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Sunday, December 10, 2023

So Many Children! French-Canadian Family Size in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries

    Fertility and Family in New France: Understanding the Legacy of Large French-Canadian Families

    Exploring the history of French-Canadian families reveals a fascinating phenomenon: the remarkable fertility rates during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This era was characterized by bustling households filled with laughter, lively conversations, and the joyful sounds of many children. Delving into this historical context provides insights into why French-Canadian families embraced large families with such enthusiasm.

    Historical Context

    To comprehend the prevalence of large families in New France, we must first immerse ourselves in the historical backdrop of the time. The 17th century marked the establishment of permanent French settlements in Canada, amid a backdrop of competition between French and British powers for control of the region.

    Agricultural Foundation

    Life in New France revolved around agriculture, with families serving as the cornerstone of the colony. The success of these early communities depended on their ability to work the land and produce abundant harvests. In this agrarian society, having many children was advantageous, as they could assist with farm work and household chores, contributing to the family's prosperity and survival.

    The rhythm of the seasons dictated the ebb and flow of life in New France. From the labor-intensive tasks of spring planting to the demanding harvest season, families found strength in numbers. A multitude of children meant an extra pair of hands to assist with chores, reinforcing the notion that a larger family was an asset rather than a burden.

    Cultural and Religious Influence

    The cultural and religious landscape of French-Canadian society also played a significant role in shaping family dynamics. The Catholic Church, a dominant force in the colony, emphasized the sanctity of marriage and the importance of procreation. Large families were viewed as a blessing from God, ensuring the continuity of faith and cultural traditions.

    Marriage was not only a union of individuals but also a merging of lineages. Family ties extended beyond the nuclear family, creating a strong sense of community and support among relatives.

    High Infant Mortality Rates

    Despite the cultural and religious emphasis on large families, the harsh realities of life in New France, including high infant mortality rates, were unavoidable. Parents faced the heartbreaking reality that not all of their children would survive into adulthood. Nevertheless, the hope of ensuring the survival of some children fueled the desire for large families.

    Economic Considerations

    The economic landscape of New France also contributed to the prevalence of large families. The fur trade, which thrived in the region, provided economic opportunities for French-Canadian families. The fur trade was a major economic driver in New France, providing opportunities for wealth and economic mobility.

    Additionally, the seigneurial system, where land grants were awarded to settlers, encouraged large families as a means of cultivating more land and increasing agricultural productivity. The availability of land played a crucial role in shaping family size, as landownership symbolized stability and independence.

    Cultural Legacy and Identity

    The decision to have large families in French-Canadian society during this period had profound implications. It shaped the cultural identity of modern-day Canada, with many families tracing their roots back to this era. The enduring influence of these early settlers is evident in the cultural mosaic of Quebec and beyond.

    The French language, infused with the nuances of Quebecois culture, remains a testament to the enduring influence of these early settlers. The embrace of large families as a cultural norm has left an indelible mark on the demographics of Quebec and beyond.


    In unraveling the mystery of why French-Canadian families had so many children in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, we discover a complex interplay of cultural, economic, and societal factors. The agrarian lifestyle, cultural and religious influences, economic opportunities, and the harsh realities of life converged to create a unique set of circumstances that favored larger families.

    The decision to embrace a multitude of children was not merely a pragmatic response to economic necessities but a profound expression of faith, resilience, and a deep-seated belief in the continuity of family and community. As we reflect on this bygone era, we recognize the enduring legacy of these early settlers in the vibrant cultural mosaic of modern-day Canada. The riddle of French-Canadian family size, it seems, finds its answer in the intricate dance of history, culture, and the timeless human drive to build a legacy that transcends generations.

    Poutine, Tourtière and Tarte au Sucre - I Love Québec! - Ceramic Mug 11oz
    Poutine, Tourtière and Tarte au Sucre - I Love Québec! - Ceramic Mug 11oz

    For more information, check out The Definitive Guide for Researching Your French-Canadian Ancestors

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