Filles du Roi

Fillesduroi painting
Painting depicting arrival of the Filles du Roi in Quebec

Unlike Spain and England, France was slow to begin exploring and colonizing the Americas.  But by the middle of the seventeenth century, they had established a formidable foothold. map of new france -3Their colony, known as Nouvelle-France (New France), was growing.  Unfortunately, almost all of the immigrants were men. This is not surprising when you consider the perils of transAtlantic travel during this time. Add in the rustic living conditions, harsh winters and threats of Indian attack and there would have to be a lot of incentive for a woman to leave the comfort of her home in France to begin a new life in a strange land. Today, with our instant communication and ever-present technology we don’t have any clue just how difficult a decision it was. I can imagine it would be akin to a twenty-first-century woman emigrating to a newly organized colony on the moon.  

In order to grow the population of New France and make it a viable settlement, there needed to be children born there. For that, there needed to be women. Although some of the men who settled New France took native American women as mates (not necessarily marrying them) and those unions resulted in children, it was not the type of population growth that the King, not to mention the Catholic Church, wanted. Although New Rochelle, the port city from which many of the colonists embarked, was predominantly, and uncharacteristically for that time in France, Protestant, the missionaries, clergy and nuns who were some of the first to settle in Montreal and Quebec, were determined that his new land would be inhabited by those who practiced the Catholic faith.

Between 1634 and 1662, while the Compagnie des Cent-Associés under Jean Talon (The Intendant of Quebec) was more or less in charge of governing New France, Talon arranged for women to travel there hoping they would marry, start families, help their husbands farm the land – and when necessary, fend off the Indians. In 1662, Talon was recalled to France, and in 1663, the program was discontinued. Governance of New France was taken over by the royal administration and Louis XIV needed to find a way to convince more women to emigrate. The king’s advisor, Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was tasked with making that happen.

In order to strengthen France’s hold in this new colony, between 1663 and 1673 Colbert, under the authority of Louis XIV, sent women across the Atlantic, at royal expense, in order to populate New France by providing suitable wives for the male settlers. These women became known as the King’s Daughters or Filles du Roi. They came primarily from the areas of Paris or Normandy, represented a wide range of socio-economic situations and made the journey across the Atlantic for a variety of reasons.  

It is important to note here that these ladies have often been characterized as women of questionable morals, criminals and the discards of society. In fact, the very opposite was true. There was a requirement that each recruit be healthy and of good character. These women were, for the most part, raised with discipline, good housekeeping skills, stamina and a good work ethic. Some of them came from noble families. Many of them were raised in convents or lived in the Salpêtriére Charity Hospital in Paris where they were given religious instruction and expected to work each day. The male settlers they married in the new world gained hard-working spouses and the young female immigrants gained independence they would never have enjoyed in a Parisian charity hospital.

During the 17th century, a dowry was of crucial importance to a girl or woman in France.  A dowry, no matter how small, was necessary to enter a convent as a nun or to marry. The size of a woman’s dowry generally determined her future position in life. Without it, life for a widowed, orphaned or poor woman could prove very dreary. The offer of a dowry from the King would be just the ticket for some of these women. Even the uncertain situation that awaited them across the Atlantic offered many of them freedom and comfort beyond anything they would experience in France –  and marriage was almost a certainty. It is one of those cases where the devil you don’t know might well prove better than the one you are familiar with.

If a 17th-century woman was lucky enough to be born into a financially secure family – and was fortunate to be one of the oldest daughters, she would have the requisite dowry and would probably have no problem finding a husband. Social norms of the time did not put a great deal of emphasis on love – more often than not marriages were arranged in order to maintain or gain control of land, goods, money, power or simply to make sure a woman (or man) married someone of their own social standing. If a couple was lucky, love would follow.  But a great many women of marriageable age found themselves with a deceased father, widowed, or worse, orphaned and without the means to negotiate a good marriage, or any marriage at all. There were not a lot of options for an unmarried woman in those days. When women did marry they came under the control of their husbands, socially and financially, and did not enjoy a great deal of freedom.  

So when Louis decided to offer willing and able women a small dowry and a chance to move across the Atlantic and start a new life where, for all intents and purposes, she could choose her own husband from a large, available sample set, and be part of the history of a new nation – it was probably an offer too good to pass up. All she had to do was agree to marry – and since that was the goal of every young woman at the time – it was not a bad deal. In the research I have done I found that a large majority of these women used their own, maiden name on legal documents after arriving in New France and marrying. Indeed, it has become somewhat of a tradition in Quebec for women to keep their maiden name [see Note 1]. So these women were emigrating to a country that needed them and was willing to give them the legal standing and respect not available to many women in the 17th century.

