Making Good

I am in receipt of a translation of the book,  “Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal”, the original written in French in 1974 by Louise Dechêne a professor at McGill university. This version was translated by Liana Vardi in 1992. I won’t go into the trouble I went to to find a copy as well as avoid exhorbitant fees for it.  All I can say is thank you Amazon.com. Note it was the American site that worked for my purposes. Fortunately, I don’t live too far from the border. The book is considered to be somewhat of a “holy grail” in researching New France. It has much quantative information in it to give a more certain idea of what it was actually like in Montreal at that time.

Imagine my surprise when I was doing an initial browse through the book and I came upon the name of my 5th great uncle, Jacques Beauchamp! This was not the first time I got a sense of the type of person he was. He just seems to be well-known in the community. With a dit name like Le Grande (as opposed to Jean’s dit name of le Petite), one imagines a rather boisterous personality. To quote Madame Dechêne, speaking of an inventory, of death assetts,

“Jacques Beauchamp of Pointe-aux-Trembles owned such a house. He died at the age of fifty-eight, leaving behind a widow, five married daughters, two boys aged fifteen and seventeen, and a net worth of 3000 livres. ” Then after describing living conditions, she states ” Beauchamps’ wardrobe consisted of the basics: a coat, a jerkin (a sleeveless leather jacket), and because nothing  was ever thrown out, a second worn out and worthless jerkin, a pair of hide hose, woollen breeches, a hat, a pair of shoes, stockings, four used shirts and two nightcaps worth altogether no more than 40 or 50 livres.”  At this point, the author is disputing the reputation the habitants had for strutting about in their finery, illustrating their ignorance of agricultural life.  She wonders how people who lived with so little could possibly have the means to own such clothing. At any rate, 3000 livres was a fairly good sum for the times according the table of assets she presents.

In her opening chapter, Dechene says that until 1668, the settled population of aboriginals at the fort was nearly double that of the French. Some came for protection, some to attend the Jesuit or Supulcian missions. In the summer there would be a huge fur trade fair where hundreds of people from the different nations would visit and trade for fur. The governor would greet the native leaders with great ceremony. Care was supposedly taken to prevent the molestation of the native people by the French but did not preclude them dropping half the value of their trade goods on liquor even after the fair.

At Sunday Mass, the colonists would again be in contact with the aboriginal people. Their children attended the same school, each sex being trained in useful skills. This did not apply to the country children who were only taught catechism or the Christian doctrine. Native people near the fort were allowed to grow subsistence crops but could never own land. The movement to new land when the soil wore out was not possible for them once the surrounding land was granted to French colonists. This caused a migration away from the fort the land further away. So although initially, the King had granted the right to farm for subsistence, the lands returned to the Jesuits and Supulcians in this way and they could then collect dues from the French. Some were encouraged to build in the European way but problems arose there also. Cattle grazed in the cornfield once the wheat was up and the native men went away hunting in winter leaving the women with farm chores they could not do on their own. The French kept them in debt by supplying them with the things they needed which was repaid with furs.  Many did military service for mere subsistence. The concensus was that to actually pay them would be a waste since they would only drink it away. When they did drink there was often violence but justice was stalled to keep relations going.

There were few known inter-racial marriages in Montreal, neither race accepted it. Some women were kept in the country, the “country wives” but generally immoral behaviour was not sanctioned by either the French or native. An illegitimate child might be born occasionally but there was no racial blending as there would be later in the West. In the end, the colony of New France served itself. The emigrants were at least given a vehicle to establish themselves in the colony but the native people found no way to win . Both started in poverty but it would only change for one group. The other would be displaced.

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