Jean Baptiste Choisser

of Kaskaskia and Gallatin County (1784-1860)

by Aubrey Starke


Among the most legible records in the Kaskaskia Church Register is the following:

L'an mil sept cent quatre vingt quatre, le vingt deux d'aoute, je pretre, soussigné, ai supplié les cérémonies du Baptême a Jean Baptiste Choissêre nó du vingt de juin de la meme année du légitime mariage du sieur Jean Baptiste Choissêre, et de Marie Labussiêre son épouse. Le parain a éte le sieur Jean Baptiste Beauvais, le mareine Marie Francoise Brazau qui a fait sa marque pour signature.

Jean Baptiste Bauvais              +  la maraine

Jean Baptiste Choissere

Payet ptre missionaire 56

The godfather, the important M. Beauvais, one of the wealthiest men of Kaskaskia and of Ste. Genevieve, who had purchased the property of the Jesuits when it was sold at auction in November, 1764, signed the register with a crude, childlike signature that ignored capital letters, and contradicted the more correct spelling of the name followed by the officiating priest. The godmother, the Widow Brazeau 57, who may have been a relative of the newly baptized infant, could not sign her name at all, and made an uncertain mark. Father Payet, who performed the rites, and made the record, wrote in a fine, educated hand, easily legible. But Jean Baptiste Choisser ignored the convention that did not require the signature of a father to the record of his son's baptism, and signed his full name with a flourish that as much as anything else we now know reveals the character of this Illinois merchant.

Of the career of the son whose baptism he so proudly witnessed, we know however a little more, for his career is a matter of family tradition, and he himself is almost a person remembered. A granddaughter, Mrs. Caroline Parish Cozart, wrote of him: "As a child I heard the older ones say that grandfather was the first white child born in Kaskaskia, that later the family went back to Montreal, and still later back to Kaskaskia, then again to Montreal, where they remained until grandfather came down the river to Shawneetown, met my grandmother and they were married there. After my great grandfather died his widow remarried, and grandfather and his step-father disagreed; I do not know his name." 58 The last sentence is an allusion to the family tradition that Jean Baptiste Choisser engaged in a quarrel with his step-father, struck him, and thinking he had killed him fled, to seek refuge with the Indians in his native Illinois. His mother is said to have given him money to aid him in his journey.

There is another tradition, about a sister of Jean Baptiste Choisser. A great granddaughter, Mrs. Mary Beasley Davies, writes: "My mother told me quite a story once about her grandfather having a sister visit him from Montreal and how they all dreaded her, - her education and background was evidently superior to what Southern Illinois provided at that time." 59 And this tradition is confirmed in part by the record of baptism of an infant, Marie Louise Choisser, in the Church of Notre Dame, at Montreal, November 8, 1790 60. Her parents were Jean Baptiste Choisser and Marie Ann Labucsieurre (sic.): the godmother, probably a great aunt, was Marie Louise Champeau 61, the godfather - evidently the uncle - Jean Choisser. Father L. Lamotte was the officiating priest. The record is signed by both the father and the godfather-uncle, Jean Baptiste Choisser and Jean Choisser.

The death of Jean Baptiste Choisser, father of John B. Choisser of Illinois and the Marie Louise Choisser who remained a resident of Montreal, must have occurred sometime between November 8, 1790, and 1801 - the date of a family document only recently lost. This document, a water stained, torn bit of paper, inscribed at Montreal, was long preserved by the family as the supposed record of their ancestor's baptism. The author of this article made a copy of the legible words, which he submitted to the Bishop of Montreal for examination. But M. Massicotte, Archivist of the District of Montreal, stated that the document was certainly no certificate of baptism, nor even an act of civil status, but a recommendation by three citizens to the authorities, either civil or military, to obtain a permit to sell. M. Francis J. Audet, of the office of Public Archives of Canada, at Ottawa where many such permits are preserved in duplicate, restored the missing words as correctly as possible, and decided that the document was a permit to keep a tavern and to sell liquor. The document is as follows, the words supplied by M. Audet given in brackets:

