Canadian History: Pre-Confederation

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation

John Douglas Belshaw




Dedicated to the memory of Mr. George Porges (d.2004), whose introductory History courses at Douglas College were truly inspired.


About the Book

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation was created by John Douglas Belshaw. This creation is a part of the B.C. Open Textbook project. This book is the first, in a two part collection, by this author; also see Canadian History: Post-Confederation.

In October 2012, the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education announced its support for the creation of open textbooks for the 40 highest-enrolled first and second year subject areas in the province’s public post-secondary system.

Open textbooks are open educational resources (OER); they are instructional resources created and shared in ways so that more people have access to them. This is a different model than traditionally copyrighted materials. OER are defined as teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others (Hewlett Foundation).

Our open textbooks are openly licensed using a Creative Commons license, and are offered in various e-book formats free of charge, or as printed books that are available at cost.

For more information about this project, please contact

If you are an instructor who is using this book for a course, please fill out an adoption form to let us know.



Preparing the first open text on Canadian history has been an exercise in innovation and experimentation. It has had at its heart from the start, however, a singular vision of a resource that will remove a financial barrier to students and will empower teaching faculty. It is a vision that has been shared by everyone on the team responsible for its production at BCcampus. Mary Burgess (now the Acting Director) was engaged from the start and has retained a helpful interest. Lauri Aesoph (Manager, Open Education) has been my closest daily collaborator, ally, critic, and support through this project. Clint Lalonde (Senior Manager, Open Education) took the reins over the larger project while continuing to play the part of technical leader. He was helped throughout in this process by Brad Payne (Web Developer-Technical Analyst) and so was I.

I am also grateful to Thompson Rivers University, Open Learning for encouraging me down this path and for making a substantial contribution to the final product. Ron McGivern, who wears several hats at TRU, gave me the first prod, and I am in his debt.

Rajiv Jhangiani teaches Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and co-authored (along with Hammond Terry) another BCcampus OpenText, Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International Edition. His experiences were important and extremely valuable to the early stages of this project and I happily acknowledge his generousity as a mentor. (Both Kwantlen and TRU are member institutions in the Open Educational Resource University (OERu) which helps explain why there is both enthusiasm and expertise on OERs and OpenTexts at the two institutions, a happy coincidence for me.)

The idea of creating Open Textbooks to support the most heavily-enrolled courses in post-secondary institutions originated with the Provincial Government of British Columbia. The Ministry of Advanced Education invested a significant sum of money through BCcampus to accomplish this goal. Moreover, it continues to invest in this project, which means that more resources will be produced and that the resources already produced will be well maintained and capable of evolution. Good on you, Ministry.

I am grateful to colleagues who provided input, editorial and content suggestions. I am pleased and proud to list their names and brief bios on the About the Author and Contributors page.

Finally and mostly I am indebted to family and friends who encouraged me with their curiosity about the project and their patience. At the head of this list, as always, is Diane Purvey. Thanks, once again.


Author's Notes

Like most instructors, I am never fully satisfied with the textbook I wind up choosing for my students. This one lacks a social history bent, the other is regionally-focussed in ways I don’t like, that one doesn’t say nearly enough about the economy or demography, and some seem geared toward the instructor rather than the student. I have often wanted to tear out the odd-numbered chapters from one text and staple them to the even-numbered chapters from another and then pass a third through a grinder and sprinkle its cheerful spirit of enquiry throughout. Writing a course text myself did not seem to be much of an option. This open text book project made all those scenarios possible.

This textbook is a document that exists in the Creative Commons. It is meant to be torn apart, restitched, added and subtracted from, improved, challenged, brought up to date, and even re-imagined. It is a system of storage rooms in which you’ll find information you can use or lock away. My goal has been to (a) provide a familiar framework of pre-confederation Canadian history that raises challenging questions for undergraduates and (b) to build the kind of text that I would want to use in my own classes. To that end, this open textbook is organized along lines that meet most post-secondary learning outcomes in this field while simultaneously leaving my own imprint on the final product. It is, then, both recognizably a survey text for the years to 1867 without being absent of personality. I strove to reassert an Aboriginal perspective on events and in this last regard I hope, humbly and as a non-Aboriginal person, that I have achieved some success. I have, as well, endeavoured to raise the profile of both demographic and environmental history at a time when both fields require our attention and I did so, as well, in the companion text, Canadian History: Post-Confederation. The bottom line, however, is that the instructor and the students are in a position to make this text their own. And I encourage you to do so.

In order to make a resource like this one as widely available as possible one has to make the greatest possible use of other open educational resources (OER). Illustrations, for example, must be free of copyright and exist in the public domain or, if copyrighted, be released under a Creative Commons license. Including material that does not allow for sharing privileges limits the usefulness of the finished product. Meeting this objective structures the process of writing an open textbook in distinctive ways. OER are used liberally but the vast majority of the text is comprised of original material.

Knowing that some sections are likely to be reused more than others (and some possibly replaced more often than others), one makes judgment calls as to the length of sections so as to facilitate both processes. Learning Objectives, Key Terms, Exercises, Short Answer Exercises, a Glossary, and other features are added, knowing that they will be replaced/augmented/tweaked – and that the ability of a user to do so has to be made as easy as possible. The whole, then, is designed for repurposing and re-crafting, a rather different point of departure than one takes when writing a conventional monograph.

Some years ago I worked on a campus where a large patch of lawn was laid down between two busy buildings. There was a nice sidewalk around the edge, but it was obvious from the outset that people were going to walk across that grass. We watched as the path appeared, yellowed, and then became hardpacked – all in the course of only a few months. Then the facilities team showed up and laid the sidewalk where it was meant to go – where users wanted it to go. Interestingly, it was not in a straight line. This open textbook is like that experiment. I encourage you to reuse, remix, repurpose in ways that show us where users want it to go. Be fearless and creative.

Here’s your chance to make history.

John Douglas Belshaw
February 2015



This textbook considers the history of what becomes Canada in 1867. It is what is called a “survey text,” in that it provides a framework of the larger storylines rather than examine in detail some particular aspect of Canadian history.

The thing is, what we survey is inevitably selective. Indeed, framing the story as something that leads to — or terminates at — Confederation is to suggest from the outset that there is a trail blazed from European arrival in North America to the creation of Canada. Telling the story that way is essentially flawed, from a historian’s perspective. It funnels the story to an outcome — to one outcome — as though there were no others along the way, or that other events — the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837 —  wouldn’t work just as well as a bookend. And, obviously, when the terminus we choose happens to be a constitutional accomplishment of one group of Canadians — that is, those Canadians of European origin — we are implicitly overlooking the ongoing arc of the Aboriginal peoples’ story. It must be conceded that new political experiments are important, but one might as reasonably bring the tale to a pause with the onset of urbanization and industrialization, a social and economic process that redefined the lives of North Americans in the mid-19th century.

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation attempts to keep in view those other stories while visiting — and sometimes revisiting and reconsidering — familiar territory associated with the construction of what we call “Canada.” The text was conceived with an awareness of typical learner goals in undergraduate intro Canadian courses, an understanding that many student/users are likely to be newcomers to Canada and thus may not share in some common narratives, and a commitment to critical approaches. It is not a device intended to produce patriots or better citizens; it exists to acquaint people with issues in the past, to engage them with the experiences of others, to develop critical faculties, to become knowledgable about events and societies in North America, and to develop some of the skills of a historian. The foremost of these is empathy.


The text is organized in a roughly chronological fashion. Chapter 1 “When was Canada?” addresses historical methods and issues and then the text turns to communities and events and people in the past. The chronological approach is detoured beginning with Chapter 8 “Rupert’s Land and the Northern Plains, 1690-1870.” Chapters 9-11 consider, each in turn, the period from 1818 to ca. 1860 in terms of economic, social, and political histories. Chapter 12 “Children and Childhood” explores an aspect of social history from before the arrival of Europeans to the industrial age. Chapter 13 “The Farthest West” considers the territories west of the Rockies, much of which is now British Columbia; this chapter, too, plunges back in time to the mid-18th century. Chapter 14 “The 1860s: Confederation and Its Discontents” caps the chronological saga with an exploration of the processes that led to a federal union of colonies in July 1867. Confederation is a watershed: not only does it mark the beginning of a colonial nation-building exercise, it signals the transfer of authority over territory and peoples from London to Ottawa. While it is the case that international policy remained a matter for Westminster, from 1867 on Canada was setting its own diplomatic course with the other nations of North America, apart from the USA. Those “other nations,” of course, being the First ones. These and other themes are pursued in the companion text, Canadian History: Post-Confederation.

Each chapter consists of several parts. These ‘subchapters’ are meant to facilitate the addition and subtraction of material from the OpenText format. Most are linked narratively, but not so much that one cannot be omitted or replaced without dire consequences.

Pedagogical Tools

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation includes several learning/teaching instruments. The first section (the x.1 of each chapter) includes Learning Objectives. These are, I think, consistent with what most introductory Canadian History courses hope to accomplish.

Almost all of the subchapters (apart from the Summary subchapters) conclude with a list of Key Points that are intended to help you identify themes that have overarching importance. But they are not exhaustive. There’s more in each section and it would be a mistake to think that the Key Points are all that matters.

The Summary sections conclude with three features: Key Terms, Short Answer Exercises, and Suggested Readings. Not all Key Terms are defined in the text body, but all words that are marked as bold in the body of the text are included in the Key Terms box. A Glossary at the very end of the text collects all of the Key Terms in one place. As regards the Suggested Readings, an effort has been made to ensure that everything listed is available online through your university library.

Clearly the definition of what constitutes a “key term” or a “learning outcome” is subjective. Choices have been made. The advantage of the OpenText format is that an instructor is encouraged to make different choices.

Scattered throughout the text are Exercises. These are intellectual tasks that are meant to help you develop a historians’ sensibility and awareness. They are not assignments (although they might be); they are opportunities to break from the narrative, to look up for a moment, and to see History around you. The are exercises meant to discipline and sharpen your mind just as push-ups improve your body. (Incidentally, it is a little known fact that all Canadian historians have six-pack abs.)


The names we use for people-groups in the past change over time. Sometimes that’s a result of changes in jurisdictions and borders or a constitutional change. Take “England” before 1701: it’s really England and Wales but it doesn’t include Scotland, which was a separate country; after 1707 “Britain” refers to all three together (along with Ireland) — the distinction is important. To take another example, New Brunswickers and Nova Scotians went to bed on 30 June 1867 and woke up the next morning in Canada. In this text an effort has been made to be consistent with identities as they were at the time. There’s no way that anyone at the forks of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers in 1808 could know that they’d be “British Columbians” fifty years later and it’s a fair bet that they would have been unhappy at the prospect as well. Even in 1858 very few British Columbians would have imagined that thirteen years later they would be “Canadians.” To push those labels backwards in time is to imply that people in history mysteriously knew an outcome that was not yet on the cards.

Names change, too, for political and cultural reasons. This is most obviously and importantly the case when it comes to Aboriginal group names. Almost universally in North America the names that people of European descent use to identify Aboriginal groups are not the ones First Nations themselves prefer. This situation began changing about thirty years ago and this text contributes to that process by employing nomenclature preferred by Aboriginal peoples. Why is it important to do so? Because most of those European-devised names are artifacts of colonial power or terms of disrespect. “Thompson Indians” is obviously not the name that the Nlaka’pamux gave to themselves. Some Aboriginal names, such as “Eskimo” in fact derive from negative, xenophobic epithets used by their neighbours and rivals. The term “Indian” itself is evidence of European confusion and ignorance, a reminder that 15th century travellers were hoping to reach India and not the Americas.

As a rule, then, the current nomenclature officially endorsed by the people themselves is used here. In the first usage (and where it seems appropriate to do so) the most well-known alternative is presented as well. For example:  Anishinaabe (aka: Ojibwa); Wendat (Huron), Heiltsuk (Bella Bella). Some nomenclature offers several options and some of those are too useful to abandon.  For example, the Haudenosaunee (aka: Five Nations Iroquois) are also known as the League of Five Nations, which works rather well in its own right.

Exceptions are made to these rules throughout the text for the Cree. The term “Cree” derives from French terms (Kristineaux , Kiristinous , Kilistinous) which may, themselves, be descended from names given them by their Aboriginal neighbours. The Cree in the pre- and proto-contact eras can be described as three cultures: Swampy, Woodland, and Plains. Each of these had a variety of alternate names.  The Swampy Cree, for example, appear in European documents as West Main Cree and Lowland Cree and they describe themselves as Maskiki Wi IniwakMushkegowuk, from which we derive Muskegon. There are eastern and western divisions within the Swampy Cree, which further complicates matters, as does migration across those two divisions. The Woodland Cree are similarly divisible between the Woods and the Rocky Cree, and nomenclature divides in this case between Sakāwithiniwak and Nîhithaw. The Plains Cree refer to themselves as nêhiyawak. Given the enormous territory in which the historic Cree were dominant — from the Rocky Mountains to Labrador — it is unsurprising to find significant differences in identities among these Algonkian-speakers, even at the dialect level. There is, however, a historic and pre-contact continuity across the Cree range and for that reason and to avoid confusion, the decision has been made to perpetuate the mis-label, “Cree.” For the purposes of understanding the different experiences of the fur trade in different eco-systems, the established modifiers survive as well: Swampy, Woodland, and Plains. 

Think Like a Historian

The past doesn’t explain the present. For the most part the past doesn’t even care about the present. What history reveals is complex and competing values and needs. How people dealt with those wrinkles and puzzles in the past demonstrates both their genius and their frailties. Those are the things we learn from the past and mostly they have to do with what it means to be human.


Chapter 1. When Was Canada?


1.1 Introduction

Historical studies demand that we learn something about the past but it also requires us to ask how it is we know what we think we know about the past. When you read an academic history text, you’ll observe that historians typically want to prove something about events in the past. For example, they want to show that one individual played a critical role, or that environmental change was a silent but critical player, or that prejudices affecting one group had an unanticipated outcome. At the same time, however, historians are keen to prove the value of their sources. They might argue, for example, that this census record or that judicial file or some set of private correspondence offers special insights that have not before been made available.

Although it may be simplistic, perhaps too simplistic, you may find it helpful to think about the study of history as a combination of the “what” and the “how.” That is, what happened and how we know it happened.

Grappling with the Canadian past is fraught with challenges and alive with exciting questions crying out to be addressed. But what constitutes the “Canadian” past? Clearly, the geographic space we call Canada is a relatively recent invention. Confederation, beginning in 1867, spread the brand beyond the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes to include other British colonies on the east and west coasts and some of the land in between. As a political idea — a country made up of provinces and territories with a constitution, flag, anthem, etc. — it continues to evolve. But in 1867 it was just one of many colonies in the British Empire and not necessarily the pick of the litter. A century and 10 years earlier it was part of a French empire that claimed influence over a much larger territory than the Canada of today. Still another century earlier, “Canada” referred to a struggling chain of frightened and fortified settlements along the St. Lawrence.

Let’s push it back yet another century and more. Around 1567 the northern half of North America was a well-populated landscape made up of a multitude of diverse cultures. Their economies and relationships were continually changing while retaining core (and important shared) features from one generation to the next. The “Canada” of 1497 — one small patch of which may have been briefly visited by John Cabot and his crew — was a vastly more populous and rich human environment than would re-emerge here until the 19th century.

So whose Canada do we study? The Canada of the French? Of the Naskapi? Of the Basque whalers with their toeholds on the east coast? Of the Nuu-chah-nulth or the Acadians? When was Canada? Are there themes we can draw across generations and centuries? Are there successions of transitions as tumultuous and irreversible as rapids on a river? Who gets to tell those stories and whose voices are likely to remain silent?

It is only by asking questions such as these that history — as an activity — can be undertaken.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe some of the principal concerns of historians as they undertake historical research.
  • Explain the difference between primary and secondary sources.
  • Demonstrate an ability to interrogate sources.
  • Identify the dominant themes and debates in the telling of Canadian history.


1.2 The Writing of History

The telling of every country’s national story is unique, and there are conflicts in that telling. Who gets to speak? Who does not? What alternative stories are there to be told? And how did it all turn out this way?

Historical writing is never without purpose. As early as the 18th century, historical accounts of New France were being produced that promoted the role of the Catholic Church and the seigneurs (the major landowners) as the custodians of the Canadien culture. These accounts were intended to buttress the position of the Church and seigneurs in the years to come as the authentic voice of Canadien ambitions. In the mid- and late-19th century, nationalist histories covering the whole of the Canadian timeline began to appear. They told the tale of the new nation, the Dominion of Canada, as something that embodied a recognizable vision of the modern state and thus provided historical legitimacy. Titles like Colony to Nation (1946) tell the tale: Canada had been a dependant (= a child) and now had achieved nation status (= adulthood).A.R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: A History of Canada (Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company, 1946).

This metaphor of maturation is commonly used in historical writing on new or newish societies. While doing so might appear benign, think about what it implies. Its purpose is to suggest that past societies were less evolved and that the newer one is better. Ask yourself: Is that an argument that bears serious scrutiny? It’s certainly a good example of how history gets used to support a particular position.

We review four issues in this chapter:

  1. What is history? The answer may seem obvious, but it can be complicated. Without having some sense of what is implied by history — and historical writing (historiography) — you’ll miss many of the key issues in the study of the past. It’s something like watching your first foreign film. You know there’s more going on than meets the eye and that the experience would be better if you just knew what it was.
  2. Researching history. How historians do their research — historical method — is different from history (that is, the account that you read). Historians find their bricks and mortar somewhere, and they need to organize them in ways that will stand up over time, although history is also often revised as new evidence emerges or research methodology evolves. Not having a sense of this aspect of historical work is akin to studying sculpture without having a clue about how stone is carved or steel is forged.
  3. Making histories. Historians use a great many different kinds of sources to assemble information on the past. Evidence comes in many forms.
  4. The current state of historical writing in Canada. The field is rife with debates and disagreements, some of which can look like bench-clearing brawls.


What Is History?

In asking what history is, you must also ask, what is historiography? There is a subfield of history, one in which all historians have to have some expertise, that deals with the history of history. Historical writing — and the study of historical writing — is correctly called “historiography,” which encompasses both the doing (the writing of history) and the reflecting on (the study of history).

In the Western tradition, Herodotus (ca. 484-425 BCE) is considered as the Father of History, but the paternity of historical writing is not clear-cut, since storytelling about the past is a very old business. Historical writing in China probably began about 500 years before Herodotus was born, and everywhere human societies have appeared, there have been sagas and chronicles of some kind. Some of these were done with more literary licence than others. Brian Thom points out that the oral tradition of the Hul’qumi’num (of the Coast Salish nations) notes a difference between syuth (true histories) and sxwi’em’ (fables and moral tales). This distinction is made by many cultures and is important to keep in mind: stories from and about the past take different forms and they do so to serve different purposes.Brian Thom, "Coast Salish Senses of Place: Dwelling, Meaning, Power, Property and Territory in the Coast Salish World" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University, 2005), 81. Written and oral histories alike adhere to two basic rules: reliability and verifiability. For the historian whose goal is to deliver as truthful a tale as possible, these rules are the gold standard for evidence.

An old parchment with Chinese symbols

Figure 1.1 A fragment of the Book of Documents attributed to Confucius (551-479 BCE).

