Marie Rouensa

Defying social and cultural norms, Marie Rouensa, a prominent Kaskaskian, built bridges between worlds and helped to establish a community that lives at the heart of Randolph County history.

The woman who became known to history as “Marie Rouensa” was not born with that name. There’s some debate among historians about what her given name actually was. One historian, Floyd Mulkey, wrote in the 1940s that her birth name was “Aramepinchieue,” using a translation from 1904 as his source. Other historians, like Carl Ekberg, have cast doubt on that conclusion, noting a lack of other sources from the period supporting Mulkey’s claim. Most of her biographers simply call her by the name she adopted as a young woman and used for the rest of her life: Marie. We do know that she was likely born around 1677. Her father was Rouensa, chief of the Kaskaskia, and her family likely included several siblings, as a letter from 1694 describes the chief’s family as consisting of at least fifteen people. Her parents’ siblings were also present in her life, with her father’s and mother’s brothers both mentioned in later records.

Marie’s early life coincided with a period of considerable change and upheaval for the Kaskaskia people. The tribe was part of the Illini Confederation, a group of numerous allied tribes, including the Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Michigamea, and Chinko, as well as several others. Most of the tribes of the confederation spoke dialects of a shared common language, Illinois (or Miami-Illinois), which was part of the larger family of Algonquin indigenous languages. The Kaskaskia, including Marie and her family, lived in the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, a large agricultural and trade center located in present-day LaSalle County. By 1684, the population of the village may have numbered as many as 20,000 people. Some historians, including Robert Michael Morrissey, believe that it may have been one of the most populous indigenous settlements north of Mexico.


A 1735 watercolor of natives from several tribes, including the Illinois, made by Alexandre de Batz

Morrissey describes the village as “a melting pot,” populated not only by the Kaskaskia and other Illini people but also by refugee members of other tribes. But the village was placed in significant jeopardy during the Beaver Wars of the seventeenth century. Tribes of the Iroquois Confederation, in an attempt to increase control over large expanses of hunting and trading territory, battled with numerous peoples in present-day Canada and the United States for decades during the conflict. From the 1650s on, the Iroquois began to put pressure on tribes living in the areas that later became Indiana and Illinois, including the tribes of the Illini Confederation. In the late summer of 1680, Iroquois warriors attacked the Kaskaskia village, killing a large number of women and children. It’s not known how Marie, who would have been around three or four years old at the time, survived the onslaught.

Conflict between the Kaskaskia and other tribes wasn’t the only source of change during Marie’s childhood. In 1673, the tribe was visited for the first time by Europeans, becoming, in the words of Morrissey, “a crossroad between worlds.” Soon the tribe was in frequent contact with the French, including fur traders who engaged with them in commercial exchanges, soldiers who built a nearby fort, and priests who were intent on converting them to Catholicism. These different communities of French settlers were often at odds with each other, and they regularly quarreled over which group could hold the greatest influence over the Kaskaskia people. Father Jacques Marquette was the first recorded French visitor to the village, and two years after his initial visit, he returned to hold a public mass among the Kaskaskia. Marquette also established the first Catholic mission in the village. The mission, formally named the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, was staffed by a succession of priests over the next several decades, but one of the most important in these early years was undoubtedly Father Jacques Gravier.

Gravier was born in France in 1651 and educated in Paris by the Jesuits. After his ordination, he set sail for Quebec, spending a year studying the Algonquin language. In 1689, when Marie was around twelve, Gravier arrived at the village of the Kaskaskia to take charge of the mission. Two years later, he was with the tribe when they relocated from the Grand Village to a new settlement along the Illinois River near present-day Peoria. Their movement to the new village, known as Pimiteoui, was at least partly motivated by the need for better access to forested areas that could supply them with firewood. At Pimiteoui, Marie managed to survive another major threat to the village: an outbreak of an unidentified epidemic disease, the effects of which are discussed by Gravier in letters from the period.


An engraving depicting a Kaskaskian man, based on an illustration by Georges-Henri-Victor Collot

Indeed, much of what we know about Marie’s life, and the lives of the Kaskaskia during this time, comes from Gravier’s letters and journals. She was one of a large number of Kaskaskian women and girls who enthusiastically converted to Catholicism. Historians believe that the women of the tribe may have been especially open to conversion because of their precarious place within their community’s social structures of family and marriage. Historian Susan Sleeper-Smith writes, “Female oppression and abuse, perhaps a consequence of skewed sexual ratios, were not unusual among the Illini,” adding that one source “contends that there were four women to every man.” The Kaskaskia practiced polygamy, and women often had little power when it came to spousal selection. Morrissey argues that Kaskaskia women were drawn to Catholicism “in large part by their desire to escape polygamous and even abusive marriages.” Sleeper-Smith notes that the women of the tribe “were brutally punished for marital infidelity.” The patriarchal structure of the community left women with few opportunities to exert agency within their own lives, restricting their choices and punishing them severely for social infractions, either real or perceived.

