MONTREAL – They came by ship, in arduous, sometimes months-long journeys across the Atlantic.
An estimated 800 women, over the span of a decade in the second half of the 17th century, arrived in New France under the patronage of Louis XIV.
The so-called King’s Daughters (or Filles du Roi) are credited with helping transform the young, sparsely-populated colony, which was largely made up of single men at the time.
Today, many North Americans with francophone roots can trace their ancestry back to these early settlers, including many prominent public figures.
Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Hillary Clinton are thought to be among them, some genealogists believe.
Three-dozen women reenacted the epic journey these pioneers took, sailing into Montreal’s Old Port on Saturday to mark the 350th anniversary of the first arrival.
Hundreds more, many of whom claimed to be ancestors of some of the original 36, came to watch the spectacle unfold.
“I’m very proud, it’s very emotional,” said Francine Balthazar, a 63-year-old Montrealer who has traced her family tree back to the King’s Daughters.
She believes to be related to 10 of the women who arrived on the first ship, back in 1663. One of them is Catharine Paulo, who some believe may be Clinton’s ancestor.
The reenactment was part of a series of events held across the province this summer to mark a development that defined part of the early history of Canada.
Some of the King’s Daughters were orphans, others were recruited from poor families. They had names like Anne Brunet, Marie Campion, and Marie-Jeanne Toussaint.
All were thrust into the difficult peasant life of early New France, often settling along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City, Trois-Rivieres, and Montreal, then called Ville-Marie.
They were transported to New France at the state’s expense and sometimes given a dowry.
By 1672, when the last ship had sailed, the population of New France had climbed to an estimated 6,700, more than double the number a decade earlier, setting the foundation for what would ultimately become the province of Quebec.
In recent years organizations have sprouted up across North America, filled with amateur historians intent on finding out more about their ancestry and hailing the courage of the early settlers.
Groups are active from Quebec to Virginia.
Jean Beaudoin, who came to the reenactment with his wife, said one of his early ancestors — a settler after which he was named — ended up marrying one of the King’s Daughters. They had 14 children.
Beaudoin said it was easy to imagine what it would have been like for his namesake to watch the ship roll in.
“People were seeing each other for the first time, they wanted to stay here so they had to get a wife,” said the 68-year-old Montrealer.
“If they weren’t able to get a wife it’s the end of their history in New France.”
Dressed in the bodices and cloth headwear of the period, the women in the reenactment were greeted by men and cheering crowds as they came to shore.
One by one, men presented themselves to the women in courtship.
Later, the newly-formed couples were taken by horse and carriage to act out a “suitor’s ball” at a nearby historic site, Maison Saint-Gabriel.
Eric Michaud, who played a police lieutenant in the reenactment and believes he’s related to one of the King’s Daughters, said play-acting gave him a new appreciation for what it must have been like for both sides, as they prepared to make a life for themselves in the colony.
“The men are waiting and they know the women are coming,” he said. “You can imagine the anticipation.”