France was tempted by the New World for years, but it needed some effort to make French settlements remain. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, French settlers finally succeeded in conquering wild and rich lands and turning them into influential colonial outposts. New France, as the land was once called, consists of five colonies covering a large swath of North America, stretching from Hudson Bay in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. The land is home to fur traders, state-sponsored brides, warriors – and natives who have been there for thousands of years.
The intertwined lives of people from New France 1690 are depicted in the upcoming National Geographic limited series Barkskins, which premiered on Remembrance Day. Based on Annie Proulx’s bestselling novel, this eight-part series explores a mysterious massacre that threatens to throw the region into war and reveals the tension and complexity of French occupation in North America.
What is New France like? You will catch a glimpse of the history and culture of the region by focusing on the most densely populated and economically powerful colonies. Although there were only between 1608 and 1763, the Canadian colony produced a different language, culture and history that still resonates in the modern country known as Canada.
The Origins of New France
In 1534, Jacques Cartier has begun the first of three expeditions to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But Cartier’s brief attempt at a settlement was a failure, and after a conflict with the local Iroquois people and a failed attempt to exploit the natural resources there, he returned to France.
It was half a century before France tried again. In 1604, French settlers established the Acadia colony on land around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Four years later, explorer Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Québec further inland. It became the largest city in the Canadian colony.
The French crown plan is to let the trading company run the New France and attract settlers there in return for the right to take advantage of the natural gifts of the colony, the most profitable of which is the large population of native animals.
Champlain envisions building a profitable fur trade in Canada. But at first the colony was giddy due to lack of settlers, difficulty accessing the wealth that Champlain was proud of, and conflict with Iroquois.
The early days of the colony
Life in Canada is very challenging. The French invaders fought with harsh winters and unclear land in the region. Canada relies heavily on agriculture and the fur trade, which brings invaders into conflict with people whose land they have claimed for France.
The Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois, have lived in what is now Canada for thousands of years, developing complex societies and building trade routes throughout the region. By the time European settlers arrived in 1608, five countries of Iroquois, Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, and Onondaga, had joined together to the Haudenosaunee League, or Iroquois ,. As European settlements increase, League countries and their rivals become more and more interdependent with settlers.
Indigenous peoples know how to trap and beaver skins and other animals, valued for being used in hats and other products. They exchanged their skins with items of European settlers, such as weapons, cloth, and metal. They also helped French settlers navigate the waters and forests. In the beginning, a traditional trapper collected, processed and transported almost all the hair produced by the colony.
The fur trade benefits France and their indigenous trading partners. But it also triggered decades of competition, violence and all-out war as the fur trade changed the traditional landscape, economy and way of life of indigenous groups.
Tension and violence
The Iroquois and other indigenous people traditionally share their hunting territory with tribal members and their allies, only hunt as much as necessary, and respect land and animals as part of their spiritual beliefs. But the invaders demanded more feathers than are usually hunted by indigenous groups. Responding to this request, indigenous peoples hunted more, traveled longer distances than usual, and turned to individualism.
When hunting depletes the number of beavers and deer in the Iroquois area, Iroquois seeks to seize control of more territory to trap and hunt. During the 1630s and 1640s, they also began to attack their original rivals – and anyone who was allied with them, which in some cases included the French colonies.
Hunting territory is not the only thing at stake for Iroquois. They believed that family members lost at the hands of their rivals or because of the deadly disease brought by the invaders should be replaced by captives, and that counterattacking was a way to honor their deaths. This led to a series of what historians call the “mourning war”: guerrilla attacks driven by deep sorrow.
The tragic combination creates what historian Daniel Richter has was called in dangerous spiral: “Epidemics cause even more fierce grief wars with firearms; the need for weapons increases the demand for animal skins to be traded for them; fur search sparked war with other countries; and death in that conflict started another mourning war. “
The population of New France was greatly shaken by the Iroquois attack. The war parties would unexpectedly invade isolated settlements or agriculture, slaughtering residents and sometimes taking prisoners. Thousands of miles away, the French government decided its investment in New France did not produce results and did not take steps to protect the invaders. Trade suffered because invaders tried to defend themselves.
“A woman lives with constant fear that her husband, who left that morning to work, will be killed or captured and that he will never see her again,” write Pierre Boucher, who arranged the small settlement of Trois-Rivières. Boucher developed a successful defense strategy for Trois-Rivières, securing a settlement during the nine-day siege in 1653 and finally brokering peace with the attackers.
Elsewhere, Iroquois managed to fight most of their native rivals. And many of their attacks on France were successful; in the 1660s they controlled most of the countryside in New France.
