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New France (1600-1763)

By Caroline Masse

The territory of New France changed over time, but the colony was initially established in the St. Lawrence River valley. New France was at its largest in the early 18th century when it also included Hudson Bay, Labrador, Newfoundland, Acadia, the Great Lakes region and Louisiana.

The fur trade

During the 17th and 18th centuries, New France's fur trade accounted for up to 70 per cent of its commercial exports. The trade was the monopoly of companies that reserved the right to export beaver pelts and imposed a tax on all furs. The foundation of the fur business was the bartering or trading of hides with Aboriginal peoples. Through a process of barter - an exchange of commodities - Native groups swapped their furs for goods, rather than money.

Most trading in the 17th century took place during the great spring fairs, especially those held in Montreal, where Aboriginal peoples came in large numbers to exchange their furs. By the end of the 17th century, however, these gatherings had died out. The French government introduced a system requiring that traders purchase a licence - a congé de traite - designed to control movement towards the West. Thus were born the coureurs des bois or voyageurs - fur traders - who travelled further and further from the colony to meet with Aboriginals and obtain their furs.

Canada's Aboriginal peoples exchanged furs against guns, gunpowder, liquor, tobacco, pots and pans, wool blankets and tools. They were also keen consumers of various European products such as clothes, flint lighters and sewing needles. The most highly prized fur was that of the beaver, used to make felt for hats, but the range of animal skins traded was wide. Each skin had a clearly established value measured in plues or made beaver. A plue - a prime adult beaver pelt - was actually used as a monetary standard.

There were very few real roads in the 18th century in Canada. Basically, the road system consisted of city streets and country roads fronting a tenant's lands, which it was their job to keep clear and maintained. The Chemin du Roy - the King's Road - which ran from Quebec City to Montreal along the St. Lawrence River's north shore, was not finally completed until 1735. In the hinterland, there simply were no roads. But people travelled nonetheless, navigating their way via the country's many rivers and lakes: the St. Lawrence and its tributaries, the Saguenay, the Outaouais, the Saint-Maurice, the Richelieu, Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes system, from which the truly intrepid could reach the Ohio River valley.

A seigneurial system

Under the French regime, the system of colonization and settlement employed in Canada was essentially the feudal seigneurial system. The representative of the king of France, generally the intendant of the colony, would allocate sections of land called seigneuries to eligible candidates, who thus became lords or seigneurs. It was the responsibility of these landowners to further distribute the land and ensure its development by granting tenancies.

The tenant, or censitaire, was obliged to pay annual dues (in the form of cash, kind or services) to the seigneur. Part of the seigneury was invariably reserved as the owner's personal estate, and it is here that he would build his manor house. Being a seigneur did not necessarily mean being a member of the nobility. These landowners were drawn from all sectors of society: among their ranks were civil administrators, professionals, military officers, members of religious communities and even newly arrived settlers.

The tenant used the land for agriculture, but as a rule the crops that he grew barely provided him with a living. If there was a poor harvest or a war that took him away from his land at sowing or harvesting time, he was unable to pay the dues owed to the seigneur. For the most part, making sure his land was productive only occupied the seigneur part time. Often, he held a government position or was a soldier who also made money in the fur trade or some other business.

Among the seigneur's duties was the construction and maintenance of a mill to grind the grain produced by his tenants. The tenant was obliged to use the mill to grind his grain and to give the seigneur one fourteenth of the total grain ground by way of dues.

Daily life

Canada's seigneurs and more prosperous citizens appreciated the fine French fabrics on sale in the colony. India cotton, gold-shot damask, velvet, lace from Flanders and England, materials of silk and satin, fine linens - all were extremely popular. And the fashions that held sway in the French court were eagerly copied.

The habitants made their own work clothes out of linen, hemp or coarse wool, often lined with leather or fur for additional warmth. Newly arrived settlers would adapt their garments to the rigours of their adopted country; their winter garments, especially, gradually became more canadien as items like moose skin gloves and bear or caribou hide jerkins were added.

Although the colony's basic functional furniture was made by local craftsmen, the more stylish, luxurious pieces were initially imported from Europe, as were the finest china, mirrors, clocks and fabrics. Inventories from this period list many pieces of furniture in the Louis XV style, including wing chairs, commodes, settees and games tables, which were no doubt eagerly awaited as ships from France began arriving each spring. During the 18th century, however, cabinetmakers in New France began copying this European furniture and were soon producing similar but much less expensive items.

Towards the Plains of Abraham

In the French army, power was in the hands of commissioned officers. During the 18th century, military commissions could be purchased. An exception to the rule was the Compagnies franches de la Marine - the French Colonial Regular Troops - in which commissions were obtained through merit or influence.

Several objects were vital components of an officer's equipment. The engraved powder horn, pistols and drinking cup would have been used every day. Other items were of a more symbolic or honorary nature. Besides the various badges and embellishments indicating his military rank, an officer wore a special emblem: a crescent-shaped metal neckpiece called a gorget.

Between 1754 and 1760, New France was ravaged by yet another war between the French and the English - the fifth in its history. Several battles marked these years, and although the French achieved a number of early victories, after 1758 defeat succeeded defeat until the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Montreal finally capitulated in September of 1760. Until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763, the Canadians lived under a transitional military regime.


Source: "Marguerite Volant. Passion, history and fiction" Exhibition Text, 1996-1998.

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