Domestic Life on the New Frontier

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masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'
Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

The Domestic Domestique

Emilie Ann Gratiot Chouteau (1792–1862)
Pierre "Cadet" Chouteau Jr. (1789–1865)

Portrait of a young early 19th-century lady and gentleman

Composite image created by Kristopher Townsend. Original images courtesy of the Missouri History Museum Objects Collection.

Emilie Ann Gratiot and her future husband, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. were children when the Expedition arrived in St. Louis. Pierre was the grandson of St. Louis founder Peirre de Laclède. Emilie was the daughter of Charles Gratiot who financed part of George Rogers Clark's Illinios campaign and translated for Lewis during his meeting with the Spanish Governor in St. Louis. The children would have been teenagers when the Expedition returned in 1806. The two were married in 1813 or 1814.

—Kristopher K. Townsend, ed.

Twentieth century accounts of the early days tend to generalize and romanticize the early settlers in a way that would make Garrison Keillor's description of the Lake Wobegonites sound downright modest. In St. Louis, all the men were industrious and enterprising; all the women were virtuous and tidy, and all the children were deferential and well behaved. According to one writer, the housewife's duties included chaperoning children at the obligatory classes in dancing the minuet; early education of these children; the care of what were generally large families; management of finances when the master of the house was off on his trading ventures; laying in provisions for the household for the months that it took to receive goods from New Orleans; managing the kitchen; sewing clothing for the household; disciplining the Indian and black slaves “strictly but fairly," and, through all this, remaining gay, sprightly, and a real helpmate to her husband. "From sunrise to sundown she was busy making the house comfortable and cheerful for her husband. After supper she, like her husband, rested and forgot the cares of the day." And oh yes, she "set an example of sincere religiousness and great patience, a quality which she must have possessed in great abundance to be able to retain her charm of manner.”

If any woman in the room recognizes herself or any acquaintance in this picture, let her raise her hand. Still, things were not easy for the eighteenth-century housewife, and there was, I fear, little sitting around in the evenings chatting amiably and sloughing off the cares of the day.

If nothing else, the housewife must be a good cook, Kitchens were usually separate from the main house, and cooking was done in open fireplaces with cranes on each side of the hearth. A bar of iron at the top of the fireplace provided a place to hang kettles to boil, or to roast game. Long rods with hooks were used to remove pots from the fire, and cooking spoons had long handles. Locally procured provisions included turkeys brought in by Indians for barter; bear which furnished tastier hams than the wild running hogs; wild cattle, fish, and various fruits and vegetables. Spices and condiments, mentioned by Stoddard as "extremely dear," were imported and brought up from New Orleans.

In addition to the separate kitchens, outbuildings might include a barn, a henhouse, a milk house, a shed, a storehouse, an outdoor bake oven, a latrine, a stable, slave quarters, and outside cellar,a pigeon house, and a pigsty. And just in case you doubt that even the worst news sounds good in French, compare that word pigsty to its local French counterpart, cochonniere. It could be the honeymoon suite at the Ritz.

Open fires heated the houses, as driftwood and logs were easily procured from the commons. Stoves, imported from New Orleans, were in stock by 1798 in the store of Clamorgan and Loisel, but were too expensive for the average home. For interior lighting there were candles, grease lamps, and rush lights like those of rural France.

Town Houses

Old Chouteau Mansion. St. Louis Co. MO.

Large colonial mansion with three stories

Courtesy Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collection, Thomas Easterly Daguerreotype Collection: 92 - 178.

The town was made up of private houses on quarter-block lots, each surrounded by a high palisade fence. In case of danger to the village, barriers at the ends of the streets formed with these fences a continuous protective wall. There was no retail district, no industrial center, no inn or hotel. The more prominent citizens had large houses; that of Auguste Chouteau was described by John F. Darby as "an elegant domicile fronting on Main St. His dwelling and houses for his servants occupied the whole square . . . . The walls were two and a half feet thick, of solid stone work, two stories high, and surrounded by a large piazza. The floors were of black walnut, and were polished so finely that they reflected like a mirror. Col. Chouteau had a train of servants, and every morning after breakfast some of those inmates of his household were down on their knees for hours." And Mme Dubreuil, it was said, had one slave who did nothing but wax furniture and woodwork.

Paint was scarce, but the abundant limestone made for plenty of whitewash, and it was this which covered the inside and outside walls of most houses. In 1807, traveler Christian Schulz mentioned seeing in St. Louis "about 200 houses, which, from the whiteness of a considerable number of them, as they are rough-cast and white-washed, appear to great advantage as you approach town."

