France in America and the first people who called themselves Canadians

Jan 10th, 2015 | By | Category: Heritage Now

Modern Canada begins with contact between North American Indigenous peoples and seaborne Europeans in the 16th century.

(There was earlier contact of this sort, more than a half century before the 1066 Norman Conquest in England — as described by Plate 16 in the 1987 first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada, on “Norse Voyages and Settlement.” But this Viking adventure left no enduring legacy, and was only gradually rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Almost 500 years after its modern beginnings, “Canada” today is the United Nations member state that stretches from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific oceans, in the most northern regions of North America.

By virtue of Giovanni Caboto’s voyage of 1497, what now calls itself the British monarchy was present just before the birth of modern Canada in this ultimate incarnation. (Again, the voyage of 1497 encountered no first nations peoples — and cannot be said to have begun modern Canada in this crucial respect.)

In another narrower sense there is a more historically or culturally specific and almost folkloric Canada. It finally expands into today’s larger Canadian political experiment (sometimes in ironic and almost stealthy ways). But it begins as something smaller with a near-tribal identity.

Canada, that is to say, is almost certainly an aboriginal or Indigenous word. Yet the first people who called themselves Canadians (or “les Canadiens”), by the end of the 17th century apparently, sprang from contact between northeastern North American first peoples and migrant European subjects of the French monarchs Francis I, Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XIV (Le Roi Soliel — the Sun King), and Louis XV.

* * * *

The voyages of Giovanni Caboto/John Cabot in the late 15th century also opened doors for various European fisheries off the Atlantic coasts of northern North America in the early 16th century. (This story is pondered in almost forbidding detail in Harold Innis’s massive study of 1940, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy.)

But the early European fisheries led to no immediate English-speaking settlement. And in the second quarter of the 16th century Jacques Cartier, from the seaport of St. Malo in Brittany, led three voyages to what is now eastern Canada (1534–1542), on behalf of King Francis I of France.

Francis I commissioned Cartier to follow up on Caboto/Cabot’s theories of the 1490s about a short northern route west from Europe to the splendors of Asia (a task already begun in the 1520s by the Florentine Giovanni da Verrazano, with whom Cartier may have traveled).

Cartier’s third voyage, in 1541–42, also involved a failed French colony in the present-day St. Lawrence River valley, in the Cap-Rouge area of what is now Quebec City. (The exact site was only unearthed by archaeologists in the summer of 2006.)

More than 60 years later, in the early 17th century, in the reigns of Henry IV and then Louis XIII, fresh French colonization struggles proved more successful. The “Father of Canada or New France” who emerged from these struggles was Samuel de Champlain, from the 16th and 17th century French seaport of Brouage, just south of the twin towers of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay.

The Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fisher, in his much admired book of 2008, Champlain’s Dream, has pointed out that Champlain “and his family formed a personal connection with the man who would become Henri IV, king of France from 1589 to 1610. How that relationship began, we do not know.”

David Hackett Fisher has also explained that “Champlain was born around the year 1570. A local antiquarian wrote in the nineteenth century that his date of birth was 1567. A modern historian has argued that he was born as late as 1580. A close look at clues that Champlain scattered through his writings” suggests the “best estimate is 1570.” (And the reasons are given at length in the first of the 16 appendices to Fisher’s book of 2008.)

Whenever he was born exactly, Samuel de Champlain’s father was a ship pilot and captain, whose son travelled with him in his youth. Fisher goes on to divide Champlain’s adult life into four main eras: Explorer of Acadia (1602–1607), Founder of Quebec (1608–1616), Builder of New France (1616–1632), and Father of French Canada (1632–1635).

* * * *

To start with the first of these eras — Explorer of Acadia (1602–1607) — is to suddenly fall into the unique complications of real Canadian history.

“Acadia” is the homeland of French-speaking settlement in the present-day Maritime provinces of Atlantic Canada. Yet though Samuel de Champlain was involved in the early European exploration of this region, he is not the father of the modern Acadian near-tribal identity, as he is what David Hackett Fisher calls the “Father of French Canada.”

There is a similar sense in which early Acadia was not exactly a part of early Canada. Today’s Atlantic Canadian regionalism stretches back to the early 17th century in this sense. And 17th century Acadia went on to make its own unique contribution to modern North America.

