The American Experiment: Philadelphia 1805-1810
Getting to their destination of Philadelphia was not straightforward for the French-Haitian exile Guignons. According to the retained family tradition, the ship carrying Madame Guignon and family was subject to pirates, hurricanes, shipwreck and other fantastic tales, ending in Charleston, S.C. as a mid point of the completed journey. When I came to investigate this landing in Charleston sometime in late Fall 1805, I found out that, indeed, there were stories of pirate (and British) boardings, ugly weather, and shipwrecks. So just maybe these retold tales have some semblance of truth. In any event, Charleston was certainly a port of call for ships out of the West Indies on the way to Philadelphia, a main destination. It had a relatively large French population, drawn mainly from St. Domingue. The Guignons would have felt at home there even if they arrived by chance of a shipwreck. One version of the Guignon saga has Madame Guignon en famille arriving at a hotel where her husband was lying sick abed. While that may be true, it sounds too storybook to take at face value. The other version has Madame Guignon and family arriving in Charleston from a foundering ship and then traveling on to Philadelphia where Dr. Guignon awaits them, anxiously, as it turns out, because he, too, heard of the shipwreck but not the rescue. "All's well that ends well," quoth the Bard.
The first real American documentation that I could find was a listing of unclaimed letters as of July 31 for Joseph Guignon in the Philadelphia paper Aurora August 2, 1805. The next record is that of March 20, 1806 for St. Augustine Catholic parish marking the baptism of Simon Amabilis. The record shows Simon as born in Philadelphia on February 16, 1806 to Louis Joseph Guignon and Mary Adelaide Guign(n?)e and baptized by Rev. Matthew Carr, pastor. So, sometime between late December and early February, the Guignons arrived in the City of Brotherly Love. And the city lived up to its name because these impoverished French were taken in and Simon, according to family tradition, was born in the house of Stephen A. Gerard. For anyone even remotely acquainted with Philadelphia or American history of this time, Gerard's name would leap off of the page. He was the richest, or among the richest, men of his time. So how did the Guignons luck out, you ask.
Again according to family tradition consistent across several sources, the Guignons knew Gerard or his family from Bordeaux. It made some sense if we credit the Bordeaux entry of some Guignons as negocian in the city of the late eighteenth century, because Gerard came from a mercantile trading family of Bordeaux and he himself became such a negocian in Philadelphia with connections to St. Domingue. But I have never found any record yet of this fact and have searched diligently in the extensive Gerard papers. Still, there may be another explanation. The French Benevolence Society of Philadelphia was created for just such work as the finding of lodging for destitute French immigrants and Gerard was a member. Could it be that he took in the Guignons as an obligation of his membership in the Benevolent Society? Possibly. Yet the Guignons don't appear to be the self-aggrandizing types who would invent a relationship such as this. So, until further notice, I am accepting the traditional story of prior relationship.
The Guignons stayed in Philadelphia from early 1806 through about 1810. Dr. Guignon appears in two places of record: the city directories for 1808-1810 as a medical doctor; and in the parish records for St. Augustine Catholic Church. About his medical practice I have not yet found other records except for that listing in the city directories. He would have come with some formidable medical credentials: education in Bordeaux, a leading center for medical education; practice before the military service; and most especially his experience in war and its casualties and his exposure to raging yellow fever epidemics. This latter would make him notable in Philadelphia which had many bouts with yellow fever epidemics and in which Gerard, by the way, played a special role. There was a French community to which he could administer, with both his medical skills as well as his cultural identity.
The other major center of activity appears to be St. Augustine's. This parish was created through the efforts of Fr. Carr, an Irishman who came to Philadelphia in 1796 and celebrated its first mass on June 7, 1801 at 39 Crown Street (now N. Lawrence). It appears to be a French ethnic church and Carr no doubt spoke French. The Guignon name is listed in a printed edition of the parish history as among about 50 families who were prominent in the records from those early days. The church entered a history of sorts when it was burned to the ground in the "Know Nothing" (or Native American Party) riots on May 4, 1844. Somehow the records were saved.
