Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jamestown Women

After Jamestown’s establishment in 1607, there was concern as to whether white women had a place in the savage New World. By 1619, the Virginia Company of London realized the establishment of thriving communities would be impossible without the stabilizing influence of wives and arranged that “a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants.” Following the arrival of “57 young maids” in 1622, most “were well married before the coming away of the ships.” Search: “The Virginia Colonial Records Project”.

Women Arrive At Jamestown

Daughters of the King

It is almost impossible to be of French-Canadian descent and not have at least one "fille du roi" amongst one's ancestresses. This was the title given to the female immigrants from France who agreed to travel to New France to marry a settler there in exchange for a dowry from the king.

A dowry in the period in which New France was being settled was of crucial importance to a girl or woman in France. Women needed a dowry, no matter how small, to marry or to enter a convent as a nun. In a period when positions in life were bought and sold, the size of a girl's dowry generally determined her future position in life. Without a dowry, a widow or orphaned girl of this age could look forward to only the dreariest of lives. There can be little doubt that the offer of a dowry from the king awakened a fervent hope and even more fervent dreams in the hearts and minds of many of our ancestresses in mid-seventeenth century France. This is the story of that dream ... a dream that was often shattered on arrival in the wilderness by the blow of a tomahawk.

French-Canadian historians often limited filles du roi to those who arrived in New France during the years 1663 through 1673. Women who arrived before the year 1663 paid for their own transport or made their own arrangements. They were encouraged to travel to New France, but it was a private effort and the numbers of women arriving in the New World were small by comparison.

The average penniless Frenchman traveling to New France usually paid for his transportation with a contract calling for three years of labor. It usually included his sustenance, clothing and a small sum of money. Many women must have agreed to the same terms. They would have been needed by servants by the various orders of nuns. Some came to the New World planning to become nuns but changed their minds and married.

The importance of these women in the life of the New World and its population is recognized by all historians. It has been reported by the Quebec Seminary that the grand total of immigrants arriving in New France, including the king's daughters (or king's girls as they were also called), was 4,894 for a period between 1608 and 1700.

While adventure may have compelled a few of the women of quality to undertake a new life in Quebec's wilderness, an examination of the few records available indicates the principal reason was the same as that which sent most of the women on their way. Most of the girls had one or both parents deceased and not much in the way of a dowry. What's more, once in the new land, there would be no social pressure to marry among one's own class. Thus, daughters of noblemen wed commoners in New France.

Most of the history books devoted only a few short paragraphs to the king's daughters, mentioning the need for wives and mothers in New France and the plan to otain them by having the king offer a dowry. One of the major truisms mentioned in all these accounts is the speed with which the women arriving from France found husbands among the colonists and were married.

Typical is the account by Eccles. "Each year," he writes, "the ships carried hundreds of filles du roi to Quebec, where they were cared for by the Ursulines and hospital sisters until they found husbands. This rarely took more than a fortnight." The bachelors in New France wanted wives and the women arriving had agreed to marry. Love, in those days, was always something our ancestors expected would come after marriage.

Still, they weren't about to leave everything to chance. It is amazing to note the large number who apparently sought and obtained wedding partners from their own native sections of France. What is more amazing is the large number of formal agreements to marry which were made before a notary and later annulled. There were even a number of civil marriages contracted, annulled, new partners obtained, another annulment, and the earlier partner taken back again ... this time for the all-important church ceremony. The civil agreements on the terms of the marriage were not arrived at lightly. The decision to seek an annulment had to be studied and couldn't have been made quickly.

Except for approximately 80 filles du roi, the origin of all known daughters of the king is known. Over 52% of these women came from just two provinces of France that no longer exist ... the Ile-de-France and Normandy. Since the French revolution, France has been divided into regions called "departments." However, an examination of a pre-revolutionary French map, plus a knowledge of the history of the period, will show why the largest number of filles du roi were from those two areas.

The romantic possibilities of the French-Canadian filles du roi among their ancestors has not escaped the historians of New France, but now and again it has led them a bit astray. One of the reasons was their eagerness to rebut the charges made by Louis-armand de Lom Darce that the filles du roi were the scourings from the streets and brothels of France's cities. While it's true that not all of the women who arrived in New France would have been welcomed in a convent, they were extremely poor. Only a few dozen of the women could be considered propertied and of an estate which would have made them good marriageable prospects in France.

