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the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Widowhood in Louisbourg
The number of widows associated with the properties in the reconstructed town site of Louisbourg often draws questions from visitors and staff. Why were there so many widows? Why did widows run businesses?
Widowhood was more common in the 18th century than divorce is today. The majority of marriages ended with premature death of one spouse, more often the husband. In Louisbourg this is even a little more noticeable because women at Louisbourg married younger (average age at first marriage was 19.9) and men older (average was 29.2) than was the case elsewhere in France. In Canada (Quebec) the average ages of first marriage were 22.0 and 27.7. In Louisbourg, the ten-year age difference, coupled with the fact that women in the 18th century had longer life expectancy than men, resulted in widows being more common than widowers.
How do these widows come to be running businesses? As the family was the centre of society, the family home was the centre of all the family’s activities. Businesses and trades were based from the home, and the family, particularly the wife, became involved as assistants in their husbands’ enterprises and even ran their own businesses, such as boutiques, laundries, and small tailoring. French society was more flexible in the roles that women could take than in the roles that men could. So a widower with children was very likely to remarry quickly, to have someone to take charge of his household, whereas a widow could step into her husband’s place in many cases and continue his business.
Under French law in the 18th century a widow had a status that a married woman or a young single woman did not have. If there was a man legally connected to a woman, a father or husband, she had no legal existence, no right to buy or sell property or sign contracts, as this was “covered” by her father or husband. Only an age of majority, over 25, single woman or a widow could be counted as the head of a household and could enter into contracts of her own right. So a mature woman (over 40) able to run her family business, or who could rely on the help of an adult son, was less likely to remarry. In Louisbourg, with many more men than women, young widows were more likely to remarry than elsewhere in France or New France.
In Louisbourg there are many examples of widows continuing to operate the businesses of their deceased husbands such as fishing properties as well as inns and taverns. Within reconstructed Louisbourg we represent several businesses run by widows: Jeanne Galbarette, who with the help of her third husband, Georges Desroches, operated a combined fishing operation and cabaret in the Fauxbourg area. (She had been operating this business as a widow, before marrying DesRoches.) Thérese Petit, Madame Grandchamps, ran a waterfront tavern after the death of her husband. Marie Brunet, widow of Nicolas Pugnant dit Destouches, continued to run the her husband’s bakery after his death in 1741. Marguerite Dugas, the widow Beauséjour ran the inn that she and her husband had built on the Place du Port. Across the square, Anne Guyon dit Després, the widow Chevalier, derived her income through a combination of seamstress skills and taking in boarders. Although women’s position was inferior to men’s in 18th-century Louisbourg, these women demonstrate that women took an active part in that society.
-Anne Marie Lane Jonah