Among the household of those Philadelphia years were certainly Marie Adelaide, Louis, Rosine and Simon, as well as his two sisters, Marguret and Rose Adelaide. Possibly a third child was also present, but may have died during that time. The family is shown as living at two different addresses in the successive city directories: 1808 and 1809 at 154 Mulberry; and at 5 Cherry in 1810. I have not been able to assess what these addresses suggest about socio-economic status.
The city of Philadelphia would be home for only about five years, but it retained a presence in the family over many decades, as we will later see. As already noted, it was a haven for French exiles, both from St. Domingue/Haiti as well as from the French Revolution directly. The 1790s were filled with famous, or semi-famous, Frenchmen including Tallyrand. Gerard certainly represented a French presence in commerce, but there were others who became famous later, such as John James Audubon who arrived in the area in 1803 and had an on-going relationship with Philadelphia. In fact, Audubon's partner, Ferdinand Rozier, arrived at Ste Genevieve, Missouri about the same time as the Guignons and maintained his own relation to Philadelphia. This attraction between Philadelphia and the Mid West was based on its function as the eastern terminus for a trade route between them. The western turnpike to Pittsburgh opened early in the Nineteenth Century and shipping down the Ohio to the Mississippi River made for easy transit. The other approach was down the Mississippi to New Orleans and then by sea to the port of Philadelphia.
Why the Guignons decided to leave Philadelphia in 1810 is uncertain. Family history says a friend suggested Dr. Guignon relocate to the up and coming town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri because they needed a (French) doctor. That may well be true. When they left Philadelphia was sometime in 1810 and before the census, taken in summer of that yearÑthey do not appear in it. How they traveled is told by Simon in an account in the Ste. Genevieve paper at the time of his Golden Wedding in 1882: across Pennsylvania by wagons to Pittsburgh; and then down the Ohio to the Mississippi; and then, laboriously, up the Mississippi to Ste. Genevieve by polling. The time of arrival was between December 31, 1810 where there was a "letter waiting" for Dr. Guignon and December 1, 1811 when the church records the burial of a "young girl" by the Guignons in Ste. Genevieve. That considerable stretch of time may be explained by Emile Guignon's recollection that says his Grandfather practiced medicine in Pittsburgh between departure from Philadelphia and arrival in Ste. Genevieve.
One Guignon remained in Philadelphia, as far we know, Louis' sister Marguret. Her burial is noted in May 1819 in a Philadelphia cemetery, age 30.
Ste. Genevieve Is HomeÑFor Awhile 1811-1828
The village of Ste. Genevieve was founded in, depending on your source, either 1735 or 1750. But the sources agree on why and how. Kaskaskia was the original French settlement on the Illinois side of the Mississippi begun about 1703. It was founded by voyageurs from Montreal looking to extend the reach of their fur trade. The Kaskaskian Indians had moved to the site about 1700 and attracted a Jesuit priest, Fr. Marest, along with traders who married into the tribe. While the furs at first went north to Montreal up the rivers to the Great Lakes, once New Orleans was founded in 1718, it was a no-brainer to send materiel down river. To furs were added farm products such a wheat and bacon, but also two vital minerals collected on the Missouri side: salt and lead. It was the presence of these two items that brought Kaskaskians across the River on a regular basis. But it turned out to be the rich alluvial soil that kept them on the western banks, starting sometime in the 1730s or 40s. At first they may have crossed to cultivate and then go back home to Kaskaskia. But soon they decided to stay and build year round homes. Thus, Ste. Genevieve was born from a rib of its own French Adam.
The Guignons arrived 75 years later and the town had moved off the flat bottomland to the hillside to avoid destruction by flooding as had occurred in 1785. In 1811 it had about 1,500 inhabitants and though still strongly French in culture and tradition, was quickly giving way to the Americanization begun at the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. But despite its internal growth, it still was the frontier town where Shawnee and Delaware Indians wandered the streets, cattle and hogs were only recently banned, and whiskey was a big item of commerce. This latter was illustrated by the arrival in April 1811, of a boatload of thee hundred gallons (Fr. Yaley says "barrels"!) of Mongahela whiskey offered for sale by John James Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier. Audubon stayed for only four months, but Rozier put down roots. The arrival of Rozier and the Guignons about the same time from Philadelphia suggests that they may well have shared French friends in that City before Rozier and Audubon left in 1808.
