Women in Missouri History: In Search of Power and Influence

By Leeann Whites; Mary C. Neth et al. | Go to book overview

Esther and Her Sisters

Free Women of Color as Property Owners
in Colonial St. Louis, 1765—1803

Judith A. Gilbert

In 1764 in Cahokia, from which his unit was soon to move to St. Louis, a French captain named Pierre Devolsey spent a sleepless night wrestling with a question of honor. Word had come to him that the slave Magdelon, nurse of his wife's invalid brother, had died. What would become of her two-year-old daughter, the adorable little Françoise? Should he confess to his wife that he was the father of Françoise, and take her into his house? Or, to protect his already troubled marriage, should he allow his daughter to be placed with another slave family? 1.

On October 4, 1770, a free black woman known as Jeannette watched as the crude coffin holding the remains of her husband was lowered into a freshly dug grave. Standing beside her were four small, bewildered children. As the sexton began spilling clods of dirt into the grave, a handful of neighbors clasped her hands and murmured words of condolence. For all their sympathy, however, an unspoken question hung in the autumn air.

____________________
This article was published in slightly different form in Gateway Heritage 17, no. 1 (summer 1996): 14—23.
1.
Françoise Devolsey, writ of manumission, June 22, 1872, in Slave Files, Missouri Historical Society (hereinafter cited as MHS), St. Louis; Pierre François Devolsey, wills, November 12, 1768, and October 3, 1782, in St. Louis Archives (hereinafter cited as SLA), 3:86—87, in MHS; J. Thomas Scharf, History of Saint Louis City and County, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Everts, 1893), 1:175—76.

-31-

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