9. New France and the Fur Trade

Cartier meeting Quebec Native people

It’s time to turn to other European powers, starting with France. We’ve established St Augustine, Florida, and Santa Fe, New Mexico as the first permanent but small European coastal or border settlements in what is now the USAmerican part of ‘Turtle Island’ or North America.

Jacques Cartier, the explorer, gets the main credit for carving out ‘New France’ in 1534 for King Francis I. But we should also mention Giovanni da Verrazzano, who made the trip in 1527. Also Francis I. Verrazzano, who cruised the coast from Cape Fear in North Carolina up to Newfoundland, making a few stops to talk with the Lenape, Wampanoag, and Narragansett peoples before returning. He was mainly looking for a route to China and thought it might be the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina.

Jacques Cartier’s efforts were more serious. He made three voyages, extensively taking stock of the entire region from Newfoundland to New England, especially the St Lawrence River and Quebec, a name which the native peoples also called the area. At the bay into the St Lawrence, he also stopped and planted the proper French banners, erected a tall cross, and read the pompous speech claiming all the river’s lands and lands of the minor rivers that flowed into it for the French King. The Native peoples, naturally, still held sway.

During his three voyages, Cartier largely ignored what would become the main wealth the French took out of the region, the fur trade. He was obsessed with finding the route to China and ‘cities of gold’ along the way. He was also likely impressed with the strength of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. A subset of the Haudenosaunee, which translates into ‘People of the Long Houses,’ who dominated much of what is now Eastern Canada and New York state.

Cartier’s ships were icebound for the winter months at one point in his second voyage, and his crew nearly died of scurvy. They were saved when the Iroquoians taught them to use the bark of the aneda evergreen tree to make a concoction with vitamin C.

With Cartier’s prodding, the Native people told him a tall tale about the ‘Kingdom of Saguenay,’ a city to the north and west loaded with gold, diamonds, and ‘people who can fly.’ (It seems Native peoples throughout North America, whenever they wanted to get rid of explorers, told them stories of ‘cities of gold’ if they just kept going further to the northwest. The Europeans always seemed to fall for it.) Cartier had to show something for his efforts, so he kidnapped several Natives to take back to France, along with a batch of iron pyrite and quartz, supposed ‘gold and diamonds,’ but worthless.

Cartier can be credited with the first small French settlement in North America, Fort Charlesbourg Royal near today’s Quebec City, in 1541. But it failed in two years due to the resistance of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

The Native peoples around the St. Lawrence had figured out what the French were up to with their cross and flag-planting ceremonies. They wanted no part of it and, at one point, amassed 1000 or more warriors on the river bank to greet the newcomers, giving them an idea of what they were up against. On the other hand, the Haudenosaunee were drawn to the goods offered by trade, especially colored cloth and anything made of metal. Later, weapons, gunpowder, horses, and alcohol became important. So they were willing to deal.

Thus the first permanent French port town was a trading post, Tadoussac, at the confluence of the Saguenay and Saint Lawrence rivers, in 1599. A naval officer, Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit, and a merchant, François Gravé Du Pont, got the credit. This site remains today, mainly as a tourist attraction.

However, the major work of developing New France fell to Samuel de Champlain, the nephew of Du Pont. Champlain founded the colony of Acadia, with the town of Port Royal, and today’s Quebec City. He explored the Great Lakes and extensively studied the various indigenous people. His work set the stage for what was slightly different about the French. They became more interested in extractivist colonialism than the settler variety. They wanted an ongoing subaltern relationship with the Indians as the source of furs rather than extermination to grab land for massive immigration from France and elsewhere in Europe.

Champaign was governor of New France in all but name, but since he wasn’t a noble, Louis XIII never assigned it to him officially. But he worked to set up the fur trade in Quebec until he died in 1635. More to come. 

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