Extraordinary Native American Woman – Marie Rouensa – 1677-1725

We have no image of Marie. This painting is representative of other Native American women who lived in a similar time period. Indian women used cloth they purchased from traders. As a farmer in a French/Indian settlement, it is likely Marie wore a combination of traditional and French clothing. Portraits would have been done in formal dress as opposed to everyday wear. Casual clothing in the period was styled similar to dress fashions but made from less expensive fabric.
Photo credit: oldfashionedholidays.wordpress.com

Do you know Marie Rouensa? No? Maybe she’s more familiar to you by her Native American name, Aramepinchone? You don’t recognize that name either?
 
Marie is a woman well worth knowing.
 
Marie Rouensa was born in 1677. Her father was the Kaskaskia Chief Mamenthouensa, also chief of the Illiniwek Confederation, a group of approximately 10,000 Native Americans that included the peaceful Kaskaskia Tribe among the twelve or thirteen tribes belonging to the confederation. An important guy!
 
They lived in a village across the Illinois River from what at that time was the French Fort St. Louis, but is now Starved Rock. Marquette and Joliet had stayed at the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia when returning from their exploration of the Mississippi River in 1673. Marquette returned in 1675 to found the Mission of the Immaculate Conception there. The village grew to as many as 6000 people, and included French missionaries and fur traders among the Kaskaskia population.
 
Marie was educated at the mission and became a devoted Catholic. She was a gifted storyteller, and soon realized that Christian stories had similarities to the trials of the Kaskaskia way of life. She became an assistant to Father Gravier, who ran the mission, instructing both children and adults using their native language, and made many conversions within her village.
 
Her story does not end there. In 1694, Maria, at seventeen years of age, decided to devote her life to Christ and to chastity, but her parents had other ideas. For political reasons, they chose a marriage for her, to a fifty-year-old coureur du bois (illegal fur trader) with a reputation for debauchery. Michel Accault (Aco) came west with La Salle and stayed to trade with the Illini. Such alliances were beneficial for both Native Americans and Frenchmen, providing trade advantages, protection, hospitality, and sustenance in times of famine. Marie did not want to marry, but her father was the Chief.
 
Catholicism and marriage to Frenchmen appealed to Illini women. Warfare with the Winnebago and Sioux had resulted in a decline in the number of Illini men, such that there were four women to every man. Polygamy was common, marriages were demanding, and involved brutal punishments. The arrival of Jesuit missionaries and French fur traders offered Illini women an opportunity to challenge abusive treatment and seek alternatives.
 
Marie was very unhappy, but what could she do? Marie refused the marriage. She was stripped, banished from her mother’s cabin, and driven away. She took refuge at the mission. Her father placed guards to keep other Kaskaskia away, leaving the chapel nearly empty. He threatened more harsh methods against Marie and the mission if she did not agree to the marriage.
 
Marie proposed a compromise. She would marry Accault if he and her parents would become Christians. The advantages of the union outweighed objections, and the marriage took place.
 
Marie had become in her own right an important person in her village, and with her parent’s conversion it was not long before three quarters of the Kaskaskia had converted. Even Accault became a reformed man.
 
In 1703, the village came under attack by the Iroquois and was forced to move south of St. Louis and Cahokia to a spot east of the Mississippi River. Also named Kaskaskia, the history was similar to the first Grand Village. Across a major river from a French fort, a fur trade and French settlement grew from a mission and a largely Native American population along a major transportation route. Everyone had access to trade goods, which encouraged the settlement to produce a food supply to feed the traders.
 
Accault died near the time of the move. He had remained a fur trader until his death, and Marie married another fur trader, Michel Philippe. Neither man ever stepped outside the role of trader. Marie had two children with her first husband and six more with the second, to whom she was married for twenty years.
 
But here’s what else she did. Agriculture was woman’s work, and in this time and place food surplus was very profitable. Marie produced grain and vegetable harvests and her family prospered. At the time of her death in 1725, two years after that of her second husband, she left an estate valued at 45,000 livres, (equivalent to approximately $5 million today) property including several tracts of agricultural land, two houses within the village of Kaskaskia, two barns filled with hay, oxen, thirteen cows, three horses, thirty-one pigs, and forty-eight chickens. There were oxcarts and horse carts, iron plows, and large quantities of cloth, a sign of wealth. She owned five slaves, four African American and one Indian woman. Although Illinois did not become a slave state when granted statehood in 1818, prior to that time a form of slavery was practiced by both Native Americans and early settlers.
 
Under French law, Marie was able to own property as a woman and she left a legally-enforceable written will spelling out how each of her children would inherit, linked to specific behaviors. She denied one son, until such time as he would leave his non-Christian wife.
 
Marie stood out as an extraordinary woman because her accomplishments took place during the early arrival of the missionaries, the fur trade, and the first settlements in Illinois. She was able to use opportunities to establish her status and a sense of personal identity, carving out a new role not only for Native American women but for all women. She is recognized at Duke University, so influenced by her accomplishments that she was included in seminars naming women who shaped our nation, by Ohio University that offers a course on her life, and by the Illinois State Museum (now closed)  that devoted a wing to her and her tribe.
 
And Kaskaskia? It grew to a population of 7000, and was the county seat of Illinois County until 1787 when it became part of the Northwest Territory. It was named capital of the U.S. Illinois Territory in 1809, and was the state’s first capital from 1818 to 1819, when the capital was moved to Vandalia.
 
Today Kaskaskia has a population of 13. After floods in 1881, the Mississippi River changed course, diverting around the east side of Kaskaskia. Today it is the only town in Illinois west of the Mississippi River, accessible only by a small bridge from Missouri. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was rebuilt after the floods near its original location. Marie was buried beneath the pew she once used in the original church.

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.

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