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History of New France

Just as European counties such as Spain, Portugal and England were claiming land in the New World, France had similar ambitions. In 1534, Jacques Cartier was commissioned by King Francis I of France to discover a western passage to the wealthy markets of Cathay (in Asia). According to his commission, he was to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found”. He set sail on May 10 of that year, and explored parts of Newfoundland, the current Canadian Atlantic provinces, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Following the explorations, French fishing fleets continued to sail to the Atlantic coast and into the St. Lawrence River. French merchants recognized that the St. Lawrence region was full of valuable furs, which were becoming rare in Europe. Eventually, the King of France decided to colonize the territory in order to secure and expand France’s influence in North America.   By the 1580s, French trading companies had been set up, and ships were contracted to bring back fish and furs.

Initial settlements were founded in Acadia, and the capital of Port Royal was established there in 1605. On July 3, 1608, Samuel Champlain, a navigator, cartographer, soldier, and explorer, founded Quebec City with 28 men. Colonization of New France was slow and difficult. Many settlers died early because of harsh weather conditions and disease. In 1630, there were only 103 colonists living in the settlement of Quebec, but by 1640, the population had reached 355. The French Catholic Church was also a main driving force in the colonization of Quebec. In 1642, they sponsored a group of settlers, led by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who founded Ville-Marie, (later to become Montreal), further up the St. Lawrence River.
The transportation infrastructure in New France was all but nonexistent, with few roads and canals. Therefore, people used the waterways, especially the St. Lawrence River, as the main form of transportation. In the winter, when the lakes froze, people travelled by sleds pulled by dogs or horses. A land transportation system was not developed in the region until the following century when a road from Repentigny to Quebec “le Chemin du Roi” was created. Also, there were many conflicts with the indigenous natives such as the Iroquois, who frequently attacked Montreal and Quebec. By 1649, both the Jesuit mission and the Huron society were almost completely destroyed by Iroquois invasions. Thus in the mid 1600’s, New France was beset by many problems and was still much smaller than the English colonies to the south.  
In 1661, King Louis XIV assumed absolute power and turned his attention to his feeble North American colony. He created a Sovereign's Council under his authority, which served as the legislature, the supreme court, and the administrative body of New France. The king then addressed the colony's lack of soldiers, settlers and laborers. Immigrants were mostly recruited from Western France, particularly from Normandy and La Rochelle, and transported by merchant vessels rather than on passenger ships. In 1664, Louis sent 300 laborers at his own expense to provide workers for the industry and farmers for the land. Ships throughout the summer and into the fall of 1665 brought food, building materials, and especially settlers. The typical immigrant from France was poor, male, unmarried and without children. Few crossed the Atlantic as couples or in family groups, though many individuals came with a brother or another relative of some sort. Gabriel and Jacques were therefore representative of the types of colonists who set off for the New World.
A system of apprenticeship, similar to the indentured servitude in New England, was created in order to provide the colony with manual labor. An apprentice or “engagé” contracted to serve for a three-year term in return for food, lodging, and a small salary. During this time, he could not marry or conduct his own trade, and resided with his employer or “habitant”. At the end of the contract, the apprentice had an opportunity to obtain land on comparatively easy terms. Since Gabriel was free to lease land in 1668, following his three-year apprenticeship, he and Jacques probably left France around 1664-1665.
In order to increase the colony’s population, young women were sent to Quebec as brides. In the summer of 1663, the king sent young single girls, or “filles du roi”, to marry the men of Quebec and begin families. In 1665, Mother Marie de l’Incarnation wrote that one hundred girls had arrived that year and nearly all were provided with husbands. In 1667 she wrote again: “this year ninety-two girls came from France and they were married to soldiers and laborers”. During the years 1663-1673 about 775 single girls were sent to the colony in an effort to boost the population. Jacques Samson’s wife, Marie-Anne Metru was one of these “filles du roi”. Thus, the population of New France grew from around 3,500 in 1666 to over 6,700 in 1672 (however, this compares with a population in New England at the same time of around 120,000).
Strengthening the military presence was also a priority. In the summer of 1665, the regiment of Carignan-Salieres, distinguished in recent wars with the Turks, arrived in Quebec to defend the colony against the Natives. A series of armed battles culminated in the defeat of the Iroquois in 1666, assuring the colony 16 years of peaceful development. In the Jesuit Relation of 1668, Father Le Mercier wrote: “It is fine to see new settlements on each side of the St. Lawrence for a distance of 80 leagues…the fear of aggression no longer prevents our farmers from encroaching on the forests and harvesting all kinds of grain, which the soil grows as well as in France”.
Pioneer life in New France was difficult and challenging. The seigneurie system was imported from France, where a seigneur obtained a large tract of land from the king, and then granted pieces of it to “habitants”, or tenants. The habitant would clear and farm the land, and perform other specific duties. In turn, habitants would often lease or sell portions of their land to apprentices upon completion of their contract. Seigneuries were roughly rectangular in shape and formed long strips of land perpendicular to the river, which was the colony’s main line of transportation. In the summer months, boats and canoes plied the river, and during the winter, sleighs would ride the ice and link the various communities on both sides of the banks. The seigneurie layout also encouraged the clustering of settlement and homes along the shore of the river, instead of scattering them throughout the area. Each year maybe one or two arpents of land was cleared on the seigneurie, and slowly the forest was pushed back. Agriculture was rudimentary; land was rarely fertilized and crop rotations were inadequate or non-existent. Iroquois crops such as corn, beans, and squash were grown, as well as European staples such as wheat, oats, barley, and peas.  A vegetable garden on the grounds usually included onions, cabbage, lettuce and carrots. Also, apple trees were common, and much of the crop was converted to cider, which was reported to be the equal of that in Normandy.
By the early 1700’s, the colony began to prosper. Industries, such as fishing and farming that had failed under Talon began to flourish. The shipping industry also expanded as new ports were built and old ones were upgraded. The number of colonists greatly increased, and by 1720, Canada had become a self-sufficient colony with a population of 24,594 people. The Church, although less powerful than it had originally been, controlled education and social welfare.   In 1754, New France had over 70,000 inhabitants, a massive increase from earlier in the century, but the British American colonies greatly outnumbered them, with over one million people (including a substantial number of French Huguenots).  
The North American phase of the Seven Years’ War began in the French controlled Ohio valley, and quickly spread to Nova Scotia and other disputed areas.   In 1758, British forces captured Louisbourg, allowing them to blockade the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. This proved decisive in the war. In 1759, the British besieged Quebec by sea, and an army under General James Wolfe defeated the French under General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in September. The garrison in Quebec surrendered on September 18, 1759 and by the next year, New France had been completely conquered by the British after the successful attack on Montreal. France formally ceded Canada to the British in the Treaty of Paris, signed on February 10, 1763.
Ironically, in its quest to take over all of North America, England lost its wealthy American colonies twelve years later. During the war with New France, England had heavily taxed its American colonies, which directly led to the American Revolution.     
Written by Charles A. Samson, May 2010.
Sources: “History of the Canadian People”, M.H. Long; “The People Of New France”, Allan Greer; “Chronicles of Canada - The Great Intendant”, Thomas Chapais, “History of Canada”, D. G. Creighton; “Histoire Populaire du Quebec”, Jacques Lacoursiere


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