If the source is trustworthy, then it’s reliable. Take the example of Bartolomé de las Casas, who was among the first Europeans in the Caribbean and who spent nearly half a century working as a priest, missionary, plantation owner, bishop, and colonial administrator in Hispaniola, Venezuela, and Mexico. When he wrote of the vicious Spanish conquest of Haiti — “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write, not believing them myself, afraid that perhaps I was dreaming. But truly this sort of thing has happened all over the Indies, and more cruelly too sometimes, and I am quite sure that I have not forgotten.” — we are inclined to believe him, not least because he wasn’t going to win himself any friends by speaking out.Bartolomé de las Casas, History of the Indies, trans. and ed. Andrée M. Collard (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1971), 121.


Figure 1.2 Bartolomé de las Casas.

If historians can prove the claims made by their source, that’s verifiability. The best biographies go far beyond the personal diaries and letters written by their subject and look to other sources to confirm that the subject did what he or she claimed to have done. Another example, this one drawn from population history, shows some of the challenges of official documents. Bruce Curtis examined the early days of the census of Canada and found that Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec) counted people differently.Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). In the former, people were counted based on where they actually were on census day; in the latter, they were counted based on where they were supposed to be. This means that Canada East’s census takers included locals who were off working in factories in other jurisdictions, perhaps in New England. But in Canada West, anyone who was engaged in migrant work — wandering the countryside and towns looking for a job — or who was a recent arrival in a new town would most likely be overlooked. Without this bit of knowledge in hand, we might be forgiven for assuming that an official source like the census would be 100% reliable; however, thanks to local tax records, church registers, and other documents, we are in a position to verify the official numbers.

Serious historians seek to be both reliable and verifiable, which is why you’ll typically find a torrent of references supporting a scholarly study. The point is to demonstrate that the writer can be trusted because he or she has done the necessary digging and cross-checking. As well, studies that are well supported by references say to the reader, “Feel free to check it yourself and, by all means, use the information I’ve found to further your own studies.” This reflects another tendency in historical research: the desire to share discoveries. Holding back sources raises both suspicion and eyebrows in readers.

Researching History

History just never gets old. Or does it? If historians use only verifiable and reliable sources, surely at some point we should have all the history we’re ever going to need. But a paradox exists about history: it has a stale-date. Our understanding of the past is constantly subject to change. This makes history open to revision, and its practitioners (that is, all serious historians) are sometimes pejoratively called revisionists. There do exist some landmark studies that stand the test of time, but more often than not conclusions reached by historians a generation or more ago are subject to a second (and third and fourth) look. Why is it that history is regularly “freshened up”?

New evidence emerges

Sometimes — although rarely — lost documents are found that shed new light on a historical event. For example, in the article “Reluctant Warriors: British North Americans and the War of 1812,” author E. Jane Errington reveals previously unexamined evidence from the newspapers of the time that Upper Canadians were not the fearless protectors of the homeland that they had appeared to be in earlier accounts and in popular mythology.E. Jane Errington, “Reluctant Warriors: British North Americans and the War of 1812,” The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814, eds. David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001): 325-336.

More usual is for new evidence to emerge through discoveries made in a different field — say, medicine — that prove to be relevant to historical studies. It is unlikely that Mary Ellen Kelm could have written Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50 without the knowledge that medical research provided toward the end of the 20th century.Mary Ellen Kelm, Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999). Cross-fertilization of this kind happens all the time, transforming definitive histories into conditional histories.


Figure 1.3 In this 1896 painting, General Isaac Brock encourages the volunteer Upper Canadian troops in the War of 1812: “Push on, brave York volunteers.” Recent research suggests that Upper Canadian enthusiasm for the war was, in fact, muted.

Ideology matters

Ideologies (i.e., ideas and values that guide our understanding of society and economy and may also drive political and personal agendas) also affect our perception of history. For example, Ian McKay of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has been the key figure in identifying the importance of liberalism in Canadian history, both as a phenomenon and as a lens through which the past is viewed. (Note that here we are talking about small-l liberalism, as opposed to capital-L Liberalism, which is associated with the Liberal Party of Canada.) Liberalism, as a political ideology, places an emphasis on the individual. Whether in the role of consumer or voter or historical actor, the individual has been promoted as more important to Canadian history and public policy than groups or sub-nations.

Think about how this can affect our view of Canadian history. If the history of Canada is about the rise of the individual in a liberal-democratic state (one in which more and more people get the vote and in which rights are extended more and more broadly to individuals), how does that affect collectivities like First Nations? What about the experiences of French Canadians who, at various times in their history, have demonstrated a strong predisposition for being seen as one nation first and as many individuals second? Or how does this ideology of individualism square with the history of “working-class solidarity”?

After World War II small-l liberal values combined with a moderate form of left-wing collectivism that sought to enhance the condition of the individual by means of a larger, social welfare state. These ideals of democratic rights and a social safety net were a formative influence on nearly three generations of historians. In your lifetime there has been a growing reaction to state-liberalism from the Right. So-called neo-liberalism seeks a return to the “classical liberalism” of the 18th and early 19th centuries wherein the individual operates in a free market unfettered by government regulation and identity-group rights. The Left continues to provide a critique of liberalism/individualism, and it is more supportive of collective identities while at the same time subscribing to the essentially liberal view that individual choice in a democracy is non-negotiable. Just because these perspectives exist happily together in the mainstream does not mean they are not ideologically loaded. Historians writing from any one of these perspectives will take a different view on the past.

Other “isms” have had an effect on historical writing as well. Marxism and Marxist historians draw attention to the economic structures that overlay people’s lives in the past. Environmentalism invites us to look at the history of the fur trade, resource-extraction industries like logging and fishing, and the fabric of cities in ways that recast the environment from something that was acted upon to something that has an impact on human actors. Certainly feminism continues to have an enormous and laudable impact on historical thinking. Theological approaches to the writing of history are much less in vogue now than they once were, but imperialism (which, for centuries, had a strong theological and evangelical component) continues to influence the story of the nation-state in profound and very subtle ways. How scholars see society is one part of this ideological rainbow; how people in the past saw society — ideologically — is another. It’s complicated, but it’s hugely important in the context of how history is presented and written about.

Perspectives on what happened in the past may be informed by our concerns in the present, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the past exists for the benefit of the present. The Maritimes historian George Rawlyk once wrote that “all historical writing is basically autobiographical in nature.”G. A. Rawlyk, Ravished by the Spirit: Religious Revivals, Baptists, and Henry Alline (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984), ix. That is to say, the history we look for reflects the interests of our time and is constrained by the ways that our culture thinks. A society that is interested in the civil rights of women is more likely to ask questions on that topic than one that is not. By the same token, earlier generations of historians looked to the past for answers to questions that most of us today would not care to pose. The Canadian novelist William Gibson contributes this view: “The past changes. Our version of the past will interest the future to about the extent we’re interested in whatever past the Victorians believed in.”William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: Berkley Books, 2005): 59. We have concerns and perspectives that are different from past generations and from those that will be nourished by future generations. This does not mean, however, that we have a licence to shop around in the past for vindications of the present. It is in the nature of historical celebrations to claim that it is thanks to historical events that we enjoy the freedoms that we do today, or that without the fur trade, Canada as we know it simply would not exist. This is called the presentist fallacy. What if we view our present dimly due to high unemployment, repressive legislation, massive cuts at the CBC, and environmental disaster constantly on the horizon? Would we then say that these things are the fault of whatever it was that happened 270 years ago or that the fur trade is to blame? Bias can be okay — we can be biased in our search for evidence of adolescent rebelliousness in early Nova Scotia and ignore much else that was going on at that time — but we cannot favour one outcome over another and certainly we cannot favour an outcome in our present.

Methodological approaches evolve

It isn’t enough for a historian to be a bloodhound who sniffs out the rare fact. The historian has to be a capable and versatile analyst. That means that each generation of historians will find a new way of cracking the code of the past. The application of good quantitative historical techniques borrowed from statistical sciences has had a great impact on the telling of history, and has sometimes completely toppled older histories. An example of an evolving approach is presented in Wendy Wickwire’s article “To See Ourselves as the Other’s Other,” which makes the case for using oral histories to examine events that took place centuries ago.Wendy C. Wickwire, "To See Ourselves as the Other's Other: Nlaka'pamux Contact Narratives," Canadian Historical Review 75, issue 1 (1994): 1-20. More than 20 years before Wickwire’s article appeared, Bruce Trigger made a similar point regarding ethnohistory and the study of the Wendat/Huron First Nation. It is largely thanks to research of this kind that Aboriginal oral traditions have acquired greater and greater respect and credibility in the courtroom over the last two decades.For a detailed discussion of these developments, see Bruce Granville Miller, Oral History on Trial: Recognizing Aboriginal Narratives in Court (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).  Further, demographic historians, especially in Quebec, have devised new ways of analyzing population information held in censuses, birth and death records, and baptismal and marriage records. The end effect is that history is constantly being rewritten with new discoveries, new information, new perspectives, and new conclusions. It all makes for a dynamic field, despite the reputation that history has in some quarters for being dusty, musty, and dull.

A handwritten list of names, ages, and values.

Figure 1.4 A page from the “Book of Negros,” which lists the 3,000 African-Americans who departed from New York as freed loyalists in 1783. Documents like this may provide both qualitative and quantitative evidence to historians.

Key Points

  • Historical sources of all kinds are subject to the tests of verifiability and reliability.
  • Historical revisions are invited by new evidence and changes in perspectives and methodologies.


Figure 1.1
Shujing NCL 1 by White whirlwind is in the public domain.

Figure 1.2
Bartolomedelascasas by Nagypaja is in the public domain.

Figure 1.3
Push on, brave York volunteers by Scorpius59 is in the public domain.

Figure 1.4
2book0706b by Dr Wilson is in the public domain.


1.3 Making Histories

Where does history come from? Historians use a great many different sources to assemble information on the past. Evidence comes in many forms.

To think like a historian, we must concern ourselves not only with what people did, but also with what they thought they were doing. In every act that humans perform, however simple or banal, they are looking toward the future. Nations don’t go to war for the sake of war; they do so to obtain more territory or to secure borders or to chasten a neighbour in the future. Likewise, individuals make personal choices, such as emigrating or postponing marriage until they are older, because of how their decisions will “pay out” later on.

Peter Moogk, an accomplished historian of New France, encourages us to develop an deep understanding of past societies: “If a historian is not immersed in the culture of the time being studied and has not grasped its internal logic, then that scholar’s reconstruction of past human behaviour will inevitably be superficial and anachronistic.”Peter Moogk, "Writing the Cultural History of Pre-1760 European Colonists," French Colonial History 4 (2003): 5. To study history properly, we must creep around behind people in the past and try to look at the future through their eyes. In order to do so, we must become open to the institutions and instincts of earlier eras and then consult the detritus and records of our predecessors.

The sources that historians rely upon are grouped under two headings (which sometimes overlap). The first group is primary sources, which are original materials that come to us directly from people in the past. Diaries, letters, and reports of government inquiries are good examples of primary materials. The other group is secondary sources, which generally are documents that examine primary documents and provide an interpretation. Both types are discussed below.

Primary Sources

Shelves of documents in boxes.

Figure 1.5 Primary sources are often held in archives.

Primary sources are often held in archives, and sometimes in museums. (Often the archives are in a museum.) Archives may be private or semi-private, but the principal archival institutions in Canada are public and are organized by levels of government. The National Library and Archives of Canada is housed in Ottawa, every provincial capital has its own provincial archives, and most cities have one too. Most universities have their own archives, which are sometimes called “special collections,” and large public libraries very often have a room dedicated to primary documents.

In this electronic age of ours, many public archives are available online through Archives Canada. As well, increasingly, historical photographs and maps are available online. Still, there are times when a visit to the physical place is called for. It is typically in an archives that historians do the painstaking detective work that leads to new discoveries about the past.

Exercise: Find the Archives

Wherever You Live, There’s an Archives

The town or city in which you live has one. Local museums usually have some kind of archives or a set of local records, as do churches, military regiments, schools, and universities. It costs nothing to get into the archives.

Where is the provincial archives nearest to you? How many local archives are attached to museums? To churches? Regiments? Take a look at the online catalogue of any one of them. What kinds of things do they have? Pick a topic — the local breweries, the street on which you live, a home-grown artist you like — and see what they’ve got.

If possible, drop by and take a closer look. Ask the archivist about the collections. Tell him or her you’re interested in learning what kinds of materials are collected and what most excites them. Describe in a couple of paragraphs the assets and, broadly, what makes them important resources for historical and/or community knowledge.

Finally, share what you’ve found with others. Go to Wikipedia or a community website and add that knowledge.

Reading the Records

Primary documents can get you closer to actual participants in past events, but they are not without problems. Think about it: Has anyone ever lied or embellished a story in his or her diary? Has there ever been an inquiry without a political agenda in the background? Have you ever read a letter and wondered if it reveals the writer’s thoughts or what the writer thinks you will understand by it? Take the Jesuit Relations, for example. These are reports submitted by Jesuit missionaries in New France to their masters back home. There are many truths contained in them, but you have to keep in mind that the Jesuits who prepared the Relations knew that they would be read by people who had the power to cut off their supplies or to send them the reinforcements and materials essential to success. In the reports, were they overly optimistic about the likelihood of religious conversions among the First Nations? Did they dramatize or downplay daily life? Both?

Salt and pepper: comparing two paintings

If letters and reports can be duplicitous, what about paintings and maps? Take a look at Benjamin West’s famous 1770 work, The Death of General Wolfe (Figure 1.6), which hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Clearly it is a very romantic interpretation of what actually took place in 1759, but what truths does it reveal … despite itself?

A group of men on a battlefield, including one indigenous man, lean over injured man looking upset.

Figure 1.6 The Death of General Wolfe painted by Benjamin West.

The pepper to West’s salt is The Death of Montcalm by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, painted in 1800. It, too, hangs in the National Gallery. It shows Montcalm dying on the battlefield, despite the fact that he died in a surgeon’s home.

A man lies dead on a pile of blankets by a tent. The sky is dark and surrounding men look upset.

Figure 1.7 The Death of Montcalm painted by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau.

Exercise: Paintings as Primary Sources

Portrayals of Historic Events

Compare the above two famous — and canonical — representations of real events with three more:

Montcalm lies dead on a pile of blankets in front of a tent. People around him have straight faces.

Figure 1.8 Mort de Montcalm ca. 1759.


Soldiers prop up an injured man on his horse and lead him down the street. The sky is stormy

Figure 1.9 Death of General Montcalm by Charles William Jefferys (1869-1952).


Three men assist an injured man lying on the ground. Far in the background, people continue to fight

Figure 1.10 General Wolfe killed at the Siege of Quebec on September 14, 1759. (1792)

Now answer these questions.

  1. What differences do you see?
  2. Who was the intended audience of each?
  3. What purpose was each painting meant to serve?
  4. Who is in each painting? Who is not?
  5. How are those in the paintings depicted?
  6. In the end, who do you trust and why?

In order to appreciate and make the most of primary documents, we need to follow some basic practices of critical enquiry. The questions that follow are ones that you should ask of your sources (even secondary sources) and have been posed by the historians whose articles and books you will read.

Identify the Source

 Contextualize the Source

Naturally, you’ll want to extract as much factual information as you can from the source. Details are what you’re after. But documents from the past are tricky and they might contain a surprise or two. What is the balance in the document between opinion and verifiable fact? Opinion isn’t entirely without value, because you can then ask why the creator of the document held that opinion. Also, ask what the source is not telling you. What information might be withheld? Ask yourself what you expected to see that you didn’t? For example, it might seem odd to find a letter written on July 1, 1867, that makes no mention of Confederation. Was that date not important to everyone in British North America?

In addition you can look at documents for unintentional messages — revelations of perspectives and prejudices that they so took for granted that they weren’t necessarily aware they were transmitting them to their audience. An example is how women are regularly described in historic documents in a vocabulary of dependence and weakness. Finally, be open to being surprised; documents may disclose much more than the facts. It is often only by confronting the original documents that you may be able to do some justice to the truth of the past .

Just one example comes from the journals kept by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s field officers. These journals covered commerce, day-to-day life in the posts and forts, relations with Aboriginal peoples, and personnel issues. The senior clerk at Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island in 1850 recorded in his journal that he was going to discipline some of his men: “I shall put them in Irons,” he wrote. While that in itself may seem surprising, a look at the original document reveals even more: it shows us that the clerk’s mental stability was in free fall. He was so agitated that the word “Irons” is scrawled in letters nearly two inches tall and it is triple-underlined. The nib of his quill pen nearly tore through the page.Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Fort Rupert Journals 1 (638), 28 April 1850.

Indigenous and European people at a trading post surrounded by piles of supplies and a canoe

Figure 1.11 Hudson’s Bay Company trading post (ca. 1800).


The Colonial Advocate was produced by William Lyon Mackenzie from 1824 to 1834, first in Kingston and then in York/Toronto. Mackenzie was what is sometimes described as a “gadfly”: someone who discomfits the comfortable. His attacks on the Upper Canadian ruling class, which he called the “Family Compact,” were highly provocative and ultimately contributed to the Rebellions of 1837. Even if you know nothing of 19th-century newspapers, you’ll know that they were highly different from those of today. Who would Mackenzie be writing for? Literacy was hardly universal in the 1830s. Like all publishers, he was in business to make money, so you need to ask what and who his market was. Was his combative stance part of his marketing strategy? The point is that newspaper accounts (then as now) don’t occur in a vacuum. Newspapers are interpretative documents in that they try — to some extent — to make sense of events even as they report on them.

Secondary Sources

When historians consult the works of other historians, they are using secondary sources. Overwhelmingly these are documents that examine primary documents and provide an interpretation. The shelves of libraries are full of secondary sources, which may come in the form of books or scholarly journals (such as the Canadian Historical Review or Labour/Le Travail). Every article you read on a historical topic is a secondary source (assuming that it’s not just pure invention and fantasy). These are sources that filter primary evidence. Sometimes that’s good; sometimes it’s not. You, as the reader, have to be critically aware of that filter. And keep in mind that the distinction between primary and secondary is not always clear. For example, let’s say that you’re reading a history of New France written in 1800. It’s a secondary source that made use of primary documents, but it is simultaneously itself a primary source, in that it is evidence of how people thought in 1800.

Making Sense of the Past

Teodoro Agoncillo, a historian of the Philippines, captures in a few lines what most historians know (and often say):

There is a great similarity between legal evidence and historical evidence. The only difference lies in the fact that in legal evidence it is the judge who determines whether the account of a witness is acceptable or not… The historian is prosecuting attorney and defence attorney and the judge all rolled into one, and [she or he] is the narrator and the interpreter.Teodoro A. Agoncillo, Talking History: Conversations with Teodoro A. Agoncillo (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1995).

This is why historians say that the facts cannot speak for themselves. Our responsibility is to cross-examine the facts and to lay out clearly what they reveal. As the great British historian E. H. Carr wrote in the middle of the last century,

The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context. It was, I think, one of Pirandello’s characters who said that a fact is like a sack – it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it. The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all.E. H. Carr, What is History? (London: Penguin, 1961): 11.

Figure 1.12 E.H. Carr, British historian.

Events and personalities to which we apply importance are a matter of choice. If we want to tell the story of New France from the point of view of the French, that’s one perspective; if we decide, however, to tell that story from the point of view of the Wendat (on whose territory New France impinged) that will be a very different history. In other words, history doesn’t exist independently of the human imagination: it is something that is created.

