Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5.

Author: William Bennett Munro


What would history be without the picturesque annals of the Gallic race? This is a question which the serious student may well ask himself as he works his way through the chronicles of a dozen centuries. From the age of Charlemagne to the last of the Bonapartes is a long stride down the ages; but there was never a time in all these years when men might make reckonings in the arithmetic of European politics without taking into account the prestige, the power, and even the primacy of France. There were times without number when France among her neighbours made herself hated with an undying hate; there were times, again, when she rallied them to her side in friendship and admiration. There were epochs in which her hegemony passed unquestioned among men of other lands, and there were times when a sudden shift in fortune seemed to lay the nation prostrate, with none so poor to do her reverence.

It was France that first brought an orderly nationalism out of feudal chaos; it was her royal house of Capet that rallied Europe to the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre and led the greatest of the crusades to Palestine. Yet the France of the last crusades was within a century the France of Crecy, just as the France of Austerlitz was more speedily the France of Waterloo; and men who followed the tricolour at Solferino lived to see it furled in humiliation at Sedan. No other country has had a history as prolific in triumph and reverse, in epochs of peaceful progress and periods of civil commotion, in pageant and tragedy, in all that gives fascination to historical narrative. Happy the land whose annals are tiresome! Not such has been the fortune of poor old France.

The sage Tocqueville has somewhere remarked that whether France was loved or hated by the outside world she could not be ignored. That is very true. The Gaul has at all stages of his national history defied an attitude of indifference in others. His country has been at many times the head and at all times the heart of Europe. His hysteria has made Europe hysterical, while his sober national sense at critical moments has held the whole continent to good behaviour. For a half-dozen centuries there was never a squabble at any remote part of Europe in which France did not stand ready and willing to take a hand on the slightest opportunity. That policy, as pursued particularly by Louis XIV and the Bonapartes, made a heavy drain in brawn and brain on the vitality of the race; but despite it all, the peaceful achievements of France within her own borders continued to astonish mankind. It is this astounding vigour, this inexhaustible stamina, this unexampled recuperative power that has at all times made France a nation which, whether men admire or condemn her policy, can never be treated with indifference. It was these qualities which enabled her, throughout exhausting foreign troubles, to retain her leadership in European scholarship, in philosophy, art, and architecture; this is what has enabled France to be the grim warrior of Europe without ceasing ever to be the idealist of the nations.

It was during one of her proud and prosperous eras that France began her task of creating an empire beyond the Atlantic. At no time, indeed, was she better equipped for the work. No power of Western Europe since the days of Roman glory had possessed such facilities for conquering and governing new lands. If ever there was a land able and ready to take up the white man’s burden it was the France of the seventeenth century. The nation had become the first military power of Europe. Spain and Italy had ceased to be serious rivals. Even England, under the Stuart dynasty, tacitly admitted the military primacy of France. Nor was this superiority of the French confined to the science of war. It passed unquestioned in the arts of peace. Even Rome at the height of her power could not dominate every field of human activity. She could rule the people with authority and overcome the proud; but even her own poets rendered homage to Greece in the realms of art, sculpture, and eloquence. But France was the aesthetic as well as the military dictator of seventeenth- century Europe. Her authority was supreme, as Macaulay says, on all matters from orthodoxy in architecture to the proper cut of a courtier’s clothes. Her monarchs were the first gentlemen of Europe. Her nobility set the social standards of the day. The rank and file of her people—and there were at least twenty million of them in the days of Louis Quatorze—were making a fertile land yield its full increase. The country was powerful, rich, prosperous, and, for the time being, outwardly contented.

