University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Tracing the Threads of Early New France – Kelsey Salvesen

January 17, 2018

As a PhD candidate in History, specializing in early North America and the French Atlantic (largely in the 17th and 18th centuries, with some spillover into the 19th century), my research has taken me to archives in a variety of cities in several different countries. Until this summer, I had chiefly worked with documentary archives—handling account books, manuscript annals of religious orders, letters, parchment deeds, and even once a saint’s relic that had been tucked into an envelope along with more mundane items. These largely handwritten sources gave me a lot to work with, as I tried to reconstruct a better picture of gender, race, and religion in New France, but I knew there was more information I could glean if I could access object sources alongside the more familiar documentary sources. This summer, I was able to do just that. With the aid of Summer Field Funding from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, I visited the collections of two museums in the Quebec area: the Museum of the Ursulines of Quebec, in Quebec City, and the Huron-Wendat Museum in Wendake, Quebec.

Neither museum has an online catalogue, so this trip was more of an initial foray to gain a better understanding of their collections. I visited the Huron-Wendat Museum first. The archivist kindly allowed me free rein of the back room where they store items not currently on exhibit. For this visit, I was chiefly interested in the museum’s textile collection, as well as objects exchanged between Europe and the mission in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Among the textiles I had the opportunity to examine were several embroidered altar frontals dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. These decorative cloths would have been displayed on the altar of the mission church, Notre Dame de Lorette, which still stands about a five minute walk from the entrance to the Museum.

Exterior of the Huron-Wendat Museum. (Photo by author)

Inside the Huron-Wendat Museum Archives. (Photo by author)
Chartres Reliquary—saints’ relics sent to the mission from Notre Dame de Chartres in the 17th century. The Cathedral still possesses a wampum belt that was sent to them by the Huron-Wendat in exchange. (Photo by author)
Exterior view of the church. (Photo by author)
Close-up detail on an embroidered altar cloth in the Huron-Wendat Museum collection. (Photo by author)

The museum also has several sets of embroidered priestly garments (chasubles, stoles, etc.) from the same general period (mostly 18th century). Many have since been refurbished, but the one pictured below has undergone the least restoration.

Opening each drawer yielded new beautiful historic textiles, like these purple clerical garments and accessories. (Photo by author)
Very little specific information on the creators of these items has been retained over the centuries; it is rare to have a specific maker credited. These stitched religious works were generally unsigned and even dating them is often difficult to a finer degree than a particular century, or perhaps a 50-year period. The exception to this is an altar frontal in the museum’s collection that is traditionally attributed to Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672), of the Quebec City Ursuline nuns.

One of the aspects of these textiles and items of this nature that fascinates me is their circulation—across the ocean and within New France—and the role they played in binding together communities. We know, for instance, that the Ursuline nuns of Quebec regularly received altar ornaments, cloth, and related goods from their counterparts in France; the Ursulines embroidered chasubles for the Jesuits (the order that staffed the mission church Notre Dame de Lorette, in what is today Wendake); and textile goods show up frequently in the account books of each of the early orders in the Quebec area. It is fitting, then (though not surprising) that the imagery found on one of the altar coverings from the Lorette church—that of a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the cross—is also featured on an Ursuline altar on display today in their chapel.

Entering the Ursuline Chapel in Quebec. (Photo by author)

I am only able to display here images of the exterior of the Ursuline buildings—their chapel and monastery—as the order does not permit me to publicly share pictures of the items in their collection. I can, however, include a brief description of what I was looking for in their holdings. There was a mix-up at the Ursuline Museum, and I was unfortunately not able to work in their archives for the length of time anticipated, but it was nevertheless a fruitful visit. I was able to look through a number of textile sources, ranging from dyed porcupine quills used by the Ursulines to create Huron-Wendat style boxes, bags, and other items using traditionally aboriginal materials (these particular quills were unlabeled, but the practice of imitation-Amerindian goods became popular in the 18th century), to elaborately embroidered altar cloths dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The Ursulines also possess a collection of largely 19th-century schoolgirl embroideries from the Ursuline school. I am interested in these in particular for what we can learn about girls’ education, and societal ideals regarding gender and religion, from the content of these samplers, especially the stitched texts.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to look through the collections of both the Huron-Wendat and the Ursuline Museums and to have had the opportunity to examine up-close a number of very interesting (and beautiful) items.


Kelsey Salvesen is a graduate student in the History Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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