Key Points

  • Historical sources fall into two categories: primary (original documents produced by people in the past) and secondary (interpretative documents produced by people who made — and make — use of primary sources).


Figure 1.5
Fondos archivo by Archivo-FSP is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 1.6
Benjamin West 005 by Alexander Shatulin is in the public domain.

Figure 1.7
The Death of Montcalm is in the public domain.

Figure 1.8
Mort de Montcalm by AYE R is in the public domain.

Figure 1.9
Death of General Montcalm by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.

Figure 1.10
The Death of General Wolfe at the Siege of Quebec by Dcoetzee is in the public domain.

Figure 1.11
Indians at a Hudson Bay Company trading post by Tungsten is in the public domain.

Figure 1.12
E.H. Carr by Themightyquill is in the public domain.


1.4 The Current State of Historical Writing in Canada

It’s one thing to know about some of the key events in Canada’s history; it’s another to know a thing or two about how our history came to be written.

Part of the challenge is defining what constitutes history. For example, it is often said that Canada is a young country without much history. A response to that claim is that Canada is actually a few years older than the modern states of Italy and Germany. Doing so, however, is to fall into the trap of thinking that a constitution defines a country and its history. Others point out that the existence of New France stretches back to the early 1600s (which makes Canada quite a bit older still) and before that there was not much going on in the way of settlement. But that perspective writes off entirely the Aboriginal, pre-contact experience. In response, some people argue that the history of Canada is limited to the literate societies in Canada, and before the arrival of Europeans there existed only illiterate societies. In other words, they argue that no written record = no history.

This viewpoint is not defensible. In Britain, historians of ancient times don’t fold up their tents when they get into the pre-Roman past. If they did, nothing would have been studied about Stonehenge, for example. The lands that have become Canada are littered with burial mounds, old fortifications, petroglyphs and pictographs, ancient foot trails, bison pounds, and fishing weirs. Intertidal fishtraps in Comox Bay on Vancouver Island have been carbon-dated to at least 800 years before the present; their scale and design are both staggering and beautiful. Oral traditions, moreover, punch a hole through that artificial barrier erected between the colonialist past and that of pre-contact times. This territory that we call Canada has so much history that the greatest challenge is how to organize it and understand it.

An aboriginal fishing weir. Long description available.

Figure 1.13 Fishing weirs like this one from the Cowichan River (ca. 1866) were built by Aboriginal peoples across Canada long before contact. Wood, a readily available building material in northern North America, was used far more widely than stone, but it leaves less evidence behind. [Long Description]

Careless and Wrong: Nationalist Histories

What most people think of as the “proper subject of history” is the story of regimes. And certainly it is easy — and meaningful — to think of historical periods associated with different political organisms. Whether it is New France, Nova Scotia, or Wendake (the Huron Confederacy), each administrative era imposes certain structures on its people and their lives. Harbours get built, systems of land ownership (individual, family, collective) are recognized and sometimes imposed, alliances with neighbours are forged and broken. The little things — the things that mark the course of a lifetime — are also associated with regimes. Think of practices associated with reaching adulthood, marriage, burial, and mourning. Spiritual and religious authority has to reside somewhere, even if it is in a common set of non-institutionalized beliefs. And when regimes change, all those practices can be lost. Or, conversely, their preservation becomes a fundamental creed of the survivor population. In any event, history’s focus on governments, empires, and nation states has a long pedigree.

In Canada the business of establishing a legitimate country with something like a national identity depended on the writing of national histories. The 20th century witnessed a parade of classically trained historians based in the oldest anglophone universities (University of Toronto, McGill, Queen’s), developing powerful narratives of the epic of New France, the Conquest, the Loyalists, the rise of liberal-democratic processes, and the achievement of Confederation. George M. Wrong (1860-1948), Donald Creighton (1902-1979), and J.M.S. Careless (1919-2009) were key figures in this phase of Canadian historiography, and all were based in the Department of History at the University of Toronto.


Figure 1.14 George MacKinnon Wrong.

This National School approach was essentially small-c conservative in its ideology, Anglican in its creed, and mostly capital-C Conservative in its politics.  There were regular challenges from the Left, particularly in the 1930s, but few other historians enjoyed as much influence. Certainly feminist challenges were almost impossible with the absence of women in any university history departments. The situation was even more parlous for non-Whites, non-Christians, and non-nationalists. The National School only began to face serious challenges in the 1960s, by which time there was growing dissatisfaction with it in academic circles.

Generation Gap: The New Social History

The rise of the baby boom generation brought to universities huge numbers of young Canadians who were concerned with the histories of working people, non-Whites, and women. The topics of race, class, and gender — formerly untended — scrambled to the top of the historian’s agenda. The rise of multiculturalism — as a fact and as an official policy — facilitated further the growth of layered histories of ethnicities, each of which had a thing or two to say about gender and social class. As well, the Canadian regions and provinces found they had tales to tell that were either subsumed within the larger national narrative or ran in very different, sometimes contrary, directions. National History School, by contrast, gave centre stage to the accomplishments of elite groups, political leaders, industrialists, and big media. Their representatives in the pages of history books were, of course, all but 100% males and equally white. Their representatives in the history departments of Canadian universities tended to be drawn from the same demographic. Then the ground rather suddenly shifted.


Figure 1.15 Simon Fraser University (top left), the University of Victoria (top right), the U.S. Civil Rights Movement (bottom left), and Florence Bird, Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, 1967-70 (bottom right).

The baby boom generation witnessed the creation of a new cadre of universities. In the western half of the country alone a half dozen appeared: Simon Fraser University and the Universities of Victoria, Calgary, Lethbridge, Regina, and Winnipeg. Each of these became crucibles for new approaches to the field. The civil rights movement in the United States, protests against the war in Southeast Asia, the rise of second wave feminism, and the appearance of what became known as the New Left influenced campuses across North America and beyond. While the Quiet Revolution was underway in Quebec, English Canada was undergoing significant intellectual and cultural challenges as well.On intellectual and cultural changes in English Canada in these years, see José Igartua, The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English-Canada, 1945-71 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006). In the field of history all this played out in challenges to the National History School and took the form of the new social history. A rising generation of historians turned their back on themes like nation building, railways, and political biography, and produced scores of books on the history of labour, women, immigrant experiences, and Aboriginal peoples. New thematically oriented scholarly journals appeared, such as Labour/Le Travail, Urban History Review, and Histoire Sociale/Social History, and these were joined by regional historical journals like Acadiensis and BC Studies.

History Wars

The old order of historians didn’t stay quiet about these changes. As the politics of identity gained ground, some scholars began to systematically criticize the fracturing of the historical vision of the country’s past. Fragmentation of the story into smaller identities, they argued, didn’t enhance opportunities to learn a broader range of histories, it undermined the ability of Canadians to learn a common, core story about themselves. By the 1990s the so-called history wars were fully underway. A leading figure in that conflict was Jack Granatstein, a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada and a distinguished historian based at Toronto’s York University. Foreign affairs historians like Granatstein were particularly disturbed by the rise of histories of sexualities, women’s experiences, counter-nationalisms, First Nations, and many others — all of which appeared to undermine the possibility of a shared national past. Granatstein sniffed at social history as so much “housemaid’s knee in Belleville”;  needless to say, social historians and feminists were outraged. The CBC television series The Valour and the Horror (1992), about three significant battles in World War II, became a lightening rod for this debate, one that even found its way onto the floor of the Senate. Six years later Granatstein would publish Who Killed Canadian History?, a polemical attack on the “fragmenters” within the academy. The provocative title of his book tells you a lot about how desperate the defenders of conventional approaches had become. What that cohort longed for was a singular story of “our great nation,” one that everyone — more or less — could agree to, one that new immigrants to Canada could learn as part of the fitting-in process.

Indeed, the multitude of voices that were being heard and broadcast in the 1990s on the subject of Canadians’ past was cacophonous. Early in this century, however, a growing trend toward interdisciplinary studies marked the beginning of the process of synthesis. Ruth Sandwell, a historian of education at the University of Toronto, has addressed the tensions between fragmentation and synthesis in the classroom. She has observed that “history education in the schools has moved away from a much narrower vision of citizenship education as explicitly patriotic narrative.” This opens up opportunities for historians to use their specialized knowledge — even in the narrowest of subfields — to contribute to undergraduate knowledge and social good by focusing on “a disciplinary understanding of what history is and what it does.”R.W. Sandwell, "Synthesis and Fragmentation: the Case of Historians as Undergraduate Teachers," Active History. Accessed January 4, 2015, Rather than build “citizenship” around a history of prime ministers and wars, the key is to “convey the kinds of historical understanding that scholars are suggesting ‘the people’ need in a pluralist democracy.” University of Western Ontario history professor Alan MacEachern takes this a step further, In his article, “A Polyphony of Synthesizers: Why Every Historian of Canada Should Write a History of Canada”, he challenges historians to attempt synthesis to develop a national history — even if it comes from a fairly small fragment of the larger field. One of the most difficult specialties that nevertheless holds out much promise for a new perspective on the story of Canada would be a very broad history of childhood.The work of Neil Sutherland on English-Canadian childhood is outstanding as is Robert McIntosh's, but a national synthesis is still needed.

Nothing, of course, stands still for long. The innovators of the 1960s and 1970s have themselves been eclipsed by new approaches. The most advanced and promising of these deal with environmental history. There is possibly no avenue of historical enquiry that is quite so interdisciplinary. Environmental history was once mainly about animals and nature; now it is more concerned with what we think of as nature and how that notion has changed historically. Where it was once informed heavily by geography, lately it has become more influenced by philosophy. One understanding of environmental history is provided by Jan Oosthoek, formerly a professor at Scotland’s University of Stirling in What is Environmental History? [YouTube].

bar code

Key Points

Every generation writes its own history, in part, because:

  • Perspectives change.
  • Sources for historical analysis change.
  • Methodological approaches evolve.


Figure 1.3
Salmon weir at Quamichan Village on the Cowichan River, Vancouver Island by Themightyquill is in the public domain.

Figure 1.14
George MacKinnon Wrong2 by Materialscientist is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

Figure 1.15
SFU Tour by kardboard604 is used under a CC-BY-NC 2.0 license (first); On Golden Pond by Nick Kenrick is used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (second); Civil rights movement: 1964 march on washington by Aude is in the public domain (third); Florence Bird: Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, 1967-70  by Harry Palmer. This image cannot be used for commercial purposes without Mr. Harry Palmer’s permission. A copy of this image can be found at Library and Archives Canada (PA-182436). The copyright was granted to Library and Archives Canada by the holder Harry Palmer (fourth).

Video 1.1
What is Environmental History? by Jan Oosthoek is used under a CC-BY 3.0 Unported license.

Long Descriptions

Figure 1.13 long description: A wooden fishing weir stretches across a large stream. Sticks are tied close together facing down to make a barrier and are attached to a long log which spans the width of the stream to trap fish. [Return to Figure 1.13]


1.5 Summary

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

– L.P.Hartley (1953)

Writing history does not take place in a vacuum, nor is it a straightforward process. There are issues associated with cause and effect that have not been considered here: questions regarding what actually can be known, the extent to which one may draw lessons from the past, and so on. Two things may be said for certain by way of advice to an undergraduate beginning the study of Canadian history:

  1. Just because a community or nation is small or young doesn’t meant that its history is unimportant. This statement isn’t made as a special plea in the face of grand national histories written by British or American scholars. Those great sweeping, heroic accounts are essentially a licence to engage in more sweeping and not-so-heroic escapades. Our story is not that of our leaders; our story is ours, and it matters. One may learn a great deal from a careful study of an 18th-century Newfoundland outport, a textile mill in Victorian Ontario, or a single tenement building in 1860s Montreal. Likewise, the experience of the Plains Cree over 200 years of commercial interaction with Europe reveals a great deal about adaptability and human agency.
  2. Good history requires heavy lifting. Historians commit years of their lives to research in archives and libraries trying to produce something worth reading. None, however, would absolve you of your responsibility to read closely, criticize, and analyze. Is the evidence convincing? Do the right witnesses make it to the stand? Are the right questions being asked? You have our permission and you have a responsibility to read the material as if it matters.

Canadian history isn’t one story; it is many. This chapter has reviewed some of the basics of studying history with the hope that it will open you to the possibility of different understandings of the past. What the British writer L.P. Hartley had to say about history is true and valuable. When you travel to other countries you try not to judge or to impose your frame of reference too rigidly on people who do things differently and for reasons you might not easily perceive. In that spirit, welcome to a history that you may claim as your own regardless of how exotic it may appear to be.

Key Terms

archives: Collections of original documents, including print-based objects like personal letters, official reports, journals, newspapers, maps, government papers, and so on. Archival collections may also include photographs, music (in a variety of forms), and textiles. Technically, your own collection of original materials is an archive but, for the purposes of history courses, archives are official repositories that may or may not be open to the public.

baby boom generation: Individuals born in the post-Depression era of the 20th century. Low nuptial and fertility rates began to recover as early as 1937 in some parts of Canada and the rates continued to rise through the Second World War, accelerating until the early 1960s.

civil rights movement: In the United States, a movement principally in support of improved legal and civil rights for African-Americans. The movement is regarded as running from 1954 to 1968. It produced other movements associated with demands for rights for other groups that had historically faced prejudice and systemic marginalization.

collectivities: Groups of people who identify as part of a social body that may or may not correspond to a political unit. For example, First Nations peoples may identify collectively as First Nations, as opposed to (or perhaps in addition to) their identity as Cree or Mi’kmaq.  French Canadian identity very often exists independent of (and sometimes in contrast to) a larger bicultural Canadian identity.

demographic historians: Historians of population trends and mechanisms.

environmental history: The history of human interaction with natural and human-made settings. The environment may be a pristine one or an urban context. In some cases it is a study of how human activity impacts the environment (and vice versa); in others it studies the idea of the environment and how that concept changes over time.

environmentalism:  A philosophical interpretation of human interactions with the environment. May also refer to an activist movement and critique regarding the negative impacts of those interactions.

ethnohistory: A branch of academic studies that bridges anthropological and historical approaches, ethnohistory is principally concerned with non-European societies.

feminism: An analysis of power relations that posits the existence of systemic barriers to equality between humans based on sexual identity. Feminism calls for a program of political and social action aimed at improving the conditions of females.

historiography: Historical writing and the study of historical writing.

ideologies: Ideas and values that guide our understanding of society and the economy and may also drive political and personal agendas.

imperialism: A philosophical position that encourages the extension of one nation’s/empire’s power over other, subject peoples. May take the form of colonialization, military conquest, or a campaign of propaganda and ideas.

interdisciplinary studies: Academic approaches that combine traditionally separate disciplines, such as biology and history.

Marxism: An ideology and mode of analysis associated with the 19th-century German philosopher, Karl Marx.  This body of theory argues that political and social relations in the past and present are determined principally by economic structures.  As an ideology it argues for changes to productive relations that will result in greater equity and the end of social class barriers.

multiculturalism: Both a phenomenon (that is, the relatively equitable co-existence within a community of people from distinct cultural traditions) and a policy (i.e., one that embraces diversity). There were, therefore, multicultural communities in pre-Confederation Canada but multiculturalism only became widely supported in the post-World War II era.

National  School:  Sometimes called Nationalist History or National History School. Refers to accounts of the past that emphasize the growth and evolution of the nation-state as the proper focus of historical studies, as opposed to social or economic relations.

New Left: A political movement in the 1960s and 1970s that opposed the U.S. action in the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement. Influential on university campuses at mid-century, the New Left had an impact on historical and other academic studies.

new social history:  A school of historical studies that drew attention to race, gender, and social class as defining features of historical experience, new social history developed a view of past societies from the “bottom up.”

oral histories: Non-written accounts of events in the past. These can be accounts provided by contemporaries of the events they describe or part of an oral tradition, which suggests a multi-generational account that is preserved carefully in the retelling. Oral histories are particularly important in the study of non-literate societies.

presentist fallacy: The belief that the events of the past are directly responsible for conditions in the present. Presentism often ignores intervening events.  It also tends to thank the past for positives (such as current freedoms) while it seldom holds the past accountable for liabilities (such as a lacklustre economy, continuing struggles over equality, etc.).

primary sources: Original historical resources, such as diaries, letters, and government inquiries.

quantitative historical technique: Many historical methods take advantage of statistical sources rather than (or in addition to) qualitative sources like diaries and personal letters. Tax ledgers, census manuscripts, land surveys, and many kinds of church records provide enough information for us to work toward aggregate knowledge of people in the past.

Quiet Revolution: A political and social phenomenon in post-World War II Quebec that saw the power of the clergy and conservative elements eclipsed by a liberal-nationalist movement.

revisionist: A historian who re-evaluates history and revises it based on new understandings. As a critical term, “revisionist” is sometimes used to describe historians who change histories for political purposes.

second wave feminism: Associated principally with the 1960s and 1970s, second wave feminism focused on systemic discriminations in domestic and public environments, calling for equality in pay/treatment in the workplace, an end to sexism, and legislation to protect women’s reproductive rights.

secondary sources: Documents that examine primary documents and provide an interpretation. Historical studies of past events are, by definition, secondary sources.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Where do you encounter historical messages? Stretch out your antennae for one day and make a list of every time history is invoked or you are instructed on some aspect of the past.
  2. Whether in a classroom or otherwise, how many times during the day do you encounter this thing called “history”? How is history being used in those encounters? Is it to confirm something you already knew or believed? Is it being used to change your mind about something?
  3. Historical research involves a careful assessment of sources. What criteria are the historian’s standbys?
  4. Many factors ensure that the historical record will be revisited on a regular basis. Name a few of them.

 Suggested Readings

  1. Gordon, Alan. “The Many Meanings of Jacques Cartier.” In The Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
  2. Greer, Allan. “National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History.” Canadian Historical Review 91, no.4 (December 2010): 695-724.
  3.  Kealey, Greg S. “Harper and Non-History.” Labour/Le Travail (May 2014): 213-215.
  4. McKillop, A.B. “Who Killed Canadian History? A View from the Trenches.” Canadian Historical Review 99, no.2 (June 1999): 269-300.


This chapter contains material taken from Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students created by Kathryn Walbert for LEARN NC. It is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 unported license.


Chapter 2. Aboriginal Canada before Contact


2.1 Introduction

When does the history of Canada begin?  If we think of Canada as a political entity, then we will offer up one kind of answer (although, in all likelihood, we won’t agree at the outset on the answer). If we think of Canada as a space roughly defined by our current borders and as a stage on which humans perform, then the answer is necessarily going to take us as deeply into the past as we can go.

Having taken on the question of how do we know what it is we think we know? in Chapter 1, this chapter tackles the challenge of pushing back the frontier of history. Generations of students learned that the moment of contact between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples in the “Americas” marks the end of pre-history in this hemisphere and the beginning of the historical period. But that perspective has changed.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the various interpretations, scientific and religious, of the origins of indigenous peoples in the New World.
  • Describe the political, cultural, and social differences between the major eras of the pre-contact peoples of Canada.
  • Describe the political, cultural, and social differences between the groups of the major regions of Canada.
  • Identify the great empires and confederacies of the pre-contact Americas.
  • Locate the many different peoples of what is now Canada and its borderlands.
  • Describe the different language groups, the different economic orders of the northlands, and their interconnectedness.
  • Argue critically against notions of “pan-Indianism” and speak to the advantages enjoyed by Aboriginal societies in the absence of European contact.