The ages of the women who arrived in New France as filles du roi was 16 to 40 years, with an average age of 24. Between 1667 and 1672, many women (41%) were given a royal dowry of 50 livres (pounds) in addition to their trousseau. Some received even higher amounts (100 or 200 pounds). In years of financial hardship, the dowry of 50 pounds was replaced with provisions from the king’s storehouses in the colony. Since not all marriage contracts listed a dowry, it is hard to know just how many were given by the King.

In order to be considered a filles du roi, a woman must have received some aid from the Crown. It is generally agreed that the cost to send a woman to the New World was approximately 100 pounds.

  • 10 pounds recruiting fee
  • 30 pounds for the cost of clothing and household goods
  • 60 pounds ship passage

And these women did not begin life in the new world with a lot. Typically, each fille du roi arrived in New France with the following:

  • 1 cassette (a chest to hold her belongings)
  • 4 lace braids
  • 1 pair of stockings
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 1 pair scissors
  • 2 knives
  • 1,000 pins
  • 1 bonnet
  • 1 wimple
  • 1 taffeta handkerchief
  • Ribbon
  • 100 needles
  • 1 hairbrush
  • White thread
  • 2 pounds sterling

The journey from New Rochelle or Dieppe, France to Quebec was long and arduous. Once a woman decided to embark on this journey, she first had to travel from her home to one of the port cities that provided transportation to New France. That journey could take up to two weeks.

Once she was aboard the ship, the trip across the Atlantic often took as long as two months. Living conditions on these ships were unsanitary and did not offer much in the way of privacy. Scurvy, boils, dysentery, and fevers often plagued even the healthiest travelers. What food was available and how much of it a passenger got depended on how long the provisions remained fresh and how long the journey took. Approximately 10% of all the filles du roi who departed France died before ever reaching their destination. Deciding to make this journey was a giant leap of faith. Seven hundred and seventy did survive to finally step foot on the shores of New France. Only the strongest, the fittest, and the most determined made it. Our family comes from hearty stock.

Once these women arrived in New France, the responsibility for housing and caring for them while they decided on a spouse was left to the religious community, specifically, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame under the supervision of Mother Marguerite Bourgeoys in Montreal and the Ursuline sisters of Quebec City led by Marie de l’Incarnation. According to reports and correspondence from that era, many of these women were ill-prepared for the rigors of life in rural Canada. It appears that in spite of the harsh living conditions, they rose to the challenge and were able to raise large families and live long lives – probably living longer and more prosperously than they would have in France. Many attribute Quebec’s exceptionally high fertility rate (well into the twentieth century) to these remarkable women. By bringing hard-working, Catholic women to the colony and encouraging them to produce large families, the French Crown created a culture that embraced these qualities in its families.

These young women were also responsible for firmly establishing French as the language of Quebec.  Even in France, very few people spoke the “King’s French”. Many of the early immigrants to New France came from small, isolated farming communities where regional dialects were spoken. As most of the filles du roi came from Normandy and Paris, areas where the King’s French was prevalent, they brought with them, and spread, the language of the King. Over time the French of Quebec morphed into the Canadian French (Quebecois) spoken there today [see Note 2], which contains many of the “old” French words and phrases that are no longer used in modern French.

New_France_5_5_House-Interior-Horatio-Walker
Interior of typical 17th-century New France home

And once they arrived in their new home, these women were faced with making a life in a very harsh and undeveloped land. Think, for a moment, what life was like for these women once they married and settled down. Everything we do easily today was a major undertaking in the 17th century – especially in a newly formed colony far from home. You had to grow and preserve your own food, raise and slaughter animals or use them to produce wool so you could spin your own thread and weave your own cloth in order to sew clothes for you and your family. Your house had a dirt floor and you were constantly cleaning out the soot, dirt, and ashes with a broom made from tree branches. Laundry was done in a cauldron of hot water using soap you made yourself. If you were like most of these emigrants, you had a large family to feed three times a day and all of your meals were made from scratch, including grinding the wheat from which you made the flour you needed to make the bread – a staple of the 17th-century French diet. And since most homes did not have their own oven – you had to travel to the community oven to bake your bread each week, which was nice, because it probably gave you the only opportunity to visit with other women in the settlement. You did all this in the sweltering heat of summer or bitter cold of winter in an uninsulated house with no central heat or plumbing. And you probably did all of this while pregnant, caring for young children and married to a man you hardly knew when you said “je fais”. This is the life they left France for.

