Saint John New Brunswick

The gallant Lady La Tour unveiled
The woman who defended the fort was in her early 20s at the time

By M.A. MacDonald
May 10, 2003
The New Brunswick Reader

Editor's Note: The Fort La Tour Development Authority expects to announce its vision for development of the fort site in Saint John this spring.

M.A. MacDonald/Special to the Telegraph-Journal
Frangoise Jacquelin, the woman who would defend Fort La Tour in 1645, was baptized in this church on July 18,1621. The church of Notre Dame is located in Nogent-le-Rotrou, a city in northern France.

   In later years some claimed to have seen Lady La Tour's ghost. Then there was the story of a coffin dug up in back of Fort La Tour with a woman's body dressed in strange old-fashioned clothing, which all fell to dust when the air struck it. And, of course, there are the accounts of the fall of the fort itself. But few facts about the valiant woman who led the defence of Fort La Tour have been known. Until now, that is. Research discoveries in France have at last shed more light on Françoise Marie Jacquelin's family background, her actual age - much younger than we thought - and many other things.
   The story of the fall of Fort La Tour is one of the most dramatic and colourful in Canadian history, and also one of the few in which a woman plays an important part. So it is especially interesting that these recent discoveries include news, not only about Charles de Saint-Etienne de La Tour himself, but also about his gallant wife, and the fate of their young son - who was left in the fort when Jacquelin died three weeks after it had fallen to her husband's enemy, rival governor of Acadia Charles de Menou d'Aulnay.
   These discoveries, found in obscure regional archives in France, have uncovered a maze of relationships between important officials in France and the pioneer leaders of Acadia – a spider's web of connections through families, friends and government posts that explain many things and place the La Tour family in a good position socially.
   For instance, no wonder the CentAssociés, the powerful trading Company of New France, stood so strongly behind La Tour throughout his conflicts with d'Aulnay. The company's head, Intendant Jean de Lauzon, was a relation of La Tour's by marriage, through the Godards. Incidentally two young brothers of that family, Jacques and Francois Godard, served as officers in Charles La Tour's forts - they were his stepbrothers.
   The most remarkable of the findings, however, may be the true age of Jacquelin. She was only 18½ when she signed her marriage contract on Dec. 31, 1639, and only a month or two shy of 19 when she joined Charles La Tour in Acadia sometime in the late spring of 1640. One would think she must have had an adventurous spirit to undertake such a journey and such an alliance with the governor of a new colony. La Tour himself was then in early middle age, about 46. By the way, French women at this period kept their maiden names; Françoise signed with the surname Jacqueline throughout her life.
   According to all contemporary accounts of the battle that ended with the fall of the fort in April of 1645, it was this young woman, whom Nicolas Denys, a member of the Company of New France, calls La Commandante, who led the defence throughout the three-day conflict. Her husband was away in Boston, trying to hire ships and men to help them against d'Aulnay's superior forces. The valiant Jacquelin only agreed to surrender in the last extremity, when d'Aulnay offered to spare them all. However, once in possession of the fort, d'Aulnay broke his word and hung all the garrison who had survived, forcing her to watch with a rope around her neck. Jacquelin, imprisoned and, the records say, closely confined, died in the fort three weeks later. No one knows quite how. She was buried with the other defenders in back of the fort.
    Jacquelin and La Tour had a little son who survived the battle, probably sheltered in one of the stone cellars, and so did his mother's waiting woman. According to the deposition filed by d'Aulnay's Capucin priests (one of the principal sources on these events), the little boy was sent back to France in the care of the waiting woman where, until now, he had vanished from history.
   It was Jean-Marie Germe, a researcher examining the 17th century parish records of Nogent-le-Rotrou, a city in northern France, who discovered the fate of the child. In the town's ancient church of Notre Dame its curé recorded the baptism, on Dec. 26, 1645, of two-year-old Charles-François de Saint-Etienne. The name of the godfather is given as René Le Balleur, Sieur des Perrièrs. This same Le Balleur shortly after married Jacquelin's sister Gabrielle Jacquelin. So the young La Tour, who had been given both his parents' Christian names, would seem to have been brought up by his aunt and uncle. Perhaps further research will disclose whether he survived to adulthood and, if so, what happened to him in later years. The Notre Dame parish record also reveals that Françoise Jacquelin herself was baptized in that church on July 18, 1621.
    Who was René Le Balleur, the man who took charge of the La Tour's son and married Françoise Jacquelin's sister? For a start, both Le Balleur and Gabrielle Jacquelin's signatures are on the marriage contract. Le Balleur is described as major (that is, commander) of military police in the city and government of Soissons, and a relative by marriage of the future husband (La Tour himself). Other signatures include that of Françoise's father, Jacques Jacquelin, described in the contract as a docteur en mèdecine, and La Tour's agent Guillaume Desjardins, stepbrother Godard and various other witnesses and lawyers. The bride's mother, Heleyne Lerminier, arrived later from Nogent to sign as well.
   It must have been a notable occasion. New Year's Eve is a major holiday in France, a time for gift-giving and celebration far outshining Christmas itself, and everyone there was connected by ties of blood or friendship. They had assembled in rooms in the heart of fashionable Paris, not far from the palace of the Louvre. Everyone would have been dressed in his or her best, the candles gleaming on rustling silks, frosty lace and rich velvet as they enjoyed a lavish supper with many toasts.

