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.
I’ve spent time in the archives in Coutances, St. Lo, and Quebec and devoted many hours to searching the Internet but have found nothing else about her first twenty-eight years in France. The words of the archivist on my second visit to Coutances, “The facts don’t exist,” continue to echo in my brain. Maybe I will never know, but I am not ready to stop the search now!
What did she do in those years until she left Dieppe in June, 1671? There are so many possibilities. She could have been orphaned, early or later in those first 28 years, raised by relatives or nuns at the Hotel Dieu, today’s version of an orphanage; she could have joined the convent as a lay nun; or she could have become a servant in a noble family’s home. When I asked the archivist in Coutances for her thoughts on what might have happened to Jeanne, she answered, “Perhaps she went to Paris to seek here fortune.” She said this with a bit of disdain, reflecting the myth about the dubious character of the women who left for New France that has evolved over the years and in fact still exists!
To clear up as much confusion as possible, I am headed back to France to try to discover more about her parents and their places of birth, marriage, and deaths. Then I need to learn whether Jeanne’s name appears on any list of orphanages or convents. This information is important for many reasons: 1) to provide some background and context for her first 28 years, 2) to offer possible answers to how she might have learned about the Fille du Roi program, and 3) to inform my ideas on what might have driven her to volunteer, as I assume she did, to be a Fille du Roi and sail to New France at the age of 28!
Document Challenges in France
Of course, any of these documents, including those she presumably had to submit to prove her identity and marriageability to become a Fille du Roi, might not even exist. According to one of the archivists in Quebec City, something like 20% of all life events were not even recorded – at least in Quebec because of the absence of a priest or a notary. In France, for sure, documents that did exist at some point could now just be missing, destroyed or lost. There have been fires, wars, revolts and revolutions in the centuries since 1643, including the French Revolution when many churches and their records were destroyed. The Second World War also wreaked havoc on the archives in Dieppe during the 1942 Canadian raid on that town to free it from the Germans and on the archives in St. Lo and Coutances as the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy over 70 years ago.
Assuming that any of these documents do still exist, they need to be located. At a meeting of the Coutances Genealogical Society, officially known as Cercle de Généalogie et d’Histoire de Coutances et du Cotentin, in October, 2013, I learned that people frequently moved from village to village for work or family reasons. So I must broaden my search to include parishes around Coutances; hopefully these parish records are collected in St. Lo and waiting for me on my next visit. Perhaps her family even moved farther away from Coutances, possibly even to Dieppe, the city of her departure for Quebec.
Document Challenges in Quebec
So the search for Jeanne’s story in France will continue into 2015. Jeanne in Quebec has been a bit easier to keep track of – to a point. While the documents in Quebec are much more numerous, there are similar challenges with those that can be found in France. Fewer might have been lost in fires, but not all actions were documented, although an incredible number have been preserved. Next, any existing original deeds, records, contracts or other legal documents that can be unearthed are in old French and handwritten by notaries and priests. Less than legible penmanship, ink smudges, and thin paper where both sides were used for recording complicate the research work. The documents are also old, torn and otherwise damaged through the ages, making them even harder to decipher. Some of these fortunately have been transcribed, but only a few. And the rest are to be read on microfilm machines! We are fortunate to have them of course, but they are not easy to read!
Even if the documents are found and can be read and understood, there are still challenges. The events were not always recorded on the day they occurred. Thus, accurate details were subject to the authors’ memories, interpretations, and ability to keep good notes for later entries. Even those that exist may contain inaccuracies around dates, misspellings of names and places that cause confusion. For example, Jeanne’s name has been variously listed as “Jeanne Leroi” (in the record of her third son’s baptism), ” Le Chevalier,” and “Chevalier” elsewhere. Since Jeanne probably could not read, she wouldn’t have been able to correct a priest or notary or other official!
Confusion and Conclusion – For Now!
Historical accounts based on these primary documents can also be confusing. There are instances where authors, even highly respected historians, based stories on misleading information or even oral, often embellished, unsubstantiated, and conflicting stories handed down through the years. Details can be overlooked and context not considered.
In addition, if I want to get this book written, I must rely on and trust the accuracy in other reputable sources, such as historians Ulric Levesque, Paul Henri Hudon, Yves Landry, Jan Noel, Peter Moogk, Cole Harris, Leslie Choquette, and others, to translate and transcribe documents since they have abilities beyond my timespan to acquire. Otherwise, the book will be very long in coming! After all, getting obsessed with perfection could get in the way of completing Jeanne’s story!
All of these factors make resurrecting Jeanne’s life in France and in Quebec quite a challenge. It involves piecing together found and still to be un-earthed documents, with books containing facts that sometimes conflict, with interviews and encounters, all of these glued together with reasoned hypotheses, imagination, wisdom and hopefully some inspiration from Jeanne. I have to accept that I am writing part history and part detective story. I just have to persevere in my research and keep digging deeper and figure out how to put the pieces together later if I am going to make the story of this remarkable woman come alive.
I have to keep asking myself, “Just how important is it to delve into the facts to try to find some measure of truth?” It can only be a painting, after all, not a photograph, because so many of the exact details are lost or destroyed or may never have existed. In fact, there is a very real possibility that I may never know what really happened. Can I, who have struggled for years to find the grey in the black and white, live with that sort of ambiguity?