Monday, December 20, 2010

A Woman of Valor

My 5G Grandfather Jean-Baptiste Cadot/Cadotte was a remarkable man. But he would never have become so influential or famous without his Anishinaabe wife, who was born to the powerful A-wau-se (Catfish) clan, giving her husband access to fur-trade wealth wherever her clan had influence—which was the entire Great Lakes area.

Much of what we know about Mme. Cadot comes from the registers of the Catholic mission of Ste Anne on Mackinac Island (Michilimackinac), which include its priests’ occasional forays to the chapels at St-Ignace and Sault Ste Marie, all three of which places were major centers for the fur trade in Jean-Baptiste’s lifetime. And oddly, this woman apparently had several French names, at least if you go by the English translations of the records. She is variously called, according to various respected authorities, Marianne, Catherine, Marie, Annatasie, Athanasie, and Catherine Anastasia.

Now, when I first read about her, I was intrigued by all those names. French Catholic female names are generally limited to two or three at most, so I set out to determine whether all of these names pertained to the same woman. I soon discovered that there are two sets of records for Mackinac and its branch missions at St-Ignace and Sault Ste Marie: one is the original registers made by the French and other Catholic missionaries, and the other is the century-old translation made by the then State Historical Society of Wisconsin (hereafter referred to as the SHSW) under the direction of Reuben Gold Thwaites. Many researchers in the US have naturally preferred the neatly printed English-language version and base their interpretation of the records on that.

The translation is online at the Library of Congress’s American Memory site for Pioneering the Upper Midwest, which you can access here. There is a great deal of fascinating material at this site which is worth exploring in detail if you have ancestors from Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin. You can also go directly to a plain-text version of the SHSW translated Mackinac marriage register or to the plain-text SHSW baptism and burial registers. If you prefer, you can access images of the pages of the original SHSW version of the marriages and the original SHSW version of the baptisms and burials.
Now, translations are nice, but I had learned early on that they can be full of major errors, so the multiplicity of this woman’s names made me deeply suspicious as to the accuracy of the SHSW translation of the Mackinac records. So I purchased a CD-ROM of the registers directly from the original source: Ste-Anne’s on Mackinac Island, which still exists as an active parish today. The CD contains both the digital images of the original handwritten registers 1695-1888 and the SHSW translated version 1695-1821. (The CD is still available at the parish gift shop.) Once I got it, I compared the translations with the handwritten originals.

The translated version of the 28 October 1756 marriage of Jean-Baptiste Cadot and his wife calls her “Marianne, a neophyte, daughter of a nipissing”. What the translation doesn’t say is that in the original French record the name “Marianne” has been lined out and the name “Athanasie” written just above it.

Now, the name Athanasie is an extremely rare one in Quebec before the mid-1800s, possibly because it was a variant of Athénaïs, the personal name of the notorious Madame de Montespan (1641-1707), who had been the long-term mistress of King Louis XIV of France (and mother of 7 of his illegitimate children) and who therefore was clearly not a desirable role model for a young girl from a pious Catholic family.

However, this name does turn up in several records in the Mackinac registers. A Quebec fur trader named Charles Hamelin, who made Sault Ste Marie his headquarters, married there a Sauteuse (Anishinaabe from the area we now call Sault Ste Marie) in 1738. The original first register for the missions decayed so badly by 1740 that the missionary priest at that time transcribed a bare-bones list of the names and dates (and parents or spouse) recorded in the original baptisms and marriages. (The damaged original register no longer exists.) Included in the 1738 entries are Charles Hamelin’s first wife, Athanasie, and their children. Inserted next to her entry is the notation “morte au Saulte le 19 Mars 1745”.

