New France

French success in the New World was due primarily to their involvement in the fur trade and their widespread success in exploration. The French empire included at one time or another the St. Lawrence River region, the Canadian praries, Hudson's Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. However, New France lacked the strong colonisation and support it needed to last as a colony, or to become an independent nation.

This writeup will skim though New France between 1600 and 1700, launching off into the occasional foray before or beyond, and not bothering with all too much detail.

In The Beginning...

A major motive for French exploration in the new world was the valuable fur trade. From Cartier's discovery of the St. Lawrence to Samuel de Champlain's voyages along it, to the missions of Radisson and Groseillier and other coureurs de bois (unlisenced fur traders), French missions in the new world were encouraged by the wealth to be gained there. This aspect of New France was completely absent from Britain's Thirteen Colonies or New Spain; where the Thirteen Colonies drew dissatisfied, criminal, and persecuted British citizens and New Spain was a prime source of slave labour as well as natural resources, New France was at first a cheifly commercial venture.

It is said that Cartier, speaking to Donacona, the chief of Stadacona, asked what the land was called. Donacona replied "kanata", the Iroquoian word for "village". This word became "Canada" in translation, later becoming the name of a region of French North America, and later still the name of a nation not really affiliated with France at all.

In 1524, Jacques Cartier sailed with two ships and sixty men to Newfoundland and the Strait of Belle Isle, which he claimed for King Francis I. The next year, Cartier lead a mission of three ships to the gulf of St. Lawrence. The French explored around the St. Lawrence, finding the Native villiages of Stadacona and Hochelaga (which later became Quebec City and Montreal, respectively).

When Cartier went back to France, he took four Iroquois people, including Donacona, to show to the King. The Natives told stories of a land rich in gold and jewels, and this myth sparked French exploration down the Saguenay River in search of the mythical land. Of course, no rich Land of Saguenay was found; but the St. Lawrence region did indeed prove valuable, and all was not in vain.

In 1541, the first French settlement was established by Roberval. However, the attempt was unsuccessful and the colony did not prosper. Perhaps it lacked a certain commercial element, for French colonisation and exploration didn't get into full swing until 1600, when the first French trading post was erected at Tadoussac.

Taking a Look Around

It was 1544 when Samuel de Champlain arrived in North America, recruited by Pierre Du Gua de Monts. Champlain later explored extensively into the interior of the continent, especially along the Ottawa River, providing important trade routes for the French. French exploration by Champlain and others was generally into St. Lawrence and Great Lakes regions, and into the continent along the Ottawa and Saguenay rivers. The area was hunted for beaver and other pelts, and the rivers were used for easy transportation into the main land for more pelts. However, this area eventually ran low on furs, and missions into the interior suddenly became more interesting.

French exploration continued unfettered through the early 1600s, mostly motivated by the fur trade. In the 1650s and 1660s, however, the French attempted to regulate the interior trade. Only traders with a government license were officially allowed to trade; but this didn't stop many aspiring explorer/traders. Radisson and Grosseilliers are a famous example of these "coureurs de bois", who often travelled far inland and stayed for several years at a time. When Radisson and Grosseilliers were denied a trading permit in 1661, they left regardless. They explored and trapped throughout the Canadian Shield and into the Hudson's Bay region until 1663; when they returned, they were heavily fined and their furs confiscated. Radisson and Grosseilliers went to London, where the two explorers convinced England of the worth of the Hudson's Bay area. In 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company was established; the English company that went on to dominate trade in the North was based on French explorations.

Around the same time, Father Albanel traveled down the Saguenay and Rupert Rivers in 1671, establishing linking routes from James Bay to the Saint Lawrence River. Joillet, Marquette, La Salle, and d'Iberville were responsible for a string of French forts stretching from Cataraqui (now Kingston, Ontario) to New Orleans and Louisiana (where elements of French culture are still practiced). Motives for exploration varied from trading to missionary work and so on. In any event, by the 1700s, French trading posts and forts had nearly encircled British North America.

