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Posted on March 17th, 2013, by

It’s common knowledge that France along with the United Kingdom and Spain was among the most active colonizers in the age of the great geographical discoveries, also known as the Age of Exploration. The scientists and sailors were interested in new impressions and adventures, while governments and trade actors were interested in new territories to inhabit, in raw materials bases, in new trade clients and new sources of profit on the whole. For that number of reasons, French expeditions started to explore the lands in North America. In 1523 the expedition to the lands of modern Canada was undertaken by Giovanni da Verrazzano who gave the name of Nova Galllia (New France) to the land between New Spain (today Mexico) and English Newfoundland From 1589 to 1610, France was ruled by the King Henry IV. He was a progressive ruler and looked forward to sending ventures to the shores of the North America. By his guidance, the expedition was sent. The Saint Lawrence Rover was explored by Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century. In 1605, to the north of Florida, he founded Port Royal. Port Royal became the first permanent European settlement in North America. In 1608 it was followed by the establishment of Quebec. In this way, New France gradually appeared, changing cardinally all the lifestyles and fates of the Native ethnic groups.

Bruce Trigger, who investigates the long history of the Native Americans, notes that A history of the Huron people in the 16th and 17th centuries is necessarily a history of the French in New France, especially French Jesuits and Recollet friars, the Five Nations Iroquois, and, to a lesser extent, the Algonquian speaking neighbors of the Huron and Iroquois.

The Huron, the indigenous inhabitants of North America, called themselves the Wyandots or the Wendats, which stands for Islanders, Dwellers of the Peninsula. Meanwhile, the word Huron was proposed by the early French explorers, meaning ruffian, rustic, or boar’s head (for the strange hairdressings of the Natives). This was a confederacy of four tribes, the Attignawantan, Arendarhonon, Atttineenongnahae, and Tahontaenrat. In total, these four tribes made up about 18-40 thousand people. Initially they occupied the areas of the northern shore of the Lake Ontario, being later forced to migrate to the Georgian Bay. Agriculture was their prevailing sphere of economy. Their history has been studied by numerous anthropologists, historians, archeologists and linguists, and scholar research goes on. One of the basic prominent explorers providing the data for understanding the controversies of the New France history was Jacques Cartier. At the peak of its history, in 1712, New France embraced the lands from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s why the entire Canada was sometimes called New France. Canada was the political and military headquarters for the wider New France, and it was home to about 90 per cent of the empire’s European population; no wonder contemporaries tended to equate this one colonial enclave with New France itself, Greer explains

The word Canada is considered to derive from the language of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, where it stood for village.
First of all, the French settlers had a high goal’ of proselytizing the Huron villages. Their arrival was justified by the mission of the Enlightenment and salvation of the lost sheep’, that is to say to bring Christianity as the only true and correct religion to the pagan tribes. Initially, these were the Récollets from Rouen who arrived at Quebec City on June 2, 1615. Their role is traced to be of great importance, though in 1629 they had to leave New France in 1629, being substituted by the Jesuits. The Jesuit missions would gain a strong foothold in North America in 1632, with the arrival of the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune, Trigger states. Between 1632 and 1650, 46 French Jesuit arrived to preach among the Indians. Apart from other achievements, the Récollet fathers are believed to have introduced the art of brewing beer to the New France settlers in 1620.

Secondly, the colonizers searched for fertile lands and different raw materials, while the European lands have been already exhausted or lacking certain advantages. In this way, the French newcomers found themselves in the region of the Great Lakes. French trading was then based at Tadoussac, downstream at the mouth of the Saguenay River, within the territory of the Montagnais . The Penetanguishene Peninsula on the shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay was inhabited by the tribes of the so-called Huron tribes, speaking the Iroquoian language. The Huron found themselves being situated rather conveniently to master the trade relations with the French. The nearby forests were full of fur-bearing animals, that is why fur was one of the main products bringing profit to the Huron who were skillful hunters and trappers. Besides, Huron are believed to be the most advanced trading nation at the time. Through this bargain the French demanded the locals to allow the Roman Catholic missionaries settle there.