Millions of people are descended from these pioneer women. If you are of French-Canadian descent, it would be unusual if you could not trace your ancestry back to at least one. Based on the research I have done so far, I am fortunate to be able to trace my roots back to four filles du roi.

Marguerite AbrahamMarguerite Abraham was born on 3 Jan 1647 in St-Eustache, Paris. She was the daughter of Guillaume Abraham and Denise Fleury.  After arriving in Quebec, she made a marriage contract before the notary Duquet on 6 November 1665 at Ile d’Orleans with Joseph-Osanny Nadeau dit Lavigne [see Note 3]. After Joseph died on 10 February 1677 she married Guillaume Chartier on 11 January 1678 at Ste-Famille, Ile d’Orleans from Ile-de-France.  She died on 9 November 1695 at the age of 48.

Marguerite and Joseph are my 8th great grandparents. Joseph arrived in New France sometime during the summer of 1660 and worked as a laborer for the requisite three years. Before completing his indenture, he was confirmed in the Catholic Church at Chateau-Richer on 11 April 1662, meaning that he was not Catholic upon arriving in the new world. On 3 January 1663, Charles de Lauzon granted him three arpents of land facing St-Famille Parish on the Île d’Orleans, in the Charny-Lirec sub-fief. It is noted in the 1666 Census that he owned 7 arpents of land. When he died in February 1677 he left his wife, Marguerite and their five children (Marie, Jean-Baptiste, Adrien, Denis and Catherine).  Marguerite remarried but kept the farm until her death in 1695. The land was then willed to their children, and Jean-Baptiste continued to farm the property until it was sold in 1710.

Francoise PiloisFrancoise Pilois, another of my 8th great grandmothers, was born in 1639 in St-Nicolas-des-Champs, Ile-de-France, Paris, daughter of Francois Pilois and Claudine Poulet.  Shortly upon arriving in New France, she agreed to, and annulled, a marriage contract with Marin Gervais on 5 October 1665, then married Antoine Cassé on 14 October 1665 at Chateau-Richer. Francoise and Antoine had ten children (Marie, Antoine, Joseph, Marie-Francoise, Marie-Jeanne-Therese, Anne, Catherine, Marie-Charlette, Marie-Marguerite, and Charles). She died on 28 February 1713 at Beaumont at the age of 74.

An interesting note here is that their daughter, Anne Cassé, married Jean-Baptiste Nadeau (son of Joseph Nadeau and Marguerite Abraham, see above filles du roi). Ann and Jean-Baptiste had a son, Antoine (my 6th great grandfather), who had a son, Francois-Etienne (my 5th great grandfather) who was recently certified as an American Patriot. We will be hearing more about him later in the narrative. So, Francoise Pilois, Fille du Roi, was the great grandmother of an American Patriot.  

Jeanne Fressel

Jeanne Fressel is also one of my 8th great grandmothers.  She was born in 1653, in St-Nicolas-des-Champs, Paris, daughter of Andre Fressel and Marie Avisse. After her father’s death, Jeanne left for Canada in 1670 at age 17, bringing with her a dowry worth about 850 pounds, including 50 livres from the King and goods worth an estimated 800 livres. She signed, then annulled a wedding contract made before the notary Becquet, with Etienne Jacob on 31 August 1670. She revalidated the contract on 10 October 1670 and married Jacob on 14 October 1670 at Quebec.

Etienne was born about 1649 in the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris, the son of Etienne Jacob and Jeanne Bellejambe. He came to Québec in 1665, where he was noted as the servant of Antoine Berson dit Chatillon on the Beaupré coast. In the next year’s census, he can be found working at Beaupré, where he was the servant of Antoine Cassé in the 1667 census. It is interesting to note that Etienne was working for Antoine Cassé and his wife, Francoise Pilois (another of our family’s filles du roi). Etienne later became involved in the judicial arena. He was a sheriff’s officer for the seigniory of Beaupré in 1676, clerk and seigniorial notary for Beaupré from 1683 to 1726, judge for Beaupré from 1689 to 1712 and judge for the Île d’Orléans in 1703. Etienne and Jeanne had eight children (Angelique, Marie Ursule, Marguerite, Anne, Madelene, Catherine, Joseph and Etienne). Jeanne died on 1 March 1717 at the age of 64. Etienne Jacob died after 10 August 1726, the date of his last notarized act. 

