Les Filles du Roi
By Juliana L’Heureux
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This is a composite of several stories written about Les Filles
Circa 1663-1673, New France (Québec) - Les Filles du Roi (The King’s Girls) were young French females of good upbringing (demoiselles) who were sent by ship to colonial Canada between 1663-1673, to provide spouses to the unmarried men of New France. There is nothing immoral or sinister about this title. Their title was not even an original idea of the King. (Thomas B. Costain, "The King's Girls" in Cavalcade of the North, 1958, George E. Nelson). Costain reports (pg. 565) how "Louis the Paternal Tyrant" began the idea when the English sent "King's Girls" to Virginia. Even the Spanish sent their girls to colonies in the Indies for the purpose of marrying.
Before 1660, the first girls who came to Canada looking for husbands were known as "Filles à Marier", or "marriageable daughters". They were few in number and often paid their own way through contracts and indentures. After 1663, the French royal authorities became concerned with propagation of people in their Canadian colony. Therefore, the King himself directed the first recruitment of young women of good quality for the purpose of marrying the single men already in Quebec.
Fiction literature largely stereotypes the girls as beautiful and from good families. Although writers typically put them in a situation of escaping an unwanted suitor or other untenable situations, the girls were carefully picked by agents of the King of France for their good qualities, i.e., their name "Les Filles du Roi". Records indicate how many of these girls had good backgrounds, some with a good education; yet others came with little or no education. Most girls came from the northwestern provinces of France.
A dowry from the King was promised to the girls after they were selected by recommendation. A girl received 50 livres if she married a solider or "habitant", but 100 livres if she married an officer. Since many of the girls were very poor, they also received new outfits before leaving France. The first disbursement made to the girls was a 100 livres expense broken down as follows: ten for personal moving expenses, 30 for clothing and 60 to cover the cost of passage. In addition to the allocation for clothing expense, the girls also received a small hope chest, one head dress, one taffeta handkerchief, one pair of she ribbons, 100 sewing needles, one comb, one spool of white thread, one pair of stockings, one pair of gloves, one pair of scissors, two knives, one thousand pins, one bonnet, four lace braids and two livres in sliver money. After the girls arrived in Quebec, they received other clothing suitable to the climate and additional provisions drawn from the King's warehouse.
Some girls came from upper middle class families, but for the most part, they were peasant farm girls. Farm girls were considered, usually, healthier and more industrious. Girls from the cities did not prove to be satisfactory because they were inclined to be "lightheaded, lazy and sometimes sluttish". Consequently, the sturdy young habitants of Quebec had no desire for finicky wives, even if this meant the city women might be prettier and trimmer than the big girls from the French farms.
A report from Jean Talon, who was the French King's representative in Quebec, asked French Minister Colbert to send out "strong, intelligent and beautiful girls of robust health, habituated to farm work". It was important for marriage partners to do their share of the hard work in colonial Quebec (le vivace). Commonly, before draft animals were bred in sufficient numbers, the wife would pull a plow while her husband pushed with one hand while holding a ready musket with the other.
Female candidates were examined closely (la vierge); their birth records were checked, as were recommendations from their parish priests or father confessors.
It is not known what happened if undesirables were found, but if something unforeseen surfaced, surely they must have been returned home after receiving some sort of reprimand. Under French law, in those days, a wife's status was pretty much like that of a chattel (a place of property). It was almost impossible, for instance, for a wife to regain her freedom after marriage. Even if there was infidelity on the part of a woman's husband, this was not an excuse for a woman to seek freedom. A woman's only defense was if her husband beat her with a stick thicker than his wrist; then, she was given the right to separation or divorce.
"The King's Girls" sailed from France under stern the supervision of men appointed by the French government. They were supervised until their arrival in Quebec. When they arrived, they were placed in three halls for inspection. The basis for determining the three groups is not known. Whatever the arrangement may have been, it permitted the authorities to direct the young men who came to a particular hall to where they were most likely to find a suitable maiden. The girls were by no means enslaved because they could pick and choose, so to speak. Some were reported to exercise their prerogatives a few times over. They had the privilege of refusing or accepting who they wanted. It is reported how the girls asked their suitors questions like, "How many live in your house?"; "Do you have a good hearth (or fireplace)?"; "How many cows and chickens and horses do your have?"; "Are you clean in your habits?" and "Have you a proper bed and plenty of blankets?" Seldom were questions driven to the point of a marriage refusal because, after all, the girls came to Quebec to find husbands, so this was their big chance to take advantage of the opportunity. They might never have another chance to become married. If they did not accept the marriage, should any of the girls be passed over, they suffered a most tragic social fate. An unwanted "King's Girl" was a stigma sadder than that of a confirmed spinster, because she had publicly proclaimed her willingness to be chose but then reneged or was not acceptable. Invariably, she became the subject of ill-tempered jokes and innuendoes for the rest of her life. Ironically, the plumpest girls were chosen first because the bachelors wanted healthy partners who could be depended on to do their share of the hard farm work in colonial Quebec. Girls were seldom passed over, even if they suffered from bad complexion, crossed eyes or buckteeth, as long as they had a good figure and were buxom.
Marriages usually took place immediately (le bel aujourd'hui) when the men and the girls reached acceptance or agreement. There was always a priest on hand to conduct the marriage ceremony and a notary to make out the necessary papers. After the marriage was consummated, the couple was given an ox, a cow, two pigs, a pair of chickens, two barrels of salted meat and eleven crowns in money, then hastily they departed for their new home. In colonial times, courtship and honeymoons were practically unheard of. Instead, marriages were more of a business venture than a love match. In many cases, however love did blossom eventually but love was not the first priority of a marriage. Many of these people actually re-married time and again when they lost their spouses by accidental death or disease. Divorces were very rare. There was no form of Social Security or Welfare to assist the needy, elderly or the spouses who just loss their mates. Therefore, marriages were the only form of security available. Families were usually large, because many hands were needed to work the land and to survive. By the same token, widows with large families needed a man around even if, sometimes, that new man came with his own family.
Marriages and children provided a way of life and security for the elderly. When a man married his daughter off to another family, a contract was negotiated whereby the spouse would provide some kind of contribution towards the family’s welfare. For example, the future son-in-law would promise to provide a cow each and every year, along with 20 piles of hay, 10-0 bushels of potatoes and so on. Parents always made sure that their children would take care of them until their own death.
Some of the provinces of origin of "Les Filles du Roi":
There are 852 Filles du Roi accounted for in the records kept by Quebec officials. Many hundreds of them were sent out to New France during the ten-year period 1663-1673, at times when the need for them was felt. As many as 150, in fact, arrived at one time. These ladies comprised about 17 percent of the total population of New France, estimated at that time to be less than 5,000 people.
Canada’s harsh climate was said to be particularly advantageous to the women, at least told from the masculine point of view on this subject at the time. Dollier de Casbon wrote from Montreal, "Though the cold is very wholesome to both sexes, it is incomparably advantageous to the female, who is almost immortal here".
Many Frenchmen eventually married Indian girls, but these women did not bear many children. To the contrary with Les Filles du Roi. Recorded reports say that in 1670, most of the girls who arrived the previous year, in 1669, were already pregnant and that in 1671, nearly 700 children were born by Les Filles du Roi marriages.
Without exaggeration, Les Filles du Roi created a nation. Millions of French-Canadians and Franco-Americans are descendents of these colonial era marriages.
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Published on March 19, 1998
Copyright 1994-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux