For years (centuries actually) there has been confusion over whether the Filles du Roi were women to marry or “women to enjoy.” Erroneous information based on random comments and prejudices on the one side, and possible nationalistic pride that has embellished their challenges and legacy on the other have all contributed to the confusion. It seems that Yves Landry, one of the foremost authorities on the topic of the Filles du Roi, explained it best when he summarized the issue by declaring that there is probably an element of truth in both sides of the story. [⇒]
On my visit to Quebec in the summer of 2014, I drove from Montreal to Quebec City and then two weeks later on to Riviere Ouelle, even further east along the south coast of the St. Lawrence on the Chemin du Roi, or King’s Highway. As I drove through the villages of Berthier sur Mer, Montmagny, L’Islet, and Roch des Aulnaies, I tried to imagine what these villages and the countryside looked like in 1671, with less than 6000 non-natives living in all of Quebec. [⇒]
By 1671, the year Jeanne arrived in Quebec, settlers were beginning to clear land in New France, under an arrangement of land grants, based on the French feudal system as modified by early French settlers in Quebec. The first grants were in and around Quebec City, westward toward Trois Rivieres and Montreal, eastward along the north shore of the St. Lawrence around the villages of Chateau Richer and L’Ange Gardien, and on Ile d’Orleans, the large island just east of Quebec City. Since the land along the southern shore of the St. Lawrence east of Quebec City remained heavily forested, Jean Talon as Intendant would begin to make many new land grants there during the next year (1672) to ensure the colony continued to expand. [⇒]
My initial introduction to Jeanne’s first husband Guillaume Lecanteur was brief. It was a short reference to his birth and parents, his marriage to Jeanne, their children, and then to his disappearance in the Quebec region around 1678, leaving Jeanne with three children. Details were few. [⇒]
I sit in Notre Dame Cathedral on the upper cliff of Quebec City, on the site of the church where Jeanne married her first husband Guillaume Lecanteur on October 19, 1671. Since the original church has twice been destroyed by fire, the building I am sitting in is the third church on the site. Although it’s been rebuilt and she wouldn’t recognize it with the video screens, gilded statues, and elaborate wall coverings, I try to communicate with her. [⇒]
If Jeanne and Guillaume were typical of many other Filles du Roi couples, upon their marriage they would have had to collect Jeanne’s promised dowry of 50 livres, along with a pig, chickens, barrels of salted meat, and other staples. They then had to transport themselves and their provisions to the farm in the La Petite Auvergne section of Charlesbourg that Guilllaume had leased the day before their wedding. The farm, if the maps at La Société d’Histoire de Charlesbourg are correct, would have had a lovely view of Quebec City. Its perch on a hill at the northeast corner of that neighborhood might have generated a spirit of hope in Jeanne for her life ahead? [⇒]
By the end of 1678, Jeanne was alone, left with a newborn son, two other sons under the age of 7, possibly three pieces of land, and debts. No death certificate has been found for her husband Guillaume, despite attempts to locate it. Since the evidence is mixed on whether he attended his son’s baptism in July, his death is surrounded in mystery. When? Where? And how did he die? Had he perhaps hired himself out as an explorer or fur trader in those last years to earn money to pay off his debts or to escape from them and then suffered a fatal accident? Was he buried where he died, too far from a church so no record was made? Were the records lost? In fact, the death records for L’Ange Gardien are missing in the microfilm files. When I asked at the archives in nearby Chateau Richer, where records would have been kept, I was told, “They are not here. And in fact, no one has ever asked about them before.” (At least I believe that’s what I heard, since my French didn’t get me very far in communicating with the gentleman there!) [⇒]
Robert Levesque, my eighth great grandfather, was over 36 years old when he made his official entrance into Jeanne’s life in late 1678 or early 1679. The books and chapters that have been written about him tell his story so I only need to briefly note the highlights here. Robert’s baptism took place on September 3, 1642 in Hautot St. Sulpice, a small village in upper Normandy, 45 kilometers northwest of Rouen. He was the son of Pierre Levesque and Marie Caumont, who had married on October 27, 1641. His father died in May 1648, and his mother in September 1660, leaving Robert an orphan at 18 years old. When Robert sailed from France in 1671, he left behind a brother, Francois, baptized on April 5, 1644, and possibly other siblings. [⇒]
On April 22, 1679, 36 year-old Robert married 35-year-old, newly widowed Jeanne Chevalier in L’Ange Gardien, a village located just northeast of Quebec City. How he met Jeanne is another mystery. I speculate that he used his community of friends and colleagues in those days before the Internet and the telephone to spread the word. At the time the number of people living in or around Quebec and on the north and south shores of the Eastern St. Lawrence River was still relatively small. With trading trips, work projects, and baptisms and weddings taking him to Quebec City, a young man from Riviere-Ouelle could have solidified friendships, particularly with compatriots from Normandy who spoke his native dialect. So the word could have gone out: “Hard-working single French male from Normandy, well positioned and respected carpenter, with home and good prospects, seeks wife. French-speaking young widows with young children will be considered.” [⇒]
In early April of this year, I went off to France to try to answer three pages of questions that I still had after many years of research on the lives of my ancestor Jeanne and her three husbands and about the history of her times in France and New France. That list included the following questions:
- What did Jeanne do in the first 28 years of her life in France? When was she orphaned? How and why did she move from Coutances to Dieppe? Why did she leave France?
- Why, how, and when did her first husband Guillaume Lecanteur come to Quebec? And what was his life like before coming to Quebec and marrying Jeanne?
- Who was Jean-Baptiste Deschamps de la Bouteillerie, her third husband, and what sort of family did he have in France?
- If documents are lacking, what are some possible answers or hypotheses that could resolve my questions?
After three weeks in Rouen, studying French and researching in the archives there, and after four weeks in Dieppe with side trips to the birthplaces of her three husbands and to the archives in Saint Lo, what do I know? [⇒]