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Friday, August 24, 2012

The Plains of Abraham

The Seven Years’ War was a pre-modern world war which took place between 1756 and 1763, a war which involved much of Europe and the European colonies in North and Central America, Africa, India, and the Philippines. The prime movers were Great Britain and France, but the Prussian Hohenzollerns and the Austrian Hapsburgs were also heavily involved, along with Portugal, Sweden, Saxony, Spain, and the Russian Empire. Estimates of the fatalities involved range from 900,000 to 1,400,00, but whether that includes civilian casualties or only military personnel I don’t know.
In North America, the conflict is usually called the French and Indian War and involved, of course, the North American colonies of the warring European parties and the Native Americans who were allied with them. For those of us with Quebec French ancestry, the pivotal battle in that part of the Seven Years’ War began on 13 September 1759 and took place on the Plains of Abraham, a plateau outside the walls of the city of Québec.
I am not going to give you a complete account of the battle on the Plains of Abraham; I am not a military buff and there are plenty of excellent analyses of the strategies etc. I will only state that the actual battle was a short one, and cost the lives of both the English general Wolfe and the French general Montcalm while ending in stalemate. The British then laid siege to the city and on September 18, the city capitulated. The following spring, the British were themselves besieged in Québec City, but British naval superiority insured that French reinforcements could not get through, and the North American phase of the Seven Years War ended on 8 September 1760, when the remaining French defenders surrendered at Montréal.
I have a personal interest in the Plains of Abraham: it is said to have once belonged to my 9G Grandfather, Abraham Martin, who with his wife Marguerite Langlois were among the people recruited by Samuel Champlain to become the very first white permanent settlers of what became New France. Abraham Martin died in September 1664, but since his was one of the founding families of Quebec the name of his property stuck. Although it is not certain that he ever actually owned the plateau where the battle took place, he did have considerable land holdings in and around the future city and some of the fighting during the siege did take place on what had been his property along the bank of the St. Lawrence River.
Now, “Abraham Martin” doesn’t sound like a French name, does it? Actually, the surname “Martin” (pronounced “Mar-tanh”) is a not uncommon French surname, although “Abraham” is rather an unusual personal name in Catholic France and therefore in its colony of Quebec. Abraham had the “dit” name of “L’Escosais”—the Scot—and one researcher claims to have found the baptism of an Abraham Martin in Scotland in the right time frame (about 1589) to be the Abraham who was one of the first settlers at Québec. Some folks argue that “L’Escosais” was an alias of the sort commonly adopted to hide an unsavory past. However, a “dit” name could come from anything: he might have once been to Scotland, or wore a plaid garment suggestive of Scotland, or had red hair, or lived in a house whose previous owner had some connection with Scotland, or someone in in his family once had a Scottish friend, or—you get the idea.
The PRDH, according to online sources, says the Abraham was the son of Galeran-Jean Martin and Isabelle Côté and was born in 1589 at La Rochelle. La Rochelle, by royal decree, was one of the few places in France where Huguenots could practice their religion freely. Even if the PRDH is not being cited correctly (or has erred), I am inclined to think that Abraham was originally a Huguenot simply because the Huguenots very often gave their children “Old Testament” names. Many Huguenots came to La Nouvelle France in hopes of being allowed to worship according to their Calvinist faith. True, the Edict of Nantes in 1598 had given Huguenots the right to worship according to their conscience without loss of all civil rights. But the Catholic Church was fiercely opposed to the Edict and to tolerance of what the Church saw as schismatics and heretics. It was not until 1685 that the Edict was officially revoked, but the Church was determined to end the tolerance and anyone with a functioning brain could see that sooner or later the persecution would start again, and so it did.
Whatever his origins, my Abraham was recruited by Samuel Champlain (famed navigator, cartographer, explorer, and founder of Quebec) to become one of the first French settlers in the New World. Abraham arrived in New France in 1617, accompanied by his wife, Marguerite Langlois, her sister Françoise*, and Françoise’s husband Pierre Desportes. A young girl named Anne Martin arrived on the same ship; she was may have been Abraham’s sister or niece (or no relation at all), but probably not his daughter since he gave the name Anne to one of his daughters born while that first Anne was still alive.
Abraham was a river pilot by profession (he was called the “King’s Pilot” during his lifetime), and he soon acquired expertise in guiding ships along the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. He also supplemented his family’s diet and income by fishing.