Among the most valued household pieces were armoires, constructed of walnut or cherry and often made so that they could be taken apart for moving. Beds had canopies and side curtains, bolsters stuffed with feathers or Spanish moss, covered with ticking or deer skin; heavy linen sheets, buffalo robes, and quilts. Mosquito barriers of light linen or cotton were a must for the summer months. Chairs were corron and inexpensive, and some had cross-bar connecting finials to form a prie-dieu. Dining rooms were large, and furnished with side tables which could be added to the center table to accommodate large families and guests. Cupboards and sideboards lined the dining room walls. An armoire of the Chouteau family can still be seen at the local History Museum, as well as some of the china brought from France. The china, highly decorated earthenware, is still produced as the Strasbourg pattern by the French firm of Lunevialla, and, incidentally, can be purchased even now in the Museum Shop.

The typical house was nearly square, and usually one story high. It had the usual hip roof, steep on the long sides and almost vertical at the ends, and a galerie, shaded by the sloping roof, a necessity in this warm climate. Originally roofs were thatched, but thatch was a fire hazard in the dry atmosphere, and by 1766 shingles had become standard, since straight-grained wood for making them was plentiful.

Simple and Practical Clothing

Clothing was simple and practical. One duty the housewife was spared (perhaps you noticed it was not included in the list of her accomplishments) was the production of homespun fabrics. Spinning wheels and looms were absent, because old French law prohibited home weaving to assure the purchase of material manufactured in France. The usual male outfit consisted of deerskin or coarse cotton pants, a long cotton shirt, a head kerchief, and moccasins. In cold weather a woolen cape was worn, along with fur mittens attached schoolboy-style to a cord to prevent their being lost. The women typically wore long cotton or woolen skirts, linen or cotton blouses, short jackets, and kerchiefs. The more affluent of both sexes had elegant clothes for special occasions; these were of fine silks, and were accessorized with fancy gloves and slippers for the ladies and buckled pumps for the men.

The Simple Matter of Religion

Religion was a simple matter, definable in one word: Catholic, the official state religion of both the French and Spanish regimes. Land was set aside in Laclède's original plan for a church, and priests made occasional visits to perform marriages, funerals, and baptism, but there was no resident pastor until the arrival of Father Bernard de Limpach in 1776. Sundays were both religious and social; after Mass there were auctions, public discussion, land transactions, dancing, and games.

Even before the purchase, Americans were moving west, many desiring farm lands beyond the Mississippi. For the most part these were Protestants, ineligible under Spanish law for residence in Louisiana. Beginning in the 1790s, the Lieutenant Governors encouraged immigration from the East, and chose unofficially to waive the religious requirements. Zenon Trudeau, for example, catechized the newcomers, and if they seemed at least to adhere to some Christian tenets, he would pronounce them “good Catholics" and admit them. Most of these newcomers settled in the rich lands west of the town in such areas as Manchester and Bonhomme. It would be another decade or so after the transfer that Protestantism achieved any lasting foothold in St. Louis.

Dancing was a social grace and activity enjoyed by all. Balls were the accepted form of entertainment, especially for important guests, and even crusty old Frederick Bates observed, "Our balls are gay, spirited and social. The French ladies dance with inimitable grace." American to the core, he could not resist adding, "I must deplore the singularity of my taste when I confess, that to me, they would be more interesting with a greater show of modesty and correctness of manners."

Western Gate, St. Louis

view east

A large arch behind a dome and in front of the Mississippi River

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service, Negative #NPS-115-43.


Returning now to Amos Stoddard, still bowed under his governmental duties, I will close with a message he must have been happy to convey to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn on June 3: "I have the pleasure to inform you that Captain Lewis, with his party, began to ascend the Missouri from the village of St. Charles on the 21st ultimo. I acompanied him to that village and he was also attended by most of the principal gentlemen in this place and vicinity. He began his expedition with a Barge of 18 oars, attended by two large perogues all of which were deeply laden, and well manned. I have from him about 60 miles on his route, and it appears that he proceeds about 15 miles per day—a celerity seldom witnessed on the Missouri; and this is the more extraordinary as the time required to ascertain the courses of the river and to make the other necessary observations must considerably retard his progress.”

Well, you all know the rest . . . that expedition, called the "most perfect of its kind in history" opened the west to settlement and made of St. Louis the gateway memorialized by Eero Saarine's stunning arch.2 And it all came together in 1804.