Strength in Numbers: A Two-Part Portrait of the Filles du Roi (Part 1)

Arrival of the Brides by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (c. 1927)

If you were a French woman in the 17th century, packing your bags, uprooting your life, and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in the New World was probably last on your list of things to do.

Yet from 1663 to 1674, 770 women did just that. In order to fortify France’s hold on the North American continent, Louis XIV followed the advice of his key adviser, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and commissioned for these women to emigrate to help populate New France—the old ‘strength in numbers’ mentality. The Filles du Roi, or King’s Daughters, had one goal: to marry and start families with the French settlers. To entice women for the mission, Louis XIV gave them a dowry as well as household items. Colbert, along with Jean Talon, the Intendant of Quebec, are seen as the main organizers between the Filles du Roi project. It received steady support from the crown throughout its 11 year duration, before being cancelled due to its cost, so that funds could instead go towards Louis XIV’s war against Holland.

(Left to right) Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and Jean Talon.

Fun fact! 2/3 French Canadians can trace their ancestry back to one of the Filles du Roi.

So who were these women? Not prostitutes, if that’s what you were thinking. This incorrect belief stems back to Baron La Hontan, who published a pamphlet in 1703 on the first inhabitants of New France. “[The king] sent from France several vessels filled with girls of middling virtue […] husbands chose their wives in the same manner as a butcher goes to choose sheep from amidst the herd.” Charming. This description however matched the false, but widespread belief in France at the time that the colony was full of criminals and degenerates.

In reality, the women had to ask a priest or judge to provide them with a character witness to participate in the program and only one of the filles du roi was ever changed with prostitution. (The charge came during, not before, her time in New France and was done most likely out of desperation as her husband had abandoned and returned to France without her). Also, given that the purpose of the program was to send healthy women to become hardworking wives and mothers, plucking random prostitutes off the streets of Paris, who undoubtedly would have been sickly and possible sterile due to venereal disease, would have been counter-productive. Yet, even though La Hontan wasn’t even there when the filles du roi arrived, historians took his word and continued to perpetuate this myth nearly 300 years.

A romanticized painting of the Filles du Roi by Charles Vinh (2009).

The Filles du Roi were actually from one of the following categories: orphans from charity hospitals, daughters of farmers and lesser tradesmen, and a small number were from the lesser nobility and the upper middle class. The vast majority were between the ages of 19-29 and were either Parisian or Norman. Initially, city women were sought out due to proximity to La Rochelle and Dieppe; the two main ports from which the women sailed to New France. Eventually, recruiters sought farm girls, as they were seen as more capable of handling the intensive labour that came with settler life and less likely to feel isolated on a remote farm. However, it seems the bulk of the 770 were from urban areas. On a latter note, 57% had lost their father. As a result, being supported by the crown made the program attractive because lacking a dowry impeded marriage prospects. Those from lower classes received up to fifty pounds in gold, whereas upper class women saw up to 100 pounds.

Financial security was not the only reason why women agreed to participate in the project; like the male settlers who left before them, many saw New France as an opportunity for freedom. Social mobility was also a factor. Even though emigration to New France was looked down upon, orphans at Paris’s Salpêtrière Charity Hospital particularly jumped at the chance at a new life to escape the disgusting conditions of the hospital. (This hospital was a combination between a medical center, orphanage, insane asylum, and prison). Moving to New France offered them a chance to raise a family and move up the social ladder, something that may not have occurred should they have remained in France.


A 1857 lithograph of Salpetriere Charity Hospital by Armand Gautier.

Social mobility also appealed to the few upper class participants. If a woman was from a large family with many older sisters, the younger daughters would not have had the sizable dowry that their elder sisters did and therefore would have less of a chance at marry welling. As such, moving to New France offered her a chance at marrying better. Social ranking and class were considered to be far more important to the lives of 17th century French men and women, than they are today.

So what happened to these women once they arrived in New France?

I will wrap up the fate of the 770 women in my next blog post and look at whether the project met its original goal. I will also discuss the wider impact of these women on New France.

Until then!


Sources:

Runyan, Aimie Kathleen. Daughters of the King and Founders of a Nation: Les Filles du Roi in New France. Master of Arts (French), May 2010. (A must-read!)

Landry, Yves. Les Filles Du Roi Au XVII Siècle : Orphelines En France, Pionnières Au Canada. Suivi d’Un Répertoire Biographique Des Filles Du Roi. Ottawa: Leméac, 1992.

Lanctôt, Gustave. Filles de joie ou filles du roi : Étude sur l’immigration féminine en Nouvelle-France. Montreal: Les Éditions Chantcler Ltée., 1952.

Charbonneau, Hubert, et al. Naissance d’une population. les Français établis au Canada au XVIIe siècle. Paris and Montreal: PUF et OUM, 1987.

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