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, Jeanne renounced their debts, as was her right as a widow. That renunciation, executed by a notary, included an inventory of the remaining property which was valued at roughly 40 livres. Thanks to historian Ulric Levesque and one of the archivists in Quebec, I am able to make out from the renunciation that their property consisted of few pots and pans, an old brass pail, an axe, two old hoes, three old blankets, some household linens, and “five shirts belonging to the deceased.” The inventory also listed a chest locked with a key and containing a justaucorps, an outer garment that must have been elegant enough to warrant being locked up.
The rest of his clothes, according to the notary, “were mostly lost where he died or used to bury him.”
I try to imagine how Jeanne felt when she heard the news. Despair for the future, especially looking over what she had left? Sadness at the loss of her husband? Shame from the debts he left behind? From my vantage point, I wonder if she felt any relief? Life with Guillaume could not have been easy. Was he, as has been suggested, unstable, a scoundrel? Did he have “itchy feet,” that French term for wanderlust? Was he true to his analyzed handwriting: a serial entrepreneur, always looking for something else? Or was he just typical of one group of 17th century men, who were trying to get by as land traders? Whatever the real story, it could not have been a comfortable life.
But what could she have done if she had wanted a change? Guillaume would have made all the decisions, a privilege held by men at that time. Single and married women had few, if any, rights of their own, so Jeanne probably wouldn’t have been part of any major decisions. She had married Guillaume in the Catholic Church – for life, until death does us part. While some women did arrange for a “separation of goods,” Jeanne had three children she would have had to take care of on her own. Did she really have any options? Did she ever have time to reflect on them, or did she just live day to day with the more mundane, but very demanding tasks of keeping a home and raising young children?
It must have been a frightening situation when she found out he was gone. Although she surely had the support of friends in the community, her options were few. While she still apparently had her dowry of 50 livres, which somehow survived, she had few other resources. It might have been possible for some women at the time to start a business or enter the convent, at least according to Canadian Historian Jan Noel in her book Along the River. Both options, however, required more resources than Jeanne had at the time. And she had three young children. She could not go back to France – again such a voyage required money and she didn’t have family or any good prospects back in France, at least as far as I know.
Jeanne faced widowhood, poverty, and was alone in a wild, still untamed country. Her only hope, her only option, for herself and her family was to marry again.