Sunday, March 20, 2011

Captured By The Iroquois—And Returned

It is generally accepted that a young girl surnamed Baillargeon was abducted by “les Iroquois” about 1661 and later “miraculously” recovered. This girl has stirred up a fair amount of attention on the genealogy message boards over the years. The questions are (1) when exactly did this happen? and (2) who was the girl?

I simply had to investigate this, because 1 of the 3 possible Baillargeon abductees was my 8G grandmother and another was her sister.

First, the story as it has come down to us in the history books:

In 1666 and 1667, the Marquis de Tracy led troops of the Carignan-Salières Regiment into Indian territory in order to suppress the frequent attacks by “les Iroquois”. In the course of one of these operations, he obtained the release of a number of French children who had been more or less assimilated into the life of their captors and who would have in time become wives or warriors of that group. Among these was an older girl who had been in captivity for several years and become so adapted to the Indian way of life and so fond of her adoptive Indian family that she was afraid to leave them and return to Quebec. This girl, recorded as Anne Baillargeon, ran into the woods to escape from the French, but, as she later reported, she encountered a very stern-looking woman who warned that the girl would face severe punishment if she did not return immediately to the French. Anne was so frightened that she obeyed and came back to Quebec with the others.

Upon their return, M. de Tracy paid the tuition for Anne and another rescued girl into the boarding school of the Ursuline convent in Quebec so that they could be re-educated in the Catholic religion and values and in the French way of life. There Anne saw a portrait of the former head of the convent, Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph (who had died in 1652), and immediately exclaimed that that was the woman who had frightened her into returning to the French. Anne then told the story of her vision, saying that the woman wore the same habit as the woman in the portrait. Sounds like a fairy tale, oui?

Actually, there is documentary evidence for the tale. The story of the apparition of the Ursuline nun appears in the 1863 book Les Ursulines de Québec depuis leur établissement jusqu’à nos jours, volume 1, which is online at; the relevant pages are 250-252. That story was taken from the published correspondence of Mère Marie de L’Incarnation, Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph’s successor; the letter says the event happened in 1667. I do not have access to the surviving records of the Ursuline convent, but several respected historians agree that those records do in fact show that two teen-age French girls were in fact placed with the nuns: “Marie M. Bourgery, agée de quinze ans, et Anne Baillargeon, agée de dix-huit ans”; their fees are being paid by M. Tracy. But the record date is 22 May 1666. Immediately, then, there is a problem.

Tracy’s expedition wherein he forced the Iroquois in what is now New York to return a large group of French captives took place in 1667. He could hardly have placed 2 girls in the convent before they had been rescued! Therefore, he could only have been sponsoring two of the hostages released by the Senecas (one of the nations of the Iroquois) in spring 1666, shortly before the two girls are recorded as being placed in the convent for re-education. Marie de l’Incarnation (or the publisher of her letters) must have gotten the dates mixed up; I think it’s safe to say that the original record of the girls’ entry proves it. People may write down last year instead of this year on a record but they usually don’t write down next year. (Think of the fun we have when we are dating the checks we write every January.)

The history of the Ursulines cited above adds that one of the two girls decided to enter the novitiate but left the convent after a few months; the other girl had already left.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that most people rely on the unquestionably honest and saintly Mère Marie de l’Incarnation’s letter. But honesty and saintliness do not guarantee a perfect memory, and the letter at issue was edited and published several years after her 1672 death by her (pre-Ursuline) son Claude Martin. I don’t know if the original copy of this particular letter has survived, and since I’ve never seen a sample of Marie’s handwriting, I can’t tell how legible it was. I don’t know how reliable Claude was in transcribing the original letter or how much editing he did on the document. I can’t be sure whether the original written date is 1666 or 1667. The letter purportedly says “Anne” was about 9 years old when captured and was in captivity for 9 years. However, I have noticed that in 17th century Quebec handwriting, the numerals 4, 7, and 9 often look very much alike; that’s why most curés wrote the year out in words rather than in numerals when dating their sacramental records. Therefore, we can’t be sure that the ages of the girls as published by Claude are what Mère Marie herself wrote, much less whether Mère Marie's letter was correct as to ages and dates.