(Nous acussignées) certifions à tous (ceux qu'il apparti)endra que nos (connaissons Jean Baptiste (Choissêre comme) un (fidele sujet de) sa Majete et (le recommmendons) comme une (personne) qui mertie d'obtenir une license pour tenir (hôtel) et vendre à Montreal D(onnè) a Montreal 29º aut 1801.
         Frans Trinque
         Francois Arnaud
         Henry Bramer

Unfortunately, the original document had been misplaced before M. Audet's suggested reconstruction was received, and so comparison of the original with the reconstruction was impossible 62. The attack on the stepfather and John Choisser's final return to the Illinois, mentioned in his granddaughter's letter, must have occurred after this document was drawn up. But it should be noted that in 1801 John Choisser was only 17.

There is another family tradition to the effect that John Choisser, returned again to the Illinois, served as a keelboat man on the Ohio, and made his home in Shawneetown. There, among the immigrants who used the Shawneetown ferry as a port of entry to the new territory of the west, he met one Nancy Sutton, who had come with her father, William Alpheus Sutton, a veteran of the Revolution, from Virginia to Kentucky. A family tradition states that he first saw Nancy Sutton combing her long brown hair, and then and there made up his mind to marry the girl who had such beautiful hair.

The marriage occurred in 1809 - the year Shawneetown was incorporated. Choisser's work as a keelboat man took him repeatedly to New Orleans, with salt from the manufactory already established at Equality. Returning from one such trip in 1811, he experienced one of the earthquake shocks known as the New Madrid earthquake, and in Shawneetown found his first born son, William.

The Illinois state census of 1810 names no Labuxiere, Choisser, or Sutton. The census of 1818, which names "Louis Labasere", names "Michael Sosha" of St. Clair as head of a family consisting of one adult white male, and three other whites, and no blacks 63. William Sutton of Gallatin County is listed as the head of a family consisting of two adult white males, and five other whites. In the 1820 census William Sutton is named as head of a family consisting of one adult male, five other whites, and no blacks. Neither Jean Baptiste Choisser nor John B. Choisser (the spelling of the name by which, as an Illinois citizen he became known) appears in either the 1818 or the 1820 state census; and we must not suppose that the "John Sherarer" listed in the Federal census of 1820 is John Choisser, because Sherarer (or Shearer) was a Presbyterian minister still living in Gallatin County at a later date, when John Choisser is known to have lived there.

Where John Choisser made his home at the time of the census of 1818 and that of 1820, it is impossible to say. There is no tradition that after his marriage he lived anywhere other than Gallatin County, or that part of it that later became Saline. But only in the census of 1830 do we find his name, and there it is spelled John J. Choiser 64.

No family tradition concerning military service of John Choisser persists, but there are records of the service of Jean Choiser (sic) as quartermaster sergeant of the 3rd Illinois Regiment, Col. Isaac White commanding, in 1809; and in the 4th Illinois Regiment, Lt. Col. Philip Trammel commanding, in 1811 65 - records that prove his participation in the Illinois phase of those widespread disturbances known from the culminating outbreak as the War of 1812.

A persistent family tradition states that John Choisser operated the old salt works near, or at Equality. Government records so far published, and histories of Illinois, make no mention of any connection John Choisser might have had with the government owned and leased salt works [ed. note: Jon Musgrave has authored some such historical accounts, which can be found at], but the tradition may not be wholly inaccurate. In Virginia Rose: A Romance of Illinois, by Edward R. Roe, first published in 18__, [sic] there is an account of a Frenchman who was employed at the Salt works, and who - according to the family tradition - was John Choisser.

At the close of the first day, Captain Rose's company had reached the Salt Works, where they proposed to spend the night. Here the expedition was joined by a very voluble little Frenchman named Lesure. He had been for years engaged about the Salt Works, and took extreme pleasure in detailing various incidents in their history. During the early part of the night the men were gathered about the furnace fires, roasting corn, which was just then "in the milk", and made a pleasant and wholesome food. Lesure sat down in their midst and talked for hours 66.

