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Founding Montréal, 1642

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This illustration depicts Montreal around 1684.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.


From its earliest years, the people of Montréal played a vital role in the diplomacy and economy of New France by forging trade, religious, and political alliances with surrounding Native peoples. Although they were independent entities, Jesuit and Sulpician orders collaborated with the French government in a policy of acculturation. Priests sought to make local Indians French subjects by converting and educating them in the Catholic faith. Montréal's strategic location near the confluence of major waterways reaching to the interior of the continent spurred the town's early emergence as the center of the Canadian fur trade. Within a few decades, Montréal's commercial role overshadowed its religious one.

Religious Origins

In October 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier became the first European to visit the future site of Montréal, then a substantial Iroquoian village called Hochelaga, with 150 longhouses at the foot of Mount Royal. By the time Samuel de Champlain sighted the island in 1609, it was uninhabited; disease and warfare had forced the Iroquoian peoples to relocate to protected parts of their homelands or to join nearby groups. Another 33 years would pass before a group of Frenchmen colonized the island.

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Samuel de Champlain returned to the island that would eventually become Montreal almost 75 years after Cartier first reported of its riches.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

From the earliest years of French contact and settlement, Jesuit priests worked to convert North America's indigenous peoples. As a part of their missionary work, the Jesuits published reports of their progress. These Jesuit Relations inspired many French individuals to support existing missions and form new ones. In 1639, Jérome Le Royer de La Dauversiere and Jean-Jacques Olier (the latter founded the order of the Sulpicians,) organized the "Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal pour la conversion des sauvages de la Nouvelle-France." Their goal was to establish a mission on the Island of Montréal to proselytize to the Indians and care for the sick in New France. In 1641, the Society sent Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, to establish a small settlement on the Island.

Maisonneuve brought about 50 settlers, including Jeanne Mance. Mance founded Montréal's first hospital, Hôtel-Dieu, within two years of her arrival. At about 150 miles from Quebec and 80 miles from the nearest fort at Three Rivers, Montréal was the furthest western, most exposed French settlement. Its inhabitants lived within a fort for its first 10 years, and as early as 1643, they were harassed by the Iroquois, who were allies of the Dutch (and later the English) in present-day New York. The Iroquois believed the French settlement encroached on Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) territory. Iroquois attacks continued into the 1660s, effectively limiting French settlement on the land around Montréal.

Like the rest of the colony, Montréal struggled to attract and retain settlers; Maisonneuve and others periodically returned to France to recruit colonists. In 1653, Maisonneuve brought back a contingent of over 150 soldiers to help protect the settlement and surrounding area, as well as a handful of women. One of them was Marguerite Bourgeoys, who came to educate settlers and Native women and children in the Catholic faith, opening Montréal's first school in 1658.

By 1663, the Société Notre-Dame, which had been administering the settlement, indicated that it could no longer sustain its work in the besieged community. The Parisian Congregation of Saint-Sulpice, which had been closely associated with the Montréal enterprise from the beginning, took over. As seigneurs of Montréal, the Sulpicians administered and profited from what would prove to be Canada's richest estate, well beyond the end of the French Regime. At the onset of the Sulpicians' administration, however, Montréal's population was only around 596; sixty-three percent of whom were immigrants from France. Though a few families immigrated to Montréal, most newcomers were indentured servants, many of whom returned to France following their service. Immigrants came mainly from urban areas, towns, or villages in France; most proved ill-prepared for the work of settling an agricultural outpost.

Continuing Instability: 1643 - 1666

French presence at Montreal stimulated trade in the region. That same presence exacerbated Native rivalries. In 1649, the Iroquois Confederacy crushed France's primary Native trading partner, the Wendat confederacy on the Great Lakes. The French feared their other Native allies would consequently make peace with the powerful Iroquois, seek trade relations with the Dutch on the Hudson River, and strengthen their alliances with the Wendats' former trading partners in the Great Lakes region. At the same time, the Iroquois turned their attention to driving out the French. With increased Iroquois military activity in the St. Lawrence valley, French Canada seemed on the brink of collapse until the arrival of the Carignan-Salières Regiment in 1665. By the time the Regiment arrived, the Iroquois had killed 67 Montrealers and taken 41 captives, at least 10 of whom never returned. The Iroquois war was the leading cause of death in Montréal during its first 20 years of its existence.

