A Spirit of Independence

It took some time before the colony of Montreal became self-sufficient. Although filled with people of high rank and birth, all depended on the good will of the French King, firstly Louis XIII and then Louis XIV.  Accounts were kept, reports made, rules re-arranged but all with the King’s approval. This mode of existence was not for all. The French spirit of adventure, freedom and enterprise more often than not prevailed.

By the end of the 17th century,  French fur trade was well established in the upper Great Lakes.  Intermarriage with the Native women led to the rise of the Métis  or “mixed bloods”. The “country-born” were the offspring the British traders, all sometimes referred to as “half-breeds”.  The blend of Native and European customs made them unique. In a few generations, Métis settlements extended from the upper Great Lakes to the Red River and south through the Great Plains to the Arkansas River.

We find the two brothers, Jacques and Pierre Beauchamp (sons of original settler Jacques Beauchamp), at Fort Pontchartrain, Detroit listed on the rent list of 1707-1710 as non-payers since they are only there as “canotiers” or voyageurs (from the website,  “metis-history-info”.  Below an example of what a voyageur contract looked like, this one for Francois Beauchamp , grandson of original settler Jean Beauchamp.

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Francois B. Voyageur Contract 1748

The Voyageur Database at the St. Boniface Historical Society in Winnipeg, Manitoba supplies a printed record as well.


There are a few interesting points in these records. There is little to no information about the oldest emigrant brother, Pierre, something common among the voyageurs. On the written contract above, the head canoeman is Pierre Deschamps. That name is often interchanged with Beauchamp. As well, the lowest member is Francois Beauchamp perhaps taken as a protege by Pierre . In the list of people paying rent at Detroit, just above the Beauchamp brothers, are two Bazinet brothers, Pierre and Joseph. It happens that Pierre and Jacques married two Bazinet sisters, Anne and Marie. What a wonderfully small world it was then!

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.

The Intrepids Part 2

Quebec was initially rejected as a site for permanent habitation.  De Monts, Gravé and Champlain  determined to escape the competition of traders who refused to respect the French monopoly of the St. Lawrence fur trade. They sailed south to the Maritimes where the climate was milder. While they were there they continued the  search for a route to Asia which people at that time believed existed. They wintered near the mouth of the St. Croix River where nearly half of the 79 men died of scurvy. Champlain called the place Port Royal. The company settled for 3 years at Port Royal while they  explored and searched for minerals. This was the actual first agricultural settlement in Canada. De Monts,  realizing that he could not enforce his fur trade monopoly (80 ships had already poached on his land),  decided to abandon Acadia, which then included modern day Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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Port Royal, Nova Scotia

It is interesting to note that the explorers, De Monts, Gravé and Champlain were French Protestants. Champlain had converted to Roman Catholicism some years before. One of the reasons for the burgeoning population of the eastern coast of America was the lack of religious discrimination. Only Roman Catholics were permitted into New France. When the Huguenots left France, they took with them their skills and affluence. At the same time the French left Acadia, the English established their first settlement at Jamestown in Virginia and for them, there was no looking back.

In 1627, the colony of New France was pathetically small compared to its southern neigbours who had a tobacco based economy. What did they have to sell in Quebec? There was no market for anything but fur.  Richelieu, then prime minister to Louis XIII,  decided to end the colony’s dependence on fur and start up  the mercantile system that worked so well in France. France would supply Quebec’s needs and a market for her manufactured goods. No other country was permitted to trade or ship goods from the colony. Only French ships could carry goods to and from the colony. To that end, Richelieu established the Compagnie des Cent-Associés or Company of One Hundred Associates, of whom Champlain was a share-holder.

The company became the seigneur of all the lands France claimed in North America and had a monopoly on all commerce including the fur trade. It could also cede land to settlers in tenure. In return, France would send 4,000 French and Roman Catholic settlers and provide missions for the conversion of the natives within 15 years. This coincided with the outbreak of the French/English war. French ships bringing settlers in were captured by English privateers, the brothers Kirke. Champlain surrendered in the face of starvation. In July, 1629, he and Gravè left Quebec but Champlain still lobbied for it’s return to France. That took 3 years, since Louis XIII had not paid his debt to Charles I for his sister’s dowry.  As soon as that was resolved, English forces left Quebec and returned it to France. Champlain returned to build a fort at Trois-Rivieres. When he died, control of the colony passed into the hands of the Jesuits or “Black Robes.

In 1632, Cardinal Richelieu gave the Jesuits a monopoly over the Canadian mission field. They built and opened schools for the native children but encountered the same problems as the Recollet priests before them.  The parents would not let the children go until they were given gifts. Many of the children became ill and died or ran away. The use of corporal punishment was not a custom of the native parent.

The Ursulines opened schools for the girls in the colony with the same measure of success. Marie l’Incarnation,  founder of the Ursulines, even wrote of the problems with native girls.  We have observed that of a hundred that have passed through our hands we have scarcely civilized one. We find docility and intelligence in these girls but, when we are least expecting it, they clamber over our walls and go off to run with their kinsmen in the woods,  finding more to please them there than all the amenities of our French house.”  

Does this ring a bell for anyone?  Pictures of residential schools start to run through my mind along with my own memories of starting school with the Sisters of Charity. So we agree this problem lies in the very roots of our culture. The Ursulines did have better luck with their hospitals though, where the natives agreed to drop their elders at the “house of death“.

I think it is worth noting too that many if not most of the nuns and priests were from the nobility in France . The Jesuits were very well educated men. Many women would enter a convent during times of trial in their lives or when they were widowed. One thing is certain, they truly believed in what they were doing in the name of Christ.

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Arrival of the Ursulines Marie de Jesus 1928