La Rochelle, France, 1661. Fierce Protestant Isabelle is desperate to escape persecution by the Catholic King. Isabelle is tortured and harassed, her people forced to convert to the religion that rules the land. She risks her life by helping her fellow Protestants, which is forbidden by the powers of France. She accepts her fate – until she meets a handsome Catholic soldier who makes her question everything.
She fights off an attack by a nobleman, and the only way to save herself is to flee to the colony of Canada as a Daughter of the King. She can have money, protection, and a new life – if she adopts the religion she’s spent a lifetime fighting. She must leave her homeland and the promises of her past. In the wild land of Canada, Isabelle finds that her search for love and faith has just begun.
From Peasants to Pioneers
Imagine a version of Seventeenth Century speed dating, where the women interview the men before choosing a husband. Seems wild, right? Well, that is the story of the Daughters of the King (Filles du Roi).
Around 1663, the King of France had a dilemma on his hands. Their colony in Canada (New France at the time) was struggling. Lonely men fighting off Iroquois attacks through intense winters, with few women in sight. The population was dwindling, endangering the ever-important fur trade. So, what’s a King to do? The colony in and around Quebec needed women, so that’s what he set out to find. King Louis XIV was not your average King. He didn’t force women to relocate. Instead, he wooed them with the promise of a better life.
He sent his advisors to the poorest areas around Paris, Normandy, and the Western coast, seeking out orphans and commoners without prospects, and presented them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Paid passage and protection by the King of France, a trousseau with clothes and linens, money, lodging in Canada for as long as they desired, and — this is the best part — full choice over the multitude of men. They were even married in a civil ceremony so they could cancel their marriage contracts if they wished. That’s right, the very Catholic King of France approved of separation if the woman was unsatisfied.
Once married, the women received the makings of a farm, and paid for every baby they birthed. Not a bad gig for an orphan practically starving in the streets of France, huh? A girl couldn’t have this offer unless she met a few pesky expectations. She must be Catholic, of course, and often their local priest would vouch for the women’s “purity.” Only those of the highest moral caliber, physically fit, and without visible deformities could be considered. They preferred women who were sturdy enough to work the farms. In other words, overly thin girls need not apply. If she was lucky enough to have a bit of status in France, she was promised to a soldier in Canada.
Life wasn’t all that easy, as the new couples had to contend with Iroquois raids and captures, wolf attacks, fires, a solitary farm life, and very long, cold winters. Still, Quebec certainly had its upside. Roaming Caribou and moose aplenty meant there was an endless supply of food out your back door. The beaver belt trade kept money and supplies flowing through the region, and most every house had their own bread oven and multiple fireplaces. You can do such a thing when you build your own home from the ground up.
Let’s switch gears back to the women of France. There are several documented Filles du Roi who faced an added layer of stakes. The Huguenots, or French Protestants, were heavily persecuted in an attempt to force Catholicism. They were beaten, killed, tortured. You know, basic hell on earth stuff. Facing an unimaginable life of misery, some of the young women chose to abandon their family’s wishes, convert to Catholicism, and join the ranks of the King’s Daughters.
This is where I chose to write Daughter of the King. The story of a young Huguenot, forced to turn on her faith so she may live free? Yep, I want to know that girl. So I wrote her. Isabelle Colette, a Huguenot from La Rochelle must accept the religion that killed her family and branded an H into her flesh. Throw in the fact that I discovered this bit of history while researching my husband’s ancestry, and found that he is descended from at least three dozen of these women, and I was all in.
Turns out, many famous people are also descended from one or more of these eight hundred women, including Angelina Jolie and Madonna. Most every French Canadians and their East Coast descendants can track their history to one or many Filles du Roi. As French Canadians make up approximately 22% of the population, it’s no stretch to say that these eight hundred Daughters of the King helped birth a nation.
Research shows that women in New France had longer life expectancies and higher fertility rates than their French counterparts. They were given a chance at an easier life, and these pioneering women sailed the big blue ocean to find it. Little did they know that they would shape the future of North America. Some died on the sea voyage, others never married or joined the convent. Some returned to France or — gasp — sent back by the authorities of New France. But the majority of these women created a population boom that set the stage for a thriving Canada.
All of these incredible details are why I can feel my eye twitch when someone references them as “mail order brides” or says, “weren’t they all prostitutes?” I can only assume that the idea of a woman with power was so intimidating that we had to force the idea they were of ill repute. They were none of those things. They were strong, brave young women who carried their adventurous spirit on to their families for generations to come.
I want to make sure their legacy is not forgotten, and that we celebrate the women of our past whom we so often forget in our history books.
Do you have any French Canadian in your ancestry? You might be part of their story too.
Meet Kerry Chaput
Born in California wine country, Kerry Chaput began writing shortly after earning her Doctorate degree. Her love of storytelling began with a food blog and developed over the years to writing historical fiction novels. Raised by a teacher of US history, she has always been fascinated by tales from our past and is forever intrigued by the untold stories of brave women. She lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon with her husband, two daughters, and two rescue pups. She can often be found on hiking trails or in coffee shops.