So far as her form and spirit of government went, France by the middle of the seventeenth century was a despotism both in theory and in fact. Men were still living who could recall the day when France had a real parliament, the Estates-General as it was called. This body had at one time all the essentials of a representative assembly. It might have become, as the English House of Commons became, the grand inquest of the nation. But it did not do so. The waxing personal strength of the monarchy curbed its influence, its authority weakened, and throughout the great century of French colonial expansion from 1650 to 1750 the Estates-General was never convoked. The centralization of political power was complete. ’The State! I am the State.’ These famous words imputed to Louis XIV expressed no vain boast of royal power. Speaking politically, France was a pyramid. At the apex was the Bourbon sovereign. In him all lines of authority converged. Subordinate to him in authority, and dominated by him when he willed it, were various appointive councils, among them the Council of State and the so-called Parliament of Paris, which was not a parliament at all, but a semi- judicial body entrusted with the function of registering the royal decrees. Below these in the hierarchy of officialdom came the intendants of the various provinces —forty or more of them. Loyal agents of the crown were these intendants. They saw to it that no royal mandate ever went unheeded in any part of the king’s domain. These forty intendants were the men who really bridged the great administrative gulf which lay between the royal court and the people. They were the most conspicuous, the most important, and the most characteristic officials of the old regime. Without them the royal authority would have tumbled over by its own sheer top-heaviness. They were the eyes and ears of the monarchy; they provided the monarch with fourscore eager hands to work his sovereign will. The intendants, in turn, had their underlings, known as the sub-delegates, who held the peasantry in leash. Thus it was that the administration, like a pyramid, broadened towards its base, and the whole structure rested upon the third estate, or rank and file of the people. Such was the position, the power, and administrative framework of France when her kings and people turned their eyes westward across the seas. From the rugged old Norman and Breton seaports courageous mariners had been for a long time lengthening their voyages to new coasts. As early as 1534 Jacques Cartier of St Malo had made the first of his pilgrimages to the St Lawrence, and in 1542 his associate Roberval had attempted to plant a colony there. They had found the shores of the great river to be inhospitable; the winters were rigorous; no stores of mineral wealth had appeared; nor did the land seem to possess great agricultural possibilities. From Mexico the Spanish galleons were bearing home their rich cargoes of silver bullion. In Virginia the English navigators had found a land of fair skies and fertile soil. But the hills and valleys of the northland had shouted no such greeting to the voyageurs of Brittany. Cartier had failed to make his landfall at Utopia, and the balance-sheet of his achievements, when cast up in 1544, had offered a princely dividend of disappointment.

For a half-century following the abortive efforts of Cartier and Roberval, the French authorities had made no serious or successful attempt to plant a colony in the New World. That is not surprising, for there were troubles in plenty at home. Huguenots and Catholics were at each other’s throats; the wars of the Fronde convulsed the land; and it was not till the very end of the sixteenth century that the country settled down to peace within its own borders. Some facetious chronicler has remarked that the three chief causes of early warfare were Christianity, herrings, and cloves. There is much golden truth in that nugget. For if one could take from human history all the strife that has been due either to bigotry or to commercial avarice, a fair portion of the bloodstreaks would be washed from its pages. For the time being, at any rate, France had so much fighting at home that she was unable, like her Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English neighbours, to gain strategic points for future fighting abroad. Those were days when, if a people would possess the gates of their enemies, it behoved them to begin early. France made a late start, and she was forced to take, in consequence, what other nations had shown no eagerness to seize.

It was Samuel Champlain, a seaman of Brouage, who first secured for France and for Frenchmen a sure foothold in North America, and thus became the herald of Bourbon imperialism. After a youth spent at sea, Champlain engaged for some years in the armed conflicts with the Huguenots; then he returned to his old marine life once more. He sailed to the Spanish main and elsewhere, thereby gaining skill as a navigator and ambition to be an explorer of new coasts. In 1603 came an opportunity to join an expedition to the St Lawrence, and from this time to the end of his days the Brouage mariner gave his whole interest and energies to the work of planting an outpost of empire in the New World. Champlain was scarcely thirty-six when he made his first voyage to Canada; he died at Quebec on Christmas Day, 1635. His service to the king and nation extended over three decades.

With the crew of his little vessel, the Don de Dieu, Champlain cast anchor on July 9, 1608, beneath the frowning natural ramparts of Cape Diamond, and became the founder of a city built upon a rock. The felling of trees and the hewing of wood began. Within a few weeks Champlain raised his rude fort, brought his provisions ashore, established relations with the Indians, and made ready with his twenty-eight followers to spend the winter in the new settlement. It was a painful experience. The winter was long and bitter; scurvy raided the Frenchmen’s cramped quarters, and in the spring only eight followers were alive to greet the ship which came with new colonists and supplies. It took a soul of iron to continue the project of nation-planting after such a tragic beginning; but Champlain was not the man to recoil from the task. More settlers were landed; women and children were brought along; land was broken for cultivation; and in due course a little village grew up about the fort. This was Quebec, the centre and soul of French hopes beyond the Atlantic.