Though Catholicism was also a patriarchal institution, it offered Kaskaskian women more autonomy, giving them opportunities to have some control over their lives. Sleeper-Smith believes that the arrival of the French “offered women an opportunity to challenge their abusive treatment openly” and “enhanced their authority and power within their villages.” As a teenager, Marie Rouensa notably used her newfound Catholic faith as a way to challenge the power of her father in deciding the course of her adult life. In February 1694, when she was around 17 years old, Father Gravier devoted the majority of a long letter to Marie’s story, offering us the most detailed narrative description of her life. He describes her as a model convert, attentive to his instruction and deeply devoted to Christ. Her humility deeply impressed Gravier; he records her as saying that God “is great, and his love for us is great; I am so insignificant, and my love for him is so small. But at least I desire to love him much.” When she was baptized, she took on the name “Marie” as a tribute to the Virgin Mary, telling Gravier, “I pray to her with every endearing term, to be pleased to adopt me as her daughter.”

Gravier depicts Marie as incredibly intelligent, able to absorb information accurately and quickly. She emerges from this pen portrait as a skilled communicator as well; Sleeper-Smith calls her “an interpreter who was recognized as a gifted storyteller.” Gravier used a series of copper-plate engravings of scenes from the Bible as teaching aides, and while many of the Kaskaskia seemed interested in the images mostly because of their novelty, he writes that Marie listened closely to the stories he told while displaying the pictures. She “so well remembered what I have said about each picture of the Old and New Testament,” he notes, and “she explains each one singly, without trouble and without confusion, as well as I could do — and even more intelligibly, in their manner.” Gravier spoke Illinois well, even compiling an incredibly important Kaskaskia-French dictionary during his time with the tribe. But Marie, who had been raised in the center of Kaskaskian society, was able to add an extra layer of cultural translation to his lessons, explaining them to her community in a way that combined the French religious teachings with Kaskaskian references and norms. Marie became an indispensable resource to Gravier; he taught her, and then he worked to “satisfy her zeal by charging her with the duty of teaching” others, especially the children of the tribe. Though she was young, Gravier writes that Marie’s “discretion and virtue [gave] her marvelous authority” within her community, “especially over those to whom she speaks of prayer.”

Gravier needed the help. Although he had found particular success in converting many of the women of the Kaskaskia tribe, he had been less effective in his efforts to reach other members of the community. He acknowledges that the Kaskaskia already had a functioning set of religious practices and beliefs – though he dismisses them as primitive and heathen – and many of the elders of the community were not interested in abandoning their culture to take up the new religion of the “black gowns,” as they called the French priests. His goal of conversion was made even more difficult by the circumstances in which the indigenous people often encountered him. In the midst of the disease that had overtaken the community, Gravier writes that many children in the village died. He hurried to baptize suffering children before their deaths, believing that they would be “grateful” to him “when they are before God.” But, because he so often baptized children who died almost immediately afterward, the families of these children began to associate Gravier and his baptisms with death, not salvation. He writes that while some members of the tribe “show me some politeness, to save appearances,” they often subsequently attempted to thwart his conversions “in an underhand way.” The importance of an ally like Marie within the community could not be overstated – her proximity to power, thanks to her father’s position of authority, as well as the level of respect shown to her by her peers and her dedication to the Catholic faith, made her an incredible asset to Gravier and the mission.

In 1693, Marie’s partnership with Gravier came up against a significant threat. Her father, Rouensa, had decided to strengthen his alliance with the French fur traders by marrying Marie to a voyageur, Michel Aco (whose surname is occasionally also rendered in contemporary records as “Accault”). At 47, Aco was three decades older than his prospective bride. Born in France, Aco had traded with and lived alongside the people of the Illini Confederation for twenty years, and he had acted as a translator for La Salle and Hennepin during their explorations of the Mississippi River. He was also, according to Gravier, “famous in the Illinois country for his debaucheries.” Unsurprisingly, Marie balked at the prospect of marriage, partly because of her distaste for Aco personally, but more significantly because of her commitment to her faith. She had, she told Gravier, “already given all her heart to God, and did not wish to share it” with a husband.


