Les Filles du Roi

I’ve been reading a fascinating novel, Bride of New France, by Suzanne DesRochers, about one of the filles du roi, the 900 or so destitute and orphaned women shipped to New France in the mid-17th century.

It’s a mesmerizing portrait to me first of the period in France, where the poor were swept off the streets of Paris, either into poorhouses or the country, and then of the hideous sea journey.  (In addition to what you expect, after a few weeks the water becomes undrinkable, stinking and filled with larvae).

I found a good description of the filles du roi:

The King’s Daughters were women of marriageable age who were sent to New France at state expense as wards of the King between 1663 an 1673. An estimated eight-hundred to one thousand girls arrived during the first 10 years of the royal government and were commonly referred to as “les filles du roi.” They were brought under the careful supervision of various authorities such as the clergy. These women brought trousseaus and in some cases, were supplied with a small dowry if they could not afford their own. Some were Parisian beggars and orphans. Others were recruited from the La Rochelle and Rouen areas. Administrators’ reports suggest that many were ill prepared for the arduous life of the Canadian peasant.

The whole period was really resonating with me, and I dug into my filing cabinet for the genealogy my grandmother gave me, which one of her cousins did a number of years ago.  I’d remembered that our first ancestor in the Seguin branch — Francois Seguin — arrived around this time, and I confirmed that he was indeed part of the Carignan Salieres Regiment that arrived in Ville-Marie (Montreal) in 1665 to secure the colony from Iroquois attacks.  And, he married a woman in 1672, Jeanne Petit, who was from the La Rochelle area — who must have been a fille du roi, judging from dates, locale and her place of origin.   Their child who is my ancestor was Jean-Baptiste Seguin, born in 1688.

The original pair are 10 generations back for me, 11 generations back for my cousins’ kids and for my nieces, who are simultaneously 1st generation (on their Italian dad’s side) and 11th generation Canadians.

Basically, these women were bundled off to a frozen land of black flies and men with bear grease all over their skin, frightening Savages, and profound physical labour just to survive — all in the name of securing a self-sustaining colony for France (the better to fight off the Savages!) and ridding the French streets of some irritating destitute women.

It’s hard to articulate why this evocative portrait of my roots matters so much.  I could start to ascribe all sorts of nonsense to this narrative, like coming from a long line of feisty women — you’d have to be to survive the grim reality of ending up in a half-finished shack in the woods with a soldier-turned-farmer eager to claim his marital rights.  I look around at my gaggle of girl cousins and sisters and aunts and recognize a certain common scrapiness — and who knows how much genetic imprinting really might lurk in the chromosomes, or what the migration within two generations beyond Boucherville to Detroit wrought?

This is a time I’ve never seen dramatized before, except a brief two or three sentence description of the women sent to marry soldiers in Canada: A People’s History.  Having the lived experience of people of my blood fleshed out is a gift, a little fusing of time and space, a filling in of genetic narrative I’ve never had before.

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