In my mind’s eye I see Abraham on what must have been a very cold day—4 January 1624—trudging through the snow on the unpaved path in the tiny hamlet of Kebec to the little chapel which would one day be the great cathedral of Notre Dame in the city of Québec. There was surely a smile on his face despite the weather, because his young wife Marguerite Langlois had just been safely delivered of a female child who seemed strong enough to survive. Now the priest at the chapel would baptize the first female child of French parentage born in the little colony.The little girl was named after her mother, Marguerite. In due course she grew up and married (at age 14) Étienne Racine; this couple are my 8G grandparents through their daughter Marguerite and her husband, Jean Gagnon, who had 9 children together.
Marguerite’s brother Eustache had been the first male French child born in the little settlement, baptized on 23 October 1621. Their sister Hélène was baptized there on 21 June 1627. And the next? Well, there’s a gap in the records, not because they have been lost but because almost all of the first settlers—including the priest—left Kebec in 1729, and no one knows where the Martin family spent the next 3 years.
In 1729 the brothers David, Lewis and Thomas Kirke (whose father was a Scot and whose mother was French), then living at Newfoundland, besieged the tiny French settlement at Québec, and Champlain surrendered rather than have everyone there die of starvation. The Kirkes, rather generously, agreed to allow most of the French inhabitants to remain, but it appears that all returned to France except for the family of Guillaume Couillard and his formidable wife, Guillaumette Hebert. (Some people say that the Martins also stayed on, but no one has found any record to prove whether Abraham and his family stayed in Quebec or whether they returned to France. Absence of proof is not the same as proof of absence.)
Timewise, there “should have been” another child born to Abraham and Marguerite about 1630, but no record for its baptism has been found on either side of the Atlantic. If such a child born in Québec, with no priest avalable to preside over the baptism and make a record of the act, Abraham doubtless baptized the child at home, and it is probable that the child died young, as so many infants did. After the Kirkes left in 1632, Jesuit missionaries and a few families of the original settlers returned, and again records for the families of Abraham Martin and his brother-in-law Pierre Desportes are found in Quebec, along with those of additional adventurous families.
Abraham was a close friend and companion of Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec. In his will dated 17 September 1635, Champlain left to Abraham and his wife 600 livres to be spent in breaking ground in la Nouvelle France, 600 livres to their daughter, my ancestor Marguerite, on condition that she marry and remain living in la Nouvelle France, and 300 francs to his goddaughter, Hélène Martin, on the same condition. He died on 25 December. Unfortunately a cousin on his mother’s side successfully challenged the will in Paris and it was overturned. It is not clear what happened to Champlain’s property. You can read and download a transcription of the testament online, but I warn you, it’s in French. (The testament had vanished into some repository in France and was not discovered until 1859.)
Whether or not they ever received anything of Champlain’s bequests, Abraham and Marguerite continued to prosper. Abraham acquired considerable grants of land in and outside the town of Québec, and he and Marguerite continued to have children:
Hélène Martin (born in 1627 as noted above, who was to have received 300 francs from Champlain but probably didn’t) married Claude Étienne in 1640, when she was 13, had one child by him, but both husband and son died. Hélène married a second time, at age 20, to Médard Chouart dit St-Onge in 1647, had one daughter who died within a day or two of birth, and died before August 1653, when her widower re-married.
Marie Martin, baptized in Québec in April 1635, married at age 13 Jean Cloutier in 1648, had 14 children, and died in 1699.
Madeleine Martin, baptized at Québec in 1640, married at age 13 Nicolas Forget in 1653, had 8 children, and died in 1688 at Lachenaie.
Barbe Martin, baptized at Québec in December 1642, married at age 13 to Pierre Biron in 1655, had one daughter who died in childhood, and died in 1660, age 18, at the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec.
Anne Martin, baptized at Québec in 1645, married at age 12 to Jacques Raté in 1657 and had 12 children; I do not have her date of death.
But, I hear you cry, what about the sons of Abraham and Marguerite? Was Eustache the only one? Well, no. There were at least 3 of them, but for two of them, records are lacking or not clear. Eustache Martin, the first child of French parents in the Québec register, was persuaded at age 13 by Champlain to learn the Huron language so as to serve as an interpreter for the Jesuit missionaries. He is mentioned in the Jesuit Relations, but not after 1635. It is presumed that he died in harness, but there is no record to tell us what happened to him.