2.2 History without Archives

The idea that the Americas have no history before the arrival of Europeans derives mainly from the apparent absence of a written record. European, Middle Eastern, and Asian civilizations evolved highly bureaucratic and centralized administrative functions based on the ability to write things down. The influential Canadian economic historian, Harold Innis, described the impact of writing on the building of empires in his 1951 book, The Bias of Communication. He argued that there are two kinds of communications: time-biased and space-biased.

Many societies — perhaps most or even all — combine elements of both kinds of media, but they also privilege one over the other. Europeans in the 1400s had space-biased media at their disposal, in the form of writing. This gave them the power to pass instructions across long supply lines that wrapped their way around Africa and across the Atlantic. It gave their delegates the ability to devise documents that assigned “ownership” to lands they’d just encountered. And it was the very embodiment of their belief system, bound up in the form of the Holy Bible.

Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere had time-biased media, which put them at a disadvantage in many ways (which we’ll explore in Chapter 3). But the important point is that they did have media; they had a written record, which the Europeans chose to ignore or attempt to destroy where it challenged their own media. Oral tradition was, as well, disregarded and disrespected by Europeans and, from the 19th century on, attacked in schools and in the courts. Consequently, it is a generally, and wrongly, held belief that the Americas (as we’ve come to call them) had no historic record. In truth, writing, media, and historic accounts were widespread.

The Archive of Place

One of the barriers to appreciating the depth of history in what is now Canada is our commitment to the notion of the country being “new” in the so-called New World. In fact, human occupation of the northern half of this continent began at least 14,000 years ago and probably much earlier. That is a long time indeed — long enough for any group of people to establish a profound relationship with their location, with their place. This is no less true of the indigenous peoples of Canada than it is of the peoples of the Steppe, the Gobi, the Orkneys, or Melanesia. Places themselves are a record of memory, most of which is accessible only to those who know how to read it.

In his study of British Columbia’s Chilcotin Plateau, The Archive of Place, William J. Turkel describes the complex of grease trails of the region. This was the extensive system of footpaths carved out of very challenging terrain in order to facilitate communication and commerce between the west coast and the interior plateau. They were called grease trails because of the trade in oolichan grease (a fish oil) that was ported on the backs of hundreds of freight-bearers over hundreds of kilometres. Turkel writes,

For the people of Ulkatcho, as for their Aboriginal neighbours throughout the Chilcotin, memory is everywhere anchored in the landscape, along the grease trails and rivers, of course, but also in the meadows and forests between. For them, there is not a single trail that connects the Fraser [River] with the [Pacific] coast or that unites provinces east and west; rather, there is a dense, lived mesh of trails and a cyclicity and seasonality of travel.William J. Turkel, The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007 ), 109.

Each trail, with its multitude of markers, rock cairns, and boundaries signifies to its reader a history of commerce, conflict, stability, and change. In societies with a strong oral tradition, these are stimulants to memory. They act just as a series of volumes on a shelf might.

Across Canada, there are many places similarly invested with meaning and symbols, in many forms. Lobsticks, for example, show up across the country:

Aboriginal inhabitants of the boreal forest would shape a tall and conspicuous white spruce or pine tree by “lopping” most of its branches off. Branches that strategically pointed in the right direction would remain. The top would bush out in a tuft, making it easy to spot. Nearby trees were cut and hauled away, leaving the lobstick in rather lonely splendour. Lobsticks were used in many ways, both practical and symbolic. They were often signposts, chosen and designed to mark trails, portages, and pathways through the boreal forest, berry patches or hunting grounds. Merle Massie, "Lobstick: Canada's next symbol?",
Numerous simple drawings on a rock's surface

Figure 2.1 Petroglyphs found near Peterborough, Ontario.

A simple drawing of a round face

Figure 2.2 Petroglyphs near Bella Coola, in Nuxalk territory, British Columbia.

Rock paintings (pictographs) and rock carvings (petroglyphs) are other visible records of storytelling and meaning, and a reminder of the long-term human occupation of Canada. These traces of memory are found in many parts of the country. Less durable examples of record keeping include the winter counts maintained on animal hides and other surfaces by several plains nations, especially the Lakota, one of the Sioux nations. Totemic illustrations — on poles, house faces, tipis — often announce clans and lineages, implicitly another record of past events.

The Written Record

Aboriginal written records — of a kind that compares more completely with those of Asia, Europe, and Africa — abounded in Mesoamerica. The Mayan civilizations in particular advanced writing to a point where it included glyphs (symbols for things or people) and syllabics (symbols that represent a sound or, indeed, an entire word). The work of the Mayans rested on the foundations established by still earlier civilizations in the region. Their neighbours and successors, the Aztecs, had their own similar written form of communication.

Scrolls written by Aztec authors and scribes from the period both before and after the arrival of Europeans are known as codexes, or codices. Mayan codexes also exist, although many from both nations were destroyed by Spanish invaders who regarded these remarkable forms of writing as highly suspect, because they believed “the word of God” was written only in Latin, not Nahuatl, let alone hieroglyphics.

Three rows of square pictures carved into stucco.

Figure 2.3 Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico.

A faded parchment with rows of symbols and three pictures depicting people.

Figure 2.4 An example of Yucatec Maya writing, ca. 11th-12th century CE from Chichen Itza, preserved in the Dresden Codex.

The nearest equivalent or comparable script known in Canada are the birchbark scrolls prepared by members of the Anishinaabeg nation. Some scrolls found in a cave near Burntside Lake in Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, near the Minnesota border, have been carbon-dated to the mid-16th century. It is likely that they first appeared in the proto-contact period if not the pre-contact period. The scrolls vary in size and shape: most are about 30 centimetres wide and up to 1 metre long. Some show signs of binding and indexing. Images and symbols are drawn on the soft inner surface of the bark and sometimes darkened in black, red, or blue. The subject matter ranges from the banal to the sublime, from simple instructions and maps to spiritual tales and lessons. A secret or at least semi-secret medicine society called Midewiwin was responsible for preserving and reproducing scrolls as they became more fragile or at risk from missionaries and colonial administrators. For that reason, these documents are often called “Midewiwin scrolls.”

The Oral Record

As Innis observed, societies that write on stone but not on paper are more likely to be time-biased. One of the qualities of such cultures is that they are well suited for a strong oral tradition. Certainly these societies move around, but overwhelmingly they move within cycles and retain a deep attachment to a particular locale. They gather annually, in some cases to exchange goods, seek marriage partners, determine group responses to threats or opportunities, and indulge in oratory. Without exception, European observers in the earliest days of contact (and, in some areas, much later as well) commented on the oratorical skills of Aboriginal speakers. Whether in the longhouses of the Haudenosaunee (Five Nations Iroquois) or the seaside camps of the Mi’kmaq, Europeans witnessed the fruit of a long tradition of storytelling that paid close attention to the core elements of a tale, preserving its integrity while allowing for personal style. To be able to tell a familiar tale well and with panache was highly valued among Aboriginal societies. This included “true” stories of history.

Some 50 years ago, when Bruce Trigger was preparing his landmark two-volume history of the Huron/Wendat, The Children of Aataentsic, he demonstrated the value of what came to be known as “ethnohistory.”Bruce Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987). This included extensive and critical use of the oral tradition which, of course, meant working very closely and respectfully with Aboriginal peoples, especially elders. Many years later, Wendy Wickwire demonstrated how the oral tradition — whether living or transcribed years ago — passed the historians’ tests of reliability and verifiability. Comparing the oral record of the Nlaka’pamux with fur trader and explorer Simon Fraser’s written account of contact in 1808, she found both remarkable similarities and revealing differences.Wendy C. Wickwire, "To See Ourselves as the Other's Other: Nlaka'pamux Contact Narratives," Canadian Historical Review 75, issue 1 (1994): 1-20. After 1492 and for the next 500 years “Old World” epidemic diseases raced back and forth across the Americas, leading to demographic disasters, which in some communities, ruptured and even broke the chain of the oral tradition. This was the worst-case scenario but fortunately, many pre-contact accounts continue to be nurtured.

Audio 2.1

This sound clip is of Aboriginal voices retrieved from the late 19th century, specifically, the Nlaka’pamux Dance Song (recorded by Franz Boas).

Perhaps still more remarkable has been the survival in the oral tradition of accounts of megafauna, including a giant beaver that non-Aboriginals understood to be a mythical creature. We now know the stories about gargantuan beavers are true: their skeletal remains have been found throughout Canada, some of them measuring 2.5 metres in length and indicating a body weight of as much as 100 kilograms. These massive rodents became extinct about 10,000 years ago, and yet recollections of their existence appear to have been passed down orally across thousands of generations. The lesson of this scrupulous research seems clear: if you want to know something about the history of Aboriginal peoples you might try listening to Aboriginal historians. A further lesson for Canada as a whole would be to value storytellers more highly.

The Archaeological Record

A further method of reaching into the pre-contact past is by digging it up — literally. Archaeology, as both a science and a school of thought, has evolved a great deal since its emergence in the 18th century. Since that time, it has become increasingly systematic, thorough, and technical. What is called the archaeological record contributes a great deal to current understandings of human experience in what is now Canada and elsewhere in the Americas.

Keep in mind that archaeology originally developed as a technique for studying earlier and long-gone Mediterranean societies like those of classical Rome, Greece, Egypt, and the lands stretching east from Syria through the Euphrates Valley. Its application, too, to sites in Britain and France (e.g., Stonehenge and the Ardèche caves) did not involve any local, living populations. In Europe, the archaeological study of more recent societies is usually described as historical archaeology. The modifier “historical” is, revealingly, not consistently used in North America when it comes to the study of Aboriginal peoples. In the late-19th century, however, much ethnographic work was described as “salvage ethnography,” in that it was presented by its Euro-Canadian practitioners as an effort to “save” evidence of an extinct people, despite the fact that those people were living just down the road. An archaeological dig on Sto:lo or Montagnais territory occurs in close proximity to people whose lives are, in point of fact, continuations of the stories being excavated.

As Trigger has pointedly observed, the “ethnohistorian normally depends upon documentary evidence that was produced not by the people” who are being studied, “but by representatives of a radically different culture.” This is important to keep in mind when assessing the archaeological evidence. It is isn’t just that an authentic Aboriginal record presents special challenges — because an authentic historic record of any kind does — but that the “view from here” is impeded by sources and perspectives offered up by contemporaries and scholars whose perspectives may be entirely different from and at odds with that of indigenous people. In short, archaeology is a filter, not a crystal-clear lens; interpretation and analysis is a necessary part of the science.

Key Points

  • The dearth of a written record does not mean there is no record at all.
  • Oral traditions and histories are as reliable as written primary sources. They are subject to the same tests of verifiability and reliability.
  • The archaeological record can complement the historical record and advance historical theories.


Audio 2.1
Dance Song of the Thompson River Indians recorded by Professor Franz Boas in the public domain. This recording is saved in the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv.

Figure 2.1
Petroglyphs Two by Lone Primate is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Figure 2.2
Petroglyph Thorsen Creek by Lloyd Guenther is under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Figure 2.3
Palenque glyphs-edit1 by Kwamikagami is in the public domain.

Figure 2.4
Dresden codex, page 2 by Pimlottc  is in the public domain.


2.3 The Aboriginal Americas

The telling of Aboriginal history in Canada often begins with a discussion of human migration routes into the Americas, which reflects the long-standing misperception that was held by Europeans that Aboriginal societies were primitive, usually migratory, and unlikely to have been in the Americas for very long before the 15th century. This misperception, of course, served European empires in the Americas very well because it justified the dispossession of native peoples from their lands.

Twentieth-century historians and archaeologists worked hard to remedy this situation and to magnify the many Aboriginal voices that said, in chorus, that they had been here “since time immemorial.”

Occupying the Americas

Human occupation of the Americas is itself a complicated tale. However, there is general agreement among scholars that modern hominids were hereabouts some 12,000 to 14,000 years before the Present Era (BPE).

Dating Systems

There are several dating systems and conventions used by historians. The one most widely used in Europe and the Western Hemisphere is based on the Christian dating system of marking years based on the year of Christ’s birth: BC, meaning “before Christ” and AD, meaning anno domini, or “in the year of our Lord.”

Another is before the Present Era (BPE), which arose from the use of radiocarbon dating and uses January 1, 1950, as its baseline. Therefore, 10,000 years BPE equals 10,000 years before New Year’s Day, 1950.

Recently the Common Era (CE) and before the Common Era (BCE) have become more widely used. These two terms align exactly with the Christian system, dividing time approximately 2,000 years ago.

Some Christians object to the BCE/CE system as an attempt to secularize the use of BC and AD; some non-Christians retort that BCE/CE is just the Western and Christian system in disguise, imposing itself on other cultures for further generations. This debate makes it clear that dating is neither scientific nor especially logical — it is cultural.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the most precise calendrical system in the Western Hemisphere originated with the Zapotec and Olmec societies and was subsequently refined by the Mayan culture. It consists in part of a long count that begins on August 11, 3114, BCE.

For convenience, BPE is used in this text when referring to events occurring more than 4,000 years ago; it is most commonly used by archaeologists in conjunction with radiocarbon dating — a means of determining the age of organic materials by measuring the amount of radioactive decay of carbon-14 in the material. Otherwise, BCE and CE are used as they are most likely to correlate with what you will read elsewhere.

Scientists and archaeologists hold several theories regarding the origins of Aboriginal peoples in the Americas. By far the oldest and most widely accepted of these theories is the Bering land bridge migration model. This theory posits that during the last ice age (approximately 50,000-10,000 BPE), humans were able to migrate from Siberia to Alaska over land. Evidence suggests strongly that for as many as 100,000 years, sea levels were much lower than they currently are and the Bering Strait — the body of water that separates Siberia from Alaska — was an open plain of land and glaciers (which scholars call Beringia). During a period of several millennia, about 10,000-14,000 BPE, as many as four distinct migrations are thought to have occurred over the land bridge. People migrated from Siberia, Eurasia, and coastal Asia, following the megafauna of the Pleistocene (to about 12,000-11,000 BPE).

Rising water levels over a 21,000 year period led to the separation of Siberia and Alaska.

Figure 2.5 The separation of Siberia from Alaska about 10,000 years ago can be seen in this short GIF from the American National Climatic Data Center. (Click on the map if using web version of book.)

The greatest supporting evidence of the Bering land bridge theory is the extensive homogeneity of the North American Clovis culture, so named for the archaeological site in New Mexico where it was first identified. The Clovis people were long considered to be the first to inhabit the Americas. Archaeologists theorize that the Clovis came over the land bridge and down a glacier pass to the east of the Rocky Mountains sometime between 12,000 and 11,000 BCE, eventually spreading through much of North America and into South America. Everywhere they went, Clovis people littered their camps and settlements with stone tools and weapons that bear some trademark features and suggest close cultural links.

A second theory focuses on Pacific sea travel. The coastal migration theory suggests that some people arrived in the Americas by following the coast of Asia and Beringia, down the western shore of North America, all the way to South America. The coastal migration theory is bolstered by the fact that the rich marine environment would have supported maritime people well. Travel by boat would also be much faster and easier than the route overland, thus allowing people to spread throughout the Americas much more quickly. The most compelling evidence supporting this model comes from archaeological sites in South America that predate the North American Clovis sites. Sites like Monte Verde in Chile date to 14,800-12,500 BCE; Taima-Taima in western Venezuela dates to 13,000 BCE. These two sites contradict the notion of “Clovis first.” However, there are far fewer archaeological sites that support the coastal migration theory compared to the Clovis sites; there may be more but, due to rising sea levels in the intervening millennia, the coastline of the Pleistocene era now lies under the Pacific Ocean. Barring breakthroughs in submarine archaeology, further evidence of earlier coastal migration at the source is lost to us.

Although the two theories might seem to be at odds with each other, most historians and archaeologists now accept that both are probably correct, and that human migration to the Americas occurred over a very long span of time, over land and by sea. It is, however, important to note that conclusive evidence in support of either theory continues to elude us; these are still hypotheses only.

What is almost certain is that — however they got here — the original human inhabitants of the Americas came from Asia. Genetic evidence strongly supports this: mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and DNA haplogroups show evidence of multiple migrations from Asia, starting at about 30,000 BPE.Jason A. Eshleman, Ripan S. Malhi, and David Glenn Smith, “Mitochondrial DNA Studies of Native Americans: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Population Prehistory of the Americas,” Evolutionary Anthropology 12 (2003): 7-18. There are two important points to note in this regard:

  1. There is currently no conclusive archeological proof of human existence in the Americas before about 20,000 years ago, but the DNA evidence points to a considerably earlier period of settlement.
  2. There is no genetic indication of migration from Europe or Africa, so the suggestion (which has been around since the late 15th century) that the Aboriginal peoples must have some roots on the other side of the Atlantic is utterly unproven. This point is important because for hundreds of years after the arrival of Europeans, efforts were made to explain the presence of Aboriginal people as the “Lost Tribes of Israel,” wayward Welshmen, or some other European offshoot. DNA studies have exploded this thesis: not one study has shown conclusive proof of European genetic markers among the Native American population before 1492.

Figure 2.6 World map of human migrations based on studies of mitochondrial (matrilinear) DNA. Dashed lines are hypothetical migrations. Numbers represent thousand years before present (BPE). The blue line represents area covered in ice or tundra during the last great ice age. The letters are the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups (pure motherly lineages); haplogroups can be used to define genetic populations and are often geographically oriented.

Indigenous people throughout the Western Hemisphere talk of their origins in oral histories, stories, and myths that link them intimately to the places they inhabit. The land, the stories commonly assert, was made for “the people,” and they were made to inhabit the land. Every group has an origin story, and they vary widely while having elements of consistency. Sometimes, groups have multiple origin stories that tell differing versions of creation and the founding of the group. Origin stories often begin with a “First Person” (or First Peoples), a mythical man or woman who founded the group. These First People often are created from, or emerge from, the natural world itself. For example, the first Iroquois and Wendat/Huron fell from the sky. An elderly couple of great virtue survive various trials to give birth to the peoples of the Earth, according to the Mi’kmaq. Animals play important roles in these stories as well. In the creation story of the Haida, Raven arranges things nicely and then releases the first humans from a clamshell; the Cree tell of the Earth mother’s offspring/agent Wisakedjak (a shape-changing and benign trickster whose name is widely mispronounced as “Whiskey-Jack”) who peoples the world. And there are stories that involve a singular creator, such as the Blackfoot figure Napi, who moulds the world and everything in it from a lump of mud. The oral traditions of the Lenape/Delaware and Iroquoian peoples, along with records from the Anishinaabe Midewiwin scrolls, refer to “Turtle Island,” a useful convergence of origin tales that has acquired broad acceptance among Aboriginal peoples since the 1970s.

These origin stories encapsulated and shaped the worldview of each group, establishing their people’s purpose in this world as well as their relationship to the spirits and the world around them. In other words, origin stories are key to establishing a group identity and a deep connection with the region the people inhabit. It is also the case that these stories are invoked by Aboriginal peoples as sufficient to their needs as regards history. Whether ancient peoples crossed Beringia or paddled in proto-kayaks along the west coast is perhaps interesting but no more proven and demonstrable than an allegory of cultural birth on an island of mud.

