Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Beginning of a colony



The Norse were the first Europeans to land on the shores of North America.  Much later, others came to hunt whales, fish for cod and explore the continent, which had been home to the Indians for over 10,000 years.


Thanks to the knorr – a ship constructed for crossing the North Atlantic – the Norse began a gradual migration from Norway during the ninth century that finally brought them to America via Iceland and Greenland.  Their sagas provide us with epic accounts of those voyages.

Around the year 1,000, descendants of Icelandic and Greenland colonists reached Épaves Bay on the coast of Newfoundland.  They settled at the site new known as the National Historic Park of L’Anse aux Meadows. The remains at this archaeological site constitute the only physical evidence of the Norse presence in North America.


New France is the North American territory that was little explored, sparsely settled, strongly defended and claimed in the name of the French monarch.  France spread its influence through a fur trading company, and then via a colonial government created by Louis XIV.  The French built a series of forts and towns that ultimately hemmed in the thirteen English colonies.  They also established the seigniorial system of land tenure, structured the Catholic Church and built up a thriving mercantile trade with France.


British, Spanish and Portuguese came to their colonies in the Americas in large numbers, but the French mostly stayed home in Europe.  The French government opposed a major transfer of its population to the new settlements.  The fur trade, key to the colonial economy, did not require a large labor force.  The harsh climate and wars with the Iroquois further discouraged immigration.


Of the 33,000 French individuals who came to the new land, only about 11,500 decided to settle after their term of service.  They were mainly soldiers and contract workers (engages).  Women accounted for barely 12 % of the immigrants who remained.


Population grew slowly.  In 1760, there were 85,000 French people in the colony, and they were mainly descendants of the original settles.  Most francophone in North America today count the first settlers as their own ancestors.


The French merchant marine grew from 750 ships in 1688 to 1,800 in 1738.  Colonial trade increased swiftly.  Businessmen wanted more information from the colonies at shorter intervals, so they wrote more letters.


In the absence of an official transatlantic postal service, merchants devised ways of managing the mail.  They were successful in overcoming the seasonal problems and the hazards of ocean navigation.  No matter what, Bordeaux, Louisbourg and Quebec City kept in constant touch.


Shipping and the fishery were the mainstays of Louisburg’s economy.  The city was a clearing house for Atlantic trade and communication, and ships could call there 12 months a year.  Mail for Quebec City could arrive from France via Louisbourg aboard a small Canadian owned schooner in the summer and by overland trek in winter.  The winter mails were not fast, but they were most welcome.  One such mail left La Rochelle on November 6th 1756 and reached Louisbourg on January 30th.  Four days later, on February 3rd, it was sent on to Quebec City, arriving there in April.  Quebeckers could savor fresh news that was six months old.


Abraham Gradis (1699-1780), a Bordeaux merchant, was active throughout the transatlantic economy, from Canada and Louisbourg in the north to the French Caribbean islands in the south.  His company supplied the king’s stores in Canada.  Without a constant stream of correspondence carried by ocean going vessels to distribute money, advice, gifts and merchandise, Gradis could never have kept on top of his affairs from his base in France.  François Bigot, the Intendant of New France, was among his partners.


The Gulf of St. Lawrence was the gullet of Canada.  During the summer, ships sailed through on the way to and from Quebec City.  In the winter, the St. Lawrence was closed to navigation.  The last ships to leave Quebec City did so late in October.  The first ones to arrive made it to Cap Diamant in June or July.  As a rule there was no mail in winter, although there were exceptions.



The American War of Independence (1775-1783) shattered the first British Empire, but the immediate effect of this revolution on Canada was a surge in population.  Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were flooded with refugees loyal to Britain.  Quebec was split in two: Upper Canada became largely British and Protestant, while Lower Canada remained primarily French and Catholic.


Moving around




People in New France walked extensively.  Those who lived in towns generally got around on foot, while travel through the forests involved long hikes and portages.  Outside the towns, in the 17th century, the road network followed Aboriginal trails or the paths that linked houses spread along river banks.


