Stephen Girard began life with a handicap which was to affect his ability to be comfortable with people. His right eye had no vision at all and served only to repulse those around him by its grotesque nature. The only person to show him unconditional love was his mother who died when he was still a boy. This is hardly an auspicious beginning.
did however have other attributes: he was intelligent, courageous and
kind. As a child growing up in the outskirts of Bordeaux, France, he had
his share of hurtful remarks thrown his way by mocking children. His
brilliant mind however allowed him to rise above the pain he suffered by
making his father understand he was more than ready to become a man. He
was the eldest of nine children which did not give him much time at his
mother's knee. So many births, so much fatigue weakened her and finally
took her away.
Born on May 20, 1750, Girard could not
have known as a boy that he would become the wealthiest person in The
United States of America, that a day would come when he would put this
entire fortune at risk to come to the aid of his adopted country at war.
And yet, our school children never hear or read about him.
Girard, Stephen's father had gone to sea at thirteen. He was a solitary
man who spoke very little to his eldest son but was pleased to see the
boy interested in sailing. Pierre had been a hero in the War of the
Austrian Succession. In 1744, a British fleet attacked the seaport of
Brest with the intention of destroying French warships stationed there.
Pierre's ship caught fire and, risking his life, he put the fire out.
Louis XV awarded Pierre the Cross of Royal and Military Order. Stephen
had his first experiences on board ship with his father who taught him
navigation as well as cargo handling.
With his father
he traveled to the West Indies and to the American colonies. Stephen
very quickly made acquaintances and was hired by one ship owner after
another in jobs of growing importance.
Stephen had a very
inquisitive mind and would often volunteer for jobs just for the
experience. When he finally qualified for the rank of captain, he was
too young for the position but due to his seriousness of mission, he
found that his captain had fudged on the application by a year and a
His unhappiness at home explains to a degree why among the
hundreds of pages he was to write in his lifetime, there was hardly a
mention of his early childhood.
When Stephen's mother
Odette died, his father invited Odette's half sister to come and
house-keep for the family. This young, sixteen-year-old girl named Anne
Marie took care of the children during the day and against her better
judgment took care of the whims of Pierre Girard at night. Stephen was
angered at this turn of events.Not only had he lost his mother but his
main confidant Aunt Anne Marie now took the side of his father in any
Wanting to get out of the house,
tired of being an office boy, Stephen asked his father if he could go
aboard one of Pierre's ships as a pilotin or apprentice under Captain
Courteau. The ship was the Pelerin and was to sail on a trading voyage to Haiti. Stephen was finally going to sea as a real sailor.
He was fourteen.