The voyages of our Filles ancestors

Seafaring, tall-masted ship

No doubt some women — maybe many — who were recruited for the king’s program would never have applied if they understood the impending hardship of voyages they would be making to New France. No one knew that eating a dried tomato every few days could have prevented a condition that would be identified in another 80 years as scurvy. Influenza and dysentery also played a role in the inexplicable sicknesses and deaths of an estimated 60+ Filles du Roi. They had no knowledge of the harmful bacteria on their hands, on their clothing, and in their food and water. Putrid air in berths that were often shared with livestock, rodents, and biting insects, and inevitably the acute sea sickness they suffered all inflicted agony in a process that was anything but romantic as they headed for an uncertain future in a new land. No doubt they'd heard that it was a pristine wilderness that yielded furs and other enviable resources, but they might never have considered that the king himself had never seen it with his own eyes, nor would he ever experience the voyage.

Louis XIV commissioned privately owned ships to commute people and goods to the new colony. Each ship made only one return passage per year. Completely dependent on the winds, an Atlantic crossing in the 1600s often took two or three months — sometimes even more. Long trips meant strict food and water rationing and the ensuing malnutrition for passengers. Even if the Filles were robust young women when they left France, the limits of their physical and emotional endurance would be thoroughly tested in the voyage.

There is an unglamorous consensus about how a ship's crew disposed of its deceased passengers as malnutrition and disease routinely claimed lives. Typically they were wrapped in their bedsheets and sent to the ocean's depths after a short prayer. The ritual was performed in the dark of night, supposedly to minimize the horror for others who were sharing the passage. Regardless, it must have been a colossal shock to all surviving Filles du Roi to witness roughly five or more of their number on each voyage succumb to their unbearable misery. While some of the women had no doubt witnessed death before, the routine losses of their Filles sisters would certainly have made them wish to undo the choice they had made and return to France where their fates were at least more predictable and easier to accept.

Our 18 Filles could have never have known they would be a definable group of matrons sharing a relationship so long into the future. While the king’s program ran from 1663 to 1673, those who specifically became our ancestors arrived in the seven-year window from 1665 to 1671. Their ages varied from 13 to 33. Some travelled together on the same ships. We’ll never know if they were acquainted, but it would be impossible to dismiss the chance — or the high probability — that they were, both during their voyages and after they arrived in the small colony known as New France.

Tracking down the names of ships used to deliver the Filles du Roi was easy. Confirming the precise vessel boarded by each of these great-grandmothers was much harder because numerous records and passenger lists are in conflict. The data I've chosen may be the most logical, but they still could be wrong, regardless that it really doesn't matter anyway.

In each of the years that Filles were sent from France, there were only one or two separate ships that transported the king’s precious human cargo across the Atlantic averaging about 80 per year who arrived safely. Here are the ones to whom we are related and the dates of their journeys, to the best of my ability.

1665
Vessel
M. Hiardin, 20
Le St. Jean-Baptiste
P. Vallée, 21
Le St. Jean-Baptiste
1666
Vessel
A. Remondière, 15
Le St. Jean-Baptiste
1667
Vessel
C. Vieillot, 25
Le St. Louis
M. Foy, 29
La Constance de Cadix
1668
Vessel
M. Ouinville, 21
La Nouvelle France
1669
Vessel
C. Doribeau, 19
Le Saint-Jean-Baptiste
R. Chanfrain, 25
Le St. Jean-Baptiste

J. Godequin, 22
Le St. Jean-Baptiste
P. Halier, 18
Le St. Jean-Baptiste

M. Prévost, 33
Le Pot de Buerre
1670
Vessel
E. Aubert, 24
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
M. Grandin, 19
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste

M. Lamain, 13
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
1671
Vessel
M. Auvrey, 19
Le Prince Maurice
P. Loriot, 16
Le Prince Maurice

C. Laîné, 17
Le Prince Maurice
A. Guillaume, 21
Le St. Jean-Baptiste

Although the king's Filles du Roi program ran from 1663 to 1673 bringing 768 marriageable women from France, none of the 18 who would become our ancestors landed in either the first or last two years of the 10-year period.

1665
Vessel
M. Hiardin, 20
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
P. Vallée, 21
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
1666
Vessel
A. Remondière, 15
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
1667
Vessel
C. Vieillot, 25
Le Saint Louis

M. Foy, 29
La Constance de Cadix
1668
Vessel
M. Ouinville, 21
La Nouvelle France
1669
Vessel
C. Doribeau, 19
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
R. Chanfrain, 25
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
J. Godequin, 22
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
P. Halier, 18
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste

M. Prévost, 33
Le Pot de Buerre
1670
Vessel
E. Aubert, 24
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
M. Grandin, 19
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
M. Lamain, 13
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste
1671
Vessel
M. Auvrey, 19
Le Prince Maurice
P. Loriot, 16
Le Prince Maurice
C. Laîné, 17
Le Prince Maurice

A. Guillaume, 21
Le Saint Jean-Baptiste

Although the king's Filles du Roi program ran from 1663 to 1673 bringing 768 marriageable women from France, none of the 18 who would become our ancestors landed in either the first or last two years of the 10-year period.

Here’s something else to think about:

If France were evenly populated, its 18 million people in the mid-1600s would have created a density of about 50 people per square mile. Despite having lost family members, the majority of Filles du Roi must have had many friends, neighbours, siblings, and peers that they left behind. Abandoning them was likely among the biggest personal and social sacrifices they would make in their entire lifetimes, all in the hope of a brighter future, one they felt they would never realize if they stayed in France.

Passage to Canada for each woman had cost the king 100 livres, and it was not a return trip. Consequently few could ever return, even if they wanted. A scant number of Filles actually did return, but there is nothing in the records to suggest how that was made possible since most would have had neither the money, the opportunity, or the will to repeat the dreaded passage.

Only one of our ancestral Filles was related to a French settler already in Canada. Very few of the entire corps of women had a similar advantage. The wilderness of Québec in contrast to France must have been enormously stressful. Upon landing, any young woman with an ounce of retrospect had to face the stark truth that her previous world of family and community was now across a vast ocean and she had no means to return.

In essence, when a Fille decided to join the colony, it was forever*.

* Out of all 768 Filles du Roi, 33 actually reboarded ships at some point in their lives seeking repatriation to their mother country. Their departures from Québec were final. Predictably some among them either died enroute or their entire ships perished at sea. One of our ancestors was among the returnees, Perrette Halier. The details are explained in her biography.