Filles du Roi

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Do you have a French surname?

Meet your great-great-great-great-great-great-grand mother


Journal Staff Writer

It's weird, Jacqueline Lonchay said, driving through Woonsocket, seeing dozens of people she doesn't know, thinking that she and they may have a great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother or two in common.

That's because if you have a French Canadian surname, it's almost certain that when you track your family tree back about 400 years, you'll end up with the Filles du Roi.

The Filles du Roi -- in English, the King's Daughters -- were about 700 women who emigrated from France to Quebec between 1663 and 1673. They gave up their lives in the Old World to marry men they had never met and spend the rest of their lives building homes and raising families in New France.

To genealogists, the King's Daughters are a dynastic motherlode, a specific group that has, over generations, yielded millions of modern-day French Canadians. To French Canadians, they are patriotic icons, revered as the literal mothers of the French culture in the Americas.

It was the late 1600s and Louis XIV had a problem. His country was trying to protect its holdings in North America from the encroaching English to the south and angry native inhabitants all around.

Soldiers sent there were willing to stay in exchange for land, but it was, well, lonely. Louis's ministers realized the best defense was a heavily populated, thriving colony.

"The soldiers settled, but there is no way they are going to stay without women," said Peter Gagne, author of King's Daughters and Founding Mothers, a two-volume history of the women published by Quintin Publications of Pawtucket.

"They said this is a nice place, but where are the women?" Gagne said. "It's like when I'm going out with my buddies. We go to a bar, we go in, it's nice but hey, there are no women."

So the message went out: Quebec needs women. The government became a matchmaker par excellence, recruiting women in their late teens and early 20s from orphanages, poor houses, the petty nobility and country parishes.

At first, recruits came from the cities, but Mother Marie l'Incarnation, superior of the Ursuline convent in Quebec City where many of the girls stayed after their arrival, wrote back that city girls didn't work out as well in the countryside.

"From now on, " Marie l'Incarnation wrote in 1668, "we only want to ask for village girls who are as fit for work as men, experience having shown that those who are not raised [in the countryside] are not fit for this country."

Aesthetics did enter into the equation.

"It would be good to strongly recommend that the girls destined for this country not be disfigured by Nature in any way, that they have nothing repulsive about the exterior," wrote Intendant Jean Talon, the colony's administrator, in 1667, "that they be strong and healthy for country work or that they at least have some aptitude for household chores."

Many of the women knew what kind of life they had to look forward to in France and it wasn't pretty. More than half of the King's Daughters had lost one or both parents, Gagne said, and many were living in charitable institutions with little hope of advancing in society.

Others were from large rural peasant families and welcomed the chance for a new start on a farm of their own.

They were women like Jeanne Fauconnier, a 17-year-old cobbler's daughter from Orleans, whose father had died. Or Jeanne Dodier and Elisabeth De Lagueripiere, who both lost their mothers and fathers while they were in their early 20s, and both decided to take a chance on the wilds of New France.

IN THE 1600s, hunting was a walk in the woods, Gagne said. But housework was brutal.

"They had to do everything," he said of the frontier women. "Like the laundry, they had to do it with these large gigantic cast iron things that had to be put in the fireplace, they had to fill them with water. They had to go out and help with the crops."

Lonchay sat at the kitchen table with her daughter Samantha Beaudet, 16, on a warm afternoon two weeks ago, studying the genealogical charts of their family and the short biographies of the King's Daughters they had found.

Sitting in a heated house with a television and VCR ensconced in the corner of the living room, Lonchay said she could not even conceive of how her forebears endured those early years.

"You wonder what the hardships were like," Lonchay said. " . . . Did they have houses built? Did they have neighbors? Were you 10 miles from the nearest neighbor? If someone was sick, what did you do?

"Losing a child now, you can't comprehend it," she said, as she imagined Jeanne Fauconnier, burying her newborn daughter, or Jeanne Amiot, seeing five of her eight children die before their 13th birthdays.

"You wonder how they went on after that," she said. "I couldn't go on, picking up my life; and they did it. I don't understand how."

Her daughter Samantha said it put complaining about having to empty the clothes dryer in a new perspective.

People in 17th-century France would be astounded by 21st-century ideas of romantic marriage. Back then, virtually all marriages, from the nobility to the peasantry, were set up by the two families. Refusal to marry meant a one-way ticket to the convent.

But the King's Daughters were different. They had a special right that other Frenchwomen of their time did not: When a man asked a King's Daughter to marry, she could say no.

For volunteering to move to New France, a land where men outnumbered women by about 15 to 1, the king gave these women the right to question their suitors, and to refuse a proposal if they found the supplicant inadequate. They were most interested in whether the man had a house.

"The smartest [among suitors] began making a habitation (house) one year before getting married, because those with an habitation find a wife easier," wrote Marie l'Incarnation. "It's the first thing that the girls ask about, wisely at that, since those who are not established suffer greatly before being comfortable."

The inquisition/courtship interviews would occur in the late fall, after the harvest was in, said Silvia Bartholomy of the American-French Genealogical Society in Woonsocket, which has one of the most extensive archives of French-Canadian genealogical records in the country.

