New France



The English were not the only Europeans to establish permanent colonies in North America in the seventeenth century. Merchants from France and the Netherlands would found colonies early in the century, encouraged by their respective governments who hoped to compete with Spain and profit from an American trade. The French colonies in particular would leave an indelible legacy, still obvious in parts of Canada today. Adventurers and priests from Spain would continue to develop their colony in Florida and establish a new one in New Mexico to help protect and consolidate Spanish holdings in New Spain. Other French and Spanish colonies would later follow. The full story of colonial North America involved a diverse array of Europeans, each interacting in different ways with groups of Native Americans and (usually) Africans as well.

Since the focus of our story is mainly on the 13 mainland British colonies that would form the United States in 1776, we do not attempt to provide the full details of this multifaceted story. Still, the mainland British North American colonies took shape in an era of globalization, and historians today concur that their history cannot be understood without considerable attention to the other European colonies that coexisted in North America along with them. Some of these colonies would produce economic competitors to English traders, merchants, and planters. Others would pose serious military threats that would limit the territorial expansion and the demographic development of British North America for more than a century and a half. To understand the history of the British colonies, then, we need to understand something about the other colonial North American societies with which they interacted. Since the French were their most direct competitors for much of the seventeenth century, we will begin with them.

Despite the destruction of the French Huguenot colonies in South Carolina and Florida in the 1560s, French fishermen and traders had continued their yearly voyages to North America, becoming increasingly enmeshed in trading relationships with the various Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples who lived along the Atlantic coastline and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Near the mouth of the St. Lawrence lived Algonquians and Montagnais, with the Huron further upriver east of the Great Lakes. The dominant group in Acadia was the Micmacs, while the Abenaki peoples lived further south near the coast. Over the many decades during which their relationships developed, French traders learned to operate within the terms demanded by their Native American trading partners. For the Indians, as we have seen, trade implied more than a simple commercial relationship. It created a bond of something like kinship, imposing various reciprocal obligations beyond providing goods at a desirable price. In order to display the generosity and trustworthiness that their Indian trading partners expected of them, the French learned to proffer elaborate gifts, to participate in ceremonial rituals, and to refrain from sharp bargaining practices. They also learned, far better than their English competitors to the south, that their trading partners expected them to provide not only trade goods but also military assistance and protection against enemies.

Facing increasing pressure from English competitors, French merchants established trading posts in Acadia in 1598 and at Tadoussac, on the St. Lawrence River, in 1600. In 1603, partly to counter English attempts to encroach on the French fur trade, the French government granted charters to a merchant company led by Pierre Du Gua de Monts to establish a permanent settlement. The company hired the explorer and cartographer Samuel de Champlain to find an appropriate site for such a settlement. After several false starts, Champlain and a few dozen male settlers established a tiny fortified village at Québec, on the St. Lawrence River, in 1608.

The small size of Champlain’s colony as well as the settlers’ reliance on the Indian trade would shape the colony’s destiny, though it did so in ways its leaders could not have anticipated. Ironically, their miniscule numbers probably helped to ensure French survival, for the local Indians perceived this tiny new settlement to pose no threat to their own way of life. Indeed, they viewed the French as desirable trading partners and allies to be welcomed. For the first few decades after the French colonies were established, the French greatly strengthened the Hurons’ role as mediators of trade throughout the northern region. The effect of a permanent French presence was to bring many more native peoples into the fur trade, giving them access to coveted European trade goods. Items made from brass and iron were particularly sought after because of their utility, both as cooking implements and for use in making arrowheads that could penetrate wooden armor. But ornamental objects were also prized for the prestige they could confer when given away as gifts. In turn the Frenchmen depended heavily on their Indian trading partners for food and essential supplies, and were willing to accommodate their allies’ expectations in order to preserve their relationship.

