French Colonization - By Kevin Sweeney


French exploration of North America began in the 1530s with the voyages of Jacques Cartier, who sailed up the Saint Lawrence River. These early voyages did not produce a permanent French settlement, but did introduce diseases and conflicts over trade that dramatically reduced the Native population of the Saint Lawrence Valley and indirectly facilitated later French efforts to colonize the region. During the remainder of the 1500s, as France tore itself apart in a series of bloody civil wars, little effort was put into colonial enterprises. Permanent colonization of the Saint Lawrence Valley did not begin until Samuel de Champlain's establishment of Quebec in 1608. For the next six decades, the colony remained little more than a collection of fur trading posts and Catholic missions.

Role of Native Peoples

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An imaginative engraving (note the palm trees) of a battle near Lake Champlain in 1609, in which Samuel de Champlain and two other Frenchmen with muskets helped the Montagnais and Algonquins defeat a Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) war party.
Courtesy of Rare Books Division, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Because of their interest in furs and converts, French relations with the region's Native peoples were critical to the colony's success. In its beginnings New France was a commercial enterprise, undertaken by merchants and nobles who sought to make their fortunes from the beaver trade. To succeed, these men needed the labor of Native men and women to trap, process, and transport beaver skins. The Natives in turn saw the French as trading partners able to supply novel but useful goods. At the same time, the arrival of Europeans with their trade goods shifted existing trading patterns in the Northeast. The French became military allies of the Wôbanakiak, Algonkins, and Wendats (Huron) in their on-going struggles with the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Alliance with the Confederacy's enemies made the French an enemy of the Confederacy, and at times during the 1650s the Iroquois appeared to threaten the very survival of the colony.

French Missionaries

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View of Kahnawake, a Kanienkehaka village near Montreal with a Jesuit mission, in the mid-18th century. The drawing shows Native longhouses and the mission church and buildings. Ink and watercolor; artist unknown.
Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes, Paris.

French missionaries accompanied the explorers and fur traders. Priests of the Society of Jesus, who were commonly called Jesuits, took the lead in establishing missions among the Wôbanakiak, Wendat, and even the usually hostile Iroquois. They were joined in the 1660s by the Sulpicians (The Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice) who became the landlords of the Island of Montreal and the missionaries to several villages of Native refugees on the Island. Eventually, the Jesuits established missions among the Wôbanakiak at Odanak, the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) at Kahnawake, and the Wendats at Lorette while the Sulpicians ministered to Iroquois people living on the Island of Montreal at La Montagne and Sault-au-Récollet. These villages came to play a critical role in the defense of the expansive, but sparsely populated French colony. By the early 1700s there were between 1500 and 2000 Natives living in these villages along the Saint Lawrence.

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A 20th-century image of a Jesuit teaching Christianity to Natives.
Image by C.W. Jefferys, published in "Canada's Past in Pictures," 1934. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

French Colonists

Relatively few men and even fewer French women chose to immigrate to New France to farm the land. The harsh climate and decades of war with the Iroquois League during the later 1600s gave the colony a bad reputation. Only about 250 families moved to Canada during the entire colonial period. Most of the immigrants—some 30,000 to 35,000 came between 1608 and 1760—arrived as unmarried soldiers and servants. Of these often reluctant immigrants two-thirds returned to France when their terms of service had ended. As a result the population of New France grew slowly, reaching a little over 3000 in 1663 and approximately 14,000 by 1700. Men continued to outnumber women. Some Frenchmen married Native women, either in informal unions made according to "custom of the country" or in legal marriages sanctified by the Catholic Church.

Land Distribution

Those who stayed in Canada settled into a society that was in many ways a new France. The colony's founders granted large blocks of land known as seigneuries to nobles, prominent non-nobles and ecclesiastical institutions. This practice was seen as an efficient way to distribute and develop the land, which the French appropriated without negotiating with or compensating the region's Natives. Such a pattern of land distribution laid the foundation for a stratified social system similar to that of France: there would be those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked, the third estate, constituting approximately 95% of the population. Ideally, the first estate, the church, and the second estate, the nobility, would secure their economic status by granting colonists land on their seigneuries. The settlers would then clear and farm the land and pay rents and occasional dues to their seigneurs. Additionally, the seigneurs would receive income directly from farming and from economic monopolies, such as operating the local grist mill. Possession of a seigneury, however, would not make one noble: privilege in New France brought economic advantages, but economic advancements did not necessarily bring privilege. As it turned out, possession of a seigneury did not bring with it much wealth in the 1600s and early 1700s because the colony' sparse population, lack of markets and low rents produced relatively little income from landholdings.