Family tradition accepts the novelist's description of the "very voluble little Frenchman" as a description of John Choisser, but better evidence of John Choisser's connection with the Equality Salt Works is to be found in the reports of the Illinois Supreme Court Cases, in the well known case of Choisser vs. Hargrave 67, that tested the validity of the Act of 1807 governing the ownership of Negroes in Illinois.

Barney Hargrave, a black who apparently took his name from Willis Hargrave 68, to whom he was indentured August 15, 1818, had been brought into Illinois before 1816. Willis Hargrave was one of the five original lessors 69 of the United States Salines, and used Barney in the operation of the salt works. But Hargrave transferred Barney to one A. G. S. Wright, who in turn transferred him to John Choisser. Barney was induced by some one, whom we do not know, to try his right to freedom, and the right was upheld by the Circuit Court. But John Choisser carried the case to the Supreme Court, where it was heard July, 1835. W. J. Gatewood represented Choisser, the plaintiff, and J. J. Robinson and the famous Henry Eddy represented Hargrave, the defendant. Chief Justice Wilson delivered the Supreme Court's opinion, which upheld the decision of the Circuit Court in favor of Barney Hargrave. The Act of 1807 of the Territorial Legislature concerning the indenturing of black servants in Illinois, was held to be a violation of the Ordinance of 1787, forbidding slavery in the territory, and therefore void. Choisser's title to the Negro was denied. The judgment of the Circuit Court was affirmed, with costs. And a step had been taken toward the complete abolition of Negro servitude in Illinois, and toward the Civil War.

John Choisser lived the greater part of his married life in the northwest corner of Gallatin County, in that part of Gallatin that became Saline County in February, 1847. We find his name, and the names of several of his sons on numerous petitions copied by Mrs. Bender. One, undated - a petition to hold elections in Saline precinct at the town of Galatia, was signed by William, Joseph and Timothy Choisser. Another, a petition to create a new election precinct out of parts of Equality, Bear and Curran Precincts, was signed by Napoleon, William and two Johns - the latter evidently father and son. The names John Choisser gave his children indicate not only pride in his French blood, but sustained interest in the culture and history of France. For besides Napoleon Bonaparte Choisser, there were among his twelve sons Voltaire, Talleyrand, Lafayette and Attallas. (The spelling of the latter name is, one suspects, a modern corruption of that of the hero of Chateaubriand's novel, Atala.)

John Choisser and Nancy Sutton

Sometime around 1825, John Choisser and his wife had their portraits painted by an itinerant artist whose name, unsigned to the portraits, is lost to memory. In the portraits John Choisser wears an elaborate white stock, and a black suit. Mrs. Choisser is also dressed in black, but a large shawl collar of embroidered organdy, painted with considerable care, relieves the somberness of her dress. She wears a brooch, and a comb, that have been seen by descendants still living, though they are now lost. The fact of the authenticity of the jewelry suggests that these portraits were done wholly from life, and are not facial likenesses superimposed on previously painted, "stock" bodies. Both John Choisser and his wife are seated in simple, orange enameled chairs of the period, so arranged that the subjects seem to face one another. Mrs. Choisser holds a prayer book (though she was, and remained a Baptist) the exact color of the chair. Her eyes are blue, her hair brown; her husband's eyes are brown, his hair black.

Their granddaughter, Mrs. Cozart, remembers these pictures as they hung in the old home northwest of the present town of Eldorado [Item #1 on map], on a farm now owned by Mr. Dan Choisser of California. The house is described by Mrs. Cozart as a two story log house, without front porch. There were two rooms and a hall down stairs, two rooms and a hall upstairs. Downstairs there was a lean-to kitchen in the rear, and a rear porch extended behind the hall and the other room. The portraits hung in one of the downstairs rooms. When Mrs. Cozart saw the house, it was weatherboarded.

There were in all thirteen children. A saying of John Choisser's, still quoted, is that he had twelve sons, and every son had a sister. This sister, Mary Ann Choisser, the daughter to whom was given the name of her paternal grandmother, Marianne Labuxiere, was not born until March 20, 1832, and was the youngest child 70. [Ed. note: The latest research on John Choisser's descendants is shown on the Choisser Family Tree, where Mary Ann is shown to be eleventh of the thirteen, and other information on descendants varies from that shown here.] She inherited the portraits of her parents, and other momentoes of them. On December 12, 1850, she was married to William Henry Parrish (1827-1913), a native of Vermilion County, Illinois, but of Virginian parentage, who had come to Raleigh, then the county seat of Saline County, to practice law 71.