The question for me is, of course, who was the Baillargeon girl captured by the Indians and returned to Quebec in 1666? If the 1863 history transcribes the information accurately, and if the age was not an estimate but verified at the time, and if the age was correctly recorded by the Ursulines in the first place, the girl was born about 1648. That’s a lot of ifs, particularly when you consider the possibility that the girl recorded as “Anne” could actually be “Jeanne”. Sounds crazy, oui?

Mais non! On the Lavalley surname board at Rootsweb, this issue was considered by several people in 2000. (The question was, which was the Baillargeon girl who after being rescued from the Indians married Jean Lavallée (my 7G Grandfather) in 1702. (The correct answer is “none of the above”, because Jean married Jeanne-Catherine Hus, the daughter of one of the 3 suspects.) Among the issues that came up in this discussion was the information (which I later confirmed) that the Île-Orléans was in fact attacked by the Iroquois in 1660-61, a number of people were captured, and that the names of many of the captives are not recorded in any surviving document.

One person involved in the discussion also stated that “Jeanne” and “Anne” were pronounced almost exactly the same in the 1600s, so the names could have been easily confused. This was disputed in a post by Jenny S on the Baillargeon message board in November 2010, but although Jenny correctly points out the overwhelming value of the contemporary record made when the Ursulines received the girls, I disagree with her statement that no one could have mistaken the name “Jeanne” for “Anne” or vice versa.

Why do I disagree? First of all, in the 1600s regional accents were very much more distinct than now and often amounted to mutually-incomprehensible regional dialects. This is true all over Europe, not only in the colony of Quebec. Before radio and talking motion pictures and television homogenized the languages, if you lived anywhere in Europe and moved twenty miles from home, you and your new neighbors might have a lot of difficulty understanding one another.

Moreover, until universal literacy, spelling of a word or name depended on the whim of the person writing it down. In French, when a word beginning with “h” is followed by a vowel, the “h” is generally silent. My immigrant 7G Grandfather François Han-dit-Chaussé is recorded by the curé as "François Janham" in his 1685 marriage record, which François himself signed with the spelling "Jahan". The surname is also recorded elsewhere as Jean, Han, Ham, An, Am, and other creative spellings. (As his descendant, my Great-Grandfather Joseph Chausse/Chosa put it in the 1850s, “You spell it like it sounds.” Great-Grandfather Joseph’s surname is spelled at least 10 different ways in documents that include his name.)

All of these spellings suggest that “Anne” and “Jeanne” could in fact be confused in the 1600s. Tanguay agrees with me: in the first volume of his Dictionnaire Genealogique, published in 1871, he gives the captive’s name as Jeanne rather than Anne. Note also that even in modern French, the two names rhyme.

Now then: there are records of only two Baillargeon families known to be in Quebec in the right time period to be the parents of the miraculously-returned captive “Anne”. One line stems from my 8G Grandparents Mathurin Baillargeon and Marie Métayer, whose marriage contract was drawn up by notary Ameau on 7 August 1650. The other line stems from Jean Baillargeon and Marguerite Guillebourdeaux, who married at Québec on 20 November 1650. Both men came from the region of Angoumois, Mathurin from Embourie and Jean from Londigny; since the two towns are quite close to one another, and Baillargeon is not a particularly common name, I would not be in the least surprised to learn that Jean and Mathurin were related to each other.

If the Ursulines correctly recorded the ages of the two rescued girls who entered the convent school in May 1666, Marie M. (Madeleine) Bourgery was 15 years old then (therefore born about 1651) and Anne Baillargeon was 18 years old (therefore born about 1648).

However, there appear to be only three candidates for the returned Baillargeon girl, all born after 1648, and none of them age 18 in May 1666:

1. Anne Baillargeon was the daughter of my 8G Granparents Mathurin Baillargeon and Marie Métayer. She was baptized at Trois-Rivières in November 1651. Anne was 15 in May 1666.

2: Jeanne Baillargeon, daughter of Jean Baillargeon and Marguerite Guillebourdeaux, was baptized 7 May 1651 at Québec. Six months older than Anne, she had her 15th birthday in May 1666. By 1660 or so, her parents were living on the Île-Orléans, where a number of French persons were captured in 1661; there is no record of the exact number or of the names of the captives. By March 1666, Jeanne’s mother had died and her father had remarried; Jeanne might have been reluctant to return to her father’s home under those circumstances.