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in New France served as an adjunct of the state. The official assumption was that all inhabitants of the colony were members of the Catholic Church and faithful Catholics were assumed to be loyal subjects. French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were forbidden to settle in New France, even though a few did. The head of the colony's church, the bishop in Quebec, was appointed with the approval of the French government. He sat on the Sovereign Council that advised the governor-general and served as the colony's highest court. The church provided many basic social services as well as spiritual guidance. Parish priests welcomed colonists into the world by baptizing them, performed their marriages and buried them when they died. Nuns, most notably the Congregation of Notre Dame, the Ursulines, and Sisters of the Hospital of Saint Joseph taught children or ministered to the sick as did male members of some religious orders. Economically the church was also a formidable presence: it owned a quarter of the land in New France and was landlord to about a third of the colonists. Priests, nuns and other clerics constituted about 2% of the colony's population; in Massachusetts clergymen were less than 0.2% of the population.

The Nobility

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Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville (1668-1722), probably painted circa 1712, when he was promoted to captain. His family was the last Canadian family to be ennobled, when his father was granted nobility four years later. Click here to link to the portrait's artifact page for more information.
Courtesy of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal.

Though relatively few in number, nobles were an important part of New France's social and military structure. By 1700 members of noble families formed about 3% of the population of New France, which was approximately three times the proportion found in France itself. They, along with high government officials and wealthy merchants involved in the fur trade, stood at the top of the colony's social pyramid. Most noblemen owed their position to birth and arrived in New France as military officers. Beginning in the 1660s, the French government sent regular soldiers from France to defend Canada and some of these officers remained in the colony, marrying local women and founding families. A small number of Canadian-born Frenchmen, less than a dozen, were ennobled by the King for their military service, among them the founders of the Boucher and Hertel families. Though few of these families grew wealthy, they lived as aristocrats, set the tone for the colony's society, and loyally served their king as military officers.

The Habitants

The vast majority of the people of New France were members of the third estate and most of them were farmers living along the Saint Lawrence River or craftsmen living in the towns of Quebec and Montreal, which together were the home of about a fifth of the colony's population. These colonists came to see themselves as proud, independent minded habitants—inhabitants—not peasants. They paid no taxes and enjoyed the freedom to hunt and fish where they pleased. Seigneurs were entitled to rents and fees and these could take as much as ten percent of an habitant's production, but the seigneur was no feudal landlord and French officials sought to limit their political and economic powers. During the 1600s and 1700s there was often no resident parish priest because the parish system took time to set up in New France and because the tithe paid to the church was half the rate paid in France, making the colony a less-than-attractive post. Habitants did have to serve in the militia and join with the colony's regular soldiers and Native allies to defend New France, a duty that could be physically demanding, time consuming and dangerous. Still, compared to their counterparts in France they had a pretty good deal economically and socially.

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"Canadians on snowshoes going to war over the snow." Engraving, circa 1700, from Baqueville de la Potherie, Histoire de l'Amerique. The engraving shows a French militiaman in typical dress, including Native showshoes.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

Habitants generally preferred to live spread out along the river where they could maintain some household independence rather than living under the eye of a parish priest or their seigneur. More than in France or even Deerfield, the household was the fundamental unit of agrarian production in early Canada. As a rule, men married in their later twenties and women in their early twenties, though some Canadian-born females married in their mid to late teens in the 1600s. Like the settlers of New England, they had very large families by contemporary European standards; seven children per family was average. Throughout its history most of the colony's population growth came from its high birthrate, not immigration.

Government of New France

To govern the colony, officials in France created a streamlined version of absolutist rule. New France was a royal province with a royally appointed governor-general responsible for defense and diplomacy and an intendant who oversaw justice, police and finances. The governor was advised by an appointed council. Montreal and Trois Rivières had governors who oversaw local administration. A direct if distant relationship existed between each colonist and royal authority. Alternative or intermediate sources of power such as a provincial estate (a legislature), a parlement (a law court), and craft guilds were prohibited. Noble privileges were limited and the church closely monitored. Still, the co-operation of members of the first and second estate remained essential to the exercise of royal authority as was the acceptance of it by a majority of the population. But for most inhabitants there was little opportunity other than that provided by local church councils to participate in the governance of New France.

New France in 1700

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Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil (1650-1725), governor of New France from 1703 to 1725. Oil painting, copied from the original by Henri Beau, 1923.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

In 1703, New France's leaders worried about the survival of their colony. The fur trade suffered from a glutted market that depressed prices. This in turn hurt Native trading partners who complained that they could get better prices from the English. This situation undermined diplomatic and military alliances with Native nations that were critical to the defense of New France. The growing English colonies to the south dwarfed the French colony's population and put the French at a disadvantage when war broke out in 1702. To deter the English, the governor-general of New France, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil concluded that the best defense was a good offense and prepared to launch raids against the frontiers of New England.

Further Reading

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