Edmond was enslaved to the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJs) in Missouri, but he also labored for the Jesuits and for Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis. His experience is representative of the many enslaved people who were lent or hired out between the Jesuits and local bishops, clergy, and religious orders, as the history of slavery within the Catholic Church transcended institutional borders.
Only portions of Edmond’s life are known thus far; researchers are still working to uncover more. It is not yet known when Edmond first became enslaved to the RSCJs; he first appears in records in 1836, but he may have already been held in bondage by the sisters before this time. The 1840 U.S. census indicates that he was owned by Mother Catherine Thiéfry, superior of the RSCJs, at their “City House” in St. Louis.
Edmond was shared among Catholic religious leaders in St. Louis and the surrounding region. The Religious of the Sacred Heart sent him on errands that had him travelling between their house in the city and their convents in Florissant and Saint Charles, Missouri. Edmond periodically served as a driver for Bishop Joseph Rosati, and conveyed funds from the bishop to the sisters.
At some point, Edmond married; his wife, whose name is not yet known, was also enslaved to the Religious of the Sacred Heart. While the sisters perceived Edmond as good and reliable, they believed his spouse was so dangerous “that our house could be set on fire if she stays much longer in Saint Louis.” Because she refused to conform her behavior to the sisters’ expectations of an obedient enslaved person, Mother Catherine Thiéfry sought Rosati’s permission to separate the couple and sell the woman to New Orleans in the late 1830s. Knowing this would condemn Edmond’s wife to a life of hardship in the Deep South, Thiéfry wished to spare her husband, writing, “how can I make such a good man unhappy by sending him to a country where he will be mistreated.” Anticipating that Edmond might become rebellious after being separated from his wife, however, Thiéfry acknowledged that if the sisters decided to sell Edmond, she would find an owner in Saint Louis, where she believed he would be better treated. While it appears his spouse was sold, Edmond remained enslaved to the sisters, his involuntary labor often lent to the Jesuits in Florissant.
Edmond was also forced to labor for the Jesuits and Religious of the Sacred Heart at their missionary outposts in the west. In 1838, Jesuits began ministry to the Potawatomi in what is now Sugar Creek, Kansas. The region we now know as the state of Kansas was part of “Indian Country” prior to 1854 and consisted of unorganized territory populated by numerous Indigenous tribes that were forcibly resettled in the area as part of the federal government’s Indian removal policies. In a series of treaties signed during the 1830s, the Potawatomi, under pressure from federal government negotiators, ceded their lands in Indiana and Illinois and agreed to move to reservations in the west by August 1838. During a May 1838 trip to Indian Country, Jesuit Fathers Christian Hoecken and Peter Verhaegen met with Napoleon Bourassa, a Potawatomi leader who had been educated in a Catholic school in Kentucky. With the deadline for the federally-mandated removal looming and as more Potawatomi began to arrive at the reservation, Bourassa had written to Verhaegen asking him to send the Potawatomi a priest. During their meeting, Verhaegen indicated that he hoped to see a church and school built for the Potawatomi within a year and that Hoecken, who had previously ministered to the Kickapoo and the Potawatomi, would stay behind to lead the settlement. In September, after returning to St. Louis to consult with Jesuit leadership, Verhaegen agreed to open a permanent mission among the Potawatomi.
By this time, most of the Potawatomi had already left for the reservation, but, led by Chief Menominee, the Yellow River band in Twin Lakes, Indiana, refused to move even after the August deadline passed. Governor David Wallace subsequently authorized General John Tipton to commence the forced removal of the Potawatomi from the state of Indiana. After surprising the Potawatomi with an assault on their village, burning down their crops, church, and living structures, and imprisoning their leaders until they agreed to leave Indiana, Tipton and an armed escort of over one hundred volunteer soldiers began the largest Indigenous removal in Indiana history.
The Potawatomi implored Father Benjamin Petit, who began serving as a Catholic missionary in northern Indiana in November 1837, to accompany them on their forced removal. Bishop Simon Bruté of Vincennes initially refused Petit’s request to join the Potawatomi but eventually relented and Petit joined the caravan in Danville, Illinois, on September 16, 1838. Upon arrival, he described a “scene of desolation with sick and dying on all sides. Nearly all the children, overcome by the heat, had dropped down in a state of utter weakness and exhaustion.” During the journey, Petit ministered to the sick, conducted mass, and baptized newborns. The Potawatomi arrived at the Jesuit mission on November 4, 1838, at the end of the Trail of Death. Many did not last the grueling, two-month, 660-mile removal by militia; when they reached their destination, the group of over eight hundred people had dropped to about six hundred and fifty due to disease and desertion.
