France became interested in the New World later than the other Western Christian powers - England, Spain and Portugal - and after the trips made by Christopher Columbus in 1492, John CABOT in 1497 and the CORTE-REAL brothers in 1501 and 1502. In 1524 Giovanni VERRAZZANO followed the eastern shore of America from Florida to Newfoundland. Jacques CARTIER then made 3 voyages of discovery for France. He took possession of the territory in the name of the king of France by planting a cross on the shores of the Gaspé in 1534. The next year he sailed up the St Lawrence River and visited aboriginal settlements at Stadacona [Québec] and Hochelaga [Montréal]. He spent the winter at Stadacona, where 25 of his men died of scurvy, and returned to France in 1536.
In 1541-42 he returned, establishing a short-lived colony, which he called "Charlesbourg- Royal," at the mouth of the Rivière du Cap-Rouge near Stadacona. Religion gave the impetus to his voyages, but economic motives were even more obvious. The hope of finding a NORTHWEST PASSAGE to the Indies and the fabled Kingdom of the Saguenay was constantly stressed. Cartier brought back to France some minerals from this final voyage which he thought were gold and diamonds, but were only iron pyrite and quartz (see DIAMONDS OF CANADA). After these initial disappointments France turned its attention elsewhere and ignored the distant land until the end of the century.
Meanwhile, some Frenchmen had shown sustained interest in the region's FISHERIES. There are reports of BASQUE, Breton and Norman fishermen on the GRAND BANKS as early as the first decade of the 16th century. Each year more ships - a dozen or so in the decade 1520-30, about 100 by mid-century - made fishing trips. By 1550 fishermen were drying their catch on the shores, making contact with the Indians and taking furs back to France. In the 1580s, ship owners were leaving fishing for the FUR TRADE, an activity which was to draw Frenchmen far into the continent.
In 1608 Samuel de CHAMPLAIN, considered the founder of New France, erected a habitation (building) at Québec. He continued Cartier's dream of finding an opening to the Indies, pursued the commercial interests of the businessmen, his sponsors, and followed the king's wishes. The settlement responded to economic demands: go out to the fur-rich areas, forge close contact with native suppliers and try to obtain the right of exploitation. The scale of the operation made it necessary to form private companies.
The colony's administration, 1608-63, was entrusted to these commercial companies, which were formed by merchants from various cities of France. Succeeding companies promised to settle and develop the French land in America in return for exclusive rights to its resources. The COMPAGNIE DES CENT-ASSOCIÉS, created by the great minister of Louis XIII, Cardinal de Richelieu, ran New France 1627-63, either directly or through subsidiary companies. It did not achieve the desired results. In 1663 the population numbered scarcely 3000 people, 1175 of them Canadian-born. Less than 1% of the granted land was being exploited. Of the 5.4 million livres' worth of possible annual resources enumerated by Champlain in 1618 - eg, fish, mines, wood, hemp, cloth and fur - only fur yielded an appreciable return, and it was irregular and disappointing.
Nor was evangelization among the natives flourishing. During its first half-century, New France experienced an explosion of missionary fervour, as demonstrated by the number and zeal of its apostles, inspired by the Catholic Counter-Reformation (see CATHOLICISM). In 1634 the Jesuits renewed the mission of STE MARIE AMONG THE HURONS in the western wilds. VILLE-MARIE, which became Montréal, was the work of mystics and the devoted. But the missionaries managed to convert very few Indians.
Various political and military events hindered colonization efforts. The alliances formed by Champlain made enemies of the Iroquois. Québec fell to the freebooting KIRKE brothers in 1629. The Iroquois nations grew belligerent as soon as the country was returned to France in 1632. Between 1648 and 1652 they destroyed HURONIA, a hub of French commercial and missionary activity. Attacks on the very heart of the colony demonstrated that the colony's survival was in doubt (see IROQUOIS WARS).
In 1663 Québec was just a commercial branch operation: the fur trade was opposed to agriculture, cross-cultural contact meant war and disease for the natives, the French population was small, and the administration of the colony by commercial exploiters was a disaster. The company relinquished control of the colony to the king. Under Louis XIV New France flourished. He made the colony a province of France, giving it a similar hierarchical administrative organization. He watched over its settlement, extended its territory and allowed its enterprises to multiply. However, he had first to guarantee the peace.
Under the marquis de Tracy, the CARIGNAN-SALIÈRES REGIMENT built forts, ravaged Iroquois villages and demonstrated French military power. The Iroquois made peace, and 400 soldiers stayed in the colony as settlers. The king also had 850 young women sent out as brides-to-be, and quick marriages and families were encouraged. When the offspring of these FILLES DU ROI came of age 20 years later, the demographic situation had changed. In 1663 there had been one woman to every 6 men; now the sexes were roughly equal in number. The colony thereafter replenished 95% of its numbers through childbirth.
Under the authority of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, comptroller general of finances and then navy minister (see MINISTÈRE DE LA MARINE), colonial administration was entrusted to a GOUVERNEUR (for military matters and external relations) and an INTENDANT (for justice, civil administration and finances - ie, all civil aspects of colonial administration). The SOVEREIGN COUNCIL (Superior Council after 1703) acted as a court of appeal and registered the king's edicts.
The imperialism of Louis XIV, the pacification of the Iroquois and the need to rebuild the network of fur-trade treaties led to renewed EXPLORATIONS into the Great Lakes and Mississippi regions by such exceptional people as François DOLLIER DE CASSON, Louis JOLLIET, Jacques MARQUETTE and the Cavelier de LA SALLE. But the Indian wars started again in 1682 and the colony found new heroes, such as Pierre Le Moyne d' IBERVILLE. Political, military and missionary activity, combined with economic factors, created a need for furs to be acquired from the Indian nations.
Intendant Jean TALON, with Colbert's solid backing and other favourable circumstances, started a vigorous development program. In addition to watching over agriculture and the fur trade, Talon began ventures such as shipbuilding, trade with the West Indies, commercial crops like flax and hemp, fishing industries and a brewery. But by the time he left in 1672, economic circumstances had changed and virtually nothing remained of these premature initiatives.
It is difficult to identify the major elements of this nascent society. For Acadia, familiar features are the quality of its agricultural establishments, the importance of fishing and the alternating British and French regimes. In the St Lawrence Valley, farmers, though in the majority, were still clearing the land. Craftsmen no longer had the support of major enterprises. Fur traders were being squeezed by increasingly difficult regulations and economic circumstances, yet they provided the colony's only exports. Military officers, thanks to the introduction of coin currency and the presence of opportunities to flaunt themselves, enjoyed some prestige by entering into business and being in the governor's entourage.
The seigneur had little revenue and took his standing from his title and the exercise of functions entirely unrelated to the land (see SEIGNEURIAL SYSTEM). Social mobility was still possible and caused categories and groups to mingle, but there were 2 worlds: the city and the country.
New France reached its greatest territorial extent at the start of the 18th century. About 250 people lived in a dozen settlements in Newfoundland, and there were about 1500 in Acadia. Several hundred lived around the mouth of the Mississippi and around the Great Lakes. People from the St Lawrence Valley lived on the shoreline of Labrador as fishermen. The Saguenay River Basin (the King's Domain) had a few trading posts. Canada had about 20 000 inhabitants, most of them farmers scattered along a ribbon of settlement between the 2 urban centres of Québec and Montréal. In the West, a series of trading posts and forts dotted the communication lines. Finally, in the 1740s, the LA VÉRENDRYE family carried the exploration of the continent right to the foothills of the Rockies.
Despite this expansion, New France has been described as a "colossus with feet of clay." The British American colonies were 20 times as populous and felt themselves encircled and at risk. Through the Treaty of UTRECHT of 1713, which ended the WAR OF THE SPANISH SUCCESSION, France yielded Newfoundland, the Acadian peninsula, Hudson Bay and supremacy in trade over the Iroquois to the English. Furthermore the early 18th century brought a major economic crisis in the colony. Its main export item was hit by a European sales slump, declining quality and less attractive returns.
Recovery was slow, but the economy experienced an unprecedented boom during the long period of peace, 1713-44. France built an imposing fortress at LOUISBOURG to protect its fishing zones, land and commercial trade with the colony. After 1720 agricultural surpluses were exported to Ile Royale (Cape Breton Island) and the French West Indies. Some 200 seigneurs lived in the territory of Canada. A high birthrate led to a rapid population increase, which in turn led to the creation of parishes. Despite the strictures of MERCANTILISM, 2 major industries were established: the FORGES SAINT-MAURICE and royal shipbuilding.
