King’s Daughters and founding Mothers

By Mary Ducharme  (August 2014)

Beginning in 1663 nearly 800 French Catholic girls came to New France at the expense of King Louis XIV to correct an imbalance in the population. There were less than 5,000 people in Quebec at that time and a large percentage of them were unmarried bachelors. In 1669 Intendant Jean Talon established stiff penalties for bachelors who evaded matrimony by depriving them of fishing, hunting, and fur-trading rights.

This painting (courtesy of the public Archives of Canada) shows the arrival of the “filles du roi” in all their elegance,  greeted by the King’s representatives.. The dresses were part of the dowery offered by the King and it is interesting to note how many women made the effort to conserve the elegant appearance during their long voyage.

“The King’s Daughters” or “Filles du roi” had one thing in common: poverty. From Paris, they were beggars on the streets, or from orphanages, or from the diocese of Rouen, or from families anxious to be rid of them. The promotional campaign to recruit brides for New France must have seemed a miracle to them, though a risky one. Free passage, clothing, a dowry from the King, and an almost certain marriage with a man of their choosing! For 800, it was irresistible. But first each had to pass a screening process by ship outfitters that included a certificate of birth and a recommendation from the parish priest that she was of good character and free to marry. The greatest emphasis was placed on robust health.

Upon arrival at Quebec City, the women were lodged in dormitory-style houses under the supervision of chaperones or nuns, and from there a number were dispersed to other regions of Quebec, including Montreal. Most famous of the nuns to care for them was Marguerite Bourgeoys of the Congregation of Notre-Dame who offered guidance to these young women coping with a strange environment.

Suitors were allowed to call, with a chaperone present, and he visited with his own idea of what he wanted in a bride: a plump peasant girl who could pull a plow and do heavy work in the fields and woods. If she happened to be less than perfect in appearance did not concern him. If she was literate, that could prove helpful in running a business or dealing with legal matters. He did not prefer the city girl who might be far prettier but who was likely finicky and not prepared for a hard life in a severe climate.

dowery casket
A dowery casket was provided by the King for each of the girls destined for Canada. It was filled with clothing, sewing supplies, and other necessities.

On her side, the bride-to-be had the right to refuse marriage offers, and she based her decisions on the suitor’s answers to key questions. What is your home like? Are you clean in your habits? Have you a proper bed and blankets? How much money do you have? How much land do you own? While similar questions could be deal-breakers for a marriage, the woman did not lightly refuse a marriage offer: who would want to become the butt of jokes as a fille du roi who became a spinster?

After the conditions of a marriage were agreed upon, the couple appeared in front of a notary where a contract was drawn up, and a month later, the church wedding. As a reward, the couple received livestock and goods such as a pair of chickens, pigs, an ox, a cow, and two barrels of salted meat. The incentive to have a large family was strong: a yearly pension of 300 livres to families with ten children, and 400 livres for twelve children or more.

Most of the women were expecting one year after marriage and over time families with ten to sixteen children became fairly common. By 1760, the population of New France was 70,000 people with an almost equal ratio of men to women. Now most French Catholic families in our region can proudly trace their matriarchal line to the filles du roi, and in fact there are millions of descendants throughout North America.

An excellent source for information on the filles du roi is found in the book King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: the Filles du Roi 1663-1673 by Peter J. Gagné. The two-volume set includes biographies of all 800 girls and women.