M.A. MacDonald/Special to the Telegraph-Journal
ABOVE, this walkway from 17th-century Fort La Tour was uncovered in Saint John in 1997. BELOW, this is Frangoise Jacquelin's signature as it appears on her 1639 marriage contract with Charles de Saint-Etienne de La Tour.

   Research places the La Tours in a milieu of the upper middle class, extending in some instances into the minor nobility. There is an old tradition that the La Tours had been people of consequence ruined in the Wars of Religion, and the links traced suggest that this could be so. It is certainly a far cry from the way d'Aulnay described them in his indictments sent to the French court - that La Tour was a mere servant to young Charles de Biencourt and Jacquelin a woman of dubious life and the daughter of a barber of Le Mans. Barbers, who in those days could lance boils and let blood, were at the bottom of a profession at whose top stood the university-educated doctors of medicine.
   In 1974, when I spent a day and a half researching in Nogent-le-Rotrou, the hometown of the Jacquelins, its parish registers were still stored in a cupboard in the mayor's office, the ink faded to a pale brown, written on paper discoloured to a tint only slightly lighter. The damp had made many of the words run together and the crabbed writing of some of the churchmen multiplied the difficulties of decipherment. Nevertheless, Nogent has been extremely fortunate, for it is the only town in its region which still has its 17th century parish registers. Nowadays it is probable that they have been microfilmed.

M.A. MacDonald/Special to the Telegraph-Journal
Frangoise Jacquelin's father, who was a doctor, must have passed through this gateway to this 17th-century hospital - L'Hostel Dieu - almost daily. It is located in Nogent-le-Rotrou.

   The 13th-century church of Notre Dame where the records of the Jacquelin baptisms were found was ancient even in their day. Its stone building, facing the main street is considered a handsome example of a style in transition between the Roman and Gothic styles. A short distance up the side street by this church stands the impressive entrance to the old 17th-century hospital, complete with its tall stone pillars and carved double doors, the whole surmounted on high by a sculptured coat of arms and the inscription L'Hostel Dieu. Dr. Jacquelin must have passed through that gateway almost daily. Today the modern hospital lies in back of it, beside the church.
   Nogent still retains many of its old mansions, towered, with carved gables and gargoyles, stone-paved courtyards and gateways. Others are long past their days of glory. On the hill above the town stands the old Château Saint-Jean, fortress of the counts of Perche. Below the castle lay the old part of Nogent-le-Rotrou and its principal street, the rue Gouverneur that led, 150 kilometres on, to Paris where on that New Year's Eve in 1639 the Jacquelins, Le Balleur and all the others signed the contract that began Jacquelin's fateful partnership with Charles La Tour.

  A word on the sources of the new research on the La Tours and their world. These were in a 20-page paper given by F. René Perron at a colloquiem at the Centre d'Etudes acadiennes, Université de Moncton, and in an article by the same author in Les Amitiés Acadiennes, #94, 2001. An article in the Centre d'Etudes Les Cahiers, Vol. 33, #3, Septembre 2002, by the author of the present article, also gives somewhat more detail than the current piece.

M.A. MacDonald is a research associate at the New Brunswick Museum.
She is the author of Fortune & La Tour: The Civil War in Acadia. (Nimbus, Halifax, 2000)