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Marie Olivier Sylvestre: A Special Name In History

Dec 16, 2016

Roch Manitoubeouich was a man who’d had a life full of adventure, excitement, and hardship.  He’d spent many years deep in the forests of New France, travelling with Olivier LeTardif as an interpreter and guide, furthering the interests and trade of the Company of 100 Associates.

Finally, though, after many years of hard work, Roch settled down with his young wife Outchibahanoukoueou.  The Huron man and his Abenaki bride would be entering the next stage of what had already been a full life by many standards.  Enjoying a more idyllic pace at the Huron settlement at Sillery near Quebec, the couple welcomed the birth of their first child in September of 1625, a girl they named Ousibiskounesout.

Roch and Olivier LeTardif had remained close friends – years of travelling in the wild had forged a strong bond between the two men.  Olivier attended the baptism of the baby girl, given the Christian name Marie in honor of the virgin Mary.  LeTardif was named the girl’s Godfather, and as was custom at the time for a Godparent, he conferred his name “Olivier” on the small babe.  The missionary performing the girl’s baptism added another name, Sylvestre, meaning “one who comes from the forest, or “one who lives in the forest”.   Thus begins the real journey of Marie Olivier Sylvestre Manitoubeouich.

Marie’s early childhood would have been one filled with family, likely in a Longhouse built near Jesuit buildings in the settlement.  Religion was an important part of life at Sillery, as was trade, and most of the Hurons at the settlement also had small farm plots to work.

As Marie reached the age of 10, she was legally adopted by Olivier LeTardif.  Roch’s old friend was generous, and knew that Marie had the best chance of success if she was educated and reared in the same way as a French girl of means.  Olivier placed her as a live-in boarder and student with the Ursuline Nuns at the Ursuline Monestary.  This school was founded by a missionary group of Ursuline nuns in 1639 under the leadership of Mother Marie of the Incarnation.  The school is one of the oldest institutions for the learning of women in North America, and is still in operation today.

After some time at the Ursuline school, Marie was sent to live with Guillaume Hubou and his wife, Marie Rollet. Guillaume Hubou was a company man, working with the Company of 100 Associates for some time and even receiving a land grant from Champlain.  Olivier LeTardif knew Guillaume likely because of the company association, and considered him a close personal friend.  Guillaume’s wife, Marie Rollet, had been a widow, and when she married Guillaume she was much older than he was.  Being past child-bearing years, the couple had no children of their own, but housed many orphans and Native children being taught by the Jesuits.   Marie Rollet is listed as a godmother to many converted Native children.

Life in New France was challenging during this time.  Communities were not large, in fact, the entire population of New France was under 4000 people.  Everything within the colonies was controlled by the Company of 100 Associates, and by extension, the Church.  Most of the men in the colonies were Company men on some level, and it’s no surprise that these company men tended to stay together and forge meaningful relationships and take care of their own.

In this chaotic time a decree was established to create working guidelines for the Colony known as the Church Indenture Decree.  By modern standards, these guidelines would be considered harsh and strict, but for the world of New France at the time, these guidelines were considered the lifeblood of survival to the colonization efforts.  With populations being small, it was very important that everyone procreate to increase the size of the colony. Parents in New France were expected to see their sons married by the age of twenty, and their daughters must be married by 16, or the Father would be forced to appear before the court.  Then every six months, the Father of the family had to appear in court once again until the eligible unwed child had finally found a mate.  This encouraged arranged marriages, and oftentimes girls as young as 12 were given away in marriage.  Some of the other restrictions of the decree were in place to ensure the monopoly of the Company as an instrument of the Church:

  • Merchants were not allowed to hold business meetings or gather in any numbers. These gatherings were considered a threat to the stability of the Company monopoly.
  • It was strictly forbidden to trade non-French goods.
  • It was illegal for townspeople to rent houses or rooms to tenants from the country. It was felt that this might encourage a reduction in the peasant population, which could potentially threaten farming production and food supplies to larger settlements.
  • Farmers were not allowed to move into town or they would be heavily fined. Once again, the leadership feared a drain on the population of food producers and highly penalized those who disobeyed.
  • People were not permitted to sit on benches in front of the house after 9 pm. They were supposed to be procreating and adding to the population.
  • All books, apart from religious texts, were banned.

