A seventeenth-century engraving of Paris’s Hôpital Général de la Salpêtrière, where Marie-Claire Catoire spent her childhood as an orphan. [Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection (CCBY 4.0)]
The marriage record of Marie-Claire Catoire and Léonard Billeron. Their signatures are at top left. [Archdiocese of New Orleans, St. Louis Cathedral: Marriage Records, 1720–1730, no. 46]
An illustration of a flute. Marie-Claire Catoire crossed the Atlantic on a ship of this type. [University of Toronto, Wenceslaus Hollar Collection, Hollar_k_1166]
The family of Marie-Claire Catoire Billeron and Léonard Billeron. [Compiled by the author]

Marie-Claire Catoire Billeron’s name first appears in North America on the passenger list of a French flûte or cargo ship named La Baleine (the Whale). This ship dropped anchor in the Gulf of Mexico just off Biloxi in January 1721. French ships carrying scores of nubile young women were anchoring at both Biloxi and Dauphin Island (near the mouth of Mobile Bay) during the early 1720s. In March 1720, Jean Jardard dit Beauchamp, commandant on Dauphin Island, commented with spicy Gallic wit that “ninety-six virgins and non-virgins (filles et femmes)” had arrived, but that insufficient foodstuffs at the French outpost prevented him from getting them all “serviced.” The French monarchy sent these women to Louisiana for the explicit purpose of increasing the colony’s French population.

André Pénicaut, a carpenter and newcomer to Louisiana, was present at Biloxi when La Baleine disgorged its passengers, including Marie-Claire Catoire and eighty-seven other young women from Paris’s Hôpital Général de la Salpêtrière, onto the sandy shore of the Gulf Coast on January 8, 1721. Pénicaut states plainly that all the girls were orphans who had been brought up at La Salpêtrière under the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church. But this is far from certain, for the inmates at the famous institution were a decidedly mixed lot. A year after La Baleine’s arrival, Nicolas Chassin, a French official at Fort de Chartres, wrote this: “The Company [of the Indies] has already sent to Louisiana 400–500 girls, but the officers and others with rank cannot bring themselves to marry such demoiselles, who in addition to their bad reputations provoke fear that they will transmit to others incommodities of which they have been not entirely cured [mal guériés].” In other words, rumors abounded, possibly backed by some evidence, that some demoiselles coming from La Salpêtrière were bringing venereal disease to Louisiana. From what we know, Marie-Claire Catoire, who bore five children in quick succession and lived to the advanced age (for that time and that place) of seventy-two, did not arrive in America bearing an embarrassing incommodity of which she had been “not entirely cured.”

Louisiana governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville just happened to be in Biloxi in the spring of 1721, and he reported back to France on April 25 that nineteen of the girls from La Baleine had found husbands during the preceding two months. Bienville was delighted to report this news, for the task of these newly married French ladies was to get on with populating Louisiana with as many French people as soon as possible, as the viability of the colony depended on getting it settled with stable families of agriculturists. One of these nineteen prospective mothers was Marie-Claire Catoire, who married Léonard Billeron dit La Fatigue at Biloxi on April 23, 1721. The newlyweds seem to have lingered on the Gulf Coast for a year or more, Léonard perhaps gathering trade goods to transport up the Mississippi River to Kaskaskia, metropole of the Illinois Country. Indeed, it seems likely that their first child, Léonard fils, was born there and came upriver with them as an infant. Although most French male residents of Kaskaskia were Canadians (like Léonard), most European trade goods arrived in the village via the Gulf and the Mississippi rather than the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes.

The Billeron dit La Fatigue family appears as a substantial component of Kaskaskia’s village community on the 1726 census. In addition to Léonard and Marie-Claire, the family consisted of two sons (born in very rapid succession after the couple’s marriage in the spring of 1721) and an enslaved Black man who very likely had been acquired by Léonard on the Gulf Coast about the time that the couple was married.

Marie-Claire bore five live children in the ten-year period from 1722 to 1732, which was an exceptional though not astonishing record of fertility; two-year spacing of births was the rule in the Illinois Country. Early on, French administrators commented on female fertility in the region. The survival rate of Marie-Claire’s children through infancy was remarkable, and the fact that they lived to adulthood was even more so. By the turn of the year 1732, she and her husband lived in a large house in the middle of Kaskaskia, owned forty pigs and agricultural land in the adjacent large compound of plowland, and held two people enslaved (one Black and one Native American). This put them more or less in the center of Kaskaskia’s economic hierarchy; one might even say they were bourgeois—i.e., middle-class town dwellers—although that word was only rarely used in the Illinois Country.

After Léonard Billeron’s death in 1738, Marie-Claire stood at the very center of civil affairs in the Illinois Country during the 1740s and 1750s. Widows had a good deal of civil power in French colonial society, and Marie was much in demand to serve as a witness on legal documents of various kinds: bills-of-sale, leases, marriage contracts, and so forth. The comprehensive 1752 census of the Illinois Country villages, which included the newly emerged hamlet of Ste. Genevieve, is one of our principal sources for studying the mid-eighteenth-century Illinois Country. On this enumeration, Widow Marie-Claire Billeron appears as a head-of-household that included three enslaved Native Americans, one male and two females, one of whom was Susanne, who is of special interest to us. Susanne apparently was held by Léonard Billeron fils, who was residing in his mother’s household.