This Marie-Athanasie must have been a remarkable woman and a genuinely devout Catholic, for she seems to have inspired a great deal of respect from the missionaries and devotion from the people close to her. When she died in 1745, she was buried inside the chapel at Sault Ste Marie rather than in the cemetery—a rare and special privilege. How do we know this, when the notation cited above doesn’t give that information? We find it in the mission’s baptism register.
On 11 July 1745, Marie-Athanasie’s sister (specifically so identified, and specifically stating that Marie-Athanasie was deceased) converted to the Catholic faith, taking the name Marie-Charlotte. On the same day a devoted slave (Native American, not of African ancestry), age about 20, part of the Hamelin household, also converted and took her dead mistress’s name Marie-Athanasie “selon les desires de sa deffunte maîtresse” (according to the desires of her deceased mistress). Appended to her baptism record is the notation that the slave “Morte munie de tous les Sacraments le 24 Janvier 1748” (died fortified by all the sacraments on 24 January 1748) and was interred “dans l’Église le jour suivant à coté de sa déffunte Maîtresse” (on the following day in the church at the side of her deceased mistress).

Naturally, Charles Hamelin married again, but not right away, even though he had young children. He waited two and a half years, until after his first wife’s devoted slave had died. However, Charles did not remain celibate during that time: he took up with another Sauteuse woman who bore him a son, Pierre-Charles. Now, Pierre-Charles was not baptized until 6 Dec 1747, but the record states that he was born 15 February of the previous year (i.e. 15 Feb 1746); the conclusion is that the child was conceived sometime around May 1745)—within about two months after the death of his first wife. 

The mother of the child is stated to be “une sauvagesse cathecumene sauteuse de nation, fille d’une sauvage infidele nommé mu8us.” The SHSW translation reads “a female Savage called Catherine, of the Sauteaux nation, daughter of the pagan Savage called mouus.” (The 8, sometimes written “∞”, is how the French spelled an Anishinaabe vowel sound which is rather like the “wee” in “sweet”; the number 8 in French is pronounced “weet”). Obviously the translators were all Protestants, or they would have recognized the word “catechumen” (which is written quite clearly in the original record) as being not a weird spelling of “Catherine”, but a word meaning a person who is receiving instruction in the doctrines and practices of the Catholic faith in preparation for conversion.

Poor little Pierre-Charles did not survive long; his baptism record notes that he died a few days later. Interestingly, there is a slash through the baptism record, suggesting that something about it may be erroneous or possibly that it is out of chronological order.

The next record in the baptism register is dated 1 February 1748—ten days after the devoted slave Athanasie had been buried in the church next to her deceased mistress. The SHSW translation reads “February 1, 1748, I solemnly baptized in the church of this mission a female Saulteux Savage about twenty years old, daughter of the savage called Mouus, mother of the child mentioned above, desiring holy Baptism and being sufficiently instructed, who took the name of Marie Athanasie in holy Baptism. Her godfather was Mr d’ailleboût de Coulonge; and her godmother Mde l’anglade.” This time the SHSW got the details right.

Note that both of Charles’s wives (and the slave) took the name Marie Athanasie at baptism. I suspect that the second wife was either a close friend or close relative of the first wife, and chose that name in honor of the dead woman. (Either that, or Charles really grooved on the name and insisted on her using it!)

On 4 February 1748, ten days after the slave had been buried, Charles married the mother of his recently-deceased youngest child. He needed a wife or someone to run the household, since most or all of the children of his first marriage were too young to be on their own: Jean-Baptiste, then age about 7, Marie-Françoise, age about 9, Louis-Charles, age about 11, Jacques, then age about 15, and Marianne, then age about 17. Even the oldest, Joseph, age about 21, was likely to be still learning the fur trade business from his father and therefore living with him much of the time.

The SHSW translators got it right this time: “February 4, 1748, I received the mutual marriage consent of Sieur Charles hamelin, former voyageur, and of marie athanasie, a Sauteux woman Savage recently baptized.”

So why am I going on and on about Charles Hamelin and his wives? Simple: because Charles died sometime in 1748 (there is no burial record, but the baptism record for their daughter Marie-Joseph in December 1748 states that he is dead). His widow Marie-Athanasie the second had given him two children (including the deceased toddler Pierre-Joseph).

In 1756 she married again—to Jean-Baptiste Cadot.

