In June, 1671, 28-year-old Jeanne Marguerite Chevalier boarded a ship in Dieppe harbor. She was leaving France forever and was headed for Quebec. Although single and orphaned, she was not alone on the ship since there were one hundred other women also bound for Quebec that year. In fact, over the course of ten years beginning in 1663, 770 women would have left France, most of them, like Jeanne, never to return.
Although Jacques Cartier in 1534 had claimed the territory of what is now Quebec for France and although Quebec City had been founded in 1608 and Montreal in 1642, settlement in the new land by the French was slow. The merchant companies charged by the French kings to develop the colony had been unsuccessful in their efforts to lure families to immigrate. The non-indigenous population of New France in 1663 was less than 3,000 inhabitants, consisting of explorers, fur traders, military men, zealous missionaries, indentured artisans, and a few hardy families who had ventured to the new land. In addition to the forbidding winter and the constant threat of attacks by Amerindians unhappy with the invaders to their land, the incredible imbalance of the sexes kept the colony from being a desirable place for men to settle.
In 1663, Louis XIV took control of the fledgling French settlements along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. He sent troops over to protect the colonists and an Intendant and Governor to administer the colony and get its finances in order. And starting in that year, he arranged to recruit and send those 770 young French women to New France to marry and thus help colonize the region.
Encouraged by the offer of supplies and a dowry, these young women, most of them orphans, would not only marry and bear an average of seven children each, thus doubling the population of New France by 1673. They would also eventually give birth to a nation of hundreds of thousands of descendants in Canada and the United States who trace their lineage back to them.
Jeanne Chevalier was one of these King’s Daughters, or Filles du Roi, as the pioneering women came to be called. Jeanne was my ancestor; I can trace her back 11 generations. Twenty-eight years after she was baptized in St Nicolas Church in Coutances, Normandy, on June 8, 1643, she chose to leave France forever to find a new future. Arriving in Quebec City in late summer 1671, two months after she left Dieppe, this remarkable woman went on to marry and then outlive three husbands and survive the births of nine children and the deaths of six of them. Impoverished by her first husband, she worked with the second to establish one of the largest farms in the region, one that was sufficient to leave her surviving children well settled with land, homes and livestock, although apparently not without some tensions. And her marriage with the third one brought an almost fairy tale ending to her life. As was the custom at the time, she kept her own name throughout her life, but she never learned to sign her name or presumably to read or write. When she died forty-five years later at the age of 73, in November 1716, she left three sons, 32 grandchildren, and a long line of descendants, including René Levesque, a former premier of Quebec. My father, Gerard Joseph Levesque, was also one of Jeanne’s descendants, as am I.
These blog posts are devoted to telling Jeanne’s story. They are written by her 8th great granddaughter who, almost 300 years after her death, has journeyed to weave together many historical bits and pieces of her life with archival research, live interviews and conversations in France, Quebec and the United States, along with some creative hypothesizing about any gaps in information. Jeanne’s is a story full of both facts and mysteries. It’s a story of endings and new beginnings. And it’s a story of much courage, stamina, will, and many choices.