A leaf from Father Gravier’s Kaskaskia-French dictionary

When Marie refused to marry Aco, her parents hauled her and her prospective husband to Gravier’s residence, hoping that he could induce her “to consent to the marriage.” He did not do as they had hoped. Instead, he explained that Marie was the one who had to make the decision, and nothing within the teachings of the church could be used to compel her to act one way or the other. He told them that “God did not command [Marie] not to marry, ” but she also “could not be forced to do so.” Ultimately, he said, the choice was up to her: “she alone was mistress to do either the one or the other.” Marie’s parents were livid at Gravier’s response. Both they and Aco were apparently convinced that Gravier had coerced Marie to refuse the marriage – an assumption that wasn’t without reason, given the difference in the way that the Kaskaskia and the French Catholics afforded agency to women – and when she “made no answer” to their pleas and threats, they left Gravier’s home “quite chagrined.”

That evening, as Gravier walked through Pimiteoui calling the villagers to prayer in the chapel on the grounds of the French fort, Rouensa appeared at the doorway of his cabin. He told Gravier that, because Gravier was “preventing his daughter from obeying him,” he would also “prevent her from going to the chapel.” He went a step further, too: he walked out of his cabin, railing against Gravier and “barring the way” to those who were following the priest to prayers. The Kaskaskia paid attention to their chief’s pronouncements: Gravier reported that only “a portion” of the usual numbers came to that evening’s service at the chapel. In the meantime, Rouensa also punished his daughter for her insolence. He threw her out of the family’s cabin after “depriving her of her upper garment, her stockings, her shoes, and her petty ornaments.” Marie endured the humiliation “without a single word of remonstrance or a single tear,” taking shelter in tall grass until she was found by a kindly man who spotted her on his way to the chapel. He “threw her his jerkin,” a jacket-like garment; she put it on and, in defiance of her father, headed straight for the chapel, “where she responded to all the prayers and chants with the others, as if nothing had happened to her.” After the service, she sought out Gravier, who told her to “have courage” and “do precisely whatever God inspired her, without fearing anything.”

The man who had shared his clothing with Marie also offered her refuge in his family’s cabin. Back in Rouensa’s own cabin, the chief plotted revenge on Gravier for his perceived role in Marie’s refusal to make the alliance. He gathered together the chiefs of the other local tribes and told them that Gravier was preventing them from making crucial economic and political connections with the French traders. Because of this, he declared, they should no longer offer any support, active or passive, to Gravier’s mission and “earnestly begged them to stop the women and children from coming to the chapel.” Though many of the Kaskaskian converts, including Marie, continued to attend mass anyway, attendance began dropping sharply. Marie’s refusal to marry was now placing the entire mission in peril, and Gravier became so sufficiently concerned that he approached the commandant of the nearby French fort to ask for his help. The commandant, however, as one of Gravier’s competitors for the loyalty of the Kaskaskia, was less than sympathetic. He “gloated over” the situation, telling Gravier that he had “drawn all this upon [himself],” because of his “stubbornness in not allowing the girl … to marry the Frenchman.” Gravier records that he felt he handled the situation particularly well, only raising his voice when he addressed the problem with the chiefs prohibiting worship at the chapel. The commandant said he’d speak to the chiefs, but he waited “until the afternoon of the following day,” and only did so after Gravier hounded him further.

As the conflict over the mission intensified, Rouensa appealed to his daughter once more to accept the arranged marriage. He pulled out all the stops, making “every effort to obtain his daughter’s consent, by dint of caresses and threats,” promising punishment and even threatening to “go to war” if she didn’t agree, where her intransigence could result in his death, after which “she would see him no more.” After their conversation, Marie sought out Father Gravier once again. She assured him that “God strengthened her” resolve, but she admitted that her father’s war against Gravier was deeply troubling her: “she had wept for two days on account of this conspiracy against prayer, of which her father was the instigator.” After lots of meditation and prayer, she told Gravier, she had had “an idea.” She continued, “I know not whether it is a good one. I think that, if I consent to the marriage, he will listen to you in earnest, and will induce all to do so. I wish to please God, and for that reason I intend to be always as I am in order to please Jesus Christ alone. But I thought of consenting against my inclination to the marriage, through love for him. Is that right?”

