New France: Historical Background in Brief

France’s earliest attempt to stake a claim in the new world occurred in 1534 when French sailor Jacques Cartier arrived in Chaleur Bay off the Gaspé peninsula. Disembarking, Cartier planted a 30-foot wooden cross to which he attached a shield bearing the fleur-de-lis and upon which he carved the words Vive le Roy de France, thus claiming the land for France. Cartier promptly returned home, but, in two later trips, he explored and claimed the St. Lawrence River and the present Maritimes area for his country. Although fishing and fur trading expeditions were successful, France made no serious attempt to colonize “New France” until the 17th century.

Habitation in Québec, New FranceSamuel de Champlain, a French commoner who became an expert in exploration and cartography, was convinced the area had great potential. In the early 1600’s, he obtained commercial and governmental sponsorship to inhabit the area and begin land surveys. His first fort, Port Royal in Acadia, failed due to several very severe winters and a lack of people having the farming and survival skills needed. After capturing the interest of a commercial group in France, he began work in 1608 on his second colony which he called “Québec” or Kebec, a local Indian word for the place where the St. Lawrence River narrows. In the shadow of the cliffs known as Cap-aux-Diamants, Champlain and his men built three two-story buildings, each with a deck around the second story. To fortify the settlement, they dug ditches fifteen feet wide and six feet deep around the buildings.

The ships that brought the founding colonists returned to France in the fall of 1608 leaving Champlain and a company of twenty-eight men in Québec, fifteen of whom died of scurvy during the winter. The tiny settlement struggled through its first winter with the help of the friendly local Indian tribes. The following spring, ships arrived from France with supplies and the colony’s future became more secure.

Colonization of New France

Most of the early colonists in New France were fur traders and missionaries, who began arriving in 1615 to convert the “pagan savage souls” to Catholicism. The first settler to build his own independent house at Québec was Louis Hébert, pharmacist, who, in 1617, built a house for his family on the cliffs overlooking the original settlement and began cultivation of the land. Hébert is credited with being the first European to establish a farm in Canada.

In 1627, there were fewer than one hundred Europeans living in Québec. That year the Compagnie des Cent-Associés was created by Cardinal Richelieu to capitalize on the growing fur trade and colonize and manage the area. The company had one hundred associates or partners, made up mainly of trade leaders. As organized, it was to own and exploit the vast regions of New France with a perpetual monopoly on the fur trade and a monopoly on all other trades for fifteen years. In return, the company was required to send two or three hundred settlers yearly from France to the new colony, to support each new colonist for three years in return for his labor, and to provide each settlement with three priests.

In early 1628, the Compagnie des Cent-Associés sent out its first group of two hundred settlers from the port of Dieppe in more than a dozen ships. However, the flotilla was intercepted at the mouth of the St. Lawrence by the Kirke Brothers, who had claimed the area for England. With three armed ships and two hundred men, the Kirkes won a fierce battle, as a result of which the French ships and their contents became spoils of war and the passengers were sent to England as prisoners. The Kirkes blockaded the St. Lawrence, sacked Québec and shipped settlers to England until 1632, when the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye returned the area to France. In early 1633, there remained six families and five Indian translators living in New France. [Some accounts indicate that our ancestors Abraham Martin and Marguerite Langlois, who had arrived in 1620, were among these six families.]

Champlain returned to Québec on May 23, 1633, as Governor of New France. With him came two hundred new colonists recruited by the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, Jesuit missionaries, and soldiers to defend the renewed French colony. Champlain never returned to France and died at Québec on Christmas Day, 1635. He was replaced as Governor of New France by the Sieur de Montmagny who arrived in Québec six months later.

The Compagnie des Cent-Associés owned all the land and had the right to grant estates to seigneurs under the feudal laws of France. Many such grants were made, some to religious orders of priests and nuns, mostly to lay seigneurs who, it was hoped, would settle on their estates and gather about them a community under feudal rule. The seigneurity was essentially a large farm with tenants who supported themselves by working on the farm and was based on the medieval principle of ‘no land without its lord’. The plan in New France was to give land parcels to entrepreneurs who would develop the land by employing peasants as laborers to make the land suitable for habitation. The seigneur had complete and total control over everything on the seigneurity including education, policing, medical matters, marriage, food and shelter. He built the seigneurity’s flour milling facilities and other public buildings as required. In return, he collected rent from his tenants.