By 1813 Dr. Guignon had bought a two-story house (unusual for the time) on a 128-foot Merchant Street lot from Jacob Phillipson, son of another Philadelphian. Here he both lived and practiced medicine. This home stayed in the family until 1831 after Madame Guignon had moved to Fredericktown. It was sold to Sebastian Zeigler that year and bought back from him in 1861 when the Guignons returned. It was finally sold and later torn down sometime in the late 1890s after the death of Simon and his wife. So for almost fifty years it was the address of the Guignons in Ste. Genevieve.
Guignon House in Ste Genevieve 1813 (photo 1870)
In 1811 the Guignon household consisted of Dr. Louis J., Marie Adelaide, Rosine (eight), Simon (five) and Rose Adelaide Guignon (about nineteen). Another daughter, Marguerite Elizabeth, is born October 21, 1814. Between his arrival in 1811 and his death in 1822, Dr. Guignon practiced medicine and (possibly) served as coroner for the County in later years. But there is no evidence of any source of great wealth, as compared to the town elites such as the Valles, Moreaus, Prattes, or St. Gemme Bauvais. These families were all from Canada through Kaskaskia, where they made the fortunes that allowed them to prosper further on the Missouri side of the Mississippi. In one way and another, however, the Guignon lives become increasingly intertwined with these wealthy merchant families.
What prior connection there may have been between the Guignons and Prattes is unknown and probably nonexistent. But all of the eligible Guignon women marry Prattes. Dr. Guignon's sister, Rose Adelaide, marries an unidentified Pratte sometime after 1811 and dies in 1822. Her niece, Rosine, marries Evariste Pratte on January 30, 1820. Their children, Marie Rose and Jean Baptist Sebastian, are buried next to Rose Adelaide in a Pratte burial site in Memorial Cemetery. A final Guignon-Pratte marriage takes place much later when Margurite marries Evariste's younger brother Bernard on May 5, 1835. Unfortunate again for common descendants, Marguerite and Bernard's first child, Joseph Barnard, dies in 1836, followed by his mother in 1837. Thus, despite three marriages there are no Guignons heirs from these Pratte alliances.
Portrait of Rosine Guignon Pratte (1845)
The other Guignon-Pratte relationship grows out of a perhaps common death shared by Dr. Guignon and Fr. Henri Pratte in late summer 1822. We know that Fr. Pratte died on September 1 of that year while serving plague victims in Kaskaskia and Ste. Genevieve. Because there is no burial cited for Dr. Guignon when his estate is opened in October, I have conjectured that he, too, perished while serving the plague victims and his body was burned or otherwise disposed of on hygienic grounds. If I am right, then the Guignons and Prattes had reason to share the heroic deaths of two committed Christians. Was the death of Dr. Guignon's sister, Rose Pratte, in 1822 related to this epidemic? I can't say. But her sister Marguret's death at age 30 may suggest a family debility that had nothing to do with cholera or small pox.
By 1822, Simon, sixteen, was attending school at St. Mary of the Barrens, conducted by the Vincentian Fathers about twenty miles south of town. Here he made the acquaintance of Fr. Cellini who became the pastor at St. Michael's in Fredericktown shortly thereafter. And it was to Fredericktown that Simon went after school in 1824 to open a general store and livery stable. To us moderns, a kid of eighteen seems hardly suited to start a major business. And even if others of his time felt eighteen was "mature," where did Simon get the capital to open his own store and stable? With his father dead and Madame Guignon with no known means of support, the family didn't seem a likely source. The Prattes seem the obvious choice, as Evariste and his sister Rosine were living in Fredericktown and Evariste was occupied with the family interest in Mine LaMotte, a very rich source of lead. There are indications that Evariste and Simon were soon engaged in joint real estate ventures. In fact, two of the richest mineral (lead and iron) sites in the area, Mine LaMotte and Iron Mountain, were partially or wholly controlled by the Prattes.