Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

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Hébert, the First French Family in Canada

Packing up their three children, the Héberts sailed across the ocean to New France. With little to work with, the family made a good life caring for natives and settlers

A drawing of The Habitation in the 1600s - Public Domain, National Library of Canada

It was an offer too good to pass up. Pack up the Hébert family, a French fur-trading company said, and sail from France to the exciting new world across the ocean. It was 1617, and the future was shining bright before them. Make a good living as an apothecary, clear some land granted to your family, with a stipend of 200 crowns a year and shelter until the family homestead could be erected.

Louis Hébert and his wife, Marie Rollet-Hébert sold their home and properties, bundled up all their worldly goods and their three children (Guillaume, Guillemette and Anne) and prepared to make their new home in The Habitation in Québec. But by the time they were ready to go, the offer had changed. The money was halved, the property proffered shrank and the family was expected to provide their labours for no extra earnings. Disheartened, the family decided to press on anyway, sailing to a new life. (It was new for Marie, her children and the servant they brought with them, but not for Louis. He had been to New France several times, aiding in explorations with Samuel de Champlain, and caring for the French and natives with his skills in medicine.)

The Habitation became Hébert home

Arriving after the long journey, Louis found his services urgently required, along with the small store of grain that the family brought with them. The people living in The Habitation, as noted by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online , were starving over the long, cold winter and very sick. A man of many capacities, Louis cleared land and planted gardens, growing an assortment of vegetables and grains that included peas, beans, cabbage, lettuce, melons, cucumbers and more. For some reason, his employer discouraged cultivation of land. The “unlawful restrictions” the fur-trading company “imposed upon him and the disposal of his products prevented him from enjoying the fruits of his labours”.

Friends with the Mi’kmaq natives, Louis respected the local people inhabiting his new country. He thought of them “as intelligent human beings lacking only in education.” The natives returned the kindness to the white man and his family, offering native drug plants to be cultivated and used by Louis for his patients.

First surviving baby born in The Habitation

In 1620, Champlain was in charge of New France and the colony of less than 100 people. There was barely more than a handful of women. Champlain awarded Louis the honoured position of King’s Attorney. The same year, Louis’ daughter Anne gave birth to the first surviving baby born in The Habitation. Unfortunately the new mother did not survive and died shortly after. *(1)

A grant guaranteeing possession of land was given to Louis in 1623, then given full title in 1626, encompassing the farmland and acreage along the St. Charles River. His properties were composed of meadows, apple orchards, grain fields and vegetable gardens, cattle pastures and the homestead. All land had been cleared by hand, without even so much as a plough to make it less grueling.

While the Héberts were better off than most, life was still difficult in New France. A fall on the ice caused the death of 52-year-old Louis Hébert in January of 1627. Now alone, Marie chose to stay in her new country since she was already well-established. Two years later the widow married fellow settler Guillaume Hubou.

Marie Hébert beloved figure

The first European woman to live in The Habitation, Marie made the best of the harsh new world. Striving for the betterment of others, she cared for her fellow settlers and natives alike, coming a beloved teacher and protector. According to the Leveilee Ancestry site, she participated in rites with the natives, sharing in Jesuit baptisms and banquets, and was a godmother to many of the native children. Marie died in May 1649 at approximately 61 years old.

The Hébert family came to New France with much less than they expected but with their hard work, generosity and skills, they contributed so much more to the establishment of New France and Canada.

*(1) The Illustrated History of Canada, Edited by Craig Brown, published by Key Porter Books, 2002. Pp. 103.

Leveilee Ancestry

This article first appeared on Suite101 in 2007.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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