Esther Wheelwright: from survivor to mother superior

As Quebec celebrates its 400th anniversary, Julie Wheelwright tells the story of her ancestor Esther, who was abducted by the Wabanaki tribe, and later secured a unique place in the birth of Canada

The gardens of the Ursuline Convent, Quebec, Canada

This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

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On the morning of 3 August 1703, a party of American Indian warriors and French officers raided the fraught borderland between the North American colonies of France and England. Among the English captives taken by the Wabanakis, the Algonquin people of Northern Maine who had formed an alliance with the French colonists, was Esther Wheelwright, the seven-year-old daughter of the local militia captain. It would burn forever in her memory as that “treacherous day”.

Esther had run to join her cousins, Hannah, Abigail, William and little Samuel Parsons, as they chased each other across a mown field near their home in Wells, a frontier farming community of some 20 households on the Atlantic coast. After days spent cooped up in a military garrison, the children cherished their freedom in the summer sunshine. An ‘Indian summer’ was feared since the villagers were forced to work in the fields, exposed to the ever-present danger of captivity or murder.

That morning Esther had walked up Break Neck Hill and across the bridge on the Webhanet River to visit her aunt Hannah Parsons, her father Captain Wheelwright’s sister, and her cousins. Everyone else was at home including her mother Mary Snell Wheelwright, pregnant with her eighth child. Esther couldn’t have been there long before she heard an unearthly cry rising from a distance. Then a clap of gunshot and moments later, smoke was pinching at her nostrils and caught in her throat. Soon Abigail was shouting at William, Hannah and Samuel to run home, quick. By now Wabanaki warriors were sprinting through the fields, their war cries mingling with more shots and screams from the raid’s first casualties.

The warriors’ faces were obscured by war paint of brilliant vermillion and ochre, white clay and soot. Feathers dangled from their scalp-locks, each had a knife sheathed at his side and carried a tomahawk or war club. They were merciless in their mission to drive out the settlers. William, aged five, and Samuel, 18 months, were killed instantly while Hannah and Esther, considered old enough to survive the journey deep into French territory, were swiftly hauled over the shoulders of their captors.

As Esther was carried away from her village she saw houses and cattle alight like candles, blood pouring down their cindered sides. Mothers knelt over their still children as others cradled the wounded. That day Esther, along with 16 other English captives from Wells, would begin marching through dense spruce forest to the Wabanaki village of Norridgewock, 200 kilometres north to the Kennebec River. A snatched glimpse of Wells from her captor’s arms would be the last thing she would see of her family home.

Deliberate targets

As the daughter of Captain John Wheelwright, a Massachusetts Bay council member and probate judge, Esther may have been a deliberate target for the raiding party. After being driven back from Wells in 1693, La Brogniere, a French officer, bragged that his warriors would return to take Captain Wheelwright as a slave because, “he was the life and strength of the town”. A decade later the warriors failed to take the father but kidnapped his daughter instead.

The Wheelwrights were used to controversy. Captain Wheelwright’s great-grandfather, the dissident Puritan preacher Reverend John Wheelwright, had been among the town’s founding members in 1653. He had been exiled from Boston with his family for supporting Anne Hutchinson, the prophet who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. The Wheelwrights settled on the frontier’s edge between the two European colonies where their crudely constructed homes would be successively razed to the ground during raids.

The English settlers had, however, brought this tragedy upon themselves by repeatedly breaking their treaties with the Wabanaki and other American Indian nations. Puritans who enjoyed large families regularly extended their property lines, let their cattle graze onto American Indian lands and helped themselves to their neighbours’ fishing grounds. Meanwhile, through the Jesuits, who had successfully converted many American Indians, the French colony built up important political and military alliances.

The August raid on Wells had been triggered by the new European war of Spanish succession when the French king, Louis XIV, supported his grandson’s seat on the Spanish throne and recognised James Edward Stuart as the English king. In May 1702, Queen Anne retaliated by declaring war, triggering a decade of conflict between England, Austria and Prussia against France. In North America, the French shored up their allies, including the Six Nations of Indians who had their own reasons for wanting to drive the English from their lands.