Gravier was impressed, as always, by the depths of both Marie’s faith and her ability for self-examination. He takes care in his journal to note that the words he ascribed to Marie were fully her own, merely translated by him from Illinois into French. He told her, “My daughter, God does not forbid you to marry; neither do I say to you: ‘Marry or do not marry.’ If you consent solely through love for God, and if you believe that by marrying you will win your family to God, the thought is a good one. But you must declare to your parents that it is not their threats that make you consent to the marriage.”

Having made her decision, Marie returned to her parents, where she told her mother, “I pity my father. I feel no resentment against him for his treatment of me, and I fear not his threats. But I think that I shall grant his request, because I believe that you and he will grant me what I ask.” The request she made of them was a big one. Marie wanted not only for her father to cease his opposition to the mission but also to embrace it entirely. She asked her parents to be baptized, converting to Catholicism and setting an example for the entire community. If they had been willing to follow his direction to avoid the chapel, she wagered that the Kaskaskia would also be willing to follow his lead in becoming devout Catholics. Moreover, she required that her new husband also cease his “libertine” ways, returning to the church of his birth and joining her as a devoted member of the religion. Even after deciding to marry Aco, however, Marie made it clear that she was doing so against her own desires. When the family, including Aco, returned to the chapel, Marie told the priest, “I hate him,” meaning Aco, “because he always speaks ill of … the black gown,” meaning Gravier. The priest writes that she continued “in a low tone” to Gravier, “It is not fear of my father that compels me to consent to the marriage. You know why I consent.” Her marriage, ultimately, was her attempt to increase the power of Gravier and the mission, extending her adopted religion to even more of her peers.

Before Rouensa and Aco left the chapel to make preparations for the marriage, Gravier asked Rouensa to gather all the chiefs again and retract everything he’d said about the church in Gravier’s presence. Rouensa agreed and did so. Thrilled, he “informed [the other chiefs], by considerable presents, that he was about to be allied to a Frenchman.” He added that they were “to obey now the black gown” and understand that the “marriages of the French” were “false” compared to the true Catholic marriages performed by “the black gowns.” Gravier emphasized his own power once more in the situation, refusing to open the chapel for those who had responded to Rouensa’s command by gathering for prayers. He wished to assert that it was he, not Rouensa, who exercised power over the mission and its chapel, and before opening the building to all those who assembled, he first held a private service only for those dedicated converts who had previously defied the orders of the chiefs and attended prayers anyway. Only afterward did he again summon the entire village to the chapel.


An early French map of the Illinois Country, including the settlements of Pimiteoui and Kaskaskia

As she prepared for her upcoming marriage, Marie took another important step in her conversion, making her first communion on the Feast of the Assumption in August 1693. Gravier explained that she “had prepared herself for it during more than three months, with such fervor that she seemed fully penetrated by that great mystery.” Gravier does not describe the wedding of Marie and Michel Aco in his letters, but given her devotion to the church and her continued instruction, Gravier almost certainly conducted the ceremony himself, likely in the mission chapel at Pimiteoui. Marriage to Marie appears to have made a significant change in Aco’s character. Aco told Gravier that Marie “spoke to him in so tender and persuasive a manner that he could not avoid being touched by it, and that he was quite ashamed of being less virtuous than she.” He admitted that “he no longer recognize[d] himself,” and could “attribute his conversion solely to his wife’s prayers and exhortations” as well as “the example she [gave] him.” He admitted that he was also one of the forces behind Rouensa’s anger toward the mission, confessing that he had lied to Marie’s parents to try to discredit Gravier and the other missionaries, partly to keep people from converting, and partly to impress and please the other libertines with whom he was associated.

Aco wasn’t the only person who was substantially changed by his marriage to Marie. Encouraged by both Marie and Aco, her parents made good on their promise to convert as well. Aco reassured them that they were making the correct alliance, telling Rouensa and his wife that they should trust Gravier above other Frenchmen, who were merely trying to access “their merchandise.” Rouensa and his wife, reflecting on Aco and Marie’s statements, decided to publicly announce their conversion without even consulting Gravier. Both held feasts, Rouensa for the men of the village and his wife for the women, during which Rouensa publicly proclaimed the family’s conversion to Christianity and encouraged everyone present to “be no longer the enemies of their own happiness” and follow in their footsteps. Gravier baptized Rouensa, his wife, and thirteen additional members of their family, conducting the rite in public to make it “more profitable and more imposing” to the other villagers. Both Rouensa and his wife took on new European names with their baptisms: Francois-Xavier and Marie-Jeanne.

