On Mother’s Day this year I found myself thinking about what being a mother meant in Quebec during the French Regime.
The prime duty for women at all levels of society in Quebec during the 1600s and 1700s was to “be fruitful and multiply”. After all, the population of the British colonies in North America was growing dramatically and the French were in serious danger of losing their lucrative fur trade because of the low French population of New France. So the monarchy created programs—the “Filles à Marier” (marriageble girls) and the “Filles du Roi” (“King’s Daughters”, that is, girls whose dowry was supplied or supplemented by the royal treasury) to encourage the French men in the colony to marry and stay in New France once their labor contracts were up.
There were already large numbers of women in New France, of course—native women. But Indian women generally nursed their infants at least 2 or even 3 years, sometimes longer, and therefore generally had fewer babies during their fertile years. So long as they became good Catholics, like my 8G Grandmother Catherine Anenantha (a full-blood Huron), they were welcome to marry the French settlers, but the number of children they had was not as many as the government would prefer.
Motherhood isn’t easy even today; it was much more difficult back then. Just being a wife wasn’t generally easy, although it was easier if if the husband was wealthy; she had to run the household without any of the modern conveniences we take for granted today, and if she were the wife of a farmer, she had farm chores to deal with as well. And of course, there were certain hazards that they faced that we don’t generally have to cope with today: virulent epidemices, and (especially in the 1600s) the possibility of a violent and gruesome death at the hands of the indigenous inhabitants of the country.
A Quebec mother had to make do without all the conveniences young mothers have available today. She couldn’t just go over to the local mall and buy everything she needed. Wealthy women, of course, could generally hire someone to make anything from a cradle to maternity clothes to clothes for the baby and older children. A wealthy woman could hire servants to handle the work of child care; she could even hire someone to wet-nurse her little one. But it was rather more complicated for less affluent women.
A husband in a poorer family who was handy with tools could make a cradle, but the mother-to-be had to make her own maternity clothes and clothes for the child as well, or borrow them from her extended family or neighbors. There were no disposable diapers, either, and no ready-to-serve infant formula or baby food. This is something no eminent scholar seems to have written about, but the women of Quebec obviously must have coped somehow.
Childbirth almost always took place at home. Québec and Montréal each had a Hôtel-Dieu (hospital) run by nuns, but their purpose was to tend the sick and dying. Modern medical practice did not exist yet. Childbirth tends to be a rather messy process; if mothers gave birth on the marital bed, it must have required a major cleanup afterwards even if the mattress was stuffed with straw.
During childbirth a Quebec woman was generally attended by a “sage femme”, an older woman—usually one who had had numerous children of her own—who acted as midwife for the community and who often baptized the newborn if it seemed weak and likely to die before a priest could perform the rite. Many children died within their first year, and quite a few died the same day they were born; many mothers died not long after giving birth. Many men, therefore, had two, three or even more wives during their lifetimes: even if his children were grown, a widower still needed someone to run his household while he set about taking care of the farm or running the business.
A first-time mother in old Quebec could get coaching in child care by her female neighbors, who were often relatives or in-laws. Since, as I mentioned earlier, there was no infant formula available to purchase, a baby had to be nursed by its mother. If a new mother died but the child survived, a relative or neighbor who was nursing a child of her own might nurse both babies (you may have noticed that human females come equipped to nurse two infants). Or a woman who had recently lost a nursing child could take over to insure the survival of the motherless youngster.
I honestly don’t know how so many women managed to have a child every year; as a general rule, a mother whose infant is fully breast-fed isn’t going to get pregnant, so they must have been able to provide some other source of nourishment within a couple of months after birth. (This may go far to explain the appalling mortality rate among the babies and toddlers of old Quebec.) In general, having a child every year shortened a woman's lifespan considerably; spacing them at year-and-a-half or two-year intervals dramatically enhanced her chances of meeting her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren.
After thinking about all of this, I took a survey of my Quebec ancestors, just out of curiosity, to identify the most productive mothers among them.
I found plenty of direct ancestral families with 12 or more children. There’s at least one family that had at least 14 children (probably 15) and three direct ancestral families where the husband and one wife unquestionably produced 15 children together. That means that each of these heroic women spent about 11 years pregnant! Note that it is possible that any of them might have conceived more than 15 times: a very early miscarriage might not have been recognized as a pregnancy, and there would be no record of that kind of event.
I have double-checked my records to weed out duplicates and to make sure that there is documentary evidence for each child’s existence and parentage, either from a baptism record, a census record, or a marriage record or contract. Here they are, in chronological order by marriage date.
