Outdoor Illinois, November, 1967
An Illinois FamilyBy Lowell A. Dearinger
This is the story of a family. Although its roots are in central France, our family may be said to have been founded with the founding of upper America.
No costly monuments memorialize any member of this family. But it has been respectable, and respected. It has experienced great events, and has seen the shameful happen. It has held citizenship under three nations: France, Great Britain, and the United States. With impartiality ours may be called an Illinois Family.
JOHN CHOISSER AND his wife, Nancy Sutton, from a portrait painted in 1825. Attracted by her long brown hair, Choisser postponed a keelboat trip to New Orleans to woo and win Nancy despite the objections of her parents.
OUR FAMILY and our story have their geneses in Montreal. It was there, in 1662, that Nicholas Brazeau, master wheelwright, and Perette Billard were married.
There are no details about the wedding, but we can be sure that the marriage contract had been drawn up and properly signed, and that the notary had kissed the bride on both cheeks. There had been a charivari, and dancing and plenty of good food - crocquignolles, perhaps. There was much merriment, as there should be at all wedding parties.
The wedding group had walked to what must have been Montreal's only church. In 1662 the village was small - three years later it could boast of only 584 inhabitants. (The present population is over 2,400,000.)
Only 20 years previously Montreal had been founded as a religious settlement, for the purpose of converting local Indians. New France was managed - exploited may be the better word - by the Company of One Hundred Associates. In 1662 the Company and the clergy were having their differences. The following year Louis XIV settled the squabble by making New France a royal colony.
Almost with the founding of Montreal, Jeanne Mance, with a gift of 6,000 francs from a wealthy Paris patron, had established at the foot of Mount Real the town's first hospital. This was the parent institution of the present Hotel Dieu, which is located on the same site.
The Franciscan Recollects had established a monastery in Montreal. Catholic missionaries worked among the Indians. Some of these, including the Jesuit, Isaac Jogues, had been tortured and slain, martyrs to their cause.
At Vercheres, 24 miles downstream from Montreal, 14-year-old Mlle. Marie Madeline de Vercheres, almost single-handed, escaped from attacking Iroquois, loaded and fired a four-pounder cannon, drove off the Indians, and warned neighbors against possible attacks.
Then, believing she was entitled to a reward for this brave deed, Mlle. Marie requested from the King a pension of 50 ecus, or a commission for her brother. It was not reported that either was granted.
Such events no doubt were discussed by the oldsters at the wedding party, as were reports coming out of the West. In the West was much fur - the profits, they were tres extraordinaire! There were many rivers, and lakes as big as the sea. And what of that great river which emptied into the South Sea!
The same year of the wedding, Louis Jolliet, who 11 years later with Pere Marquette was to discover and explore this great river, entered Bishop Laval's new Seminaire de Quebec, to begin study for the priesthood. Louis was one of the first three students of the seminary.
The lure of exploration, however, was too tempting. After receiving minor orders, Jolliet completed his education in Europe, taking engineering, hydrography, and other subjects that would be of use in the American wilderness.
Louis Jolliet also had musical talent. After his return from his explorations with Pere Marquette, he became organist of the Cathedral of Quebec.
In time the wedding became an event to be remembered by Perette - and by Nicholas, when she reminded him. The two lived and toiled together in the traditional pattern, as had their parents and their parents' parents for generations before them.
To Nicholas and Perette were born sons and daughters. To these also were born sons and daughters, even into the fourth generation.
On April 22, 1754, at the Church of Notre Dame de Montreal, a great-granddaughter of Nicholas and Perette, Francoise Bernonille, was given in marriage to Jean Choisser, who had been born in the Diocese of Verdun, France. Of five children born to this couple, the oldest, Jean Baptiste, and the youngest, Jean, are pertinent to our story.
There is no mention of the death of Francoise, but Jean, her husband, married the second time. This marriage is mentioned because of interest in the marriage contract.
Provision was made for the disposal of property in event of death of either contracting party. The dowry of each was 500 livres (about $100). Provision also was made for the support of two minor children of Jean Choisser by his first marriage. At the time there were three known surviving children, all minors - the brothers, Jean Baptiste, and Jean; and a sister, Marie Louise.
This brief genealogical summary covered four generations, and a full century. Records do not tell us how these years were spent. We are told only that one member was a sergeant in the army, and that another was a church warden.
