Les Filles du Roi

If you have French-Canadian ancestry, you probably have encountered the term “Filles du Roi” at some point in your genealogy research. Millions of today’s Canadians and Americans can find one or more of the Filles du Roi in the family tree. I thought I would explain the term this week and also provide some historical background information.

The French term “Filles du Roi” translates literally as “the daughters of the King.” Between 700 and perhaps 1,000 young, single women traveled to Quebec City, Trois Rivières, and Montréal from 1663 to 1673 as a part of a program managed by the Jesuits and funded by King Louis XIV.

Jean Talon, Bishop François de Laval and several settlers welcome the King’s Daughters upon their arrival. Painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

These hardy immigrant women married and raised families. In fact, many of them raised large families in the tradition of the day. Many of their sons and daughters went on to also have large families, and so on and so forth for generations. As a result, millions of living people are descended from this group of pioneer women.

In the mid-1600s, most of the people arriving in what was then called New France were young French men intent on farming or fur trapping. Relatively few women traveled to the new land, which created a problem for these young men: there were very few women of marrying age in New France.

As if the farmers and fur trappers didn’t have enough competition finding wives, King Louis XIV sent almost 1,200 soldiers of the Carignan-Salières regiment to Québec in 1665 to fight the Iroquois Indians, who were aggressive and killed many settlers. The soldiers were deployed at strategic points of the territory to defend the colony and its residents. The regiment was successful, and a peace treaty with the Iroquois was signed on July 10, 1667. The Regiment then returned to France but left behind 400 soldiers and officers, aged between 19 and 30, who all agreed to remain in the country as settlers. With an additional 400 young men added to the colony, the marriage problems worsened. Jean Talon, intendant of New France, carried out the colony’s first census. He recorded that the population was a bit more than 3,000, with 719 unmarried males and only 45 unmarried females living in the colony. This did not bode well for the future of the settlement.

In the custom of the day, the oldest daughter of a family in France received as large a dowry as possible from her parents to improve her chances of marriage. Dowries often included furniture, household articles, silver, land, or other inherited goods. Younger daughters of the same family typically received smaller dowries. Daughters of impoverished families often received no dowry at all, which reduced their chances of finding a suitable mate. These younger daughters were prime candidates for an opportunity in the New World.

Starting in 1663, the French government recruited eligible young French women who were willing to travel to New France to find husbands. The King of France offered to pay for transportation to New France of any eligible young woman. He also offered a dowry for each, to be awarded upon her marriage to a young Frenchman. Each woman’s dowry typically consisted of 1 chest, 1 taffeta kerchief, 1 ribbon for shoes, 100 needles, 1 comb, 1 spool of white thread, 1 pair of stockings, 1 pair of gloves, 1 pair of scissors, 2 knives, about 1,000 pins, 1 bonnet, 4 laces, and 2 silver livres (French coins). Many also received chickens, pigs, and other livestock. Because the King of France paid the dowries instead of the parents, these women were referred to as the “Daughters of the King,” or “Filles du Roi.”

Their travels must have been difficult. In 1664, the Conseil Souverain reported to the French minister for the colonies, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, that sixty of the 300 people who embarked at La Rochelle the previous year had died at sea before reaching New France. It is amazing to think that 20% of these presumably healthy young women did not survive the voyage across the Atlantic.

In France, Madame Bourdon was made responsible for one hundred and fifty girls whom the king sent to New France in vessels from Normandy. She wrote that the young women in her charge gave her plenty of exercise during such a long voyage since they were of all kinds and conditions. Some were very badly brought up and very difficult to handle. Others were better bred and gave Mme. Bourdon more satisfaction.

There are many contradictory stories about the origins of these women. Some stories claim that they were mostly prostitutes who were forced onto ships in French harbors and sent to New France against their will. Other stories claim that these women were mostly recruited by Jesuits who insisted upon accepting only women of the finest moral character. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes. About 40 Daughters, called Daughters of Quality (filles de qualité), were from wealthy upper class families and had dowries of over 2000 French pounds. Several of the Daughters of Quality have provable descents from royalty. Anyone who can trace his or her family tree back to one or more of the filles de qualité probably is descended from Charlemagne and many other royal families.

On October 27, 1667, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Quebec intendant Jean Talon confirmed the recent arrival of the first young ladies. Jean Talon wrote:

Instead of the 50 that your despatch had me hope for, 84 young girls were sent from Dieppe and 25 from La Rochelle. There are fifteen or twenty from quite good families; several are real young ladies and quite well brought up…

The vast majority of the group was of French origin, although there were girls of other nationalities as well. According to the records of Marie de l’ Incarnation, who knew many of these women, there were among them one Moor, one Portuguese, one German, and one Dutch woman.

Those who arrived safely usually found husbands within a few weeks. In fact, there are records of some of the young women marrying within days after their arrival in New France. Since many of them produced large families, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people in North America today can find one or more of these young women in their family tree.

An alphabetical listing of all the known Filles du Roi and their husbands is available at http://www.fillesduroi.org/src/Filles_list.htm.