The Paleo-Indian Period

The time between the arrival of humans in the Americas until 10000-9000 years BPE is known as the Paleo-Indian period. During this time, humans spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, supporting themselves with similar subsistence patterns and technologies. Paleo-Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They moved as frequently as once or twice a week, hunting the big game of the Paleolithic: the megafauna. These included now-extinct creatures such as the mammoth, mastodon, short-faced bear, enormous versions of the modern-day sloth, the very muscular dire wolf, and upsized editions of moose and beaver.

Paleo-Indian technology included knapped, or chipped, stone tools such as scrapers, knives, and projectile points, such as the Clovis point. These were made from a variety of materials including bone and antler, obsidian, quartz, chert, and flint. Throughout the Paleo-Indian era, the spear was the most common weapon. At first, humans used spears as thrusting weapons, which required very close engagement between the hunter and game, a dangerous prospect when dealing with giant prey and predators. Sometime during the Paleo-Indian era, humans developed new kinds of technology, including a lighter throwing spear and an implement to propel this spear much farther: the atlatl. The atlatl, or spear thrower, was one of the most important items in the late Paleo-Indian tool kit. It was a long, thin piece of wood with a notch at the end. This notch was designed to receive the end of a spear or dart. The atlatl acted as an extension of the throwing arm, enabling the spear thrower to greatly increase the velocity and range of the cast.

Paleo-Indians probably lived in groups that anthropologists call bands, small groups of related individuals, typically no bigger than 100 to 150 people. This setup allowed for a simple leadership structure, probably with one individual at the head of the group. It also allowed for easy mobility, and hunter-gatherers such as Paleo-Indians lived with only transportable and reproducible possessions. One of the greatest problems of living in such a small group, however, was finding a suitable mate. Anthropologists think that regional Paleo-Indian bands came together yearly in the summer months to celebrate religious rituals, pass along news, and exchange young women and men to ensure genetic diversity among their groups.

The Archaic and Woodland Periods

From 10000 to 9000 BPE, Earth’s climate began to warm, and the North American environment changed. A warming world created opportunities for plants to thrive and diversify; it also created large bodies of water as glaciers and ice caps melted. Over the next 6,000 to 7,000 years, native cultures developed and diversified during the Archaic and the Woodland periods, 10000-3000 BPE and 3000-1000 BPE respectively.

Paleo-Indians adapted to the world around them, learning to rely more on a diet rich in plant materials. For reasons as yet unknown, megafauna began to die out, and Aboriginal people had to rely more on bison and other relatively smaller game animals for meat. It was near the start of this period, around 9000 to 7000 BPE, that West Coast societies started organizing themselves around salmon fishing. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, for example, began whaling with advanced long spears.

The Maritime Archaic is another expression of North America’s Archaic culture of sea-mammal hunters in the subarctic. They prospered from approximately 7000 BCE to 1500 BCE (9,000-3,500 years ago) along the Atlantic coast of North America. Their settlements included longhouses and boat-topped temporary or seasonal houses. They engaged in long-distance trade, using as currency white chert, a rock quarried from northern Labrador to Maine.

It was, as well, during the Archaic and Woodland periods that the peoples of the Americas also began to domesticate plants, leading to one of the most important transformations in human history: the development of agriculture. The Archaic agricultural revolution got underway in Mesoamerica (the area between Central Mexico and Costa Rica) and in coastal Peru by the Caral-Supe (also called Norte Chico) civilization. In Oaxaca, Mexico, people tended squash vines in order to use the hard fruit as containers. Eventually, more tender forms of squash became a food source. Following the domestication of beans, around 6000 BPE, Mesoamerican peoples became more sedentary. Finally, maize (or corn) was domesticated sometime around 5500 BPE. Over thousands of years, the tiny teosinte seed pod, measuring about four centimetres long, was transformed though cultivation into much larger, nutritionally rich ears of corn.

The domestication of maize completed the Mesoamerican triad: corn, beans, and squash. The “three sisters” provided an ideal diet. Aboriginal agriculturalists all over the hemisphere grew these crops as their principal foods until many years after European contact. This combination of plants proved ideal as they supported one another in growth. The corn grew tall and provided a “pole” for the beans to grow up and around, and the large squash leaves provided shade that retained moisture and inhibited the growth of weeds. As well, beans, which are “nitrogen fixers,” returned nitrogen back into the soil that the corn crops stripped out during growth.

Generations of corn. Long description available.

Figure 2.7 Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is shown on the left. In the middle is a teosinte-maize hybrid. Modern corn is on the right. [Long Description]

It was a diet that served the Mayan civilization exceedingly well. Agricultural societies, where they are successful, witness significant population growth and a degree of urbanization. The farming societies of Mesoamerica produced some of the largest and most elaborate city states in the Americas, comparable to European, African, and Asian civilizations in many respects. Architectural styles were elaborate, city layouts were complex and aesthetically stunning, and artistic and scientific knowledge was peerless, especially in the field of astronomy.

Further, from about 200 to 900 CE the Mayan civilization crested on the strength of an infrastructure of priesthoods that was the underpinning of the whole culture. Although the Mayan Empire declined sharply in the eighth and ninth centuries CE, the Aztec Triple Alliance followed with another, more militarized, iteration of Mesoamerican power from the 1300s to the 1500s. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was, in the late 1400s, one of the largest cities on the planet and possibly the most beautiful, a fact that tells us a great deal about the administrative, creative, technological, and cultural sophistication of these pre-contact civilizations.

Agricultural knowledge and techniques spread from Mesoamerica throughout the temperate parts of the Western Hemisphere in a process called diffusion. Although corn and beans probably came from Mesoamerica, other peoples throughout North America contributed to the body of agricultural knowledge and accomplishment across the continent.

Less successful was the domestication of animals. There weren’t a lot of suitable species available for experiments in domesticated rearing, although turkeys and dogs were notable exceptions. Horses, which may have originated in the Americas, disappeared along with the megafauna some 8,000 years ago. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep are fiercely recalcitrant creatures and almost impossible to contain, let alone domesticate. There was no equivalent of the African cattle to turn into a placid source of milk, meat, and hides. Most significantly, perhaps, there were no pigs or even boars to pen up and dine on.

The ramifications of having few domestic animals was significant to the history of Aboriginal peoples. The absence of large draught animals meant that land had to be cleared and prepared by human energy alone. Soil exhaustion could be postponed to some degree by composting or using fallow field practices, but Aboriginal farmers lacked access to the sort of fertilizers that cattle- and chicken-rearing peoples could exploit. Turkeys, which were domesticated, have the advantage of size and ease of capture, but they do not produce as many eggs and thus offspring as prodigiously as chickens. The inability to secure a household source of protein meant that Aboriginal diets necessarily relied more heavily on wild game and fish than was the case in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This resulted in a more nomadic or semi-nomadic life for many societies, and that constraint worked against large-scale and concentrated populations. Even the farming communities were obliged to augment their agrarian economy with wild meat and fish, which is much more time-consuming than slaughtering hogs. Further, the lack of dairy animals precluded women from weaning their infants onto cow, goat, or sheep milk, which meant that Aboriginal infants were breastfed longer, which in turn limited population fertility. Finally, the absence of domesticated animals meant that Aboriginal peoples were not exposed to cross-species infections and epidemics. For 10,000 years or so this proved to be beneficial, but after 1492 it was disastrous, the reasons for which are explored in Chapter 5.

Key Points

  • Two theories currently explain the arrival of humans in the Americas: the Bering Strait land bridge theory and the coastal migration theory.
  • The timing of early human occupation of the Americas is uncertain and archaeological evidence keeps pushing back the arrival dates.
  • Aboriginal peoples’ traditions point to occupation of “Turtle Island” since time immemorial.
  • Agricultural societies appeared about 6000 BPE and complex communities arose throughout Mesoamerica, spreading into the interior of North America.


Figure 2.5
Bering Land Bridge by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the public domain.

Figure 2.6
Map-of-human-migrations by 84User is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 2.7
Maize-teosinte by Gauravm1312 is used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

Long Descriptions

Figure 2.7 long description: Teosinte is small and green with only 12 kernels. The teosinte-maize has many more kernels but is still only an 8th of the size of modern corn. [Return to Figure 2.7]


2.4 The Millennia before Contact

An aerial shot of raised earth covered in grass in the shape of a winding snake.

Figure 2.8 Mound-builder societies produced functional and graceful structures, including the Great Serpent Mound in the Ohio Valley.

Early in their encounters with Aboriginal peoples, European newcomers struggled to conceive of and understand a continent teeming with (what was to them) mysterious peoples with highly unusual ways of doing things. Often the Europeans rejected the possibility that these civilizations could have arisen independently of Europe or Asia. Where the evidence to the contrary was inconvenient to their own worldview, Europeans sometimes simply stopped seeing it. Consequently, the myth developed that pre-contact Aboriginal societies were unsophisticated, unchanging, and primitive. This suited the newcomers’ agenda, but it was nothing like the truth.

Early Agriculturalists in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys

The southeastern portion of North America was an early centre of agricultural development that fostered the growth of a large, long-lasting, and influential culture known as the Mississippian (ca. 500-1400 CE). This culture originated in the Mississippi River Valley and spread out to encompass an area that includes the lower Great Lakes region to the north, the Carolinas to the east, and northern Florida to the south. This culture emerged from the late Woodland Period as a significantly more sedentary culture of large-scale, corn-based agriculture. Surplus agricultural production allowed Mississippians to stave off famines and sieges, support a dense population that included a large group of specialized artisans, and engage in trade with non-farming neighbours.

Politically, Mississippians were organized as a chiefdom, a form of organization based on a hierarchy of chiefs that followed the leader of the most important group. Within the chiefdom existed a high level of social stratification, with a noble class at the top. Socially, the Mississippians appear to have practised matrilineal descent patterns, meaning that familial relations focused on the mother’s family, with property, status, and clan affiliation being conferred through the female line. A person’s most important relations were his or her mother’s parents and siblings; the father’s relations were relatively unimportant. Boys looked to their mother’s brother as an important male figure rather than to their father, and uncles passed political power and possessions to their nephews and maternal relatives rather than to their sons. This system’s main advantage is that descent and clan affiliation were beyond doubt; a child’s paternity may be uncertain, but a clan can be sure of a child’s maternity. Matrilineality is relatively common among indigenous peoples of North America (though it is not universal), and it may explain the important roles that women often played in Aboriginal political systems. (Note that this is not, however, the same thing as matriarchy, which is a political system in which authority resides with females. Nor can it be assumed that the Mississippians were matrilocal, which means that married couples reside in or in close proximity to the family/parents of the wife.As one author writes, "Kinship and residence in Mississippian societies have been more assumed about than understood." Patricia Galloway, "Where have all the Menstrual Huts Gone? The Invisibility of Mentrual Seclusion in the Late Prehistoric Southeast," Reader in Gender Archaeology, eds. Kelly Hays-Gilpin and David S. Whitley (Oxford: Routledge, 1998): 197-211.)

The religion practised by the Mississippians is known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Important religious symbols included a snake (sometimes depicted as a horned serpent), a cross-in-circle motif, and a warrior-falcon hybrid. These symbols were closely related to cosmology and to elites and warriors, giving the religion a socio-political aspect that reinforced the social status and authority of the elite — including the high chieftain, lesser chiefs, and the priests. In time, elements of this iconography found their way across much of southern Canada.

One key feature of the Mississippian culture was that they were mound builders. They produced thousands of earthworks used in a variety of manners, including burial mounds for the elite. The chief, his family, and perhaps other members of the chieftain class lived atop some of the mounds in longhouses. Other mounds — some of the largest — appear to have been centres of worship or temples.

The Cahokia Mounds. Long description available.

Figure 2.9 The Cahokia Mounds is now a State Historic Site in Illinois. [Long Description]

The largest and most important Mississippian centre was Cahokia (ca. 600-1400 CE) located just across the Mississippi River from what is now St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia was a walled complex made up of 120 mounds that housed perhaps as many as 30,000 people, making it a very large city for its day, certainly as large as contemporary Lisbon, Portugal. It had many of the features one would look for in contemporary towns and cities anywhere, including community plazas, which were located throughout the complex. A woodhenge (a circle of wood posts) was built for astrological observations, with poles in the henge marked to indicate the sun’s rising point on the solstices and equinoxes, making it a kind of community calendar or town-square clock. Cahokia’s mounds took tremendous effort to build; labourers moved about 1.5 million cubic metres of earth in their construction. The largest of the mounds, today called Monk’s Mound, is approximately 10 storeys high, covering an area of 5.6 hectares at the base. The top of the mound, the focal point of the city, housed a huge structure that may either have been a temple or the residence of the paramount chief of the Cahokia chiefdom.

Cahokia became a centre of power in part because of its location near the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers. This confluence allowed the chiefdom to control much of the regional commerce, giving it access to a great variety of trade items from many regions. Cahokians participated in trade networks stretching as far as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south. The town began to decline around 1300 CE and slowly dwindled in size and importance, although some aspects of it remained in the 1500s. Scholars have speculated that overhunting, deforestation, a little ice age, and the rise of competing centres to the south contributed to Cahokia’s demise. The Ohio Valley, into which the French ventured in the 1600s and 1700s, carried many traces of the influence of the Mississippian culture; “Caouquias” appears on one of the first maps of the area, drawn in 1718 by Guillaume de L’isle. The Laurentian Iroquois of the St. Lawrence Valley and what is now southwestern Ontario (as well as the nearby Haudenosaunee or Five Nations Iroquois) would certainly have been influenced by this indigenous empire.

A map showing the territories of Mississippian cultures in what is now the eastern United States.

Figure 2.10  The extent of Mississippian cultures, ca. 1300.

The Interior Plateau

A different model of high-density population in the pre-contact era is Keatley Creek, an important site above the Fraser Canyon in present-day British Columbia, which was well removed from the Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, which it mostly preceded. The Stl’atl’imx people who lived there from about 2800 BCE established an economy based on the salmon runs in the river below their plateau village. A large cluster of kekuli (pit houses) — as many as 115 house-sized depressions, the largest about 20 metres across — suggest a population of several hundred. Archaeologists cannot agree on the cause of its abandonment between 800 and 1,200 years ago. Old caricatures of Aboriginal societies as small, unsophisticated nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are challenged and overturned by this kind of evidence. It also provides a challenge to the model of agriculture-led town development. Keatley Creek in this respect has more in common with the Norte Chico culture of Peru (with which it was contemporary) that it does with Cahokia. Like the Mississippian tradition, Keatley Creek was a source of cultural diffusion and would have influenced many of its neighbours — by example or by force.

The Pre-Contact Era

The two centuries before the arrival of French exploratory missions in the 1530s witnessed enormous changes in Aboriginal North America. The “little ice age,” beginning in the late 1200s, had severe impacts on farming communities. From the middle of the 14th century there was widespread abandonment of the Mississippian cities and villages, and the archaeological record reveals extensive evidence of famine and dispersal of populations. Much of the desperate and violent conflict that took place between Iroquoian peoples of this period — and the peace between the Five Nations that eventually emerged — has been ascribed to the unsettled environmental conditions of the time.

The Plains

Westward and northward movement of horticulturalists and farmers brought new populations into what is now southern Manitoba and Alberta. Some may have attempted to recreate the semi-urban environment of previous Mississippian generations as far north as the Bow River. Others introduced maize farming near the Red River and the Tiger Hills, with limited success.James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: U of R Press, 2013). Just below the 49th parallel on the Great Plains were more successful agriculturalists. Among the most important of these was the Mandan, whose villages along the Missouri and Knife Rivers survived until the smallpox catastrophe of the 1830s. Like many of their Siouan-speaking relations, they migrated into the region from areas associated with the Mississippian cultures. The Mandan villages acted as the commercial hub of an enormous wheel of Plains culture, one that extended into the lowlands around Hudson Bay. It included, as well, peoples who engaged in some corn farming and the harvesting of wild rice in what is now southern Manitoba and the western Lake Superior lowlands. The more nomadic peoples of the Plains in this period hunted large game, pursuing the herds on foot before the return of the horse in the post-contact period. Dogs pulling travois were an important asset; sometimes wolves were put to the same task. The Lakota, Cree, Assiniboine, and, further west, the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Shoshones, Gros Ventre, and Kutenai were participants in this shared Plains culture, as were later arrivals the Anishinaabeg (also called Plains Ojibwa or Saulteaux).

Although the hunting economies of Plains peoples evolved in many respects over the 8,000 years before contact, there were also some remarkable continuities. One of these is the buffalo jump phenomenon. Some 12,000 sites have been identified in Alberta alone, with the best known today being Head-Smashed-In (not far from present-day Lethbridge), which first came into use about 5,700 years ago. Buffalo jumps were kill sites, where herds of bison were driven off steep cliffs. If the fall didn’t crush their skulls or necks outright, they would be sufficiently stunned to allow for slaughter by hunters. The bodies would then be dragged to a nearby campsite and processed; every part of the animal was used to provide clothes (the hides), tools (the bones), and bowstrings (the sinew). Head-Smashed-In was in use for thousands of years, into the historic period, when Blackfoot, disguised as coyote and wolves, would drive buffalo along established “drive lanes” to the cliff. Excavations at Head-Smashed-In have unearthed a deposit of skeletons, primarily of bison, measuring more than 10 metres deep. But Head-Smashed-In is only one of many jump sites that dot the Prairies; another is Clay Banks Buffalo Jump in southwestern Manitoba, which was used by the Sonata and Besant cultures as early as 2,500 years ago.Olive Patricia Dickason, "A Historical Reconstruction for the Northwestern Plains," in The Prairie West: Historical Readings (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1992): 51.

Warfare was endemic on the Plains. War was waged for three main reasons: to gain prestige, to obtain goods, and for revenge. The strategy and tactics of Plains warfare revolved around the concept of counting coup.Anthony McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains, 1738-1889 (Evergreen, CO: Cordillera Press, 1990). Coup was an action that demonstrated bravery and skill. The most highly valued coup was to touch a live enemy and live to tell about it. Killing an enemy was coup, too, but demonstrated valour to a lesser degree; after all, the live man is still a threat, while a dead one can do no harm. Touching a dead enemy was also a lesser form of coup. After a battle, warriors returned to the settlement to recount their stories, or “count coup.”

Religious beliefs on the Plains tended to hold the bison as a central figure of the sacred Earth. Most groups kept “medicine bundles,” a collection of sacred objects holding symbolic importance for the group. Often, religious celebrations centred on the medicine bundle. The concept of annual world renewal was an important one in Plains religion, and one of the chief renewal ceremonies celebrated by many Plains peoples was the sun dance. The sun dance was sponsored by an individual who wished to give to his tribe or to thank or petition the supernatural through the act of self-sacrifice for the good of the group. Celebration of the sun dance varied in detail from group to group, but a general pattern existed. It usually occurred in the summer and involved erecting a large structure with a central pole, symbolizing the Tree of Life. Large groups would gather to give thanks, celebrate, pray, and fast. The individual sponsoring the sun dance would pray and fast throughout the celebration, which lasted up to a week. He was the celebration’s lead dancer, and the dance would continue until his strength was completely gone. Often, the dance involved some kind of bloodletting or self-torture. Participants might pierce their skin and/or chest muscles and attach themselves to the central pole by piercing pegs and lengths of leather, dancing around or hanging from it until the pegs were pulled free. Another variation involved piercing the muscles of the back and dragging buffalo skulls behind the dancer until the weight of the skull ripped the pins out of the dancer’s flesh. The scars that the dancer carried after the celebration were a mark of honour. At the end of the sun dance, the world was renewed and replenished.

