Population Settlement of New France

Throughout the history of New France, soldiers and hired labourers (“engagés”) who crossed the Atlantic were the primary settlers in Canada. Those young servicemen and artisans, as well as the immigrant women who wished to get married, mainly hailed from the coastal and urban regions of France. Most of the colonists arrived before 1670 during the migratory flow which varied in times of war and prosperity. Afterwards, the population grew through Canadian births. On average, Canadian families had seven or eight children in the 17th century, and four to six children in the 18th century. As a result, the population of New France was 70,000 strong by the end of the French regime.

Throughout the history of New France, soldiers and hired labourers (“engagés”) who crossed the Atlantic were the primary settlers in Canada. Those young servicemen and artisans, as well as the immigrant women who wished to get married, mainly hailed from the coastal and urban regions of France. Most of the colonists arrived before 1670 during the migratory flow which varied in times of war and prosperity. Afterwards, the population grew through Canadian births. On average, Canadian families had seven or eight children in the 17th century, and four to six children in the 18th century. As a result, the population of New France was 70,000 strong by the end of the French regime.


Samuel de Champlain supervises the building of his habitation of Québec, 1608

(Library and Archives Canada/2835209)

Recruiting Immigrants

Although France was the most populated country in Europe during the settlement period of New France, it had difficulties implementing efficient migration policies. As a result, America saw fewer colonists from France than it did from Spain, Portugal or Great Britain. Deterred by the dangers of the sea, the hostile climate and the presence of enemies in Canada, the French favoured the Antilles. Between 1535 and 1763, approximately 10,000 French migrants (including 2,000 women) are believed to have settled in New France. From those migrants, the Canadian population was born.

L'habitation de Québec, 1613

(Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/5012228)

Settlers migrated mostly for work. The first were companions of great explorers like Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain; later on, others settled for the long term. The latter were usually the engagés, labourers also nicknamed “trente-six mois” (thirty-six months) because they were hired on three-year contracts. Most (65 per cent) were men in their mid-twenties originating from the north-western coastal regions of France such as Normandy, Britain or Île-de-France. Approximately 25 per cent of the colonists came from large cities like Paris, Rouen, La Rochelle, Poitiers and Bordeaux. Recruitment was first carried out by the Company of One Hundred Associates (1627) and the Communauté des habitants (1645) before being entrusted to colonist and Sovereign Council authorities in 1663. At the time, there were several ways of recruiting settlers. Some were hired by the lords in search of a workforce. Others were encouraged by friends to migrate to Canada, or recruited by merchants and public servants of the Ministère de la Marine. The latter mainly recruited soldiers, skilled workers, filles à marier (“girls to marry”), as well as convicts sentenced for minor offences, like poachers and salt smugglers. In public spaces of large cities, posters and drum rolls announced the presence of recruiters who promised well-paid and regular employment in New-France.

L'arrivée de madame Champlain à Québec, 1620

(peinture de Frank Craig/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/2895899)

First Colonists

As soon as they arrived, the engagés were led to inhabitants or merchants. The soldiers were assigned to garrison companies in the three main cities (Quebec City, Trois-Rivières and Montreal) or posted in a fort in the Pays d’en Haut.

To colonize the country, a certain order was required in the arrival of skilled workers. The colonial administrators and merchants imposed a task order according to the hierarchy of needs. Prior to 1650, the first goals were to clear the land for agriculture and build the country. During that period, the majority of engagés were thus workmen, carpenters, masons, sailors, labourers and servants. By the end of the 17th century, a new society formed as a result of the expanding population, and its needs grew more diverse. At this point there was a rise in the number of tailors, blacksmiths, barrel makers, tool makers and show menders.

A young colony is, for the most part, male. The first census, in 1666, revealed that women represented only a third of population of approximately 3,200 people. In other words, there were eight single men for each woman. King Louis XIV addressed this problem vigorously. From 1663 to 1673, almost 800 filles du roi (“King’s Daughters”) were sent to close this gap. During those years, almost 400 soldiers of the Carignan-Salières remained in the country after the war against the Haudenosaunee. 283 of these soldiers would marry in Canada. Those extraordinary efforts gave promising results. Within a decade, the Canadian population tripled in size, reaching almost 10,000 inhabitants by 1680. Before that time, most colonists were French migrants. Now, the growth in the population of New France comprised mostly of Canadian births.

Arrival of the Brides (Filles du roi)
A view of women coming to Quebec in 1667, in order to be married to the French Canadian farmers. Talon and Laval are waiting for the arrival of the women (Watercolor by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, 1871-1945. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. no 1996-371-1).

Canadian Natality

On average, Canadian families had seven or eight children in the 17th century, and four to six children in the 18th century. Around 1700, the population of New France was 16,000 strong. At that time, people got typically got married at age 25 or so, which colonial authorities, out of concern for the settlement, deemed much too late in life. In the 1710s, the latter urged Governor Vaudreuil and his intendants Jacques Raudot, then Michel Bégon, to enforce the 1668 policy prohibiting fathers and mothers from opposing the marriage of their children; starting age 20 for sons and 16 for daughters.

The Canadian population rose constantly and represented almost 25,000 people in 1720. By this time, the colony had more young women than young men — a promising sign. However, these numbers did not impress Versailles; the rapid expansion of the neighbouring British colonies, which were ten times as large, grew increasingly worrisome. On the eve of the 1760 conquest, these colonies already had one and a half million inhabitants. The Canadian population somewhat grew in the presence of regiments of French soldiers sent to defend New France during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). However, not many of them would settle in the country. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 and French officially ceded the territory to Great Britain, the total population of New France was approximately 70,000 people.