Between 1731 and 1742, La Verendrye explored from the Saskatchewan River to the Black Hills and the Missouri River, establishing strategic posts between Lake Superior and the Saskatchewan. La Verendrye was the last French explorer to expand French territory extensively. He was eventually held back by a lack of funds and permission from the Royal Government in New France; by this time French goals had shifted completely away from exploration, to colonisation.

Making a Living

The most valuable furs traded in New France were beaver. Castor sec, dry beaver, was plain beaver pelt. Castor gras, greasy beaver, was after a fashion second-hand. Native Americans wore beaver pelt coats with the fur facing in; this smoothed the pelt and removed guard hairs... and it was only a little bit smelly. Castor gras was fantastically valuable in France because of its softness, and it didn't hurt that producing it was likely no harder than asking a local Huron whether he wouldn't mind wearing this nice beaver coat for a while.

The French fur trade thrived under various monopoly companies, starting in 1603 with the de Monts and Champlain. Pierre Du Gua de Monts received a royal commission to colonise Acadia in return for his monopoly; he was to bring 60 settlers to Acadia each year and support missionaries among the Mi'kmaq. He recruited Champlain, and their monopoly extended into the mainland until 1608, eventually being cancelled for failure to uphold terms of the agreement. After the cancellation of its monopoly, de Monts' company allied with the Algonquin and Huron tribes, but competition meant that de Monts profits fell drastically.

Because de Monts could no longer support his explorations, Champlain spent 1612 and 1613 lobbying in France for the establishment of a new monopoly company, and succeeded. A string of monoploy governments in New France followed, all favouring the fur trade over colonisation and eventually failing.

Settling Down

St. Lawrence Region

The first permanent French settlement was establised at Quebec (Stadacona) in 1608, under the guidance of Champlain. Fishing and trading bases continued to be established, including Miscou (1615), and Restigouche (1620). The main centres in New France were Quebec (1608), Trois-Rivieres (1634), and Ville-Marie (1642). Monopoly governments left colonies high and dry. The population of New France was only a few hundred in the 1640s, a time of serious Iroquois raids. It was not until 1663 that Royal Government began colonisation efforts in earnest, importing young single French girls and awarding cash for prolific parents - noble status for ten kids and up! This was a success, and immigration was also encouraged. By 1672, the population of New France was 7, 000.


In 1603, Pierre Du Gua de Monts received a royal commission to colonise Acadia. However, de Monts didn't do a smashing job. Port Royal, a trading post on the Bay of Fundy, was the first post established - in 1605. Colonisation continued at a bare minimum, with the establishment of La Heve (1632), Pubmice (1652), and Canceau (1654) - all much after de Monts' time. The French population in Acadia grew little and remained small. Finally, in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the land was handed over to the English. The French colonisation effort in Acadia can very safely be called a failure.

Getting Along With the Neighbours

"Cartier reported that the indians he met were very happy to trade, and were leaping and dancing in their canoes when he left. He also reported, somewhat unnecessarily, that they were a small tribe. Any tribe that practices dancing in canoes is bound to be small." - W. A. McKay

French settlers and traders looked on Native Americans as equals, and benefited widely from fur trading partnerships. Native American peoples respected the French traders, and tribes offered alliances. When the French engaged in conflict with tribes, it was as the allies of others rather than on their own for purposes of enslavement or capture of territory. The French worked with their trading partners to secure trade routes, rather than to secure complete dominion.

Quebec settlement depended on trade with Algonquin, and later the Huron . To maintain relations, French colonies were initially established only on uninhabited lands. This discouraged conflict and encouaged the activity of Native Americans as middlemen for French fur trading. When the fur supply in the immediate area of the New France colony was exhausted, Native Americans trapped the interior to trade for French goods, upon which they became increasingly dependant.

