New France, 1524–1713 (cont.)
It was obviously easier to expand into unoccupied regions, and it was here that the results were the most surprising. The rapid extension of New France was the most spectacular feature of this 17th century. In a single 25-year thrust, New France opened out as far as Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. True enough, before Talon, long voyages had not been infrequent: in 1634, Jean Nicollet reached Lake Michigan; from 1658 to 1662,
The explorations of that period began with the exact study of a new route, that of the St. Lawrence. To get to the hinterland, the only known way was still the Rivière des Outaouais (Ottawa River), studied by Champlain in 1613, and again in 1615. In 1669–70, the Sulpicians Bréhant de Galinée and
An important advance towards the west was carried out by Daumont de Saint-Lusson in 1671: he went to Lake Superior, established friendly relations there with natives who came from a great distance, and took possession, in the name of France, of the whole area as far as the Southern Sea. Shortly afterwards, in 1672,
Although it was decided on by Talon and connected with the search for a passage towards the Pacific, the voyage of exploration undertaken by Louis Jolliet and the Jesuit Marquette began only after the intendant’s departure. In 1673, following a route already traced out by discoverers, Jolliet and Marquette reached the Upper Mississippi; they then went down it sufficiently far (to the 33rd degree of latitude) to ascertain that it could only flow into the Gulf of Mexico. It was to fall to Cavelier de La Salle, ten years later, to reach the mouth of the Mississippi, and, in the name of France, to take possession of the gigantic basin of that river. La Salle committed a major error, which, however, was harmful only to himself. Convinced that the Mississippi which he had descended was not the Rio de Spiritu Santo (whose mouth the Spaniards had known since the 16th century), and bent on depreciating Jolliet’s efforts, he wanted to prove that the credit for the discovery of the Mississippi’s mouth was entirely his, and that this outlet had nothing to do with the Spiritu Santo. He consequently located his discovery in the north-west corner of the Gulf of Mexico. When he returned to the Gulf by sea in 1684, it was therefore on this shore that he disembarked, only to realize shortly that the river where he had stopped was not the Mississippi. Trying to locate it again by land, he met his death by assassination.
In 1684, therefore, New France, in the form that France claimed to possess it, stretched from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to beyond Lake Superior, and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet it still numbered no more than about 12,000 inhabitants, almost all of whom clung timidly to the banks of the St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal. The expansion was not finished, all the same. New France needed all Hudson Bay, where the English, entrenched in forts, were exploiting the vast supply of furs; it needed Newfoundland in order to keep the fisheries, and at the same time to control the St. Lawrence more effectively. When the age of great explorations was over, New France endeavoured to expand by force of arms. A crisis had just come to a head in Europe, pitting the two blocks of Protestant and Catholic nations against each other: in America, the English and French worlds were about to clash in war.
When the conflict broke out the disparity between the forces was a frightening one. On the English side, there was a population of about 250,000 inhabitants, colonies made strong by flourishing external trade, all of them facing towards an ocean accessible to them the year round, all of them plentifully supplied with the most varied products because of the range of climates. On the other side was a colony that, it is true, enjoyed an unlimited expanse of territory and was protected by natural defences, but that scarcely mustered 12,000 inhabitants (barely the population of the tiny Rhode Island of that time), a colony isolated from France six months of the year by its climate, possessing neither industry nor a navy, and still having as its economic foundation the beaver alone.
And yet this destitute colony had a military dynamism that was astounding. It was this colony that took the offensive, and that won. On land and then on sea, in a few years, it conquered the English forts in Hudson Bay; its limited troops seized Newfoundland, resisted in a poorly organized Acadia, and launched raids against New England and New Holland, where they spread terror. The English colonies decided to retort with crushing forces: a double invasion, that of 1690, which was designed to break through via the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain, turned into a lamentable failure; and the Iroquois country, seeing the success of New France, toned down its policy of aggression and prepared itself for a permanent peace.
The Treaty of Ryswick, in 1697, confirmed the French power in America: if Newfoundland became once more an English colony, the treaty left Hudson Bay and Acadia to New France. But this triumph was only a truce; the forces remained poised, and war was resumed on all fronts in 1702. Again for New France it was an almost incredible series of successful engagements. With the assistance of imposing forces, New England attempted three invasions of New France: all three were failures. The island of Newfoundland was again conquered by the Canadians, and the latter still held firm in Hudson Bay; the powerful fleet of Sir Hovenden
In 1712, New France had reached its zenith. Well established in Hudson Bay (militarily and commercially), it occupied Newfoundland, continued its colonization of Acadia, dominated the Iroquois country, which had made its peace, remained the serene mistress of the immense Great Lakes basin, and held absolute control over the Mississippi valley as far as the Gulf of Mexico, where it had just founded New Orleans. Arrayed against the English colonies, which were confined between the Alleghenies and the Atlantic, the French empire was built; the dreams of Champlain and of Talon had been fulfilled.
But dreams are fragile. A disastrous treaty, signed by France at Utrecht in 1713, began the demolition of this empire. France, conquered in Europe, sacrificed America. She handed Hudson Bay back to England, with all the rivers that flowed into it; she restored Newfoundland to England; she gave up Acadia; she agreed to allow the Iroquois country to be subject thenceforth to England.
What then became of New France? Although its whole economy was based on beaver, it no longer had access to the rich fur supply of Hudson Bay; the loss of Newfoundland deprived it not only of the old settlement of Plaisance (Placentia, Newfoundland), but of the control of the Gulf and its fisheries; by losing Acadia, populated with French settler, it was cut off from the Atlantic coast; and, since the Iroquois country became in principle a territory belonging to England, the possession of the Great Lakes basin was going to be a matter of controversy. Finally, the French defeat in Europe brought about an immediate economic disaster in the colony: of all the paper money circulating in New France, the mother country refused to recognize more than one quarter.
In a word, the French empire was reduced to a long corridor. Its northern entry, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, was under English control; its right flank was threatened from every direction: from Lake Champlain, where the natural frontier was less and less effective, from Lake Ontario, on whose shores the English had just established themselves, from the Alleghenies, which were no longer the impassable barrier of the 17th century. From the military point of view, New France had become a frail creature, who could be supported only by extremely costly measures, yet whose economic life was being stifled because the north was closed to her. There only remained the region of the west, whose stocks of furs
And what were 20,000 inhabitants compared to the 400,000 that populated the English colonies from Newfoundland to South Carolina? Poorly equipped, deprived of Hudson Bay, pushed out of Newfoundland, Acadia, and the Iroquois country, the New France of the 18th century, despite its air of grandeur, was taking on more and more the appearance of a floundering colony. Nevertheless, in spite of its unfavourable position from this time on, New France, under the leadership of brilliant intendants, would attempt the consolidation in depth that had been desired for her in the previous century.
Professeur et directeur, Institute of Canadian Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa. Directeur adjoint pour le volume premier du Dictionnaire biographique du Canada/Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Marcel Trudel, “New France, 1524–1713,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, revised edition, 1986, http://admin.biographi.ca/en/special.php?project_id=49&p=12.