The first major land route, the chemin du roy (King’s Road), from Quebec City to Montreal, was not completed until the 1730s.  Colonial authorities considered this road essential for trade and settlement.  It reduced travel time between the two towns by half – four days by road instead of eight days by water.


When roads were built, habitants had to clear the section of their property through which the road passed.  They also participated in work parties.  Some refused, claiming that a canoe was all they needed to get to market or church.


One of the Stallions that Louis the Great had sent over to New France with sixty beautiful Mares.


The first horses were apparently brought over from the region of Perche, France.  In towns, they were used mainly by cart drivers and the elite.  In the country, they were used as draught animals and for outings.  Horses became so popular that colonial authorities tried to limit their number because they consumed food intended for cows and were thought to make people lazy.


Beginning in 1697, a royal messenger carried royal dispatches between Quebec City and Montreal, a main axis of communication in the colony.  Pedro Dasilva, also known as The Portuguese, was the first to occupy this position.  He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Jean Moran.


Letters were frequently carried from place to place by Aboriginal messengers who knew the country thoroughly.


Aboriginal messengers had strong legs and light canoes.  Hired to carry all the news – good and bad, spoken and written, legal and illegal – they traveled along the main continental trails between Canada and points east, west and south of the colony.



In the 17th and 18th centuries the idea of cleanliness was expressed through personal appearance, especially in clothing, wigs and cosmetics.


Wealthy people showed off their extensive wardrobes.  They changed their undershirts often, as these were worn to absorb sweat and remove grime.  A variety of perfumes were used on their bodies, clothing, wigs, handkerchiefs, lace and gloves.  The fragrances covered up the strong odors resulting from poor personal cleanliness.


Most people could not afford elaborate clothing or stylish accessories.  They usually wore the same clothes for long periods.  Their personal odors were part of social life – the human perfume of the time.


 In this drawing by Basi Hall, this voyageur’ hair accompanying Captain Franklin, we notice that hair was worn braided or long and loose, and people usually just combed it and removed the lice.


Because of the harsh climate and frequent outdoor travel, immigrants began to wear more practical clothes.  By 1660, men were dressing “Canadian style”.  They adopted clothing worn by seamen (mittens, caps and woolen overcoats) and by Aboriginal peoples (moccasins, boots and leggings, often made of European fabric and leather).

Women tended to retain their French styles and clothing because their work was mainly indoors.  Proud and stylish, they kept up to date with French fashion trends. In the 18th century, plain fabrics were replaced by the bright colons and linens for sale in the market.


This painting presents Huron Woman and Man as they dressed before 1750.  Initially, trade goods such as items of adornment, firearms and hardware appealed most to Aboriginal peoples.  In the eighteenth century, however, textiles became more popular, especially wool cloth (red or blue), woolen blankets and overcoats, serge sleeves and shirts of unbleached linen.






Life was generally lived within the confines of a rural neighborhood (cà´te) containing 10 to 50 homesteads (censives). These extended along the shores of the St. Lawrence like a village street.  News traveled swiftly along the main colonial route, the chemin du roy (King’s Road) and via the delivery system of the king’s messengers.


Early settlements grew very slowly in the era of New France.  Many dangers – disease, fire, war, famine – cut repeatedly into the small population.  Survival depended largely upon maintaining close communities, as reflected in this town square.  By the mid-eighteenth century, commercial, residential, military and institutional structures were erected side-by-side, making daily life easier to plan and less hazardous.


The towns were focal points of communication where royal announcements were made.  Rumors and letter exchanges started or finished in Montreal and Quebec City, major intersections for information.


Towns in New France were the centers of administrative, military, economic and religious power.  The king’s councilors, colonial officials, military officers, court officials, merchants and members of the clergy lived there.  The towns were also the main distribution centers for goods and services.


The functions required many support staff.  The largest group, in the service sector, was mainly clerks, domestics and slaves who worked for the elite.  There were cart drivers, pilots, innkeepers, butchers, bakers, doctors and notaries.  Then came the trade’s people, especially artisans in the construction sector, ironworkers and people in the clothing trades.


