Chapter 4. New France

4.10 Summary

From the outset, France (like the Netherlands) wanted commercial outposts, not permanent settlement. Agricultural efforts in Acadia and the St. Lawrence would take decades of effort and setbacks to take root, and this model of colonization never spread much west or south of Montreal.

The Canadien heartland of farms was itself made possible by the disappearance of the Laurentian Iroquois some time between Cartier and the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1608. Without firing a single arquebus the French inherited “widowed lands” from the indigenous peoples. They were able to fit into the economic niche of food producers that had previously been filled by the Stadaconans, Hochelagans, and — after 1649 — the Wendat. Elsewhere, the French simply lacked the wherewithal to push anyone around, let alone off their land, although they might do so with the assistance of Indigenous force (which always brought its own agenda).

Large-scale immigration was also held back by the peculiar economic conditions of northern New France. Fur trading was the biggest earner in Canada, so adult males regularly left their farms around ploughing and planting time to voyage west and north in search of trading partners. This slowed the progress of a farming frontier, even in regions where the French did not have to compete for land. (By contrast, in the English colonies to the south, especially in the plantation colonies, there was almost immediate and long-running competition with Indigenous neighbours over land for farming.) Early Canadiens were not so land-hungry — not because they were more restrained or enlightened in their respect for Indigenous property; their numbers were limited and they needed Indigenous peoples as trade partners. This relationship almost immediately embroiled the French in local conflicts in which they were obliged to participate or risk losing trade.

In sum, the French colonial model created dangers that were not helpful in attracting settlers. The long battle with the Haudenosaunee Five Nations that ran almost uninterrupted from 1609 to 1701 is the best example of this limitation. Due to their small population, their reliance on trade, and their half-hearted commitment to agriculture (and thus land), French colonists needed to develop strong ties to Indigenous communities. In part due to the assiduous cultivation of those ties for trade and security purposes, the French were eventually able to exert influence over a large territory within North America.

Spanish colonies might have enjoyed powerful local authority and so might the English (as we’ll see in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7) but France remained very much in charge of New France. This was driven by the economic priorities of mercantilism, which was an economic doctrine stating that a nation’s power depended on the value of its exports. Under mercantilism (as will be explored in Chapter 7), nations sought to establish colonies to produce goods for use in the home country as a chief means of acquiring economic strength. Essentially, mercantilists believed that colonies existed not for the benefit of settlers, but for the benefit of the home country. For France and Britain, the ultimate goal of mercantilism was to run trade surpluses — to haul in valuable materials from North America and use them to increase export trade in Europe — so that gold and silver would pour into Paris and London. The government took its share through duties and taxes; the remainder went to merchants. In France in particular, the Crown got much richer, as did the traders based in the coastal port cities (of which both Cartier and Champlain were representative). The Crown and the regional bourgeoisie became unlikely allies. The French regime spent a fortune on naval supplies and shipping — as did the British government — and these navies served not only to protect the colonial investments but to threaten the colonies of the other empires as well. They also played a role in relations with the Indigenous host communities, as Chapter 5 shows.

Key Terms

Cajuns: Francophone settlers in Louisiana descended mostly from Acadiens.

censitaires: Also known as “habitants,” the rent-paying tenants of the seigneurs. The rent is known as the cens.

Code Noir: Introduced under Louis XIV in 1685, the Code Noir established the ground rules for slavery in the French colonies. This included a prohibition of any religion other than Catholicism, the range of discipline permissible, and the conditions required for manumission (freeing of slaves).

Compagnie des Cent-Associés: The Company of One Hundred Associates (sometimes called the Company of New France or Compagnie de la Nouvelle France) was chartered in 1627 to operate the fur trade in Canada and Acadia and establish settlements. It followed two earlier chartered efforts, the Compagnie des Marchands and the Compagnie de Montmorency. The Compagnie des Cent-Associés ceased operating in 1663.

Communauté des habitants: Worked in conjunction with the Compagnie des Cent-Associés in an arrangement that sublet the Cent-Associés’ monopoly to residents in the colony of Canada. Also known as the Compagnie des habitants.

coureurs de bois: In English, known as “runners of the woods.” The first coureurs de bois were young men dispatched by Champlain to reside among the Wendat, learn the Wyandot language, and develop an understanding of local trade protocols. Subsequently, the coureurs were more likely to be independent or semi-independent traders seeking sources of furs among Indigenous communities across the interior of North America.

filles du roi: In English, known as “the king’s daughters.” Between 1663 and about 1673, this cohort of women (mostly young and many orphans) was recruited by the Crown’s agents (mostly in Paris) for settlement in Canada. Their passage was paid for by the king, and they were provided with a dowry as an incentive to marriage.

