When I think about who the ancestors were, I wonder whether they, themselves ever wondered about their lives in their heres-and-nows? Those first ladies to come from the provinces of France or those already here who married men from those provinces, was there any time in their lives when they could sit and ponder their particular interests and beliefs? Or did they live lives at the whim of the forces around them?
I wonder whether their heads were so filled with the stories of others’ lives and wishes that they just didn’t have time or space to consider their individual lives and stories. Their days were rife with stories from their children, husbands, and relatives. Other stories came from their religious faiths (Catholic, Huguenot, and what is now called Aboriginal Canadian). Still more came from their communities: those that supported them (New France and Indigenous allies), those that used them (France’s king and nobles and the decree to populate the colony), and those who wanted to capture or kill them (Haudenosaunee and English). Was there room in there for a personal narrative? And with whom could it be shared? Was that even a consideration? Would it, did it, matter to them?
That they did express opinions comes to me slant in the stories told about recruiting them, about their voyages in wooden ships across an uncertain sea to an unknown land, and about the control they exercised in selecting a husband in New France.
What I am trying to dig through to, though, is the root of their stories, about why they migrated from France, or why they mingled with French and Canadian settlers. I want something deeper than “they wanted a better life,” because I hold a felt-sense that it’s not that simple an answer.
I remember trying to explain this question to my brothers. We were sitting in a Paris cab in February 2013 on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport. My brothers John and Donny, (they’d found a way to take me there with them on points, but that’s another tale), and their friend Supon were trying to help me wrestle through the question. “They probably came for the same reasons other people migrated. They wanted a better life. They wanted adventure. They wanted escape.”
But what I wanted to know was, why THESE women, why THEN, why THERE, why HERE? What’s the girl reason for migrating?
Take, for example, the situation that brought our mother-daughter progenitor to New France. Marie-Reine Charpentier was just 13 years old* when she left Paris for New France in 1671. Born in the parish of St. Sulpice (the church made even more famous in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code), in the faubourg St. Germain, she was the daughter of nobelman Bonaventure, master tailor to the Queen of France, and Isabelle de Sens. All that I have of Isabelle at this stage is her name. Surely, she must have had thoughts, feelings, beliefs, reasons for sending her 13 year-old daughter out of France after Bonaventure died.
Along this journey, I’ve learned that, in the late 1600s in France, it was a father’s job to find a husband for his daughter. So, if your father dies, who is responsible for finding you a husband? Did someone suggest to Isabelle and Marie-Reine that her prospects would be better in New France? Was she an only child? Was Isabelle even alive then?
Given what I imagine the connections to be with the royal court, couldn’t Marie-Reine have married someone in that social circle? What was going on in their lives that the eventual choice was to send a 13 year-old to another country to find a mate? Were Isabelle and Marie-Reine persuaded by Colbert’s plan and Louis XIV’s mission that becoming a fille de roi (King’s daughter, a woman who migrated with promise of a dowry payment from the King) was a good option? Were they scared or excited or unaffected?
Did this, in fact, represent a “better life” for Marie-Reine than staying in Paris in 1671? Might there be something else going on then that made it a good idea to “get out of Dodge”? And was that “something else” personal (unsavory prospects, mother-daughter rivalry, mother also dead) or political/religious (growing tension against Huguenots) or economic (more money if you leave than if you stay)?
If the year of her birth is correct (and genealogy is ever subject to revision), Marie-Reine married (July 28, 1672) her first husband when she was about 14. She could sign her name, which was a big deal in the 17th century. She came with a respectable amount of wealth – 400 livres of her own goods, and a King’s Gift of 100 livres upon marriage to Louis Prinseau. He was nearly 20 years her senior. (Think what we’d make of that in the U.S. in the 21st century.)
If the stories about the choice these girls had is true, Marie-Reine picked him. What went through her head in doing that? Was she more mature than one would expect of a 14 year-old today? Did she have help? Did she think Louis was hot? Did he court her?
Louis was a tailor from La Rochelle. Together they had three children. He died about 8 or 9 years into their marriage.
There she is, Marie-Reine, a widow with three daughters (ages about 6, 4, and infant) and just 22 or 23 herself. One of those girls, the infant Marie-Madeleine is baptized Jan. 24, 1680, 277 years before her great+ grand-daughter Susan Marie, my sister, is born on that date. Marie-Madeleine is also a progenitor in my mother’s line, though not a strictly female line. There are two generations of men – her great-grandson and great-great-grandson – before the line re-merges with a female line.
Marie-Reine decides to marry Étienne Domingo dit Carabi on August 26, 1681, 281 years before their great+grand-son Glenn, my brother, is born on that date. About 9 years older than she, Étienne is a Basque who came from Bayonne in Gascony and is a bargeman in Quebec City. What brought him to this land? What brought them together?
I mean, really, with all the French and aboriginal guys running around, she finds a Basque husband? What does that say about the way people viewed each other’s origins? Did he come from a fishing family, a descendant of one of the Basque groups that history says were fishing off the Canadian coast while Columbus was lobbying to “discover” the New World? What brought them into each other’s circle?
Together, they have six girls, the last one when Marie-Reine is 36.
What happened that she had no more children? She and Étienne were married another 8 years before he died.
Imagine this household – Marie-Reine births 9 daughters, the youngest of whom dies at age 3. All those girls, ranging in age from Marie-Jeanne Prinseau born in 1674 to Barbe-Charlotte Domingo born in 1694. There is more of an age difference between Marie-Jeanne and Barbe-Charlotte (20 years), than between Marie-Jeanne and her mom, Marie-Reine (16). My two progenitors, the half-sisters Marie-Madeleine Prinseau and Genevieve Domingo are 11 years apart in age. What was it like to grow up in a household of women, all of whom really are your sisters?
Marie-Reine lived until the age of 69 or 70 and died in Montreal. Étienne predeceased her by 26 years, at about age 55. Even if Marie-Reine took care of her children until the last one left the nest, she would have had at least a decade when child-rearing was not her sole responsibility. What did she do during those years? Did she finally have time to think on her own life? What did she think of the circumstances that brought her to leave Paris and take up in a new place, by all accounts, a much colder if healthier place than her childhood? Did she die still feeling the Parisienne or did she see herself as a new Canadienne? Having spent so much of her life living with a husband – from about age 14 to 44, what was it like then to live without one? She must have had some opinion on this? And at the very end of her life, would she, had she thought of it, made the same choices again?
What stories of her life and lessons learned from it would she leave as her legacy?
* The source of some of the genealogical information is Peter J. Gagne’s Kings Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673, Volume 1. Orange Park, Florida: Quintin Publications.