The century which followed the marriage of Nicholas Brazeau and Perette Billard was marked by great events. This was the period of the Anglo-French struggle for North America.
This contest was resolved by four wars: King William's War - 1689-97, Queen Anne's War - 1702-13, King George's War - 1744-48, and the decisive French and Indian War of 1754-61. That these wars were related to the rivalry in Europe between France and England is not pertinent to our story.
In 1690 and again in 1711 the British had made unsuccessful attempts to take Quebec.
Partly because of British agitation and partly because the French had made friends with the Hurons, the Iroquois always were a threat to Montreal. The Iroquois attacked the town several times.
On May 25, 1754, George Washington, at Fort Necessity, precipitated the French and Indian War. There was much fighting on the frontier. Men and supplies were sent to Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) from Montreal and from the Illinois country.
On September 18, 1759, on the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe and his Anglo-American army defeated the French. Montreal was occupied September 8, 1760. By the autumn of 1761, save for the Illinois country, all New France had been occupied by the British.
Judging by its later history, it is certain that our family shared with fellow Montreal citizens the crises, tensions, sacrifices, tragedies, and sorrows brought about by this half century of warfare.
As an observer it can be said that our family honorably met the trials and challenges of the century.
In 1779, Jean Choisser, the younger brother, is placed in Kaskaskia. Baptismal records of the Kaskaskia church list him as a witness and godfather of a daughter of slaves belonging to a possible relative.
KASKASKIA AND THE Jesuit compound, later a fort, as it appeared in the late 1700's. The stockade and blockhouses were built when the British converted the mission into Fort Gage.
On January 15, 1781, the older brother, Jean Baptiste, is registered as witness and godfather at the baptism of a son of a prominent Kaskaskia family.
These registrations indicate that the brothers were well-enough known in Kaskaskia to have been accepted as equals and friends of the better Kaskaskia families.
Jean seems to have been in Kaskaskia before its occupation by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians, July 4, 1778. His was one of the signatures to a petition sent by Kaskaskians to the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, of which colony Kaskaskia was district capital. Louis Brazeau, another member of our family, was also signatory.
The petitioners asked protection against Col. James Montgomery. They also cited wrongs against the people of the community by Col. John Rogers, John Dodge, and others who had been placed over the French village. The petition, dated May 4, 1781, reads in part:
"The inhabitants of Kaskaskia in Illinois very humbly pray, and have the honor to make known to you that they received Colonel Clark and those, who accompanied him, with all the zeal possible, when the latter arrived in this country, because they hoped to enjoy, as do our fellow citizens, a true liberty, as had been promised to them."
In addition to other injustices, the petitioners charged that "he (Montgomery) caused to be shot, in the streets, before the barndoors, and even in the very yards, a number of our domestic animals . . . When the supplicants showed him that he was totally ruining them and that this was no longer the enjoyment of that liberty that had been promised to them by the "honorable Colonel Clark" . . . his answer was that, if there were any who were dissatisfied, they could prepare themselves to keep their weapons in condition, and that he and his troops were all ready . . ."
SIGNATURES OF Jean Choisser and Louis Brazeau on a petition sent by the French 'habitants of Kaskaskia to Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia, protesting mistreatment by Col. John Montgomery, civil governor of Kaskaskia, in 1781.
This last statement is a reference to a letter supposedly written by Montgomery to Capt. Richard Winston, dated March 5, 1780.
Without doubt, the complaints were justified.
If the Choissers and the Brazeaus had come down from Montreal to escape British rule, the situation in Illinois must have been disappointing.
Kaskaskia has been likened to the city-states of ancient Greece. While learning to become a self-governing community the Kaskaskians experienced a period of suffering, as had the early city-states during their anarchistic periods of social adjustment.
For some 13 years the Kaskaskians lived in a state of near-anarchy. There is evidence of petty tyranny, and of personal ambitions, with a strong accent on the financial.
A court had been established at Kaskaskia, but it is claimed that the French magistrates sought personal advantages. The pay and side benefits were attractive. To stay in office it was convenient not to hold an election. Both the Americans and the French soon ignored the mandates of their courts.
Also, there was a rivalry for power between the Indian Agent, Captain of the Infantry, John Dodge, and Captain Richard Winston, then Civil Governor.