In 1860, Mary Ann Choisser Parish and her husband built on Poplar Street, on the highest hill of the town, the first brick house in Harrisburg 72, the new seat of Saline County, and into it she moved with the portraits and an old trunk in which she kept relics of her parents. Later a leak from the roof seriously damaged the portraits, which in the Parrishes' house were hung in an upstairs bedroom, and dampness in the basement damaged the papers in the trunk which were stored there. What papers were not wholly ruined have, in the course of time, become lost. Written in French, they meant little to the grandchildren of John B. Choisser, who spoke only English, and to a generation that took no special interest in the records of ancestors.

But Mary Ann Choisser must not be judged by the apparent carelessness of her treatment of her family's relics. She was an educated woman, said to have been schooled by nuns from Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and during the Civil War, in which her husband served as a captain of Co. E., 29th Illinois Infantry [Ed. note: several Choissers served in this unit], she read the letters her less literate fellow townswomen received from husbands and sons in the army. She is said to have read much, in French as well as in English, and she is remembered for her brilliance and her humor.

As the daughter of a man about whom so quickly the aura of legend gathered, and as the wife of William Henry Parrish, Mary Ann Choisser occupied a place of importance in the life of Harrisburg. Her husband, well known throughout the southern part of the state as a lawyer, was elected to the 29th and 30th General Assemblies (1874-1878) as Senator from the 47th District (Franklin, Williamson, Saline and Gallatin Counties.) A Republican, serving under a Republican administration, he "was a prominent member of the independents" of the state senate 73, and is remembered as an honest, upright man.

Their first born child, John Joshua Parish, was born at Raleigh, September 13, 1851. (He died at Harrisburg, October 14, 1929.) His names were those of his two grandfathers, John Choisser and Joshua Parish. He was a member of the first class of the University of Illinois (Class of 1867), though he did not finish the course and receive a degree. He worked on the family farm to assist the family, and younger brothers, studied law with Judge Marion Youngblood, at Benton, and was admitted to the bar January 4, 1878. He joined his father in the practice of law at Harrisburg in 1879, and on April 5, 1880, married Annie Florence Land of Carmi, who with four children survives him. The tradition of public service which was Joseph Labuxiere's legacy to his descendants led to John J. Parish's service as State's Attorney of Saline County from 1885 to 1889, and as representative of the 51st District in the 51st and 52nd General Assemblies (1918-1922).

John J. Parish, Jr. (born at Harrisburg May 30, 1895), the youngest son of John Joshua Parish and his wife Annie Florence Land, is at present Senator from the 42nd Illinois legislative district, serving his second term. Fifth in line from Joseph Labuxiere, last royal notary of Illinois, and bearer of the Christian name of three Choisser ancestors, Senator Parish is however not the only descendant of John Choisser to serve his state in public office, as he had previously in the armed forces of his country. W. V. Choisser was a representative from the 49th District in the 34th General Assembly (1884-1886); Carl Choisser represented the 50th District in the 53rd and 54th General Assemblies (1922-1926). Numerous other descendants have held county and municipal office.

Mrs. John J. Parish, Sr., daughter-in-law of Mary Ann Choisser, has frequently told the author of this article about her half French mother-in-law, her kindness, her distinction of bearing, her sympathy, her laughing helpfulness on all occasions. Appreciating her character on the basis of traditions, and of the memories of those who knew her, one feels that Mary Ann Choisser Parrish was a true French gentlewoman, worthy in every way of the distinguished ancestry of her father John Choisser. She was the mother of nine sons, and two daughters. Only the youngest child, Mrs. Caroline Parish Cozart, survives, but there are numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren 74.