In 1735 a road linked Québec City and Montréal for the first time. Yet the fur trade still accounted for 70% of the colony's exports. And peace was being used to prepare for war: 80% of the colony's budgets (which never equalled the sums spent on the king's amusements) went for military expenses. Much more was spent on constructing European-style FORTIFICATIONS than on strengthening alliances with the Indian nations.
Colonial society, influenced by the French elite that led it, modelled itself on the mother country, yet increasingly grew apart from it because of the colony's small population and very different, land-based, economic and geographic circumstances. Nobles, the middle class, military officers, seigneurs, civil administrators and traders formed a high society which was extremely sensitive to the favours of the colonial authorities. Eighty percent of the population lived on and by the land. Each generation produced new pioneers who cleared and settled land, acclimatized themselves, managed some new territory and came to know their neighbours. The acquisition of this territory in America by the descendants of Frenchmen was characterized by the importance of the land, of inheritance, of economic independence and of analysed social relationships.
But France felt that New France cost much and yielded little. The expensive but inconclusive WAR OF THE AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, which ended in 1748, saw the destruction of French overseas trade by Britain. The SEVEN YEARS' WAR found France on the defensive against England, now an aggressive maritime power. The British colonies, with 2 million inhabitants, were pitted against a mere 70 000 French colonists, a sign of the very limited success of French colonization in North America.
After some spectacular military successes, the result of strategy well adapted to the local terrain, France fell back on the defensive. On 13 September 1759 the troops of Gen James WOLFE defeated those of the Marquis de MONTCALM in the Battle of the PLAINS OF ABRAHAM near Québec City. Montréal fell the next year. France yielded its colony to England in the TREATY OF PARIS (1763). It was the end, or nearly so, of French political power in America - but not of French presence. France left a great legacy to America: the Canadiens. They refused assimilation and affirmed their existence. Protected by their language, religion and institutions, concentrated in a limited geographic area, difficult to penetrate, they developed a way of life, social customs and attitudes of their own. Having become Québécois, they continued to strive to develop their nationality.
Author JACQUES MATHIEU
Links to Other Sites
Canadian War Museum
The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is dedicated to the men and women who served with valour and distinction in Canada’s armed services. Their website features a virtual tour of the museum and multimedia online exhibits that depict how Canada met and overcame wartime challenges throughout its history.
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
An extensive online collection of documents, portraits, maps, audio clips, and other archival material relating to the history of Québec.
Virtual Museum of New France
This online exhibit focuses on the history, social life, and culture of New France. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Seasons of New France
A superbly illustrated site that explores the role of the Catholic church in the development of the religious, social, and economic institutions of New France. From the Musée de la civilisation and the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Library and Archives Canada
The website for Library and Archives Canada. Offers searchable online collections of textual documents, photographs, audio recordings, and other digitized resources. Also includes virtual exhibits about Canadian history and culture, and research aids that assist in locating material in the physical collections.
Watch the Heritage Minute about Governor Frontenac from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
The First Nations of the New France Era
This Canadian Museum of Civilization provides an overview of the First Nations peoples that lived in New France territory that extended, at its peak, from Hudson’s Bay to Louisiana. Good historical maps of that region.
This extensive Canadian Museum of Civilization resource details the exploits of Canada’s early explorers from the 16th to the 18th century. With many maps and illustrations.
French Canada and the Early Decades of British Rule (1760 - 1791)
A digitized copy of a booklet that examines the issues and policies that defined Britian's administration of its North American colonies in the decades preceeding the implementation of the Quebec Act and the Constitutional Act. From the Canadian Historical Association and Library and Archives Canada.
This site documents the history of the Seigneurial system in Canada. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Exploration, the Fur Trade and Hudson's Bay Company
This nicely illustrated website chronicles the turbulent early years of Canada’s fledgling fur trade. Features stories about European explorers, Aboriginal communities, the North West Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Also includes online maps, teacher materials, and links to primary sources in the Early Canadiana Online database.
Living in Canada in the Time of Champlain
This website documents Samuel de Champlain’s role in the exploration and development of New France. Includes maps, artifacts, and related notes about Pierre Du Gua de Monts. Part of the Virtual Museum of New France.
Glossary: Vital Records, New France
A French-English dictionary of terms about marriage contracts and other vital records pertaining to the first European immigrants in New France. From "The Virtual Museum of New France" website.
