The phrases "filles à marier" and "filles du roi" are liberally sprinkled throughout the pages of this site. But what were they? Who were they? And why are they so important? Read on...... What Were They?
The filles à marier were a group of 262 single girls who immigrated to New France between the years of 1634-1662. Peter Gagné, who authored the books that this information comes from, defined the filles à marier as follows:*Must have been of marriageable age (ages 12-45).
*Must have immigrated before September 1663 (any girls after that are considered filles du roi).
*Must have either signed an enlistment contract, at least one marriage contract, or got married in the colony.
*Could not be accompanied by both parents.
*Could not be accompanied by or joining a husband.
These girls had their passage paid most often by various religious groups or companies that recruited settlers for the new colony. Once a girl arrived in Canada, they were either housed by religious communities or private homes. If a girl's marriage contract was signed at someone's home, it was a good sign that she had been lodged there until her marriage.
The biggest incentive for girls to leave their homeland and seek their husbands and fortunes in New France was fairly simple: In France, they would enter into arranged marriages with men chosen by their families. In the new colony, however, they could choose whom they entered into a marriage contract with. They could even change their mind afterward, annull that contract, and enter into another one with another man! What freedom!
But even at that, 262 girls in 28 years is but a trickle--an average of less than 10 girls a year. This would not populate the colony rapidly enough for it to become self-sustaining. What more could be done........?
Enter King Louis XIV. In 1663, he began overseeing the affairs of the new colony, which included the recruitment process for marriageable girls. Borrowing an old idea from the Spanish and English governments, the King--with help from Intendant Jean Talon and Jean-Baptiste Colbert of the Department of the Navy--began putting together a plan of action for recruiting what became known as the "Filles du Roi" or "Daughters of the King."
The girls that were chosen for this designation had to be very strong and healthy. They had to be able to bear children. They had to be free to marry and present proof of such in the form of a statement from a local priest or judge. And they could not be a prostitute or a woman of loose morals.
The chosen girls had their passage to New France paid for them and were given some clothes. They were also given a case with incidentals: ribbon, needle and thread, pins, scissors, comb, gloves, stockings, knives, handkerchief, bonnet, and 2 livres in cash (the livre is the equivalent of about $14.00 US).
Once they arrived in Canada, they were given clothing more suited to the colder Canadian climate. They were also given lodging and schooled in the tasks that would be required of them as wives in the colony; tasks from cooking and sewing to the making of natural medicines and farm work. This effort would be considered the first formal "home economics" training done in North America.
Men would come to these houses to choose their wives. The house mothers--the most notorious of these was Marguerite Bourgeoys--would, in the absence of their own families, counsel the girls on making a good choice.
A sharp girl paid attention as their fellow filles were being courted and learned exactly what to ask the men when their turn came: "How large is your farm?" "How many children do you have? How old are they?" "How many cows do you own?" "The chickens--they are good layers, yes?" The answers provided by the men allowed the girls to quickly decide if a potential suitor was right for her.
However, this game of 20 questions was not exclusive to the women. The men also had concerns--mainly about the size of the dowry that a potential bride could bring to the marriage--and usually were not shy about asking. The country was new, raw, primitive--a good match was based less on mutual attraction and more on the sum total of goods that would be brought to the marriage. The more resources a couple had between them, the better the chances for survival.
Once the choice was made and the marriage had taken place, they would receive a gift from the King of 50 livres to add to whatever dowry they would be bringing to the marriage.
Why Are They So Important?
The reason these women are important is because of their courage. But what did they do that was so courageous? Consider the following:
Leaving their homeland- For some girls, the decision to leave home followed the loss of one or both parents. Some were residents in French versions of poorhouses and felt that New France may have more opportunity for them than France did. And, as mentioned before, they could choose their own husbands in Canada rather than endure an "arranged" marriage to someone that was not to their liking.
It must also be mentioned that some of these girls were very young; at that period in history, a girl as young as 12 years old could be considered of marriageable age!
Understand, too, that the decision to leave their homeland came with the harsh reality that they would most likely never see their families again. This would be hard enough for an adult woman, never mind a teenaged girl!!
Nevertheless, these brave young women and teen girls fought their sadness and boarded their ships. And as they sailed out of their harbors, waving goodbye to those on shore, they took one long, last look through their veil of tears at their homeland--the last glimpse that most of them would ever have.
The sea voyage- Travel by sea in the 1600's was a long, primitive, and difficult undertaking. There were no private rooms or even cubicles for the passengers; they traveled in the ship's hold. There were also the food animals that traveled with them--live chickens, pigs, cows--that were brought along to be slaughtered as needed for meals during the duration of the trip.
