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.
While he was able to sign his name, his rough signature suggests that he had only rudimentary education. His ability to read is unknown. His signature does indicate, according to the handwriting analysis I had done, that he had a lot of common sense, was unlikely to follow traditional paths, and was “predisposed to go his own way when feasible.” He had a straightforward approach to life and was good with his hands. While an optimist, he would take cautious, educated risks to accomplish his goals rather than acting impulsively.
Taking a risk
One of those cautious, educated risks would have been trying his luck in New France. It’s probably safe to assume that the tenuous economic situation and his possibly grim prospects in France at the time played a large role in spurring Robert to leave his home in Normandy and seek his fortune in New France. In exchange for his voyage from France and the promise of some land, he had agreed to a 3-year work engagement as a carpenter with his neighbor Lord Jean Baptiste Francois Deschamps to help Deschamps build a home and clear the land on his estate in New France. Perhaps the spirit of adventure also played a role. After all, he had little to lose, especially given the safety of a 36-month contract with Deschamps.
How did he come to know Jean Baptiste Deschamps? Again, only guesses are possible. Since Hautot-St. Sulpice is only 10 kilometers from Cliponville, where the Deschamps family lived, it is quite possible that Robert knew Deschamps beforehand. He might have met him at a local market in nearby Yvetot. Or he might have built a solid reputation as a carpenter and had even done some work for the nobleman’s family since he was apparently “good with his hands.”
In late summer 1671, after a two month voyage across the Atlantic, Robert arrived in Quebec City with Deschamps and the other artisans that Deschamps had recruited. While there is no way to be sure exactly what the men did after their arrival, my guess is that they went right to work. Presumably, their contracts started when they boarded the ship in France, and those contracts prohibited them from doing any other work. It’s hard to believe that Deschamps would let them sit idle for very long. I imagine that they had done some reconnaissance prior to arriving in Quebec, had some planning conversations on the ship on the way over, and/or quickly began to scout out possible locations for a grant as soon as they landed in Quebec. They only had a short time to find the land and start to work before the snows started.
The most likely scenario, in my view, is that Deschamps had obtained some sort of promise of the grant for the Riviere Ouelle location prior to or just after arrival.* Upon arrival, they all headed east to the Riviere Ouelle site and camped out there, while throwing up some rudimentary dwellings to protect them from the winter snows. Then they spent the next three years clearing land and erecting a home for Deschamps.
Building a financial foundation
Why was Robert still single four years later? Without a diary or letters, I can only speculate. He did not leave France until he was almost 29 years old. It was actually not all that unusual in 17th century France for young men of the lower classes to wait many years to marry. They needed to first accumulate financial resources. And it is clear that Robert was building that financial foundation for himself in his new mother country.
Robert received his first concession of land from Deschamps on November 8, 1674, in return for his three years of service. His grant, located across the river from the land that Deschamps had reserved for his domain, encompassed 12 arpents of land on the south bank of the Riviere Ouelle, spreading away from the river by 30 arpents deep, for a total of roughly two-thirds of a square mile, if my calculations are correct. As a carpenter, along with helping Deschamps build his manor home, he must have built a small cabin for himself.
After completing his contract and receiving his own grant, Robert was free to take on other projects as a carpenter while also continuing to clear his own land. During the years from 1674-1677 his name was found on the rosters of workmen building Le Petite Seminaire, the Jesuit school for young boys in Quebec City. He was possibly involved in other building projects as well.
By late 1678 Robert was an established carpenter, with a home and several arpents of cleared land, shoes and clothes he had purchased, and a suit he had had made from his salary from the Petit Seminaire. But he was still single. As a very eligible bachelor, he now faced the challenge of finding a wife. The Filles du Roi program had ended in 1673. Most of the 770 women who had come over as part of that program were married by 1674 and well on their way to having families by 1678. The only other possibilities would be young widows or the very few women who were already in Quebec prior to 1663 when the Filles Du Roi program began, and who, for a variety of reasons such as age or class, would not be available to him.
He was not alone in this predicament. Damien Berube, who had arrived with Robert in 1671 under contract with Lord Deschamps, was in a similar situation. How did they go about this search for a wife, in the age before the Internet, newspapers, or even telephones?
*This assumption about Deschamps’ grant at Riviere Ouelle is surrounded with a bit of controversy to be discussed in a subsequent post!