Esther had grown up in a community under virtual siege, fearful that at any moment Catholics might appear on the horizon to rip them from their parents as God’s punishment for their wickedness. Esther may have thought she was being punished as she marched more than 35 kilometres that first day. Catherine Adams, who witnessed her newborn child killed earlier in front of her, described how the captives were forced to wade through rivers, up to their necks in icy waters.

Fearful of lighting a fire that might alert the militia to their position, the Wabanaki warriors and their captives, tethered to stakes, slept on hard ground in their wet clothes. As Esther walked then ran through a sea of trees, she memorised every detail for the time when her father would rescue her. During the ten-day journey, however, her captor had begun to take over her father’s role, exchanging her hard leather shoes for moccasins, sharing his food, carrying her when she grew tired and teaching her a song in his Wabanaki language.

When Esther arrived in Norridgewock, she would have undergone an adoption ceremony, being made to sing in Abenakis before the village. Her grimy English clothes were stripped away and replaced, first with a layer of bear grease to protect her against insects, then a plain cotton dress, wool skirt and her hair decorated with feathers and beads. For the next five years she would live with her Wabanaki family in their birch wigwam, replacing a family member lost to illness or through warfare. She would be told what to do but never why. At first, like many white children, she found the Wabanakis’ manners “gross and infinitely contrary (to my own) and very revolting”. But there were unexpected freedoms here where Esther’s new siblings would teach her the secrets of the forest, about the spirits that lived among them and coached her to speak their language. Soon she “demonstrated a wonderful facility in understanding their barbarian tongue”, as she rapidly forgot her English.

Esther’s new siblings taught her the secrets of the forest, the spirits that lived among them and their language

Catholic conversion

Esther was taught the catechism of the Catholic Church and was later baptised at the mission church with the new name, Marie-Joseph. When the village moved en masse north up the Kennebec River to a new site, St François, on the St Lawrence, Esther accompanied them. Meanwhile, the Wheelwrights were applying political pressure on the New England governor, Dudley, to get their daughter back. By this time the 12-year-old Esther had, it seemed, become completely assimilated into the enemy’s culture.

Father Vincent Bigot, the Jesuit Superior of New France who would become her mentor, met Esther in St François. He saw her as a prize candidate for the famous Ursuline school in Quebec and so, with the backing of French governor de Vaudreuil, began negotiating with the Wabanaki for her release. According to Wabanaki custom, a ransom had to be paid for a prisoner since it represented the loss of labour to the community. Although it was years before Esther’s adoptive family would part with her, they eventually received a new birch bark roof for their wigwam. There were also rumours that her father John Wheelwright had sent a captured American Indian boy to Albany as part of this exchange. Once Esther was back in French hands, they would be obliged to begin negotiations with New England authorities for her return.

In 1708 Esther was taken up the river to Quebec City. Mistakenly identified as “the daughter of a governor of a small place”, she moved from her family’s wigwam to the Chateau St Louis, the colonial governor’s official residence. Once again she was stripped, washed, renamed and dressed in new clothes. When suitably attired ‘a la française’, she was enrolled at the Ursuline convent school where this “petite Angloise nommée Esther” lived with daughters of the French nobility and, astonishingly, other English captive girls. There Esther excelled at embroidery, music, Latin grammar and French while rapidly mastering the intricacies of French etiquette. As for Esther’s spiritual progress, it was so impressive that although the Ursulines thought her a year younger than she actually was, they soon considered her ready to receive the Holy Eucharist.

Unlike the other girls who travelled from New England through American Indian captivity to the convent, Esther began to express a spiritual calling. The Marquis de Vaudreuil, under increasing pressure from Governor Dudley to return Esther to New England, was so alarmed at the prospect of Esther Wheelwright taking her vows as a nun that he withdrew her from the Ursulines. Esther then entered “two years of torment”. As arrangements were made for her journey home, ambassadors arrived from Boston to plead her family’s case and the Wheelwrights wrote gently persuasive letters.