These conditions might have been tolerable if the weather permitted one to stroll about the deck and breathe the fresh ocean air. But if the weather turned mean, passengers were confined to the hold--with the weather shut out and unable to vent the odors of human waste and livestock--and seasickness.
This was a breeding ground for all manner of bacteria, from which fever and illness could and did develop. The passengers frequently suffered boils, dysentery, scurvy and loose teeth from poor diet. Once the livestock and fresh food supply was exhausted, the only food available was a kind of hard biscuit; not very tasty or nourishing, designed only to provide sustenance. One estimate claims that about 10% of the filles du roi died at sea.
Pirates were also a concern during the crossing.
Arriving in a new land- The filles did not have a clear and accurate picture of where they were actually going or what to expect when they got there. This time period was well before the days of full-color travel brochures (although I can almost see Intendant Talon designing one had the thought occured to him!).
Many people in France confused Canada with the French territories in the Caribbean where many of the French prostitutes were exiled and thought it a place of sin and ill repute, and that only loose women would want to live there.
Still others viewed Canada as a barbaric, lawless piece of frozen tundra, devoid of any semblance of civilization, where one had to fend for themselves against Indian massacres and wild animals. Although the latter two could and did occur, they were not everyday occurences.
There is no doubt in my mind that these young women and girls had no clear idea of what to expect when they stepped off the ship in Canada.
Life in Canada- Once established in the colony, our brave heroines married and had large families. Twelve children or more was not only not uncommon but welcome, with the French government granting incentives to couples with large families. A family with 10 children qualified for 300 livres a year; families with 12 or more could net 400 lives per year. Could this be considered the first "child tax credit"? I think so!
Along with caring for all of the children, the women took care of the housecleaning, the laundry, the cooking, tending the garden, etc. They learned how to cook, preserve, and eat creatures they'd never seen before. They worked alongside their men at harvest time and learned how to preserve the fruits of their labors. There are no words to capture the hard work and effort that went into the above activities; all of which were performed manually, without the modern conveniences we rely so heavily on today.
Women also faced tremendous losses in this untamed, primitive land teeming with wild animals and Indians, both of which could be a danger to the settlers; not to mention the spread of illness and disease in a land where doctors would be few and far between. It was not uncommon for a woman to lose more than one child to stillbirth, sickness, or misfortune. Some of the women were widowed multiple times; and the reverse also occured, with men burying more than one wife.
Some of our brave female descendants accomplished even more. Fille à marier Marie Marguerie, for example, was in charge of the sacristy of the church at Trois-Riviéres for 50 years.
Who Were They?
The following is a list of the filles à marier and filles du roi that appear on this site. Those whose surnames are capitalized are Noël family direct line ancestresses.
Our Filles à Marier Our Filles du Roi
In all, almost 1,000 women made the voyage to Canada from their homeland of France. The combined efforts of these women--how they dressed, how they carried themselves, the food that they cooked, the traditions they created, the way they lived their lives--became the blueprint for the customs of a brand-new country. They deserve our utmost respect and admiration. For these women are, in every sense of the word, the Founding Mothers of Canada. And I am proud to count myself among their many, many descendants.
The information above came from the pages of the very excellent works of Peter J. Gagné, as follows:
Before The King's Daughters: The Filles à Marier, 1634-1662- This is a single volume that includes biographies of the "marriagable girls"; arrival dates for the ships that landed at Quebec City; charts and tables that break down the filles à marier by year of immigration and province of origin; an index of husbands; a glossary of French terms used in the book; a bit of background about how the French immigrated to New France and the men and women who worked so hard to start the colony that we now know as Canada. There are even transcripts of selected marriage contracts and inventories of estates--transcribed in the native French and translated in English.
Kings Daughter's and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673- This is a two-volume set of biographies of the filles du roi; along with much of the same historical and statistical information provided in the filles à marier editon. Mr. Gagné goes the extra mile in these volumes, however, by including a list of women who history has mistakenly labeled as filles du roi; and includes some biographical information about them as well.
Think you would like to learn more about these remarkable women? I obtained my copies of the books listed above from Quintin Publications.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention a book from the fiction-based-on-fact "Dear Canada" series: "Alone in an Untamed Land-The Filles du Roi Diary of Hélène St. Onge" by Maxine Trottier; a book that helped me get the feel of the ordeal of the filles du roi. These books are distributed by Scholastic Canada, LTD; and while they are geared toward school-aged children, I find them a delightful read as well. They are not available in the USA; I got my copy through Amazon.
Noel Family of Brockton, MA by Jolynn Noel Winland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License
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