The 1,200 soldiers of the Regiment sent over by Louis XIV, carried three overland expeditions into Iroquoia. This strategy drove the Five Nations Iroquois confederacy to make peace with the French. The 1667 peace inaugurated a period of economic growth in Montréal since the French could more confidently settle the fertile farmland lining the St. Lawrence River valley, and New France's Native allies from the north and west could travel the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to trade at Montréal without the constant threat of Iroquois attacks.


From the beginning, trade was central to Montréal's economy. The town sits at the head of the navigable portion of the St. Lawrence River, enabling goods to be readily transported from Quebec and France. Although rapids a few miles west of Montréal were impassable by contemporary watercraft, the Ottawa River branched northward off the St. Lawrence, providing access to the main transportation route that reached far into the interior of the continent. During the 1650s and 1660s, hundreds of canoes dodged Iroquois attacks and arrived every summer from the west for the annual fur-trade fair on the common near Montréal's riverfront. Not until the French made peace with the Iroquois after 1666, however, did large numbers of French traders take their goods to inland Native communities, launching the great expansion of trade and small French outposts to the west. After that point, Montréal merchants controlled trade with the interior. They recruited voyageurs, housed them before departure, arranged the cartage of goods to the point of embarkation, bought and readied canoes and provisions, and supplied the trade goods. Montréal warehouses stored the trade goods critical for the western market such as cloth, axes, knives, kettles, guns, shot, powder, brandy and rum. These goods were then carted to nearby Lachine and loaded onto canoes for traders to take to inland Native communities. By 1681, there were nearly 40 trade outfitters, and Montréal merchants controlled 95% of the fur economy.

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This French knife was traded to a Native ally of New France.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. All Rights Reserved.


Montréal owed its rapid growth to the western expansion of the fur trade and French alliances with the Native nations of the Pays d'en Haut, or Great Lakes region. From the 1660s until the fall of New France, Montréal was the prime meeting place of the French-Native alliance. Each year from June to September, Montréal received Native ambassadors from the west and sometimes Iroquoia. It was in a sense the summer capital of Canada. During that season, the governor and the intendant, like a traveling court, would leave the town of Quebec to set up in Montréal to strengthen relations with the Native allies.

Native alliance was critical to the security of Montreal. Jesuit priests working in Iroquois communities after 1666 began encouraging converts near Montreal to practice their new faith. In the years following, hundreds of Iroquois settled near a Jesuit mission at La Prairie (called “Kentake” by the Kanienkehaka) on the south shores of the St. Lawrence River. In 1675, the Sulpicians granted a group of Iroquois from La Prairie land in Montréal and the Sulpicians established the La Montagne mission. The order began moving their converts again in 1689, this time further west of town to Sault-au-Récollet. In 1676, the village at La Prairie relocated to Sault-St. Louis (Kahnawake). The French viewed the presence of these Iroquois in their midst as a strategic buffer against their kinsmen who had been frequent enemies of the French. This newfound security gave the French the confidence to begin colonizing both sides of the St. Lawrence River.

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This map shows Montreal and the surrounding villages of Iroquois allies.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. All Rights Reserved.

French officials had to make political concessions to these Natives (whom they called Domicilés) in a variety of ways. Their numbers were great, their allegiance uncertain, and the French vitally needed them as allies in fighting the English. The French feared that the Iroquois in these Montreal-area mission villages, if angered, would return to their Iroquois villages and brethren near Albany and resume their alliances with the English. To the consternation of the French colonists, the Iroquois in New France retained political and legal autonomy. Royal French power and authority was not fully exercised in the mission villages; the Native peoples did not pay seigneurial dues and were not drafted into the local militia. Infractions by an Iroquois were not punishable in New France, but were referred back to the village council, creating further tension. The French tolerated these conditions to retain the allegiance of the people of Kahnawake, La Montagne, and Sault-au-Récollet.

