The British North American possession colloquially known as Canada (but formally called the Province of Québec) first received European visitors sometime around the year 1000, when Vikings established a colony on the island of Newfoundland. The colony did not last and no permanent European settlements would again appear on Canadian soil until after Columbus’ famous voyage of discovery. The Italian explorer John Cabot, under letters patent issued by Henry VII of England, landed on Canada’s Atlantic coast (probably in Newfoundland) In 1497 and claimed the land for his patron. Unfortunately, King Henry and his immediate successors were too distracted with internal affairs to capitalize on the discovery and it fell to the French to do so.
Between 1542 and 1608, France established numerous settlements throughout Canada, not all of which were successful, but several prospered and allowed the French to organize them administratively into a colony called New France. The earliest settlements, organized under the explorer Jacques Cartier, set the tone for those that would follow by focusing on mercantile endeavors and by establishing amicable relations with the local Natives when possible and cowing them through violence when it was not. The fur trade proved vital to the continued interest France took in her Canadian colonies, as well as providing a strong incentive for would-be colonists hoping to strike it rich in the New World. Despite the harsh conditions and constant threat of disease, the population of New France slowly grew, although at a much slower pace than the English colonies to the south, much to the consternation of those who dreamed of French dominion over North America.
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain, under the sponsorship of Henry IV, founded the city of Québec, which quickly became the largest settlement in New France. Champlain proved both a very able administrator and a keen diplomat. He made alliances with the Algonquin, the Hurons, and the Montagnais, although this brought New France into conflict with the Iroquois. He also encouraged young men to live with and learn from the Natives so as to learn not only their languages and customs but also their knowledge of the land and its hazards. These young men, known as coureurs du bois, or “runners of the woods,” would explore vast swaths of New France, extending it to the Great Lakes and beyond.
France continued to envy the success and prosperity of the English colonies in North America. To encourage further settlement in New France, Cardinal Armand Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief advisor, founded the Company of One Hundred Associates in 1627. The Company’s goal was to gather investment for the colony and promised land to anyone who would settle there – anyone except Protestants, who were forbidden from emigrating to New France unless they first converted to Catholicism. Many did so in fact, but many more remained secretly faithful to their original beliefs, which created an underground society of secret Protestants in French North America. The Company worked closely with the Catholic Church, particularly religious groups like the Jesuits, both to convert the natives and ensure the colony prospered. The Church worked ceaselessly to foster Christian ideals in New France, going so far as to sponsor a utopian settlement in 1642. This settlement, called Ville-Marie, would later become known as Montréal, and one of the most significant settlements in New France.
Dating back to the explorations of Henry Hudson at the beginning of the 17th century, the English laid claim to the area surrounding what became known as Hudson’s Bay, which France had hitherto claimed as her own. Over time, and with the assistance of many coureurs du bois, some of whom no longer felt any allegiance to France, the English broke the French monopoly over the fur trade and slowly gained influence in the areas surrounding New France. To counter this, the French mounted expeditions to the south and west. These expeditions greatly expanded New France and established numerous forts and small settlements all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Collectively, this extension of New France became known as Louisiana, named in honor of the king, Louisiana remained largely unsettled until the beginning of the 18th century, when Bâton-Rouge and La Nouvelle-Orléans were established.
Unfortunately, New France never succeeded in growing at the pace its sponsors had hoped. A shortage of marriageable women in the colony and the comparatively inhospitable climate made it a less attractive option for Frenchmen seeking their fortunes outside Europe. The French government made many efforts to rectify these situations, but their success was limited. By the end of the 17th century, the English grew bolder, using allied native tribes to attack and harass the French and disrupt their trade routes. Two full-fledged wars, known as King William’s War (1689-1697) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), broke out between the French and the English in North America. Although New France survived both these conflicts, it did not do so intact. The English conquered Acadia in 1690 and the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended Queen Anne’s War, ceded Newfoundland to them as well.
