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They came by ships, in arduous, sometimes months-long journeys across the Atlantic.

Nearly 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 Roy) are credited with helping transform the young, sparsely-populated colony, which was largely made up of single men at the time.

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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 Hilary 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 is believed to be related to 10 of the women who arrived on the first ship, back in 1663.

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.

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By 1672, when the last ship had sailed, the population of New France had risen to 6,700, more than double the number a decade earlier, setting the foundation for what would ultimately become the province of Quebec.

Organizations have sprouted up across North America, filled with amateur historians intent on finding out more about their ancestry.

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.

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"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 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 a "suitor's ball" at a nearby historic site.

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."

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