You can find a lot more information about the Filles du Roi on the World Wide Web. Some of the better sites include the following:

In English:

“A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada” at http://www.whitepinepictures.com/seeds/i/12/sidebar.html

Museum of New France – Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation at http://www.civilization.ca/vmnf/popul/filles/s-fil-en.htm

La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan at http://www.fillesduroi.org/

Filles du Roi — “Daughters of the King” at http://www.lookbackward.com/perrault/filleroi/

“King’s Daughters” on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King%27s_Daughters

In French:

La Société d’histoire des Filles du Roy at http://lesfillesduroy-quebec.org/

“Les Filles du Roy – 1663 à 1673” at http://www.migrations.fr/700fillesroy.htm

“Filles du Roi” on Wikipedia: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filles_du_Roi

If you do not read or speak French, the above sites can be translated into English by using the machine-generated translation services available at Google. The results will often be grammatically incorrect and even humorous at times, but still quite readable.

There are many other Web sites devoted to the Filles du Roi. Use your favorite search engine to find them or click here for a search on Google.

11 Comments

When I studied Mississippi history in school (long ago) we learned about the “casket” girls who came to the gulf coast area — Mobile, Biloxi, New Orleans — with chests holding their possessions. This was to encourage settlement by the French in the Gulf area. This migration was in the early part of the 1700’s.

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You write: “In the mid-1600s, most of the people arriving in what was then called New France were young French men intent on farming or fur trapping.”

Very few French did any fur trapping then. They relied on the Native Americans from distant places in the interior to carry furs _they_ had trapped and prepared for trade to the colony on the St. Lawrence River. Because of the Iroquois, mortal enemies of the Indians allied to the French, very few convoys of Indians came down to the colony then. Only after the Carignan Regiment had subdued the Iroquois could trading parties begin to travel into the interior to trade for furs. And even then, it was the Natives who did the majority of the trapping and preparation of the beaver skins. They wore the skins against their bodies for months so that the guard hairs eventually wore off, making the fur easier for the hat makers in France to transform into felt. This kind of beaver was called “castor gras” or fat beaver and was the most valuable of all the beaver skins.

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Many of the earliest colonists were indentured servants (les engagés) before remaining in New France to become farmers in their own right or join the few who ventured into the forests. Les engagés were under contract, usually for three years, as single men to work for merchants, other townsmen, and farmers. Many, perhaps a majority, returned to France after their term of service. Much has been written about them in the history of New France and as the subject of a master’s thesis:
http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp03/MQ38124.pdf
There is also this short item:
http://www.quebec.acadian-home.org/engages.html

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Demographic research has established that, given their longevity and child-bearing accomplishments, most of these women were in good health, which is inconsistent with a history of prostitution. In other words, they were good girls :o)

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    Eastman writes: “There are many contradictory stories about the origins of these women. Some stories claim that they were mostly prostitutes who were forced onto ships in French harbors and sent to New France against their will. Other stories claim that these women were mostly recruited by Jesuits who insisted upon accepting only women of the finest moral character. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes.”

    He is obviously not aware of the extensive research done most recently by Yves Landry in
    Orphelines en France, pionnières au Canada, Les Filles du roi au XVIIe siècle, Montreal: Leméac, 1992.

    Landry and earlier researchers have put to rest the allegations that the FIlles du Roi were prostitutes, or Filles de Joie. Gustave Lanctot’s Filles de Joie ou Filles du Roi, Étude sur L’Émigration feminine en Nouvelle-France (Montréal: Les Éditions Chantecler Ltée, 1952) also discusses other women who arrived before the 1663 program went into effect. His intent is to refute the published allegations that these women were “prostitutes” (Filles de Joie) or women of loose morals. Another researcher is Silvio Dumas, Les Filles du Roi en Nouvelle France (Québec: La Société Historique de Québec, 1972). Both Dumas and Landry list and give documented biographic details about these women. A very insignificant few were not of the highest moral standards, but definitely not all.

    To say there was recruiting by Jesuits is also not accurate.

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Pierre and Suzanne give us excellent contributions to this discussion. Perhaps three or four of these women in New France were of unsavory character.

In English, Peter J. Gagné provides us with a two-volume set, “King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673.” Its 664 pages provide historical background, data in tabular, graphics, and spreadsheet formats, and 575 pages of biographies on each of 768 individuals. There is also a cross reference list of husbands.

In Paris, there is a commemorative plaque at the courtyard of Sainte-Claire de la Salpêtrière which indicates that 240 young women came from this General Hospital with the King’s doweries. In 1860, the hospital had about 3,000 women and girls. A multipurpose institution, it housed and educated orphans in the care of nuns, served as an insane asylum, and indeed as a prison for prostitutes. Perhaps the notoriety of this place 100 years later gave credence to the slander of the women who had been individually vetted by authorities in the name of the King. The arrival of any shiploads of undesirable women in New France would have been met with fierce objection by local officials to the King and not permitted to remain.

A photo of the Salpêtrière plaque is at page 88 of “L’Ancêtre,” Numéro 305, Volume 40, Hiver 2014, a periodical of the Société de généalogie de Québec.

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I would like to know what books and articles Suzanne Boivin Sommerfield has published or written especially concerning her own family history/tree.

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I appreciate the comments and reference material ya’ll have given. I have only recently discovered the French name for my ancestors who came here from Canada in the 1830’s and the spelling change. With that knowledge, I have found 4 of the King’s daughters thus far. I only wish I could read French as there are many good books I could use for this project.

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    In English:
    Peter J. Gagné, King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673 (Quintin Publications: Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 2001) in two volumes.

    Also, there is a Facebook for both the Filles du Roi and the other pioneer women who were not part of this program: Les Filles et les Femmes

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