The role of French women in post-Colonial Illinois plays out in small sentences like this. There are very few studies on the women living in the area known as the Illinois Country between the years 1778 and 1818, the year Illinois achieved statehood. Yet French women played an important part in the history, settlement, and development of early Illinois. French settlers had come to the Illinois Country in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, migrating south from Canada and north, via the Mississippi River, from lower Louisiana. Through trade and intermarriage, the French cultivated effective working relationships with native tribes. By 1778 French families on both sides of the river dominated the commercial, political, religious, military, and cultural frontier of early Illinois. The regional economic and social foundations constructed by the French were inextricably linked by their extensive family networks. French women, in their roles as mothers, daughters, and wives, were crucial players in the development and maintenance of these family networks.
In general, a woman's role in society was much more limited than that of a man's. Unlike her brothers who might go off to boarding school for their education, French girls generally learned at home. Under a mother's tutelage, girls learned the basics of domesticity: washing, sewing, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and the many other tasks that accompanied running a household, including managing slaves. There were a few girls' schools established in St. Louis in the early 1800s. There, formal instruction included the study of languages, mathematics, history, poetry, art, music, and even some simple philosophy. However, distance made the schools inaccessible to many girls, and the cost was prohibitive to nearly everyone except the wealthy.
The primary purpose of any girl's education—formal instruction or home schooling—was to help her catch a husband. Since marriage was considered the societal norm, there were very few other options for women in early Illinois. Women could find work as governesses or teachers. Some women worked as mid-wives or healers, but generally, these women had been married before. Most of the French women who managed businesses on the Illinois frontier did so as widows who took over their husband's dealings upon his death. A final alternative to marriage was entering a convent, although before 1833, this required leaving the Illinois Country altogether.
With so few choices, it is not surprising that the women of the American bottom tended to marry in their teens, while their counterparts in Northern New England and the Mid-Atlantic farming communities during this period married between age twenty and twenty-two. Most French women married into multi-family households, which were common on the Illinois frontier where death often claimed spouses and remarriage was a necessity for survival. Husbands often came with children from previous marriages.
When Angelique Saucier married Pierre Menard in 1806 at age twenty-three, she was only ten years older than her eldest stepdaughter, thirteen-year-old Marie-Odile, one of four surviving offspring from Menard's first marriage. Angelique and Menard went on to have eight children together. In 1798 Nicholas Jarrot married Julie St. Gemme de Bauvais, with whom he had six children. Jarrot's daughter from his first marriage grew up in the family home with the rest of the Jarrot children. Most French homes had multi-family units. It was common to live with many "step-people" and extended family members.
|Pierre Menard House|
Birth order was an important factor in when a woman could enter the marriage market. Usually daughters were married off in order from eldest to youngest. If an elder daughter made a good (i.e., lucrative) match, the next in line was not under so much pressure to promote the family's aggrandizement. Moreover, the successful match of the first daughter signaled to the world that the family was up and coming. Oftentimes, a well-matched older sister provided an important entree into society for her younger siblings. If, on the other hand, the first daughter chose a less than adequate mate, the pressure intensified upon the next offspring to marry well.
Selecting a husband, however, was no easy task. The choice of a marriage partner was, in the early nineteenth century probably one of the most important decisions a woman would make. The right husband offered financial support and physical protection from harm. A husband's good name (or lack thereof) determined a woman's status within the community If she made the wrong choice—if she selected an abusive husband, a drunk, a lie-about who would not work, or a man of low regard in the community-her place in life would suffer as well.
Men vastly outnumbered women on the Illinois frontier in the early nineteenth century. Consequently, a young French woman faced a wide variety of men, not always desirable, from which to choose. On the east coast and in more settled areas of America, a woman could rely on the good name and reputation of a long-established family when sizing up her potential beaus. But in post-colonial Illinois, very few of the eligible young men came from established families. As the nineteenth century progressed, Americans and Germans migrating from the east began to replace the old French families. How could one know if these mobile, young men, who drifted in from parts and families unknown, whose accents, mannerisms, and even religions were so very different from the local customs, would make good husbands? To help them in their selection of a husband, women turned to family friends, and their community for assistance. Parents, while not always arranging marriages, still held a great deal of control over their offsprings' choice in a spouse. Women, in particular, were often very active in the courtship process, arranging events where young people could meet and orchestrating the events to see that only the "right" people mingled together. Thus, while in many cases a woman was virtually free to choose her own spouse, family and friends made sure that the pool from which she selected was limited and that only suitable partners were considered.
