France was a colonial power in North America from the early 16th century, the age of European discoveries and fishing expeditions, to the early 19th century, when Napoléon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States.
French presence in North America was marked by economic exchanges with Aboriginal peoples, but also by conflicts, as the French attempted to control this vast territory. The French colonial enterprise was also spurred by religious motivation as well as the desire to establish an effective colony in the St. Lawrence Valley.
Indigenous peoples had been living on this territory for millennia. That is, well before the Vikings ventured so far East (see Norse voyages) at the end of the 10th Century. From the founding of Québec in 1608 to the ceding of Canada to Britain in 1763, France placed its stamp upon the history of the continent, much of whose lands — including Acadia, the vast territory of Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley — lay under its control. The populations it established, especially in the St. Lawrence Valley (see St. Lawrence Lowland), are still full of vitality today.
Founding and Context
France became interested in the North America 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 (see also Portuguese) in 1501 and 1502. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano followed the eastern shore of America from Florida to Newfoundland. Jacques Cartier then made three 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 (see Gaspé Peninsula) in 1534. The next year, he sailed up the St. Lawrence River and visited Aboriginal settlements at Stadacona (site of present-day 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 (see 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 that 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 French colonists showed sustained interest in the region's fisheries. There are reports of Basque, Breton and Norman fishermen on Newfoundland’s 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 Aboriginal peoples and taking furs back to France. In the 1580s, ship owners were leaving fishing for the fur trade, an activity that drew the French farther 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 businessmen in France, 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 suppliers and try to obtain the right of exploitation. The scale of the operation made it necessary to form private companies.
Commercial Administration of the Colony and Missionary Work
The colony's administration, 1608–63, was entrusted commercial companies that were formed by merchants from various cities in 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 3,000 people, 1,250 of them Canadian-born. Less than one per cent of the granted land was being exploited. Of the 5 million livres' worth of possible annual resources enumerated by Champlain in 1618 — e.g., fish, mines, wood, hemp, cloth and fur — only fur yielded an appreciable return, and it was irregular and disappointing.
Nor was evangelization among Indigenous peoples flourishing. During its first half-century, New France experienced an explosion of missionary fervour (see Missions and Missionaries), 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 Sainte-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 Aboriginal persons.
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 its survival was in doubt (see Iroquois Wars).
In 1663, Québec was just a commercial branch operation: the fur trade was opposed to agriculture (see History of Agriculture); 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.
Royal Rule Facilitates Development
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 90 per cent 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 — i.e., 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.
Exploration and Further Economic Expansion
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 Iroquois 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 Aboriginal peoples.
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 two worlds: the city and the country.
End of Expansion and Beginning of Economic Crisis
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 1,500 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 two 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, fur, was hit by a European sales slump, declining quality and less attractive returns. The many young people who had just come to settle the country had no choice but to fall back on the land.
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 Île 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, two major industries were established: the Forges Saint-Maurice and royal shipbuilding (see Shipbuilding and Ship repair).
In 1735, a road linked Québec City and Montréal for the first time. Yet the fur trade still accounted for 70 per cent of the colony's exports. And peace was being used to prepare for war: 80 per cent of the colony's budgets (which never equalled the sums spent on the king's amusements) went to military expenses. Much more was spent on constructing European-style fortifications than on strengthening alliances with Aboriginal peoples.
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 French descendants was characterized by the importance of the land, of inheritance, of economic independence and of analyzed social relationships.
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 1.5 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 General 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.
Leslie Choquette, Frenchmen into Peasants: Modernity and Tradition in the Peopling of French Canada (1997);
Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth-Century Montreal (1993);
W.J. Eccles, The French in North America, 1500-1763 (1998);
Allan Greer, The People of New France (1997), Peasant, Lord and Merchant (1985) and La Nouvelle-France et le Monde, (2009);
Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal, Histoire de l’Amérique française, (2008);
Jacques Mathieu, La Nouvelle-France. Les Français en Amérique du Nord XVIe-XVIIIe siècle, (2001);
Jacques Mathieu et Sophie Imbeault, La guerre des Canadiens 1756-1763, (2013);
Peter N. Moogk, La Nouvelle-France: the making of French Canada. A cultural history (2000);
George F.G. Stanley, New France, The Last Phase (1968);
Bruce G. Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Revisited (1985);
Marcel Trudel, Introduction to New France (1968) and The Beginnings of New France (1973).