For the first twenty years of its existence the little colony had a stormy time. Some of the settlers were unruly, and gave Champlain, who was both maker and enforcer of the laws, a hard task to hold them in control. During these years the king took little interest in his new domains; settlers came slowly, and those who came seemed to be far more interested in trading with the Indians than in carving out permanent homes for themselves. Few there were among them who thought of anything but a quick competence from the profits of the fur trade, and a return to France at the earliest opportunity thereafter.

Now it was the royal idea, in so far as the busy monarch of France had any fixed purpose in the matter, that the colony should be placed upon a feudal basis—that lands should be granted and sub-granted on feudal terms. In other words, the king or his representative stood ready to give large tracts or fiefs in New France to all immigrants whose station in life warranted the belief that they would maintain the dignity of seigneurs. These, in turn, were to sub-grant the land to ordinary settlers, who came without financial resources, sent across usually at the expense of His Majesty. In this way the French authorities hoped to create a powerful military colony with a feudal hierarchy as its outstanding feature.

Feudalism is a much-abused term. To the minds of most laymen it has a rather hazy association with things despotic, oppressive, and mediaeval. The mere mention of the term conjures up those days of the Dark Ages when armour-clad knights found their chief recreation in running lances through one another; when the overworked, underfed labourers of the field cringed and cowered before every lordly whim. Most readers seem to get their notions of chivalry from Scott’s Talisman, and their ideas on feudalism from the same author’s immortal Ivanhoe. While scholars keep up a merry disputation as to the historical origin of the feudal system, the public imagination goes steadily on with its own curious picture of how that system lived and moved and had its being. A prolix tale of origins would be out of place in this chronicle; but even the mind of the man in the street ought to be set right as regards what feudalism was designed to do, and what in fact it did, for mankind, while civilization battled its way down the ages.

Feudalism was a system of social relations based upon land. It grew out of the chaos which came upon Europe in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. The fall of Roman power flattened the whole political structure of Western Europe, and nothing arose to take its place. Every lord or princeling was left to depend for defence upon the strength of his own arm; so he gathered around him as many vassals as he could. He gave them land; they gave him what he most wanted,—a promise to serve and aid in time of war. The lord gave and promised to guard; the vassal took and promised to serve. Thus there was created a personal relation, a bond of mutual loyalty, wardship, and service, which bound liegeman to lord with hoops of steel. No one can read Carlyle’s trenchant Past and Present without bearing away some vivid and altogether wholesome impressions concerning the essential humanity of this great mediaeval institution. It shares with the Christian Church the honour of having made life worth living in days when all else combined to make it intolerable. It brought at least a semblance of social, economic, and political order out of helpless and hopeless disorganization. It helped Europe slowly to recover from the greatest catastrophe in all her history.

But our little systems have their day, as the poet assures us. They have their day and cease to be. Feudalism had its day, from dawn to twilight a day of picturesque memory. But it did not cease to exist when its day of service was done. Long after the necessity for mutual service and protection had passed away; long after the growth of firm monarchies with powerful standing armies had established the reign of law, the feudal system kept its hold upon the social order in France and elsewhere. The obligation of military service, when no longer needed, was replaced by dues and payments. The modern cash nexus replaced the old personal bond between vassal and lord. The feudal system became the seigneurial system. The lord became the seigneur; the vassal became the censitaire or peasant cultivator whose chief function was to yield revenue for his seigneur’s purse. These were great changes which sapped the spirit of the ancient institution. No longer bound to their dependants by any personal tie, the seigneurs usually turned affairs over to their bailiffs, men with hearts of adamant, who squeezed from the seigneuries every sou the hapless peasantry could yield. These publicans of the old regime have much to answer for. They and their work were not least among the causes which brought upon the crown and upon the privileged orders that terrible retribution of the Red Terror. Not with the mediaeval institution of feudalism, but with its emaciated descendant, the seigneurial system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ought men to associate, if they must, their notions of grinding oppression and class hatred.

