Henrietta Mills was born into slavery around 1844 and belonged to Saint Louis University. She was confirmed at St. Francis Xavier College Church on May 1, 1855, when she was about 10 years old. We know little about Henrietta Mills’ life in bondage other than this confirmation record and her marriage record. Henrietta married Charles F. Chauvin on June 28, 1860, most likely in the “colored chapel,” in the upper gallery of St. Francis Xavier College Church, when it stood on 9th and Christy at the Saint Louis University Campus.
Charles F. Chauvin was born around 1840 and belonged to Amanda Curtis. The witnesses to their marriage were Samuel Tyler, a man formerly owned by Saint Louis University who had been emancipated in 1859, and Ann Mills, who may have been related to Henrietta.
The St. Francis Xavier College Church marriage record for Charles and Henrietta. The Mills-Chauvin entry for June 28th, 1860, recorded by a Jesuit priest, reads: “I have this day united in the bonds of matrimony Charles Chauvin, slave of Mrs. Curtis, and Henrietta Mills, slave of St Louis University—Witnesses Samuel Tyler & Ann Mills.” Image courtesy of Archdiocese of St. Louis Archives and Records.
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). Some of their stories follow.
In addition to their own children, Charles and Henrietta became godparents to three between 1860 and 1864. These likely occurred in the same “colored chapel” of St. Francis Xavier College Church. The successor to the chapel, St. Elizabeth’s Parish, a Jesuit parish for black Catholics, went on to play a recurring role in the spiritual lives of the Mills-Chauvin family descendants and of many black Catholics in St. Louis, as the first black Catholic parish in St. Louis.
During the Civil War, Charles Chauvin was drafted into the 11th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. His military record in November 1864 lists him as a private in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry Artillery and in September 1865, as a sergeant of the 11th U.S. Colored Infantry.
Military record for Charles F. “Chauvian” for the 11th U.S.C.T., or United States Colored Troops
The 11th U.S. Colored Infantry was established December 19, 1863, in Fort Smith, Ark. The unit fought in battles in Fort Smith and Boggs Mills, Ark. Charles 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. Researchers believe Charles Chauvin fought with the U.S. Colored Infantry before he returned to live in St. Louis in late 1865.
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, seven and Rosine, six, 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. Fifteen years after her husband’s death, Henrietta died and was buried December 26, 1905, in Calvary Cemetery’s Potter’s Field.
Henrietta’s pension application following Charles’ death
The Mills-Chauvin children worked in various occupations as they grew, such as mattress makers and barbers, but music would play a constant role in the lives of the Mills-Chauvin family and generations of their descendants.
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. 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. He lived in the household of his father-in-law, Thomas Dalton, a porter from Tennessee. Sylvester Chauvin II died September 24, 1928 and was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery. Jessie Chauvin, widowed, worked as a family servant to support her young family.
Louis Ignatius Chauvin. Image in the public domain.
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.
This clipped image from the 1900 Census record lists Louis “Shovan” as a musician living on Chestnut Street, St. Louis.
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.
Sheet music cover of “Heliotrope Bouquet: A Slow Drag Two-Step,” music by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. Image in the public domain.
According to Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis in their book They All Played Ragtime (1944), in his short life, 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. Chauvin and Patterson performed at the World’s Fair as well.
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.
As research progresses, we hope to understand more about the members of the Mills-Chauvin family and in doing so, to honor their memory. Each piece of information adds more to their developing story and to that of all those held in slavery by the Society of Jesus.
To learn more about our efforts to connect with descendants, please click here. If you think you may be connected with the Mills-Chauvin family, please contact the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-758-7159.
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 July 2019