How do I know this is the same woman? Because the original French baptism record for their 2 1/2-month-old daughter Marie-Renée shows that her name was originally written as Marianne but lined out and corrected to Athanasie. The original French marriage record gives her name as Madeleine (possibly Marianne), but again, that name was lined out and “Athanasie” written above it. Charles Hamelin’s widow was by then the only Athanasie around; there is no record of any other female being baptized Athanasie in the register other than those involved with Hamelin. Charles’s widow was clearly determined to use that name. She is described in the Cadot marriage record as a neophyte, which simply means a convert, with no implication as to how recently her conversion occurred. The baptism records for daughter Charlotte and sons Jean-Baptiste fils and Michel all call her Athanasie. The 1767 baptism record for her last known child, Joseph-Marie, calls her Marie Moüet.

Incidentally, I think that the reason the SHSW translated “Marianne” as “Catherine” is that the SHSW people came to the same conclusion I did: that the “Catherine” who was the mother of Pierre-François Hamelin and the second wife of Charles Hamelin was the same woman who later married Cadot. That’s why they ignored the lined-out “Madeleine/Marianne” in the French Cadot marriage record as well as the interpolated “Athanasie”. The Cadot marriage record isn’t that hard to read, and there is clearly no Catherine (or anything even close) in it.

Oddly, in the baptism record for Marie-Renée and in the marriage record for Athanasie and Jean-Baptiste, Athanasie is described as a Nipissing rather than as a Sauteuse. Is this a crucial difference? I don’t think so, even though the Nipissing and Sauteur groups are not the same. The priest who actually baptized Athanasie in 1748 and presided over her marriage to Charles Hamelin was De Jaunay, who was probably the same priest who had prepared her for baptism. However, De Jaunay was absent from the mission at the time the “nipissing” records were made. (He did return and baptize Jean-Baptiste fils in 1762 and Michel in 1764.) The priest who referred to her as a Nipissing was Le Franc, who may not have even met her before, given that he had to correct her name from Marianne and Madeleine in those same records.

A lot of people think that Joseph-Marie’s baptism record proves that Marie-Athanasie had died by 1767 and that Joseph’s mother was another woman, but in fact the name proves the connection between Hamelin’s wife and the wife of Cadot. Father Du Jaunay, the missionary at Mackinac who had learned to use the name Athanasie in the records mentioning her, returned to Canada just before the baptism of Joseph-Marie. A stranger, the Vicar-General of Louisiana, presided over Joseph-Marie’s baptism. The Vicar-General, it seems, balked at writing the long, unfamiliar, and faintly scandalous name of Athanasie and preferred to write just Marie (which was part of her full name Marie-Athanasie). And the surname? Mouet (prounounced moo-ay) is a real French surname, but it’s also a reasonable way to write the name of Athanasie’s father M8us, here clearly used as her surname. Many Native American converts are recorded in the Quebec registers with their father’s personal name (where known) as the surname.

The ultimate proof is the fact that Athanasie didn’t die until 1776 (nine years after Joseph’s birth). She was living in Montréal at the time and was buried in the Chapel-St-Amable in the Basilica de Nôtre-Dame.

Now, I admit that her name was disguised in Montréal in the burial records for both her and her 5-year-old son Joseph-Marie (buried 2 January 1773 as plain Joseph Cadot) by the name of Thérèse rather than Athanasie, but she is identified as “sauteuse de nation femme de ... [sic] Cadot voyageur des pays d’en haut”. Athanasie is proved by other documentation to have been living in Montréal at that time, and there is no documentation of any other Cadot anywhere married to a Thérèse in that time frame. Personally, I suspect that the priests in Montréal seized the opportunity to suppress the long and scandalous name “Athanasie” and substitute the saintly, edifying, and shorter name of Thérèse. (To be charitable, they might have mis-heard the name. Most of the other priests who had to record her name did, too. She would likely have been more difficult to understand because French was not her native language.)

Now, Jean-Baptiste could not have had a legitimate son with anyone else until after the death of his first wife! Nor would he have been insane enough to abandon her and lose the enormous business clout that she and her clan provided for him and his sons. The Cadots had ready access to the furs gathered by her clan and their allies, and they were accepted immediately by Anishinaabe who had never met them before as being honest and honorable men (unless, of course, they proved themselves to be otherwise, which they didn’t). The sons Jean-Baptiste fils and Michel, both educated in Montréal, had good standing both in Quebec and in le pays dans l’haut.

Marie-Athanasie’s Anishinaabe name was Equawaice. We know this from the 1826 Treaty of Fond du Lac, where a share of reserved land for mixed-bloods went “To Michael Cadotte, senior, son of Equawaice, one section”. Michel, my 4G Grandfather, had pretty much retired from the active fur trade and settled at La Pointe by 1826, but most of his children had been baptized at Mackinac and he and his children had maintained continuous ties with the Mackinac and Sault Ste Marie areas.

What happened to Equawaice’s children from her first marriage? The first died young; the second child, a daughter named Marie-Joseph, simply disappears from the records. She probably died young, but it is possible that she may have been taken by the Hamelin family back to their home parish of Grondines; no further record for her has been found. In any case, since several of Equawaice’s stepchildren appear as adults in the later Mackinac registers, they almost certainly grew up in the area and Equawaice may very well have looked after them for several years. She may have waited so long to marry again precisely because she was caring for those children. The youngest of them would have been about 15 in 1756, when she married Jean-Baptiste.
By 1757 Charles’s brother Jacques-Michel Hamelin from Grondines was at Mackinac, doubtless to look after family business affairs; he may very well have arrived much earlier. He died at Mackinac in November of that year during what must have been an epidemic which killed far more people than usual that year.

We must remember that many voyageur family births and deaths took place in wilderness areas, possibly hundreds of miles from the nearest church. People living at Sault Ste Marie, which had a chapel but was not exactly next door to Michilimackinac, didn't get frequent visits by the harassed missionaries there. As with the habitants, the distance was often too great to be in the least practical, so the dead would be buried by whoever was available, prayers would be said, and life would go on. At the missions, the records were of baptisms and burials, not of births and deaths. No burial in a church cemetery by a priest meant no record would be made.

What else do we know about Athanasie/Equawaice?

We know that she was stated to be about 20 years old at the time of her first marriage in 1748, making her born about 1728. This may have been a guess, however, possibly made by Father De Jaunay. Her 1776 Montréal death record gives her age as about 40, suggesting a birth about 1736. Clearly these ages were not precise and Equawaice (like most people in this time) apparently did not keep exact track of her own age. She may in fact have looked younger than her actual age, and the priests in Montréal took a guess as to her age at death.

We know from the writings of Alexander Henry that in her home, everyone spoke only the Anishinaabe language, although her husband and children were also fluent in French and English. As a result, her family never needed interpreters and indeed, were often called upon to serve as interpreters. However, it appears she herself also knew French and English since she was able to converse with Alexander Henry, and there is nothing to suggest that she was unable to communicate in Montréal.

Her great-grandson William Whipple Warren, writing his History of the Ojibway People about 1851, recorded that Equawaice “appears to have been a woman of great energy and force of character, as she is noted to this day for the influence she held over her relations—the principal chiefs of the tribe; and the hardy, fearless manner, in which, accompanied only by Canadian “Coureurs du bois” to propel her canoes, she made long journeys to distant villages of her people to further the interests of her husband.”

We know that the Cadot family settled at Sault Ste Marie (where she and first husband Charles Hamelin had lived); the Sault served as “home base” during Jean-Baptiste’s extensive travels. Equawaice surely accompanied him on many of those travels, as her daughters-in-law likewise accompanied their husbands and as Equawaice herself probably accompanied her first husband. Having her with him would have given both husbands great credibility and trust with the Lake Superior Anishinaabe, especially in the beginning, before the Anishinaabe got to know those husbands. But we know from Warren and Alexander Henry that she also traveled alone on family business.

