Saturday, November 30, 2013

Canada Needs Women! Love in 17th Cenury New France I: The Filles à Marier

The attraction to New France for most of the initial immigrants was the possibility to obtain great wealth.   At first, many of the people who came to Québec hadn't planned to stay; in particular, the fur traders were migrants and the companies that hired them actually strongly discouraged setting up farms (instead they would get goods from the companies).   As such, the population of Québec only numbered in the hundreds for quite some time.

While some settlers came from France with their entire families, intending to put down roots, most were single men seeking adventure with some sort of potential "career track".   This created a wee problem:  who were they to marry?   Intermarrying with the native tribes (although it did happen) was frowned upon by both sides.   The sex ratio of men to women was about 4:1.

Enter the "Filles à Marier" and the "Filles du Roi"; two programs of what essentially were the 17th century equivalent of "mail-order brides".  In most cases, contracts of marriage would be drawn up, and the women would be shipped to their prospective husbands.

The Filles à Marier

This was the first, smaller (only 262 women), and less-well-known program.  (In my research, I've found that most of the Filles à Marier in my family tree have been mistakenly tagged as "Filles du Roi".)   They emigrated, a few at a time, from France to Québec between 1635 and 1663.   They were in VERY high demand; while the population of Québec was still small, the rate of immigration of Filles à Marier averaged under 10 women per year!

The girls had to be of marriageable age (12 to 45), and not yet married (i.e., they couldn't be traveling to join a husband who had previously emigrated).   Their passage was usually paid by religious groups, merchants with an interest in New France, or private individuals who had to ensure their good conduct.   Other than passage, they received nothing for their enrollment.  (The long-standing rumor has been that they were prostitutes exiled from France; this really wasn't the case.  Most were from farming families, a few were daughters of minor nobles, some had relatives that were already in Québec).

It's not surprising that there wasn't a rush to the docks to go to New France.   At best conditions were harsh: there was little community support - most of the families in New France were subsistence farmers, attacks from the Iroquois were not uncommon, and the climate in winter was harsh.   Outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases occurred, and of course mortality from childbirth was frequent - frightening considering that increasing the local population to support the farming communities was the chief reason for the need of female immigrants!   Add to that, that even the crossing itself was perilous; as many as 10% of the passengers died on trans-Atlantic voyages, where passengers were lumped in with cargo, in particular, livestock destined for New France or to be eaten en route.   Considering that the transit time was on the order of two months, this would NOT have been a pleasant journey!

Why did they come?  Despite the grim circumstances that awaited them in New France, plus the hardship of just getting there, for these girls it was generally a preferred option to the alternatives; being shipped off to a convent, or marrying below their class.     Even in 17th-century France, arranged marriages were still common; here, although they were under contract to be married upon arrival (and not having met their husband-to-be), it wasn't absolutely binding, so if things didn't work out (and sometimes they didn't) they could shop themselves around for a different husband or even make the return trip to France.

Most where success stories:  they married, raised families, and formed the roots of many French-Canadians familes.

In my family tree, I have (so far) identified ten Filles à Marier, eight of whom are blood relatives:
  1. Jeanne Roy (1626-1674, 9th great-grand aunt) - married to Jean Milloir in 1651;
  2. Madeleine Duteau (1649-1704, 8th great-grand aunt) - younger sister of Marie-Michelle Duteau (also a Fille à Marier), married to Nicolas Leblanc in 1664;
  3. Marie-Michelle Duteau (1639-1705, 8th great grandmother) - older sister of Madeleine Duteau, married Michel Lemay (both an 8th and 9th great grandfather, whose second wife was Michelle Ouinville, herself a Filles du Roi, and the widow of Nicolas Barabé also an 8th great grandfather!);
  4. Geneviève Gamache (1635-1709, 9th great grandmother) - married to Julien Fortin II in 1652 who was a butcher;
  5. Jeanne Bitouset (1636-1707, 9th great grandmother) - married Louis Guimond in 1653, who started the cult of miracles at Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré, and was murdered by the Iroquois;
  6. Jacquette Tourault  (1612-1670, 10th great grandmother) - who was the widow of Pierre Jaroussel in France, and was a Fille à Marier along with her daughter, Suzanne.   In New France she married Jacques Previrault in 1653, but was widowed again a month later.  She then married Maurice Arrive;
  7. Suzanne Jaroussel (1641-1694, 9th great grandmother) - daughter of Jacquette Jaroussel née Tourault (also a Fille à Marier), she married Pierre Joinault in 1654.   Like her mother's first New France husband, he died shortly after the wedding, and like her mother, remarried, this time to Simon Lereau in 1655;
  8. Catherine Méliot  (1645-1699, "non"-wife of 8th great grandfather) - she's not a direct ancestor but has an interesting connection to the family tree.   Upon arrival in New France, she was contracted to marry Jean Routhier, and did in 1662.  He later died in 1677, leaving her with six children.  She then married 21-year old François Fréchet (an 8th great grandfather), but in the space of a month, had the marriage annulled and had married Pierre Bouvier.   (More on the annulment in a later post!)
  9. Anne Émard (1627-1700, 9th great grand aunt).  Her sister Madeleine was the wife of Zacharie Cloutier, whose brother Jean is my 9th great grandfather.   (Her sister isn't a Fille à Marier because her marriage took place in France and they emigrated to New France as a couple.)   Her case is interesting because of her husband, Guillaume Cousture who she married in 1649.   Prior to this, Guillaume had been a Jesuit priest for nine years and a carpenter at the Mission of Saint-Marie.   In 1642, he, two other priests and 19 men from the Huron Mission were attacked by the Iroquois.  Cousture shot and killed an Iroquois chief, and was subsequently tortured.

    However, because of Iroquois tradition, he was sent to another village and offered to the widow of the warrior he had killed.  She adopted him into the tribe and nursed him back to health.  He used this opportunity to learn the language, culture and beliefs.   Three years later, he returned to Trois-Rivières to negotiate a peace (which lasted only a year), and Fr. Cousture asked to be relieved of his vows in order to marry an Iroquois woman (although it is not clear whether this actually occurred).   He continued - after his marriage to Anne - to work as a diplomat between the French-Canadians and the Iroquois.
  10. Marie-Charlotte de Poitiers (1640-1718, wife of 10th great-grand uncle) - she married Joseph Hébert in 1660 after arriving in 1659 (age 19).   Her marriage wasn't a happy one;  after giving birth to a son Joseph in 1661, her husband was killed in an Iroquois attack.   Her cousin Catherine de Belleau was a Fille du Roi and married Joseph's half-brother Alphonse Morin.
After 1663, a more-ambitious program of porting women to New France for the purposes of marriage began, this time with the direct support of the French government:  the Filles du Roi.

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