Colleagues at the University of Southern Maine Franco-American Collection requested for me to make available some of the columns I wrote in the past, before the printed articles were digitized. As a result, I found a short report I wrote about the life of the French and Indian War captive and Wells Maine native, Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780). Although the print article was dated September 5, 2000, I subsequently found a biography about her life and the influence she may have had on women’s lives in colonial North America. “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright”, by Ann M. Little, was published in 2016, by Yale University Press.
Little says that Wheelwright may be the most successful and prominent person to come from Wells, Maine, although most North Americans have never heard of her.
Esther Wheelwright was born in 1696, in Wells Maine, the daughter of English Puritan Settlers, John Wheelwright and Mary Snell. She was captured as a child during a raid on Wells. After her release from captivity was negotiated, she was taken to Quebec to be educated by the Ursuline nuns. Eventually, after several attempts to rescue her were unsuccessful, she joined the religious order. She is remembered as Mere “Marie de L’Enfant-Jesus, when she was elected Mother Superior of the Quebec Ursuline Order of Nuns, in 1760.
Esther Wheelwright was “an extraordinary woman” writes Little. She provides evidence to this tribute by acknowledging how the portrait painted of her when she was the Mother Superior of the Ursulines, is singular in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s exhibit of prominent Puritans and wealthy male merchants. Her documented history contributes to our knowledge about how women experienced life in colonial North America.
A link to the print column I wrote twenty years ago is at this site here.
Wheelwright was born during a series of colonial conflicts known as the French and Indian Wars. During that time, the French and their Indian allies was attacking British settlements in New England. She was captured in August 1703, during a raid on Wells, in the Queen Anne’s War (one of the French and Indian War conflicts).
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.
In August, 1703, a large force of Wabanaki and French fighters attacked Wells. The 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 learned the language fluently.
The French and their Native allies were still at war with the English, so it was too dangerous to send Esther back 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.
Father Bigot, a Jesuit missionary who visited and instructed her in the Catholic faith at that time, was responsible for her ultimate release and he sent her to the Convent of the Ursuline nuns. He paid her fees in January 1713, so Esther could take her preliminary vows and became a novice.
After deciding to join the Ursuline Order, she made her final vows on April 12, 1714. She was thereafter called Sister Esther-Marie Joseph de l’Enfant Jesus.
Finally on December 1760, she was made Mother Superior of the Ursuline convent
Little titled the biography “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright” because of the serial transitions during her captivity. In fact, Little speculated that the young captive found liberation in the Ursuline cloister because the safety of the convent protected her from more transitions.
She is notable not only for having lived in three major North American cultures, but also because she was and remains the only foreign-born Mother Superior the Ursulines of Québec have ever elected.
Esther Wheelwright was born in 1696, the fourth of eleven children, to John Wheelwright and Mary Snell. John Wheelwright served as a tavern keeper and justice of the peace. He built a garrison and was licensed to “keep a house of public entertainment”, where they served alcoholic beverages. It became a common stopover for influential men as well as common travelers and traders.
Esther’s family were Puritans where Sabbath rules were strictly followed. Esther’s father led the family service on Saturday night. On Sunday, the family walked in a procession to the meetinghouse for a full day service.
The Wheelwright household, at the turn of the eighteenth century, included the Wheelwright parents and their children, as well as Anglo-American indentured servants and at least a few enslaved African Americans.
The Wheelwright family continued to hope Esther would return home to Wells, despite her written desire to remain in Quebec.
In Wheelwright’s last will and testament, the family bequeathed Esther one-fifth of their property on the condition that she return to Wells. As late as 1754, fifty years after her abduction, a man named Major Nathaniel Wheelwright, from Boston, traveled to Quebec to meet with Sister Esther. His mission was to introduce himself to his aunt and to present her with a portrait of her mother. During his visit, he presented the Ursuline sisters with a solid silver table setting with the Wheelwright coat of arms, an heirloom still owned by the Quebec Ursuline sisters today.
In December 1760, Mother Esther was elected the Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent.
Mere Esther Wheelwright, also known as “Marie de l’Enfant-Jesus” died on October 26, 1780, without ever seeing Wells again.
Ann M. Little is professor of history at Colorado State University and the author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England.