérèse remained in St. Louis. René died in 1776, putting an end to his case against her and leaving Marie-Thérèse truly independent for the first time in her life. Marie-Thérèse could have finally married Pierre, but she chose not to. Pierre’s business had failed, and he was in debt. She worried that if she married him, she would be required to pay off his debts. This turned out to be a wise decision. Pierre passed away only two years later, leaving behind massive debts. But Marie-Thérèse was free from any responsibility toward his estate, and could continue to pursue her own interests unencumbered.

Marie-Thérèse traded land, furs, and grain, accumulating wealth and status with every passing year. She saw each of her children married to members of the most prominent families of St. Louis, establishing kinship ties that would ensure everyone’s future prosperity. By 1787, her farm had grown to include an orchard, a barn, and a cabin for her enslaved people. She had seventeen people who lived and worked with her to maintain her home, farm, and business: two free white male laborers, three free Black male laborers, eight enslaved women, and four enslaved men. In 1805, the sale of some of her property brought in enough wealth to make her one of the richest people in St. Louis.

Marie-Thérèse lived out the rest of her life in the home Pierre built her, with the constant support of one of the enslaved Native women Pierre had given her. When she died in 1814, she freed that enslaved woman, and gave her enough money and goods to help her establish a modest home. She also left behind her five children and fifty grandchildren, who together made up one of the most powerful trade families in the Louisiana territory.

Vocabulary

  • common-law marriage: When a couple lives together and presents themselves as a married couple without going through an official church or government wedding ceremony.
  • convent: The home of a community of nuns.
  • estate: All of the money and property owned by a person.
  • merchant: A person whose business is buying and selling goods.
  • tavern: A business that serves food and drink to customers.
  • widow: A woman whose husband has died.

Pronunciation

  • Auguste: au-GUST-eh
  • Marie-Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau: Mah-ree TARE-ee-suh BOO-jwah SHO-toe
  • Pelagie: Pell-a-JHAY
  • Pierre de Laclède Liguest: Pee-AIR deh La-CLED Lee-GWAY
  • René Chouteau: Ren-AY SHO-toe
  • Tarare: Tar-AIR
  • Ursuline: UHR-sal-ine

Discussion Questions

  • Why did Marie-Thérèse call herself a widow?
  • Why did Marie-Thérèse never remarry? What does this reveal about the status of women in colonial Louisiana?
  • Over the course of Marie-Thérèse’s life, ownership of the Louisiana colony passed from the French to the Spanish to the French and then to the new United States of America. How might these shifts have affected her life?
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Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

Source Notes
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