Out to his new colony on the St Lawrence the king sent this seigneurial system. A gross and gratuitous outrage, a characteristic manifestation of Bourbon stupidity—that is a common verdict upon the royal action. But it may well be asked: What else was there to do? The seigneurial system was still the basis of land tenure in France. The nobility and even the throne rested upon it. The Church sanctioned and supported it. The people in general, whatever their attitude towards seigneurialism, were familiar with no other system of landholding. It was not, like the encomienda system which Spain planted in Mexico, an arrangement cut out of new cloth for the more ruthless exploitation of a fruitful domain. The Puritan who went to Massachusetts Bay took his system of socage tenure along with him. The common law went with the flag of England. It was quite as natural that the Custom of Paris should follow the fleurs-de-lis.

There was every reason to expect, moreover, that in the New World the seigneurial system would soon free itself from those barnacles of privilege and oppression which were encrusted on its sides at home. Here was a small settlement of pioneers surrounded by hostile aborigines. The royal arm, strong as it was at home, could not well afford protection a thousand leagues away. The colony must organize and learn to protect itself. In other words, the colonial environment was very much like that in which the yeomen of the Dark Ages had found themselves. And might not its dangers be faced in the old feudal way? They were faced in this way. In the history of French Canada we find the seigneurial system forced back towards its old feudal plane. We see it gain in vitality; we see the old personal bond between lord and vassal restored to some of its pristine strength; we see the military aspects of the system revived, and its more sordid phases thrust aside. It turned New France into a huge armed camp; it gave the colony a closely knit military organization; and, in a day when Canada needed every ounce of her strength to ward off encircling enemies both white and red, it did for her what no other system could be expected to do.

But to return to the little cradle of empire at the foot of Cape Diamond. Champlain for a score of years worked himself to premature old age in overcoming those many obstacles which always meet the pioneer. More settlers were brought; a few seigneuries were granted; priests were summoned from France; a new fort was built; and by sheer perseverance a settlement of about three hundred souls had been established by 1627. But no single individual, however untiring in his efforts, could do all that needed to be done. It was consequently arranged, with the entire approval of Champlain, that the task of building up the colony should be entrusted to a great colonizing company formed for the purpose under royal auspices. In this project the moving spirit was no less a personage than Cardinal Richelieu, the great minister of Louis XIII. Official France was now really interested. Hitherto its interest, while profusely enough expressed, had been little more than perfunctory. With Richelieu as its sponsor a company was easily organized. Though by royal decree it was chartered as the Company of New France, it became more commonly known as the Company of One Hundred Associates; for it was a co-operative organization with one hundred members, some of them traders and merchants, but more of them courtiers. Colonizing companies were the fashion of Richelieu’s day. Holland and England were exploiting new lands by the use of companies; there was no good reason why France should not do likewise.

This system of company exploitation was particularly popular with the monarchs of all these European countries. It made no demands on the royal purse. If failure attended the company’s ventures the king bore no financial loss. But if the company succeeded, if its profits were large and its achievements great, the king might easily step in and claim his share of it all as the price of royal protection and patronage. In both England and Holland the scheme worked out in that way. An English stock company began and developed the work which finally placed India in the possession of the British crown; a similar Dutch organization in due course handed over Java as a rich patrimony to the king of the Netherlands. France, however, was not so fortunate. True enough, the Company of One Hundred Associates made a brave start; its charter gave great privileges, and placed on the company large obligations; it seemed as though a new era in French colonization had begun. ’Having in view the establishment of a powerful military colony,’ as this charter recites, the king gave to the associates the entire territory claimed by France in the western hemisphere, with power to govern, create trade, grant lands, and bestow titles of nobility. For its part the company was to send out settlers, at least two hundred of them a year; it was to provide them with free transportation, give them free lands and initial subsistence; it was to support priests and teachers—in fact, to do all things necessary for the creation of that ’powerful military colony’ which His Majesty had in expectation.