The East

Northeastern Aboriginal peoples were diverse and complex in many respects. Economically, they relied on both hunting-gathering and farming, as well as trade. Iroquoian-speakers — the Wendat (Huron), Tionontati (Pétun or Tobacco), and Attawandaron (Neutral) of southwest Ontario and the Laurentian Iroquois (which included the people of Stadacona and Hochelaga), as well as the Erieehronon (Erie), Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga, whose territories were south of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence — built their societies around the planting and harvesting of the “three sisters” (corn, squash, and beans). Farming led to larger population numbers, bigger villages, more elaborate political structures to manage internal decision making and diplomacy (or war), and the capacity to store large quantities of surplus crops in the event of famine and for trade purposes. The 500 years before contact were marked by political transformations that produced confederacies and leagues among the Iroquoians, the most successful and largest of which were the Haudenosaunee (also known as the League of the Tree of Peace and Power, or the Five Nations Iroquois) and the Wendat Confederacy. These alliances were an effective means of reducing the prospect of long-running blood feuds between many bands and clans, although the creation of confederacies may have simply increased the scale of warfare between a few larger groupings.

The other eastern peoples were mostly Algonquian-speakers. These include the Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, and Maliseet (subsequently known as the Wabanaki Confederacy) in what are now the Maritimes and much of modern New England; the Innu (also known as Montagnais) on the north shore of the St. Lawrence and in the north-central Ungava Peninsula; the Nippissing (whose lands surround the lake bearing their name); and the three closely aligned factions of the Anishinaabe group: the Algonquin, Odawa, and the Ojibwe. The existence of Algonquian alliances hint at conflict with others; many of these peoples shared a common dislike of the Iroquois long before the arrival of Europeans. Several claim to have driven them westward out of the northeast and the Gaspé and perhaps out of the St. Lawrence Valley in the years before contact and shortly thereafter. Principally foraging horticulturalists, these Algonquian-speaking peoples were highly mobile. They made extensive use of the resources of the land and the sea, with the Mi’kmaq establishing an eastward position in southern Newfoundland.

All peoples of the northeast participated in extensive networks of commerce. Many participated in a system of exchange with shells (sometimes called “wampum”). The shells, which themselves were highly valued, had a currency value but were often assembled in strings, on belts, and otherwise in patterns that served as mnemonic devices to record the details of treaties or other agreements. Similarly the Mohawk — whose homeland was along the Hudson River in what is now New York State but who are now mostly settled in Ontario and Quebec — were noted traders in flint, a commodity that made them wealthy and powerful, not least because it was used as part of the Aboriginal arsenal.

Warfare played an important role in the northeast as it did on the Plains. It was the chief way to gain power and prestige, and revenge was its primary driver. A cycle of war was ensured because each group sought to avenge those killed in earlier wars or skirmishes in what became called the Mourning Wars. Acceptable outcomes of war could take several forms: killing the enemy, taking captives, and taking trophies of some sorts, often in the form of beheadings and/or scalping (a practice that may have been introduced to the region by Europeans). Captives would be taken back to the victors’ town, where they would be handed over to the women who had lost family members to war. Ultimately, one of two fates awaited a prisoner: either being tortured to death (which could last many hours or even days) or being adopted by one of the families whose warrior-males had died in battle or were prisoners themselves. The captive who withstood the torture by showing strength and singing his “death song” so as to have a good death, would be held in high esteem and sometimes spared. Occasionally, the torturers would consume the flesh of those tortured after they had died, in order to ingest the strength of the enemy, a practice that many cultures shared. At the very least, Iroquoian and other cultures echoed sacrificial practices conducted on a large ritualistic scale by the Aztec and Mayan peoples.

The Beothuk may have been an exception to many of these models and cultures. What little is known about these original inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador is discussed in Chapter 7. One distinctive element of their culture that would have a lasting impact on European perceptions of Aboriginal peoples was their practice of liberally applying red ochre over their bodies. It was this custom that led to newcomers describing them as “red Indians,” an appellation that wound up being much more broadly used.

People of the Far Northwest

The Pacific Northwest region was utterly separate from the Plains and other cultural zones. Its peoples were many and they shared several cultural features that were unique to the region.

By the 1400s there were at least five distinct language groups on the West Coast, including Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Wakashan, and Salishan, all of which divide into many more dialects. However, these differences (and there are many others) are overshadowed by cultural similarities across the region. An abundance of food from the sea meant that coastal populations enjoyed comparatively high fertility rates and life expectancy. Population densities were, as a consequence, among the highest in the Americas.

The people of the Pacific Northwest do not share the agricultural traditions that existed east of the Rockies, nor did they influence Plains and other cultures. There was, however, a long and important relationship of trade and culture between the coastal and interior peoples. In some respects it is appropriate to consider the mainland cultures as inlet-and-river societies. The Salish-speaking peoples of the Straight of Georgia (Salish Sea) share many features with the Interior Salish (Okanagan, Secwepemc, Nlaka’pamux, Stl’atl’imx), though they are not as closely bound as the peoples of the Skeena and Stikine Valleys (which include the Tsimshian, the Gitxsan, and the Nisga’a). Running north of the Interior Salish nations through the Cariboo Plateau and flanked on the west by the Coast Mountain Range are societies associated with the Athabascan language group. Some of these peoples took on cultural habits and practices more typically associated with the Pacific Northwest coastal traditions than with the northern Athabascan peoples who cover a swath of territory from Alaska to northern Manitoba. In what is now British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in, the Dakelh, Wet’suwet’en, and Sekani were part of an expansive, southward-bound population that sent offshoots into the Nicola Valley and deep into the southwest of what is now the United States.

Aboriginal territories along the costal areas of Vancouver Island and the southern BC mainland coast

Figure 2.11 The Salish Sea (as Georgia Strait is now widely known) was an ecologically and culturally rich zone occupied by related but unallied peoples.

Most coastal and interior groups lived in large, permanent towns in the winter, and these villages reflected local political structures. Society in Pacific Northwest groups was generally highly stratified and included, in many instances, an elite, a commoner class, and a slave class. The Kwakwaka’wakw, whose domain extended in pre-contact times from the northern tip of Vancouver Island south along its east coast to Quadra Island and possibly farther, assembled kin groups (numayms) as part of a system of social rank in which all groups were ranked in relation to others. Additionally, each kin group “owned” names or positions that were also ranked. An individual could hold more than one name; some names were inherited and others were acquired through marriage. In this way, an individual could acquire rank through kin associations, although kin groups themselves had ascribed ranks. Movement in and out of slavery was even possible.

The fact that slavery existed points to the competition that existed between coastal rivals. The Haida, Tsimshian, Haisla, Nuxalk, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv (Oowekeeno), Kwakwaka’wakw, Pentlatch/K’ómoks, and Nuu-chah-nulth regularly raided one another and their Stó:lō neighbours. Many of the winter towns were in some way or other fortified and, indeed, small stone defensive sniper blinds can still be discerned in the Fraser Canyon. The large number of oral traditions that arise from this era regularly reference conflict and the severe loss of personnel. Natural disasters are also part of the oral tradition: they tell of massive and apocalyptic floods as well as volcanic explosions and other seismic (and tidal) events that had tremendous impacts on local populations.

The practice of potlatch (a public feast held to mark important community events, deaths, ascensions, etc.) is a further commonality. It involved giving away property and thus redistributing wealth as a means for the host to maintain, reinforce, and even advance through the complex hierarchical structure. In receiving property at a potlatch an attendee was committing to act as a witness to the legitimacy of the event being celebrated. The size of potlatching varied radically and would evolve along new lines in the post-contact period but the outlines and protocols of this cultural trademark were well-elaborated centuries before the contact moment. Potlatching was universal among the coastal peoples and could also be found among more inland, upriver societies as well.

Horticulture (the domestication of some plants) was another important source of food. West Coast peoples and the nations of the Columbia Plateau (which covers much of southern inland British Columbia), like many eastern groups, applied controlled burning to eliminate underbrush and open up landscape to berry patches and meadows of camas plants that were gathered for their potato-like roots. This required somewhat less labour than farming (although harvesting root plants is never light work) and it functioned within a strategy of seasonal camps. Communities moved from one food crop location to another for preparation and then, later, harvest. A great deal of the land seized upon by early European settlers in the Pacific Northwest included these berry patches and meadows. These were attractive sites because they had been cleared of huge trees and consisted of mostly open and well-drained pasture. Europeans would see these spaces as pastoral, natural, and available rather than anthropogenic — human-made — landscapes, the product of centuries of horticultural experimentation.


More than 500 identifiable groups emerged in North America during the pre-contact era (that is, from 1000 to 1492 CE). Although tremendously diverse, the groups within each region of the continent shared many common features, including subsistence strategies, kinship relations, political structure, and elements of material culture. And although there were common economic and cultural features across North America and some that were shared in Meso-America and South America as well, this does not in any way indicate a single monolithic Aboriginal culture. In the northern half of North America alone the number of tongues spoken, artistic techniques perfected, songs and dance styles, architectural and engineering experiments, and systems of government can barely be calculated.


“Nomenclature” is the word used to refer to a set or system of names used in a particular field of study. How do we name things? Which names are correct? Some terms fall out of favour while others rise. In the study of Aboriginal history, this is particularly important.

  • Indians: The term used by newcomers (not by native peoples) to describe and characterize all the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas. Aboriginal peoples today sometimes describe themselves as Indians, though generally in a political context. The Canadian Indian Act, for example, uses the word “Indian” to describe native peoples, as do some native organizations (e.g., the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs). Keep in mind, of course, that there is no singular “Indian” culture, no one “Indian” language, no universal “Indian” economy. Making that assumption is an error referred to as “pan-Indianism,” the mistaken belief that all Aboriginal societies are essentially the same. The diversity of Aboriginal cultures, languages, and economies was a fact in the past and remains a fact today.
  • First Nations, Amerindians, American Indians: Beginning in the mid-20th century, Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples began experimenting with terms to replace “Indian.” In Canada, the term that has so far enjoyed the widest use and recognition is “First Nations.” “First Peoples” is also used, as is “indigenous peoples” and “Aboriginals.” In the United States the most widely used terms are “Native Americans” and “American Indians,” sometimes contracted to “Amerindians.” This last term is sometimes embraced by Aboriginal peoples as being the most serviceable.
  • Nuxalk, Anishinaabe, Wendat, Mi’kmaq: As 20th-century Aboriginal peoples found a stronger political voice, many articulated a desire to be known by their own nation names. Bella Coola became Nuxalk, Ojibwa became Anishinaabe (Anishinaabeg is the plural form), Huron reverted to Wendat, and Micmac reacquired a breath in the first syllable and a more open consonant at the end of the second in the form of Mi’kmaq. These are only four examples. Across the country Aboriginal peoples are reclaiming their names, an important step toward reclaiming their history.

Key Points

  • Elaborate agricultural societies with some measure of urbanization appeared in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys around 500 CE and began to decline in the century or so before contact with Europeans.
  • High density communities arose around the same time, based on maritime and riverine food resources.
  • Pre-contact societies included hunter-gatherers, farmers, and seafaring mammal hunters, all of whom were engaged in commerce.


Figure 2.8
The Great Serpent Mound, courtesy of Richard A. Cook/Corbis, is in the public domain. This image is available from the U.S. National Library of Medicine website.

Figure 2.9
Views of the remains of a mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, is in the public domain. This image is available from the U.S. National Library of Medicine website.

Figure 2.10
Mississippian cultures HRoe 2010 by Ras67  is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 2.11
The Salish Sea by Arct is used under CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Long Description

Figure 2.9 long description: The earth has been built up to form a huge stage-like structure. There are two levels with sloping sides and it is all covered in grass. [Return to Figure 2.9]


2.5 Languages, Cultures, Economies

Na-Den language speakers. Long description available.

Figure 2.12 Pre-contact distribution of Na-Dené languages. [Long Description]

Algonkian speakers. Long description available.

Figure 2.13 Pre-contact distribution of Algonkian speakers. [Long Description]

These brief histories of the Aboriginal Americas reveal that categorization is complicated. Take language, for example, which is often used as a key element of nationality (e.g., French people speak French and live in France and almost everyone in France speaks French). For Aboriginal peoples, there are no political units that encapsulate the whole of the largest and most widespread language groups in Canada. As the maps in Figures 2.12 and 2.13 show, the two most widely spoken language groups before contact — Athabascan or Na-Dené and Algonquian — cover massive areas and include societies that were separated by huge distances. Na-Dené dialects are spoken by Apache and Navajo in the American southwest, as well as by peoples from Alaska’s Tlingit to Alberta’s Tsuu T’ina (or Sarcee) who migrated south onto the Plains in the early 1700s. Similarly the Algonquian-speakers are represented by agricultural societies, bison hunters like the Siksika (Blackfoot), and lowland fisher-hunter peoples like the Cree, the Mi’kmaq, and the Anishinaabe, as well as large populations (some of them agriculturalists) in what is now the United States. Within these two language areas, dialect differences can be very great, but the core elements of the language mostly survive.

There were more than 30 Aboriginal language families in North America before contact.

Figure 2.14 Pre-contact distribution of Aboriginal language families.

One of the challenges facing anyone interested in Aboriginal language groups is that European contact was a catalyst for migration, generally in a westward direction. European observers were, thus, recording the presence of language groups whose more recent homelands in some cases were somewhere else. Figure 2.14 gives a sense of the huge diversity of language groups in North America but no sense at all of the internal diversity within the broad linguistic categories.

Pre-Contact Societies

Agriculture, horticulture, foraging, hunting, and fishing were key features of the economies of the pre-contact Americas. In Canada, rocky, stingy, or hard-packed soils (like those on the Prairies) made agriculture all but impossible (as did, of course, the climate in many zones). Despite some mastery in metalwork, as evidenced in silver, gold, and copper decorative arts, the knowledge and skills necessary to produce iron tools that would give agriculture a lift were not available. “Digging sticks” used to drill seed holes are far more labour intensive but less demanding on the soil than wooden or metal ploughs. This is not to say that agriculture is the higher form of economic activity in a pre-industrial world. Farming societies have many advantages, such as the ability to achieve rapid and substantial growth, the wherewithal to build villages and armies, political sophistication of a particular kind, and so on. But they also have significant health issues, less flexibility in the event of famine or drought, and are at more risk of being attacked by enemies. The Aboriginal economies were far more adaptable in this respect than their Old World contemporaries.


Figure 2.15 Copper was widely worked and used in pre-contact North America. On the northwest coast it was fashioned into large and beautifully-finished shields, symbolic of wealth and authority. This Kwakwaka’wakw figure, carrying “a copper,” was carved before the 1880s and is housed at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

What is more, everyone participated in commerce. These were trading societies that augmented their output with goods from their neighbours. Sometimes these were raw materials, such as furs or maize, flint or wampum; other times they were crafted goods like clothing, hides, or the much-sought-after sinew-backed bows made by the Shoshone. Everywhere one looks, the archaeological evidence turns up exotic artifacts in village sites, indicating a rich intercommunity and intercultural life that dates back thousands of years. For example, red ochre suitable for rock painting and other uses as a dye was mined for centuries from caves in the Similkameen Valley in southern British Columbia; it shows up in pictographs as far afield as Arizona.

Exercise: History Around You

Aboriginal History Where You Live

In Vancouver’s Stanley Park there is a clutch of totem poles arranged near the old cricket oval on Brockton Point. It is a favourite spot for tourists to stop for photographs. The display became much more complex and informative in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics. However, a long-standing complaint was that the poles were not examples of local, Coast Salish work, but rather, northern Kwakwawa’wakw and Tsimshian styles. In other words, the people who used to live on Brockton Point (and whose graveyards remain nearby) were excluded from this display of “native” history.

How is Aboriginal history depicted in your community? Is there a museum or gallery dedicated to the subject? Is there one on a nearby reserve? Do a mental inventory of the statues and memorials and plaques in the community: how many of those pertain to the experiences of indigenous people? Do they get it right? (If you’re not in Canada, consider paying a visit to the consulate or embassy — if one’s nearby. How is the nation’s Aboriginal heritage represented?)


Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, even semi-accurate pre-Columbian population figures are impossible to obtain for the indigenous populations prior to colonization. Estimates are extrapolated from small bits of data. Recent research suggests that the 13th century marked a critical break in the demographic history of North America. As the climate changed for the worse and the little ice age began, populations struggled to survive famine and competition for resources intensified. It has been suggested that peak pre-contact population numbers may have occurred two or three centuries before contact.James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: U of R Press, 2013), 2.

In 1976, geographer William Denevan used the existing estimates to derive a “consensus count” of about 54 million people for the Americas as a whole.William M. Denevan, The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976). There is, however, no “consensus.” Estimates for North America range from a low of 2.1 million (Ubelaker 1976) to 7 million people (Thornton 1987) and even to a high of 18 million (Dobyns 1983).Douglas H. Ubelaker, "North American Indian Population Size: Changing Perspectives," in Disease and Demography in the Americas, eds. John Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1992), 172-3; Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Popoulation History since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); Henry F. Dobyns, Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983). The Aboriginal population of Canada during the late 15th century is estimated to have been between 200,000 and 2 million, with a figure of 500,000 currently accepted widely. These numbers are utterly conditional: on the West Coast alone estimates range from 80,000 (ca. 1780) to 1.6 million, although the evidence to support either the low count or the high count is sparse.John Belshaw, Becoming British Columbia: A Population History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 72-6. Nonetheless, if the widely touted figure of 350,000 for British Columbia is reckoned as fair, then the national figures would jump up by as much as 200,000 (a 40% increase on the widely accepted figure of half a million)! Thus, there are significant discrepancies.

As we shall see in Chapter 5, the contact experience brought with it terrible disease epidemics that raced ahead of the Europeans in the proto-contact period. It is important to note here that the work of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and others — often supported by oral testimony from Aboriginal sources — suggests that the pre-contact Americas were not disease-free. Contagious diseases included tuberculosis, hepatitis, and respiratory infections. Syphilis and gastrointestinal illnesses might also belong to this list. And there were, in parts of the Americas, significant numbers of parasites. With the exception of tuberculosis, however, none of these are proper epidemic diseases. Syphilis, for example, spreads only on a one-to-one basis through intimate contact between individuals; influenza, by contrast, can be transmitted by one infected individual to dozens of other hosts at a time by the simple means of coughing. For the most part, then, experience with epidemics was both limited and very different from what Asians, Africans, and European humans witnessed regularly. This lack of knowledge meant that Aboriginal societies were badly unprepared for highly contagious disease epidemics. It does not mean, however, that Aboriginal life expectancies were particularly good. All indications suggest that, as in most human societies, a person was lucky to reach 30 years of age and very fortunate to reach 50. If infant mortality levels were higher in the Americas (and evidence suggests they were) it wasn’t helped by extended breastfeeding practices. Probably in most Aboriginal societies, infants were nursed for four years. This custom has an effect beyond nourishment and hydration: prolonged breastfeeding reduces fertility. Fewer infants may have generated more intensive childcare overall but, obviously, dampened fertility rates placed an upward limit on population growth rates. This would prove a critical weakness when it came time to recover from epidemic depopulations.Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004), 21.

Key Points

  • Aboriginal societies at contact defy simple categorization by language, economic activity, or location.
  • Population estimates suggest that humans were very numerous in the Americas in the late 1400s but perhaps not as numerous as they were a few hundred years earlier.