Just as the social elite could close their ranks on one less worthy, they eagerly embraced those they saw to be beneficial to their own position. Therefore, a man's social and business connections were extremely relevant to his suitability as a husband, perhaps more important than religion or nationality. Conversely, in many cases, a man's success was inextricably linked to the women they married, the daughters they married off, and to the networks these women helped them establish throughout the country. The ever-changing power struggles on the Illinois frontier required settlers to adapt to ensure political and financial survival. One way of adapting was to marry into the powerful political families of the day. Thus, ambitious newcomers to the Illinois country found the fastest way to ingratiate themselves with the local French elite was to marry their daughters. Pierre Menard, for example, came to Illinois in 1790 and quickly ingratiated himself into the local elite by marrying Therese Godin, whose family had lived in the area for nearly one hundred years. This marriage put him in the center of a ruling French elite, and what better place to be for a young entrepreneur like Menard? His second marriage was just as beneficial, and Menard went on to become a successful merchant, trader, Indian sub-agent, and the first lieutenant-governor of Illinois.
|Nicholas Jarrot House|
Likewise, long-established French families found that they could maintain their standing in the community—a community increasingly overrun by Americans—by allowing their daughters to take these men as their husbands. Pierre Menard's daughter Marie-Odile married Irishman Hugh Maxwell, a successful businessman. Alzire Menard married George Hancock Kennerly, a close relation to William Clark, the famous explorer, whose political ties helped further her father's business interests. A woman's choice of marriage partner, then, meant personal security as well as securing the future wealth and position of her entire family.
Despite the emphasis placed upon choosing a marriage partner who would provide well and promote the family aggrandizement, there is evidence of love matches taking place. Indeed, as the nineteenth century progressed, love, as a requirement for marriage, increased in importance. Extant letters between couples often reveal much affection and tenderness between husbands and wives.
Depending upon when and whom she married, a woman could find herself bound by one of two distinct legal systems. A set of French laws, called the Custom of Paris, governed marriage contracts and inheritance in the Illinois Country long after the United States took control. Under the Custom of Paris, both husband and wife made monetary contributions to the marriage. A widow generally received half of her husband's estate upon his death. The other half was divided equally between the couple's children, both male and female. This system protected women from her husband's financial carelessness.
As increasing numbers of American settlers moved into Illinois, English Common Law replaced the Custom of Paris. Under this system, when a woman married, her husband became the owner of her property, land, or money. This greatly affected inheritance practices. While the interests of wives, sisters, and daughters were often protected, rarely were they given actual control over land because this land would become the property of her spouse who might squander it away or allow it to pass out of the family's bloodline. From 1750 to 1820, however, dower laws expanded to offer more protection to women. These laws held that upon the death of her spouse, a woman retained one-third of her husband's real property and one-third of his personal property. The rest was divided, rarely equally, among the children, usually favoring the eldest son.
Since the primary purpose of marriage was to procreate and extend the family line, many years of childbirth and child rearing awaited women after marriage. Large families were a way to secure the bloodline and to provide numerous workers for the farm or business. Children could promote the family interests by marrying well and by caring for their elderly parents.
Most women usually had their first child within two years of their marriage, and on average they continued to give birth in two year intervals over the next fifteen or twenty years. Yet having large families posed a significant risk to women. Pregnancy and childbirth were life-threatening endeavors. Multiple pregnancies depleted women's strength and nutritional stores, making each consecutive pregnancy, especially at close intervals, that much more difficult. Numerous medical problems, un-sterilized instruments, and the resulting infections and complications during birth also plagued these women, who lived without the benefits of modern medicine. Many French women and their babies died in childbirth on the Illinois frontier. Those who survived relied on other woman to help them through the pregnancy and the delivery. Women often traveled to be together during their period of lying in, and they continued to turn to each other to help with the trials and tribulations of child rearing.
In addition to raising numerous children, most women spent their time running their households. For many women, the domestic sphere was the only place in which they could gain the satisfaction and power unavailable to them in the public work place. Daily chores were endless, and even wealthy women found themselves overseeing the kitchen and gardens, ordering supplies for the home, planning menus, directing cleaning, refurbishing or decorating, sewing and repairing garments, and supervising the family slaves. When business or trade required a man to travel far from home, women picked up the slack, acting as their husband's agents and taking over many of his managerial duties at home and in his business life, sometimes for months at a time.
For the well-to-do French wife, promoting the right public image became the hallmark of her role. A smoothly run household raised a family's standing within the community. Some wealthier women took up philanthropic activities, acting as benefactors for orphanages or religious schools. Angelique Saucier Menard was very active in the establishment of a girl's school in Kaskaskia, and she continued to support the Sisters of the Visitation over the course of her lifetime. This too lent an aura of prestige to the family name. Displays of hospitality, meant to further business and social aims, also fell to women.
A further job of women was "kin keeping" or "kin work." Women, more than men, actively cultivated contacts amongst families and relatives, which in turn, tied households together. For many women, marriage meant leaving their homes and settling elsewhere. Separated from family, women on the Illinois frontier had to work to retain kinship ties and family networks. Through letter writing, mutual aid, visiting, and orchestrating societal functions women allowed extended family relations to flourish. Women were key players in births, baptisms, weddings, confirmations, illnesses, death, and funerals. By providing social, emotional and even medical support to their kin, these women constructed and maintained the family ties upon which nearly all business and political pursuits were based in post-colonial Illinois.
The genteel society of the French elite— a society and culture cultivated and propagated by and through French women—provided a model for civilization and social order on the frontier. As a result, many incoming American settlers sought alliances with the native Illinois French. Americans saw this French society, so similar to gentility systems in the East, as a place to begin advancing their own political, economic, and social agendas. Marrying into these French families gave a boost to newcomers and at the same time allowed the old French families to maintain their place in the powerful circles of a new American government.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.