Marie’s request to her parents had far-reaching consequences. Gravier records that an astonishing 200 members of the Kaskaskia tribe were converted in 1693, and after the conversion of the chief, many more would follow. For Marie and Gravier, this was unquestionably good, as they fully believed that they were saving the souls of the people they converted. For others, the mass conversions were tragic, as they signaled the end of an established way of life for the Kaskaskia people. In his journal, Gravier writes that, after Rouensa’s public baptism, one of the elders of the village expressed his unhappiness in an equally public display. The man walked through the village, shouting, “Leave their myths to the people who come from afar, and let us cling to our own traditions.” The baptisms of the Rouensa family marked a painful turning point for many Kaskaskians: the moment when their own long-established cultural norms began to be supplanted fully by a colonial European religion. Carl Ekberg argues that “the conversion of those important members of the Kaskaskia tribe also set in motion an important French policy in North America — making tribes dependent on the French.” He cites the work of Raymond Hauser, noting that “it was precisely the kind of assimilation that Marie Rouensa helped to foster that led to the rapid cultural disintegration and eventual destruction of her tribe” – not through decimation by disease or war, but through integration into French colonial society.

While Gravier was always convinced of Marie’s dedication to her adopted religion, both he and Marie were often skeptical about the depths of her parents’ commitment to Catholicism. Shortly after their baptisms, Gravier records an incident that nearly reversed their course. Marie’s maternal uncle, “out of revenge for some slight vexation formerly caused him by his sister,” killed one of the servants from Marie’s mother’s household. Kaskaskian social norms dictated that Marie’s mother must then seek her own revenge for the killing. Livid, both Rouensa and his wife went “went out together, the wife being armed as well as the husband, to kill the murderer.” But Marie intervened, fearful that her parents would commit a sin that would jeopardize their conversion. Gravier writes that Marie’s pleas “succeeded so well that she diverted the blow and prevented them from executing their design.” But Marie’s mother was deeply embarrassed that she had not carried out the expected response. She told her daughter that she was only willing to appear publicly in the chapel if “I am revenged.” Marie replied, “God forbids revenge, and wills that punishment be left to him.” This was not a satisfactory answer. Marie’s mother shot back, “Then let him make my brother die, and I will be a good Christian. If he does not kill him, I will not cease to seek means to destroy him.” It took a great deal of time for Marie’s parents to become comfortable living by the expectations of the church rather than those of their people and village, but ultimately, Marie’s mother did not seek revenge.

The church and the tribe weren’t the only communities in conflict following the family’s conversion. Gravier writes that Marie “heard her father complaining to her husband of the ingratitude of the French,” and Gravier notes that it’s true that without Rouensa’s support, “the French would have been massacred.” Rouensa told Aco that the Frenchmen who had formerly been friendly toward him “would not even look at him since he was a Christian,” and the commandant especially “now despised him.” He was worried that the French believed that he was “a coward because he had not revenged himself upon his brother-in-law.” Again, Marie stepped in, entreating him, “My father, you speak ill. The Devil wishes to make you sin; pray go to confession, that your mind may be soothed and your soul may resume the original beauty given to it by baptism.” Rouensa responded positively – and significantly, in Illinois – replying, “Nikana,” which means “my friend.” Both Marie’s parents subsequently visited Gravier to confess. They eventually became devoted members of Gravier’s growing flock. Marie’s mother was “ever in the chapel at the head of all those of her sex.” On one occasion, she and “all the women” surprised Gravier with “a fine present of tallow” to help light the chapel during mass and catechism. Rouensa’s younger brother, the “chief of the young men,” gave the chapel “a similar present some time afterward.”

Marie’s family members were just a few of the many Kaskaskians that she sponsored for baptism. Gravier writes that “it gives her great pleasure to be chosen as Godmother,” and she “herself brings the children of her relatives, as soon as they are born,” to be baptized. Marie and her husband are frequently listed in the mission’s baptismal records as godparents, to children of both French and Kaskaskian parents. Soon enough, a large number of French-Kaskaskian marriages produced a growing number of métis children, who descended from both indigenous people and French settlers. The first of these children recorded in the register is Michel and Marie’s son, Pierre Aco. He was baptized by Father Gravier at the Pimiteoui mission on March 20, 1695, with Marie’s mother (listed as Marie-Jeanne) as his godmother. Children like Pierre represented the success of the French colonial project in the Illinois Country. Morrissey explains, “From the very beginning of New France, colonial officials dreamed of assimilating Indians into the colonial population. And, conspicuously, officials saw intermarriage between Frenchmen and Indian women as a major means to achieve this goal.” The creole children of these marriages, it was believed, would be more likely to be loyal and sympathetic to the colonial project. Both Morrissey and Sleeper-Smith complicate this argument, however. Rather than simply raising a new generation of children who were primarily French, these métis families occupied a more complicated place in the world of eighteenth-century Illinois. Morrissey explains that “very often it was through such marriages that Frenchmen entered and were incorporated into an Indian kinship network and an Indian cultural space.” The families were not merely French or indigenous; they were part of an emerging social world that combined aspects of both cultures.