In March, 1783, the Kaskaskians sent a petition to the Commissioners of Virginia. They were exceptionally critical of Winston, charging him with stating "that we are a people unacquainted with liberty and a band of brutes . . . that we ought to be governed by blows of an iron bar, and at the point of a bayonet, since we knew no other law."
The petition further claimed that Winston had plunged them into poverty, calamity, misfortune, necessity and destitution. These claims apparently were not greatly exaggerated.
On March 6, 1783, Dodge wrote to the Kaskaskia Commissioners about Winston. "I am credibly informed that he (Winston) laid a plan to have English colours hoisted here (Kaskaskia), and hauled down by the Spaniards and make it a Spanish settlement; but I understand that the Spanish Commandant despised his unlegal proposition." Kaskaskia at that time was occupied by the Americans.
Among the signers of the Kaskaskia petition again were found Louis Brazeau and Jean Choisser.
In reporting the petition Alvord noted, "This violent attack was made by only a few of the French, but some of these were among the most prominent, such as members of the Brazeau family . . ."
When, under the changing governments it became apparent that the trend was leading to disorder, tyranny and chaos, many prominent French, like Joseph Labussiere, Gabriel Cerre, Charles Gratiot, and others forsook Kaskaskia and migrated to the Spanish side of the Mississippi.
Those remaining in Kaskaskia after the exodus were at a disadvantage. They had been accustomed to a dependable authority. In spite of their protestations to the contrary they knew nothing of governing themselves in the American sense. Consequently, those upon whom leadership now fell lacked the experience to guide with the least friction their community to self-dependence.
Records of land grants along the Mississippi, involving as it does grants by the Spanish, French, British and the Americans, are yet far from being clear. Fraud was prevalent in the early Spanish and French grants. With the British and American grants there was confusion and undoubtedly some fraud.
The land had not been surveyed. Reference to metes and bounds was rare or non-existent. Descriptions might read "on the Kaskaskia, seven or eight miles above the village"; "in the big wood above Kaskaskia"; "on the Mississippi some thirty miles above the mouth of the Ohio"; "on Clark's trail to Vincennes."
Such descriptions were neither unique, nor exceptional. To add to the confusion these grants were bought and resold, time and again. Such transfers were rarely recorded.
The situation is illustrated by a grant to Jean Choisser.
"Grant to John Choisser . . . Sept. 25th, 1783, of three Arpents extending from the river Kaskaskia (east) to the ledge of rocks, and from thence of forty Arpents in depth (with) the same breadth of three Arpents, bounded as follows (Ms. torn) the three Arpents in front granted to John Choisser bounded on the South by the Riviere a Moutia and on the North by the Domaine . . ."
An Arpent was 11.5 rods in length. The grant, therefore, extended 34.5 rods from the Kaskaskia River back to a rock ledge, and 460 rods along the Kaskaskia River to a Riviere a Moutia. This is a total of 15,870 rods, or 99+ acres.
Choisser's was No. 14 of a number of grants made by Timothe De Montbrun, Commandant at Kaskaskia. The Riviere a Moutia has not been identified. Comparing the description with the lay of the land along the old course of the Kaskaskia the area granted may now be that occupied by the Menard State Prison.
In the Randolph County files at Chester is a manuscript volume, "Translations of French Records." In this volume is recorded a sale, dated October 10, 1783, by Jean Choisser to his brother, Jean Baptiste, of his share of the estate of his "defunct mother", and all claims he could expect after the death of his father, or by inheritance. The consideration was 4,000 livres ($800).
After the transaction public records do not mention Jean Choisser. The family assumes that he returned to Montreal. What disposition was made of the 99+ acres along the Kaskaskia is not known.
In 1781, Jean Baptiste married Marianne Labuxiere, baptized November 28, 1765. The wedding was solemnized at the Church of St. Louis of France (now the Old Cathedral), in the then Spanish village of St. Louis. (The family name is spelled variously as Labuxiere, Labussiere, and Boissiere. Sometimes the "La" is used, sometimes not. This confusion is due partly to carelessness by the French in the use of names, and partly to translation.)
LOUIS BRAZEAU and other members of the "Illinois family" worshipped before this hand-carved altar in the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception at Kaskaskia. The altar may be seen in the present church on Kaskaskia Island.
The marriage of Jean Baptiste Choisser relates his family with one of the most prominent of French families in Illinois.
