The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Marie Rouensa, the Godmother of Kaskaskia, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.
Marie was born around the year 1677, likely in the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia in present-day LaSalle County. She was the daughter of Rouensa, the chief of the Kaskaskia. Marie’s early life coincided with a period of considerable change and upheaval for the Kaskaskia people and the larger Illini Confederation. The Kaskaskia were regularly threatened with violence by other tribes, including the Iroquois, whose warriors attacked the Kaskaskians’ village when Marie was around three years old. She also grew up during the first period of contact between the Kaskaskia and European settlers and explorers. Father Jacques Marquette established a mission in the village in 1675, and French priests, soldiers, and traders became regular fixtures in the area during her childhood.
Much of what we know about Marie’s life, and the lives of the Kaskaskia during this time, comes from the letters and journals of Catholic missionaries. She was one of a large number of Kaskaskian women and girls who enthusiastically converted to Catholicism, taking the French name “Marie” after her baptism. Historians believe that Kaskaskian women were drawn to the new religion in part because it offered them more agency and autonomy than their own social structures. Kaskaskian society was patriarchal and polygamous, and women had virtually no power in choosing their spouses.
Marie developed a close friendship with Father Jacques Gravier, one of the Catholic missionaries. In his letters, he describes her as a gifted and intelligent young woman with sharp communication skills and an excellent memory. She absorbed the lessons he taught her and skillfully shared them with other members of her community. Though she was young, Gravier wrote in 1694 that Marie’s “discretion and virtue [gave] her marvelous authority” within her village, “especially over those to whom she speaks of prayer.”
When Rouensa, Marie’s father, arranged a marriage for her in 1693 with a French voyageur, Michel Aco, Marie staunchly refused. She argued that she had dedicated herself to God and did not want to share her heart with anyone else. When Gravier refused to order Marie to marry Aco, conflict developed between the tribe and the mission. Rouensa ordered his people not to go to mass, and attendance dwindled. After much self-reflection, Marie made the decision to marry Aco, not because she wished to obey her father, but because she wanted him to lift his prohibition on worship. As part of the bargain, Marie’s parents also agreed to convert to Catholicism, an act that led many more Kaskaskia to seek out baptism as well. Marie’s decision had far-reaching and unintended consequences, ultimately leading to the end of the tribe’s traditional cultural and social norms – not through decimation by disease or war, but through integration into French colonial society.
The Kaskaskia moved from their village near the Illinois River in 1700, settling first near the Mississippi in present-day St. Louis, and then three years later relocating to the banks of the Kaskaskia River in Randolph County. Marie and Aco had two sons, and after his death, she remarried and had six more children, some of whom have descendants living today. She also acted as godmother to many other French and Kaskaskian children born in the village, which took the name “Kaskaskia” from the tribe who helped to settle it. When she died in 1725, the parish priest at Kaskaskia honored Marie with burial beneath her pew in the church, a rare tribute to her religious commitment.
Without Marie’s conversion, and her commitment to the conversion of others, it’s possible that the Catholic mission would never have been able to sustain a presence within the Kaskaskia tribe. While we no longer look upon the colonial project of the Jesuits and their conversions of the Kaskaskia as unquestionably positive acts, we must acknowledge Marie’s pivotal role in establishing the community that became one of the most important settlements in early Randolph County history. Marie’s character – her keen intelligence, her strength of conviction, and her insistence on her own agency within a society that refused autonomy to women – paved the way for the development of a new community that was both French and Kaskaskian. Marie Rouensa was not only the godmother to many children in her parish but also the Godmother of Kaskaskia.
Click here to read a more detailed biography of Marie Rouensa.