When they built the hotel we stayed at in Quebec City, they excavated hundreds of artifacts from the site, which had clearly had many incarnations. They did a masterful job of creating historically evocative luxury, heavy curtains and plush fabrics softening the old stone, and layering its history throughout in the form of shadow boxes with the excavated items.
Our room was the chambre de tonnelier, which turns out to mean “cooper.” (For a moment, I wanted it to mean “tunneler,” which is how I felt, all of this digging through time).
The nightstand in the chambre de tonnelier had a glass boxed artifact, tiny talisman of a past life. Looking for my family history had the same feel about it, tiny bits of narrative, finding single pieces, like a singular noun or preposition, a bare phrase or two. Encased in glass and lit up.
I knew my dad’s mother’s family was among the oldest European settlers in Canada, part of the earliest attempts to create a colony. The first immigrant I knew about, Francois Seguin (dit Laderoute), came to New France as a soldier in the Carignan Regiment in 1665. I knew he married Jeanne Petit, a fille du roi, in 1672.
I found the winter uniform of his regiment in the Musée at the Citadelle.
I also learned at the Musée that his was the last full Regiment to be sent from France, and that 600 of the men did not stay. He was one of the 400 who became a seigneur, who took up the King’s offer of land. And then married one of the 800 or so women sent as “the King’s daughters” to marry the settlers and soldiers, to create a real colony to shore up the land against the incursions of the Iroquois. To procreate and be rewarded by the crown. (Those who produced 10 living children got an outlandish amount of money. Jeanne and Francoise managed 13).
Online, I find more information from a (presumably) distant cousin. Francois was a weaver by trade, and was well regarded by his officer, who served as a witness at his wedding. Francois was named in his officer’s will, decades later. Jeanne, I had learned, was only 15 when she sailed on the L’Esperance in 1671, listed as an orphan, and taken in by the Ursulines for several months until she was old enough to marry.
The Ursuline Monastery is still there.
My 9-generations-ago grandmother slept here, sheltered from the unbearable winter by a closed wooden bed. I wonder if she considered staying here, paying her king’s dowry to the nuns, choosing the safety of the Monastery over the unknowns of the land in Boucherville, down the Ste Lawrence near Ville-Marie, the 13 children she would bear. I ponder out loud. Finch says “That’s the 47 year old Cate thinking. The 15 year old Cate would have jumped at the adventure.”
The building, still standing, is more than a mere word — it’s a paragraph, a novel. I wonder where Jeanne walked in those 9 months when she was sheltered by the nuns, not part of the usual pattern of the filles du roi who chose their husbands within two weeks. I wonder if she walked along the edge of the hill over the pasture land that became the Plains of Abraham nearly a century later, looked west over the Ste. Lawrence, wondered where she would go.
She couldn’t have possibly known that the great-great-granddaughter, Marie-Therese Tremblay, of the man who had owned those plains, Abraham Martin, would marry her grandson, Joseph Seguin, decades later. She couldn’t know what a weird little thrill it gives me to know that I’m descended from the man who owned the Plains of Abraham, who arrived in Quebec in 1617. Nine years after the first habitation of Samuel de Champlain, where only eight of the 28 Europeans survived the first winter. The man who was named in Samuel de Champlain’s will, with funds to his daughter Marguerite provided she married a man of New France.
I don’t know why I want to string together these phrases, these artifacts of narrative. Why stepping on the same ground that “my” fille du roi stepped on matters. Why I was so eager to put on the costume of the Canadienne in the Centre D’interpretation du place royale.
When I read the excellent Bride of New France last fall, I practically licked the page for details. Of the portrait of what it was to be poor in France, how the peasants were kicked off the streets of Paris and thrown in prison. How there was no possibility of movement in that world for an orpheline or the equivalent. I admire the spirit of my ancestor who — surely naively — took that last gulp of air on land and stepped onto the hellish ship named Hope to try.
I don’t romanticize it — I think about how awful and cold and dark it would have been, how itchy and cold and frightening. The winters, the flies, the fear about what was beyond the bounds of the land, about how to feed all of those children. The leap of faith to marry a man who seemed like he could provide, as well as any man could in 1671 New France, but who was a cipher. I think about how, on all branches of my family, there was no money for anything unnecessary back down every generation until my grandparents’, how there was no such thing as disposable income. And how I have everything I need and so far beyond, unimaginably.
Finch and I had a superb dinner Saturday night, a Michelin starred restaurant down near the port, land my people could have trod. I wore a silky burnt orange dress, fiddled with my iphone to take a photo of the room, my food. I regarded my luscious entrée, duck, and thought about how unimaginable the room, the food, my dress, my cross-Atlantic lover, would have been to Jeanne.
I finger the artifacts of my family, assemble names and hints of life, back 330 years, because it’s simultaneously recognition and mystery. I mourn the language lost in my parents’ generation, just fragments in my mouth. Recognition of my beaky nose and stocky little frame in other french Canadians, of the openness to jump in and leap in the stories of Jeanne and Francois, the desire to create. The mystery of a world where my nieces are at once first and 12th generation Canadians.