One such land grant was made to Robert Giffard, a doctor from the Perche region. The French navy required all its ships to have a doctor on board, and, as such, Giffard had earlier sailed to New France and visited the settlement at Québec. He returned to France, married, signed on with the Compagnie des Cent-Associés as Navy Surgeon, and in 1628 began a voyage back to Québec with the intention of becoming a colonist. However, the Kirke Brothers seized the ships and sent the passengers to England. After the treaty between France and England was signed in 1632, Giffard returned to France. In 1634, he was named Seigneur of Beauport with a grant of land northeast of Québec City on the St-Lawrence River, across from the Île d’Orléans.

Having nearly starved a few years earlier, and since starvation had been one of the biggest threats to the earlier settlers, Giffard knew that finding people who could farm in the harsh climate of New France was vital to his success. Having experienced the hardships of the colony himself, he knew the kind of people he would require to make his seigneurity succeed. The settlers would not only have to endure and survive severe winters, hostile Indians, near starvation, back-breaking work, and the wilderness, but they would have to find a way to prosper and create a new home and country. Needing farm workers, craftsman and artisans, Giffard recruited settlers from his home region of Perche. As was typical of the seigneurial system, the recruits signed contracts to work for Giffard for a stipulated period of time in exchange for payment of the cost of the journey and return passage when the engagement was completed. On June 4, 1634, Giffard arrived in New France with four ships bearing the colonists recruited from Perche, and the dozen or so people remaining in Québec saw their numbers swell suddenly to a few hundred. [Among the first Giffard group of colonists were our ancestors Zacharie Cloutier, Jean Guyon, Marin Boucher, and Jean Côté.]

Most early settlements were not overly successful, however, and seigneurs found themselves doing all they could to keep their tenants. It gradually became evident the seigneurities wouldn’t create great fortunes compared to fur trading, and France’s interest in colonization began to wane. Between 1634 and 1663, the population of New France grew to no more than 2,500 people. By contrast, in 1663 there were about 80,000 people living in the English colonies on the Atlantic coast. With a constant threat from the English as well as the Iroquois, Louis XIV and his colonial advisors began to place a greater priority on securing the colony through increased population. However, unmarried men far outnumbered unmarried women in the colony. Unable to find a wife in Québec, a great number of male immigrants returned to France after fulfilling their engagement contract with the seigneur.

Between 1634 and August 1663, while the colony was governed by the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, about 262 women of marriageable age were recruited by individuals or by private religious groups who paid their travel expenses and provided for their lodging until they were married. But individual recruiters and private organizations had little success in enticing single women to emigrate to New France. [See Filles à marier for ancestors.]

In 1663, the King Louis XIV took over direct control of the government of New France, making it a Crown colony with Québec becoming a Royal Province. Royal governors and other officials replaced private commercial interests in governing Québec. At the same time, the French government initiated an organized system of recruiting and transporting marriageable women to the colony.

Between 1663 and 1673, 768 Filles du Roi or “King’s Daughters” emigrated to New France under the sponsorship of the French government as part of the overall strategy of strengthening the colony until it could stand on its own without economic and military dependence on France. However, in 1672 France and England declared war on the Dutch republic, requiring a great commitment of financial resources by the French government. The French authorities decided that sponsored emigration was too costly and unnecessary since the colony’s own population could provide a sufficient number of marriageable women from among its own daughters. When the program ended in 1673, the population of New France had risen to 6,700 people. [See Filles du Roi for ancestors.]

France greatly expanded its holdings in North America during the second half of the 17th century and early 18th century. Profits from the fur trade and from providing supplies and services to the French colonial régime and its military offered the opportunity for enterprising individuals to obtain wealth not otherwise available from the trades or farming. The quest for wealth and the search for greater individual freedom led to the establishment of a vast empire on the western frontiers of New France which by 1700 extended from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi, and west to the Great Lakes. [Our ancestor Nicolas Perrot played a role in this expansion as a fur trader, explorer and interpreter of Indian languages.]

