Although arriving late to the European scramble for North America, France for a time claimed the largest portion of today’s United States and Canada, stretching from Newfoundland to Louisiana and including the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. However, New France failed to attract a large population and, by 1750, France was near losing much of its territory to an ascendant British North America.
In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni di Verrazano was hired by France’s King Francis I to find a passage through North America to Asia, a route that, after many nations failed to find this “Northwest Passage,” was eventually confirmed to be mythical.
However, Verrazano did bring back information about Atlantic coastal regions from Carolina to Nova Scotia. A decade later, seeking gold and the elusive sea passage to the Orient, Jacques Cartier, who may have been part of Verrazano’s expedition, commanded three voyages.
He sailed into the St. Lawrence River, planting a cross bearing the king’s coat of arms to claim a region that included sites that became Québec and Montreal. Returning in 1541, Cartier and his crew established the tiny and short-lived colony of Charlesbourg-Royal, near Montreal, causing tension with the Iroquois and other local tribes.
Scurvy and fierce winter weather soon ended the colonial experiment. After a series of exploratory trips, Cartier returned to France carrying what he believed were gold and diamonds; his booty proved to be iron pyrite (fools’ gold) and common quartz.
Although Crown-sanctioned explorations faded after Cartiers’s inauspicious final voyage, fishermen from France (and many other European countries) maintained a robust presence in North America as did traders in furs who dealt with local native tribes. It was these opportunities that reawakened French interest in North America.
New France Beginnings
Samuel de Champlain was a map maker employed by a fur-trading company, not a military man, but his leadership abilities during renewed French explorations in the early 1600s made him New France’s “father” and its first governor. In 1608, Champlain and his associates chose a location on the St. Lawrence River at Québec as their fur-trading settlement.
Champlain forged alliances with many Indian tribes, including the Huron of the Great Lakes, and also championed the idea of more permanent French settlement along the St. Lawrence. In 1633, two years before his death, Champlain was appointed New France’s governor by Cardinal Richelieu, top minister to King Louis XIII.
Eastern Canada was not the only focus of French interest in North America. As fur traders penetrated deeper into the continent in search of the best pelts and cooperative native suppliers, their efforts led to further exploration and land claims.
In 1673, Canadian-born Louis Jolliet and French Jesuit missionary Père Jacques Marquette used information from natives to trace the oceanward course of the Mississippi River in hopes, soon dashed, that it flowed into the Pacific Ocean.
Father Marquette, who was a missionary to tribes in what is now Michigan, died soon after this exhausting expedition on the banks of a river later named the Père Marquette in his honor. Jolliet, who had early on given up the priesthood for fur trading, later explored Hudson Bay and mapped the Labrador coast.
Four years after this Mississippi expedition, French-born René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de LaSalle, who had relocated to New France in 1667, pushed French territorial claims yet further. Arriving at the huge river’s mouth in 1682, LaSalle claimed the vast Mississippi Valley for France, naming this territory Louisiana, for King Louis XIV.
LaSalle’s ambitions, fueled by greed and possible mental illness, did not stop there. Promising to claim Spanish Mexico for France, the adventurer ran out of supplies and was murdered in 1687 by his own hungry men.
Born into a wealthy Montreal family, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville in 1701 became acting governor of France’s new southern claims and for 40 years fought to keep his small French colony safe amid Indian, Spanish, and British hostility. In 1718, Bienville spearheaded the creation of New Orleans as an administrative center and port.
Unlike the British in their early colonial years, France did not have excess population at home and provided little incentive for its citizens to brave a stormy Atlantic and face a harsh climate and often-hostile Native population in the New World.
Early on, the tiny French presence in Canada was 80 percent male and consisted mainly of fishermen, fur traders, and Franciscan and Jesuits priests. Known by the Indians as the “Black Robes,” the priests intended to convert Indians to Catholicism.
An early religious mission, called Sainte-Marie, among the Hurons, was built in 1615. Located on Ontario’s Wye River, by 1639, it was home base for 13 priests. When fighting broke out in 1648 between the Huron and their Iroquois enemies, the priests set fire to their mission, fearing its desecration.
From 1627 to 1663, a centralized commercial company created by Cardinal Richelieu struggled to squeeze profits out of New France, succeeding only with furs. There were barely 3,000 colonists in 1663, when King Louis XIV intervened, making New France an official French province.
Troops were sent to protect settlements with fortifications, and to project French power to native tribes and European rivals. A royal shipment of 850 prospective brides, known as filles du roi, or “the king’s young women,” helped to stabilize the colony and assure natural increase in its population. By 1700, New France had 19,000 white inhabitants.
Under this new regime, St. Lawrence River estates were set aside for nobles and military officers. A near-feudal setup, it was called the seigneurial system. New France’s habitants, or ordinary settlers, mostly farmed land owned by some two hundred seigneuries granted by the Crown. This tenant farming system of rents and allotments outlasted French control (and the French monarchy), surviving into the 19th century.
Although agriculture would occupy the energies of the great majority of French Canadians, the voyageurs—fur traders who traveled to French outposts like Detroit (founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac) and Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin)—had a more romantic image.
Generally, voyageurs were licensed by the authorities; their rivals were the socalled coureurs de bois, unlicensed traders who aggressively explored the farthest reaches of French America, including New Orleans, in pursuit of valuable furs, especially beaver pelts, and markets for their animal skins and other goods.
Challenges to French
Compared to the British and Spanish in this era, French colonists treated Native Americans with great respect. Friendly relations with local Indian tribes were crucial to French success in the fur trade; colonists were also well aware that their numbers were too small to deter major attacks. From the Indian viewpoint, the fact that Frenchmen were not arriving in huge numbers assured some tribal leaders that they could coexist with these interlopers.
On the other hand, good intentions on both sides did little to spare the Indians from deadly smallpox and other European diseases. Jesuit pressure on Indians to adopt Catholicism, along with European clothing and behavior, although attracting quite a few converts, was generally met with suspicion. There was a significant level of intermarriage, mostly between French men and Indian women, creating a group known as Métis.
The Huron and other Great Lakes and eastern tribes began forging strong alliances with the French in 1615, but wars with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, allies of Britain, punctuated the history of New France.
New France’s huge landholdings were a noose that encircled Britain’s Atlantic Seaboard colonies, leading to a number of altercations between the two European superpowers, both at home and in North America.
The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ended the 12-year-long War of the Spanish Succession gave Britain dominion over a large sector of eastern French Canada including the rich agricultural lands of Acadia and destroyed much of France’s overseas trade.
By the time war again broke out in 1754, the population of British North America was 20 times larger than New France’s and France’s grip on North America was near its end. When French emperor Napoleon I sold Louisiana to the new United States in 1803, New France was a memory, although its French Canadian and Cajun cultures would survive and flourish.