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Sailing Home

Two hundred years separate their stories: the women who arrived as les filles du roi in New France and the ones who sailed into Victoria on bride ships.

August, 1665, Off the Coast of Quebec

“Isabelle! Les oiseaux! We must be close to land!” Marie-Claude shook her friend’s shoulder and pointed at the birds circling overhead. Could it be true? After three months of throwing up from seasickness and huddling against cold ocean spray, was the journey truly almost over?

“There—land! I'm sure of it!" Marie-Claude exclaimed. “I'm going to tell the others!”

As her young friend hurried below decks, Isabelle stared at the far-off grey line on the horizon. New France. What life was waiting for her there? Better than the worry and poverty she and the other girls had left behind in Paris? Would her husband be a kind man or a one roughened by life in this wild place?

September, 1655, Ville Marie (Montreal)

In the cool of her stone room, Isabelle opened the small wooden chest. She liked to think of it as a personal gift from King Louis to all of the girls who had sailed with her. Les filles du rois, they were being called — the daughters of the king.”

“And we know our duty to the king and to France and to the church,” Isabelle thought as she looked through the chest. To marry and to have many children who would help on the farm and settle this new country. Even to her, one of the older girls at 16, it seemed like an awfully big job.

“Did you see the beautiful lace?” Marie-Claude had burst into the room holding a wooden chest just like Isabelle’s. “And the king gave us shoes, a bonnet, a comb, cloth, sewing stuff — isn’t it wonderful? We’ll be able to make such nice things for our husbands.”

Isabelle envied her friend’s excitement. Marie-Claude was 14, but she couldn’t wait to get married. “Maybe I just worry too much,” Isabelle thought.

She smiled at her friend. “Be careful with the knives the king gave us,” she teased. “We might need them to kill bears and wolves!”

Before Marie-Claude could respond, a nun in her long grey and white habit appeared in the doorway. “Isabelle, there’s a young man here to see you. He’s one of the soldiers from the Carignan regiment who’s decided to settle down here in New France.”

Sister Marguerite could see the uncertainty on Isabelle’s face. “He’s clean and nicely dressed, and he seems polite. I’ll tell him you will be out shortly.”

“How exciting!” Marie-Claude squeaked. Isabelle stood up, smoothed her dress and patted her hair. It was a good thing no one could hear her hammering heart. She gave Marie-Claude a little smile and a big hug, and then she slowly walked out toward the future.

September, 1862, off the coast of Vancouver Island

“They must be joking!” Jane said to no one in particular. This couldn’t possibly be Victoria. Logs floating everywhere in the harbour, a few ramshackle docks, a cluster of low wooden buildings. Was this really the capital of the Vancouver Island colony? And did the relentless misty rain ever stop?

“Looks like they’re happy to see us!” Louisa, who saw the good side of everything, joined Jane as the S.S. Tynemouth steamed closer to shore. There were flags flying and all kinds of small boats rowing out toward the ship. And everywhere you looked, men waving their hats in the air and cheering. “I think some of them even washed in our honour,” Louisa said with a grin. “I guess it’s not every day they see a ship full of young women coming into the harbour.”

“Well, they’ll have to do a lot more than take a bath if they want to impress me,” Jane said. “If I find a husband, fine, but if not, I’ll be quite happy teaching school or running a store or something.” She didn’t dare speak of her bigger dreams, ones that were impossible back in England. Dreams of having a beautiful home and never having to worry about having enough to eat. No — no matter how rough Victoria looked or how far away her family now was, this new life had to be better than the one she’d left behind.

April, 1893, Victoria, B.C.

The wind off the ocean was fresh and full of possibilities. Jane stood on the second-floor balcony, daydreaming as she gazed out over the other grand homes around Fort Street. Hard to believe it was 30 years since she’d married James; harder to still to believe it was 12 years since he’d died. At least she still had Erin Hall, the big, beautiful home she’d always dreamed of.

“Mother, your head’s in the clouds again!” Samuel’s voice startled her, but she could never be angry at her oldest son for long. When he saw her face, though, he dropped the mocking tone. “Were you thinking of papa?”

“Of course, my dear.” Jane smiled. “He would be so proud of you and your brothers and sisters.”

“And you, too,” Samuel said. “Taking over the factory and selling Nesbitt’s crackers and bread to the Navy and everyone else. Not many women could do that!”

Jane shrugged. “I never really planned to get married, you know, but your father was so well-mannered and ambitious, I gave in. Lots of girls from my ship ended up way off in the bush. Probably never had a moment’s rest again.”

She turned her face back into the breeze. “I made my success,” she said, thinking of England and the S.S. Tynemouth, “but I was lucky, too.”


Pioneer Brides

The young women sent to New France by King Louis XIV and the ones who arrived in British Columbia had a lot in common, In both cases, the people in charge wanted more women in their colonies. Between 1663 and 1673, the King of France paid for nearly 1,000 girls and women to sail to a new life. Jean Talon, the intendant of New France, wanted men to get married and start big families so they would settle down on farms or That way they would settle down on farms or running businesses, and New France would grow and become rich. Things weren’t that different 200 years later in B.C., where men working as miners, loggers and fishers far outnumbered women. Great Britain’s Female Emigration Society sent the two bride ships — the Tynemouth and the Robert Lowe — to Victoria in the early 1860s. Jane Saunders was 18 when she arrived on the Tynemouth. She married James Nesbitt the next year, had six children, and took over the cracker factory when her husband died. As for the filles du roi, Isabelle Aubert did marry Aubin Lambert. They and their 11 children farmed near what is now Quebec City. Her friend Marie-Claude Chamois married a man named François Frigon. They are the ancestors of everyone in North America whose last name is Frigon.

Written by Allyson Gulliver; illustrated by Kim Smith.

Project partially funded by the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage.
  • Canadian Heritage / Patrimoine Canadien
  • Government of Canada
  • HBC: Hudson's Bay Company
  • ecentricarts inc.