Another side of medal is that the neighboring Iroquois tribes in the south didn’t have access to fur of the same quantity and quality, and therefore they wanted to fight for the lands. Conflict was inevitable, as Trigger admits . It was just at the same time when the Huron population was divided by the successful proselytizing actions of the Jesuits. A part of population was already on the side of the French Catholics, while there were still many factions of traditionalist religion. At the same tie unity was urgently needed to withstand the hostile encroachments of the Iroquois. As Brett Rushforth states, In the mid- to late-16th century, the St. Lawrence Valley was likely an area of open conflict among tribes closer to the area. On the other hand, the French brought new kinds of weapon to the Huron and to a certain extent helped to compensate their weak military forces and lack of skill in the questions of war. Inter-tribal warfare was truly severe. As historians inform, on March 16, 1649, an Iroquois war party of about 1000 people burned the Huron mission villages of St. Ignace and St. Louis (present-day Simcoe County Ontario) and murdered approximately 300 people. A lot of the Jesuit missionaries were killed too. To save the crops, the Huron burnt their own villages and escaped to other neighboring tribes. Unfortunately, the land was not so fruitful and hospitable there, and a lot of people died of starvation. Those who survived are said to do it due to cannibalism.

In this way, the Huron were drawn into devastating wars, which is considered to be one of the decisive factors and reasons for the disappearance of the Huron nation. Another causes listed are migration and the destructive influence of the French colonizers.

As for these destructive effects, incurable diseases brought from the Old World mowed away thousands of men and women and children especially. The epidemics 1634 1640 arose because the local people did not have the immunity against such diseases as measles and smallpox brought from Europe by the missioners. According to the epidemiological findings, at the beginning of 1634 there was a huge migration wave from France and other European countries. Among the immigrants, there were a lot of children who are said to spread endemic smallpox. As a result, a great number of Huron villages were absolutely and permanently abandoned. About two-thirds of the population died in the epidemics,[19] decreasing the population to about 12,000, Francis Parkman resumes.

It goes without saying that the reaction of the local population was sharply negative, and therefore they showed much resistance to the hostile religion. They believed the newcomers to bring the curse to their lands, as the epidemic coincided not only with the warfare devastation, but also with bad weather conditions and failure of crops. However, the behavior of the French missioners is believed to be rather respectful and delicate, if compared with the tactics of the English Puritans. The French showed much respect to the traditions, culture, dress of the local people, they learned the Indian languages and tried to adapt Christianity to the beliefs of the Huron by means of parallels between symbolic and mystical systems. Francis Parkman even wrote: Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him

Another interesting aspect is a shift in gender roles. In Europe the men were unconditionally governing women in all the questions. Patriarchy was not a program or a policy consciously devised by power-hungry men; in normal circumstances, it was not a subject for debate and discussion; we should recognize patriarchy as something more profound a pattern of thinking and acting that had, over the centuries, entered into the customs and into the very languages of Europe, structuring relationships and shaping personal identities. At the same time, the Huron and other Native peoples in New France had other views on gender. The men were the main in the society, but women also had much respect, they worked hard often and took part in decisions for choosing a chief. Descent went through the female line, and on the whole the views of women were always taken to account in the community. So, there was no gender hierarchy. The colonizers brought their changes, as on the one hand, religion demanded women to be obedient and silent, and on the other hand, marriages with local women were encouraged by the King of France. However, despite the expectations, the missionaries did not significantly change the gender roles in the Native society. Firstly, the resistance was rather strong, and thus the Jesuits had to agree with the compromises. Secondly, the Iroquois women turned out to be much more responsive to the catholic religion, and as a result these women received even more privileges in the Catholic settlement.
Family was the most important actor in the New France society, though the roles of men and women were not equal. Women were also involved in hard labor, not only in traditional female activities like household and child breeding. Moreover, there is some evidence that women made even a greater contribution to the economical development of the colonies.
Further, it is interesting to underline that, by contrast to British laws, in French Canada married woman was not obliged to subsume her economic identity under her spouse’s name. In fact, a husband and a wife made up something like a marital community’ (communaute de biens). A sort of two-person corporation was owned by both spouses equally. And even when contracts were signed, the signatures of both husband and wife were normally required.

All in all, the French brought a lot of changes to the early societies of New France. Most of Native peoples became the victims of new civilization, but they showed much intelligence, skill and persistence to withstand the negative influences. The Jesuits had to adapt to them to maintain their influence, and the local people did everything to save their culture and identity. After the Seven Years War, in 1763, the colonial rule of Canada and the territories to the east of the Mississippi River went to Great Britain.


Greer, Allan. The people of New France. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 19974.Trigger, Bruce G. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s Heroic Age Reconsidered. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986.
Parkman, Francis, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century: France and England in North America, Vol II. Fairford: Echo Library, 2008.
Rushforth, Brett A Little Flesh We Offer You: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France, William and Mary Quarterly 60.4 (2003): 777-800.
Trigger, Bruce G. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s Heroic Age Reconsidered. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986.
Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987.

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