John Choisser, born in Kaskaskia June 20, 1784, died at his home in Saline County on January 15, 1860. After his death his wife, maintaining her independence, lived alone in a simple cottage in the new town of Eldorado. It is recalled that when she went to visit her children she took her own pink lustre china (a single place of which survives) and silver spoon, fork and knife, because she did not enjoy food served and eaten from the coarser wares of her children. It is also recalled that she could never remember to cover the ash hopper when she left home - and so had an excellent excuse to cut her visits short. It is said of her that she was, for a pioneer woman, exceptionally lazy.

Mrs. Nancy Sutton Choisser died, while on a visit to Benton, Illinois, June 25, 1876. She is buried beside her husband in Wolf Creek Cemetery, near Eldorado, though her grave is unmarked. In the same lot are buried several of her sons, their wives, and their children.

The descendants of John and Nancy Choisser, men and women of the name or of the name their daughter linked with theirs by her marriage to William Henry Parrish, are now scattered. Pioneers, like John Choisser's own ancestors, they have moved to Montana, to California, and into the extremes of the United States' possessions. These notes on their ancestors are of course primarily of genealogical interest to them, but they also suggest what may be learned of men and women, and of the life of the past, from still unexhausted original sources, and they show how on the chart of one family's history, may be fixed for greater vividness and clearer understanding, much of the history not only of a state or of a region, but of a nation, and of a continent.