The early French “Acadian Marshland Settlement” on the Bay of Fundy — begun after an initial experiment on an island between present-day New Brunswick and Maine — was abandoned in 1607. But it started up again in 1610 (without Champlain, who had already taken his exploring elsewhere). Then an attack by English adventurers from Virginia (itself only established in 1607) destroyed dwellings and scattered inhabitants in 1613. The English and Scottish monarchy of James I also began its first attempts at settling Scots in what it called Nova Scotia (New Scotland in Latin — and a key part of what the French called Acadia) as early as 1629.

So Acadia was a beleaguered but resilient region of France’s American empire from birth. French settlement on the Atlantic coast grew modestly to the middle of the 18th century. Major clashes between French and English monarchies in the region flared up in the late 17th century. In the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 France formally ceded what is now peninsular Nova Scotia, or all of the present-day province except Cape Breton Island, to what had by then clearly become the British crown.

After 1713 new French settlements were established on Cape Breton (Île Royale), the present Prince Edward Island ( Île St-Jean), and in the present Canadian province of New Brunswick. On Île Royale settlement clustered around impressive new French fortifications at Louisbourg. In 1720 an entrepreneur from Normandy, the Comte de Saint-Pierre, sent some 200 French settlers and fishermen to Île St-Jean.

The old French settlements in the British Nova Scotia mandated by the Treaty of Utrecht carried on for more than a generation as well. French-English imperial rivalry in America and several other parts of the early world economy (including India) reached a high point in the 1750s. Officials of the British crown in Nova Scotia began to worry about the French Acadian settlements on the Bay of Fundy marshes.

The reluctance of many Acadians to swear oaths of allegiance to the British monarch had been an issue since 1713. They were willing to swear oaths of neutrality and this worked for a time. But as new British and Anglo-American colonists arrived, and especially as the ultimate military crisis drew nearer, it seemed not good enough. Many Acadians finally did reluctantly agree to swear oaths to the British monarch, but their reluctance still unnerved British officials.

In 1755 the new British Governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, “decided to deport the Acadians, who by then numbered almost 13,000 people.” What the 1987 first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada calls the “Acadian Deportation and Return” (1755–1785) was an only partly successful 18th century attempt at European ethnic cleansing in North America, albeit for largely military reasons. Two sides of a sometimes tragic story stand out today.

The first is that substantial numbers of the deported Acadians ultimately wound up in French Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico. Here they and their descendants became the fabled “Cajuns” (an American South version of “Acadians”), who still more or less survive as a North American species of French-speaking people in the present US state of Louisiana. (And an intriguing variation on this theme is the French-speaking “Creole of color” Sidney Bechet, 1897–1959, a legendary jazz soprano saxophonist who grew up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, and spent much of his adult life in Paris, France where he finally died in his early 60s.)

At the same time, some Acadians managed to escape deportation. Others later returned to Acadia, once British officials were confident about the durability of France’s final surrender to the British crown, at the Peace of Paris in 1763. A survey of the day indicated that some 7,500 French-speaking Acadians were still living in the British North American Maritime Provinces in 1803, when the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon’s France. More than 200 years later the legacy lives on. More than 280,000 Atlantic Canadians reported French as their mother tongue in the 2011 Census of Canada. Almost 85% resided in the present officially bilingual English and French province of New Brunswick.

* * * *

Back in the lower St. Lawrence River valley, in 1608 (the year after the start of the first enduring English colony in Virginia) Samuel de Champlain left the early beginnings of Acadia on the Atlantic coast, and went off to establish a more secure capital for New France — in the region Cartier had called Canada on the advice of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians he met, some three-quarters of a century before.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians had vanished by the time Champlain arrived. But he did apparently find remains of their villages. More or less on the site of the old Iroquoian village of Stadacona, by a fortress-like high cliff on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City. Some two generations later, it had become the durable wilderness metropolis of New France — the frosty bedrock of a historic French American empire that at its height would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes and beyond, and then down the Mississippi River valley all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

As an early sign that this natural fortress on the north bank of the St. Lawrence was not impregnable, in July 1629 Lewis and Thomas Kirke, associated with the early attempt at Scottish settlement in Nova Scotia (and/or Acadia), arrived at Quebec with 200 men in three ships. The struggling colony of less than 100 settlers, the historian W.J. Eccles has explained, was still “dependent on annual shipments of food supplies from France.” The shipment for 1628 had failed to reach its destination. When the Kirke brothers landed a year later, “Champlain, cut off from France, his provisions long since exhausted, had no choice but to surrender.”