Despite these accommodations and concessions, the French remained suspicious of the Iroquois living on the St. Lawrence. For instance, in 1689, Kanienkehaka from the Mohawk Valley attacked La Chine, a French settlement on the island of Montreal, killing or capturing over 100 French including 15 civilians. The people of Montreal were suspicious because the Iroquois of Sault-St. Louis (Kahnawake) living across the river from Lachine were untouched, pointing to the village's complicity—and possibly, its tacit approval of the attack. The Iroquois in New France, for their part, were in the difficult position of being allies of the French who were often at war with their brethren in the Iroquois Confederacy.

European Community

Between 1662 and 1672, King Louis poured substantial resources into Canada, helping to transform Montréal from a base camp for traders and missionaries into something resembling a vibrant European community. In addition to its role in the fur trade, Montréal acquired the functions of market town, port, military depot, judicial and administrative seat, and production and distribution center for diverse goods. A market place was established in 1676 and retained its function for the next 150 years. The market sold foodstuffs—meat, vegetables, fruit, and fish. This site was also used for military parades, public executions, and criminal punishment.

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In 1663, King Louis XIV abolished the Company of New France and took full control of governing his American colonies.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

King Louis's Minister for the colonies, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, reorganized the colony and instituted a massive campaign to build its demographic, military, and economic base. He subsidized the migration of workers and marriageable women, bolstering Montréal's population. The town also became the supply center for all outposts in the interior and a military base for all offensive operations conducted there. By 1683, Colbert had stationed a permanent force of troupes de la Marine with garrisons at Quebec and Montréal as well as smaller contingents in western forts. These soldiers were recruited in France, often for unlimited terms. As a part of the policy to increase the colony's population, soldiers were discharged from service on the condition that they settle in New France. While some immigration from Europe persisted, population growth in these years was the outcome of natural increase. By 1700, fully 60% of Montreal's Euro-American population had been born on the island.

The land surrounding Montreal was the most fertile in Canada, and its vast woodlands provided large supplies of fuel. As in France, Montréal's urban society came to be dominated by merchants, artisans, and religious men and women and aristocrats, while peasants, or habitants, worked in their wheat fields lining the river.

In these years, Montréal teemed with traders, merchants, artisans, servants, and African and Native American slaves. In 1689, a royal ordinance authorizing African slavery in New France specifically prohibited Indian slavery. Nonetheless, Indian slaves became a growing presence in Canada, especially in Montréal and Québec. The status of Native slaves was uncertain until a 1709 ordinance reversed the previous policy and authorized Indian slavery. Many of these slaves were from the west; their presence in Montréal was a result of commercial and diplomatic involvement with ever-greater numbers of Indian peoples in North America.

In Montréal during the 17th century, men from lower orders of society could attain social advancement most readily by being involved with trade. Artisans as well as merchants prospered, especially those engaged in work directly related to the needs of fur traders, such as blacksmiths and tanners. Artisans played an important role in Montréal. They made and provided supplies for inland traders and kept the isolated outpost stocked with the necessities of life—there was an unending demand for tools and weaponry in New France. Other artisans, meanwhile, continued to struggle despite a growing trade economy. Unskilled, landless laborers occupied the lowest rungs of free society. These laborers often worked for masons or carpenters. While a chronic labor shortage meant they were well paid, the seasonal nature of the work allowed them to eke out only a meager existence, often on the edge of starvation.

After nearly 20 years of relative peace, renewed warfare with the Iroquois Confederacy between 1684 and 1701 temporarily stymied Montréal's growth. A wooden palisade was built around the city, and refugees poured in from the surrounding countryside.

Months of negotiations bore fruit in the summer of 1701, when the people of Montréal welcomed 1,300 Native diplomats and traders from throughout Northeast North America. At this meeting, the French, the Iroquois Confederacy, and 40 Native nations allied to the French, joined together in a “Great Peace.” This treaty provided a measure of stability that would ensure Montréal's growth and centrality in diplomatic relations with Native peoples until its fall to the English in 1760.

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This watercolor of Montreal was painted around 1702. In showing several church spires, the image hints at Montreal's religous roots, while the several vessels attest to the town's expanding trade economy.
Courtesy of The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.


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