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?
According to several sources, possibly relying on each other or the same original sources, the young women received more clothes upon arrival to help them through the Canadian winter: a coat, woolen dress, coverings for their heads, and sheepskin gloves. Most of the women stayed in Quebec City. About a quarter continued on up the river to Trois Rivieres and Montreal, and it’s not clear how those choices were made! Those who continued on might have actually been the more courageous given the frequency of attacks by Amerindians further west of Quebec City.
Life upon arrival
In the early years of the program, the women in Quebec City were sheltered in dormitory-style housing in the home of the widow Madame de la Peltrie, next door to the Ursuline Convent, both of which even today remain as they were in Quebec City. As the numbers of recruits grew, Intendant Talon arranged for larger housing in a private home that is, I believe, still standing today, across from the Hotel Dieu in Quebec City. The new arrivals were kept under close supervision until they married. Visits with suitors occurred on predetermined days of the week in one of three halls. A mystery remains around the criteria for the division, whether for physical characteristic, social background, place of origin or mere space requirements. Since each man had to apply to the governesses and declare how they made a living and how much property and possessions they owned, it’s possible, according to one author, that they were directed to one of the three halls based on the information they provided.
I wonder what it was like to be surrounded by men scrutinizing the women to see whether they would make a good wife, mother and helpmate. Of course, the young women were not passive players in the mating game. They must have had conversations on the ship coming from France and then with other women in the colony since they asked lots of questions. In correspondence to her son, Marie d’Incarnation, a prominent Augustinian nun, listed some of these questions. I would have loved to witness the exchange: “What kind of a home do you have? How many rooms are in it? Does it have wooden floors? How many windows? Does the hearth draw well? Have you a proper bed and plenty of blankets?” and “How many acres have you cleared? How many cows, pigs, and sheep do you have? How many chickens?” and then, “How much money have you saved? Are you addicted to drink? Are you of clean habits?”
Having a home of one’s own apparently was one of the most important factors for a Fille du Roi in her decision, according to Marie d’Incarnation. “The smartest [among the suitors] began making some sort of home a year before getting married, because those with a home find a wife more easily. It’s the first thing that the girls ask about, wisely at that, since those who are not established suffer greatly before being comfortable.”
Swift marriage without honeymoons
The women were generally successful in marrying quickly, with something like 80% of them married within six months. Many who arrived with Jeanne in late summer 1671 were married even earlier, by October or November. Even those women who changed their minds and had a marriage contract annulled took only another 2-3 weeks before marrying someone else.
Prior to the religious ceremony, a couple would have a marriage contract drawn up by a notary – usually 10 days prior to the church ceremony. At marriage, each couple received an ox and a cow, two pigs, a pair of chickens, two barrels of salted meat, and some supplies of staples such as wheat peas and lard, and a small amount of money – in addition to the young woman’s dowry. These gifts were apparently intended to give the new couples a good start in life together.
Although some of the new couples settled close to Montreal or Trois Rivieres, the vast majority moved to farms in rural areas quite close to Quebec City, such as Ile d’Orleans or other river settlements on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Since these areas had already been cleared and settled by earlier colonists, there would most likely be homes, however rustic, on the properties. And these areas would have been relatively close by and thus easier to reach. Few roads existed at the time, and many newly-weds would have had to travel in boats or ox-driven carts, or even on foot.
What must these women have been feeling as they left their friends and some semblance of security in Quebec City, Montreal or Trois Rivieres and ventured out into a strange land with a relatively unknown new husband? Were they apprehensive or comforted knowing they had a duty to perform for the King – to bear children and make a life for their families in the new world?
Fulfilling their duty
And fulfill that duty they did. Yves Landry’s exhaustive study of the Filles du Roi [url] provides some summary of their lives. Among the Filles du Roi as a whole, marriages ranged from 0 to 4. Many of these marriages were long ones, although in the group that came over with Jeanne, there were five “divorces,” or separation of goods. Of course, a few filles du roi went back to France, some never married, and at least one became a domestic servant. A few were killed by Iroquois, some died in child birth, or were found frozen in the snow, or died in a shipwreck, or joined the convent. One was even executed for adultery. Some died soon after arriving and some lived to be well over 90 years old.
The women who remained went on to do their part in colonizing New France A few women had as many as 18 children, although some remained childless. Many had children late into their forties, and many faced early widowhood since the men too often died young from accidents, illness, or war. Widows with small children to raise and no family around needed to marry again quickly. Fortunately, the shortage of women in New France made widows – even those with small children — quite desirable given the number of men who might not have been ready to marry or who might not have found wives in the years of the Filles du Roi program. The average time between the death of a spouse and marriage to a new one averaged 30 months for these women. Some older widows remained that way for the rest of their lives, presumably after being well situated with their children grown and having a room in their son’s home.
The goals that Louis the XIV and his minister set for the program were achieved, in the short term at least. By 1673 the population of New France had reached 6700. And the census taken eight years later, in 1681, counted over 10,000 men, women and children in New France, an estimated three-fold increase over 1663. The program ended in 1673 with the recall of Intendant Talon, its champion. It was viewed a sufficiently successful and self-sustaining given the number of births recorded from 1664 on, although that projection could have been based on faulty calculations, according to historian Yves Landry speaking at a Filles du Roi colloquium in 2006. Just as likely, the war that France and England declared on the Dutch also took the King’s attention off the new colony and further burdened France’s already strained finances.