King Louis XIV took control
After 55 years of supervision by the trading company, the New France was transferred to the royal government in 1663. Louis XIV tried to reverse the wealth of the New France by investing more in the most promising colony, Canada. The crown paid for the travel of its citizens to New France, which increased its population, and finally Canada was divided into three districts, Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal.
But the population is still submerged, partly because of the gender imbalance between the 3,000 men of the colony – including the army, carpenters, fur traders and traders – and a few women. In 1663 there was a woman for every six men in New France. To correct the imbalance, increase the colony population, and persuade French men to live in New France, the crown pays nearly 800 women to travel to New France as state-sponsored brides.
Recruited and equipped with Louis XIV’s own funds, this filles du roi, or the daughters of the king, were sent to New France with change between 1663 and 1673. Most were poor women aged between 16 and 40 who came from urban areas throughout France. In addition to their trip, about half were given dowry and trousseaus, which included goods like needles, gloves, and shoelaces that are hard to come by in rough colonies.
At home, filles du roi will face an uncertain fate with low or no dowry, poverty, and dependence on male family members to choose their partners. Only safely from a trip to New France, filles du roi found themselves stronger and opportunities for prosperity higher than in Europe. Armed with a chest of hope and a promising future, they boarded a ship to Canada.
When the women arrived, they were accommodated by nun who taught them household skills, tried to direct them to the rigors of colonial life, and watched their whirlwind courtship along with Jean Talon, the colony’s top administrator. Unlike at home, filles de roi has the freedom to choose their husbands. They interviewed potential couples in a speed dating style meeting when they go from city to city along the St. River. Lawrence; if they don’t like the selection, they can continue. However, most get married soon.
After marriage, filles du roi is encouraged to have as many children as possible; the crown promises financial bonuses for every woman who gives birth to more than 10 children. And because food is so abundant in the colony, filles du roi are more likely than their counterparts in the French continent to survive their pregnancy and produce healthy and surviving children.
Peace with Iroquois
Filles du roi was not the only person sent by Louis XIV to New France. In 1665, the French crown ordered a group of French soldiers to strengthen the New France and protect its investment there.
When about 1,200 troops arrived at the colony – around the same time as filles du roi – they were welcomed as saviors. Although they did not have the equipment and equipment inadequate to deal with their Iroquois rival guerrilla tactics, their arrival put France at a tactical advantage. The Iroquois League, weakened by decades of war, offers peace. In 1667, the New France and the Iroquois League signed peace agreement it will last 20 years.
But permanent peace will not come until the turn of the century. In 1683, war broke out again in response to the increasingly aggressive invaders’ efforts to secure a larger hunting ground, and France again sent troops to New France. Over the next 15 years, the second phase of what became known as the Beaver War pitted the invaders against indigenous groups whose lands they claimed were theirs.
Finally, in 1701, France and Iroquois signed an agreement known as the Great Peace. That would mark the end of the French and Iroquois conflicts for the rest of the colony’s life.
The fall of New France
By the beginning of the 18th century, New France had expanded its borders and accommodated around 20,000 residents in total. But French wealth in the area was destined to fall. Although the population and economy increased rapidly in the early 1700s, New France spent most of its money on military preparations that were inconsistent with colonial reality. And despite its peace with local indigenous peoples, France was unable to fend off war against its biggest colonial rival, Britain.
In 1756, the Seven Years’ War pitted a relatively small population of French colonies against a much larger number of colonies in British-controlled America. The New France ended with the defeat of France in the Seven Years War, and its ownership was handed over to Britain in the Paris Agreement in 1763. (Here’s how the size of the US doubled with the purchase of one of its previous holdings in France.)
Despite its relatively short age of 155 years, New France forms a legacy that can still be felt in modern Canada. Even under British rule, write historian Jacques Mathieu, residents of what used to be New France “rejected assimilation and confirmed their existence. Protected by their language, religion and institutions, concentrated in a limited geographical area, difficult to penetrate, they developed their own way of life, social habits, and attitudes. “
This way of life came at a tragic cost to Iroquois and other indigenous groups whose traditional ways were damaged by the fur trade that made New France survive. Illness and war are caused significant population decline, and although they maintained their independence after the Beaver War, Iroquois continued to face pressure from the invaders who wanted to dominate in the new world.
The native Canadian descendants of French later identified as Quebec and even fuel separatist movement in modern Canada. The majority of French Canadians are descendants of the original filles du roi, women who move from poverty to roles recognized as the founding mothers of new countries.