Figure 2.12
Na-Dene langs by ish ishwar is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Figure 2.13
Algonquian langs by ish ishwar is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Figure 2.14
Langs N.Amer fr by ish ishwar is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Figure 2.15
Kwakiutl chief by FA2010 is in the public domain.

Long Description

Figure 2.12 long description: Before contact, speakers of Na-Dené languages could be found in most of North Western Canada (excluding the northern coastal area and Nunavut) and along the Californian coast and some of the Southern United States. [Return to Figure 2.12]

Figure 2.13 long description: Pre-contact Algonkian speakers could be found in most of Eastern Canada, parts of the central prairies, and small parts of the central and north eastern United States. [Return to Figure 2.13]


2.6 Summary

Pre-contact North America was home to a numerous and diverse array of peoples, languages, religions, and cultures. Scientific origin theories such as the Bering land bridge and coastal migration suggest that the ancestors of these groups arrived in the Western Hemisphere at least 14,000 years ago. The origin stories of most of the groups provide another, more allegorical view, stressing the intimate relationship between “the people” and the land in which they lived. Paleo-Indians dominate the history of the period between the great ice ages and the era that began some 8,000 years before now when the Earth entered warmer, more congenial phases called the Archaic and Woodland periods.

The development of plant domestication and the beginnings of organized agricultural activities occurred in this phase, along with an eruption of village and urban settlements. The great classical civilizations of the Americas arose and the centre of this continent was dominated by an extensive urban farming complex. Many groups across North America became horticulturalists and agriculturalists, the latter relying primarily on the Mesoamerican triad of corn, beans, and squash. The surplus of food produced by farming enabled the development of large and complex communities and material cultures, as well as the ability to weather famine and siege more successfully. Regional geography also played a role in shaping groups; for instance, groups on the Plains came to be characterized by a reliance on the buffalo hunt while salmon-dependent communities appeared in the interior of British Columbia, and marine mammal hunters on all three coasts.

The Aboriginal world that Europeans contacted after 1492 was not static. It was in the midst of ongoing change and historical processes. Societies like the Mississippian cultures had peaked and were now looking to new models to survive. Ideas and practices were flowing from one part of the continent to another. Everywhere we look in the Americas we find evidence of modified landscapes — anthropogenic change — that were possible only because these were mostly successful and robust societies. The era of contact has to be placed in the context of a history of change and adaptation, and of continuities as well.

Non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada today (and in the United States) continue to hold many mistaken ideas about pre-contact Aboriginal nations. For example, it is commonly believed that at the time of European arrival, the Americas were vast empty lands occupied by handfuls of people who still acquired their food through hunting and foraging, people who could easily just move along to another hunting ground, and then another and another. The facts are that the Americas were occupied by millions of people, and these people had achieved technological development similar to their contemporaries in Europe, Africa, and Asia and had excelled in many specific areas. Their societies, economies, and cultures did not have enormous gaps that were waiting to be filled by foreigners; they were complete and they made sense.

They did, however, have a number of weaknesses that contact exposed and some newcomers exploited. These shall be considered in the chapters that follow.

Key Terms

agricultural revolution: In the context of the Archaic era, the development of the first farming societies in the Americas.

anthropogenic: Made or modified by humans.

archaeological record: Any evidence regarding past societies and civilizations (Aboriginal or otherwise) that derives from the use of archaeological techniques and methods.

Archaic period: The era described by archaeologists and anthropologists as roughly 10,000-3,000 years BPE.

Aztecs: A Mesoamerican civilization and polity that collapsed in the early 16th century. The Aztecs developed many agricultural techniques and administrative customs that influenced societies around the Gulf of Mexico. Their influence may have spread up the Mississippi River as well.

Before the Common Era (BCE): This term, along with CE, align exactly with the Christian dating system, dividing time approximately 2,000 years ago.

Before the Present Era (BPE): a dating system based on the use of radiocarbon dating, which uses January 1, 1950, as its baseline. Therefore, 10,000 years BPE equals 10,000 years before New Year’s Day, 1950.

Bering land bridge: The land form, made mostly of land that was exposed by falling sea levels, that connected Eurasia and North America between Siberia and Alaska 50,000 to 10,000 years BPE.  A possible route for human migration from Asia to the Americas. Also called Beringia.

Beringia: The open plain of land and glaciers that once filled the current gap between Siberia and Alaska.

buffalo jumps: Sites on the Plains associated with highly coordinated bison hunts conducted by Aboriginal communities.

Cahokia: Thought to be the largest of the Mississippian towns/cities. Located near present-day St. Louis, it is believed to have crested around 1050 and collapsed around 1350.

chiefdom: A form of organization based on a hierarchy of chiefs that followed the leader of the most important group.

Clovis: Named for the archaeological site in New Mexico where it was first identified, the Clovis culture is identifiable by the kinds of projectile heads it produced. 

coastal migration theory: An alternative to the Bering land bridge theory, which posits that the first human arrivals in the Americas arrived by sea, following the arc of the North Pacific icefield and skirting Beringia.

codexes (codices): Scrolls written by Aztec and/or Mayan authors and scribes from the period both before and after the arrival of Europeans.

Common Era (CE): This term, along with BCE, aligns exactly with the Christian dating system, dividing time approximately 2,000 years ago.

contact: The first documented encounter between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. This is a movable date because first encounters occur in different regions at different times. The contact era for some Arctic peoples, for example, only began in the 20th century.

counting coup: The practice, common among many Aboriginal cultures, of attacking rival groups with the objective of inflicting injury but not necessarily death and thereby acquiring status commensurate with the humiliation meted out to the foe.

diffusion: The transmission of ideas, practices, or beliefs from one society to another.

exotic diseases: Infectious and highly contagious viruses introduced in the proto-contact and contact eras. Aboriginal people had little in the way of natural immunities to diseases they had never before encountered.

grease trails: Trade routes that originated in the pre-contact era in what is now British Columbia, used for transporting oolichan grease, an important indigenous commodity.

hypotheses (plural); hypothesis (singular): Suggested explanations for historical phenomenon, events, or ideas.

little ice age: The term given to a hemispheric downturn in average temperatures that lasted from the 1600s (as early as the late 1200s in some locales) to the 1820s. Much of North America and northwestern Europe was affected.

longhouse: A style of domestic building that typically accommodates an extended family and serves as a storehouse for equipment, food, and other belongings. Longhouses take many forms in Canadian Aboriginal cultures, use different kinds of materials, and may be fixed, movable, or something in-between.

maize: Commonly referred to today as “corn,” a modified crop form of a grass known as teosinte. Maize was first developed by Mesoamerican societies.

Maritime Archaic: A variant on the Archaic tradition. Maritime Archaic cultures were found on the Atlantic coast.

matriarchy: A political system in which authority resides with females.

matrilineal, matrilinear: Familial relations that focus on the mother’s family, with property, status, and clan affiliation being conferred through the female line.

matrilocal: A social system in which married couples reside in or in close proximity to the home(s) of family/parents of the wife.

megafauna: Large pre-contact animals found globally whose modern descendants are considerably smaller.

Mesoamerica: The cultural zone containing some of the largest agricultural and urban civilizations in the Americas prior to contact, Mesoamerica stretches across almost all of Mexico and south through much of Central America.

Mississippian culture: An agricultural, town-centred civilization that thrived from ca. 500-1400 CE. Located at the heart of North America and connected by the river and lakes network to lands from the Rocky Mountains to the Gaspé, the Mississippian culture had a powerful impact on the societies that followed.

mound builders: One of the distinguishing features of the Hopewellian and Mississippian cultures was the erection of large complexes of earthworks.

Mourning Wars: Conflicts associated principally with the Haudenosaunee and impacting virtually all their neighbours. This wide-ranging series of conflicts covered much of what is now southern Ontario and the Ohio Valley. One goal was to acquire captives who would be adopted into the captor’s community so as to replace population lost to epidemics or earlier wars/raids.

oolichan: An anadromous fish prized on the West Coast for its high oil content.

oral tradition:  Generally refers to an account of events that took place in earlier generations and which is transmitted by oral storytelling (as opposed to a written version). Distinctions used to be drawn sharply between oral tradition and oral history, which was regarded as accounts of events within the lifetime of the teller. More recently oral history is equated with oral tradition and has been granted greater respect for its reliability.

Paleo-Indian: The peoples occupying parts of the Americas until about 8000 BPE.

Paleolithic: The period associated with the concept of “Stone Age,” referring to human technological development before extensive use of metals. Dates vary from continent to continent and region to region.

petroglyphs: Images carved into rock.

pictographs: Images painted onto rock and other surfaces.

potlatch: A ceremonial event mounted by most Northwest Coast peoples and many in the interior of what is now British Columbia. It involves the giving away of property at an event marking, typically, a succession, a marriage, or a death. Accumulating goods for an impressive potlatch was an important mechanism for attaining social status for the host and also redistributing wealth through a system of related villages.

post-contact: The years after documented encounters between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. Post-contact typically describes a relatively short period: although our current society is technically “post-contact” it makes little sense to use the term that way.

pre-contact: The period before first documented encounters between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. Pre-contact societies may also be proto-contact societies, depending on circumstances.

proto-contact: The period of indirect influence of Europeans on Aboriginal peoples. Some of the effects of contact ran ahead of direct encounters. For example, diseases and/or trade goods might be passed from one Aboriginal community that had experienced face-to-face contact to a great many others that had not.

Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: The religion associated with the Mississippian cultures. Many features of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex were shared with Aboriginal cultures in southern Canada.

sun dance: A renewal ceremony celebrated by many Plains peoples. It was sponsored by an individual who wished to give to his tribe or to thank or petition the supernatural through an act of self-sacrifice for the good of the group.

teosinte: A variety of grass that was modified into maize by Aboriginal peoples of Mesoamerica.

triad: Also called the “three sisters,” the crops of maize, beans, and squash, which were developed in Mesoamerica and diffused across the Americas centuries before contact.

winter counts: A record of events recorded in the form of pictures; associated mainly with Siouan cultures.

Woodland periodThe era described by archaeologists and anthropologists as roughly 1000 BCE-1000 CE.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What kind of records exist that provide Aboriginal accounts of the past?
  2. What are some of the limitations of the archaeological record?
  3. What are the principal theories and/or explanations that describe the original populating of the Americas by humans? What are the weaknesses and strengths of these theories?
  4. What factors contributed to substantial Aboriginal population growth in the pre-contact era?
  5. What are the limits of using language groups to understand Aboriginal communities in the past?
  6. What are some of the issues involved in estimating pre-contact population numbers?
  7. What are some of the major differences that distinguish the various native peoples of what is now Canada?

Suggested Readings

  1. Mann, Charles C. “1491.” The Atlantic, 1 March 2002.
  2. Neylan, Susan. “Unsettling British Columbia: Canadian Aboriginal Historiography, 1992-2012.” History Compass 11, no.10 (2013): 845-58.
  3. Prins, Harold E.L. “Children of Gluskap: Wabanaki Indians on the Eve of the European Invasion.”  In American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, edited by Emerson W. Baker, Edwin A. Churchill, Richard D’Abate, Kristine L. Jones, Victor A. Conrad, and Harald E.L. Prins (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 95-117.


This chapter contains material taken from Native Peoples of North America by Susan Stebbins. It is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 unported licence.

This chapter contains material taken from History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877 by Catherine Locks, Sarah K. Mergel, Pamela Thomas Roseman, and Tamara Spike. It is used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 US licence.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Mesoamerican Cultures/Aztecs“, is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “Aboriginal Peoples in Canada,” is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “Population History of American Indigenous Peoples,” is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.


Chapter 3. The Transatlantic Age


3.1 Introduction

A large whale carries a boat and a number of men kneeling around a crucifix on its back.

Figure 3.1 The putative Irish explorer, St. Brendan, gets a lift from a whale.

The 1400s witnessed the start of increasingly ambitious sea expeditions in the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, which continued for several centuries. Countries in Eurasia and Africa developed a growing interest in exotic goods and the wider world. The western European voyages of fishermen, whalers, and licensed explorers opened up an era in which the growth of commerce, creed, and curiosity combined with an opportunity to exploit new resources in far-off lands. Different European nations used different strategies to achieve these goals.

The motivations of the European expansionists were those of their age. The pursuit of material and spiritual goals reflected the agendas of mercantile wealth accumulation and Catholic dominance. The example of Iberian colonies in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America taunted the French: they, too, wanted easy riches and an almost effortless conquest. Instead they got long, cold winters, an Iroquois adversary that would not relent, and a trade in furs — a far cry from the silver and gold looted from the Aztec and Incan empires. As well, the French experiment in North America faced serious competition from English and Dutch Protestants in the region.

In the earliest era of contact and conquest, the Spanish dominated the New World. Their experiences largely defined early European knowledge of the Americas and its native inhabitants, the people Europeans called los Indios or “Indians.” In the 50 years after Christopher Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492, the Spanish established the basis for a powerful hemispheric empire. The Spanish faced two significant challenges, however: distance and time. The long journey between Europe and the colonies meant that communication was difficult and slow. Distance and time played a key role in shaping colonial administration as well as patterns and methods of imperial control.

The direct impact of European exploration on the northern half of North America was slight until the early 17th century, with colonization and some measure of agricultural settlement occurring only very slowly. The earlier successes modelled by the Spanish and Portuguese from the Carolinas south to Tierra del Fuego had a profound effect on European attitudes and ambitions for the lands to the north.

This chapter surveys early European interest in what was called the “Americas” through the first stages of establishing colonies. It explores the various economic and political models that emerged, and the impact of this phase of transatlantic plunder on the emergence of western Europe as a centre of imperial power.

Learning Objectives

  • Account for the European incursion into the western Atlantic.
  • Describe the factors that made European exploration and expansion possible.
  • Identify the ideas and attitudes that provide the intellectual context for the “age of exploration.”
  • Account for the presence of the French in North America.
  • Explain the evident failure of Cartier’s expeditions.


Figure 3.1
Wikinger by Rdnk is in the public domain.


3.2 Beginnings of Globalism

In Chapter 2 we considered the very deep history of human occupation in the Americas. Here, we do the same for the Europeans.

Northwestern Europe to 1491

The earliest human-made or anthropogenic tools discovered in France have been dated to more than 1.5 million BPE, but that does not mean that there has been continuous human occupation of the region. The area’s multiple climate zones and various entry points made it a crossroads for human traffic over millennia. Neanderthal populations appear around 300,000 BPE but are thought to have gone extinct around 30,000 BPE. Modern humans (in this case, Cro-Magnons) became the dominant hominid species. They enjoyed a long run, but glaciation scoured humans and other fauna from much of northwestern Europe until about 15,000 years ago. It was only then — about the same time humans were appearing in the Americas, if not some years later — that humans returned to northern France and the British Isles.

The emergence of agricultural societies in the Neolithic, about 4,000-6,000 BPE, occurs at about the same time teosinte cultivation emerged in Mesoamerica. At about 2800 BCE, people in what is now France began working in bronze; evidence suggests that it was about 2150 BCE before Britons began to do the same. The so-called Iron Age, however, did not arrive for another 1,000 to 1,200 years.

The experience of the British Isles in the pre-contact period illustrates processes at work across Europe. What leaps out is the succession of cultures that arrived in Britain and established dominance. Indigenous British populations were subjected to repeated influxes of newcomers from the mainland of Europe, the most consequential waves beginning with the Romans about 2,000 years ago. British culture was strongly influenced by successive invasions, including the Germanic arrivals of the fifth century CE and repeated incursions and immigrations from Viking homelands from the eighth century through to the 10th century (one arm of which would carry on across the Atlantic). And while the British Isles would sustain many localized seagoing, fishing economies, the core economic activity was agriculture. This was true in France as well, and the number of hunter-gatherers in both territories was insignificant.

A tapestry of soldiers fighting on horseback.

Figure 3.2 Pre-contact Europeans developed striking visual records of their history, like the Bayeux Tapestry.

The indigenous Celtic cultures of northwestern Europe and the British Isles continued to be pushed to the margins in the late pre-contact period. In England and Wales that process accelerated with the arrival of the Normans (in large measure the descendants of Viking immigrants to France) in the 11th century. The society that emerged in England — and that was in place in 1492 — was thus a hybridized one dominated by an aristocracy of continental origin and a landscape of often fractious princelings/chieftains with a warrior class and clergy dominating a large agricultural peasantry. The “commoners” were themselves a mix, but in many districts in Britain throughout this period they were essentially ethnically different from their feudal masters. (Everyday artifacts of this relationship are the words used to describe meats: English peasants raised pigs, chickens, and cows, which were transmogrified in the market and on the banquet-hall table into pork (porc), poultry (poulet), and beef (boeuf), words derived from their conquerors’ native Norman French.)

While England’s boundaries were still undefined in this period and Wales resisted English domination, Scotland and Ireland were utterly distinct and their political units were mostly organized around chieftainships. What can be said of these northwestern European peoples in this period is that their political and economic conditions were very unsettled, that they had developed important technologies, and that their identities were necessarily fluid and somewhat tribal.For a survey of the repeated and overlapping population tides that washed across Britain, see David Miles, The Tribes of Britain (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).

The First Voyageurs: the Vikings and Others

Six rowboats with men holding shields and spears row across the water.

Figure 3.3 Danes about to invade England. From Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund from the 12th century.

In the eighth century, Norsemen, or Vikings, began settling parts of the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney Islands in the North Atlantic. For nearly four centuries they went wherever treasure was, trading as far as Byzantium and Kiev in the east. In the west they raided Ireland and England, continuing south to the Italian peninsula. Their gun-and-run approach — sailing into a port, seizing its gold, and murdering or enslaving its people before fleeing — belies the fact that they were also settlers. They made homes throughout the British Isles, and they began settling Iceland in approximately 870 CE. One Viking, known to us as Erik the Red (ca. 950-1003), was accused of murder and banished from his native Iceland in about 980. Erik explored to the west and later founded a settlement on a poorly charted, snowy coastline. Knowing that this bleak land would need many people to prosper, Erik returned to Iceland after his exile had passed and coined the word “Greenland” as a branding ploy that he hoped would appeal to the overpopulated and treeless settlement. Erik sailed again to Greenland in 985 and established two colonies with a population of nearly 5,000.

Leif Erikson (ca. 970-1020), son of Erik the Red, and other members of his family began exploring the North American coast in 986 CE. Leif landed in three places, and in the third established a small settlement called Vinland. The location of Vinland is uncertain, but an archaeological site on the northern tip of Newfoundland at L’Anse aux Meadows has been identified as a good candidate. It was a modest Viking settlement and is the oldest confirmed presence of Europeans in North America. The settlement in Vinland was abandoned in struggles between the Vikings and the native inhabitants, who the newcomers called Skraelingar. Bickering also broke out among the Norsemen themselves, and the settlement lasted less than two years. The Vikings would make brief excursions to North America for the next 200 years, though further attempts at colonization were thwarted.

By the 13th century, Viking civilization was in retreat; Iceland and Greenland entered a period of decline during a little ice age. Christianity and the emergence of a unified Christian kingdom in Norway caused division within the Viking world. As well, Europe soon fell prey to a series of devastating epidemic diseases, and what knowledge scholars, sailors, and governments had of Viking explorations was lost or ignored. Apart from the traces left behind at L’Anse aux Meadows and the possibility that some genetic material might have found its way into the Aboriginal communities of the region, the Viking legacy evaporated with their departure. Vinland was a dead end.

