An Educated Parisienne
Marie Rollet was born in Paris circa 1580. At the time, her parents lived in the neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondissement and were financially well off. Her father, Jean Rollet, worked as a gunner for King Henry IV, and her mother was named Anne Cogu. Marie Rollet studied at a convent run by nuns. She was considered an educated woman, having learned to read and write, which was rare for women in the 16th century.
Marriage to Louis Hébert
On 19 February 1601, the 21-year-old Marie Rollet, widow of François Dufeu, a merchant from Compiègne, married Louis Hébert, a Parisian apothecary (see Pharmacy). The ceremony took place at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The following year, Rollet and Hébert bought a small house at 1602 Rue de la Petite Seine for the price of 200 livres tournois, and in 1603, Hébert earned the title of master apothecary.
After getting off to a rough start with his apothecary shop, he decided in March 1606 to sign a one-year employment contract with Pierre Dugua de Mons to work in Acadia. The same day, he signed before a notary a general power of attorney allowing Marie Rollet to manage the family’s assets in her husband’s absence.
Six months later, Marie Rollet sold the family home for 2,160 livres tournois to Queen Margaret, Duchess of Valois, who wanted to expand her estate along Rue de la Petite Seine. This lucrative sale provided Marie Rollet and her family with remarkable financial security.
Departure for New France
In 1617, Louis, Marie and their three children, Anne, Guillemette and Guillaume, left France and settled in Quebec City, in New France. Louis Hébert signed a two-year contract with the Company of New France for 300 livres per year. The Rollet-Hébert family boarded the Saint-Étienne at the port of Honfleur on 11 March 1617. The three-month crossing was particularly long and difficult, and the ship encountered a number of storms. They finally arrived at Tadoussac in mid-June. The Hébert-Rollet family quickly settled atop Cape Diamond in Quebec City (see Diamonds of Canada). With the help of Marie’s brother, Claude Rollet, they built a small European-style house.
First Female French Farmer and Teacher in Quebec
In Quebec City, Marie Rollet laboured alongside Louis Hébert in his work as a farmer and apothecary. Together, they cleared the land, sowed crops and looked after French colonists as well as Indigenous people. In 1620, they built a stone house with the help of workers from the habitation of Quebec City. That same year, Samuel de Champlain gave Louis Hébert the title of king’s attorney, making him responsible for administering justice in the colony.
In 1622, the land that Marie Rollet and Louis Hébert had cleared and farmed on Cape Diamond was officially granted to them. The Hébert-Rollet family could finally enjoy economic stability and face the future with confidence. The couple did not have any more children in New France, and a few years later, Louis Hébert died after a bad fall on ice. He was buried on 25 January 1627. After her husband’s death, Marie Rollet took over managing the land with her son-in-law Guillaume Couillard and her daughter Guillemette, who owned half of the family’s land since her father’s death.
From 1628 to 1629, General David Kirke and his brothers took control of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Tadoussac in the name of King Charles I of England and destroyed the French supply ship and all of its provisions for the colony. The Récollets, as well as Marie Rollet (who by this time had remarried, to Guillaume Huboust), were the only ones to harvest grains, so they shared their crops with those who had nothing to eat. In September 1629, Champlain surrendered to the English and returned to France with the majority of the colony’s habitants. After their departure, only 20 French colonists (including Marie Rollet and her family), as well as 100 English soldiers, remained. For three years, the small colony was completely cut off from France and received no news.
During these years, Marie Rollet and her daughter Guillemette took care of Champlain’s adoptive Indigenous daughters, Espérance and Charité. Marie Rollet taught them to read and write, and oversaw their religious education. She also saw to their daily needs. Starting in 1632, she also cared for a black boy from Madagascar or Guinea, who had come to Quebec with the Kirke brothers and was baptized Olivier. Bought by Olivier Le Baillif, a French clerk working for the English, the boy was then given to Guillaume Coulliard in 1632. Olivier Le Jeune is considered the first black slave in New France, and it remains unknown to this day whether or not the Couillard-Hébert family freed him.
The year 1633 marked the return of Champlain to Quebec, who arrived with 200 colonists. The signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1632 forced the Kirke brothers to cede control of Quebec back to the French.
The Héberts and the Couillards: The Core Family of a French Colony in North America
From 1633, Marie Rollet and her family were considered the core of the colony. They were responsible for educating and housing the Indigenous schoolchildren who had been placed in the care of the Jesuits (see Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada). After years of isolation, Marie Rollet welcomed new families to the colony, including that of Robert Giffard, and taught them the ways of life in the country she had patiently made her home.
In October 1634, her son Guillaume, aged 24, married Hélène Desportes. He died a few years later in 1639. Nevertheless, Marie Rollet had the joy of knowing several of the children of her daughter Guillemette and Guillaume Couillard and watching them grow up.
Surrounded by her family, Marie continued for over a decade to teach and care for the children who were brought to her, all while overseeing the management of her land. She died in May 1649 at the age of 69, survived by her husband, her only living daughter, Guillemette Hébert, and many grandchildren.
The 400th anniversary of Rollet and Hébert’s arrival in New France was commemorated in 2017. For the occasion, Marie Rollet and Louis Hébert were designated “historical figures” by the Quebec government, and more than 25 activities were organized to celebrate the festivities, including the exhibition 1617–2017: The Legacy of Louis Hébert: 400 Years of Pharmacy in Quebec held at the Université Laval. Additionally, the Société de généalogie de Québec presented 30 certificates to descendants of the Hébert-Rollet family, of which there are a great many throughout North America.
A monument honouring Louis Hébert, Marie Rollet and Guillaume Couillard was erected in 1917 in Parc Montmorency in Quebec City. Several streets and institutions are also named after Marie Rollet.