Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau (1733 – 1814)
Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau is known as the “Mother of St. Louis.” She was the matriarch of the Chouteaus, the founding family of St. Louis. She was also a pioneer businesswoman who managed her property successfully. She and her offspring earned a permanent place in American history as early business and social leaders in St. Louis.
Early Life in New Orleans
Marie Thérèse Bourgeois was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on January 13, 1733. Her father, Nicholas Charles Bourgeois, was French. Her mother, Marie Joseph Tarare, was Spanish. Shortly before Marie Thérèse turned six, her father died. Marie had two siblings and her mother was pregnant with another at the time of her father’s death. The following year, Marie’s mother married Nicholas Pierre Carco. Marie Thérèse grew up in New Orleans with her mother and stepfather. On September 20, 1748, at the age of fifteen, she wed René Auguste Chouteau in a marriage arranged by her family. He was a French-born tavern keeper and baker who was ten years older than Marie Thérèse.
Madame Chouteau Meets Laclède
The next year, in early September of 1749, Marie Thérèse gave birth to her first child, Auguste Chouteau, the future co-founder of St. Louis. René Chouteau left his wife and son around 1752. He returned to France, leaving Marie Thérèse to do her best to care for Auguste and herself. Three years later, she met the other future co-founder of St. Louis, Pierre de Laclède.
Pierre de Laclède was an educated and polished man from southern France. He was born in 1729 into a successful family and came to New Orleans in 1755 to start a career in business. Laclède’s intelligence and attention impressed Marie Thérèse. The two developed a bond that they and others considered a legal union. Under French and Roman Catholic law, Marie Thérèse and Laclède could not officially marry because of her existing marriage to Chouteau. Marie Thérèse remained Madame Chouteau, though she called herself Widow Chouteau. She did this because a widow had more legal rights than a married woman. As a widow, Marie Thérèse could own property and have custody of her children. Marie Thérèse had four children with Laclède—Jean Pierre (1758), Marie Pelagie (1760), Marie Louise (1762), and Victoire (1764)—although they were all given the last name Chouteau.
Helps Establish the City of St. Louis
In June of 1764, Marie Thérèse left New Orleans with four of her children and traveled up the Mississippi River. They arrived in September at a trading post that would later become St. Louis. They joined Laclède and her son Auguste Chouteau who had founded the settlement earlier in the year as a fur trading headquarters. Marie Thérèse would spend the next fifty years in this new city on the Mississippi.
First, Marie Thérèse lived in the trading post. Then in 1768, she moved her family to a new stone house built by Laclède. She ran a busy household and acquired property, including several slaves. She owned cattle, kept bees, and conducted business transactions.
An Independent Woman
Surprisingly, in 1774, René Chouteau returned from France and tried to make Marie Thérèse join him in New Orleans. She refused to leave St. Louis. Chouteau tried to bring legal actions against her because he wanted to claim her property as his own. Still Marie Thérèse would not leave St. Louis. Chouteau died in 1776, finally freeing her of the unwanted marriage.
Marie Thérèse did not, however, choose to marry Laclède. By this time, Laclède had fallen into debt. Marie Thérèse was a clever businesswoman. Though she loved Laclède, she may have feared that she would lose her property and money to pay off his debts when he died, which happened fairly soon in 1778.
After Laclède’s death, Marie Thérèse continued to live in their stone house. She was known to the community as Madame Chouteau. She bought and sold property and oversaw the running of her farm acreage with the assistance of several slaves. Her children prospered. Her sons, Auguste and Pierre, came to control the fur trade and were leaders in St. Louis business and politics for decades. She helped her daughters marry well by giving them sizable dowries.
Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau died at the age of 81 on August 14, 1814. She and her many descendants made important contributions to Missouri history. Her grandson, Francois Chouteau, founded Kansas City. In her lifetime, this admired and determined woman saw the village of St. Louis become an important American town and the Gateway to the West.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 175–77.
Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women’s History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. pp.12–15.
Dains, Mary K., ed., Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Volume 1: 14–15.