All these efforts failed and by 1712 Esther returned to the Ursulines to begin training as a novice nun. Just before the Treaties of Utrecht were signed in 1713 and 1714, ending the War of Spanish Succession, the Bishop of Quebec shortened the date of her veiling ceremony by six months. This ensured that even if Esther was no longer captive, she couldn’t be returned to Wells against her wishes. For her parents, staunch members of the Congregationalist church, it was the most heretical act she could have committed.

Decades would pass before Esther, now Mother Marie Joseph de l’Enfant Jesus, would hear again from her family. In 1753, her nephew Nathaniel Wheelwright visited the convent as an ambassador for the English colony, negotiating the release of captives held by the Wabanaki. Nathaniel wrote little about what was said over their many meetings of sweetmeats and wine in the convent parlour but he was later accused of being a spy for the French after meeting with his “English relative”.

Ironically Esther’s Englishness would later serve her French Catholic community well after the French colony fell to British forces under General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in September 1759. Promoted over nuns who were more senior, Esther Wheelwright was elected Mother Superior and served for three terms. She not only negotiated well with the incoming governor General James Murray, helping to ensure the convent’s survival, but proved her entrepreneurial skills at selling porcupine quill boxes to the new English tourists.

As Esther tartly remarked in May 1761: “We sell at a high price to the English gentlemen, yet they seem to consider it a privilege to buy, so eager are they for our work. It is really impossible for us notwithstanding our industry to supply the demand”.

Like so many English women of her generation, Esther’s captivity, though it proved the worst possible torment for her parents, gave her access to political and religious power unheard of in New England. Without the tragedy of that “burning day” in August 1703, Esther would never have been able to do so much to nurture a dialogue between the English and French colonists of northwest America – a role that helped guarantee the survival in Quebec of her adopted faith and secured her a unique place in the history of the birth of Canada.


Freedom and empowerment: Women in Quebec

When the “petite Angloise nomée Esther” was enrolled as a pupil in the famous Ursuline school in 1708 she was among a handful of English captive girls being educated there.

The English female captives often made good marriages to French merchants rather than returning home to a colony where their choices were so restricted by the law and the church. In fact, some 229 female English captives chose to remain in Quebec, marrying their American Indian or French captors. Esther’s cousin Esther Sayward, a captive from York in 1692, married Pierre Lestage, a prosperous textile merchant. After his death she took over the business, buying and selling cloth and finished dresses in Montreal’s market square. She ranked among the colony’s most powerful and successful businesswomen, an unthinkable career for a woman in New England.

In Quebec women could manage their husbands’ land and property, they could enter a community of religious women where they were hugely influential and where their skills were much in demand. Historian William Henry Foster has argued that the Catholic religion offered these English women “a balm to the soul” with the belief that through good works they could find a spiritual salvation that was unavailable to Puritan believers.


Quebec: the 400th anniversary

Quebec city, the provincial capital and site of this year’s 400th anniversary celebrations, has always had a strategic importance. Kebec – the place “where the river narrows” in Algonquin – was a favourite meeting place for aboriginal peoples. French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed up the St Lawrence River in 1535 to encounter an Iroquoian community of farmers and fishermen while Samuel Champlain, almost a century later, found the nomadic Algonquin occupying the site.

By the mid-17th century Quebec City had grown to a few hundred inhabitants and flourished after the French king, Louis XIV, took control of the colony in 1663. The city became the political, religious, financial and military capital of New France until British troops seized power after a long siege in September 1759. The city, and then newly-established province, were gradually transformed in the 19th century by the arrival of English, Scots, Welsh and Irish settlers. After the British North America Act in 1867, Quebec became part of the new Canadian nation.

Julie Wheelwright’s biography, A Stolen Child: The Story of Esther Wheelwright, will be published next year by HarperCollins in Canada. She is course director of the Creative Writing Non-fiction MA at City University

BOOKS Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America by James Axtell (Oxford University Press, 2001); Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600–1850 by Linda Colley (Cape, 2002); Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003)

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EVENTS There are hundreds of events in Quebec City this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of its founding. For more information, visit www.MyQuebec2008.com