Mathieu Amiot and Marie Miville married on 22 November 1650 at Nôtre-Dame in the city of Québec; they are my 8G Grandparents. Marie must have married very young: she had her children over a time span of 27 years. I have baptism records for these 15 children: Charles (1651); Pierre (1653); Anne-Marie (1654); Marguerite (1656); Jean-Baptiste (1658); Françoise (1662); Catherine-Ursule (1664); Daniel-Joseph (1665); Mathieu (1667); Philippe (1669; Jeanne (1670); Etienne (1672); Marie-Françoise (1676); and Geneviève (1678). Pierre and his second wife Louise Dodier are my 7G Grandparents.
Jean Demers-dit-Dumay (sometimes spelled Du Mets) and Jeanne Vedié married on 9 November 1654 at Nôtre-Dame in Montréal; they are my 8G Grandparents. Most people researching this family have missed a few children, because the parish records for Sillery (where several of the children were baptized) are so difficult to read. However, I have baptism and/or marriage records for 14 children, born over a time span of 23 years: François (1658); Marguerite (1659); Jean (1661); Pierre (1663); twins Eustache and Marie-Anne (1665); René (1669); Marie-Madeleine (1669); André (ca 1671); Eustache #2 (1673); Catherine (1675); Jean (1677) and Nicolas (1667); and Michel aka Jean #2 (1681). I believe, but cannot prove, that there was another child born during the 4-year gap between the twins and René, possibly a stillbirth, since Jeanne otherwise had a child every two years; if I am correct, Jeanne had 15 children. Jean and Jeanne’s son Pierre married Jeanne Houde; they are my 7G Grandparents, and just for good measure, Jeanne Houde is also my 7G Grandmother by her second husband, Louis Durand.
Paul Hus and Jeanne Baillargeon (my 7G Grandparents twice over) signed a marriage contract before notary Cusson on 16 June 1669. The couple had children over a span of about 26 years. The baptism record for one child, Louis, has not survived, but his marriage record states his parentage, and his stated age at death in 1733 suggests that he was the first child, born about 1670. I have the baptism records for 14 others: Jean-Baptiste Antoine (1672); Marc-Antoine (1673); Jean-Baptiste (1675); Pierre (1676); Jean (born and died 1677); Jeanne-Catherine (1680); Paul (1681); Marie (1683); Leonard (1685); Joseph (1689); Geneviève 1691); Etienne (1694); and Catherine (1696). Marc-Antoine and his first wife Françoise Lavallée are my 7G Grandparents; Jeanne-Catherine married Jean Lavallée (Françoise’s brother) and that couple are also my 7G Grandparents.
Nicolas Han-dit-Chaussé and Marie-Louise Geneviève Laporte married on 3 December 1709 at Contrecoueur; they are my 6G Grandparents. I have baptism records for 15 children born over a span of 22 years: Marie-Anne (1710); Nicolas-Gilbert (1711); Marie-Louise-Geneviève (1714); Joseph #1 (1717); Marie-Josephe (1718); Nicolas (1719); Joseph #2 (1721); Jean-Baptiste # 1 (1722); Louise-Angélique (1723); Jean-Baptiste #2 (1725), usually called plain Jean to minimize confusion; born Marie-Thérèse (1726); Marie-Madeleine (1727); Scholastique (1729); François-Marie (1732); Marie-Catherine (1732). Why the parents named a second son Jean-Baptiste when the first was still alive I don’t know, but both Jean-Baptistes married and had children in the same parish during overlapping time frames. Jean-Baptiste #1 married Marie-Françoise Favreau; they are my 5G Grandparents.
But the real champions in reproduction in my Quebec ancestry are Pierre Levasseur dit L’Esperance and his second wife, Anne Ménage, my 7G Grandparents, who married on 18 March 1696 in the city of Québec: I have baptism records for SIXTEEN children of this couple: Marie-Anne #1 (1697); Marie-Jeanne (1698); François (1700); Anne (1702); Pierre-Jacques (1703); Bartholemi (1705); Marie-Anne #2 (1706); François-Louis # 1 (1707); François-Louis #2 (1708); Augustin-Alexis (1709); Etienne (1711); Charles-Denis-Joseph (1712); Marie-Anne-Thérèse (1713); Marie-Magdeleine (1714); Jean-Baptiste (1715); and François-Didace (1717). Pierre-Jacques married Marie-Anne Papin; they are my 6G Grandparents.
But wait: there’s more! Pierre Levasseur dit L'Esperance and his first wife, Madeleine Chapeau, are also my 7G Grandparents: their son Noël-Pierre Levasseur (half-brother of Pierre-Jacques) married Françoise-Marie-Agnès Lajoue, and they are another set of my 6G Grandparents. Françoise-Marie-Agnès’s mother was Marie-Anne Ménage, the full sister of Pierre’s wife Anne, so Marie-Anne Ménage and her husband François Lajoue are also my 7G Grandparents.
It’s situations like this that make Quebec genealogy so interesting—and turn a “normal” straightforward family tree into Tanglewood.