Esther Wheelwright’s life embodied the eighteenth century military and political contest for North America. But her story doesn’t come to mind amidst a historiography dominated by biographies of the so-called American “Founding Fathers” and the military and political history of the eighteenth century. I wrote Esther’s story as a means of demonstrating that women’s history is central to early American history. By following her life, we get to see it all—warfare, politics, diplomacy, and even accusations of espionage! But also we see the rhythms of everyday life as it was lived by girls and women in the northeastern borderlands—Protestant and Catholic women, married mothers and unmarried virgins, rural and urban women, old women and girls—whether they spoke English, French, or Wabanaki.
Born in Wells, Massachusetts (now Maine) in 1696 in a house that served as a roadhouse and a garrison, Esther was taken captive in a raid by French-allied Wabanaki in 1703 at the age of 7. Traveling from mission to mission as an adopted daughter of a refugee band of Wabanaki in war-torn Acadia, she was probably catechized and taught to pray as a Catholic by her mother, aunts, and older sisters along the way. At age 12 in the fall of 1708, she was in the care of the French governor in Québec and placed in the Ursuline convent school there. As an adolescent, she announced her interest in becoming an Ursuline nun. This decision put her in a position to consort with the French Canadian nobility and to exercise powerful influence in her adopted city.
As Sister Marie-Joseph of the Infant Jesus, Esther worked for decades as a teacher, an administrator, and a notably skillful embroiderer alongside the most elite daughters of French Canadian colonial officers and merchants. Despite her enclosure in the rituals and rules of the cloister, neither she nor Québec could escape the wars that continuously threatened them through the eighteenth century. After the British took the city in 1759, Esther was (not coincidentally) elected mother superior of the order in 1760—the first and still the only foreign-born superior in the history of the monastery.
Esther’s bold and inventive leadership of the Ursulines through the perilous years of the 1760s and 1770s was key to her community’s survival under British rule before the passage of the Quebec Act, which guaranteed the religious liberty of French Canadians in 1774. She died in November 1780 at age 84, remembered mostly within the walls of the Ursuline monastery but largely written out of both Canadian and American history for the past two centuries. As a Catholic nun, she receded from the concerns of the Protestant and masculine North American historical profession, but I was thrilled to help recover her story and share it with a new generation of North Americans.