Joseph Labuxiere, the father of Marianne, had come from France commissioned as "royal notary and administrator of estates in abeyance, or procurer of unknown heirs." Officially he was the King's Attorney. He was, under French law, "an important personage always." The early American settlers were less impressed.
Joseph Labuxiere lived first at Nouvelle Chartres, near the fort. Later, after the British occupation and Fort Chartres had been abandoned, he moved to Kaskaskia. The questionable sale of the property at Cahokia of the banished Jesuits by Forget du Verger was made before him.
According to French records this same Forget conducted the marriage rites uniting Joseph Labuxiere and Catherine Anne Vivarennes at Fort de Chartres.
Near the fort was the village of Ste. Anne. Mention is made that the first child born of the Labuxieres - a son - was buried at the Ste. Anne Church. Even so, it is stated specifically that the couple were married at Fort Chartres. We may, therefore, assume that the Labuxiere-Vivarennes marriage was performed in the chapel of the fort (now restored, at Fort Chartres State Park).
During the last half of 1765 Labuxiere moved to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, then Spanish territory. In 1767 the family moved to St. Louis, where he had been appointed civil judge.
According to recognized authorities the first grant of land in St. Louis was made to Joseph Labuxiere.
This grant was located in block 13, "having a front of 300 feet on Rue Royale (now Main Street - sic), by 150 feet deep to the river." This lot is supposed to be near, or is the actual site on which has been built, the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
About 1781, Labuxiere returned to Kaskaskia. On June 29, of that year, Richard Winston, Civil Governor at Kaskaskia, appointed him attorney for the State of Virginia.
The ANCIENT BELL of Kaskaskia Island, now enshrined in a state memorial on the island, was cast in France in 1741 and transported across the ocean as a gift to the French settlers from the King of France. It is known as the Liberty Bell of the West, having been rung on the occasion of Clark's capture of Kaskaskia.
This was at the time of the Dodge-Winston feud, a low point in Kaskaskia history. Because of the disorders at Kaskaskia, Labuxiere soon moved to Cahokia where, so he wrote, the inhabitants were "filled with unity of peace and fidelity to the state," and where there was "a court justice which they are careful to administer with equity to those who ask its help" - a commentary on the situation at Kaskaskia.
On November 8, 1782, he was appointed Attorney for the County of Illinois, State of Virginia. He also served as clerk of the court and as a notary. These offices he held until his death, April 29, 1791.
We return to Jean Baptiste Choisser.
Apparently he never established a residence in Illinois, or in St. Louis. In the Chester records of the transaction with his brother Jean, dated two years before his marriage, he is listed as "merchant, residence in Canada."
His business required some traveling between Montreal and Illinois. It is not known where he made his headquarters while in Illinois. However, in the register of the Kaskaskia church is recorded an important event:
"L'an mil sept cent quatre vingt quatre, le vingt deux d'aout, je pretre, soussigne, ai supplie les ceremonies du Bapteme a Jean Baptiste Choissere ne du vingt de juin de la neme anee du legitimate mariage du sieur Jean Baptiste Choissere, et de Marie Labusierre son espouse. Le parain a etele sieur Jean Baptiste Beauvais, Lelmaraine Marie Francoise Braxeau quit a fait a marque parque pour signature.
Jean Baptiste Bauvais
X la Maraine
Jean Baptiste Choissere
Payet ptre missionaire"
This is the baptismal record of Jean Baptiste, Jr., born June 20, 1784, baptized August 22, 1784, a son of Jean Baptiste and Marianne.
After the birth of Jean Jr., the Choissers traveled between Kaskaskia and Montreal two or three times. The Senior Choisser died between the years of 1790-1801. Besides the son, Jean, Jr., he left a daughter, Marie Louise, baptized in Montreal, November 8, 1790.
Marianne remarried, and evidently did not return to Illinois. The daughter and John Jr. - let us call him John, to distinguish him from the other Jeans - also remained in Montreal.
According to a family legend, during a family row the step-father began beating Marianne. John floored the man with an ax. Thinking he had killed his step-father, John, with financial aid from his mother, "fled, to seek revenge with the Indians in his native Illinois."
Continued in Part Two
[ About the author, Lowell A. Dearinger ]
[ The Choisser Family Home Page ]
Copyright © 1967 OUTDOOR ILLINOIS Magazine, All Rights Reserved.
Published on the Internet with permission.