The Life of Esther Wheelwright: An 18th Century TCK

Esther Wheelwright

Esther Wheelwright was a nun in the 1700s who lived in three different North American cultures from childhood through adulthood.  Born in Wells, Maine in 1696, her quiet life as a tavern keeper’s daughter would soon be thrown into a tail spin after being captured in 1703.

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas)
Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas)

Culture 1: Colonial Puritans

Wheelwright was raised in a strict Puritan household. According to Kellie Hayden, Puritan women like Wheelwright were expected to help around the house and were forbidden from doing any public work.  She would have been taught from an early age how to cook, clean and take care of her siblings and above all, be devoted to the Lord.  Through prayer, mandatory church attendance and chastity, Wheelwright was raised to be as religious as possible in order to fit into her community and to uphold her family’s reputation as good Christians.

Colorado State University history professor Ann Little wrote a book about Esther Wheelwright’s life and said, “In 1702, relations between the English in the south and the French in the north were tense because France wanted control of the 13 colonies. This was the beginning of Queen Anne’s War. The French then allied with the Wabanaki Native Americans and started launching attacks.  Esther’s town was a trading post between these two areas and was an immediate target.”

Culture 2: Wabanaki Native Americans

According to Little’s book, “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright,” the French and the Wabanaki attacked the town in 1703.  Her family were primary targets because Wheelwright’s father had political influence and also armed townspeople for the attack. The Wabanaki and the French destroyed the town, killed hundreds and captured only seven people, one of them being Esther Wheelwright.

Map of the Wabanaki Confederacy (CC0)

Ann Little says, “She was probably adopted into a Wabanaki family because of her gender and her age.  She was then expected to assimilate into their Native American society and abandon her Puritan life.  Because the French were Catholic and were allied with the Wabanaki, she was also taught how to be a Catholic instead of Puritan.”  She was captive for five years by the Wabanaki.

Culture 3: Relocation to Quebec

Surprisingly, Esther’s family survived the attack in 1703 and learned of her captivity.  Her family tried to persuade the governor of New France, Marquis de Vaudreuil, to bring her back to them.  Instead, Vaudreuil took her away from the Wabanaki and brought her to his chateau in Quebec where she was trained by his wife to be a member of the French aristocracy. In 1709, she was sent to a Catholic Ursuline boarding school.

A painting of a nun from the 18th Century.
A painting of a nun from the 18th Century.

Ann Little says, “After 18 months at the school, she finally asked to become a nun after immersing herself in Catholicism. In 1714, she completed her training and became an Ursuline sister. She eventually worked her way up in the convent and became the Mother Superior of the Quebec Ursuline Order.  She remained in the convent for the rest of her life and died in 1780.”

Esther Wheelwright has gone down in history as one of the only people of her time to live in three distinct North American cultures.  From her humble Puritan beginnings to an assimilated Native American to a Catholic nun, she was one of the only women of her time to have the opportunity to understand multiple ways of life, eventually abandoning her English Puritan identity to become a Catholic nun by choice.

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  1. This was an amazing historical read. Doing the math, she was born in 1696 and first captured in 1703 which means she was 7 years old when she was taken. Then, when she was taken to Quebec, she was roughly 12-13 years old. Realizing this only heightens the significance of the cultural influences within her formative years. And considering how TCK was not a term back then, nor do we know what we know now, it makes me wonder what she was personally feeling during all this. I hope to read more about historical TCKs after reading this article. Nicely done!

  2. This is such an interesting lens for a historical figure. I wonder if being a TCK and adapting to so many different cultures made it easier for her to climb the ranks of the Quebec Ursuline Order. Adaptability is so important when it comes to growing in leadership. It also makes you think about how she might have felt trying to adapt to a different culture at such a young age and what that might have looked like so long ago, and if there were any support or resources to make it easier for her. ‘Ann Little says, “She was probably adopted into a Wabanaki family because of her gender and her age.’ Based on this quote I could assume that this wasn’t a rare occurrence for people who were of her age and standing to be assimilated into different societies.

  3. We don’t often consider the possibilities of TCKs being present so far in the past. In our globalized world, where travel is quick, convenient, and long-reaching, it is much more possible for kids to become TCKs. but the chances of becoming one in Esther Wheelwright’s time is almost unheard of, at least in comparison to today’s TCK population. This is an interesting look into the often overlooked history of the TCK; you may even be able to call Wheelwright an “18th century citizen.”

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