But research shows that, except for a very few (and some of these were apparently led astray in the New World), the filles du roi were courageous, adventurous, daring spirits who saw New France as a means of escaping the depressing future that would be their lot in France because of their relative poverty. Romantically, some of the portrayals of the Kings Daughters picture them in regal splendor. But perhaps we can make some more realistic suppositions about the women: They must have made frantic efforts just before their arrival to appear their very best. The size of the ships, the scarcity of water and their humble dowries musthave made their efforts desperate.

One of these poor women, Madeleine Fabrecque, age 23, died in Quebec just after her arrival and before she was married. She was probably buried in her best outfit and the only stockings and shoes she had. The inventory of her remaining possessions tells us more about these women than many words: two outer dresses (one of Holland fabric in satin-weave style and made of wool, the other of silk and wool), a tattered green petticoat, a morning dress or wrapper made of rough linen handkerchiefs, six head dresses of linen, four black head coverings (two of taffeta and two of crepe), a muff made of dog's skin and two pairs of sheepskin gloves.

That is everything ... that is all this poor girl possessed to bring to her marriage ... that and the king's dowry, which would be handed over by the colonial ministry once she found a husband in the New World and the marriage ceremony was complete. The average dowry was under 200 pounds in money; perhaps 50 pounds if she had married a soldier and 100 pounds if she married an officer. She may have also received a supply of goods; a cow, a cask of port, some tools.

The final contingent of about 50 filles du roi arrived in New France in the summer of 1673. Accounting for over 15% of the French inhabitants of the territory, the filles du roi became the ancestors of nearly all of us who trace our roots through Canada. If you have French Canadian ancestors, you more than likely have one or more “Daughters” in your tree. For a list, go to: www.fillesduroi.org/src/Filles_list.htm.

Correction Girls

In 1718 there were no white women in and around the swampy settlement of New Orleans when the French Canadian, Jean- Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville brought approximately 300 men to build the city of Nouvelle Orleans. Among those men, only 28 were married, leaving poor prospects for the remaining 272. LeMoyne’s need to keep his men happy led to a plea in his earliest message to the King for a shipment of marriageable women. But what parents of a virtuous daughter would send her into the wilderness?

Less virtuous women were available … French women who had fallen into disfavor with their families, orphans living on the streets of Paris and many who were imprisoned in dungeons and asylums. 80 of them were sent to Louisana. Undernourished and in poor health, many died during the months-long trip. Those who survived were snatched up on arrival in the Louisiana capital of Mobile by whatever man was fortunate enough to have his pick. Some women didn’t wed or were widowed after brief marriages, conditions that prompted LeMoyne  to send the following message to Paris in 1722:

“There are here, Gentlemen, a number of women to whom rations are given … who are useless and who do nothing but cause disorder. The majority of these women are ruined with pox and ruin the sailors. It is necessary that you be so good as to order the Council to have them go into the interior among the Indians.”

Subsequently, it became a matter of pride in the colony to derive one’s origin from a “fille a la casette”  or “casket girl” vs. “correction girl”.

Casket Girls

In 1699, France established Louisiana primarily as a military outpost, and later efforts by Spanish and British regimes also focused on Louisiana’s value as a strategic asset. Therefore, soldiers, administrators and support personnel, not families, formed the largest percentage of Louisiana colonists.

Subsequent efforts by French, Spanish and British governments to bring in family groups sometimes succeeded, but not in sufficient numbers to create a growing, productive colony based on natural reproduction to mirror the success of the Atlantic seaboard colonies. To support the military presence, Louisiana needed to grow its population and produce goods for market. These objectives required the presence of families.

Colonial officials were well aware of the success enjoyed by the colonizers of the eastern seaboard colonies, whose settlers consisted primarily of family groups. Officials also understood the civilizing influence women could exert on unruly, male-dominated settlements. At the most basic level, the men who populated colonial Louisiana desired companions and helpmeets capable of softening the rough edges of frontier life. Louisiana needed women.

During the French colonial period, the Company of the Indies began to assemble and transport groups of young women to Louisiana. The first group arrived aboard the Le Pélican in July 1704, and by September most had found husbands. The company made numerous attempts to populate Louisiana by periodically transporting groups of women, some of whom were criminals and prostitutes.