We know that Jean-Baptiste soon had enormous influence with the Anishinaabe of the Lake Superior area by 1763, when it was his counsel that kept most of the Lake Superior Anishinaabe neutral during Pontiac’s War. We also know from Alexander Henry that in 1763 Equawaice personally helped him escape imminent slaughter after the massacre of the British at Fort Michilimackinac during that war, by giving him a place in her canoe which was taking her home to Sault Ste Marie. She told war parties looking for Englishmen to kill that he was a good French-Canadian voyageur; they accepted her word and let him go.

Under those circumstances, it is not surprising that by 1765, Alexander Henry and Jean-Baptiste Cadot were business partners with exclusive rights from the British to the Lake Superior fur trade; the friendship and partnership extended into the generation of Equawaice’s sons Jean-Baptiste and Michel.

Athanasie always stated that she could not sign her name to the baptism register for her children; however, it’s just possible that she was in fact literate and simply didn’t want to embarrass Jean-Baptiste, who was barely able to print his last name “Cadot” as his complete signature on all signed documents. After all, somebody noticed that her name was recorded wrongly on her second marriage record and the baptism records of her Cadot children, and insisted on the corrections—and it couldn’t have been Jean-Baptiste.

In her article "The Cadots: The First Family of Sault Ste. Marie" in Michigan History for March/April 1988, Cadotte research and noted professor Theresa Schenck states that in 1767, daughters Marie-Renée and Charlotte were enrolled in the Notre-Dame School in Montréal; sadly, Charlotte died there on 16 June 1768. "By 1772, and posibly as early as 1769, Cadot had sent his wife to Montréal to join Marie," so that their sons could also attend school. Little Joseph, age 5, died there on 1 January 1773. Athanasie and her children boarded for the next 5 years with the parents of another fur trader while Jean-Baptiste continued his travels in the fur trade with Alexander Henry.

Athanasie died on 18 May 1776 and buried in the Chapel of St-Amable near Nôtre-Dame. Her daughter Marie-Renée, now 20, took over the management of the family in Montréal while her brothers attended school, until 1782 when her brothers returned to Sault Ste Marie. Marie remained in Montréal to help with her father's business affairs there. (Like her mother, Marie-Renée clearly was a capable and fearless young woman who was more than equal to the responsibilities she faced.) She died in Montréal on 9 August 1786, age 30.

Jean-Baptiste Cadot père remained active in the fur trade until about 1796. He was only 53 when Equawaice died, but he never married again (at least, not legally), although he had an Anishnaabe woman named Catherine as companion, and she had several children by him. (One of those children was married to another ancestor of mine, but that's another story.) Jean-Baptiste remained active in the fur trade until about 1796, when advanced age (he was about 73) and failing health led him to turn over all his property at the Sault to legitimate sons Jean-Baptiste and Michel in exchange for their agreement to care for him for the rest of his life (this was a common arrangement in Quebec families). He died at Sault Ste Marie on 1 November 1800, age 76.

Equawaice/Athanasie was clearly what the Bible calls “a woman of valor”, a woman who took good care of her family, who was fearless and highly competent, and who had great strength of character. She rose to every challenge life presented. Her husbands’ businesses doubtless benefitted greatly from her clan’s influence, but everything suggests that their attraction to her was much more than a desire to improve their trading prospects. I am proud to claim her as my 5G Grandmother and to share her story with you.


  1. Interesting that I should find your blog today in my efforts to track down the only name I had of my ancestor which is Athanasie - Nipissing She is a direct ancestor through my mother...a little farther back than your connection 10G. I have other natives in my family tree and I am still doing research to gain credibility on their files. Thank you for sharing

  2. Interesting that I should find your blog today in my efforts to track down the only name I had of my ancestor which is Athanasie - Nipissing She is a direct ancestor through my mother...a little farther back than your connection 10G. I have other natives in my family tree and I am still doing research to gain credibility on their files. Thank you for sharing