Imagine then, the kind of world Marie would have lived in as she was considered an educated woman and grew old enough to marry.  Of course, Olivier LeTardif would be very interested in the type of person his adopted daughter was to marry, a suitor would have to be suitable to a woman of her station and means.  Housed with Guillaume Hubou and his wife, Marie would have seemed like an extremely acceptable candidate for a loyal company man to take as a wife.  Martin Prevost was just such a match.  A devoted company man, and a friend of LeTardif and Hubou, Martin bore the title of Storekeeper Clerk which today would be the equivalent of a Warehouse Manager.  He was quite a bit older than Marie, 33 years old to her tender age of 12, but in this time such unions were very common.  Given the rules and guidelines of the colony highly pressuring singles to marry, most girls were engaged or married by the age of 12.

In New France there was quite a disproportionate amount of men to women, so eligible women were often contracted to come over from France to marry colonists.  This also meant that many French men who wanted wives turned to the Native populations to find mates.  However, many of the couplings between the French and Natives were not “official”, and therefore on November 3, 1644 when Martin Prevost married Marie Olivier Sylvestre, it was the first official documented marriage between a French person and a Native person in Canada.  This was the beginning of a long tradition of intermarriage between the two cultures, and many Metis people can trace their heritage back to these marriages.

Religion was an integral part of living in the colonies of New France. Royal Decree and Religious Decree were essentially the same thing, and increasing the population in the New World was considered a religious duty.

Religion was an integral part of living in the colonies of New France. Royal Decree and Religious Decree were essentially the same thing, and increasing the population in the New World was considered a religious duty.

Martin and Marie settled down to start their own family, enjoying high status within their community at their home in Beauport.  The land had been granted to Martin by the Company of 100 Associates.  Martin’s job as clerk meant that he was likely the very person who put together the equipment and supplies for the Maisonneuve expedition that established the colony at Montreal.  It was a tumultuous time, with pressure from warring Native tribes, the warring English, and competition for resources making it more and more difficult for the Company of 100 Associates to maintain their monopoly.   Still, Marie and Martin had 8 children together, and things seemed wonderful, but a series of tragedies left their mark on the couple.

In 1661, Marie and Martin lost three children in 1 year.  A girl, 12 years old, died in January, and two of her younger siblings, a 6 year old girl and a 4 year old boy passed away on the same day in March.  With all of the comings and goings to the settlements and the lessened immunity of the half-native children, it’s likely that an epidemic of some sort killed the children.  There were many young people who died in this area during this time period.  It must have been devastating for the couple to face this loss while still needing to continue with their lives and raise their surviving children.  Surely, this loss and the difficult times took their toll on Marie.  She gave birth to Therese, the couple’s youngest child in 1665 – and barely three months later, Marie herself passed away.  She was in her late 30’s.

Martin must have been crushed.  Not only was he trying to provide for his family in this difficult world, he had lost three children and his wife and now he had five small children to raise on his own.  The Company of 100 Associates was in serious financial straights, but fortunately, Martin was already established as a farmer and a trader in the community.  When the Company of 100 Associates dissolved in 1663, their charter having been revoked by the church and crown, it opened up trade to an extent that had not been before experienced in New France.

In 1665, Martin re-married.  His new wife, Marie d’Abancourt was herself a widow twice over.  Her late husband had been a company man, and in keeping with tradition, the company took care of their own.  It must have been an attractive and necessary match for Martin, who was likely struggling under the burden of raising his children alone and trying to grow his own business interests.  Martin’s new wife had children from her previous marriage, so was well prepared to be a mother once again.

Martin lived to be 80 years old, most certainly a ripe old age for the time.  He stayed at his home in Beauport until he became to ill to be alone, and was moved to the Hotel Dieu. It is interesting to note that this hospital was the first hospital in North America and was run by the Ursuline nuns.  Martin died at the Hotel Dieu in January of 1691.

The tale of Marie Olivier Sylvestre and Martin Prevost is one that is weaved throughout the history of many Metis people of today.  The drive and ambition of the French court for wealth and land, the ambitious striving of the Company of 100 Associates, and the passion of the Church for converts began a legacy that resounds through the halls of history to this very day painting the family tree of Metis people across Canada and the World.

If you’d like to read the first part of Marie’s Story, you can find it here.