While the term "New France" came to be applied specifically to the region between Montreal and Quebec, in general the territory stretched between present-day Quebec City in the east and Huronia (southern Georgian Bay) in the west. The French also colonized the Louisiana territory and parts of the Caribbean, areas not considered part of New France proper, but generally referred to by historians as the French Atlantic or French America.
The region that came to be generally known as New France was home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples at the time of the European invasion. It is difficult to arrive at a precise population of precontact North America; in fact, modern estimates place the population of the continent anywhere between 3 million and 12 million. It is likely that the Iroquoian peoples of New France and present-day northern New York numbered a hundred thousand. When Jacques Cartier visited the village of Tiotontakwe (aka Hochelaga, at present-day Montreal), he recorded a population of fifteen hundred people (Delâge, 1993, 1993, 43–45). We can safely say that Europeans stepped foot on a (sometimes densely) populated continent, of which the Northeast was one of the most thickly populated regions. The French encountered the Beothuk (a group that was exterminated, likely by disease, shortly after contact), as well as the Innu (Montagnais) and Mi'kmaqs (Micmacs), both of the Algonquin cultural family, and the Hotninonshonni (Iroquois Confederacy) and other related nations—the Wendat (Hurons, a confederacy of several nations), the Tionontate (Petun), the Neutrals and the Tobacco.
Essentially the region's two cultural-linguistic groups had two different economic and settlement patterns. The semisedentary Algonquin peoples of present-day Quebec were hunter-gatherers, inhabiting village sites during warmer months and migrating over a wider hunting territory during the winter, following a sophisticated cyclical pattern, which was conceptualized as distinct from nations who practiced horticulture. An Innu hunter explained to Jesuit Paul Le Jeune in 1634: "Do you not see that you and the [Hotinonshonni] cultivate the soil and gather its fruits, and not we, and therefore it is not the same?" (Greer, 2000, 27).
The Wendat and Hotinonshonni groups of New France were mostly sedentary, inhabiting village sites for about ten years before moving to a new location. Historians of ecology recognize that this practice helped to place less stress on local environments, because village relocation allowed the forests to grow back and the soil to regain fertility. These groups practiced horticulture, growing the "three sisters" complex of corn, beans, and squash, with diets supplemented by fish and game. These groups had come to inhabit sizable villages and established large populations. It is estimated that, on the eve of European invasion, the population of Huronia had reached as high as 30,000 people (Delâge, 1993, 49). These horticultural societies divided work along gender lines, with women tending crops and doing other tasks such as sewing, cooking, gathering, and the important work of educating children. Meanwhile, men did some secondary horticultural work, including growing tobacco, as well as hunting and fishing (Delâge, 1993, 50–52).
There is a wealth of written material about the indigenous peoples of New France because French colonial records have survived remarkably well. The diaries and reports of explorers such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain give us a picture of indigenous life at the very first moments of European arrival. The voluminous Jesuit Relations, yearly reports sent by Jesuit missionaries back to France between 1632 and 1673, detail the customs, spiritual beliefs—essentially the everyday life—of the Natives of New France, whom the Jesuits were attempting to convert.
While contact with northeastern North America began with European fishermen off the coast of Canada in the late 1400s, the first sustained contact between the French and indigenous peoples began when Cartier first visited the area in the 1530s. Cartier described thickly populated villages along the Saint Lawrence River. The people whom Cartier encountered, and whom historians refer to as the Saint Lawrence Iroquois, had disappeared by the seventeenth century, and historians debate whether these people had migrated out of the region or had been exterminated by European diseases. Incidentally, Cartier also kidnapped several indigenous peoples, including the chief Donnacona, taking them to France to appear before King François I (Dickason, 1984, 210–211). French contact with Natives increased over the following decades, with Cartier's subsequent voyages, and the travels of Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s. Champlain established a fortified settlement at Quebec in 1608.
French immigration to New France remained extremely low, due to the colony's isolation, its inhospitable climate, and a lack of silver and gold. By the 1650s, the colony included only 3,200 French inhabitants, many of them clustered around Quebec and other settlements, such as Trois-Rivières (established 1634) and Montreal (1642) (Greer, 1997, 5). Peter Moogk suggests that 10,825 European immigrants made a permanent home in the Saint Lawrence Valley before 1760 (Moogk, 2000, 113). As was the case across the Americas, infectious European diseases had an overwhelmingly destructive impact on indigenous populations.
As Olive Dickason has illustrated, the early modern French worldview classified indigenous peoples as les sauvages, a term that denoted people living away from society, without a permanent residence, "by analogy, one who is rude and fierce" (Dickason, 1984, 63). According to Dickason, this was not a neutral categorization; using their moral framework, the French viewed Natives as "wild men" rather than as humans (Dickason, 1984, 63–64). However, as indicated by the initial trading partnerships with indigenous peoples, the attempts at settling and Christianizing Natives, and the high rate of cultural mixing through intermarriage, despite this disparaging term many French colonists did not view their Native hosts solely with contempt. Additionally, the French view of indigenous peoples changed over time, during the Enlightenment, as thinkers exchanged the image of the wild man for the noble savage (le bon sauvage), living in a state of nature uncorrupted by "civil society" (Dickason, 1984, 80–81).
A key feature of European interactions with Natives in New France was missionization. Champlain brought four Recollet (Franciscan) priests from France in 1615 to attempt conversions among the Wendats. The Recollets had relatively little success and sought help from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), a newly formed order that had been successful with missions in South America and Asia. The Jesuits came to hold a monopoly on mission work in New France from 1632 until the 1660s (Moogk, 2000, 29). Father Paul Le Jeune became the first Jesuit superior in New France and documented his daily life with the Innu in the Relations. When it came to conversions, the Jesuits were met mostly with failure, as it became apparent that semisendentary peoples would not yield many converts. With the hopes of converting indigenous peoples into French subjects, the Jesuits set up permanent mission settlements, such as those at Sillery near Quebec and Sainte Marie-aux-Hurons in Huronia. The missions acted as permanent bases for the Jesuit priests and became the home of Christian Natives, with a separate living area for the unconverted. With Europeans living among Native communities, disease spread through the missions with devastating effects on indigenous populations. Often, Native people blamed the Jesuits' "sorcery" for the death that ravaged their societies after the arrival of the French.
In the mission setting, the Jesuits had much more success with conversions. In Huronia, the Jesuits claimed a thousand baptisms in 1639–1640 and 620 in 1642 (Delâge, 1993, 179). The mission at Sainte-Marie lasted only ten years (1639–1649) because increasing attacks made by Hotinonshonni people from the south resulted in the deaths of several Jesuit priests, including Jean de Brébeuf, and the settlement was seen as too dangerous. The remaining Wendat people were dispersed, some to Lorette near Quebec City and others to the midwestern United States via the Great Lakes.
With the beginning of the Seven Years' War, fought between England and France on both sides of the Atlantic, New France and its scattered European population became literally cut off from the empire when the English made the North American theater of war its main priority. The English victory in the war, which saw the transfer of New France to England, marked the end of French colonial rule in North America. However, despite changes brought about by England's policy toward indigenous people, the legacy of French colonialism remains visible in the province of Quebec today.
Daniel Morley Johnson
Delâge, Denys. 1993. Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600–64. Translated by Jane Brierley. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.; Dickason, Olive Patricia. 1984. The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.; Greer, Allan, ed. 2000. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. The Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.; Greer, Allan. 1997. The People of New France. Toronto, ON, and Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press.; Moogk, Peter N. 2000. La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada, A Cultural History. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.; Trigger, Bruce, ed. 1986. Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Reconsidered. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.