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.