These workers often accounted for over half the population of a town.


Land distribution


The seigniorial system was the basis of property rights. The king’s representatives allotted seigneuries to the colonial aristocrats or landlords (seigneurs), who granted lands (censives) to the colonists, called censitaires.  The colonists paid the seigneurs an annual fee, the cens.  When land changed hands, the new owner paid a transfer tax as well as the cens and other annual charges.


Seigneurs and censitaires had reciprocal rights and obligations as was the case in France.  For example, the seigneur had to build a flour mill and give the seigneur one-fourteenth of the flour as payment.



This map shows the distribution of the principal seigneuries before 1755.  Over time, these seigneuries were either sold or transferred through inheritance, and sometimes partitioned.  The Chruch and the religious communities possessed the largest, including the Petite-Nation seigneury in the Ottawa Valley that which was granted to Monseigneur de Laval in 1674.


Terrier is an old term that refers to land ownership documents and land allocation maps.  The first lots located along the St. Lawrence River were generally divided into parallel strips oriented northwest and southeast.  The impact of these divisions on the local landscape is still evident today.


There were exceptions and adjustments along the rivers flowing and adjustments along the rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence (in Three Rivers, for example) and along the Beauport River.  In 1666, Intendant Talon grouped the inhabitants of Bourg-Royal, Bourg-la-Reine and Bourg-Talon (Charlesbourg) into villages laid out in a star shape, providing greater protection from Iroquois attacks.


Writing of a letter


Writing is a physical exercise.  The hand that moves across the page and smoothes its surface, dips the quill into the inkwell time and again.  Ink is mixed and poured into the inkwell.  Powder is sprinkled on the paper to dry the ink.  Mistakes are scraped off with a sharp-edged eraser.  Was is melted to close the cover securely, and a seal imprint pressed on the soft warm wax finalizes the gesture.

The letter can now begin its journey.


France was fortunate to have a postal tradition and rich networks of trade to carry written communication along land routes and waterways.  This was not the case in New France, where roads and established routes were rare.  Travel and communication networks had to be developed here from scratch.


In New France, there was no official postal system.  Nevertheless, many letters moved across the Atlantic, up and down the St. Lawrence, and within the continent, thanks to the efforts of writers and travelers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who ensured that mail reached its destination.


The story of communication in New France can be told from various perspectives: the transatlantic connection, continental routes and messengers, and the relay of information along the St. Lawrence.  We begin with the basics of letter writing.


La justice


In the 18th century, when the justice system was fully in place, it had three levels: high justice, which heard appeals; justice of first instance, which included an ecclesiastical court, an Admiralty court and courts of royal jurisdiction; and, at the bottom of the hierarchy, seigniorial justice, which could submit appeals to the courts of royal jurisdiction.  The courts of royal jurisdiction were the most active because they were located in the principal towns of New France and would hear both civil and criminal cases.











In 1818, the stocks were used to expose wrongdoers to the public in order to damage their reputation.  Occasionally, an iron collar, like the one made at the Forges of St. Maurice, was made at the Forges of St. Maurice, and used around a prisoner’s neck when condemned to public exposure.  Prison doors are from the same period.


As in Europe, the administration of justice was meant to serve as a warning.  The punishments – whips, branding irons, iron collars, stocks and hanging – reflect the period’s familiarity with violence, blood and death.


Changes were made, however, to create a more accessible and fair system than in France.  Judicial administrative positions were no longer sold as in France.  Lawyers were banned because they were accused of provoking quarrels or delaying proceedings.  Time limits for certain cases were extended to take into account distances and weather.  The absence of witnesses was excused for the same reasons.


In spite of these measures, the dream of a better justice system was not fully achieved.  Accused individuals were deprived of advisers or defenders.  People with money could more easily initiate legal action.  Those living in towns had greater access to the justice system, since most courts were located there.


Other informations

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Overtaking the New France


First industries




Road to the U.S







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