It happened, however, that the first fleet the company dispatched in 1628 did not reach Canada. The ships were attacked and captured, and in the following year Quebec itself fell into English hands. After its restoration in 1632 the company, greatly crippled, resumed operations, but did very little for the upbuilding of the colony. Few settlers were sent out at all, and of these still fewer went at the company’s expense. In only two ways did the company, after the first few years of its existence, show any interest in its new territories. In the first place, its officers readily grasped the opportunity to make some profits out of the fur trade. Each year ships were sent to Quebec; merchandise was there landed, and a cargo of furs taken in exchange. If the vessel ever reached home, despite the risks of wreck and capture, a handsome dividend for those interested was the outcome. But the risks were great, and, after a time, when the profits declined, the company showed scant interest in even the trading part of its business. The other matter in which the directors of the company showed some interest was in the giving of seigneuries —chiefly to themselves. About sixty of these seigneuries were granted, large tracts all of them. One director of the company secured the whole island of Orleans as his seigneurial estate; others took generous slices on both shores of the St Lawrence. But not one of these men lifted a finger in the way of redeeming his huge fief from the wilderness. Every one seems to have had great zeal in getting hold of these vast tracts with the hope that they would some day rise in value. As for the development of the lands, however, neither the company nor its officers showed any such fervour in serving the royal cause. Thirty years after the company had taken its charter there were only about two thousand inhabitants in the colony; not more than four thousand arpents of land were under cultivation; trade had failed to increase; and the colonists were openly demanding a change of policy.

When Louis XIV came to the throne and chose Colbert as his chief minister it was deemed wise to look into the colonial situation. [Footnote: See in this Series ’The Great Intendant’, chap. I.] Both were surprised and angered by the showing. It appeared that not only had the company neglected its obligations, but that its officers had shrewdly concealed their shortcomings from the royal notice. The great Bourbon therefore acted promptly and with firmness. In a couple of notable royal decrees he read the directors a severe lecture upon their avarice and inaction, took away all the company’s powers, confiscated to the crown all the seigneuries which the directors had granted to themselves, and ordered that the colony should thenceforth be administered as a royal province. By his later actions the king showed that he meant what his edicts implied. The colony passed under direct royal government in 1663, and virtually remained there until its surrender into English hands an even century later.

Louis XIV was greatly interested in Canada. From beginning to end of his long administration he showed this interest at every turn. His officials sent from Quebec their long dispatches; the patient monarch read them all, and sent by the next ship his budget of orders, advice, reprimand, and praise. As a royal province, New France had for its chief official a governor who represented the royal dignity and power. The governor was the chief military officer, and it was to him that the king looked for the proper care of all matters relating to the defence and peace of New France. Then there was the Sovereign Council, a body made up of the bishop, the intendant, and certain prominent citizens of the colony named by the king on the advice of his colonial representatives. This council was both a law-making and a judicial body. It registered and published the royal decrees, made local regulations, and acted as the supreme court of the colony. But the official who loomed largest in the purely civil affairs of New France was the intendant. He was the overseas apostle of Bourbon paternalism, and as his commission authorized him to ’order all things as he may think just and proper,’ the intendant never found much opportunity for idleness.

Tocqueville, shrewdest among historians of pre-revolutionary France, has somewhere pointed out that under the old regime the administration took the place of Providence. It sought to be as omniscient and as omnipotent; its ways were quite as inscrutable. In this policy the intendant was the royal man-of-all-work. The king spoke and the intendant transformed his words into action. As the sovereign’s great interest in the colony moved him to speak often, the intendant’s activity was prodigious. Ordinances, edicts, judgments and decrees fairly flew from his pen like sparks from an anvil. Nothing that needed setting aright was too inconsequential for a paternal order. An ordinance establishing a system of weights and measures for the colony rubs shoulders with another inhibiting the youngsters of Quebec from sleigh- riding down its hilly thoroughfares in icy weather. Printed in small type these decrees of the intendant’s make up a bulky volume, the present-day interest of which is only to show how often the hand of authority thrust itself into the daily walk and conversation of Old Canada.

From first to last there were a dozen intendants of New France. Jean Talon, whose prudence and energy did much to set the colony on its feet, was the first; Fracois Bigot, the arch-plunderer of public funds, who did so much to bring the land to disaster, was the last. Between them came a line of sensible, hard-working, and loyal men who gave the best that was in them to the uphill task of making the colony what their royal master wanted it to be. Unfortunate it is that Bigot’s astounding depravity has led too many readers and writers of Canadian history to look upon the intendancy of New France as a post held chiefly by rascals. As a class no men served the French crown more steadfastly or to better purpose.