Fort Beausejour: Settlement built by the French in 1751 on the Chignecto Isthmus, which connects modern New Brunswick to Nova Scotia. This was an important land corridor connecting the Fortress of Louisbourg with Acadien settlements and Canada. The fort was also intended to support Mi’kmaq allies during war. Captured by the British in 1755, the name was changed to Fort Cumberland.

Gallican, Gallicanism: A perspective widely held in France and its colonies from the 17th century that spiritual authority resides with the Pope, but civil authority with the monarch. Because much of what the colonial clergy attended to was essentially “civil” — farming, administering the colony generally, etc. — many of the Catholic clergy looked first to Paris for leadership and not to the Vatican. This position was challenged with some finality at the First Vatican Council of 1868, at which papal infallibility was defined.

gift diplomacy: In the context of European-Indigenous relations, the practice of renewing — annually or otherwise regularly — diplomatic relations and alliances by providing gifts to leadership figures. It includes the practice of “covering the dead,” a round of gift-giving following wartime deaths of an ally’s soldiers.

habitants: See censitaires.

Hôtel-Dieu: Or “hostel of God.” In Montreal the Hôtel-Dieu hospital was established and run by the Ursuline nuns.

Île Royale: Established as a colonial site by the French in 1713, it is the location of the Fortress of Louisbourg. Captured by the British in 1755, it was renamed Cape Breton Island.

Île Saint-Jean: Part of the French colony of Acadia, it was captured by the British in 1758 and renamed first Saint John’s Island, and later Prince Edward Island.

intendant: Beginning in 1663, the administrative officer responsible for civil affairs in New France. The intendant’s portfolio included judicial affairs, infrastructure, military preparedness, addressing issues of corruption, and colonial finances. Notionally the most powerful figure in the colony, in practice, the intendant was often rivalled by the governor.

Jesuit Order: The Society of Jesus was established in 1534 and is characterized by its fierce loyalty to papal authority in all matters. Their members first arrived in Canada in 1625 to assist the Recollets in missionary work among the Indigenous population. The Jesuits played a pivotal role in French relations with Wendake (Huronia).

Jesuit Relations: Reports from Jesuit missionaries in Canada and an important source of historical and ethnographical material on the Wendat and other First Nations. In part, the Relations served as a means to secure more funding from France. They were eventually published for a wider readership and were thus a source of revenue for the order.

l’Ordre de Bon Temps: The Order of Good Cheer was suggested by Champlain in 1606 as a means of improving morale among the residents at Port-Royal. It is reckoned that the first meeting of the Order constitutes the first performance of European-style theatre in North America.

Recollets: A Franciscan order whose members were the first missionaries in New France, arriving in 1615. The Recollets are credited with the first batch of beer in New France (1620) and were responsible for recruiting the Jesuit Order into the missionary field in Canada in 1625. Expelled from New France in 1629, they returned in 1670 and served until their numbers were depleted after the Conquest.

seigneurs, seigneury: The seigneurial system in New France, and especially in the colony of Canada, sought to reproduce elements of the French feudal system. Although some of the seigneurs in Canada were nobles, most were military officers and members of the clergy. Rent values were based on rates set by the Crown, not on the scarcity of land or labour. Seigneurs had to provide their tenants (censitaires, habitants) with a gristmill (the use of which was essentially taxed), and the tenants provided an annual round of labour (corvée), which might involve road building or erecting a chapel.

Sulpicians: Operating out of the Parisian parish of Saint-Sulpice (from which their name derives), the Sulpicians were a wealthy order without a vow of poverty. This distinguished them from the more austere Jesuits and Recollets.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Why did France resume efforts to establish a colonial presence in North America?
  2. Describe the relationship(s) between the four regions of New France.
  3. What factors restricted the growth and success of Acadia?
  4. What factors limited the establishment of colonies in Newfoundland?
  5. What did Champlain do that facilitated the growth of the colony of Canada?
  6. Why was Canada so difficult to get up and running?
  7. What role(s) did the fur trade play in the colonial project in the 17th century?
  8. What was the nature of the relationship between Canada and Wendake?
  9. What features of Wendat society and economy made the Confederacy prime partners in New France’s fur trade experiment?
  10. What were some of the characteristics of slavery in New France?
  11. Explain Colbert’s vision of a “compact colony” for Canada. What steps did Colbert take to achieve this? Account for its failure.
  12. What roles were played by the Roman Catholic Church in New France?

 Suggested Readings

  1. Donovan, Kenneth. “Slaves and their Owners in Île Royale, 1713–1760.” Acadiensis XXV, no.1 (Autumn 1995): 3–32.
  2. Hynes, Gisa. “Some Aspects of the Demography of Port Royal, 1650–1755.” Acadiensis III, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 3–17.
  3. Lachance, André and Sylvie Savoie. “Violence, Marriage, and Family Honour: Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Marriage in New France.” Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Volume V: Crime and Criminal Justice. Edited by Jim Phillips, Tina Loo, and Susan Lewthwaite, 143–173. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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