Later, Frenchmen explored the interior themselves. coureurs de bois made significant contributions to French exploration and colonisation (through forts and trading posts), but their main goal was to acquire more furs, as areas near the colony were emptied. They continued to work in tandem with Native American guides and trappers. The peoples now called the Metis are the product of coureurs de bois who established families among the Native Americans they traded with, and demonstrate the degree to which the two cultures integrated.

(In any case, this is how the official narrative presents French-Native relations. Given the extent to which other parts of Canadian history (for example, interactions between Mounties and Natives in the West) have been misrepresented, I wish to note that this positive picture of French behaviour may not be accurate. At all. Further research might reveal a different view of events.)

A Losing Battle?

The Iroquois

Conflict between the Iroquois and the French settlers began around the same time as the establishment of permanent settlements. Because the French were allied with the Huron tribes, an alliance against the Iroquoian tribes was a natural conclusion. The first military conflict occured in 1609, when Champlain and other Frenchmen aided Hurons in a raid on the Iroquois . Naturally, the French brought the guns.

The two groups continued to come into conflict because of enmity between Huron and Iroquois , and (perhaps more importantly to the French) because of conflict over the St. Lawrence fur trapping route. However, the raiding back and forth didn't become really serious until the 1640s, when the Iroquois attacked the Huron and the French in earnest. At this point, the Huron were seriously weakened by smallpox. Iroquois raids continued in strength throughout the 1640s, and around 1649 Huronia as a nation was destroyed. Naturally the Huron population declined, but the Huron also began to be much less centralised. At the same time, French Jesuit missionary establishments among the Huron were destroyed. Iroquois aggression continued.

In 1666, after Royal Government came into effect, the King sent one of France's best regiments to New France. They began by attacking the Mohawk, one of the fiercest Iroquois tribes. They were victorious, and a year later (1667) peace was established. Later, government worked to encourage exploration and trade in tandem with the Iroquois , and conflict eventually ended completely.

The English

French - English competition was initially more economic than military; raiding was generally intermittent. In 1664, English traders began to infringe upon French trading territory near the Great Lakes. Because they traded firearms more freely, Natives were attracted to dealing with them. Six years later, in 1670, the English formed the Hudson's Bay Company, with the help of a couple of intrepid Frenchmen. The Bay Company was a serious threat to New France, which was at that time turning its focus away from trade.

In retaliation, the French attacked English Hudson's Bay posts. They were eventually successful - in 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick yielded temporary control of the Bay to the French. However, this was not permanent, and the English gained supremacy with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

Taking Charge

Monopoly Government

After Pierre de Monts, New France was ungoverned until 1613, when the Compagnie du Canada as granted rights for eleven years in return for paying Champlain's salary, presenting the viceroy with a horse anually, and bringing in more settlers. When the monopoly ended, Champlain's colony had a population of 65. Like de Monts, the Compagnie had focused on economic gain and neglected the establishment of colonies.

In 1627, the Company of One Hundred Associates was granted the trade monopoly. This third group was required to establish 300 settlers in their first year, and demonstrate a population of 4, 000 after 15 years. However, the Company followed the example set by de Monts and the Compagnie du Canada. They traded, but settle they did not. In 1945, the Company handed over monopoly to the leading colonists.

The colonists continued to control trade until the Company of the West Indies was established in 1664. This Company allowed the habitants to trade freely, but required all furs to pass through a Company warehouse before being exported. Furs circulated as currency, with the unit of comparison at one pelt of buck (male) beaver - hence "buck" as slang for dollar.

The monopoly companies followed a pattern: they were established with set colonisation goals; they focused purely on exploitation of furs; they failed to colonise; they were replaced. The monopoly governments made use of no long term planning, and so they did not last long-term. When Royal Government was established in 1663, New France had 500 citizens and relied on France for everything, including food.

Royal Government Under the Sun King

In 1663, King Louis XIV assumed personal control of New France. In actuality, this meant that the Cheif Advisor (Jean-Baptiste Colbert) and the Minister of the Marine assumed control of New France; that is, the governor of New France now reported to Colbert, who reported to the King. The main goal of Royal Government, particularly advocated by Colbert, was to make New France self-sufficient. The French government could thus hope to continue to reap a profit from New France without having to babysit its colony.

