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Life Story: Mother Esther Marie-Joseph Wheelwright de l’Enfant (1696–1780)

War Captive to Mother Superior

The story of a Puritan girl taken captive in a war with the French and Wabanaki.

Esther Wheelwright

Unknown, Esther Wheelwright, ca. 1763. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

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Esther Wheelwright was born on April 10, 1696. Her parents, John Wheelwright and Mary Snell, ran a tavern in Wells, which at the time of her birth was part of the Massachusetts colony. Today, Wells is a city in Maine.

Wells was a frontier town, and Esther’s father was an important resident. He was the captain of the town militia and a judge. Esther’s family were devoted Puritans, and they followed a strict religious lifestyle. They were wealthy enough to have enslaved people and indentured servants to help them run the tavern, but Esther was still expected to work for her family from a very young age. She was taught to cook, clean, sew, and perform all the other tasks a New England housewife needed to run a home. She was also taught that women should always be subservient to the men in their lives.

Wells was located near the New England border with New France, so the English settlers of the town were always fighting over land and trade rights with French settlers and traders. They also had an uneasy relationship with the Wabanaki, who resented the English settlers taking their land. The Wabanaki would come to Wells to trade furs, but they also attacked the town whenever they felt the English had disrespected them.

On August 21, 1703, when Esther was eight years old, a large force of Wabanaki and French fighters attacked Wells. Wabanaki warriors captured Esther and brought her to a village, where she was adopted by a Wabanaki family. Esther lived with the family for five years. During this time, she learned all the skills and responsibilities that Wabanaki girls needed to become wives and mothers. There is no record of how Esther felt about her time with the Wabanaki. She had been raised to believe the Wabanaki were bloodthirsty savages. But other Puritan children adopted by Native communities reported being happy to escape the strict rules of Puritan society, and it is possible that over time Esther was, too.

While Esther lived with the Wabanaki, she met French priests who visited Native communities to teach about Catholicism and baptize any person who wanted to become Catholic. At some point during this time, she was baptized and given the French name Marie-Joseph. This early introduction to Catholicism would have a profound effect on her life.

Esther’s family never gave up trying to find her, and in 1708, they learned she was living with the Wabanaki in New France. They asked the governor of New France to return their daughter. The governor believed Esther’s father was an important man, so he made a special effort to try to help him get her back. He sent a priest named Father Bigot to the village where Esther was living, and gave him the power to negotiate for her release. Esther’s father sent a captive Wabanaki boy to exchange for his daughter. The village leaders agreed to the trade. Father Bigot took Esther to Quebec, where the governor could arrange to have her returned safely to her parents.

The French and their Native allies were still at war with the English, so it was too dangerous to send Esther to Wells. In January of 1709, the governor of New France sent her to boarding school at the Ursuline convent in Quebec. The Ursulines were Catholic nuns devoted to caring for the sick and educating young women. Esther joined other young French and Native women in classes. Ursuline schools were intended to prepare their students for their lives as prosperous housewives. Esther learned to read and write, and studied music, languages, and fine embroidery.

Esther’s entire childhood was spent learning how to be a wife, but the Ursuline nuns showed her there were other choices. Nuns never married. They took vows to devote their lives to God. Nuns lived with a lot of rules and restrictions, but they did not have to serve men all their lives. Living at the Ursuline school gave Esther’s life purpose. In June of 1710, she announced she wanted to become a nun.

The governor of New France tried to stop Esther’s plan, because he knew her parents would not like it. But Esther was determined. In 1712, she began her training. Father Bigot, who brought Esther to Quebec in 1708, believed that her decision to become a nun proved the superiority of French religion and culture. He wanted her to succeed so she could be an example to other English people. He paid her fees in January 1713 so Esther could take her preliminary vows and became a novice.

English colonists were highly suspicious of nuns, because they lived outside of the control of men. To convince the British that they were not a threat, Esther’s convent made her mother superior.

Just a few months later, the French and English governments signed a treaty to end their most recent war. The treaty required that all English captives living in New France be returned to their homes. To protect Esther, the mother superior of her convent sped up her training, which should have lasted years. On April 12, 1714, Esther took her final vows and became an official Ursuline nun: Sister Esther Marie-Joseph Wheelwright de l’Enfant Jésus. Esther settled into her chosen life. She rose steadily through the ranks of the convent.

In 1759, Esther survived another wartime invasion. This time, it was the English attacking Quebec at the height of the French and Indian War. During the fighting, Esther cared for wounded soldiers in the Quebec hospital. When the British took over the city, they used the Ursuline convent as their temporary headquarters.

Nuns and convents did not exist in England. English colonists were highly suspicious of nuns, because they lived outside of the control of men. To convince the British that they were not a threat, Esther’s convent made her mother superior on December 15, 1760. They hoped that having an English leader would make the British trust them. Esther’s personal ties to the English, Native, and French communities made her a powerful symbol in Quebec, and she was able to negotiate the survival of her community. When the French formally ceded Quebec to the English at the end of the war in 1763, she became an important bridge between the French population and their new English government.

After the war, Esther dedicated herself to preserving and protecting her convent. She welcomed English visitors to demonstrate that they had nothing to fear from the nuns. She taught the nuns to make birch box embroidery using techniques and materials she had learned from the Wabanakis so they could make money to support themselves. Esther served two terms as mother superior and another term as assistant superior before retiring in 1778. She passed away among the women she had chosen as her family in 1780.

Vocabulary

  • assistant superior: The second in command in a convent.
  • baptize: To undergo a special ceremony to be admitted to a Christian community.
  • boarding school: A school that also houses students.
  • Catholic: The Christian religious group that follows the authority of the pope in Rome.
  • convent: The home of a community of nuns.
  • embroidery: The art of making decorative designs with a needle and thread.
  • indentured servant: A person under contract to work for another person for a definite period of time without pay, usually in exchange for transport to a new place or training in a trade.
  • militia: A military force of volunteer citizens.
  • mistress: Teacher.
  • Montreal: An important trade city in New France, now a major Canadian city.
  • mother superior: The leader of a convent.
  • novice: A nun in training.
  • nun: A woman who belongs to a Catholic religious order.
  • Priest: A person who is trained to perform the rites of a religion.
  • Puritan: A strict sect of Christianity that evolved during the Protestant Reformation.
  • subservient: Inferior but useful.
  • Trois-Rivières: An important trade city in New France.
  • Ursuline: A community of nuns dedicated to caring for the sick and teaching girls.
  • Wabanaki: A confederacy of five Native tribes who traditionally lived in territory that stretched from modern-day Newfoundland to New Hampshire. The five tribes of the confederacy were the Eastern Abanaki, the Western Abanaki, the Mi’kmaq, the Peskotomuhkati, and the Maliseet. The confederacy was revived in 1993, and still plays an active role in negotiating for rights in the U.S. and Canada today.
  • will: a legal declaration of a person’s wishes regarding the disposal of his or her property or estate after death

Pronunciation

  • Bigot: BEE-go
  • l’Enfant Jésus: LON-fahnt SHEA-zhu
  • Ursuline: UHR-sal-ine
  • Wabanaki: wab-eh-NAH-key

Discussion Questions

  • How were nuns unusual in eighteenth-century colonial life?
  • Why was Esther the best choice for mother superior in 1760?
  • How was Esther’s life shaped by the ongoing wars between the French, English, and Native people along the New France and New England borders?
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Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

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