Adrien Martin, baptized at Québec in 1638, is believed by some to have become a servant of the Jesuits, but for all we can prove, he may have died in infancy. There is apparently no surviving record of him after his baptism.
Charles Amador Martin, baptized in 1648, did in fact survive until 1711. He became a Catholic priest and served at Château-Richer from 1687, then at Ste-Foy; he also served at Ste-Anne de Beaupré and Ste-Foy. He was a talented composer of church music and had beautiful, very legible handwriting, which makes reading the registers for those parishes during his time there a real pleasure.
The sad fact is that Abraham and Marguerite had no known sons who passed on his family name to future generations. However, through his daughters and their 40+ offspring, his and his wife’s genes were passed on to the present day. I think they might have had many more grandchildren if their daughters hadn’t married so young. Once a girl had her first menses, she was likely to be married even if she hadn’t finished growing. She was also likely to die in childbirth. Governments eager to expand a settlement and men desperate for wives can be hard to resist, and Abraham and Marguerite may have been pressured.
On 15 February 1649 (exactly one year after the baptism of his son Charles Amador), Abraham was arrested on a charge of improper conduct with a 16-year-old girl named Anne Martin—who was definitely not his daughter, nor was she the young Anne Martin who had come to Quebec on the same ship with Abraham and his in-laws in 1617, more than 30 years previous. However, it is possible that she was a relative of some sort. (Abraham did have a daughter named Anne, but she was about three weeks shy of her 5th birthday at the time her father was arrested. The French surname of Martin is not a rare one.)
Everyone who writes about this seems to assume that Abraham was an old rip who raped, or at least had sex with, an innocent young girl, and that the entire community was shocked to the core. I’m sure the community was shocked, but It may have been shocked at the arrest of a prominent citizen on a highly improbable charge. It appears that the girl in question was not an innocent, virtuous victim debauched by a predator: she had been imprisoned for theft and may have been hanged later.
Unfortunately for the historian and the genealogist, the surviving records of the matter do not provide details of the charge against Abraham or how the case was settled. For all anyone knows, Abraham may have done nothing more scandalous than visit her in prison and perhaps been seen giving the girl a comforting hug—or merely  a pat on the shoulder. He may have had no contact with her at all, and the accusation may have been a desperate ploy by the girl to force a prominent citizen to work for her release. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that Abraham was released and went on with his life, and that there is no evidence that he suffered any lasting consequences of the situation afterwards. He continued to prosper and was still respected in the community. How can i be sure of that? Simple. A proven sex offender doesn’t have streets and businesses and parks named in his honor, nor public monuments to celebrate his life. But if you go today to the city of Québec, you will find a major street named for Abraham, at least one restaurant, a monument to him in the lower city, and of course, the Plains of Abraham—a public park and popular tourist attraction.
On 6 September 1664, Abraham deposited a deathbed will with notary Pierre Duquet; (he was buried two days later, about 75 years of age. Duquet also recorded the inventory of Abraham’s property on 7 October. There was no challenge to the testament (as there had been for Champlain), and his property was distributed without fuss. Unfortunately, there is no real genealogical information in his testament, although the inventory shows that he was a very prosperous man.
His widow Marguerite married again on 17 February 1665 (about 5 months after Abraham’s death) to René Branche, but died the following December. Why she married again at all is the big question, to which we have no definitive answer, only guesses. Perhaps she herself was ill (her burial record states that she died in the hospital) and wanted to make sure that the interests of her children and grandchildren were legally protected by someone she felt that she could trust. On 11 Jan 1666, notary Becquet recorded the inventory of her possessions. I would love to have that inventory, but alas, Becquet’s records have never been microfilmed. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a book of transcribed copies of his records, but if you want to see the originals you have to go to the archives of Québec.
But the real legacy of both Abraham and Marguerite was their forty-plus grandchildren and their thousands of descendants. I am proud to be one of them.


About this information in the text…
Abraham arrived in New France in 1617, accompanied by his wife, Marguerite Langlois, her sister Françoise, and Françoise’s husband Pierre Desportes.
This information has never been validated. Marguerite Langlois’ parents are not known. Françoise, who married Pierre Desportes, probably was not her sister.