When sixteen-year-old Henrietta Mills married twenty-year-old Charles Chauvin on June 28, 1860, her marriage record labeled her as a “slave of St Louis University.” Their marriage most likely took place in the “colored chapel,” in the upper gallery of St. Francis Xavier College Church, when it stood on 9th and Green [now Lucas] at the Saint Louis University Campus. We know little about Henrietta Mills’ life in bondage other than this confirmation record and her marriage record. She was born into slavery around 1844 and was confirmed at St. Francis Xavier College Church on May 1, 1855 when she was about 10 years old.
Charles F. Chauvin was born around 1840 and was held in bondage by a local woman named Amanda Curtis. The witnesses to their marriage were Samuel Tyler, a man formerly owned by Saint Louis University who had purchased his freedom in 1859, and Ann Mills, who may have been related to Henrietta.
Charles and Henrietta gave birth to their first child, Sylvester, around November of 1860 or 1861. Over the next two decades, Henrietta and Charles Chauvin had nine more children: William Francis (1862), Abraham (“Able”) (1865), Peter (1870), Mary Elizabeth (1871), Julia (1873), Rosine (1874), Lincoln (“Link”) (1877), Jerome Alexander (1878) and Louis Ignatius (1884).
Charles and Henrietta also became godparents to three children between 1860 and 1864. These baptisms likely occurred in the same “colored chapel” of St. Francis Xavier College Church. St. Elizabeth’s Parish succeeded the chapel as the first Black Catholic parish in St. Louis. Several members of the Mills-Chauvin family and their descendants participated in parish activities at the turn of the 20th century, as Black Catholics in St. Louis made St. Elizabeth’s a centerpiece of their spiritual lives.
During the Civil War, Charles Chauvin was drafted into the U.S. Colored Infantry. Charles rose through the ranks of the military, beginning November 1864 as a private in the 7th U.S. Colored Artillery. By September 1865, he served as a sergeant of the 11th U.S. Colored Infantry, after the 7th infantry had changed to the 11th (New) Colored Infantry. Chauvin served in this unit until he returned to St. Louis in late 1865. He is listed among those in the 11th Regiment at the African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC, commemorating those who fought for their freedom with the Union Army.
As their children grew, the Mills-Chauvin family worked hard to provide for one another. In the 1880s, Charles and Henrietta lived with their children Sylvester, Abraham, Julia, Rosine and Jerome. Charles worked as a porter and Henrietta worked as a washer. Their son Abraham, 16, worked as a barber while Julia, 7, and Rosine, 6, attended school. Sylvester, 20, was a hotel waiter and lived in the home with his wife, Mary, 19, who kept house.
Charles Chauvin died August 7, 1890 at the age of 50. He was buried at Holy Trinity Cemetery (now defunct). As a widow, Henrietta Chauvin lived with her sons at various residences. Military records show she applied to receive her husband’s Civil War pensions. Henrietta died in December 1905, 15 years after her husband’s death, and was buried on December 26 in Calvary Cemetery’s Potter’s Field.
As young adults, the Mills-Chauvin children worked in various occupations, including as mattress makers and barbers.
Sylvester Chauvin was a star player on the St. Louis Black Stockings, one of the country’s first Black baseball teams. He toured the country with the team between 1883 and 1886, playing third base and left field, and became team captain in 1885. The Black Stockings were extremely successful during the early 1880s. They traveled throughout the Midwest, playing in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Upper Canada against teams composed of Black and white former professionals, semiprofessionals, and amateurs. Black audiences turned out in large numbers to watch the team across the country. The Black Stockings played in front of huge crowds in Detroit, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Charles Tyler, Sylvester’s first cousin once removed and the son of Matilda Tyler, co-managed the St. Louis Black Stockings.
In addition to his baseball career, Sylvester Chauvin appears in public records as early as 1883 as a musician. Sylvester played brass instruments, while his brother Lincoln “Link” Chauvin (c. 1877-1913) played guitar and worked as a driver and laborer. Their brothers Peter and Abraham were musicians as well. Lincoln Chauvin and Goldy Richardson had a son born August 15, 1901, whom they named Sylvester, after Link’s brother. Records suggest Sylvester Chauvin II was raised by his uncle, Peter Chauvin and his wife, Cora. Eighteen-year-old Sylvester Chauvin II married sixteen-year-old Jessie Dalton and worked as a molder. They lived in the household of Jessie’s father, Thomas Dalton, a porter from Tennessee. Sylvester Chauvin II died September 24, 1928 and was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis. Jessie Chauvin, widowed, worked as a family servant to support her young family.
Of all the Chauvin musicians, Louis Ignatius Chauvin (1884-1908) is undoubtedly the most well-known. Louis Chauvin was born February 24, 1884 and was baptized on March 9, 1884. He was confirmed by Archbishop John Joseph Kain on May 17, 1896 at St. Elizabeth Parish.
Our research indicates that Louis Ignatius Chauvin is the same musician Louis Chauvin who performed with ragtime composer Scott Joplin. In the 1900 Census, a Louis “Shovan” is listed as a lodger on Chestnut Street, an 18-year-old musician born in Missouri in February 1882. Both parents are listed as from Missouri.
According to Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis in their book They All Played Ragtime (1944), Louis Chauvin toured with childhood friend Sam Patterson, published music and performed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. “As a boy I thought I was some peanuts,” Patterson said in a 1949 interview, “but I knew then I would not be the artist Chauv was.”
The Chauvin family’s home parish gave some support to Louis Chauvin’s career as a musician. The St. Elizabeth Parish branch of the Catholic Knights of America sponsored a performance by Louis Chauvin and Sam Patterson on the evening of April 6, 1904, just weeks before the St. Louis World’s Fair opened.
Despite his prominence, the record of Louis Chauvin’s musical career is scant. There are no recordings of his music and only three publications of his compositions. He died in Chicago on March 26, 1908 at the age of 24, and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
This research was compiled by Kelly Schmidt, Jeff Harrison, SJ, and Jasmine Molock.
Recommended citation: Kelly Schmidt, Jeff Harrison, and Jasmine Molock, “Henrietta Mills-Chauvin and Her Family,” Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, 2019.
For further reading about Louis Chauvin, see:
Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music (Oak Publications, revised edition, 1974).
Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 2016).
Updated April 2020