Ironically, the years following the conclusion of Queen Anne’s War proved to be prosperous for New France. Free from the attacks of the English and their native allies, the colony finally came into its own. The population grew large enough to become truly self-sufficient, which was fortunate, as interest in the colony was waning back in Paris. The Church continued to work closely with the colonial administration and retained a powerful influence within New France, controlling its education system and being the primary dispenser of medical and social assistance. Between 1720 and 1744, New France entered what might be called a “golden age,” but it was not to last.
In 1744, the governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, attacked the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island and captured it. Though the fortress was returned to France by treaty two years later, this attack began a new phase of conflict between the French and the English on the North American continent. Throughout the 1740s and 1750s, the two combatants attempted to outflank one another, hoping to gain the advantage. The French, who were vastly outnumbered by the English – there were less than 100,000 French colonists, while there were ten times that number of English colonists, including French Protestants – hoped to make New France difficult enough to conquer that the English would think twice about doing so. By building strings of forts along important trade routes, the French succeeded for a time.
The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in Europe in 1756 changed the situation dramatically. The war’s North American phase became known as the French and Indian War, because these were the two main groups against the British fought for hegemony over the continent. At first, the English pursued the same strategy they had attempted since the 1740s – seizing control of vital trade routes. This strategy proved spectacularly unsuccessful in the Ohio River Valley, where, in one notable engagement, British troops containing a regiment of Virginian militiamen led by George Washington, were roundly defeated by French marines. Washington took command of the routed forces and led them to an orderly retreat that saved many lives and earned him the admiration of his superiors and a promotion to the rank of colonel. This defeat convinced the English that they had no choice but to attack New France directly and rather than slowly starve the colony as they had hoped.
In 1758, the British began a full-scale invasion of New France, starting with the conquest of Louisbourg for the second time. This allowed the British to blockade the St. Lawrence River, which hampered not just trade but also the movement of French troops. With the blockade in place, the British besieged the city of Québec in 1759. A French army, under Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, attempted to break the siege, meeting British forces under James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, a plateau just outside the city. The battle lasted less than an hour and proved a decisive victory for the British. Québec’s garrison surrendered, ending the three-month siege, and signaling the beginning of the end for New France. There were pockets of resistance to the British conquest, particularly in Montréal, which held out until 1760, but France was uninterested in continuing the conflict in North America and formally ceded Québec and surrounding territories (though not Louisiana, which had been given to Spain by separate treaty) to Britain by treaty in 1763. With that, France’s North American empire came to a close.
The cession of Québec to Britain came with terms, namely that the new French subjects of the British Crown would be free to practice their Catholic faith. While the British accepted this term, they hoped that, over time, these subjects would be assimilated and its necessity would cease. This turned out not to be the case, leading the British to pass the Quebec Act in 1774, which further strengthened the status of the Catholic Church in the Province and gave French subjects the benefit of education in their own language, as well as the protections of French civil law rather than British common law. The Quebec Act was intended to ensure the peaceful rule of the Province. Earlier, the British had expelled conquered French colonists in Acadia, many of whom wound up in southern Louisiana, but this was now deemed both impractical and illegitimate in the case of Quebec, so accommodation was sought instead. Ironically, the Quebec Act was greeted with displeasure in the thirteen American colonies, who named it one of the “Intolerable Acts” that precipitated their revolt in 1775.
Nevertheless, the American revolutionaries attempted to foment revolution in Quebec, which met with utter failure. The French Canadians preferred the protections afforded by the Quebec Act to the uncertain future promised by the Americans, particularly in light of the Americans’ antipathy for the terms of the Quebec Act. Revolutionary forces captured the towns of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Montreal in 1775. They also laid siege to Quebec City but were defeated, precipitating their retreat from the entirety of the Province in 1776. After that date, Quebec’s role in the Revolution was small, with the bulk of activity occurring farther to the south. Some French Canadians did take up arms against the British and joined the Continental Army but their numbers were never great. Still under-populated compared to the thirteen colonies and geographically removed from the great events of the Revolution, for now Canada plays a minor role as history unfolds in North America.
For a more detailed look at Canada in the Colonial Gothic world, check out Colonial Gothic: New France.