Strength in Numbers: A Two-Part Portrait of the Filles du Roi (Part 2)

As stated in my previous blog post, to goal of the Filles du Roi was to help populate New France in order to strengthen France’s hold on the North American continent. Colonization came from the desire of European powers to expand their wealth, power, and influence. However, given that success in colonization was not guaranteed, colonies on the North American continent were, by and large, risky investment endeavors. In order for a colony to be profitable, it had to be able to stand on its own without assistance (be it financial or military-wise) from the motherland. The British were successful in this. The French, well…not so much. But at the time, Colbert did not know what lay down the line for New France and he was determined to create a strong, profitable colony; especially after the crown assumed royal authority over New France in 1663. Aside from sending over eligible women, to make damn sure his plan worked, Colbert had an edict passed that declared all male colonists must marry in order to maintain their hunting rights.

So what happened to the Filles du Roi?

Arrivée des Filles du Roy à Ville-Marie (Artist Unknown)

Well, first they had to survive the transatlantic journey. Roughly 60 women died during their voyage over; 770 was the number that actually made it to New France alive. Following this, these women settled into temporary housing, (farms turned into boarding houses/school), and were supported by the crown until they found husbands. For some, the process took a couple of weeks, for others a few years. Religious communities, aka nuns, provided housing and supervision. Most settled in Quebec City, the rest went to either the Montreal or Trois-Rivières regions. Some of the nuns offered free courses to prepare the women for their new lives. (Homemaking in New France 101?) These boarding houses continued to welcome women even after the project ended.

Courtship occurred under the watchful eyes of the nuns. Unlike La Hontan’s butcher shop imagery, the women ultimately were the ones with the power to choose who they wanted for a husband, not the other way around. There were so few women, and so many men that they could afford to be picky. Men who had already built their homes were the most attractive. Despite having a wide selection, most of the women found partners between within six months of arriving in New France.

Only 4% (32 women) chose not to get married and ultimately 33 decided to hop back on a boat and return to France for good. As such, with a roughly 96% success rate, quite the baby boom followed. A whopping total of 4,445 babies resulted from these families over the next decade or so. Younger, wealthier women produced the most children. This is not just because they could afford to raise more and they had a longer time to do so, but many Filles du Roi outlived their husbands and so they remarried. Many of these women lived well into their 60s, longer than their counterparts in France; only 15 died young as a result of childbirth. With these numbers, the Filles du Roi project was successful in meeting its goal of significantly boosting New France’s small population. The project would have continued had the Franco-Dutch War not broken out in 1672. If there is one thing Louis XIV liked to spend money on, it was warfare. With only so much capital in the empire, state-sponsored initiatives like this lost their funding.

Aside from their immediate demographic impact and helping to begin French-Canadian bloodlines that exist to this day, these women also had a lasting effect on the future of the French language in the region. Prior to their arrival, the French language that was spoken throughout the colony was a confusing mix of rural dialects as most of the male settlers came from across the countryside of France. Due to the fact that these women were by and large from the city, they brought with them a Parisian version of French. It became the dominant form of French used across New France and later the province of Quebec. Hence, the Filles du Roi were fundamental in Quebec’s French resembling the French that is spoken in France today.

To summarize, the Filles du Roi were generally single French women from urban centers between the ages of 19-29 who were seeking either financial security, social mobility, or a chance at a new life. Many were orphans or had lost their fathers and were from the lower to middle classes. On the whole, these 770 women felt that they were disadvantaged in some sort of a way in French society and desired the opportunities that a new life across the ocean could bring. These women and their husbands achieved the French monarchy’s original goal of improving the demographic state of New France and went on to create a strong foundation for the future province of Quebec. Above all, the Filles du Roi were survivors, who by and large adapted to their new colonial lives and overcame the many challenges that life in New France brought.


Sources

Eccles, W.J., Canada Under Louis XIV, 1663-1701, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1964. (A classic work in the New France cannon).

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.

Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, “France, New France : Riverbeds… An original installation that sheds light on the forming of couples in New France.” Montreal, May 20, 2008. Accessed from: http://www.pacmusee.qc.ca/en/media/press-releases/france-new-france-riverbeds-an-original-installation-that-sheds-light-on-the-forming-of-couples-in-new-france

Pritchard, James, In Search of Empire: the French in the Americas, 1670-1730, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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. (Fantastic paper).

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2 thoughts on “Strength in Numbers: A Two-Part Portrait of the Filles du Roi (Part 2)

  1. Malou says:

    Thanks for this fascinating and little known story key to the making of Quebec and Canada! So nice to hear about about ‘her-story’ in history! I have heard that in some ways Quebecoise French is the best representation of what old French sounded like as the language in France evolved but remained less changed in Quebec.

    Like

  2. cadeauca says:

    Thank you, Malou! I appreciate your comment. Women’s history, especially French Canadian women’s history, doesn’t get written about and discussed enough, so I really wanted to explore the story of the Filles du Roi since they were an integral part of our history. (Plus October is Women’s History Month so I thought it was the perfect time!) The linguistic differences between Quebecoise French and France’s French are really fascinating too.

    Like

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