Colonial Kidnapping
Part of French History

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Colonial life in early 18th century Maine was dangerous for families of English  settlers who were frequently under attack an as result of the French and Indian  Wars. Several stories document the abducting of children by Indian warriors who  carried the young captives back to Canada where they were raised in tribal  communities. Some abducted children were subsequently rescued by French  missionaries or by citizens militia groups with names like "Rogers Rangers". 

One strange but true story involved an unlikely young English heroine and Puritan  named Esther Wheelwright, daughter of the founder of Wells, Maine and heiress to  land in the town. 

Research by Canadian historian Thomas LaForest documents the saga of a young  girl who was born a Puritan but died a French Canadian after being abducted by  Indians. LaForest writes this story in the genealogy journal, "Heritage Quest". 

Esther Wheelwright was born in Wells in 1696, the daughter of English Puritan  settlers John Wheelwright and Mary Snell. Just about that time, a series of tenuous  peace treaties was broken between colonial England and France resulting in  renewed hostilities and atrocities throughout New England. On the morning of  August 19, 1703, seven year old Esther was taken captive by an Abenaquis warrior  during a raid on the Town of Wells. Esther's family tried desperately to  locate her, but it was extremely difficult to find her while she was living as the  adopted daughter of a tribal Chief in a Northern forest. 

A French Jesuit missionary, Father Bigot, discovered Esther during one of his  journeys where he pleaded, unsuccessfully, with her Indian father for her release.  Although the Abenaquis Chief rebuffed the missionary's negotiations,  Father Bigot nevertheless used his visits to instruct Esther in the Roman Catholic  faith. Eventually, a ransom was paid for Esther's release and Father Bigot  escorted his newly freed religious student to Quebec where she was placed in the  custody of the French Ursuline nuns 

In the Ursuline convent, Esther made her First Holy Communion. In spite of urgent  letters from her parents begging her to return home, Esther decided to pursue a  vocation in the Ursuline convent where she took her final vows on April 12, 1714,  taking the religious name of Sister Esther-Marie Joseph de l'Enfant Jesus. 

The Wheelwright family continued to hope Esther would come 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. 

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To be published September 5, 2000
Copyright 1994-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux