French Renaissance Paleography


Quebec City, 27 November 1642 / 30 April 1643
Legal documents concerning the inventory of the estate of Jean Nicollet
Chicago, Newberry Library, VAULT box Ayer MS 651


This collection of legal documents sheds light on the family and property of the legendary French interpreter and trader Jean Nicollet (Nicolet), who led an adventuresome life in New France during the early years of the colony, when Samuel de Champlain was exploring the Saint Lawrence River valley and establishing fur trading posts throughout the region. (Click here for one of Champlain’s maps.)
Beginning in 1619 Nicollet lived for a brief time among the Kichesipirini Alonquins on Allumette Island (in the Ottawa River, near present-day Pembroke, Ontario). Then he spent nine years with the Nipissing (closer to Lake Huron), where he established a store. Following the English capture of Quebec City in 1629, he took refuge among the Huron (Wendat). A few years later, he traveled to the upper Great Lakes region, to what is today’s state of Wisconsin, a voyage that brought him to the realization that China and the Pacific must lie even further west than previously believed.

Nicollet married twice: first, a Nipissing woman with whom he had a daughter, Euphrosine, also known as Madeleine. He brought his daughter, after her mother died, to be raised in Quebec City. He then settled in Trois-Rivières as a clerk and interpreter for the Compagnie des Cent-Associés (or Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France), where he married a godchild of Champlain, Marguerite Couillard, with whom he had two children, a son who did not survive and a daughter who did. Via this connection with an important colonial family, he came into co-ownership, with his brother-in-law Olivier Letardif (or Le Tardif), of some land at the outskirts of Quebec City. Letardif was one of the witnesses to the 1638 ceremony narrated in another document included in this website, which confirmed land grants that had been made along the Saint Lawrence to an association of French investors (see the Investiture de l’Ile d’Orléans manuscript).

Nicollet drowned in 1642 when strong winds overturned his boat in the Saint Lawrence, just outside Quebec. The document transcribed here reveals that his second daughter was only eight months old when he died. Nicollet’s brother, Pierre, a sailor, was designated as the child’s guardian on 26 November 1642, and then an inventory and appraisal of Nicollet’s property was drawn up the following day. His widow, Marguerite; her father, Guillaume Couillard; and various other witnesses were present for the drafting of the inventory. Guillaume Couillard and Pierre Nicollet both made marks instead of signatures, because they did not know how to sign. Marguerite, however, knew how to write her name.

The documents in the Newberry’s Nicollet dossier include the inventory itself (a list of 48 items of clothing, furniture, and housewares with their estimated value); a list of additional items missing from the initial inventory; and a list of land titles and important family papers.