Women's Role in Missouri History, 1821-1971  


from the Official Manual of the State of Missouri, 1971-72
James Kirkpatrick, Secretary of State

Sacajawea...She Showed the Way
The Mother of St. Louis
The Early Days


Sacajawea...She Showed the Way

Sacajawea did indeed "show the way" to explorers Lewis and Clark, although, chronologically, there were other women of ability, strength and character who influenced Missouri history even earlier.  But perhaps it is appropriate to tell her story first, inasmuch as she is the most memorialized female figure in the United States, with more monuments, statutes, rivers and mountain passes named in her honor than any other woman.**

As school children learn, her name means "Bird Woman," and she was the wife of Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau.  Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau to accompany them with the provision that his wife come along.  A Shoshone Indian, she had been captured by the Mandan tribe as a child; she knew the Rocky Mountain area through which the explorers had to pass, and the languages of many tribes.  Although she had just given birth to a baby, she agreed to go along and she and her husband joined the expedition shortly after it left St. Louis on May 14, 1804.

"This brave young woman was a great help on the journey," one book records.  "Once the boat she was on overturned, pitching passengers and important equipment into the river.  With her baby on her back, she clung to the boat with one hand.  With the other, she grabbed the objects that were floating by.  Drenched but calm, she saved almost everything of value."

She was able to make herself understood among the tribes they met and often suspicious Indian bands let the expedition pass peacefully just because there was a woman along.  In the Rocky Mountain region where rivers were not deep enough to travel, horses were needed and here Sacajawea was especially helpful in getting the chief of the Shoshones to provide them.  After all, he was her brother.

Through nights as cold as 45 degrees below zero and steaming summer days, despite grizzly bears and other hazards, Sacajawea completed the trip, and returned to St. Louis shortly after Lewis and Clark in the fall of [1806].

Her story didn't end there.  She lived for a long time in the village of St. Louis, making her home in a tepee with another of Charbonneau's wives and their respective sons.  Her son Jean Baptiste became an accomplished linguist and attracted the attention of a visiting European nobleman who took him to his court for five years.  When he returned, he went back to work among the Indian tribes.

Sacajawea and Charbonneau quarrelled and she left him to go with the Comanche Indians, where she had five more children.  Eventually she went back to the Mandan tribe and shared a home with her father, her son, and her adopted son, each of whom had three wives.  She lived to be almost 100 years old.

The Mother of St. Louis

The Indian heroine is one of the two women best known to Missouri children from their history books.   The other was Madame Marie Therese Bourgeois Chouteau, "la mere de St. Louis" [pictured below]- the mother of St. Louis.  The first white woman to live in Missouri, she arrived late in the summer of 1764 with her teenage son, Auguste Chouteau and Pierre Laclede.

Born in New Orleans, probably in 1733, she was orphaned and grew up in the Ursuline convent there.  Her early marriage to Rene Auguste Chouteau was unhappy and she left him and returned to the convent with her baby son.  Only 17, she was more child than mother and left the care of her baby to the nuns.  the story is told that one day while playing with her dolls in the garden, she looked up to see the convent's pet ape make its way along the gallery to her room, pick up the baby Auguste and carry him swiftly to the roof.

Restrained from crying out, she watched in horror as the ape set about imitating a nursemaid, undressing the baby and dressing him.  Finished with the game, the ape picked Auguste up, carried him down the pillars, along the gallery and returned him to his cradle.  According to the story, the experience matured the young mother.  She put away childish things and took up her maternal duties in earnest.

She met Laclede in 1755 and when he and his "considerable armament" left New Orleans to establish a trading post to the north, she and Auguste and three younger children, Jean Pierre, 5, Victoire, 3, and Pelagie, 1 were among them.

They wintered over at Fort Chartres where another child, Marie Louise was born.  All of the children were known by the name of her early marriage, Chouteau.

Only 31 years old, Mme. Chouteau became the official hostess in the new settlement and one of its most important personages.  She lived in the gray walled government house which was Laclede's headquarters until he built her a stone house on Main and Chestnut.

A positive, practical character who combined shrewdness and good works, she was a business woman, trading in goods, fur and property.  her kitchen was the source of lavish party fare for visiting dignitaries, and remedies for the sick and delicacies for the convalescent.  Strawberries and grapes were raised in garden for preserves and wine, and she is credited with bringing the first honey bees into Missouri.

According to one account, she received a gift of honey from Kaskaskia and liked it so much that she sent a Negro back to learn the secret.  He reported the sweet came from "a kind of fly" and brought  some of the bees with him for her to keep.

The familiar history book picture of Mme. Chouteau was originally painted on wood and shows her in a simple dress and head kerchief.  According to the legend, a painter came to do her portrait, and her children disagreed as to the kind of clothes she should wear.  One wanted her in her daily dress and another thought she should be shown as a great lady of elegance.  Two portraits were made but the fate of the one in gala dress is unknown.  The likeness in museums and histories shows a strong, down to earth woman, who was much more than a "great lady" of fashion.  One imagines that she would have wanted to be remembered that way.

The Early Days

There were other women in the early village of St. Louis.  Mme. Margaret Bonneville, the widow of Nicholas de Bonneville, who lived with Mme. Chouteau had a colorful history of her own.  Her husband had been a friend of Thomas Paine and when he died, Mme. Bonneville became Paine's housekeeper.  Her son was later a U.S. Army general.

Another resident of the early settlement was the school teacher, Mme. Marie Rigauche who started the first girls' school in a log building on Main Street in 1790.  She was a famous figure even then because of her role in the battle of Fort San Carlos 10 years earlier.

The fort was located on the hill in back of town.  During the Revolution, the British sent an expedition composed mostly of Indians to capture the fort and the town of St. Louis.  Their strategy was to compel those living west of the Alleghenies to busy themselves in the defense of their own homes so they could not give aid to George Washington and the revolutionaries in the east.

Two defeats prevented their plan from succeeding, one the capture of Fort Sackville at Vincennes by George Rogers Clark, the other, the defense of Fort San Carlos.  Mme. Rigauche was the heroine of this battle, helping to load muskets, encouraging the soldiers and caring for the wounded.

Schoolteachers of all eras might have a feeling of sympathy for Mme. Rigauche.  Promised a salary of $15 a month, she never received it and instead, was given a tract of land in payment.

A romantic feminine figure of the time was Teresa de Leyba, commandant of San Carlos, because of her bittersweet love affair with George Rogers Clark. Their marriage was prevented, the story goes, because the hero of the Revolution was not rewarded by the government as he had anticipated but instead found himself in debt for supplies and bills incurred by his men.  She returned to Spain and lived out her life in a convent there.

Mary Hampstead Keeney, of Connecticut, came to St. Louis and married the famous fur trader, Manuel Lisa.  He spoke only Spanish, she only English and a little French but despite their lack of  communication, or perhaps because of it, they lived together amicably.  Evidently, she was a woman of great tolerance as she took in his children from his Indian alliances, cared for them and saw to it that they were educated.

Then, as now, there was much more to Missouri than its major settlement on the Mississippi.  The sophisticated village of Ste. Genevieve to the south was well established.  In fact, the first marriage there, between Andre de Guire and Marie la Boissiere was recorded in 1759.  And Don Pedro Piernas, Upper Louisiana governor, en route to St. Louis, was entertained in style by Mme. Francois Valle.


 [**Electronic editor's note: Most sources give her name as "Sacagawea"; editor uses the spelling given in the Manual.  See also  U.S. Mint information about her]

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