A depiction of a late eighteenth-century French Creole residence in Illinois, by Georges-Henri Victor-Collot

In 1702, Marie gave birth to a second son, named Michel after his father. He was baptized on February 22, 1702, but not by Father Gravier, and not at Pimiteoui. By this time, the Kaskaskia, led by Rouensa and his family, had relocated their village to the confluence of the Mississippi and the River des Peres, within the boundaries of the present-day city of St. Louis. (This Kaskaskian settlement pre-dates the founding of St. Louis by six decades.) The younger Michel Aco was baptized there by Father Gabriel Marest, who had taken over as head of the mission after Gravier was promoted to vicar-general of the missions in Illinois. The new village was ultimately a temporary home for the tribe. In 1703, they decided to move again, perhaps because of threats posed by other native groups. The community journeyed south along the Mississippi, settling on the banks of the Kaskaskia River in present-day Randolph County. There, they established a community that became one of the most important early European settlements in Illinois. But Sleeper-Smith cautions us not to view early Kaskaskia solely as a French settlement, noting that women like “Marie Rouensa [were] not French. The Kaskaskia village population grew owing to the intermarriage of Frenchmen and Native women, not Frenchmen and Frenchwomen.”

Around the time that the Kaskaskia settlement was established, Marie’s life went through another, more personal set of changes. Michel Aco died, and Marie married a second French husband: another voyageur named Michel Philippe. Together, they became a key part of the emerging métis community at Kaskaskia, which became recognized as the name of a place as well as of a people. (Interestingly, Rouensa also established his own separate village, named St. Francois-Xavier, at some point during this period. Historians are not certain precisely where it was located.) During her second marriage, Marie gave birth to six more children: Agnes, Jacques, Elisabeth, Marie Josephe, Joseph, and Ignace, several of whom made significant marriages and have numerous descendants today. She also continued to serve frequently as a godmother to the children of other members of the community, both Kaskaskia and French. The ties reinforced by these social connections created a unique culture in eighteenth-century Kaskaskia. Morrissey writes, “Marriage and godmotherhood clearly were part of a process that created firm social distinctions and borders in French Kaskaskia,” establishing identities within the settlement that were “increasingly agrarian, Catholic, and French.” He identifies Marie as “the most highly connected individual” within that network of godmothers, suggesting that the devotion and zeal identified by Gravier lasted throughout Marie’s entire life.

In June 1725, when Marie was not quite fifty years old, the priest of the Kaskaskia parish was summoned to her bedside. Father Le Boullenger, accompanied by a notary, listened as Marie dictated her will. Although she had been married to two Frenchmen, and had raised eight children in an increasingly Francophile community, she spoke the contents of her will “in the Illini language.” Sleeper-Smith notes that Le Boullenger “simultaneously translated [her words] into French” and then “read it back, twice, in Illini.” Her use of the language of her birth at the end of her life suggests that, although her religious conversion “reshaped the framework of her life,” she was “continually shaped by her Indian heritage” as well. Even so, Marie’s will includes one instruction that shows how strongly connected she was to her French Catholic identity. We learn from the document that her second son, Michel Aco, left his family to settle among an indigenous community, likely “the non-Christian Peoria,” and married a native woman. Marie chose to disinherit Michel “as much for his disobedience as for the marriage he has contracted despite his mother and his relatives.” While Marie was able to convince her parents to remain true to their conversions, she was unable to do the same for her son, who opted to marry a woman from the same cultural background as that of Marie’s own birth. (After Marie’s death, Michel ultimately returned to Kaskaskia without his wife and claimed his inheritance.)

Marie died a few weeks after making her will. As a gesture of honor, she was buried beneath her pew in the parish church at Kaskaskia. It was a fitting tribute by the local priest: without Marie’s conversion and her commitment to the conversion of others, it’s possible that the mission would never have been able to sustain a presence within the 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.


Marie Rouensa was inducted into the Randolph Society in 2020.