By 1632 the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye had decreed that “all territory seized by the English from the French in North America be returned.” Champlain returned to Quebec and carried on with his pioneering of Canada until his death on Christmas Day 1635. The French monarchy saw to it that the colony would never be left in quite such a vulnerable position again.

Champlain had traveled as far west as present-day south-central Ontario by 1615. And the Indigenous-European fur trade that served as the main economic project of the new Canada would finally get as far west as (in Harold Innis’s language of 1930) a “temporary fort … up the [South] Saskatchewan [River] within sight of the Rocky Mountains … possibly near Calgary, in 1751.”But it was in the valley of the lower St. Lawrence River that the Sun King Louis XIV’s France would come closest to reproducing some version of its most European self in North America.

The crucial geography here was the banks of the St. Lawrence, starting more or less at the present-day Quebec City and stretching as far west (and south) as Montreal (the ultimate gateway to the interior fur trade, founded in 1642 on the site of the old Iroquoian village of Hochelaga). In between was a third wilderness urban centre at Trois Rivieres, eventually famous for the manufacture of “five-to-eight-man birchbark canoes.”

* * * *

In its earliest days the growth of French settlement in this region was largely the work of the fur-trading Company of New France and ardent French Catholic missionaries, with the mandate and blessing of the French monarchy but not much else. But by 1663 Louis XIV’s energetic public servant Jean-Baptiste Colbert had begun a more aggressive and supportive imperial policy.

The subsequent remarkable North American adventures of various servants and subjects of various kings of France were first studied in great depth (in English at any rate) by the remarkable 19th century New England gentleman scholar Francis Parkman. While it retains other fascinations, Parkman’s work is nowadays flawed by the 19th century Anglo-American prejudices he brings to his judgments about the “French and Indians,” who had sometimes fought very bloody battles with the New England colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The new French-speaking North American society that put down enduring roots over the 100 years from the start of Colbert’s royal policy in 1663 to the Peace of Paris that ended the French American empire in 1763, was somewhat misleadingly (but still influentially) summarized by Francis Parkman in the 19th century as a “Canadian Absolutism.”

In his volume on The Old Regime in Canada, first published in 1874, Parkman urged that a “population, sprung from a brave and active race, but trained to subjection and dependence through centuries of feudal and monarchical despotism, was planted in the wilderness by the hand of authority, and told to grow and flourish.” The first people who called themselves Canadians lived under “the condition, in short, of a child held always under the rule of a father, in the main well-meaning and kind, sometimes generous, sometimes neglectful, often capricious, and rarely very wise, — such were the influences under which Canada grew up.”

Parkman’s view of monarchical absolutism in the early French Canada would be echoed a century after he wrote by the American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who was  “struck by the legacy of monarchy and elitism … compared to the revolutionary background and egalitarianism in the US,” even in the Canada of the later 20th century.

W.J. Eccles, a Canadian historian of Lipset’s own generation, covered the same 17th and 18th century ground as Parkman, in a way that illuminates the less ideological subtleties of the new Catholic French Canada. And he avoids the harsh light of Parkman’s ruggedly Protestant “New England man,” who was somehow more modern and “too busy to fight without good cause.”

Parkman himself recognized that Canadian absolutism and “the French system had at least one great advantage. It favored military efficiency.” Yet this was not just a matter of monarchical ideology. Eccles points out that especially during “the formative thirty-year period after 1632, self-preservation demanded compulsory military service” among the French settlers.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians had left the valley. But for much of the 17th century the new French regime was in a near perpetual state of war with the neighbouring Five Nations Iroquois confederacy in what is now northern New York State — on behalf of both the Sun King and his more northerly (and westerly) Indigenous allies.

In broad brush strokes, the French at Quebec and Montreal became allied with the Iroquoian-speaking confederacy of the Huron or Wendat in southern Ontario and the surrounding more northerly Algonquian-speaking nations. Many among the Five Nations Iroquois became intermittently attached to first the Dutch and then the English at Albany and New York.

As Eccles explains: “From 1633 until the end of the century the Canadians enjoyed fewer than fifteen years of peace. The first two generations of settlers became, of necessity, as skilled at guerilla warfare as their Iroquois foe.” And this “military tradition became one of the dominant features of the emerging Canadian society.”

