How 800 women helped birth a nation: The ‘Filles du roi’
- French-Canadian descendant Lynne Levesque reveals her ancestor’s life journey as a Filles du roi.
- 800 impoverished women known as the Filles du roi were sent to North America to populate new French territories.
- Louis XIV offered dowries to women who would brave the journey.
- Have you ever dreamed of starting a new life in Canada due to national conflict? 17th-century French women have never been so relatable.
Discovering one’s ancestry has never been as easy as it is today. DNA kits and TV shows that focus on reuniting lost family members have definitely struck a chord with today’s familial unit. The idea of discovering one’s identity and origin, chartering mutual destinies, fascinates the masses.
For French-Canadian descendent Lynne Levesque, uncovering her ancestry filled in the blanks to her family’s past. When Levesque discovered she was a descendant of an original French-Canadian settlement, linked to a french woman named Jeanne Chevalier, Levesque dedicated her adult life searching for any information about her ancestors’ past. Levesque currently lives in France, where she is still conducting research about Chevalier. She’s written a novel about that journey in her novel, Jeanne Chevalier, Fille Du Roi: Her Story.
Chevalier was one of 780 women known as the Filles du roi, or “daughters of the king.” Chevalier made the trans-Atlantic journey from France to begin life anew in Canada, and her story paralleled those who made the same journey.
Now retired from the corporate world, Levesque fully employed herself in uncovering her family’s past. At a family reunion in 1992, Levesque was shown a family tree connecting her with her ancestors Robert Levesque and Jeanne Chevalier.
“That was the first time I heard the name of Jeanne Chevalier, the woman who has been playing such a prominent role in my life ever since,” Levesque said.
At the time, she knew that she had French-Canadian ancestry, but had little information about it. Since hearing Chevalier’s name, Levesque was “haunted” by her spirit and felt compelled to uncover Jeanne’s past.
To uncover Chevalier’s past, Levesque had to do a bit of digging. Levesque spent hours scouring the libraries of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston and at the libraries of Harvard University, to which she was able to uncover Jeanne’s baptism registry. Finding Chevalier’s name in an impossible stack of research was like finding gold.
What spawned the one-way trip?
“I read hundreds of pages of books about the history of both France and New France at the time and about the Filles du Roi program as well in order to ensure I had a good understanding of the economic, political and historical context in which she lived,” Levesque said. As she delved deeper into her ancestor’s past, Levesque discovered that Chevalier was indirectly connected to the “Sun King,” King Louis XIV.
During this time, the New World was a strange and alien place for European explorers. Unlike the cities that carved Europe’s landscape, North America was relatively untouched, with the exception of indigenous communities. By the 16th century, the race for permanent colonization triggered an exodus of people braving the harsh Atlantic seeking a place to either trade, worship, or to simply begin anew.
Like England, France sought to expand its powers. Shortly after taking the throne, King Louis XIV decided to take personal charge of state affairs. By taking on this new role, the Sun King created bureaucratic structures, legal regimes, and military structures.
With the new responsibility as head of state, the king oversaw the most powerful force in European affairs. How does this connect to the new world (or Chevalier for that matter)? At the time, France was going head-to-head with England. To further solidify his power, King Louis XIV decided to send French citizens to create settlements.
France wanted to go toe-to-toe with England and Spain
England was expanding and staked their claim with colonies in America. The Sun King and his advisors saw the opportunity to do the same, and declared Canadian territories as “New France,” expanding from the northwest at the mouth of Saint Lawrence River, winding just south of Montreal.
Just like that, French-influenced provinces were established creating settlements in today’s Quebec and Montreal. The towns transformed from trading post towns into sovereign-ruled municipalities. There was, however, a small problem in the king’s desire to expand. The population of New France was small and had a large gender imbalance.
How did the French court rectify this conundrum? They sent women. Don’t assume France gathered women at random and shanghaied them off over the Atlantic. There was a system in place. From 1660 to 1680, more than 780 women between the ages of 14 to 25 voluntarily left their homes for a brighter and more economically sound future in New France. They were often referred to as the Filles du roi.
