The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor: The First Woman Settler of the Miramichi by Sally Armstrong. Random House Canada, 2007.
When Sally Armstrong set out to tell the story of her great-great-great-grandmother, she imagined a non-fiction account of her life. However, her research left gaps and questions that couldn’t be answered. Thus, she decided instead to write a fictionalized account, using as much information as is available, and filling in the blanks with an informed best-guess. The result is The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor. To say that Charlotte Taylor was an amazing woman is understatement. Armstrong doesn’t do a lot of embroidering or sentimentalizing. The book is a pretty straightforward presentation of the facts as known or surmised, but what a story it is!
Charlotte Taylor, born on November 26, 1752, grew up in England, the daughter of a well-to-do family. At the age of 20, she turned convention on its head and ran off with one of the household staff, Pad. It isn’t known for certain where she first landed in America, but Armstrong employs evidence that suggests Charlotte and her beau sailed to the West Indies. When Pad died shortly after landing in the new world, Charlotte was left alone and pregnant. She was able to secure passage to the eastern coast of what would become New Brunswick, where her first child, Elizabeth was born. Armstrong suggests it was in this first season in the north that Elizabeth developed a close relationship with and respect for the native people, the Mi’kmaq.
Charlotte began her life as a settler when she married John Blake and they moved to a lot situated where the Miramichi River narrows from the openness of Miramichi Bay. They built a small cabin and Charlotte had three children with Blake before he died suddenly of an infection. By 1785, she was alone again, with 4 children under the age of 8. She soon remarried, taking William Wishart as her husband. Together, they continued to live on the Blake land claim and had a son, William, born in 1785 or 86. However, this relationship was short-lived as William (the elder) died. September 11, 1787 saw the marriage of Charlotte to Philip Hierlihy, her last husband. Her daughter Elizabeth was 12 years old and William was just a baby. With Philip, Charlotte had five more children. In 1795, after many years of disputes, Charlotte’s land claims were at last finalized, and the Hierlihy’s left the original Blake holdings to live at Tabusintac, New Brunswick soon after these grants were formalized. Most of Charlotte’s family also settled around the Tabusintac area. Philip died in 1804 and Charlotte remained a widow for her remaining years, dying on April 25, 1841 in her 89th year.
Charlotte lived in turbulent times. The first settlers, the French Acadians, were expelled from the region by the British. Over Charlotte’s lifetime, the Mi’kmaq people were driven from their ancestoral lands by aggressive British forces and new settlers in a free-for-all land grab as a first wave of settlers was followed by Loyalists from the American regions, the fallout of the American Revolution. More information about Charlotte and her life and times is available at the Charlotte Taylor website, maintained by Mary Lynn Smith.
By the time she died, Charlotte had more than seventy grandchildren. Today, she has over two thousand descendants, who, Armstrong reports, assemble every five years at Tabusintac’s Old Home Week. Armstrong does a good job of offering insight into what Charlotte’s life might have been like. I also liked her sympathetic portrait of the Mi’kmaqs. The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor is a good memorial to an unusual woman and is an engaging read. You will find a photograph of Charlotte ‘s Tabusintac home, now owned by Mylie and Lorraine Wishart, at the Tabusintac site showing author Sally Armstrong’s visit.