Sometime in the early 1760s, Marie-Claire decided to abandon Kaskaskia and move across the Mississippi to Ste. Genevieve, joining her daughter, Marianne, who was wife to the wealthiest person in all of Upper Louisiana—François Vallé. Though Susanne and another Native American, Joseph, were part and parcel of Marie-Claire’s household when she made this move across the river, their status had become ambiguous. On February 18, 1767, Sébastien-Louis Meurin, a former Jesuit serving under the auspices of the Capuchins, baptized “Joseph, son born yesterday, of the legitimate marriage of Joseph Canghé and Suzanne [sic], Indians slaves adopted in the home of Dame Billeron dit La Fatigue.” It will never be known whether Meurin caught and corrected himself, crossing out “slaves” and adding “adopted,” or whether Marie-Claire tugged on his surplice and told him to change the baptismal record, but at the time no document had been drafted to explain the status of Joseph and Susanne. Were they free, or were they enslaved?

In January 1768, Marie drafted, in her own hand, a remarkable emancipation document. Her recollections were muddled, and the document is complicated and confusing, but it is also central to our understanding of Native American slavery and race relations in colonial Ste. Genevieve. After stating that Susanne and Joseph had both been freed by the time of their marriage in 1758, Marie-Claire declared that they would be obliged to pay for their freedom by functioning as family servants for as long as she and her son Léonard fils lived. Susanne and Joseph could then live “as good free people of the French nation, practicing the Roman Catholic religion,” and no heirs of Marie-Claire or Léonard fils could have any claim on them or their services whatsoever. Marie-Claire did not file this document with the local greffe (civil records depository) but rather stored it with her personal possessions in “une petite cassette anglaise,” a little English case, where it was discovered after her death.

Marie-Claire’s manuscript makes it clear that Susanne and Joseph had a twofold obligation to assure their freedom, one physical and one spiritual: their bodies must serve Marie-Claire and Léonard as long as they should live, and, after emancipation, the Native Americans’ souls must be committed to the Roman Catholic religion and to the French nation. Without any doubt, Marie-Claire envisaged an eventual freedom for Susanne and Joseph more complete and more radiant if they retained their commitment to the Roman Catholic Church and to French civilization. Although loyal to the Bourbon monarchy, when she wrote of “la nation française,” she was evincing a particular kind of French nationalism decades before French Revolutionary citoyens seized that spirit and made it their own.

Marie-Claire died in Ste. Genevieve in January 1773, and her interment was overseen by Father Valentin, a priest visiting from St. Louis because Ste. Genevieve had no resident curé at that moment. Valentin noted that she was “about seventy-two years of age,” making her birth date in Paris a plausible 1700. When Marie-Claire had arrived as an orphan at La Salpêtrière, the likelihood of her living into her eighth decade was close to zero; her French physiology had adapted well to the Mississippi valley. The visiting priest had little idea who she was, and in her burial record he named her Marie-Claire Biron, the surname being his phonetic version of Billeron. Although Valentin hardly knew her, a large crowd would have assembled at the burial, including her son-in-law François Vallé, captain of the militia and special lieutenant in Ste. Genevieve; the large extended Vallé family; and certainly the three Native Americans with whom Marie-Claire had been living.

It was a long and successful life, for as she lay dying in her feather bed (“lit de plume” in the estate inventory) in Ste. Genevieve, she could not help but marvel at the extraordinary run of successes that had marked the trajectory of her mortal existence, successes that violated the anticipated odds at every turn. She had survived infancy in a decidedly unhealthy urban environment in Paris; as an orphan in the bedlam that was La Salpêtrière at the beginning of the eighteenth century; during a transatlantic crossing in the hurricane season of 1720; through the “seasoning” period to the malaria parasite that all newcomers to Louisiana endured; and during the births of five children. Knowing on her deathbed that one of these children, Marianne, had climbed to the very heights of Illinois Country society must have been a special solace to her. Wherever she had lived—Paris, Biloxi, Kaskaskia, or Ste. Genevieve—she remained at heart profoundly French. Although she lived for some years as a subject of the Spanish monarchy, and her son-in-law was in fact an official of the Spanish regime, she was oblivious to evanescent political changes. Her death at Ste. Genevieve in 1773 was the death of a Parisian woman, the only known such to have lived and died in the colonial town, which in language and culture and religion was almost as French as she.

Further Reading

Ekberg, Carl J. “A Parisian Woman in Colonial Ste. Genevieve.” Missouri Historical Review 114, no. 2 (January 2020): 105–20.

———. Stealing Indian Women: Native Slavery in the Illinois Country. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Ekberg, Carl J., and Sharon K, Person. Dawn’s Light Woman: Law and Marriage in the Illinois Country. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2022.

Published December 12, 2023; Last updated December 13, 2023

Rights Statement

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)