To Montagnais and Huron peoples, the new alliance with the French had a profound political significance in addition to its economic effects. The peoples in the St. Lawrence region faced powerful enemies: the members of the Iroquois League, inland and just south of the St. Lawrence River as far west as the Great Lakes. By 1600, the members of the Iroquois Five Nations– the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas – numbered perhaps 25,000 people. Their confederacy was by now well established, and every year some 50 sachems representing each of the various clans in the Iroquois League met at the great long house of the Onondagas to exchange presents and renew their vows of peace and friendship. The alliance gave the Iroquois advantages that other tribal groups did not have. It created a mechanism for limiting unnecessary bloodshed, enabling the Iroquois to develop greater stability and cohesiveness than other peoples. It also made the members of the Five Nations a more formidable enemy when they made war upon neighbors from outside the confederacy, including the Susquehannocks to the south and the Algonquians, Montagnais, and Hurons to the north and east.

French presence in the region would change the balance of power between the Iroquois and their neighbors, for the St. Lawrence Indians expected the French to provide them not only with trade goods but also with military assistance against their foes. Indeed in July 1609, Champlain and his men lived up to expectations when their Montagnais and Huron trading partners launched a war party against the Mohawks. Though Mohawk warriors apparently outnumbered the French and Indian war party, they fled after suffering unexpectedly heavy casualties from the assault by French guns. Now, with French backing, the St. Lawrence Indians had suddenly gained the upper hand.

Very much like the English colonizers of New England, the French sought to convert their Native American trading partners and allies to Christianity, though in their case it was Catholic and not Protestant missions that were to be created. Missionaries were present in Acadia as early as 1611 and in Québec in 1625, and members of the Jesuit order embarked on a serious missionary effort during the 1630s. In the long run, French missionaries converted members of the Huron people in far larger numbers than English missionaries were able to achieve among the various tribal groups in southern New England. The question for historians has been why French Jesuits were so successful. One factor certainly was the support they received from the French Crown, encouraging the work of the Roman Catholic Church by providing it with large grants of land in New France, land which could then be leased to settlers. During the 1630s the French government in Québec also insisted that the Hurons allow Jesuit missionaries to live in their villages as a condition of trade. Another factor was the attractiveness of Catholic religious practices. Catholic missionaries invariably presented Christianity to the Indians as a source of spiritual power, and in that context Catholic rituals, saints, and material objects could be more plausibly presented as sources of powerful magic. Protestants, with their plain services and rejection of ritual, had less to offer.

Some historians have argued that French Jesuit missionaries succeeded because they were more culturally flexible than English Puritans, but other scholarship suggests a more complicated story, having to do with the indirect effects of sustained interactions between Frenchmen and native peoples. The French, just like the English further south, brought diseases which devastated local Indian populations – particularly among the Huron people, whose contacts with French traders and missionaries were both early and constant. During the 1630s and early 1640s, a small number of Hurons – mostly traders – converted to Catholicism. However, most Hurons resisted conversion, fearing that Christianity might actually be a malevolent force that was causing disease and death. It was only by the late 1640s, after a series of epidemics, famines, and stepped-up attacks by their Iroquois enemies that a large percentage of the Huron population finally gave in and decided to be baptized. In the end the surviving Hurons became deeply integrated into French Canada, living in Christian villages (called reserves) interspersed among French settlements. Other northern Indians would eventually convert to Catholicism as well, finding a close relationship with the French missionaries to be a helpful source of stability after their communities had been ravaged by disease or attacks from the Iroquois. The reserves became multicultural communities that included Algonquians, Mahicans, Ottawas, Hurons, and others, all of whose warriors were more or less explicitly allied with the French.

The French population in Acadia and Québec remained small for many years, numbering fewer than 200 for at least two decades. Champlain encouraged young male fur traders to live among the Indians rather than remaining inside the settlements, a policy which had the effect of strengthening French trading relationships with distant nations. The policy also extended French influence far inland into what became known as the pays d’en haut, territories which the French claimed as their own but never settled. In 1627, a trading company known as the Compagnie des Cent-Associés obtained from the French Crown a trading monopoly and land grant which included Québec and Acadia, extended northeast to Newfoundland and south through the Mississippi Valley. The company received the grant on the condition that it create a farming settlement. France’s aim was to consolidate French control over Canadian territory – a goal whose importance was reinforced in 1629, when English privateers captured Québec, took Champlain prisoner, and held the city until it was restored by treaty negotiations in 1632.