Now it was to the intendant, in Talon’s time, that the king committed the duty of granting seigneuries and of supervising the seigneurial system in operation. But, later, when Count Frontenac, the iron governor of the colony, came into conflict with the intendant on various other matters, he made complaint to the court at Versailles that the intendant was assuming too much authority. A royal decree therefore ordered that for the future these grants should he made by the governor and intendant jointly. Thenceforth they were usually so made, although in some cases the intendant disregarded the royal instructions and signed the title-deeds alone; and it appears that in all cases he was the main factor in determining who should get seigneuries and who should not. The intendant, moreover, made himself the chief guardian of the relations between the seigneurs and their seigneurial tenants. When the seigneurs tried to exact in the way of honours, dues, and services any more than the laws and customs of the land allowed, the watchful intendant promptly checkmated them with a restrictive decree. Or when some seigneurial claim, even though warranted by law or custom, seemed to be detrimental to the general wellbeing of the people, he regularly brought the matter to the attention of the home government and invoked its intervention. In all such matters he was praetor and tribune combined. Without the intendancy the seigneurial system would soon have become an agent of oppression, for some Canadian seigneurs were quite as avaricious as their friends at home.

The heyday of Canadian feudalism was the period from 1663 to about 1750. During this interval nearly three hundred fiefs were granted. Most of them went to officials of the civil administration, many to retired military officers, many others to the Church and its affiliated institutions, and some to merchants and other lay inhabitants of the colony. Certain seigneurs set to work with real zeal, bringing out settlers from France and steadily getting larger portions of their fiefs under cultivation. Others showed far less enterprise, and some no enterprise at all. From time to time the king and his ministers would make inquiry as to the progress being made. The intendant would reply with a memoire often of pitiless length, setting forth the facts and figures. Then His Majesty would respond with an edict ordering that all seigneurs who did not forthwith help the colony by putting settlers on their lands should have their grants revoked. But the seigneurs who were most at fault in this regard were usually the ones who had most influence in the little administrative circle at Quebec. Hence the king’s orders were never enforced to the letter, and sometimes not enforced at all. Unlike the Parliament of Paris, the Sovereign Council at Quebec never refused to register a royal edict. What would have happened in the event of its doing so is a query that legal antiquarians might find difficult to answer. Even a sovereign decree bearing the Bourbon sign-manual could not gain the force of law in Canada except by being spread upon the council’s records. In France the king could come clattering with his escort to the council hall and there, by his so termed ’bed of justice,’ compel the registration of his decrees. But the Chateau of St Louis at Quebec was too far away for any such violent procedure.

The colonial council never sought to find out what would follow an open defiance of the royal wishes. It had a safer plan. Decrees were always promptly registered; but when they did not suit the councillors they were just as promptly pigeon-holed, and the people of the colony were thus left in complete ignorance of the new regulations. On one occasion the intendant Raudot, in looking over the council records for legal light on a case before him, found a royal decree which had been registered by the council some twenty years before, but not an inkling of which had ever reached the people to whom it had conveyed new rights against their seigneurs. ’It was the interest of the attorney-general as a seigneur, as it was also the interest of other councillors who are seigneurs, that the provisions of this decree should never be made public,’ is the frank way in which the intendant explained the matter in one of his dispatches to the king. The fact is that the royal arm, supremely powerful at home, lost a good deal of its strength when stretched across a thousand leagues of ocean. If anything happened amiss after the ships left Quebec in the late summer, there was no regular means of making report to the king for a full twelvemonth. The royal reply could not be had at the earliest until the ensuing spring; if the king’s advisers desired to look into matters fully it sometimes happened that another year passed before the royal decision reached Quebec. By that time matters had often righted themselves, or the issue had been forgotten. At any rate the direct influence of the crown was much less effective than it would have been had the colony been within easy reach. The governor and intendant were accordingly endowed by the force of circumstances with large discretionary powers. When they agreed it was possible to order things about as they chose. When they disagreed on any project the matter went off to the king for decision, which often meant that it was shelved indefinitely.

The administration of New France was not efficient. There were too many officials for the size and needs of the colony. Their respective spheres of authority were too loosely defined. Nor did the crown desire to have every one working in harmony. A moderate amount of friction— provided it did not wholly clog the wheels of administration —was not deemed an unmixed evil. It served to make each official a tale-bearer against his colleague, so that the home authorities might count on getting all sides to every story. The financial situation, moreover, was always precarious. At no time could New France pay its own way; every second dispatch from the governor and intendant asked the king for money or for things that cost money. Louis XIV was astonishingly generous in the face of so many of these demands upon his exchequer, but the more he gave the more he was asked to give. When the stress of European wars curtailed the king’s bounty the colonial authorities began to issue paper money; the issues were gradually increased; the paper soon depreciated, and in its closing years the colony fairly wallowed in the slough of almost worthless fiat currency.

