Editor’s note: The highly disappointing and misogynistic depiction of the Filles du Roi in the recent Nat Geo series ‘Barkskins’ inspired me to commission this article from a writer that I knew had 21 of these courageous women in her family tree. This is the real story of these special frontier women of French Canada.
Of the many immigrant ancestors I’m proud to be descended from, few are more inspiring than the filles du roi, or Daughters of the King. These young women, some as young as 12 years old, chose to leave their known world behind and embark on a dangerous journey across the vast Atlantic ocean to a virtually unknown land, the 17th century colony of New France. Except for other filles du roi with whom they embarked, they made the great passage alone—no siblings, parents, or husbands accompanied them.
The colony of New France began in the early 17th century by the development of trading alliances with certain First Nations peoples, primarily to take advantage of North America’s vast resources, especially for the growing demand in furs. Mariner and explorer Samuel de Champlain, who established Quebec City in 1608, encouraged friendly relations with the native inhabitants.
Unusually for the time, Champlain arranged to have young French colonists live with Native families to learn their language and customs. Despite this innovative cultural practice, however, early attempts at establishing permanent French settlements were largely failures. By the time Cardinal Richelieu came to power as King Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624, no more than a hundred permanent inhabitants remained.
Inspired by the success of the Dutch West India Company, Richelieu established the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, or Company of One Hundred Associates in 1627, granting them an exclusive trade monopoly in New France. Each associate was required to make an investment of 3000 livres in the company. In time, the Company was successful in establishing a secure colony in New France, but the population was not growing fast enough to establish a thriving colony, largely due to the lack of marriageable females with whom the male colonists–comprised mostly of soldiers, traders, carpenters, shoemakers, surveyors, stone masons, and farmers–could start families.
Few single women emigrated voluntarily due to the high cost of the passage, the harsh climate, and the uncertainty of their future in a newly established colony. In part due to the failure of the Company to grow the colony, King Louis XIV took back control of New France in 1663 and established a royal government.
Filles du Roi Hope Chest, 1663-1673. Source: Musée Canadien Des Civilisations
Around 1670, Jean Talon, Head Administrator of New France, supported by the king’s key adviser Jean-Baptiste Colbert, proposed that the king sponsor the emigration of 500 marriageable single women by paying their passage and giving them a dowry. These women became known as the filles du roi or “daughters of the king.” With a dowry of as much as 400 livres (equivalent to 400 pounds sterling) and a hope chest filled with a trousseau of clothing, goods, and furnishings necessary to establish a home, these brave women left everything they knew behind to set out for a brand new world.
The women who applied or were recruited to the filles du roi program came from many different backgrounds. Some were orphans without worldly goods or families. Others were impoverished daughters of lesser nobility whose fortunes had been lost. Most were simply poor commoners who had little hope of a better life in France. The majority had lost at least their father, if not both parents.
The women ranged in age from 12 to 40, but most were in their early to mid-twenties. Many were wards of Paris’s infamous Salpêtrière Charity Hospital, which, in addition to housing orphans also housed convicts, hospital patients, and the insane. One can imagine that, despite the danger of an ocean passage and the hardships they must surely have anticipated from life in a young colony, a generous dowry and the opportunity of a new life would have been seen as a rare ticket to freedom, adventure, and social mobility for these young women.
Once accepted into the program, the women were considered wards of the king and treated with the respect that this relationship conferred. In order to be accepted as a fille de roi they had to be demonstrably healthy, physically fit enough to withstand the hardships of life in a colony, and of good character, having led a virtuous life despite any hardships. All of this had to be attested to in writing by their parish priest.
Maison Saint-Gabriel in Montréal’s Pointe-Sainte-Charles district was founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys and is a museum today. Until 1673, the 30-acre farm housed the Filles du Roi, young women sent to New France to find husbands and start families. Photograph: Alexander Henderson, Silver salts on paper mounted on paper – Albumen process (1865)
In the end, nearly 800 young women traveled to New France as filles du roi in the ten-year period of the program’s existence from 1663 to 1673. After arriving in the new country, they were housed under the protection of French nun Marguerite Bourgeoys to recover from their long, arduous journey until they were ready to select a husband. Madame Bourgeoys took it upon herself to interview potential suitors of the young women to make sure they were worthy of these young women. Women were highly prized in the burgeoning colony.
Many glamorous depictions of well-dressed young women arriving to pomp and circumstance were made centuries after the real life filles du roi arrived in New France. This 1929 painting depicts a slave more than a decade before the first slave arrived in the area. In truth, the starving, dehydrated and likely ill young women were met and given into the care of nuns for recuperation.
The filles du roi were not required to marry upon arrival, and some took their time in choosing husbands. But most married almost immediately, taking their pick of the hundreds of eligible bachelors in the colony, including soldiers of the Carignan-Salières regiment of New France and highly respected tradesmen such as masons. Within a year or two of their arrival, most were pregnant. 700 children were born to filles du roi in the year 1671 alone. By 1672, the population of the colony had more than doubled–from 3200 to 6700. The program was so successful that it was no longer considered necessary to the survival of the colony after 1673.
Most of the filles du roi were from cities in France (the majority were Parisians or inhabitants of the nearby port cities of La Rochelle and Rouen) and were not accustomed to farm work or the rigors of a harsh, primitive environment. But these strong and resilient women rose to the challenge, establishing comfortable homes and caring for large families with as many as 14 children. Most lived long, productive lives that were much better than they were likely to have had in France. They benefitted from an abundance of food and intimately cordial relations with Native people, who taught them native medicinal plants and crafts, taught their sons and husbands fur trapping in the winter, and with whom they exchanged language and culture such as dances and festival traditions.
The filles du roi are the matrilineal ancestors of nearly 2/3 of all French-Canadians as well as hundreds of thousands of Canadians and Americans. Their male descendants often married First Nations women, resulting in a merging of the French and First Nation cultures into the unique mixed-race culture of the Métis that still exists today. Many of their descendants became ‘coureurs de bois’ or famous fur traders when Montreal emerged as the center of the fur trade in the late 17th century.
If you have ancestors from the Great Lakes region, you may very well carry the DNA of one or more of the filles du roi. Luckily, the priests of New France were diligent record keepers. Excellent resources exist in the Tanguay Collection, the premier genealogical dictionary of French-Canada collected and published by Father Cyprien Tanguay. As you research your family tree looking for filles du roi ancestors, you may well find First Nations and Métis ancestors along the way and learn more of the fascinating history of these mothers of New France.
Primary photo: Carte de la Nouvelle-France (Map of New France) 1632, Samuel de Champlain; Library and Archives Canada