Updated: Aug 17, 2021
SEASON 1 - EPISODE 12: Marriage, Miracles & Mutilation in New France
A miracle is an event that defies logical explanation. A miracle excites wonder because it appears to require something beyond the reach of human action and natural causes. The story I have for you today is of 2 women in my family tree, whose lives are indeed miraculous. They are the stories of Antoinette Grenier and Jean Bitouset. These two miraculous women each came to New France, alone and looking for a life of their own creation. They both set out on parallel paths in a world new to them, in search of romantic love, and eventually, a family.
Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse, Episode 12: Marriage, Miracles, and Mutilation in New France. I am the host, writer and producer, Kael Sharman. This episode is not for the faint of heart. If you could sit through the Movie Revenant, you will be fine with this episode. And if you have never seen the movie Revenant, it is a story of survival in the frontier with a famous scene involving a gruesome bear attack. Consider yourself warned. There is no bear attack, but some of the content is, in my opinion, much more gruesome. But if it is any consolation, it might not be true.
As I mentioned, this is frontier life, and as such, records of family members making a new life in this context are scarce. It is for this reason I want to thank Peter J. Gagne for his collection of biographies on the Filles a Marier. A full citation of his book will be in the show notes. I also want to thank all the people involved in bringing about the Iroquois Confederacy and the great peace of 1701. In this episode you will hear about the Beaver Wars, and the direct impact that the fur trade had on both indigenous groups in the region of Quebec City, as well as on members of my family who settled in the surrounding region of Quebec City. The word "Québec" is said to be derived from an Algonquian word meaning "narrowing of the river."[i] The word Quebec serves as a reminder that the while I am talking about a formally established city, the place and the people who called the landscape Quebec predate the story told here by thousands of years.
If you are not familiar with Canada. Quebec City is the oldest established city in Canada. It was founded in 1608. Making Quebec City older than the formally established country we now call Canada, by 259 years. And for good reason. Quebec City sits at a high elevation on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, where it narrows to a width of just over 1 km. And at that same point of narrowing there are a cluster of islands that make for dangerous ship navigation. All these factors made Quebec City ideal for fortification.
Our story takes place in the 1650’s, when Quebec City, is a mere 42 years old. New France was an emerging settlement based in trade, whose lands — including Acadia, the vast territory of Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley. From the founding of Québec in 1608 to the ceding of Lower Canada to Britain in 1763[ii], there was strife over control of trade, and ownership of land. And this is the context in which Antoinette Grenier and Jean Bitouset go looking for love.
According to Gagne, the strife in New France was well known back home in France. Gagne discusses at length the difficulty that existed recruiting colonists, in the eyes of many French citizens, Canada was a far-off “land of horrors”, a savage and dangerous country that had a bad reputation.
Knowledge of Canada was no doubt came from the young single workmen who travelled back and forth under short term work contracts. Work contracts though could also be lengthy. So there were a small percentage of settlers who came over with their entire family. The reality of New France meant that the small percentage of French speaking women in New France were mostly married when they immigrated. Throughout the 1600s, there was a total of 15,000 French settlers. Within this small group, 262 single women came to New France with little more than a dream for something better.
This group of women Peter J. Gagne calls the Fille a Marier, which means Marriageable women in English. Gagne gives recognition to this small but mighty group of women. Who, unlike the Fille du Roi, who immigrated under a national recruitment strategy, were not given money, clothes, supplies, a generous dowry, NO - the push and pull factors for a Fille a Marier were simple – they could have a CHOICE in who they married. According to surviving contracts from this period, they could even change their minds after they married.
The Fille a Marier represent ¼ of all the women who settled in New France. Every-one, of the 262 women, Gagne researched, immigrated before 1663, arrived alone, to find a husband. Gagne calls the peak period of migration the “Fabulous 50s”. It is a strange way to describe the time-period, but telling. I get his intention though - to label and highlight an intense period of migration in a positive way. I have heard the term fabulous 50’s used before though. It was used to describe the prosperity of the 1950s, which marked a shift to a modernization, that revolutionized everything about our lives in the industrialized world.
No doubt, the term Fabulous 50’s in Gagne’s book is a play on the label for the mid-20th century,
It is a term though that has come to be used, somewhat tongue in cheek today. We now question that fabulous state, and wonder if it wasn’t closer to a fable, a cautionary tale of convenience and consumerism.
According to Merriam -Webster dictionary, fabulous means resembling or suggesting a fable: a story of an incredible, astonishing, or of an exaggerated nature.[iii]
So, is FABULOUS an accurate description of the lives of Antoinette Grenier and Jean Bitouset, the 2 Fille a Marier from my family tree? I will leave that decision to you.
