In June, 1671, 28-year-old Jeanne Marguerite Chevalier boarded a ship in Dieppe harbor. She was leaving France forever and was headed for Quebec. Although single and orphaned, she was not alone on the ship since there were one hundred other women also bound for Quebec that year. In fact, over the course of ten years beginning in 1663, 770 women would have left France, most of them, like Jeanne, never to return. [⇒]
Three weeks after four-year-old Louis XIV was crowned King of France and 35 years after the founding of Quebec, Jeanne Marguerite Chevalier was baptized on June 8, 1643 in the small cathedral town of Coutances, 330 kilometers west of Paris and the new king and 75 kilometers northeast of Mont St. Michel. Other than a one-line entry registering her baptism and listing Guillemette LeBreton as her godmother, I know little else about Jeanne’s life in France. The actual facts about Jeanne’s life are not resumed until her name is found as a Fille du Roi on ships’ rosters that left Dieppe in June, 1671. And since the rosters are still being researched, there is nothing really official about Jeanne until her name appeared on a marriage contract in Quebec City on October 11, 1671. [⇒]
Seventeenth century New France needed women. The colony was not growing. Although Montreal had been established a year before Jeanne was born, the French in what would become Quebec still numbered less than 3000 inhabitants in 1663. Those men who ventured to New France were not electing to settle down there. While the climate was certainly a factor, the major reason, at least according to Louis XIV and his chief minister Colbert, was the lack of women. Louis and his ministers decided that it was time to do something about the situation, to turn exploration of New France into settlement. [⇒]
At news of a ship’s arrival with a contingent of Filles du Roi, men were said to hurry to greet the passengers. Many were probably eager for female companionship. Orders from the Intendant requiring young men to find a bride soon after a ship’s arrival or lose their hunting and fishing privileges most likely spurred them on as well. And perhaps the King’s gifts upon marriage were also seen as helping to jumpstart a farm. For whatever reason, the arrival of these women must have been a joy, at least for those seeking to stay in the colony, maintain their freedom and a brighter future than in France, and still have a family.
How must these women have felt when they walked off the ship into the throngs of men to their new, though temporary, home in Quebec City, Trois Rivieres, or Montreal? Did they think, “What have I done?” or were they both excited and scared about the adventure ahead? [⇒]
I frequently am asked why my ancestor decided to leave France and come to the new colony. Trying to understand the reasons why she chose as she did involves a great deal of speculation because the Filles du Roi left few records or diaries. For most, it must have been a voluntary decision, although it’s possible there was some strong encouragement by guardians, parents or officials at the charity hospitals or parish priests, or even recruiters. At a colloquium on the Filles du Roi in Quebec several years ago, famed historian Yves Landry proposed that, based on admittedly little evidence, many – particularly those in the charity houses in Paris — could have been coerced to join the program. [⇒]
For years (centuries actually) there has been confusion over whether the Filles du Roi were women to marry or “women to enjoy.” Erroneous information based on random comments and prejudices on the one side, and possible nationalistic pride that has embellished their challenges and legacy on the other have all contributed to the confusion. It seems that Yves Landry, one of the foremost authorities on the topic of the Filles du Roi, explained it best when he summarized the issue by declaring that there is probably an element of truth in both sides of the story. [⇒]
In late June, 1671, the 300-ton ship “Le Saint Jean-Baptiste” left Dieppe harbor headed for Quebec. On board was a young “gentleman,” “le sieur de la Bouteillerie,” from the Pays Caux. He brought with him two carpenters, two masons, and four laborers to settle the land which the King had given him. This land, up to the size of 1000 arpents, or about 1.32 square miles, was reported to be located between the towns of Three Rivers and Montreal. Also on board were one hundred men, 26 young women from Paris, ten mules, 50 male sheep, dry goods, blankets, and many other items that would be useful to those living in New France or for the voyage. Six months later, the ship brought back to Dieppe 10,000 livres of beaver skins, 400 moose skins, stones, wood, pitch, and many other rare items, among them a live moose of about 6 months old, a fox, and a dozen large birds to be given to the King. [⇒]