By then the recently arrived King's Daughters would have spent the previous weeks or months in the care of the Ursline nuns, learning sewing, farm tools and how to use herbs for medicines.

The young woman would be seated at a table, with a nun on one side and a notaire -- an official recorder for any marriage contract -- on the other. Bartholomy said the nun and notaire would be able to offer the young woman their own insights.

"The nun might lean over and whisper 'he drinks,' " Bartholomy said.

Once a woman accepted a proposal, the couple would sign a marriage contract drawn up by the notaire. It would stipulate what each party was bringing to the marriage, and in case of annulment, the woman would get her goods back.

The men weren't just looking for companionship. The government of New France had its own ways of encouraging family values.

Single men were about as welcome as wolves in the new colony, and the government used carrots and sticks to get them to marry.

According to Francis Parkman, a late-1800s historian who wrote about the the French in the Americas, men were given a bounty of 20 livres on top of any dowry if they married before the age of 20. Women got the bounty for marrying before age 16.

Fathers whose children who had not married by the bounty ages were fined and had to appear before a local magistrate every six months to explain the delays. Unmarried men were forbidden to hunt, fish or trade with the natives or to go into the woods for any reason.

The single men of the colony got the message, and after an arrival of King's Daughters, there up to 30 marriages at a time.

The incentives didn't end on the wedding day. By royal decree, a couple with 10 children would be given a pension of 300 livres a year (Gagne estimates that would be roughly $4,200 a year in 2001 dollars, compared to today's $2,900 standard per-child income tax deduction); those with 12 got 400 livres.

The King's Daughters program ended in 1673, Gagne said, mostly because, at about $1,400 -- in 2001 dollars -- per daughter in transportation and dowries, it had gotten expensive.

By then the effort had already literally begun bearing fruit. In 1670, Talon reported back to Paris that nearly 700 births had been recorded in the province that year. By 1672, the population had grown to 6,700, almost triple the 2,500 who were there in 1660.

Many of the women had families of 6, 8, or 10 children. And if their husbands died, women of marriageable age were seldom single for long. And the shortage of marriageable women sometimes created complex family structures.

TAKE JEANNE AMIOT, one of the King's Daughters in Lonchay's family tree. In 1673, at the age of 22, she left St. Pierre de Losne in Burgundy for Quebec. That fall she married Nicolas Pion dit Lafontaine, who was 34. They had eight children together.

Nicolas was buried on March 3, 1703, when Jeanne was about 52. The next year she married 26-year-old Francois Chicoine, the son of another King's Daughter. Jeanne's son Maurice was married to her new husband Francois' sister Therese Chicoine, which made Jeanne her daughter-in-law's sister-in-law.

That kind of trail can be traced because of a bureaucratic obsession in New France that, unlike other colonies, tracked the identities of wives and mothers as meticulously as it did husbands and fathers.

Many of those records are now in this state, in the archives of the American French Genealogical Society in Woonsocket. The society is an internationally recognized research center, with microfilmed birth, death and marriage records from thousands of village churches throughout Quebec in its collections.

In the 1860s, French Canadians began migrating from the farms of Quebec to the mills of New England seeking work. Many of them stayed, creating French Canadian enclaves throughout the region in such places as Woonsocket, West Warwick and Fall River, Mass.

Bartholomy and Gagne said the attention paid to women in general and to the King's Daughters in particular in French-Canadian records brings some much-needed balance to the history of the Europeans in the Americas.

"Almost all genealogy is about men, who founded this town, who discovered this country, passing the name down," said Gagne, whose own family tree has more than 80 King's Daughters. "This is a way of getting back to the women."

"We look back at their time and think things were so weird," Samantha Beaudet said. "Is it going to be weird to the next generations coming when they look back at us?"

"To think of all the people who have roots in Canada, so many of us are related," Lonchay said. "We're from Canada. When you think of this big picture, it's really neat that your family is a part of this. Your family did this."

Further reading on the King's Daughters/Filles Du Roi Internet sites:

American-French Genealogical Society:

Quintin Publications

The Virtual Museum of New France

The museum's Filles Du Roi page:

La Societe de filles du roi et soldats du Carignan Inc.,(A King's Daughters Society)

For more on researching ancestral roots online:

Kings Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673 by Peter J. Gagne, published by Quintin Publications, Pawtucket, 2001.

A history of the King's Daughters that includes short biographies of nearly all the women as well as charts showing details such as time of arrival and husbands.The Splendid Century, by W. H. Lewis, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957.
A survey of what life was like in 17th century France, for the nobility and the lesser classes.

The marriage contract of Isabelle Hubert and Louis Bolduc, circa 1665

The future spouses shall not be held accountable for the debts and mortgages of the other made and created before the solemnity of their marriage. And if there be any they shall be paid and settled by he who has made and created them out of his own property.

The future groom takes the said future bride with her rights names reasons and actions in whatever place they may be situated and found. And nonetheless the future bride promises to bring to her future husband the day after their wedding the equivalent of 400 livres for all her furniture, clothes rings and jewelry.

Excerpts from King's Daughters and Founding Mothers, by Peter J. Gagne.

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