3. Jeanne Baillargeon, my direct ancestor, was Anne’s younger sister, the daughter of Mathurin Baillargeon and Marie Métayer, baptized at Trois-Rivières on 5 Nov 1654; she would have been 11 1/2 when rescued in May 1666—in which case the Ursulines were way off the mark when estimating her age as 18.

At this point in researching this issue, I decided to investigate the actual age of the other girl placed in the convent for re-education to see how accurate the Ursulines were in her case. Her name was Marie-Madeleine Bourgery (daughter of Jean-Baptiste Bourgery and Marie Gendre). She, like the daughters of Mathurin Baillargeon, was born at Trois-Rivières; she was baptized there on 22 July 1652. I think it is quite likely that Madeleine and “Anne” were captured together. In May 1666 Madeleine was 2 months short of her 14th birthday. The Ursulines recorded her age at 15 years, which is fairly close. (After leaving the convent, Madeleine married three times, had a large number of children, and died in 1741 at Pointe-Claire “agée environs 100 ans”.)

Right off the top, I decided that my direct ancestor Jeanne (daughter of Mathurin) could be eliminated. We are so accustomed nowadays to modern teenagers being taken for adults that it may seem reasonable to say that Jeanne looked like an 18-year-old. But the Ursulines were only a year off the mark in pegging Madeleine’s age, and the Ursulines had been running their boarding school for Indian girls long enough to be quite familiar with the behavior and demeanor of their charges. It seems extremely unlikely that they could have mistaken a girl not yet age 12 (whether white or Indian) for an 18-year-old young woman. I concluded that Jeanne was not the captive.

But the other two possibles?

Tanguay identifies the Jeanne Baillargeon who was the daughter of Jean and Marguerite as the girl rescued by Tracy from the Iroquois. However, Tanguay failed to notice that this Jeanne was the Jeanne Baillargeon who married Jean LeBrècque on 28 November 1664 at Chateau-Richer, at the age of 13. I seriously doubt that the Ursulines would have listed a wife, however young, as a “girl”, so she is extremely unlikely to have been the recovered captive placed with the Ursulines in 1666 to be re-educated in the ways of French Catholicism. She wouldn’t have needed re-education, since she would have to have been captured after her marriage and therefore could have been in captivity for only about a year and a half. This Jeanne surely would have asked about her husband and been reclaimed by him immediately upon her return.

This leaves Anne, my 8G aunt, who was 15 when she entered the convent school. So why was she recorded as being 18? Either the good Ursulines were guessing as to the ages of the two girls, or whoever made the original entry record in the convent’s books made her numeral 8s look very much like her 5s, a feat which is by no means difficult. A casual glance through a few Quebec parish registers from this time period will convince you.

It seems to me quite likely that both girls appeared or acted somewhat older than their actual age, possibly due to the living conditions during their captivity, to the grave “adult” demeanor expected of “Iroquois” teenagers, and/or to sheer cultural shock at finding themselves in a now-unfamiliar environment.

Of course, none of this proves whether Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph, 14 years after her death, actually appeared to Anne and frightened her into going home. I’m not saying that Anne (or the Ursulines) made the story up, either; I believe from my own experiences that the human spirit survives after the death of the body and that therefore the story is “possibly” true. I’m only saying that such matters are the province of faith, not genealogy.

This case is a good illustration of my Third Genealogical Mantra: Always step back and test your conclusions for reasonableness before deciding whether you have proved your case.

In the case of Anne Baillargeon, I’ve shown that the only reasonable choice for the girl rescued after several years of “Iroquois” captivity is the older daughter of Mathurin Baillargeon and Marie Métayer. I once assumed so; now I’m convinced.

If your family tree shows a woman having children at the age of 6 (or 66), or a man getting married who died as an infant or whose “prior” spouse is still having children with him in a nearby parish, you’ve made a wrong connection somewhere. In Quebec genealogy, this can happen easily because, at any given point in Quebec’s history up to about 1850, the naming customs produced numerous people in the same extended family who had the same name and often were about the same age and living in the same area.

If you don’t look at the “big picture” regularly to make sure that everything makes sense, you’re bound to have mistakes in your research and false ancestors inscribed on your pedigree chart . . . and some of your actual ancestors just might become annoyed with you if you overlook them. If they do, don't say I didn't warn you!

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