In 1665, the Sovereign Council was introduced. This governing body was made up of an intendant, a governor, and a bishop - representatives of the Crown, the Colony, and the Church. The Sovereign Council put into effect French Policy, and created new policy to be approved by the King. The Council also delegated and oversaw law and order, and the day-to-day maintenance of the colony.

The intendant functioned as "the eye and hand of the King" in the colony. Jean Talon, who held the post from 1665 to 1672, was a strong force behind the colony's increase in population. In general, the intendant's responsibilities were to act as check and balance in the Sovereign Council, and to take care of "administrative concerns".

The governor's main function was to make decisions relative to defence of the colony, including relations with Native Americans and English colonists. This post also incorporated military leadership and diplomacy, or the delegation thereof.

The bishop's task was to oversee all things religious in the colony. He was responsible for establishment of Church schools, hospitals, and charities. He was the vehicle of the Roman Church's political power, wielding his influence over the governor and intendant for that organisation's benefit.

Conflict between the three Councillors was inevitable, and in most cases surmountable. However, if the intendant and the governor were in conflict about an important decision, the Council was paralysed. This system operated effectively to ensure that the colony was not lead in a fashion contrary to the wishes of the King.

Paternalism, defined as "policy or practice treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities," was an essential characteristic of Royal Government in New France. Paternalism was the root of policies like baby bonuses, and of efforts like the import of the Filles du Roi. However, it also meant that government in New France was strict, unlike the loose control of the monopoly companies. The change in government meant a serious change in life in New France.

A diagram of the chain of command in New France, after the implementation of Royal Government:

                                        King Louis XIV

                                     Government of France 
                  Chief Advisor,    Minister of Marine Affairs,    Viceroy

                                       Sovereign Council
                                Intendant,   Governor,   Bishop

                Seigneurs,   Town Officials,   Courts,   Militia Captains,   Priests

                                     General Population
                                  Habitants,   Townspeople

Guidance From Above

The first Jesuit missionary, abbe Jesse Fleche, arrived at Port Royal in 1604. French Catholicism had come to New France.

Jesuit missionaries focused on Algonquin tribes such as the Abenakis and the Montagnais, and on Huron tribes. Techniques varied from bribery, to kidnapping, to education, to health care. Missionaries sold guns - but only to the baptised. They attempted to separate children from parents, but were unsuccessful. Missionaries had varied levels of success and failure, based on region, tribe, and of course individual skill.

Early missionaries were the first European contacts with Native Americans, and as such they brought diseases from overseas. Naturally, baptised people had the most contact with missionaries, and so became sick and died first. This association lead Native Americans to believe that the Jesuit missionaries among them were devils who brought death; naturally, a serious setback.

In the 1630s, missionary efforts grew stronger. Continuing the Church's role as sole provider of education in New France, a Jesuit college was established in 1635 and in 1639 the Ursuline order of nuns created a girls' school. New France's first hospital was opened by nuns of the Hospotalieres order, also in 1639. As nurses, nuns were important to New France, providing care for dependants with no family as well as general public health care.


Unfortunately, colonisation in New France lacked an element of... umm... success. The majority of this can be attributed to the early mistake of the monopoly companies in ignoring colonisation in favour of profit. Of course, there were other contributing factors. The trade regulations that clamped down on trading in the interoir in the mid-1600s were a serious error, in that they lead to English acquisition of some of the most valuable property in what is now Canada. In general, France didn't concentrate enough on New France until it was too late to get ahead of their competitors in the colonisation race. When they did get into the game, they didn't have the experience the other players had already picked up; the opposition took full advantage of their mistakes. Thus, this writeup is in English rather than in French.

IB History of the Americas study handout
Bennet, Paul W., et. al. Canada: A North American Nation
Kirbyson, R. C., In Search of Canada

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