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
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