New France

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New France was the North American area colonized by France. Colonization by the French started in the middle of the 16th century in Florida and ended in the middle of the 18th when France ceded nearly all of its North American territory to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris (1763). At its peak New France extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.


See also New France in the Great Lakes

The first European explorer to reach New France was Jacques Cartier[1]; he was commissioned by the king of France to "discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold, and other precious things, are to be found." Sailing into the St. Lawrence River in 1534, he planted a cross in Gaspé, giving France control over what would become Nouvelle France, its North American colony. Traveling up-river, Cartier established a settlement at Stadacona, near present-day Quebec City. The settlement was not viable and was soon abandoned.

In 1602, King Henry IV of France gave a monopoly of the Canadian fur trade to a Rouen business group. This charter company, the first of several that were to rule New France for the next 60 years, appointed Samuel de Champlain chief agent for its overseas adventure.[2] Champlain possessed qualities that were needed for the founding of New France. Ardently religious, he was, like the king himself, a Catholic with a Protestant background. Adventurous, a skilled seaman and cartographer, Champlain was also patriotically eager to help expand French power in the new imperial age.

In 1608 Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence to Cape Diamond, where he built a fur-trading fort at Quebec. From there, Champlain began to explore and map systematically the whole the upper St. Lawrence region from Georgian Bay in the northwest to Lake Champlain in the south. In order to maintain friendly relations with the local Algonquin and Huron Indians, who controlled the fur-trading routes to the interior, Champlain was also forced to support them in their bloody feud with the Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy. As a result of Champlain's alliance with the Huron, he pushed the Iroquois to align first with the Dutch and then the English to the south. The Iroquois remained implacable and dangerous enemies of the French throughout the existence of New France.

Trappers and woodsmen such as Etienne Bruléand Jean Nicolet[3] pushed further into the interior. Known as coureurs-de-bois, they extended both the fur trade and French imperial claims as far as the headwaters of the Mississippi. Their success encouraged the charter companies to concentrate on the fur trade rather than build a solid agricultural base in the St. Lawrence Valley and induced many intrepid young colonists to leave the settlements and became coureurs-de-bois. Moreover, with France involved in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), little encouragement or support came from the mother country.

The English captured Quebec in 1629. The city was compromised by the betrayal of Étienne Brûlé. The English held the city until it was restored to France by the treaty of Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

What settlement did occur after Champlain's death (1635) was controlled by the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). Inspired by the missionary spirit of the Counter-Reformation, they sought to convert the Indians to Christianity and to keep New France Catholic. Traveling with the coureurs-de-bois, Jesuit priests established missions as far west as Georgian Bay. Under François Laval,[4] who was named head of the colonial Church in 1659 and Bishop of New France in 1674, Protestants were not permitted to settle in Canada. This policy strengthened a feeling of common purpose and even a nascent nationalism in New France.

Because of their involvement with the French fur trade, the missionaries were exposed to attacks by the Iroquois, who were allied with rival Dutch traders in the Hudson River valley of New Netherland. The Jesuits were successful in converting the Hurons, who trapped most of the furs. In 1648 the Iroquois, seeking to wipe out the Hurons and divert the flow of furs to the Dutch at Fort Orange (now Albany, New York), invaded the Huron country and sacked Ste. Marie, massacring its inhabitants. Father Jean Brébeuf and several other Jesuit priests were tortured and burned at the stake, martyrs to the cause of Christianity and French Canada.[5] The Huron fled westward into the Upper Michigan Peninsula. The Iroquois then moved on the center of New France. Montreal, which had been founded in 1642 on an island in the St. Lawrence river, had become the principal control center for the interior fur trade. It was repeatedly subjected to Iroquois harassment, and its defense to the death by men like Adam Dollard gave it legendary heroes.[6]

In 1663 King Louis XIV nationalized the private fur-trade monopoly. He made New France a royal province with a superior council to carry out the king's edicts. Three officers dominated the council: the governor, with responsibility for defense; the intendant, to administer justice and promote economic growth; and the bishop, who wielded great power through his control of the church. Despite chronic feuding, conciliar government proved efficient. Under the leadership of dedicated intendants such as Jean Talon, the first to hold the office, New France began to flourish.[7] Population grew from 2,000 in 1663 to 6,000 in 1672. In addition, nearly 1,000 members of the veteran French regiment, the Carignan-Salières, were sent in to protect the colony, and many remained permanently. Talon's encouraged large families, domestic industries, and stable farming communities. The French seigneurial landholding system was instituted, whereby a few seigneurs owned all the land and the habitants paid an small annual rent. Few men were rich by colonial standards, and no one by Parisian standards. Thus differences in rank meant little; feudal dues were a modest burden on the habitants. Bishop Laval secured for the Church huge seigneurial land grants as well as heavy endowments for the Jesuit order. Education was in the hands of the clergy. The Church insisted on the right to regulate the colony's morals, but it was unable to prevent the sale of brandy to Indians by the fur traders.