Antoinette Grenier and Jean Bitouset are only 2 of the 21 Filles a Marier in my family tree so far. I chose these women to discuss today because they share a common experience – miracles. Yes, I said miracles. Recorded and documented miracles. Again, I will leave this decision with you. Even if you decide the miracles are fables. They are my family stories non-the-less and here they are…
Antoinette Grenier, is my 11 greats, grandmother. A branch that stems from my maternal grandfather – Victor Rodrique. Antoinette was born in 1637 in Paris. She lived in a small parish called Saint Laurent with her parents Claude and Catherine Grenier. She came to New France in 1656. A time-period in which most recruitment for settlers was done by merchants, ship captains, and outfitters. The increase in single women coming to New France is owed partly to new shipping regulations at the time. Ship owners were under legal obligation to transport one colonist, for every 10 tons of freight. Antoinette was 1 of 10 single women who came over that year from the port La Rochelle to Quebec City on the ship La Taureau, which belonged to merchant outfitter Pierre Gaigneur and Francois Perron. The same regulation that required one colonist for every 10 tons of cargo also ensured the colonist received what would amount to about $50 in Canadian currency, worth of supplies. The women also were able to lodge at convents once in New France. We know that 8 out of the 10 women that immigrated that year went to Ville-Marie. Meaning Antoinette was 1 of 2 women that year who remained at Quebec City. Antoinette was not to stay in the convent very long. Antoinette, married Jacques Bernier on the 23 of July 1656. Most migratory fishing vessels arrived on the shores in May or June to accommodate both the weather and the growth cycle of Cod fish.[iv] If this pattern is any indicator, and I think it is, then Antoinette was here all of 12 weeks at the most, before marrying Jacques Bernier – no judgment here, this is actually a typical scenario.
Jacques immigrated to Canada in 1651, from the parish of St. Germaine - L’ Auxerrois, in Paris. He was the son of Michelle Trevilet and Yves Bernier, who worked as a clerk for the parliament in Paris. An interesting position for someone whose name – BERNIER, is said to mean, one who is in charge of keeping the bears and the hounds for the hunt – just saying. Anyway, Antoinette and Jacques led a simpler life in Canada.
They settled on the Isle de Orleans. It is the largest of the islands in The St. Lawrence, situated just before the narrowing of the seaway, as I described earlier. They settled in the parish of St. Pierre, today, Sainte-Petronille. Jacques made his living clearing land, chopping wood, and then transporting it to Quebec City in his small boat where he sold it to merchants. This was a busy family who did not shy away from hard work.
The couple had 11 children together. Their 3rd child is my 10 greats, grandmother – Marie-Michelle who was born on Nov. 1, 1660. Their 4th child, Charles, was born in 1662. Antoinette was on a walk with her infant son Charles along the banks of the St. Lawrence when she was suddenly struck with paralysis in both arms and dropped baby Charles. Unable to move, Antoinette prayed continuously to Sainte Anne, her prayers included a promise. Antoinette vowed to visit Saint Anne’s chapel across the river in Beaupre, if she were healed. On the third day of this strange occurrence Antoinette was completely healed. As promised, she paid her homage to Saint Anne. Who is the patroness of women in labour, and grandmother of Jesus.
Yes - I had to look up Saint Anne. This is what I found out, Anne and her husband Joachim were unable to have children. On feast day Joachim went to the temple to make an offering, but men without offspring were considered unworthy to make offerings. Joachim, grief stricken, went into the mountains to appeal to God in solitude. After the prolonged absence of her husband, Anne prayed for a child, promising in return to dedicate her child to the service of God and their prayers were heard. The source for this information even mentions the shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré that depicts Anne, holding, Mary, who is holding Jesus.[v]
Speaking of kids, I have to get back to the story and tell you about Charles. My 11 greats uncle who was dropped on a riverbank – what happened to him?
Not only was Charles fine but he too was healed miraculously just three years later. Charles was brought to Saint Anne’s chapel at Beapre in search of a cure for his hernia. Both Jacques and Antoinette prayed for Charles. After praying they removed his bandage, and the hernia was gone and never reappeared. Both miracles were recorded by Father Morel of St. Anne’s chapel
In 1673 the Bernier family was given the first land grant at Cap-St-Ignace, where they lived out the rest of their days, and were recorded among the first settlers in this seigneurie. Jacques used the savings from a profitable general store he owned for close to ten years. Jacques Bernier was also able to eventually purchase the seigneurie of La Pointe-aux-Foins, what is now St Joseph, just west of Cap-St-Ignace.
2 miracles and a happy ending, but we have another story to cover in this episode. The story of Jeanne Bitouset, my 7 greats grandmother - also along the branch of my family tree that ascends from my maternal grandfather Victor Rodrigue.
Jeanne Bitouset arrived in Quebec City in 1652, 4 years before Antoinette.
Louis came from France at the age of 22. He signed a contract as an unskilled labourer. The contract was for 6 years. He was promised a salary of what would amount to $100 Canadian per year. He stayed in Quebec well beyond the duration of his contract.
On the 11th of February 1653, Jeanne married Louis Guimont.