Throughout most of New France’s history, France and England were at war in Europe. Hostilities frequently spread from Europe to America where French and English colonists raided each other’s territories. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended hostilities between Britain and France, both in Europe and in North America. The treaty defined who owned portions of Canada, including Acadia, the Maritimes and Hudson Bay and eased the tension between the two countries. Under the terms of the treaty, England took control of Acadia, which was renamed Nova Scotia. In addition, France was required to abandon its claim to settlements in Newfoundland and return all English forts that had been captured in the previous thirty years. Although the treaty provided three decades of peace between the English and the French, it did not end the fight over territory in North America, and by 1744 England and France were at war again. This war ended in 1748 with yet another treaty, despite which both France and England continued to plot and prepared to expel the other from the continent once and for all.

New France Comes to an End

In 1756, the world war known as the Seven Years’ War broke out in Europe, with France and Austria allied against England and Prussia. The English had the advantage of the mightiest navy on the seas and, with Frederick the Great on their side, the finest army in Europe. Determined to drive France out of North America, England used its superior sea power to cut New France off from Europe. Supposedly impregnable above its towering cliff, Québec City fell to the English in 1759 after the army of General James Wolfe struggled up a hidden ravine, surprised the larger forces of the Marquis de Montcalm, and defeated them in a battle fought on the Plains of Abraham in which both commanders were slain. In 1760 Montréal surrendered.

The war officially ended with the signing of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. France agreed to cede Canada to Britain, opting instead to keep the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe because of its rich sugar crops and the ease with which it could be controlled as compared to Canada, a less profitable and underpopulated colony. In addition to Canada, France transferred all other French territory east of the Mississippi except New Orleans to England. Spain was ceded New Orleans with the French claims west of the Mississippi. Thus France surrendered all title to the mainland of North America, and the French régime in Québec officially ended.

The following is from the Programme de Recherche en Demographie Historique (Université de Montréal, PRDH Online):

France under the Old Régime did not supply a great number of emigrants to its colonies across the Atlantic. In fact, just 15,000 Frenchmen and Frenchwomen sailed for Canada in the seventeenth century, and two-thirds of them stayed in the colony for a short period and either returned to France or died in Canada without getting married. This was a very low number: the British Isles, with a population just over one-third of France’s, sent almost 380,000 immigrants to the New World over the same period.

In fact, France was at the time showing various symptoms of social discontent that should have justified a larger number of refugees fleeing to Canada, whose abundance of resources contrasted with the famine and unemployment among the poorest classes. Although France wasn’t really overpopulated, conditions there were favorable to emigration; these conditions, had they coincided with a real attraction of Canada, would have encouraged the departure of large contingents of settlers for the New World. But few French people migrated, as Canada, a distant, wild, and dangerous country, had a poor reputation. On top of this, the authorities believed that the French population was not growing quickly as it should be – and, in fact, that it was shrinking due to wars, plagues, and general misery.

In response to Intendant Talon, who had asked him to find the means to form a “grand and powerful state” in Canada, which would involve a massive wave of immigrants, Colbert said, in a sentence that was to mark the future of the country, “It would not be prudent [of the king] to depopulate his kingdom as he would have to do to populate Canada.” And yet, even had departures been multiplied tenfold, the effects of emigration on the most populous country in Europe would have been imperceptible – and the fate of North America would probably have been quite different.


“Our Côté Genealogy” by Tom Thiéven,

A Short History of the New France Colony, now Canada

Programme de Recherche en Demographie Historique (Université de Montréal, PRDH Online),

Before the King’s Daughters: The Filles à Marier, 1634-1662, Peter J. Gagné, (Pawtucket, RI: Quintin Publications, 2002).

King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673, Peter J. Gagné, (Pawtucket, RI: Quintin Publications, 2001).

“The Treaty of Utrecht, 1713” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage , Memorial University of Newfoundland and the C.R.B. Foundation.

French and Indian War“, Wikipedia article.