Among those women who survived the journey was 28-year-old Jeanne. She was poor, as most of the women who took on the voyage and traveled with over 100 other women to the unknown land. The women, thankfully, were not alone. They were escorted and chaperoned by nuns and other distinguished ladies to help them navigate New France and find husbands. But what would push these women to cross the Atlantic? For one, France wasn’t exactly the best place to inhabit during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Before Chevalier set sail, France was in the midst of economic turmoil. The annual government expenditure tripled in the early 17th century between 1620 to 1640 and was going into military pockets. The tax increase created a series of rebellion, and resentment towards the monarchy. It ended a cycle of prosperity and created economic difficulties. Crops failed and produce prices rose, causing famine and disease. Levesque also confessed that life in France, especially for Chevalier, wasn’t “grandiose” at the time.
“Her choices were so little in France at that time, even for the men,” Levesque said. “That’s why a lot of them left because they thought life would be better somewhere else.”
This overcrowding also created a petri-dish of disease and poor living conditions. Chevalier’s father had passed away, leaving her and her mother to support each other. She could either sail to New France and marry, or she could take her chances in Europe. There was no question; she decided to take a leap of faith toward the New World.
Thankfully, Chevalier didn’t go empty-handed. By the king’s decree, any woman with excellent morals and in good physical health who volunteered to make the trek would be given a handsome dowry of 50 livres ($1,000 USD today). Those selected were given clothes, supplies, a hope chest (a chest containing linen and clothing for daughters and future brides), and clothespins. They even had the ability to choose their own husbands.
Most Filles du roi married established farmers
Ninety percent of the women would marry within the first few weeks of their arrival to New France, most marrying farmers who’ve already settled plots of land. When Jeanne arrived in New France in 1672, she settled in Quebec where she married three times by outliving her husbands. During her marriages, Jeanne gave birth to nine children, three of whom survived to adulthood.
Levesque is a descendant of Chevalier’s second husband, Robert Levesque, with whom she had five children. Together, the couple had three homes, a barn and stable, several animals, and comfortable furniture in their main house. This was a fairly comfortable life considering their humble beginnings.
Though there is little information about the other women who ventured to the early French settlements, those who did start their lives anew along the Saint Lawrence River path were mostly lower-class citizens, often from religious orphanages or living in poverty. Each young woman who made the journey wanted to break from economic depression. Although their circumstances were meager, Levesque believed the women knew what they wanted.
“They represented, or at least proved, to be a select group of women: most of them strong, self-reliant, and gifted with a spirit of adventure and willing to take on these challenges in the hope of finding a better life,” she said.
Living conditions were infinitely better than France
Once the Filles du roi arrived in their new home, they were greeted with large open spaces, clean water and air, nutritious food and a low population. It was because of their surroundings that the mortality rates in the French settlements dramatically dropped. Children were most likely to live past infancy with little epidemic diseases and malnutrition. The settlements did so well between 1700 to 1760, that the population grew from 15,000 to 70,000.
It’s because of women like Chevalier that Leveque can cherish her background and truly respect the ancestors that came before her.
“As a feminist, things that, more looking into our lives, are also important to give the women a voice because so often it’s the men who get all the credit for the family,” Levesque said. “We don’t hear about the women.”
For Levesque, knowing who Chevalier was more than just finding her identity, but it was also to revive and preserve Jeanne’s. Understanding one’s ancestry wasn’t just a curiosity for Levesque, but a necessity to understanding her own identity.
“I think that’s one of the things that genealogy does, it forces you to meet new people, but it also forces you to sort of broaden your horizons,” she concluded. “It just expands your thinking about the world and makes you more appreciative of how life could have happened. It encouraged me to go out there and find out where I come from now.”
It was thanks to women like Chevalier that most French-Canadians can trace their ancestry to several Filles du roi. Some of which the majority of Americans know: Hillary Clinton, Celine Dion, Chloe Sevigny, and Justin Trudeau. Today, Levesque continues the journey to educate her family and readers how Chevalier became one woman forgotten by history, to a woman who helped birth a nation.