Between 1634 and 1663, 262 filles à marier or "marriageable girls" emigrated to New France representing one quarter of all the single girls arriving in New France through 1673. They were recruited and chaperoned by religious groups or individuals who had to assure and account for their good conduct. In general, they were poor, although there were some members of the petty nobility among their ranks.
As opposed to the Filles du Roi who emigrated between 1663 and 1673, the filles à marier came alone or in small groups. They were not recruited by the state and did not receive a dowry from the King. They were promised nothing but the possibility of a better life. If they survived the perils of the crossing, they lived with the daily threat of death at the hands of the Iroquois. If they survived the Iroquois, they had to deal with the hard life of subsistence farming, harsh winters spent in a log cabin that they may have helped build, epidemics of smallpox and "fever" and difficult and often dangerous childbirth.
Crossing the Atlantic was a dangerous undertaking in the 1600s, and it is estimated that 10% of all passengers en route to New France died during the crossing. Sickness and disease were the main factors contributing to deaths at sea. Passengers were forced to share the hull with livestock that was either being shipped to the colony or served as meals during the crossing. While the passengers may have been permitted on deck during good weather and calm seas, storms forced their confinement to the hull where they were shut in not only with the livestock, but also with the odor of latrine buckets, seasickness and the smoky lanterns used for lighting. The climate and close quarters fostered the rapid spread of diseases such as scurvy, fever and dysentery. Under such conditions, very little could be done for those who were suffering. The method for dealing with the dead was to sew them up in their blankets and throw them overboard during the night.
The filles à marier chose to emigrate under perilous conditions to a wilderness colony because the advantages offered by the colony were great enough to make them forget the dangers of the crossing and rude character of colonial life. In France, the girls would have had little or no choice in their marriages because arranged marriages were the norm for the artisan and working classes as well as for the elite. Parental consent was required for men under the age of 30 and women under the age of 25. Young girls were placed in convent schools or pensions only to await a marriage in which they had no choice or to become a nun. In New France, these women could choose whom they wanted to marry and had the freedom to change their minds before the marriage took place.
Most of the filles à marier belonged to the rural class and were the daughters of peasants and farmers. A small number were from urban families, the daughters of craftsmen, day laborers and servants, while an even smaller number were the daughters of businessmen, civil servants, military men and the petty nobility. Their average age was 22, and more than one-third had lost at least one parent. About 20% were related to someone who was already a colonist. Most were married within a year of their arrival in New France. While waiting to find a husband, many of the girls lodged with religious communities --either the Ursulines in Québec City or the Filles de la Congrégation Notre-Dame in Montréal-- although about 100 filles à marier lodged with individuals.
Peter J. Gagné has defined the qualifications to be considered a fille à marier as follows:
- Must have arrived before September 1663
- Must have come over at marriageable age (12 thru 45)
- Must have married or signed a marriage contract at least once in New France or have signed an enlistment contract
- Must not have been accompanied by both parents
- Must not have been accompanied by or joining a husband
[Source: Before the King's Daughters: The Filles à Marier, 1634-1662 by Peter J. Gagné. Pawtucket, RI: Quinton Publications, 2002. pp 13-38]