The Jesuit mission in Sugar Creek, named St. Mary’s, was supported by slavery. It was established with funds Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet raised from planters along the Mississippi and from slaveholding Catholics in New Orleans. Jesuit missionary efforts in the area also supported slaveholders who had migrated west for land and trade with Indigenous people. Although slavery was prohibited in the area in accordance with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which outlawed slavery in the Louisiana territory west of Missouri north of the 36° 30´ latitude line, slaveholders skirted the law as they moved fluidly between the state of Missouri and Indian Country, bringing enslaved people into the unorganized territory with them. Indeed, on June 29, 1841, a group of RSCJs and Jesuits departed from Missouri to join the Jesuits already at St. Mary’s Mission, forcing Edmond with them.
On the steamboat voyage, Edmond listened to Verhaegen’s Independence Day sermon as he traveled into territory where slavery was prohibited. Although Edmond was legally free at St. Mary’s, both the Jesuits and the RSCJs continued to hold him in slavery, openly breaking the law as other slaveholders in the area did with little fear of repercussion. Neither the Jesuits nor the sisters told Edmond he was free; instead, the sisters deliberately withheld information from Edmond about his status to retain his labor. The superior of the community who owned Edmond, Mother Lucile Mathevon, wrote after their arrival, “I don’t tell [Edmund] he’s free in Kansas, even though he would probably stay. I am being very careful not to let him learn that he is free here, for even though he is content and perhaps too pious to take advantage of [his free status], he is nonetheless more certain (if that is possible) to leave it alone, if he remains ignorant of it.”
At St. Mary’s, Edmond’s skilled, forced labor sustained the mission he helped build. Considered by the Jesuits to be “intelligent” and “trusty and resourceful,” he used his carpentry skills to aid in the construction of the mission church and to plan and build the mission’s school house, a two-story building with six classrooms, as well as a residence for the sisters. He also assisted with growing corn and tending the kitchen garden. Edmond resided near the sisters’ house, sharing with Jesuit brother George Miles a small, unstable, double-roomed cabin, which was susceptible to whirlwinds and almost destroyed by a tornado in the early 1840s.
In Sugar Creek, the Jesuits sought to replicate systems of evangelization and coerced labor among the Potawatomi they once modeled among indigenous people in Paraguay and took advantage of Edmond’s forced labor to coerce Potawatomi men into farm and carpentry work. Edmond helped Potawatomi men build a fence around the cemetery and taught them where to install the gate. The Potawatomi resented this, not least because they considered farm work inappropriate for their gender, as in their culture women cultivated crops while men hunted. Jesuit Father Adrian Hoecken took credit for imparting the knowledge to the Potawatomi that had in fact largely fallen to Edmond:
The Religious of the Sacred Heart entrusted Edmond, who appears to have been literate, to make trips and run errands in nearby towns. It was when Edmond was away on one of these trips to Westport in January 1844 that he learned from a newspaper that the Mother Superior who had previously owned him had died in Louisiana the previous month.
Edmond’s life is unclear after 1844, when, as far as researchers can tell at this time, he disappears from Jesuit and RSCJ records. Perhaps he had died or had been sold, or perhaps he had taken advantage of his presence in free territory and separation from his family to seek his liberty.
Researchers are still working to learn more about Edmond’s life, and the lives of other enslaved people who were made to travel with Jesuits on westward missionary ventures to minister to Native Americans. Several enslaved people, for example, conveyed information and goods between the missions and the St. Stanislaus headquarters. In 1841, a young enslaved boy met De Smet on his way to the Rocky Mountain missions with a message that Jesuit Father John B. Smedts whom De Smet planned to meet there, would not be coming. In 1862, enslaved people were assigned to convey a wagon of goods to Fort Benton, Montana, near which the Jesuits were establishing a new mission, St. Peter’s, among the Blackfeet.
This research was compiled by Kelly L. Schmidt, Lyn Osiek, Maureen Chicoine, Jeff Harrison, and Ayan Ali with translations by C. Brooke Vandervelde.
Recommended citation: Kelly L. Schmidt, Lyn Osiek, Maureen Chicoine, Jeff Harrison, and Ayan Ali, “Edmond,” Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, 2021.
Updated: May 2021