* * * *

Similar subtleties marked the medieval European legacies of the “seigneurial” system in Canada. “To say that this land-tenure was feudal” (and not the same as the New England township model of Francis Parkman’s Anglo-American frontier), Eccles contends, “is really to beg the question.” In the France of the Ancien Regime from which the new settlers in the lower St. Lawrence valley had come, “there could be no land without a lord, that is, a seigneur.”

So the valley was divided into seigneuries, typically laid out in long narrow strips with small frontages on the St. Lawrence River, and granted at first by the Company of New France and then later by the French crown directly.

The new seigneurial society was hierarchically divided into what the 1987 first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada calls “the three social categories of the Ancien Regime” (church, nobility, and everyone else including merchants and “habitant” farmers). Some seigneuries were granted to individuals (or organizations) in each category. But “most land” went to “the nobility, even though, relative to other social categories, there were few noblemen in Canada.” The seigneurs offered land to settlers, in return for “seigneurial dues.” (And Plate 51 of the 1987 Atlas lists just under 200 “original seigneurs.”)

In the 17th and 18th century Canadian wilderness this hierarchical concept of society necessarily  produced different results from across the sea in Europe.

As Eccles also explains: “The seigneurs had to bend every effort to attract settlers into their concessions; thus they had to make the terms as attractive as possible in the hope that once the land was brought into production the modest seigneurial dues could be collected … Although the landholding system resembled that of northern France, the fact that settlers could have free all the land that they could till, with a secure title and only nominal seigneurial dues, precluded the emergence of an agricultural proletariat. The Canadians very quickly became conscious of the fact that they were habitants, not peasants.”

The habitant was for the most part a farmer. But the lower St. Lawrence valley is a thin strip of only modestly fertile land, between the vast rock of the Canadian Shield to the north and the Adirondack Dome to the south. When Voltaire dismissed Canada as “a few acres of snow,” in the middle of the 18th century, he was wrong about the few acres but right about the snow – in winter. Farming in such a country will always have its own ecological limits to growth.

* * * *

The main economic activity of the new French Canada — and virtually the only one that produced significant export income — was the Indigenous-European fur trade. The job of the habitant farmer was only local self-sufficiency — to feed himself and his family, the few hundred seigneurs, those otherwise employed in some branch of the fur trade, the priests and nuns of the omnipresent Catholic Church (which also monopolized education and social services), officials of the colonial government, and a substantial military establishment from the mother country (which the men of habitant farm families served in their guerilla-war militia regiments).

The fur trade gave the habitant some unique opportunities as well. As an alternative to his farming he could, either for a time in his youth or even as a longer career, become a voyageur, and paddle a canoe into the ever-expanding upper country west of Montreal, where the main work of the fur trade took place. For many young Canadians of European origin, along with its arduous physical discipline the life of the voyageur opened up a wild new realm of freedom in the western lakes and forests. And this was a strong counterweight to Parkman’s absolutist culture of European “feudal and monarchical despotism” in the lower St. Lawrence valley.

As Eccles points out, the “voyageurs, mostly Canadians, but some of them Indians, and some of the latter, girls — to the great concern of the clergy — signed on with the merchants or with the Crown to transport trade goods and military supplies to the western posts.” And even on the seigneuries of the St. Lawrence valley: “Some observers blamed what they regarded as serious defects in the Canadian character … on the influence of the Indians with whom they were in constant contact … Indian modes of travel by canoe, toboggan, and snowshoe were early mastered, as was the Indian method of waging war.”

On “a superficial level” as well, Canadians “adopted many Indian articles of dress.” The Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, who visited Canada on a North American tour in the middle of the 18th century, “in his journal … several times mentioned, and not with distaste, the miniskirt, the hem well above the knees, as worn by Canadian women … a mode adopted from the dress of the Indian women, and far better suited to Canada’s sultry summer climate [the all-too-brief consolation for the winter snow] than the floor-length dresses worn in northern Europe.”

Francis Parkman in the later 19th century also noted these early Indigenous influences in the old French Canada: “Against absolute authority there was a counter influence, rudely and wildly antagonistic. Canada was at the very portal of the great interior wilderness. The St. Lawrence and the Lakes were the highway to that domain of savage freedom; and thither the dis-franchised, half-starved seigneur, and the discouraged habitant who could find no market for his produce naturally enough betook themselves. Their lesson of savagery was well learned, and for many a year a boundless license and a stiff-handed authority battled for the control of Canada.”

