Most of Canada during the 1600s was known as “New France.” French men had flocked to the new land with promises of wealth. However, few French women had done the same. This was a great concern to the French government because English settlers, both men and women, were greatly outnumbering the French in the area.
Therefore, the French government, during King Louis XIV’s reign, paid nearly 800 women to make the journey and settle in the colony. These women were between the ages of 12 and 25. They were chosen for their health and “good” character. Most were of lower class, but some destitute French nobility were chosen to “hook up” with French officers and gentlemen. These were young girls, grown women, and widows. Many were orphans. The Intendant in Canada assisted in establishing the women in the area. They received at marriage the King’s gift of 50 livres for commoners and 100 livres for those in society. These gifts are reflected in some of the marriage contracts entered into by the Filles du roi at the time of their first marriages. Out of the 768 women who accepted the King’s charge, 737 claimed marriages. The result was a population explosion, leading to the success of the colony.
The women disembarked in Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal. After their arrival, their time to find husbands varied greatly. Some women found a husband in a matter of a few months, while others took a couple of years before finding an appropriate husband. Some married in church, while others chose to employ a notary, to sign a marriage contract.
The marriage contracts represented a protection for the women, both in terms of financial security if anything were to happen to them or their husband, and in terms of having the liberty to annul the promise of marriage if the man they had chosen proved incompatible. A substantial number of the filles du roi who arrived in New France between 1669 and 1671 cancelled marriage contracts; perhaps the dowry they had received made them disinclined to retain a fiancé with whom they found themselves dissatisfied.
An early problem in recruitment was the women’s adjustment to the new agricultural life. The filles du roi were mostly town girls, and only a few knew how to do manual farm work. Eventually, adjustments were made to recruit girls from rural areas.
The program, generally, was a resounding success. It was reported that in 1670, most of the girls who had arrived the previous year, 1669, were already pregnant and by 1671, a total of nearly 700 children were born to the Filles du Roi. The colony was expected to gain population self-sufficiency soon afterward.
Most of the millions of people of French Canadian descent today, both in Quebec and the rest of Canada and the USA (and beyond!), are descendants of one or more of these courageous women of the 17th century.
Gagné, Peter J. (2002). Before the King’s Daughters The Filles à Marier, 1634-1662. Quintin Publications.
Hallowell, Gerald (2004). The Oxford companion to Canadian history. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.
Juliana L’Heureux, “Les Filles du Roi”, Portland (Maine) Press Herald, March 19, 1998.
La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan, has links to a listing of the Filles du roi and other information