    56.  The day before the baptism of Jean Baptiste Choisser, Junior, on August 21, 1784, Jean Baptiste Choisser, Senior, witnessed as godfather the baptism of "Jean Baptiste mulatto born about 2½ months ago of an illegitimate marriage." The godmother was Genevieve Charleville. The slave child belonged to Mme. Delisle. There is no reason for suspecting that the mulatto was Jean Baptiste Choisser's own child.
    Father Louis Payet, who baptized Jean Baptiste Choisser, Junior, is mentioned in a letter of Father Gibault to the Bishop of Quebec, June 6, 1786 (C.I.H.S, V, 535, note 1). Father Payet was born in Montreal on August 25, 1749, and ordained priest February 26, 1776. He was at Detroit October, 1781, and remained there until June, 1786, but "During this period he made several missionary visits to Vincennes and once to Cahokia and Kaskaskia."
    57.  C.I.H.S., V. 414 ff; V, 19, note 1. This was probably Marie Francoise Doza, the widow of Joseph Brazeau, a native of Canada, in Kaskaskia as early as 1759, killed by Indians, and buried June 4, 1779. She was the mother-in-law of Le Sieur J. S. Charleville, but removed to St. Louis in 1787. See Houck, op. cit., II, 53, note.
    58.  Letter to the author, March 28, 1938.
    59.  Letter to Mrs. Cozart, Oct. 17, 1938. Mrs. Cozart has also heard - from her mother - that John Choisser's American children most decidedly did not like their Canadian aunt.
    60.  Record summarized by Mrs. Davies, who had it copied from "old church records now at the courthouse, Montreal, Canada." This particular record is identified as "File No. 5118."
    61.  Marie Louise Beurnonville (born 1733), the sister of Francoise Amable Beurnonville, Mme. Jean Choisser, was married October 7, 1754, to Jean Baptiste Champeau.
    62.  My correspondence with the Bishop of Montreal took place in September, 1929. The letters of M. E. Z. Massicotte, dated September 16, 1929, and of M. Francis Audet, dated September 28, 1929, were communicated to me by the Reverend R. Y. Overing, Clerical Secretary, Synod of the Diocese of Montreal, September 30, 1929.
    63.  Since the name Choisser is pronounced today as if spelled Sosha or Soja, one suspects that Michael Sosha might have been a member of the Choisser family. However the census of 1820 names Michael Souldan as head of a family consisting of one adult male, two males under 21, two females under 18, with no blacks. The Federal Census spells the name Socia.
    64.  I copy this information from the Gallatin County Census of 1830, copied by Mrs. Walter Lloyd Bender of Field, Virginia, in 1936. In numerous petitions also copied by Mrs. Bender, we find the names of other Choissers, and Suttons.
    See Am. State Papers, Public Lands, II, 624, for a record of land assigned to Choisser October 10, 1801, by John W. Hunt, the claim of Choisser denied November 2, 1811. The land is described as "748 arpents & 68 perches of land situate in Hopefield, district of Arkansas".
    65.  Pub. No. 9 of the Illinois State Historical Library, Transactions ... for ... 1904, pp. 175-76. See also the card index in the Illinois Department of Archives, where his commissions are dated respectively Oct. 10, 1811 & May 5, 1812.
    66.  Virginia Rose: A Romance of Illinois, by Edward R. Roe, page 62.
    Lesure appears a second time in Virginia Rose:
    "At this time a line of "stations" had been established, block-houses erected, and companies of Rangers or mounted riflemen were constantly scouring the country from Edwardsville, near the Mississippi, above St. Louis, to the United States Saline Works, back of Shawneetown, and already known to the reader, for the purpose of preventing the incursions of Indians. Sinclair had decided to prepare himself with a good horse, and, equipped with a rifle, to pass along the line of stations to Edwardsville, and hence to St. Louis. Accordingly, on the next morning, he proceeded to the Salt Works as his point of departure. Here he found Lesure the Frenchman, ready to make the same journey on business connected with the Salt Works. Lesure did not recognize him at first, having only seen him in his wounded condition. When he learned that he was really the hero of Dr. Reed's new operations in surgery, and that he was also bound to St. Louis, he was delighted." (Page 136.)
    67.  I Seammon, 317.
    68.  Willis Hargrave was a captain in the regiment in which John Choisser served as quartermaster sergeant in 1809. He was a major in 1811, a colonel in 1815.
    69.  Publications of the Illinois Historical Library, IX, 251 ff. For George Flower's opinion of Hargrave see the same volume, page 261: "With him ordinary men were like clay in the hands of the potter."
    70.  The children of John B. Choisser and his wife Nancy Sutton were:
William, born at Shawneetown, Nov. 16, 1811
John (who died in Memphis, Tenn., of yellow fever)
Charles (died in infancy)
Joseph, born July 7, 1814; died July 16, 1851
Timothy, born Dec. 7, 1815; died Dec. 14, 1883
Napoleon Bonaparte, born August 3, 1819; died Nov. 7, 1874
Voltaire, born March 15, 1821; died April 16, 1892
Edmund Delonce, born June 25, 1824; died Dec. 14, 1883
Mary Ann Choisser, born March 20, 1832; died Oct. 21, 1909
    71.  William Henry Parrish spelled his patronymic with the double "r" after 1861 because his commission as Captain carried the name thus. His sons spelled the name with a single "r", and so it is spelled by his descendants.
    72.  The house, painted white, but structurally unchanged, is now used as part of the church school building of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
    73.  History of Marion and Clinton Counties, Brink, McDonough & Co., Philadelphia, 1881, p. 95.
    74.  The children of Mary Ann Choisser and her husband, William Henry Parrish, were:
John Joshua, born Sept. 13, 1852; died Oct. 14, 1929
Daniel Webster, born 1853
Francis Marion, born July 31, 1854; died July 8, 1933
Theodore Lemon, died May 30, 1919
Louis Napoleon, born August 25, 1858; died March 7, 1928
Mary Ann Parish, born Sept. 2, 1861; died Oct. 13, 1907;
  married to Edward Dellafield Byrne
Ulysses Simpson, born February 22, 1864; died 1914
Philip Sheridan, born March 17, 1868; died July 28,1930
Carrie Bernice Parish, born January 1, 1874;
  married to Samuel Robert Cozart
    A family jingle records the nicknames of the boys, in the order of their age, beginning with William Henry Parish, Jr., who was not the son of Mary Ann Choisser:
    "Bill, John, Web and Med,
    Theodore, Lou, Fel, and Shed."

Table of Contents

Preface - An introduction by Bill Choisser
Introduction - Aubrey Starke's introduction to his work
Part I - A brief look backward
Part II - The ancestors in Montreal
Part III - The brothers Jean and Jean Baptiste Choisser
Part IV - Marianne La Buxiere and her ancestors
Part V - John Choisser and his family

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