Plains of Abraham
A concise illustrated history of the Plains of Abraham, the Fortifications, and other famous Québec city landmarks. Click on "Battles of 1759 and 1760" (on the right side) for information about related events. From the National Battlefields Commission.
Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site
This Parks Canada site is dedicated to the Fortifications of Québec City. Includes nicely illustrated historical notes about the French and British contributions to the fortifications.
Fort Chambly National Historic Site of Canada
The website for the Fort Chambly National Historic Site of Canada. Features a history of the region with references to Samuel de Champlain, New France, the fur trade, the Seven Years' War, and related topics.
Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada
The Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada commemorates the period in 1535-1536 when Jacques Cartier and his shipmates wintered near the Iroquoian village of Stadacona. This National Historic Site also recalls the establishment of the first residence of the Jesuit missionaries in Québec, in 1625-1626.
Forges du Saint-Maurice National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada site presents the intriguing history of French and English iron making operations at Canada's first industrial village.
Manoir-Papineau National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada site features a detailed profile of Patriot leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and background notes about the seigneurial system of land tenure.
The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada
The website for The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada. This organization preserves the historical memory of Canadian Jesuits through its collection of documents, rare books, works of art, and related artefacts. Click on "Useful Links" on the left side of the page to access online documents.
New France, New Horizons
An informative and entertaining multimedia website about the founding and development of New France. Features abundant illustrations, documents and multimedia clips. A Canada/France collaboration.
The Research Program in Historical Demography
This University of Montréal website features data and statistics about Québec history and Québec French-Canadian genealogy before 1800.
The Society of Saint Sulpice in Canada
A brief history of the Society’s activities in the province of Québec. From The Canadian Province Sulpicians.
Raid on Deerfield
A narrated history of the 1704 Raid on Deerfield and its aftermath from Native and European perspectives. Also features fascinating stories about Native societies, cultures, trade practices, and traditions. This multimedia website is from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Search The Champlain Society digital collection for full text documents about Canadian history. Features first-hand accounts of Samuel de Champlain's voyages in New France and much more.
A virtual exhibition of “Codex canadiensis,” featuring Louis Nicolas' exquisite 17th century illustrated manuscript about the flora, fauna, and peoples of the New World. From Library and Archives Canada.
Black History Canada
An extensive Internet portal featuring links to online resources about the history and culture of the Black community in Canada. Topics include enslavement, early Black settlements, human rights, immigration, and prominent personalities and community leaders in business, government, religion, sports, the military, and the arts. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
The website for the museum at Fort Point, site of the first capitol of New France.
Montcalm, Louis-Joseph de, Marquis de Montcalm
A biography of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Montcalm from the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online."
Search for historical maps of specific locations in Canada at this website from Research Collections, McMaster University Library.
Defending Québec, Capital of New France
Using Maps, Soldier's Notebook and Time Line, old and recent illustrations, photos and short texts, the students will learn about Quebec and its fortifications during the time of New France.
Musée de la Gaspésie
The Musée de la Gaspésie is anchored at the spot overlooking Gaspé Bay where Jacques Cartier took possession of New France in 1534. The museum features an extensive exhibition about Jacques Cartier’s first voyage in the New World.
A glossary of terms commonly associated with the history of privateering in Canadian territories. From the website "Pirates or Privateers? Boarding on the St Lawrence," the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Glossary: Battle of the Plains of Abraham
A glossary of terminiology related to the siege of Québec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Check this site for more information on this topic. From the Virtual Museum website "1759: From the Warpath to the Plains of Abraham."
Archeologists unearth key fort in battle for North America
An article about the unearthing of an 18th century French fort at Chimney Point, Vermont. Refers to battles between French and British forces over this strategic location on the southeastern shore of Lake Champlain. From the vancouversun.com website.
Europe in America
An outline for a lecture on the development of economic institutions in European colonial possessions. Also, click on the link to hear the actual lecture K.J. Rea, Ph.D., University of Toronto.
Maison Saint-Gabriel, A Present From The Past!
Learn about the history of early Montreal and New France in this multimedia tour of the interior rooms and furnishings of the historic Maison Saint-Gabriel. Produced by the Virtual Museum
1612 history of New France heads to auction block
A news story about the auction of Marc Lescarbot's map of Canada that was published in 1612. From canada.com.