The first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. Given their numbers, they were not literally the king’s daughters of course.
They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America.
And so they did. The filles du roi became the founding mothers of French Canadians, for whom these women are a source of historical pride.
A grand old restaurant in Montreal was named after the filles du roi. So is a roller-derby team. French Canadians can usually trace their ancestry back to one or more of these women. “French Canadian genealogy is so well documented, it’s just a piece of cake to trace any line you have,” says Susan Colby, a retired archaeologist who comes from a French Canadian family and has done some of that tracing herself.
So well-documented is French Canadian genealogy that professional geneticists and demographers use the data for research, too. Whenever a small group of people leave a large population (France) to found a new one (New France), they bring with them a particular set of mutations. Some of these mutations will by chance be more common in the new population and others less so. As a result, some rare genetic disorders disproportionately impact French Canadians.
One of these is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss, usually in young men. Recently, geneticists using French Canadian genealogy have reexamined the effects of Leber’s and found a striking pattern of inheritance: It seems to show a long-theorized but never-seen-in-humans pattern called the “mother’s curse.”