In general, this experiment failed in its effort to provide a sufficient number of marriageable young women to colonial men. In contrast, the casket girls, or filles a la casette, groups of modest young French women so called because of the small chests in which their belongings were shipped, proved to be the most notable success. Upon their arrival in Louisiana in 1728, the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans housed and cared for these young women until they found husbands. Today many Louisianans proudly trace their ancestry to these women.

Efforts to populate Louisiana during the Spanish (1763–1783 and 1783–1810 for West Florida) and British (1763–1783) periods focused on a system of generous land grants in an attempt to lure families from the eastern seaboard colonies. These efforts brought more families to the area, but the majority of migrating settlers continued to be male. Between 1778 and 1783, Spain transported approximately two thousand Canary Islanders, now known as Isleños, most of them in family units, to four settlements in southern Louisiana. The Acadians also came in family units from the 1760s to 1780s. However, neither the Spanish nor British made efforts to recruit women as the French had done.

Regardless of their status or ethnic background, colonial Louisiana women endured difficult lives as they negotiated the dangers of the frontier: scarce supplies, hostile environment, and the hard physical labor that came with transforming the wilderness into a home. Even the most elite women succumbed to the diseases that flourished in Louisiana’s climate. However, the women who eventually came to Louisiana influenced the colony not only in terms of their impact on population growth, but in their contributions to the nascent society and their ability to assimilate and transfer cultural patterns that are still evident today.

Mail-Order Brides

The concept of mail-order brides was first seen on the American frontier during the mid-1800s. The huge emigration of men to the Western U.S. resulted in a disproportionate ratio of men to women in such places as Washington, Arizona and especially California during the Gold Rush. While most men found financial success out west, they missed the company of a wife.

Back east, for women who were not of the privileged classes, finding a husband could be difficult particularly after the Civil War when thousands of young men died in battle and thousands more moved west. To make ends meet, many went into domestic service or nursing at an early age and were unable to take part in the courtship rituals allowed middle and upper class. Ingenuity and perseverance were needed to find a worthy mate if the most desirable qualifications – money and social standing – were not in abundance.

It was unusual for women to travel alone, so if you find records of a female ancestor traveling east to west without a male companion around the Civil War period it could have been to meet a prospective spouse. But how did they find each other?

·    Matrimonial News – Men wrote letters to churches and advertised in publications such as “San Francisco-based Matrimonial News”, a newspaper that promoted honorable matrimonial engagements and true conjugal facilities for men and women. In spite of the occasional mismatch or short-lived union, historians believe that mail-order brides produced a high percentage of permanent marriages. The reason cited is that the advertisements were candid and direct in their explanations of exactly what was wanted and expected from a prospective spouse. If requested, the parties sent accurate photos of themselves along with a page of background information. Often, when the pair met, the groom-to-be signed an agreement, witnessed by three upstanding members of the territory, not to abuse or mistreat the bride-to-be. The prospective bride then signed a paper (also witnessed) not to nag or try to change the intended! Go to: www.trailend.org/wed-expectations.htm.
·    Mercer Girls – Toward the end of the Civil War, women from Massachusetts were encouraged to move west. About the same time, Asa Mercer of Seattle, WA began recruiting young women by advertising for schoolmarms (though everyone knew marriage was one of the draws due to a shortage of eligible men back east). The “Mercer Girls” paid their own passage of $250 which provided transportation and lodging. When they arrived in the territories, they were put up by families who were glad to have young women as teachers and citizens. Though few in number, the Mercer Girls are well-documented and were depicted in the TV series Here Come the Brides. Go to: http://www.mercergirls.com/.
·    Busy Bee Club – Distressed by shootouts over eligible Black females, six Tucson, AZ wives formed the “Busy Bee Club” in 1885 to arrange mail-order brides for young Black miners by contacting Black churches and newspapers in the east.
·    Good Reads “Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier”; “I Do! Courtship, love, and marriage on the American Frontier”; “Black Women of the Old West”.

Brides of War

Thousands of war brides immigrated to America after World Wars I and II. WWI brides often traveled to their new country with their husbands on ships known as “dependent ships”, where the men and women were berthed in separate quarters. WWII brides came to America on special war bride transports. Passenger lists and ship manifests should contain information for most American war brides. Go to: www.uswarbrides.com/WW2warbrides/shiplist.html.