Helene Boulle

Boulle, Helene

Time Period

Pre 1750

Personal Information

Date of Birth

1598

Date of Death

12/20/1654

Primary Residence

unknown

Religion

Catholic

Ethnicity

Caucasian

Historical Significance

Helene Boulle was a French noblewoman who married explorer Samuel de Champlain, and briefly lived in Quebec, then called New France, in the early seventeenth century.

Boulle was born in Paris in 1598, to Marguerite Alix and Nicolas Boulle, the secretary of the King's Chamber to Henry IV. In 1610, when Helene Boulle was twelve, she married Champlain, who, at forty-three, was thirty-one years her senior. Though it seems unusual, this arrangement was typical. In seventeenth century France, marriages between noble families were largely business negotiations, and aristocratic women usually married before they were eighteen. The marriage contract awarded Champlain a dowry of six thousand livres. In exchange, Boulle became the beneficiary in Champlain's will. Champlain's marriage was a savvy business decision; the sizeable dowry may have financed one of his many expeditions to the New World.

It seems likely that their marriage was neither close nor affectionate. Due to her young age, the contract also stipulated that she live at home for two more years, and Champlain left again for New France just three months after the marriage ceremony. We can never know how Champlain and Boulle truly felt about each other. Helene Boulle left no writing behind, and Champlain did not mention her in any of his writings, though he did name "le Sainte-Helene, an island in the Saint Lawrence River just southeast of Montreal, after her. In 1614, four years after their marriage, Boulles parents disinherited her, as a punishment for running away from her husband and going into hiding. After Champlain's death in 1636, they revoked the act of disinheritance. Though her family was Protestants, Boulle adopted Champlain's Catholic faith at age 14. The couple did not have children.

In 1620, Helene Boulle arrived for the first and only time in New France. Eustache Boulle, her younger brother and Champlain's lieutenant, was there to greet her when she arrived after a rough passage. Four years of life in Quebec for twenty-two year old Helene Boulle must have been difficult, though neither she nor Champlain left any record of her time there.

Champlain had founded the town of Quebec in 1608, and in 1618 he presented his master plan for colonization to the King, asking that 300 families to relocate to New France every year. Still, in 1620 Quebec had a meager population of only seven settled families. The fortified habitation was rough and in need of structural repairs. Quebec was populated with merchants, indentured servants, soldiers, sailors, interpreters, Native Americans, and slaves. The Recollets, the first missionaries to New France, arrived in 1615.

Helene Boulle, who was attended by three personal servants, was likely far more comfortable than any other women in New France at the time. We do not know if her social status prevented her from socializing with women such as Marie Rollet, who arrived in 1617 with her husband Louis Hebert and helped with his apothecary business. In general, life for women in New France was such that only the very privileged owned more than one suit of clothes, as cloth was imported. Women learned to fire muskets, took on a variety of traditionally male chores, and lived in a time of nearly constant warfare.

During her brief time in New France, Boulle studied Algonquian, and taught catechism to a few young Algonquin students. An apocryphal story, describing how the mirrored trinket that Boulle wore especially endeared her to her students, is reported in several histories of New France. In the absence of much concrete information about Helene Boulles time there, this story says much more about the image of European women as gentle, civilizing colonizers, than about Boulles actual success as an educator. Boulles efforts were a precursor to those of the Ursuline nuns, who came to New France in 1639 with the aim of educating Native children.

Occupations

  • nun
  • teacher

Additional Information (Bibliography)

  • Prentice, Bourne, Brandt, et al, Canadian Women: A History Second Edition. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996

  • Rapley, Elizabeth. The Devotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.

  • The Clio Collective. Quebec Women: A History. Toronto: The Women's Press, 1987

  • Joe C.W. Armstrong. Champlain. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1987.