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. Therefore, in 1663, in addition to their other efforts to bolster the colony, they established the Filles du Roi (Daughters of the King) program, designed to encourage young, usually orphaned or impoverished, women to make the journey to New France, wed the explorers, soldiers and traders, start families and thus expand the population. Jeanne is not the only fille du roi in my family tree. My cousin Peter Dumont has found another 18 of these women on my father’s side of the family.
Much has been already written about this program in both French and English, fiction and non-fiction. Any reader interested in more detail can consult the books on the topic that will soon be listed in the bibliography. In this post, I am just summarizing what I have learned so far to provide context for Jeanne’s decision to journey to New France. The Filles du Roi Society based in Virginia and La Societe d’Histoire des Filles du Roy based in Quebec City are also wonderful sources of information.
Bringing women to settle a colony in the New World was not really an original idea. Between 1619 and 1621, the Virginia Company, a private English company, sent over 200 prospective brides for the settlers in Virginia. They lived with married couples until finding a suitable husband. Once married, the new husband was responsible for repaying the Virginia Company the cost of his bride’s crossing with 120-150 pounds of his best tobacco.
The King of Spain similarly encouraged private adventurers in the 16th century to help colonize the Spanish West Indies. But in this case, the emphasis was placed on married women and families. In fact, married men were forbidden from immigrating without their wives.
There had also been French attempts to support the immigration to New France of young unmarried women. In the years before 1663, a woman’s passage had been paid for by merchants, family members, or the church. Future brides usually had some sort of family or other connection in New France to encourage their decision to leave France. These attempts prior to 1663, however, were not sufficient in numbers to accelerate growth of the colony.
Louis XIV’s Filles du Roi program was different from previous attempts both in France and elsewhere. These women, who had few if any family connections in the colony, were to be recruited and sent to New France by the King and his administrators. In addition to their passage to New France, the King provided clothes and the promise of a dowry upon marriage. The women also received several other necessary items, including a bonnet, taffeta handkerchief, ribbon, 100 needles, comb and hairbrush, white thread, a pair of stockings, a pair of gloves, a pair of scissors, two knives, 1000 pins, 4 string laces for their bodices, and a small gift of money. These possessions, augmented by whatever other personal possessions and with an average value of 300 livres, were secured in long wooden boxes called “coffres.” A few treasured odds and ends might have been hidden in a secret compartment in the coffre known as the till.
Filles du Roi – A Profile
From 1663-1673, 770 young women, the majority of whom were between the ages of 16 and 40 years old, took up the call to serve the King and climbed aboard vessels that left both from La Rochelle and Dieppe. Most of the ships left from Dieppe, a two-week trip from Paris, partially by boat on the Seine River and then presumably over land to Dieppe, northeast of Paris.
The women came from a variety of backgrounds. Almost two-thirds of these women came from ”urban areas,” which was the reverse for male immigrants to Canada. Most women, who in the early years at least were usually the orphaned daughters of minor artisans, laborers, servants, and sometimes lower nobility, came from Paris or towns and villages in Normandy. Given the lack of mass communication, widespread illiteracy, and the difficulties of seventeenth century travel, recruiters – primarily merchants and ship outfitters — focused their efforts around Dieppe and La Rochelle. Recruiters received a commission for every girl recruited. The Hopital General and La Salpetiere, places in Paris that provided homes for abandoned children, orphaned girls, pregnant women, and even daughters of noble families that had fallen on hard times, were also sources of recruits, with possibly 50% of the Filles du Roi coming from these institutions.
It seems that some number of young women just showed up at points of embarkation, perhaps lured by rumors about monetary gifts from the King. Apparently, despite the challenges of communication in 17th century France, the news of the program did eventually spread since one-half of all Filles du Roi arrived in the later years of the program (1669-1673).
In the first few years of the program, there were concerns voiced in Quebec that the young women being sent were not accustomed to or even physically capable of managing the heavy farm work, harsh winters, and isolation they would have to endure in New France. In response, Louis XIV’s chief minister Colbert asked the Archbishop of Rouen in 1670 to spread the word throughout the thirty to forty parishes in the Norman countryside to find girls more accustomed to the hard rural life. “They must be healthy, strong,” Colbert wrote, “and in no way disgraced by nature and in no way repulsive on the outside!”
Departure and Arrival
Potential recruits went through a careful screening process. Recruiters had to make sure that the young women were not already married; they required each to provide a birth certificate and affidavit from her priest assuring that she was free to marry. (Yes, I am trying to find the possible location of these documents! Or perhaps the young women just brought them to New France in their coffres and they have been lost?) A governess shepherded each contingent of women from France to Quebec and then watched over them until they found husbands in New France.
The first contingent of 36 girls arrived on September 22, 1663. These women and the 734 who followed over the next 10 years in increasing numbers must have been hardy women. They certainly must have heard some terrible stories of Canadian winters and Indian attacks, and they faced a potentially dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. But for probably a variety of reasons, they decided to take a chance on a new life in Quebec.