Lindsey Palka last wrote for The Toast about What Katy Did.
Today we forget how hard it was to leave home in the past. We can video chat our loved ones on the other side of the world, text them our every thought within a second, fly (in an emergency) to visit them in a day. Would you leave home if it meant you would probably never return? That you would almost certainly never see your loved ones again and only exchange letters once or twice a year? Hundreds of young French women made that trip and exchanged their existing lives for an adventure that would last their whole lives.
Known in French as the “Filles du Roi” or in English as the “King’s Daughters,” just under eight hundred young women, most of whom were between 15 and 25, were sponsored by the king to marry in New France between 1665 and 1675 to help settle the area. Not to be confused with the king’s actual daughters (three daughters by his queen and six or more illegitimate girls), they were given the name to demonstrate that they were his wards and it was their job to create this new society. Many were orphans, some were from upper-class but destitute families, but all shared a ready sense of adventure and a lack of other options.
Now imagine very seriously for a moment that you are about to embark on the biggest adventure of your life. That you are lying in bed—probably unable to sleep—and that tomorrow you will board a wooden ship and sail what could be six weeks or could be three months. You will sleep in a narrow, hard bunk that you may share with another young woman you do not know. You will have no fresh food or fresh water. The ship may capsize. Fever might break out. Someone, or quite possibly several people, will probably die. Once you make it to Canada, there are no cities to greet you. And when you get there you will marry someone you have never met and start a new life.
And once you get there, the life will not be anything like the life you have known. Every task we take for granted today is a major physical job—cooking three meals a day from scratch, using vegetables you’ve grown and preserved yourself, and meat you’ve raised and slaughtered yourself, using an open fire in a hearth. Spinning your own thread and weaving your own cloth, if you raise sheep, but certainly making all of your own clothes, and those of your husband and children. Washing the clothes and linens in an iron kettle over an open fire, using soap you’ve made yourself, and mending them after they inevitably begin to wear out. Keeping your house clean from the ever-present soot and dirt and ash, washing your dishes in a basin and scouring them with sand, sweeping with a broom made of tree boughs.
If you live on a farm you will take part in the farm labour as well—not only looking after chickens and milking cows, but actively helping with the planting, the harvest, and millions of other tasks a farm demands. All of this will take place in the sweltering heat of summer without air-conditioning and the numbing cold of winter in an uninsulated house with no central heat. And if all goes according to plan, you will do all of this while pregnant, breastfeeding, and looking after small children, until you enter menopause, at which point you will do all of the above work but at least you will not be pregnant.
And you will have very few neighbours, for New France in the 1660s was still quite a lonely place. Although Jacques Cartier had claimed the Gaspe peninsula for France in 1534 (ninety years before the Pilgrims would appear, shivering, on the Massachusetts shore), the colony lacked direction. Fishermen who didn’t mind deprivation spent summers there before returning to Europe, and when the wealth of fur was discovered, trappers began to flock to the woods. For the next several decades, New France attracted young single men in search of money, adventure, and danger, though not necessarily in that order. By the time Quebec City was established in 1608, there were barely two dozen permanent white residents of New France. Few families were willing to stay permanently in a distant wilderness replete with dangerous wild animals, very few other white people, and terribly harsh winters. Thirty years later the population was still only 355–partially due to the poor conditions, and partially to poor mismanagement by the fur trading companies. Relations with the local Iroquois and Algonquin groups were constantly tense and did not make it any easier to attract families to the area.
New France had a wealth of resources, but by the 1650s it was verging on becoming a failed colony. There were a few hundred colonists, but they were mostly young, single men and a smattering of families. Married couples and families in France were unwilling to uproot themselves to a dangerous land, and there were vanishingly few young women with the means and desire to pay their own way to Quebec. In order to build a stable population, you must have families; and in order to have families, you must have childbearing women.
There were women in New France already, of course. Native women very occasionally married a white explorer, but it was not a common or popular choice among both groups. Mixed-race children were not unknown in the area, but for the vast majority of white explorers, a white wife was non-negotiable. White women had been in Quebec since 1639, with the creation of the Ursuline Convent. The nuns were expected to provide a moral and stabilizing force to the Catholic colony and to teach young Native girls English, therefore allowing them to become intermediaries between the two populations. However, since neither nuns nor Native women were viable marriage options for the vast majority of French men, the major issue remained.
Jean Talon was named Intendant of New France—a sort of head honcho representative for the French government—in 1665, and his solution was simple: Import women with no other options. It is families that settle colonies, not single adventurers, and Talon knew that to go much longer with such an unstable population may doom the whole enterprise. Imagine New France as a rowdy frat full of wild young men, and Jean Talon as their slightly anxious parent who keeps telling them “Don’t you think it’s time you found a nice girl and settled down?” And expediting that process by arranging for almost eight hundred “nice girls” to show up at the doorstep.
The king thought the idea nothing short of genius, and arranged to pay for the passage of the women, along with a dowry consisting of money, some clothing, and a few household items like one hundred needles and a thousand pins. (Sewing needles and pins were invaluable items–used daily, easy to lose in a room lit by firelight or candlelight, and nearly impossible to make a homemade replacement for.) The women were selected to be hard-working, devoutly Catholic, good-natured, and above all, willing to go.
The most amazing thing was that it worked. Although the filles du roi were overwhelmingly poor, and many orphans, none were forced to make the trip. Many were from farming backgrounds, and girls raised in French orphanages at the time would have been expected to have learned all necessary household skills and to do them well. Three-quarters of the women married within a month of their arrival, and most of the remaining quarter did not wait much longer. Several couples realized after their first dizzy meetings that their partnership may not have been the best idea, and broken-off engagements were not unusual nor looked down on. A very few women returned to France with their new husbands, but the vast majority married and began large families, just as the king had intended. The population began to swell as most filles du roi had at least six children, and seven to nine was more common. Ten was not unheard of. Mother Marie de l’Incarnation, the head of the Ursuline convent that had been a temporary home to most filles du roi before their marriages, declared: “It is surprising how very many exceptionally good-looking children are born every year.” In later years, children born to these families were described by a later Intendant as “tall, well-made, and strikingly handsome.”
Many attribute Quebec’s unique set of circumstances, including its exceptionally high fertility rate well into the twentieth century, directly to the role of the filles du roi. By deliberately choosing women who would be hard-working and strictly Catholic, and encouraging them with state support to bear large families, the French crown created a culture that valued these qualities in its families. Quebec’s history has been irreversibly shaped by these women–young women who chose a life they knew would not be easy and that would take them away from everything they knew. How many of us could make a trip where the stakes were so high and stay there forever? How many of us would want to?
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.