In 1672 the king appointed an aristocrat Comte de Frontenac governor colony.[8] Although he was later celebrated by the American historian Francis Parkman as the fighting governor, Frontenac antagonized many colonists by his corruption and angered the Hurons by not defending them against the Iroquois.[9]

King William's War

Recalled in 1682, Frontenac left an internally divided and poorly defended colony but when fresh Iroquois attacks began and war with England started again (King William's War), he was reappointed as governor in 1689. He sent mixed Indian and French raiding parties to raid English settlements in New England and New York. Women and children were kidnapped, the men tortured and killed. This enraged the English colonists who retaliated in force. In 1690, a fleet from Massachusetts captured Port Royal in Acadia. English attacks on Quebec and Montreal were defeated, however, and the French seized most of the English fur trading posts operated by Hudson's Bay Company posts. Peace was concluded with the English in 1697 and with the Iroquois in 1701. By then it was clear that New France was a minor pawn in the great game of European power politics.

Queen Anne's War

In the early 18th century the American colonies experienced a population explosion, accompanied by rapid economic growth. The shortage of land forced young men to the frontiers, west and north, near New France. During the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) the British again captured Port Royal, which had been returned to France in 1697, and attacked Quebec. France lost the war and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave the British possession of Hudson Bay and Acadia, which was renamed Nova Scotia.

Having lost most approaches to the St. Lawrence, the French strengthened their defences and threatened Nova Scotia and the Newfoundland fisheries; the English responded by intensifying their pressure all along the frontier. The English Fort Oswego, on the south shore of Lake Ontario, challenged French territorial claims and threatened their fur trade. French forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga, south of the St. Lawrence, blocked a British invasion by way of Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River. In the far northwest Pierre La Vérendrye built a string of fur trading posts in the 1730s that stretched across the prairies as far as the Saskatchewan River, challenging the Hudson's Bay Company's westward thrusts.[10]

Colonial Policy

Throughout the 17th century, French colonial policy in New France vacillated between two contrary policies. First, was to promote the Great Lakes region with trading forts. This policy would move the center of the fur trade to the west cutting down on possible diversion of the pelts southward to Dutch or English posts. The problem here was that it was more difficult for the central French government to control and regulate this trade such that the crown benefited most. Second, the alternative policy was to concentrate the fur trade in Quebec or Montreal. Centralizing (or "concentrating") the trade in the East gave the government greater oversight of the trade. It implemented this policy by licensing traders. Unlicensed traders were subject to stiff fines or arrest. But the lure of great profits by trading on their own accounts led many to trade without licenses. Colbert consistently favored the policy of concentration. Frontenac favored a western strategy and authorized many western forts and La Salle's grand expedition in the Mississippi River Valley. His failure to follow orders led, in part, to Frontenac's recall in 1682. Sometimes, also, the Crown supported a western policy, sometimes the concentration policy. The result was a fluctuating policy without clear resolve or enforcement.

Colonial society

New France had a well-established social order, based on a system of seigneurial tenure. It was a diluted form of European feudalism without any rich aristocrats. In Canada, the seigneur owned the land and the habitants (tenant farmers) paid him annual rent. The seigneur ]lacked the political powers of the landowners in France and England, and operated on a much smaller scale than the manorial lords in upstate New York. The habitant family was typically self-sufficient and independent. Nevertheless, the seigneurial system was very effective in establishing cohesive settlement along the St. Lawrence. But life in the upper Great Lakes differed from the St. Lawrence settlements. Catholic religious orders provided the colony with a modest degree of education and medical care, while the Church tried to enforce its strict moral code that prohibited drunkenness, gambling, and sexual improprieties. The government mirrored the absolute monarchy in France and the habitants were denied any political voice. The colony was administered by a governor (a military officer who was responsible for external security), an intendant (entrusted with civil affairs), and a sovereign council (composed of these two officials, the bishop, the attorney-general, and several aides). Individual citizens were allowed to appeal personally or through their patron to members of the government for redress of grievances.

Before 1800, the priests and the faithful had created a universe in the wilderness marked by the pervasive presence of the supernatural, which they tried to influence by means both orthodox and magical. God was considered omnipotent, the source of benedictions and punishment; but the people, and to some extent the clergy, attributed much power to magic and the Devil.[11]

New France enjoyed growing economic prosperity during the first half of the 18th century. The seigneurs, augmented their rents by financing the fur trade and operated inns, gristmills, trading posts, and other small enterprises. An iron forge opened near Trois-Riviers in 1738; it was soon taken over by the government which leased it to local entrepreneurs who remained in business for over a century providing stoves as well as horseshoes and iron bars for blacksmiths to use. The colony received revenue both from the fur trade, which was the major economic activity, and a subsidy from Paris. Although mercantilism (the idea that the colonies existed for the material benefit of the mother country) dominated economic thought in Paris, the Crown used subsidies to promote the economic development of New France. Farming, particularly the cultivation of wheat, was strongly encouraged. Shipbuilding, iron mining, lumbering, and commercial fishing all became important. The population grew steadily but totaled only about 65,000 by 1763, nearly all of whom were descended from about 10,000 immigrants. By contrast, the British North American colonies to the south had more than two million inhabitants by that time. Quebec's final years under French control were ones of repeated wars, with inflation and administrative corruption compounding the hardships of the people. Wartime dislocations hindered agricultural production, causing severe food shortages on some occasions.


  1. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  2. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  3. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  4. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  5. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  6. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  7. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  8. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  9. David E. Griffin, "'The Man for the Hour': A Defense of Francis Parkman's Frontenac," The New England Quarterly 43, No. 4 (December 1970), 605-620.
  10. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  11. Peter Moogk, La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada a Cultural History (2000), ch. 9.