They had 4 children together. And as if leading parallel lives a few towns apart – Louis is recorded as the first miraculous healing at the same chapel Antoinette attended - St-Anne-de-Beaupre. 4 years before Antoinette was healed there, Louis was present when the chapel was being built in 1658. He placed 3 small stones in the foundation and prayed to be healed from a groin ailment. His groin ailment was cured. They went on to live a quiet life in Beaupre, but that was to be short lived. A mere 3 years after Louis’ miraculous healing he was captured in an Iroquois raid that occurred on June 8, 1661 while fishing and trapping. He and a few others were marched barefoot to Agnier villages, present day Auriesville, New York. By the time they arrived their feet were “raw with sores”. The record of Louis Guimont’s death was recorded by a fellow captive who was able to write - not a common skill for many people on the frontier. The following is an excerpt from the letter:
“ Did you know Louys Guimont, who was captured this Summer? He was beaten to death with clubs and iron rods, receiving so many blows in succession that he perished under them. But yet he [Page 89] did nothing but pray to God, so that the Iroquois, enraged at seeing him constantly moving his lips in prayer, cut away his upper and lower lips entirely. What a horrible sight! And still he ceased not to pray, which so irritated the Iroquois that they tore his heart, still throbbing with life, out of his breast and threw it in his face.”[vi]
In case you did not catch it, Louis Guimont, appears to die twice in this account.
While I do not wish to make light of Louis Guimont’s death, I do want to question this account of his death.
The account of Louis’ death appears in a translated and edited collection of Jesuit papers. The papers appear in a collection because they were used by the Jesuit missionaries to appeal for support back in France. The accounts and letters of both miracles, and captures during the trade wars are highly dramatized. Yet, even in this context of high drama, the account of Louis Guimont’s death comes with a disclaimer in the Jesuit papers. The disclaimer is as follows:
“ I add another Letter which will give us information well worth knowing in regard to the Agnieronnon Yroquois. The ingenuousness with which it is written makes us the less doubtful of the truth of its contents.”
Whatever the truth is, I hope that Louis Guimont did not die this way, and I certainly hope he did not die twice. That being said, my genuine concern lies with Jeanne Bitouset and her 4 children. Is this account what SHE was told, or had she heard about it? I could not imagine what it must have been like for Jeanne to have received this kind of detail of Louis’ death. Or even worse, for their children to have heard it. In Jeanne’s place, I could only imagine wanting to be as far from Beaupre as possible. But widowed, with 4 children, and little reason to return to France, Jeanne stayed, and even remarried the same year to Jean Barrette - my 7 greats grandfather, and eventually had a daughter in 1668, my 6-greats grandmother, whose is also named Jeanne Barrette. And yes, once married with a child all three members of this new family are named Jean/Jeanne Barrette. It makes more sense when you see the gender differentiated spelling, but does not come across so well on a podcast. So for simplicity sake, I will just refer to these three people as the Jean/Jeanne Barrette family.
The Jean/Jeanne Barrette family settled in Chateau-Richer, Quebec, a town situated between Beaupre and Quebec City, where they resettled and raised their family.
Both of these stories have been paired together in this episode to not only compare their striking similarities, but also their tragic differences. Two family stories, running on parallel courses. Both women came from Paris, under similar circumstances since they fit the criteria of a Fille a Marier, and once here, they both settled in towns not far from each other, attend the same chapel, lived through the same period of trade wars. One family prospered, while the other family was directly and tragically, affected. It is no wonder there was a need for miracles when the future of your family was so precarious.
And as a descendent of the Jean/Jeanne Barette family, I can’t help but recognize that the tragic death of Louis Guimont gave raise to a branch of my family tree that would not have otherwise existed.
Two young women, who each ventured out alone, but led parallel lives, lives that eventually converged on my family tree, with the birth of my maternal grandfather Victor Rodrigue, who brings their separate stories together close to three hundred years later, with his birth in 1923.
And whether-or-not you think these stories emerge from a fabulous age or are fables whose miracles and tragedy are today’s cautionary tale. It is non-the-less my family story.
Oh hey, before you go, I want to introduce you to, Thais Talbot. She is one of my maternal great grandmothers. And she is an Acadian through and through. In the next episode of Maple Family Treehouse, you will not only find out more about Thais, but also about the Acadian expulsion and the influence it had on a huge portion of my family tree. Episode 13: Arcadian Dreams, drops February 23rd. Until then, tell your own stories, it is a miracle that you are here, celebrate that and don’t rely on any support from France. Cheers!
[i] Vallieres, Marc. (2019). Quebec City. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/quebec-city
[ii] Mathieu, Jacques. (2015). New France. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/new-france
[iv] Higgins, Jenny (2008). Lifestyle of Fishers, 1600 – 1900. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/economy/fishers-lifestyle.php
[vi] Thwaites, Rueben Gold (ed.), The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. (1899). Vol. XLVII.
IROQUOIS, LOWER CANADA, 1661—1663. The Burrows Brothers Company, Madison, Wisconsin, p. 89. http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_47.html#_ednref5Edit exactly how your blog looks on your website from the Settings panel. Wix Blogs lets you hide or display the author name and picture, date and reading time, views, comments and likes counter. Toggle between the options and view your changes in real time.
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