1663: Ensuring New France’s Survival & Other Quebec Curios

Je me souviens: New France, 1534–1763

"The Arrival of the French Girls at Quebec" by C. W. Jeffreys. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As stated many times in the past few weeks, New France’s population was an epic fail at best. Despite Champlain’s permanent settlement, the Habitation, as well as both colonisation efforts in Trois-Rivières and Ville-Marie, by the early 1660s, the colony’s total population was only about three thousand people. Though it seems that this could be a substantial number, it is beneficial at this point to remind the reader that New France was a huge territory expanding through most of the Quebec region well into the Great Lakes region; it had not yet reached its heyday of expansion towards Louisiana just yet. Three thousand for a territory larger than the modern-day Quebec is by no means substantial. More localised troubles happened in the three major areas of New France: Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Ville-Marie (Montreal). These troubles were mainly the problem of their population, or the lack thereof: Ville-Marie, in particular, had only 407 people living on the Island by 1660. (In comparison, a 2011 census had Montreal at a population of over 1.8 million people.) In order to try and solve this problem, New France needed a way to keep the indentured workers that were about to finish their work contract, and not only keep them there, but also find a way to ensure that they have descendants that would also be able to settle and work in the colony. As an answer to this, there were the filles du roi, but this was by no means an invention of the Company of One Hundred Associates. It was by the will of a king.

After the failure of the trading companies to grow the colony, such as Cardinal Richelieu’s Company of One Hundred Associates, the King of France decided to take over the governing side of New France. This up-and-coming young man, Louis XIV, had recently come of age, and decided to take governing matters into his hands and delegate powers as needed. In 1663, he formed the Sovereign Council of New France, an adaptation of an earlier, weaker governing system of New France, but now was strong and had full economic and political control over the colony, including the creation of judicial courts in the three major regions of New France. An initiative of this new Sovereign Council was to preserve and grow the population of New France, one of the Council’s members, Jean Talon, the Intendant of New France, asked the king if he would be able to have women emigrate to New France. The king thought it was a Good Thing, and started a government-sponsored programme recruiting women to go to a new land, a programme nicknamed by Marguerite Bourgeoys as the filles du roi, Daughters of the King.

The filles du roi were commoners, and not “ladies of the night” as older sources have inferred. These were women, most under the age of twenty-five, and some as young as twelve, that would oftentimes not have the means to make an advantageous marriage due to their unfavourable, mostly poor backgrounds. Recruited by the king, the selection process for a fille du roi was rigorous: a woman would undergo extensive background checks and would need letters of reference as to her character and morality before even being considered as potential fille du roi material. As compensation for their perilous journey, each woman had a dowry that included money and new clothes and supplies that would prepare them for marriage, and their trip on the ship that would take them to their new home was paid in full by the government. Receiving even something such as a dowry was These new women of New France were able to not only interrogate their future partner about their wealth and prospects, but even had the right to refuse a marriage proposal if they deemed it unsuitable! However, despite this power, we can trace 737 marriages of these women to the men of New France. Considering there were about 850 that arrived ashore in New France, this is a very high marriage rate.

These heroic women would arrive throughout the 1660s and 1670s and would be sent among the three major areas of the colony. Thanks to them, the population would rise. After the arrival of the first filles du roi, New France’s population doubled in a space of only a decade: by the early 1670s, New France’s population more than doubled, from 3200 in the 1660s to 7600 in 1672. The doubling in population, though it doesn’t seem like a lot of people, more than ensured a healthy continuation of the not-so-little colony. The birth rate climbed to sixty-three live births per one thousand people. In comparison, consider this: the birth rate in Canada today is eleven live births per one thousand people.

With this great growth in population, the Intendant of New France would come up with another ingenious idea: he would try and get an idea about New France’s demographics by counting heads. And thus began our census woes.

Many people of French Canadian descent can trace their ancestry to the filles du roi that came to the New World in the 1660s and 1670s. Find out if you’re related to one by looking at the ship data at this society dedicated to the memory of these women.