This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Good evening. My name is Philippe de Lapérouse. On behalf of my fellow co-chair, Isabelle Montupet, and members of the Les Amis steering committee who worked diligently over the past year to organize this event, I would like to thank all of you for joining us this evening to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Lafayette’s birth. ...
I strongly encourage each and every one of you to visit the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion, which is the beneficiary of the funds being raised this evening, and to patronize the adjoining Café DeMenil Restaurant. The Mansion’s history and connections to the city’s founding French families serve as an important cultural and educational resource for the region which we must promote and preserve for future generations.
So much of what we call “history” is the collection of family and personal narratives, which over time can produce surprising coincidences. The connections between our honored guest this evening and the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion provide striking examples of this.
Nicholas DeMenil, who emigrated from France to St. Louis in 1834, and his wife Sophie Chouteau purchased a farmhouse and property in 1858 on the then unincorporated outskirts of the city of St. Louis from the fur trapper and guide Henri Chatillon, who has been immortalized by the historian Francis Parkman in his classic travelogue of the Western frontier “The Oregon Trail.” In 1861, the DeMenils transformed the simple farmhouse into the Greek Revival structure we know today.
Sophie Chouteau happened to be the granddaughter of Pierre Chouteau Sr., who entertained Lafayette during his visit to St. Louis on April 29, 1825. It is entirely possible that Sophie Chouteau laid eyes on Lafayette as a young child during the ball held in his honor. Through her, the DeMenil family inherited a pair of candlesticks, which were said to have been used to provide light at Lafayette’s reception. During the 1925 Centennial Celebration of Lafayette’s visit, the family lent a cockade worn by members of the Reception Committee for the 1825 ball to the Missouri Historical Society for an exhibit.
Sophie’s son, Alexander DeMenil, spent most of his life at the Mansion where he expired in 1927. A cultivated man of letters and proud elder statesman of French society in St. Louis, he undertook genealogical research, which pointed to family connections through the DeMenil line to an officer who served with Rochambeau and through marriage to the Motier family, Lafayette’s patrilineal line. In 1902, Alexander was a member of a delegation, including Mark Twain, which received the grandsons of Lafayette and Rochambeau who were visiting St. Louis. He served as translator for the event and delivered an eloquent toast to the memory of Lafayette.
In 1925, as the oldest living male descendant of Pierre Chouteau Sr., Alexander DeMenil was appointed as Honorary Chairman of the Centennial Lafayette Celebration Committee. On April 27 of that year, in conjunction with the unveiling of a bronze plaster bust of Lafayette at the Jefferson Memorial in Forest Park, Alexander DeMenil paid tribute to Lafayette and suggested that the United States celebrate Lafayette’s birthday, Sept. 6, as “Lafayette Day”; a cause we should consider renewing! That evening over 900 guests attended a fete at the Chase Hotel, a few blocks south of here, where the honorary guest speaker, the French Ambassador to the US, Emile Daeshner, remarked that the rainy weather had not kept him from visiting the Old Cathedral, the Old Courthouse and the home of Dr. Alexander DeMenil!
Finally, a couple of coincidences of a personal note. A French ancestor of mine captained the ship that brought Rochambeau to Newport in 1780 and on a subsequent voyage that same year was responsible for transporting the French monarchy’s contribution of bullion to finance the war in America. In 1781, he commanded the ship Hermione during a decisive naval victory over the British off the coast of Nova Scotia not far from where my family and I spend our summers. This was the same ship which had brought Lafayette to America four years earlier in 1777. An exact replica of the Hermione is being constructed at the port of Rochefort in France and is expected to make its maiden voyage within the next two years in order to participate in celebrations in the US. Rochambeau, Lafayette and my ancestor were also founding members of the French Chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati to which I belong.
Finally, an apology is due our honored guest for the reference to his hereditary title of Marquis on the invitation for this event. Lafayette relinquished his hereditary title when he swore allegiance to the newly created National Assembly in 1790, insisting throughout the rest of his life that he be addressed simply as Lafayette or with the title of General. Therefore, Mesdames et Messieurs, Vive General de Lafayette!