A Short History of Canada

Author: Donald C. Masters  | Date: To 1750s

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Chapter 1

Canada’s European Background. For the purposesof this volume Canadian history may be regarded as commencing with the arrival of European explorers and settlers in North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The beginnings of white settlement in North America were part of a tremendous process of transition which marked the change in Europe from the mediaeval to the early stages of the modern world. Its economic aspect, which has been called the Commercial Revolution, was marked by a vast extension and reorganization of the European economy. Trade and commerce, industry, agriculture, and other elements of the European economy were expanded and came largely under the control of individual entrepreneurs, the new middle class. Increases in production, in such industries as that of wool, created surpluses for export and a desire for foreign markets. There was an increased desire to secure more cheaply the luxury goods of the East such as spices, drugs, dyestuffs, and silks. The capitalist revolution provided powerful incentives to voyages of exploration to North America and was in turn stimulated by the results which the voyages produced.

The transition period consisted not only of material changes but also involved important developments in thought. The efflorescence of learning and the arts which we call the Renaissance had far-reaching effects in Europe and in America: it provided the explorers with essential knowledge and helped to stimulate their desire to open up hitherto uncharted areas of the earth. The Protestant Reformation whichdivided Europe into warring camps provided the incentive which induced thousands of settlers to cross the ocean and to seek a home which would be free from religious persecution. Accompanying these developments went the rise of the so-called nation states, reasonably compact centralized countries, like England, France, and Spain which gradually displaced the older political system based upon the primacy of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. It was chiefly these three nations which supported the early explorers and which utilized their discoveries in order to establish colonies.

The Canadian Scene. Canadian history, like that of the Americas in general, has been largely the story of the interaction between European culture and the North American environment. The early Canadian explorers encountered a country which consisted of three great mountainous formations: the Appalachians, the Laurentian Shield, and the Cordillera or Rockies; and two plains: the St. Lawrence Valley and the great central plain. There were two great indentations, the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes system and the Hudson and James Bay. As Europeans approached the country from the east, they found that it was suited by soil and climate for European settlement. It was capable of rapid penetration by way of the St. Lawrence and by Hudson Bay. It produced staples: fish, furs, timber, and agricultural produce, capable of supporting settlement. The Laurentian region, while unsuited for agriculture, could be used for transportation, which became an increasingly important factor in the fur trade.

Beginnings of Exploration. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much of eastern Canada was explored and some of it settled. As early as the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Norsemen, notably Leif Ericson, had ranged along the eastern coasts of North America, but they had established no permanent settlements. Nor did the European fishermen, who probably operated on the Grand Banks in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Exploration of the Canadian mainland followed the "discovery" of North America by Columbus in 1492. The early explorers of Canada were French and English. Principalamong them were John Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland and the adjacent fishing areas in 1497; Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), who explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the river up to the site of Montreal in three voyages (1534, 1535, 1541); Henry Hudson who entered Hudson and James Bay in 1610; and Samuel-de Champlain (1567?-1635), who penetrated the region, now eastern Ontario, bounded by the Ottawa River, Lake Nipissing, Georgian Bay, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and the Iroquois country south of Montreal and east of Lake Ontario in the years 1609-1615. (See Reading No. 1.)

Subsequent exploration of the interior of the continent was achieved by Pierre Esprit Radisson (1636?-1710?) and his brother-in-law, Chouart Des Groseillers (1625 -1685), who explored territory west of the Great Lakes probably in the years between 1654 and 1660; Louis Jolliet (1645-1700) and Fr. Jacques Marquette (1637 - 1675 , who set out from Green Bay on Lake Michigan and travelled down the Mississippi to its junction with the Arkansain in 1673; and Sieur de La Salle 11643-1687), who descended the Mississippi from its junction with the Illinois and reached in 1682 de la Verendrye (1685-1749), the great explorer of the western

Canadian prairies, set out from Montreal in 1731 and in the next ten years built a chain of fur-trading posts at Rainy Lake, the Lake of the Woods;, Lake Winnipeg, the Red River, and on the Assiniboine River. In 1738 he visited the Mandan villages on the Missouri. In 1742 two of his sons penetrated far to the southwest, and possibly reached the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

The motives which impelled the explorers to undertake these dangerous voyages into the unknown may be suggested: sheer curiosity combined with the desire for personal honour and economic gain. The latter was expected to follow the discovery of direct communications with the Far East or of richer fur-trading areas. The Jesuits who helped to open up southern Ontario after Champlain’s explorations were primarily motivated by the desire to convert the Indians. While the French were exploring the continent, they were establishing for themselves a great North American empire, destined to last until the British conquest in 1759-1760. The English, too, established a foothold in what is now Canada with the commencement of trading activities by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was chartered in 1670.


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Chicago: Donald C. Masters, "Chapter 1, Introduction," A Short History of Canada in "Chapter 1, Introduction," a Short History of Canada (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1958), 9–12. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=W3RHK8GVZPEPYGS.

MLA: Masters, Donald C. ""Chapter 1, Introduction"." A Short History of Canada, in "Chapter 1, Introduction," a Short History of Canada, Princeton, New Jersey, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1958, pp. 9–12. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=W3RHK8GVZPEPYGS.

Harvard: Masters, DC, '"Chapter 1, Introduction"' in A Short History of Canada. cited in 1958, "Chapter 1, Introduction," a Short History of Canada, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, pp.9–12. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=W3RHK8GVZPEPYGS.