Education in New France

This document reveals how Ursuline nuns approached the task of educating French and Native young women in New France.

Document Text


The Indian girls live and eat with the French girls, but for their instruction, they must have their own mistress, and sometimes more than one, depending on how many of them we have . . . Native girls live and eat with French girls, but they have different teachers.
As for the Indian girls, we take them at all ages. Sometimes it happens that some Indian—whether Christian or pagan—does what he shouldn’t and kidnaps a girl of this nation, keeping her in violation of God’s law. The girl is given to us, and we instruct her and keep her until the Reverend Fathers come to take her back. The Native girls come and go. Some of our girls were kidnapped by rival tribes or colonists. We rescue them and care for them until the Jesuits can return them to their parents.
Others are like fleeting birds and stay here only until they are sad, which the Indian humor cannot tolerate. As soon as they are sad their relatives take them out lest they die. We give them liberty to do this, for they are rather won over in this way than by retaining them by force or prayers. Some leave when their families come to get them.
Then the others who take off out of fancy or caprice. Like squirrels they climb our palisade, which is as high as a fortress wall, and go running into the woods. Some run away.
Some preserve and these we raise as French girls. They are provided for and they do very well. One of them was given to Monsieur Boucher who has since become the Governor of Trois-Rivieres. Others return to their Indian relatives. They speak French well and know how to read and write. Some finish their schooling and marry French colonists.

Marie de L’Incarnation, Letter 235, August 9, 1668. In From Mother to Son, the Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin, Translated by Mary Dunn (Oxford University Press, 2014). 201-203.

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The Ursuline order of Catholic nuns was founded in 1553 in Brescia, Italy. Ursuline nuns were dedicated to the education of young girls and providing care for the sick and needy.

The first Ursuline convent in New France was founded in Quebec City in 1639. It supported the Jesuit mission of converting and colonizing the Native people who already lived in the lands France had claimed as a colony. The nuns took in and taught Native girls, converted them to Catholicism, and then allowed them to return to their homes. The nuns believed that their young women converts would teach Catholic doctrine and French culture to their communities, speeding up the process of converting Native communities. Some Native parents sent their daughters to the convents to protect them from the years of war, famine, and disease that accompanied the arrival of the French colonizers.

Under Ursuline care, Native girls lived with the daughters of French colonists. All the girls learned to read, write, and do basic math. They also practiced needlework, embroidery, drawing, and other French domestic skills.

About the Resources

Marie de l’Incarnation, founder of the Ursuline convent in Quebec, wrote frequently to her son back in France. Her letters provide an intimate glimpse into Marie’s life and beliefs, as well as a more general impression of life in the early years of New France. In these excerpts, Marie describes the work of educating the Native girls of New France.

Marie’s letter is full of contradictions. For example, she says that the Native girls she instructs are free to come and go, but also describes them climbing the walls to escape. The girl “given to” the governor of Trois-Rivieres became his wife, which Marie clearly believes was a great honor. But Marie’s word choice does not make it sound like the girl had much say in the matter. It is clear from this document that for all their education, the Native girls were still viewed as lesser in the convent and the colony.


  • caprice: Sudden change of mind.
  • convent: The home of a community of nuns.
  • doctrine: Set of beliefs held by a religious group.
  • embroidery: The art of decorating fabric with designs created with a needle and thread.
  • famine: Lack of food.
  • given to: Married to.
  • humor: Temperament.
  • Jesuit: A Catholic priest who belonged to the Society of Jesus. Jesuits in New France were devoted to the task of converting Native communities to Catholicism.
  • mission: When a group of religious people travel to a foreign land to carry out religious work, including convincing people to convert and join their religion.
  • mistress: Teacher.
  • Monsieur: Mister.
  • needlework: The art of sewing.
  • pagan: A person who holds a religious belief outside of the major world religions.
  • palisade: Wooden wall made of stakes.
  • Reverend Fathers: Traveling Jesuit missionaries.
  • Trois-Rivieres: The second permanent settlement in New France, founded in 1634.
  • Ursuline order: A community of nuns dedicated to caring for the sick and teaching girls.

Discussion Questions

  • What does this document reveal about the French method of conquest in the New World?
  • What does this document reveal about the lives of Native girls in New France? What does it reveal about the way the French nuns felt about their Native pupils?
  • Why were young Native girls an important factor in French colonization strategies?
  • Why did Native communities send their young girls into the care of the Ursuline nuns?

Suggested Activities

  • Ask students to write a letter to Marie de l’Incarnation, responding to her report on the education of French and Native women.
  • Ask students to write a diary entry from the perspective of one of the Native girls who lived in Marie’s convent.
  • Use this document to introduce a larger research project on the role of nuns in New France or colonial America more generally.
  • Combine this document with the image of the digging stick for a lesson about the different expectations of women in French and Native societies.
  • Combine this document with either of the following resources for a lesson on how women played an important role a mediators between Native populations and colonists in every colonial empire. Ask students to compare and contrast the way each of these women came to her role as mediator, and what their experiences reveal about the colonial culture they inhabited: Malitzen in the Spanish Empire and Sarah Roelfs Kierstede van Borsum in New Netherland.
  • Children in the New World faced many challenges and dangers. Combine this document with any of the following resources for a lesson about childhood in the early colonial period: Life Story: Dennis and Hannah Holland, Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche), Life Story: Kateri Tekakwitha, The Mourning Poetry of Anne Bradstreet, Life on the Encomienda, The Middle Passage, Children at Work, and Life Story: Lisbeth Anthonijsen.



Source Notes