Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Widow of Hubert O'Quin

In the ledger book for 1843, of Philip Robin and Company, operating in Cheticamp, Cape Breton, there is an entry for the widow of Hubert O'Quin. The fact that there is an entry for a widow is not particularly noteworthy, as in any given year in the mid-1800s, among the 400 or so entries in the Company's ledgers, there are usually about a dozen widows. What stands out is the size of her account, relative to those of other widows. It is 54 pounds, 8 shillings and 4 pence, compared to the typical 2 or 3 pounds. This peculiar finding prompted two lines of questioning. First, who was this widow? And second, what was generating this level of financial activity?

Part of resolving the first issue hinged on determining that the name O'Quin was used by the Company clerks in place of Aucoin, one of the founding families of Cheticamp. Genealogical records tell us that Hubert Aucoin was born in 1791 to Anselme Aucoin and Alice Rose Chiasson. He was the second of nine children. He married Marie-Magdelene Bois, daughter of Regis Bois and Appoline Arsenault, on 25 July 1812. We are not sure when Marie-Magdelene was born, but records seem to suggest that she was twelve when she married Hubert. The couple had five children, three of whom were girls, with their fourth child, Norbert, being lost at sea on 5 April 1842. According to tradition, Hubert is supposed to have been shipwrecked off Cape North in about 1841. The ledgers tell a different story.

Tracking entries for Marie-Magdelene both before and after 1843, it turns out that she was actually widowed in 1831, her husband leaving her with a debt of about 37 pounds, and she is still on the books in 1852 -- a full two decades of seeming financial independence. Through those years, she purchases the usual supplies from the Company store: furnace oil, cloth, sugar, tobacco, rum, biscuit, tea, coffee, and various sundries. However, on occasion, she also pays for rental of a small boat, passage on a couple of voyages, and transfers amounts to various men in the community. Her sources of income include an impressive array of items: top-grade cured cod, inferior cured cod, whole cod, cod liver oil, haddock, dog fish, seal blubber and pelts, sheep and potatoes. At one point, she is even paid wages for a month's service on one of the Company's ships, the Young Witch.

Who was this woman?

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