Some might say that something of a similar struggle carries on even today, in both French and English-speaking Canada. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, Eccles himself remarks on “the very independent attitude of the habitants,” and “the Canadians’ notorious reluctance to recognize and submit to the authority of their superiors either temporal or spiritual.” At the same time, he also tells us that “newcomers to Canada from France were much struck by … the simple dignity and courteous manners of the habitants” — and that the touring Peter Kalm from Sweden reported on how the people of French Canada “even the common man, are much more polite than the people in the English provinces” to the south.

* * * *

All independent attitudes of the habitants and their Indigenous tutors notwithstanding, there is one more monarchical and elitist institution of Francis Parkman’s old regime in Canada that has arguably survived altogether intact down to the present. And that is the office of governor general of Canada or New France.

Technically, there were “governors” until 1663, and “governor generals” after, and the exact functions were somewhat different. Then there were governors as well as governor generals after 1663, with a geographic hierarchy. From a broader point of view, Champlain is at the start of a traditional list. He had 17 successors. The last was Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, who took up the post in 1755 and surrendered it to the British crown on September 8, 1760.

(After the fall of the great natural fortress of the French American empire at Quebec in September 1759, in a legendary but not exactly decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham, in which both the French and British generals, Montcalm and Wolfe, lost their lives. As often enough glossed over in anglophone Canadian histories, the British victory on the Plains of Abraham was followed by the Chevalier de Lévis’s countervailing defeat of British forces at the bloodier Battle of Ste-Foy, on April 28, 1760. This was finally countervailed again by the first arrival of British rather than French warships on the St. Lawrence in May. Even so, Vaudreuil-Cavagnal held out in Montreal until September 8, 1760 almost a full year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.)

On one view, the most impressive of all Champlain’s successors as Governor General, over the entire 125 years from his death in 1635 to 1760, was Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac — who held the office on two separate occasions, from 1672 to 1682 and then again from 1689 to 1698. One of W.J. Eccles’s early contributions to the present-day English-language historical literature on France in America, Frontenac: The Courtier Governor, “won the 1959 Book Award of the Pacific Coast branch of the American Historical Association.”

As already just alluded to (above), the last Governor General under the old French regime, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, is also an intriguing and still controversial character. His career may deserve some significant reassessment today, two and a half centuries after the Peace of Paris of February 10, 1763 among Britain, France, and Spain, that officially ended the French regime in Canada.

Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal was the first and only Canadian-born Governor General under the old French regime (1755–1760). He was born in Quebec City in 1698, the son of Philippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, a French military officer stationed in Canada who had himself served as Governor General from 1703 to 1725.

As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains, Governor General Pierre Vaudreuil-Cavagnal’s “overall responsibility for military affairs” during the last years of the French regime in Canada “was complicated by the decision to reinforce the Marine troops and militia in New France with 6 regular army infantry battalions, commanded in succession by Baron Dieskau, Montcalm, and Lévis. This split command seriously impeded French efforts … Vaudreuil advocated Canadian-style guerrilla warfare on the frontiers while Montcalm preferred a defensive stance concentrating on the centre of the colony and the European-style battle.”

The Encyclopedia goes on: “After Montcalm’s defeat” (and death) on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal “planned … 1760 operations with Lévis, but despite the latter’s successful defeat of the British at the Battle of Ste-Foy, the arrival of the English fleet in the spring forced withdrawal again to Montréal. Unable to see any alternative that would not bring suffering to the population, Vaudreuil surrendered the colony at Montréal on Sept 8 after negotiating terms that protected the Canadians in their property, laws and religion but did not allow the troops the honours of war. He was strongly criticized for his action by the French military … He was arrested … and tried [in France] … but was completely exonerated in Dec 1763.”

History, as the Anglo-American poet from St. Louis, T.S. Eliot, explained as long ago as 1920, “has many cunning passages.” It may be that Governor General Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal deserves to be remembered more warmly today by all of Indigenous,    French and English-speaking, and other Canadians — however difficult a Canadian national task this may remain, even in the 21st century, so many years after his death in Paris, France, on August 4, 1778.

Children of the Global Village
The Growth of Democracy in Canada since 1497

Randall White
eastendbooks 2023
(For background on the larger series of which this is a part, see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.)

Near tribalism, Cod fisheries, Acadia, Champlain and Quebec City, The first people who called themselves Canadians, Seigneurial system, Canadian absolutism,Voyageurs, Francis Parkman’s domain of savage freedom, Governor General of Canada or New France

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