Francoise LeFrancoisFrancoise le Francois, one of my 10th great grandmothers, was born in 1641 in Notre-Dame, Ouville-la-Bien-Tournee, diocese of Lisieux and was the daughter of the deceased Antoine le Francois and Pasquette Renard.   She married Francois Lavergne on 19 October 1671 at Quebec. Her dowry of 350 pounds included the king’s gift of 50 pounds.  Francois and Francoise had nine children: Arnoux, Marie Anne, Reneaud, Francois, Joseph, Jeanne, Pierre, Helene and Joseph. She died 10 June 1699 at the Hotel-Dieu in Quebec at the age of 50.

When taken individually, each of these women made their small contribution to the colonization of New France. But together with their sister filles du roi, they had an enormous impact on the future of a nation and the strength and continuity of their families – my family. They set the standards by which almost every one of their descendants lived for several centuries. They deserve to be commended and remembered.

 


Notes:

Note 1:  In 1981, a law was passed (Article 393 of the Civil Code of Quebec) that makes it illegal for a woman to take her husband’s name. Yes, you did read that correctly. No matter where she came from or where she married (if it was after 2 Apr 1981) a woman is known, legally, by her maiden name. A little bit of female equality that crept into the Quebecois culture and stuck around.

Note 2: More accurately, Canadian French did NOT evolve.  As the language spoken in France changed over time, that was not the case in Quebec, which is why Canadian French has held on to so many aspects of the French language of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Listen to a Parisian and a Quebecois having a conversation in French and you might think you were listening to two different languages – and although the Quebecois would probably have no trouble understanding the Parisian, the reverse would probably not be the case.

Note 3:  Dit” in French means, “say” and when  used in someone’s name, it means “called.” In other words, a person might be Antoine Pépin dit Lachance, which means that he had an ancestor named Pépin, but he chooses to use the name Lachance instead.  The colonists of Nouvelle France often added dit as a distinguisher, perhaps to describe a place to which they had relocated or to differentiate their family from that of their male siblings. Sometimes it was used to honor the people who had raised him or her through casual adoption.

Sources:

“The Devoted, the Distinguished, and the Dauntless: Unusual Women of Seventeenth Century New France”, Je Me Souviens, A Publication of the American-French Genealogical Society, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 1999.

Daughters of the King and Founders of a Nation: Les Filles du Roi in New France, Aimie Kathleen Runyan, Thesis Prepared for the Degree Master of Arts, University of North Texas, May 2010

The King’s Daughters, Joy Reisinger and Elmer Courteau, printed by Thomson-Shore, Dexter, Michigan, 1988

Maud Sirois-Belle, “Les Filles du Roy, des bords de Seine au Saint-Lauarent”, Commission franco-québécoise sur les lieux de mémoires communs, Mémoires vives, Bulletin n° 32 (juin 2011).

“Filles du roi, méres de la nation québécoise”, Yohan Sionneau, Encyclopédia du Patromoine Culturel de L’Amérique Française.

“French Language in Quebec: Four Hundred Years of History and Life”, PDF, Contributors: Nadia BREDIMAS-ASSIMOPOULOS, Louis BALTHAZAR, Hélène DUVAL, Pierre GEORGEAULT, Jacques LACOURSIÈRE, Pierre-Paul PROULX, Jean ROYER, and Arnaud SALES

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Filles du Roi

  1. I am enjoying reading your posts as I am brushing back up on Canadian history that I took in school! You are correct, Quebecois can understand Parisian french, but the French cannot understand Quebecois french. There is a lot of slang that the Quebecois have placed in this spoken French; I use to listen to a program on CBC that pulled apart the common slang used in Quebec, looked at the origins of the word(s) and how the words are used now in everyday language. And for those descendants of the original settlers, they are still know as pure laine. During the last separation attempt in 1995, the failure of the referendum was blamed on those who were not pure laine.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Teri Beth. I’m glad you are enjoying the posts. I learn something new with each new chapter. I grew up listening to Canadian French my whole life, but my tongue still gets itself in a twist when I travel to Quebec. By the time we are ready to return home, I finally begin to feel comfortable!

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