Three weeks after four-year-old Louis XIV was crowned King of France and 35 years after the founding of Quebec, Jeanne Marguerite Chevalier was baptized on June 8, 1643 in the small cathedral town of Coutances, 330 kilometers west of Paris and the new king and 75 kilometers northeast of Mont St. Michel. Other than a one-line entry registering her baptism and listing Guillemette LeBreton as her godmother, I know little else about Jeanne’s life in France. The actual facts about Jeanne’s life are not resumed until her name is found as a Fille du Roi on ships’ rosters that left Dieppe in June, 1671. And since the rosters are still being researched, there is nothing really official about Jeanne until her name appeared on a marriage contract in Quebec City on October 11, 1671. [⇒]
To fully understand Jeanne’s life and its challenges, it’s important to get a feel for the times in which she was born and spent the first 28 years of her life. So I have pulled out the world history books I saved from graduate school in the late 1960’s to provide a backdrop to Jeanne’s story. [⇒]
I frequently am asked why my ancestor decided to leave France and come to the new colony. Trying to understand the reasons why she chose as she did involves a great deal of speculation because the Filles du Roi left few records or diaries. For most, it must have been a voluntary decision, although it’s possible there was some strong encouragement by guardians, parents or officials at the charity hospitals or parish priests, or even recruiters. At a colloquium on the Filles du Roi in Quebec several years ago, famed historian Yves Landry proposed that, based on admittedly little evidence, many – particularly those in the charity houses in Paris — could have been coerced to join the program. [⇒]
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!) [⇒]
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? [⇒]
In the fall of 1674, two years after Jean Baptiste had received his grant, he began to make concessions of land to the men who had served out the terms of their three-year contracts with him and had demonstrated their commitment to settle in Quebec. Many of these men were countrymen from the same area in Normandy who came with him in 1671. My ancestor, Robert Levesque, was one of the first to receive a grant, on November 10, 1674. His land, on the southern bank of the Ouelle River, was right across from Deschamps’ estate.
At the time of their grants, most of these men, Robert included, were still single. I suspect that once they had their land secured, [⇒]