Since she was the twelfth of the fourteen children in her family, Matilda often found herself playing piano so that her older brothers and sisters could dance with their sweethearts and spouses. Her father, Barthélémi-Joseph Martineau, had been married twice, first to the scandalously named Salomée, who was her oldest six siblings’ mother, and then to her mother, Laura, who already had three children by her first marriage when she met Barthélémi. Matilda was the first child born in the United States, in the mill town of Smithfield, Rhode Island. Her mother was a school teacher, so Matilda was very well educated, having completed school all the way to the sixth grade, and she continued to be a great reader and a very refined woman all of her life.
The Martineaus had an illustrious family tree. Matilda’s grandmother was Léocadie Martel, who was a descendant of Charles Martel, grandfather of the emperor Charlemagne and victor of the Battle of Tours in A.D. 732, which kept all of Europe from speaking Arabic, at least for a while. Centuries later, Matilda’s Martineau ancestor, Martin Prévost, married Marie-Olivier-Silvestre Manitouabewich on November 3, 1644, in Québec, in the first French and Native American marriage in North America. Matilda’s cousin, Sir Wilfred Laurier, was the first Prémier of Canada. Despite these exalted forebears, when Matilda was eight years old, her father moved the family to Esmond to work in the textile mills there, along with many other French-Canadian immigrants.
One of the young people’s favorite places was the Esmond Dance Hall, provided by the owner of the village mill. Matilda and her family loved to dance, so they often made their way to the hall on the weekends. Naturally, it was a wonderful way to meet new people, and it seems that even back then, the nice girls always fell for the bad boys.