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Dawn's Light Woman & Nicolas Franchomme

Dawn's Light Woman & Nicolas Franchomme

Marriage and Law in the Illinois Country

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Carl J. Ekberg and Sharon K. Person


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
24 illustrations

Shawnee Books


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About the Book

WINNER, 2023 Illinois State Historical Society Superior Achievement Award in “Books, Scholarly”!

Native women’s marital rights and roles in colonial Illinois society

Kaskaskia, Illinois, once the state’s capital, torn from the state by flood waters, and now largely forgotten, was once the home to a couple who helped transform the region in the 1720s from a frontier village to a civil society. In the heart of France’s North American empire, the village was a community of French-Canadian fur traders and Kaskaskia Indians who not only lived together but often intermarried. These Indigenous and French intermarriages were central to colonial Illinois society, and the coupling of Marguerite 8assecam8c8e (Dawn’s Light Woman) and Nicolas Franchomme, in particular, was critical to expanding the jurisdiction of French law.
While the story of Marguerite and Nicolas is unknown today, it is the story of how French customary law (Coutume de Paris) governed colonial marriage, how mixed Indian-French marriages stood at the very core of early colonial Illinois society, and how Illinois Indian women benefited, socially and legally, from being married to French men. All of this came about due to a lawsuit in which Nicolas successfully argued that his wife had legal claim to her first husband’s estate—a legal decision that created a precedent for society in the Illinois Country.
Within this narrative of a married couple and their legal fight—based on original French manuscripts and supported by the comprehensively annotated 1726 Illinois census—is also the story of the village of Kaskaskia during the 1720s, of the war between Fox Indians and French settlers, with their Indian allies, in Illinois, and of how the spread of plow agriculture dramatically transformed the Illinois Country’s economy from largely fur trade–based to expansively agricultural.


Carl J. Ekberg is emeritus professor of history at Illinois State University. He has published many books and articles including Stealing Indian Women: Native Slavery in the Illinois CountrySharon K. Person, emerita professor of English at St. Louis Community College, is the author of Standing Up for Indians: Baptism Registers as an Untapped Source for Multicultural Relations in St. Louis, 1766–1821. Together, they are the authors of St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive.


“Ekberg and Person have done it again, training their tenacious research and creative analysis on the complex social world of early Illinois families. Foregrounding marriage, kinship, property, and law, the authors explore day-to-day dramas that also reveal the workings of empire and power in an early American community.”—Robert Michael Morrissey, author of Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country

“A superbly researched and beautifully written book on a neglected part of US history. As a deep investigation into the lives of French and Illinois peoples in the heart of America from the 1720s, filled with colorful vignettes, it is a must-read for anyone interested in colonial American history.”—Gilles Havard, author of Histoire des coureurs de bois: Amérique du Nord, 1600–1840

"Ekberg and Person’s ambitious excursion into the rich civil and ecclesiastical archives of the Illinois country and elsewhere has produced a convincing account of the centrality of French-Indian marriages to the founding and continued stability of the French village of Kaskaskia. Focusing on the life of an Illinois Indian named Dawn’s Light Woman, the authors tell a complex socio-legal story in which French customary law, primarily the Coutume de Paris, shaped the bonds of marriage and family that sustained Kaskaskia’s life and underlay its prosperity. The book’s forthright engagement with interpretive constructs like race, racism, and settler colonialism, prominent features in the recent historiography of colonial North America, will enhance the appeal of this most welcome volume.”—Morris S. Arnold, author of Unequal Laws unto a Savage Race: European Legal Traditions in Arkansas, 1686–1836

“A superb example of the historian’s craft and of the power and pleasure of the archive, with all its attendant challenges. This book reveals more than I even thought possible about daily life and the role of Native women in this eighteenth-century community.”—Tracy Neal Leavelle, author of The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America.

“Ekberg and Person have presented a meticulously researched and enlightening reading of the complexities of marriage and inheritance in the early Illinois Country. Their editing of the 1726 Census will prove useful for scholars of the region for generations.”—Mark F. Fernandez, author of From Chaos to Continuity: Evolution of Louisiana’s Judicial System, 1712–1862

“Historians have investigated marriages between French men and Indian women mainly from the perspectives of the husbands and of the clerics who disapproved of such unions and those who continued to sanctify them. Ekberg and Person approach the subject differently, centering on Indian women who entered these relationships and on the Coutume de Paris, the civil law code throughout New France and other French colonies. The authors particularly focus on Marguerite 8assecam8c8e, (Dawn’s Light Woman), who married successively three French husbands, all prominent men, and for whom the Coutume de Paris proved of greater importance than clerical quarrels. Ekberg and Person reveal a much richer and more nuanced view of society in le pays des Illinois and the factors that shaped that society.”—David MacDonald, author of Lives of Fort de Chartres, Kaskaskia: The Lost Capital of Illinois

“This text provides important stories about Kaskaskian women married to Frenchmen and, in particular, highlights just how these women benefited from French law, the Coutume de Paris. Digging through Kaskaskia manuscripts, wills, baptismal records, court documents, and so on, these gumshoes have built incredible stories that paint a rather egalitarian picture of French Kaskaskia during the early to mid-eighteenth century.”—Linda C. Jones, Missouri Historical Review

“This carefully documented study gives credit to earlier researchers while introducing a thorough examination of one of Illinois’ least-studied subjects, Native American women, one of whom is named Dawn’s Light Woman, more formally Marguerite 8assecam8c8e. Married to three French men in the early days of the Illinois country, her story will be of interest to French scholars and linguists, and is intelligible to those not trained in French ways of pre-statehood Illinois. Dawn’s Light Woman married thrice—and married wisely and well.”—Illinois State Historical Society Awards Selection Committee