Once Champlain and the French investors regained control over New France, they became responsible for administering justice on the king’s behalf and distributing the land through a seigneurial system. Seigneurs, often French military officers or the Catholic Church, received large grants of land, laid out in strips perpendicular to the St. Lawrence River, which they held on the king’s behalf on condition that they ensure its improvement and development. The seigneurs then divided their lands among tenants, called habitants, who cleared and farmed the land in exchange for annual rents paid to the seigneurs. The seigneurs never became really wealthy, for rents remained small throughout the colonial period and farmers mostly grew food for their own subsistence rather than developing a cash crop. But the social structure did remain markedly different from that found in the English colonies. New France developed a sizable nobility, while most of its farmers remained permanent tenants. This gave it a distinctive character in contrast to New England, which never developed a nobility and where ordinary farming families typically owned their own land or paid only nominal rents.

Despite its obligation to do so, the company failed to bring settlers to New France in significant numbers, concentrating instead on further developing the fur trade. In consequence its trading monopoly was suspended in 1641, and the company was dissolved in 1662. Thereafter the colony was restructured as a royal province. Governing duties were carried out by a royal council consisting of a governor responsible for diplomacy and defense, an intendant who was in charge of finance and administering law and order, a bishop in charge of religious matters, and a five-person advisory council. The Crown filled each of these positions. Eventually the Crown also sent a permanent military force of French soldiers, called the troupes de marine, to the colony to man its garrisons and protect its settlements. The presence of professional soldiers also distinguished New France from the English colonies to its south, for the English colonies had no consistent military support from the home government until the eighteenth century.

Although migration to New France picked up after the reorganization of the government, French settlers arrived at a fraction of the rate achieved in the English colonies further south. During the early years of the colony, official French policy had limited migration to Catholics, although in reality the French government did little to hinder migration by Protestants. Between 1662 and 1671 the Crown actively encouraged immigrants by sending prospective settlers on royal transports as well as ships commissioned from merchants for the purpose. And yet the immigrants failed to come, for reasons that historians have struggled to understand. Peasants in seventeenth-century France, where famines were common and economic conditions grim, might have been expected to migrate in large numbers to a place with cheap, plentiful farmland and a low rate of mortality. In fact, however, few Frenchmen moved to New France voluntarily, and Frenchmen sent to the colony as soldiers or indentured servants were twice as likely to return to France as to stay in the colonies. Part of the reason for this reluctance was a widespread exaggeration among the French of the severity of Canadian winters. An even more important factor, historians have suggested, was the nature of French society and culture. Even when they were poor, French families were more likely than English families to provide patronage and material support for unemployed young people and to discourage their children from sailing away to an unknown land. As a result, French peasants (unlike their English, Scottish, and German contemporaries) simply refused to move away from home.

A census showed the presence of 3,215 European settlers in New France in 1666. Of these, about two-thirds were male, having arrived in the colony as either soldiers or indentured servants. In order to encourage marriage, the royal government in New France sponsored emigration by poor and unmarried Frenchwomen, much as the Virginia Company had done earlier in the century. About 770 filles du roi, as they were called, had arrived in the colony by 1673, whereupon they were encouraged to marry and begin new lives as the wives of French farmers. The importation of young women combined with a cold and healthy climate achieved, in the end, what earlier attempts to encourage immigration had not. Frenchwomen in the colony married young, experienced many pregnancies, and lived long lives, and the population at last began to grow at a rapid rate through natural increase. By the 1680s the population had grown to about 10,000 French-Canadians, more than doubling in less than 20 years.

The French government in New France also continued to encourage exploration and the expansion of the fur trade. A mission established at Ville-Marie in 1642 to convert the Indians became a major fur-trading center by the 1660s, attracting Indian traders from the north as well as west along the St. Lawrence River corridor as far as the Great Lakes. After the English Hudson’s Bay Company founded a colony north of New France in 1670 and began to compete with the French for the northern fur trade, the French government became an enthusiastic promoter of further exploration so that the French could expand their share of the trade. In 1682, Robert de La Salle explored the Mississippi and Ohio valleys on behalf of the French government, and laid claim for France to the surrounding territory. It was named Louisiana, and became part of New France.

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