Born and raised in a New England garrison town, Esther Wheelwright (1696–1780) was captured by Wabanaki Indians at age seven. Among them, she became a Catholic and lived like any other young girl in the tribe. At age twelve, she was enrolled at a French-Canadian Ursuline convent, where she would spend the rest of her life, eventually becoming the order’s only foreign-born mother superior. Among these three major cultures of colonial North America, Wheelwright’s life was exceptional: border-crossing, multilingual, and multicultural.
This meticulously researched book discovers her life through the communities of girls and women around her: the free and enslaved women who raised her in Wells, Maine; the Wabanaki women who cared for her, catechized her, and taught her to work as an Indian girl; the French-Canadian and Native girls who were her classmates in the Ursuline school; and the Ursuline nuns who led her to a religious life.
Ann M. Little’s telling of Esther Wheelwright’s story illuminates issues of class, status and gender through the 18th century and across continents.
In her intriguing new biography, “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright,” . . . Little asks a rhetocial question: Why would the portrait of this Ursuline nun be there in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection “amid this collection of prominent Puritans and wealthy merchants, in the company of men she would have disagreed with on nearly every issue, great or small?”
The story of Wheelwright is unique in its details, but ends up telling a larger story about the lives of women in the region, as well as religion, warfare, status, human nature and rivalry on a local and world stage. This is a book that deserves a permanent place on any bookshelf dedicated to the history of Maine.
—William David Barry, Maine Sunday Telegram, September 18, 2016
“Little has produced a fascinating biography of an extraordinary woman. . . . A must-read.”—Library Journal, starred review, August 2016
- Episode 11, “Biography,” on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast, October 2016
- “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright” on Radio Boston, October 11, 2016
- Coming soon! Historiann will be on Liz Covart’s podcast, Ben Franklin’s World.