In addition to meeting the annual deficit of the colony the royal authorities encouraged and assisted emigration to New France. Whole shiploads of settlers were at times gathered and sent to Quebec. The seigneurs, by the terms of their grants, should have been active in this work; but very few of them took any share in it. Nearly the entire task of applying a stimulus to emigration was thrust on the king and his officials at home. Year after gear the governor and intendant grew increasingly urgent in repeated requests for more settlers, until a rebuke arrived in a suggestion that the king was not minded to depopulate France in order to people his colonies. The influx of settlers was relatively large during the years 1663-72. Then it dwindled perceptibly, although immigrants kept coming year by year so long as war did not completely cut off communication with France. The colony gained bravely, moreover, through its own natural increase, for the colonial birth-rate was high, large families being everywhere the rule. In 1673 the population of New France was figured at about seven thousand; in 1760 it had reached nearly fifty thousand.

The development of agriculture on the seigneurial lands did not, however, keep pace with growth in population. It was hard to keep settlers to the prosaic task of tilling the soil. There were too many distractions, chief among them the lure of the Indian trade. The traffic in furs offered large profits and equally large risks; but it always yielded a full dividend of adventure and hair-raising experience. The fascination of the forest life gripped the young men of the colony, and they left for the wilderness by the hundred. There is a roving strain in Norman blood. It brought the Norseman to France and Sicily; it took his descendants from the plough and sent them over the waters of the New World, from the St Lawrence to the Lakes and from the Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Church and state joined hands in attempt to keep them at home. Royal decrees of outlawry and ecclesiastical edicts of excommunication were issued against them. Seigneurs stipulated that their lands would be forfeited unless so many arpents were put under crop each year. But all to little avail. So far as developing the permanent resources of the colony were concerned these coureurs de bois might just as well have remained in France. Once in a while a horde of them descended to Quebec or Montreal, disposed of their furs to merchants, filled themselves with brandy and turned bedlam loose in the town. Then before the authorities could unwind the red tape of legal procedure they were off again to the wilds.

This Indian trade, despite the large and valuable cargoes of beaver pelts which it enabled New France to send home, was a curse to the colony. It drew from husbandry the best blood of the land, the young men of strength, initiative, and perseverance. It wrecked the health and character of thousands. It drew the Church and the civil government into profitless quarrels. The bishop flayed the governor for letting this trade go on. The governor could not, dared not, and sometimes did not want to stop it. At any rate it was a great obstacle to agricultural progress. With it and other distractions in existence the clearing of the seigneuries proceeded very slowly. At the close of French dominion in 1760 the amount of cultivated land was only about three hundred thousand arpents, or about five acres for every head of population—not a very satisfactory showing for a century of Bourbon imperialism in the St Lawrence valley.

Yet the colony, when the English conquerors came upon it in 1759, was far from being on its last legs. It had overcome the worst of its obstacles and had created a foundation upon which solid building might be done. Its people had reached the stage of rude but tolerable comfort. Its highways of trade and intercourse had been freed from the danger of Indian raids. It had some small industries and was able to raise almost the whole of its own food-supply. The traveller who passed along the great river from Quebec to Montreal in the early autumn might see, as Peter Kalm in his Travels tells us he saw, field upon field of waving grain extending from the shores inward as far as the eye could reach, broken only here and there by tracts of meadow and woodland. The outposts of an empire at least had been established.


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Chicago: William Bennett Munro, "Chapter I an Outpost of Empire," Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5., ed. Wrong, George M., and Langton, H. H. in Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5. (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914), Original Sources, accessed July 5, 2022,

MLA: Munro, William Bennett. "Chapter I an Outpost of Empire." Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5., edited by Wrong, George M., and Langton, H. H., in Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5., Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, Original Sources. 5 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Munro, WB, 'Chapter I an Outpost of Empire' in Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5., ed. . cited in 1914, Seigneurs of Old Canada: A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism. Chronicles of Canada, Vol. 5., Glasgow, Brook & Company, Toronto. Original Sources, retrieved 5 July 2022, from