In the 1660s, the lustrous king of France had consolidated his power at home. He had moved his court to Versailles and gotten his nobles under control. Now he looked around to see what else he could improve. His eyes turned to the west, to la Nouvelle France. Unlike the English colonies in America, his just didn't seem to prosper. What could be the problem? Not enough girls, his advisors replied. Not enough marriages, not enough children, not enough people. So the King sent them some girls.
Les filles du Roy, the daughters of the king, they were called. They were sent to the newly founded settlements of Québec with one purpose: To marry and settle there. The first batch arrived in 1663, the last in 1673. Their transportation and settlement expenses were paid for of the king's treasury, and many of them received a dowry as well. They are some of the first foremothers of the Canadians, for most of them did marry, and they did multiply, and their father the King was satisfied.
Jean Talon was the intendant of New France at the time. He ordered the first census of the colony, and learned that while it had 719 eligible bachelors, there were only 45 marriable females to go around. As if the numbers didn't speak for themselves, Talon reported in a letter that several men had asked him to get them wives. The intendant communicated with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the King's minister of finance, and together they devised ways to get more women across. The first shipload of 38 young ladies arrived in 1663. A few months later, most of them were married, and Talon noticed with satisfaction that most of them quickly became pregnant.
The girls sent to New France were selected with care. They had to be healthy and capable of bearing children, of course. They should be reasonably pretty so that the settlers would want to marry them. Also, since most of the girls would end up on a farm, they needed to be acquainted with farm work, or at least willing to learn and adapt. The girls also received education to further make them suitable for peopling the colony. They were taught to sew and embroider; about religion, of course; and some even learned how to read and write, a rare skill in those days.
Many girls were recruited from orphanages and poorhouses in Paris, especially la Salpêtrière in the capital where they had been taught by nuns. This was a good move for the girls - from owning nothing and having few prospects, they had money, a royal patronage, and the hope of a future on the other side of the ocean. In America, these girls were not the main choice, however. Few of them knew how to run a farm, and so were no good to the settlers. The elite who lived in the cities, the officers and noblemen, wanted women of class and family, not just any city girl. Jean Talon did his best to cater to their tastes.
In the beginning the colony was happy to accept any girl they could get, but later they became more specific about what they wanted. In his letters to Colbert, Talon declared that the girls must be able to stand the climate and the hard work of the farms. Colbert sent word to the parish priests to look for village girls who might want to settle in the new land. They did, and Normandy, Aunis, Poitou, Champagne, Picardy, Orléans, and Beauce became the highest contributing regions.
Many of the unmarried men were recently dispatched soldiers from the Carignan-Salière regiment, retired from the army after conquering the Iroquois. They could either clear themselves a farm through hard toil, or go into the lucrative fur trading business. Too many chose the latter. The trapping and killing of small furry animals does not a good empire make, and so the authorities decided to make more choose the agricultural option. They established pecuniary incentives for those who married, while they used harsh measures to control those who did not. Talon reported to Colbert:
«I have ordered that the volunteers (who on my return I found in significant numbers earning their living through banditry) be deprived of the right to trade and hunt, and that the honours and privileges of church and community be withheld, other than by decree, if within fifteen days of the arrival of vessels from France they are still not married».
As for the girls, they were taken care of from the beginning of their preparation in France to their entrance into blissful wedlock. The authorities arranged balls where prospective brides and grooms could meet each other. Girls who did not marry immediately, lodged with "good families" who looked after them, Talon assured the people at home. Since most of the new immigrants arrived with very few clothes and accessories, they were given some of what they needed, often in the form of dowry when they married.
For many of the girls, perhaps it was the freedom of choice that attracted them. At the time, all women were expected to marry unless they wanted to starve, and usually it was their family who made the choice for them. In Nouvelle France, however, they could write their own contracts of engagement and marriage. Marie de l'Incarnation, the mother superior of the local Ursuline nuns, chronicled the arrival of the King's Daughters and their rapid absorption into the colonial society. Not only did the girls marry fast, she noticed, they also seemed to encourage more French men to try their luck in the colonies.
Jean Talon eventually began to feel like a victim of his own success, however. The girls were a major cost to his budget, and he always seemed to get more than he requested. Suddenly he found himself with more girls than suitable matches, girls who still needed to be clothed and fed. He asked the minister Colbert to please be a bit less generous.
There was some resistance to the sudden onslaught of girls who were so willing to marry. Many priests refused to give them that particular sacrament unless they could prove they were free to enter a union. Talon therefore suggested the girls who were brought across should have a statement from their local priest or judge proving that they were widows or unmarried. There were also rumours about the girls' virtue: Some claimed that they were prostitutes, rounded up and put aboard ships bound for the colonies. Although it may have been the case for some of the king's daughters, most of them were just normal girls with few opportunities at home, looking for a better life abroad.
The last Filles du Roi were sent to Canada in 1673. The programme had been a success. The colony's population had risen from an estimated 2,500 in 1660 to 6,700 in 1672. The name "Fille du Roy" was not used about them until about 1700, in an account by the pioneer Marguerite Bourgeoys. They were usually just called "girls" or "young ladies". However, as more girls and young ladies arrived and grew up to build the country, the ones who were first sent by the king were given a separate appelation. Of about 1000 women who wanted to go, almost 800 daughters of the king actually travelled, settled and helped build Canada.
For the curious, Roy is of course an older spelling of the French word Roi, King.