Other apocryphal accounts of European encounters with the Americas exist. These include stories of St. Brendan’s voyages from Ireland, Prince Madoc’s expedition from Wales, and the possibility of fishing fleets sailing out of Bristol, England, all the way to Newfoundland. However, none of these stories can be substantiated by evidence; neither can the suggestion that African or Chinese voyages across open seas reached the Americas. There are also tales of classical-era Romans and Egyptians, and even Old Testament “lost tribes of Israel” crossing the Atlantic. Against these unconfirmed tales, there is some evidence to suggest that Inuit sea voyagers may have washed ashore in western Europe, but none of these encounters appears to have had any significant consequences to the Aboriginal North Americans or to the Europeans they may have encountered.

All of this is important to consider against the many efforts Europeans launched after 1492 to claim all or parts of the Americas. Often these claims were made on the strength of long-term connections that simply did not exist in any form other than myth. This is not to say that crossing the Atlantic from east to west was impossible before 1492, although prevailing winds and sea currents made it fiendishly difficult and dangerous. Boats sailing out of the north of Spain and the west coast of France and possibly Portugal as well pursued fish and whales into the North Atlantic and may have done so before Columbus. Indeed, the enthusiasm with which Basque, Bristol, and French whaling and fishing fleets patrolled the Grand Banks in the era of recorded voyages suggests that they were one step ahead of John Cabot’s voyage in 1497 at the very least. Ultimately, European claims were principally made against one another, rather than against Aboriginal occupants whose status as non-Europeans and non-Christians was critical to the very idea of imperial expansion.

Key Points

  • Conditions in northwestern Europe were highly unsettled in the five centuries leading to contact.
  • It was not uncommon for the ethnicity and language of a ruling class to be distinct from that of the subject peoples.
  • Strong seagoing traditions among the Vikings led to transatlantic explorations with what appear to be few long-term ramifications.


Figure 3.2
A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Odo, half brother to William the Great, cheering his troops forward by LadyofHats is in the public domain.

Figure 3.3
Danes about to invade England by Rdnk is in the public domain.


3.3 The Seafaring World of the 15th and 16th Centuries

A map of the world in 1400 reveals a patchwork of small countries and kingdoms, most of them heavily centralized, but few of them truly expansive. There are exceptions, such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (and its successor state, the Poland-Lithuanian Alliance), which extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the Ottoman Empire, which included all of the Balkan Peninsula and what is now Turkey. China’s borders under the Ming Dynasty, although huge, were a fraction of what they had been under the Mongol and perhaps a fifth of their size today. Absolutist monarchical regimes with powerful religious institutions were globally the norm. In this respect, the Aztec Empire was hardly different from its contemporaries headquartered in Beijing, the Mali Empire in west Africa, or 15th century England under Henry Tudor. A few of these nations, however, had begun exploring the possibility of expanding trade networks by sea.

The model of Columbus's ship is less than one quarter of the size of Zheng He's flagship.

Figure 3.4 A model of Zheng He’s flagship beside one of Columbus’s ships. Both are built to the same scale.

The early leader in economic expansion was the Ming Dynasty under the admiralship of Zheng He (1371-1433). His fleet was one of the largest the world would see for many years, and his flagship was the largest vessel on the planet — one that dwarfed European craft. In the first half of the 1400s, Zheng pushed the maritime boundaries of Ming influence all the way to the east African coast: Chinese dialects were becoming rooted in every port town around the Indian Ocean, and piracy was virtually extinguished by Zheng’s naval policing.

Around the same time, Portuguese navigators began pushing into the South Atlantic, inching one degree of latitude a year farther south from about 1450 onwards. To put this in perspective, official European maps in the first half of the 1400s extended the world no farther south than Morocco. Africa was, apart from its Mediterranean flank, virtually unknown to Europeans. By 1488, advances in navigational instruments like the compass and the astrolabe, better ship design (like the caravel), and growing confidence allowed the Portuguese to round Cape Horn and enter the Indian Ocean. Three maritime traditions — that of Portugal, the Ming Dynasty, and the Arab ports — were now in contact. With gold pouring into Lisbon, other European nations took note. Spain in particular wanted a piece of the action but could never assert quite enough power over the Portuguese fleets to break through that monopoly around west Africa. That left the Spanish, for the time being, with only one direction in which to look.

Spain in the Americas

The year 1492 is a watershed in human history. The changes it brought to the Americas (which we explore in some detail in Chapter 5) were far-reaching and we still can feel the effects today. In Europe, 1492 had significant economic repercussions as well, as Spanish expeditions secured huge bounty in the form of precious metals. In the space of two generations, port cities that faced the Atlantic were booming. Navies grew to monstrous size, as did the industries that supported them — everything from making sails to producing dyes for uniforms to twisting enormous lengths of rope. Merchant wealth rose on a wave of price inflation, and this emergent class of traders and manufacturers began to flex a little political muscle. At the same time, it was still the age of absolutist monarchs whose power, it was thought, derived from heaven (a concept known as the divine right of kings). This understanding of the nature of power must be understood in its particular historic context: the Spain that ventured into the western Atlantic had only very recently been transformed politically and culturally in a manner that put religious identity first.

Spain was divided since the eighth century between a Muslim south and a Christian north. The marriage of the 18-year-old Isabella of Castille to her first cousin Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 began a rapid process of consolidating Spain into its current shape. What was left outside the boundaries was the Emirate of Grenada, the last toehold of what had been an extensive Muslim empire across Spain and Portugal. After a decade of bitter fighting, Grenada fell to the Catholic monarchs on January 2, 1492, and the reconquista was complete. In the space of barely 30 years, Spain was transformed, and the changes had come about under the sword and the Bible of a stridently Catholic kingdom. The country was militarized, police forces were introduced, religious tolerance fell to a low ebb, and religious chauvinism ran at full tide.

One arm of this movement took the form of the Inquisition. To consolidate their victory and begin the process of “purifying” their kingdoms, the monarchs issued orders for all Jews and Muslims to make a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The newly reformed Spanish identity was thus unquestionably Christian, and all subjects of the Crown were to belong to the Catholic fold. It was in this context that Christopher Columbus (himself aggressively Catholic) received support for a voyage to the West, ostensibly in search of an avenue to India that would not trespass on Portuguese routes to the south. In 1492 when he set sail, commercial, military, and religious ambitions were in play in Spain; Columbus’s voyage was much more than a harmless geographic survey.

Three ships left Spain in September 1492 with fewer than 90 men, a year’s provisions, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the size of the Earth. Scholars all over Europe argued that Columbus grossly underestimated the distance to Asia. Columbus’s misunderstanding, along with an egotistical demeanour and demands for great personal rewards from his expedition, made him an unpopular business partner and a difficult master at sea. On October 12, 1492, with mutiny a real likelihood, the small Spanish fleet sighted an island in the chain later named the Bahamas. Columbus returned to Spain in 1493, convinced that he had reached Asia. He described a tropical paradise and brought back enough gold and other valuables to secure permission for a second voyage.

The Caribbean quickly became the base for further Spanish reconnaissance. Within 25 years, European explorers and cartographers had sketched a remarkably accurate outline of the Caribbean and the eastern coasts of North, South, and Central America. For a time, Columbus himself served as governor of “the Indies,” the name used by the Spanish for the Americas. His critics accused him of harsh rule and mistreatment of the colonists, who called him “the tyrant of the Caribbean.” In fact, Columbus was arrested and returned to Spain in chains, where he was stripped of his titles and office for misrule. Columbus went to his grave believing that his voyages had taken him to Asia. Others, however, argued that he had reached a previously unknown land mass, a “New World.”

While the Spanish were busy establishing themselves in the Caribbean, Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1524) had made contact with India and thus won the Iberian race to tap into the spice trade. Another emissary of the Spanish throne, Ferdinand Magellan (ca. 1480-1521), confirmed Columbus’s mathematical errors and fundamental cartographical ignorance in late 1520 when his fleet entered the Pacific Ocean. Magellan’s fleet became the first to successfully circumnavigate the globe, returning to Spain in 1525, but the voyage took an incredible toll: of the original five ships and 237 men, only one ship and 18 men survived, and Magellan was not one of them.

The first challenge to Spanish hegemony in the New World came with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided what the Europeans knew of the Americas between Spain and Portugal. Part of Brazil fell within the Portuguese area of claim, leading to a growing struggle for control in the region between the Iberians. Later, other European nations entered the region, creating further complications. Some, like the Dutch, took a primarily economic interest in the American hemisphere, shaping their models of colonial administration largely around trade and piracy as opposed to conquest and plantations.

Large sections of South America and islands in the Caribbean added to an old world map.

Figure 3.5 The Cantino World Map was prepared in Lisbon around 1502. In only a decade, Spanish and Portuguese landfalls in South America and the Caribbean were extensive.

Key Points

  • Portugal was one of the leaders of the European “age of discovery.” The Portuguese were able to successfully navigate the open sea because of technological innovations. The Portuguese explored the coast of Africa and later established trading posts up and down the coast of West Africa. Portuguese forays into the Indian Ocean marked the beginning of a powerful sea empire.
  • The Spanish followed Portugal’s lead after completing the reconquista and sponsoring Columbus’s 1492 voyage. Like the Portuguese, Columbus had the goal of reaching Asia to tap into the lucrative spice trade. Columbus instead reached the “New World,” and the Spanish found themselves exploring — and exploiting — as much as they could as fast as they could. Competition between Portugal and Spain eased with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the Earth into two zones of influence.


Figure 3.4
Zheng He’s ship compared to Columbus’s by Lars Plougmann is used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Figure 3.5
Hochelaga village – circa 1535 – Project Gutenberg etext 20110 by Project Gutenberg is in the public domain.


3.4 England and France in the Age of Discovery

In the period before contact with the Americas, the countries of England and France, as they appear on the map today, had not yet taken shape. For much of the Middle Ages, both regions faced invasions by Germanic and Scandinavian tribes from northern and central Europe and almost continuous internal instability. It was the principal goal of monarchs in England and France to consolidate their power; their expansion across the Atlantic can only be understood within this context. However, they lagged behind the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch because of the almost constant state of war across the Channel as well as the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century.

England and France at War

Piles of dead people and skeletons walking around killing people. Animals are thin and sickly

Figure 3.6 Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (ca. 1562) represents the plague years. England and much of Europe were traumatized by epidemics and war.

While the Black Death (the plague) ravaged Europe in the 14th century, England and France descended into the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) over the question of who would succeed to the throne of France. The lengthy conflict had a significant political impact for both sides. In England, it strengthened the role of Parliament simply because Edward III (r. 1312-1377) and his successors had to turn to the representative assembly repeatedly for funds. As these meetings occurred, the two levels of Parliament — the House of Lords and the House of Commons — began to take shape. A corresponding national assembly did not appear in France because Phillip VI (r. 1328-1350) and his successors considered it repugnant; instead they worked assiduously to build a strong monarchical regime. These years of conflict had the added effect of catalyzing what would later be called “national” identities in both countries.

The Hundred Years’ War also brought on a period of domestic strife in England. The War of the Roses ended when Henry Tudor (1457-1509) (subsequently Henry VII)  defeated his rival in 1485. In the Tudor dynasty, the monarchy became the main political force in England. The powers of Parliament waned, as did that of the lesser royals, called the aristocracy. Henry VII’s governing council also dealt with recalcitrant nobles by using the Star Chamber, which was a judicial body that undermined traditions of English common law, and by promoting the interests of the middle class. Merchants, heavily concentrated in England’s port towns, favoured policies that enabled and protected trade; their concerns thus became the concerns of the Crown as well. And merchants favoured seaborne trade.

It was under Henry VII, then, that England made its first official foray into overseas exploration. In May 1497 (some historians claim it was seven years later), the king allowed John Cabot (ca. 1450-1499), a Venetian mariner living in London, to sail under the English flag in an attempt to find a northern route to Asia.William Gilbert, “Beothuk-European Contact in the 16th Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence,” Acadiensis  XXXX, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24-44; R. A. Skelton, “CABOT, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography 1 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed November 30, 2014, Cabot reached what he called Newfoundland in June of that year and claimed it on behalf of the king. He made a second voyage in 1498, funded in part by Henry VII who expected to reap the financial rewards of the journey. However, after Cabot’s death, his crew, led by his son Sebastian, failed to find any precious metals, so Henry lost interest in overseas exploration.

While Spain and Portugal began the process of colonization, England found itself in the midst of a political and religious crisis for much of the 16th century. Events at home took precedence over any further state-sponsored oceanic voyages. However, Cabot’s voyages gave England a chip they could play when it came time to match other European claims to the North American mainland.

Religion and Politics in the 16th Century

Through most of the medieval period, secular leaders in England and France relied on a connection to the Roman Catholic Church to underwrite their legitimacy. By the early 16th century, however, the Church itself had come under fire. The intellectual currents of the Renaissance played a role in this change, but so too did the practices of the Church, including clerical immorality, clerical ignorance, and clerical absenteeism. The Church’s failings led Martin Luther (1483-1546), a Catholic priest in Germany, to spark the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Protestant sects arose throughout northwestern Europe, including in England and France (where they were often called Huguenots). Breaking with Rome was a serious business and the decision to become Protestant or remain Catholic in many cases had as much to do with power struggles as it did with faith.

The English Reformation began officially under Henry VIII (1491-1547) who ruled from 1509 to 1547 and was driven by court politics. Henry’s break with the Pope led Parliament to pass legislation that made the king the head of the new Church of England and required all priests in England to swear allegiance to the king’s church. In terms of doctrine, the new Church, also called the Anglican Church, made few changes. In terms of economic power, however, Henry VIII gained an advantage when he dissolved all the monasteries in England and confiscated their wealth as a means to build his treasury and weaken that of the Vatican.

The English Reformation did not come about without local resistance. Henry’s successors kept the country divided and in a state of civil war until the late 16th century. Under Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), some stability was achieved — enough to allow for the emergence of new sects of Protestants to appear, including the Puritans and the Quakers, both of which would play a pivotal role in the colonization of North America in the 17th century.

The French monarchy had little political reason to turn to Protestantism in the early 16th century. Enjoying relative religious stability in the 1520s, King Francis I (r.1515-1547) looked for possible ways to catch up with the Spanish in the realm of overseas exploration and colonization. In 1524, he sponsored a voyage by the Florentine navigator, Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485-1528) to stake a claim in the New World and discover the Northwest Passage. During his voyage (1523-24), Verrazzano explored the Atlantic coastline from modern-day South Carolina to New York. A decade later, Francis sponsored two voyages by Jacques Cartier (1491-1557). While Cartier failed to find a northern route to Asia, he did survey the St. Lawrence River and made valuable contacts with the local population. Nevertheless, the discoveries did not inspire Francis to support a permanent settlement in the western Atlantic at that time.

Soon the window of opportunity slammed shut. Protestant factions began springing up across France at mid-century, leading to religious riots. The worst of these occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572. Shortly after the marriage of Margaret of Valois to Henry of Navarre, Catholics led by Henry of Guise viciously attacked Protestants in Paris. Sectarian civil war ensued. A group of Catholic moderates finally ended the strife when they concluded that domestic tranquility was more important than religious doctrine. Moreover, the last man standing in a three-way conflict over religion and succession was the Protestant Henry of Navarre. After he ascended to the throne as Henry IV (r. 1589-1610), he joined the Roman Catholic Church. Nine years later he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which granted the Huguenots liberty of conscience and worship and brought stability to the country. Henry IV’s tentative nod to religious toleration put France at last in a position to renew efforts at exploration and transatlantic trade.

Key Points

  • Political conflict between France and England and internal strife forced changes in the shape and character of government in the two countries.
  • Competition across the Channel extended to belief systems during the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.
  • These conflicts deterred the English and the French from participating in the earliest stages of transatlantic commerce and invasion.


Figure 3.6
Triumph of death by Quibik is in the public domain.


3.5 The Columbian Age

The Iberians

Three decades after Columbus’s voyages, the Spanish were in control of a vast quilt-pattern of indigenous empires. Their military prowess had been sharpened in the reconquista and their tolerance for non-Catholics dulled by the Inquisition. The colonization of Cuba began in 1511 and from there the attacks on Mexico began. In 1518 a small force led by the conquistadore Hernán Cortés began the process of conquering the Mayan city states of the Yucatan, then liberating tribute-paying provinces of the Aztec Empire (which sent 200,000 of their own troops against the Aztec capital). Smallpox was Cortés’ other, hidden ally and it would kill thousands upon thousands, enabling a Spanish victory. In 1521 the Aztec capital fell and the Spanish took on the administrative mantle of the ousted regime.

Men wearing armour and riding horses charge half clothed men holding spears.

Figure 3.7 A Spanish representation of the conquest of Cusco and the capture of Atahualpa, ca.1538.

Similarly, a conquistadore mission under Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1476-1541) made three attempts on the Incan Empire of Peru. Pizarro succeeded in 1532 after holding the last Sapa Inca, Atahualpa, hostage for ransom and then executing him. Again, the Spanish appropriated the indigenous administrative structure and many of its legal practices, adapting some while replacing others. This system of conquest allowed the Spanish to take advantage of existing labour supplies and to easily divert local wealth to Spain. The Spanish Crown clearly had an interest in this process and quickly began centralizing its control of the new territories.

In 1524 the Spanish Council of the Indies was created, and New Spain was divided into four viceroyalties. One of these, also called New Spain, would play a role in the geopolitical struggle for North America, as it included Mexico and Central America, gradually extending into California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Its wealthy capital was Mexico City (the former Tenochtitlan).

The economic systems of Spanish America were also strictly controlled hierarchical and economic endeavours. Native labourers were provided through the encomienda system, which was a grant from the king given to an individual mine or plantation (hacienda) owner for a specific number of natives to work in any capacity in which they were needed; the encomenderos, or owners, had total control over these workers. Ostensibly, the purpose was to protect the natives from enemy tribes and instruct them in Christian beliefs and practices. In reality, the encomienda system was hard to distinguish from chattel slavery. The repartimiento, which granted land and/or indigenous people to settlers for a specified period of time, was a similar system.

In the Portuguese territory of Brazil, economic development centred on sugar rather than silver and gold. As the Europeans subdued local populations, increasing numbers of sugar plantations emerged along the Atlantic coast. Most of the labour on the sugar plantations came from native slaves, though they aggressively resisted control by the Europeans. In fact, many of the plantations failed in part because of the resistance of the natives. Vulnerability to imported diseases was a further factor, reducing the viability of enslaving Aboriginal peoples. By 1600, Africans, who had developed immunity to European diseases over centuries of interaction between the two continents, were replacing indigenous peoples as slaves on the sugar plantations. Around the same time, African slaves found themselves shipped to the Pacific coast of South America where thousands worked in silver mines, such as the gargantuan operation at Potosí in Peru (now southern Bolivia).

This was the beginning of what became understood as triangular trade. European ships sailed to African slave markets, purchased large numbers of humans whose lives were to be given over to hard labour in the fields, shipped them across the Middle Passage (during which time huge numbers died), and sold them to plantation owners. Sugar and other crops, as well as mineral wealth, were then loaded onto ships, which promptly made the return trip to European markets and merchants. This model and variations on it would inform every colonial enterprise in North America and is explored in Chapter 6.

Countermove: The Dutch

Because Spain and Portugal were the first to found colonies in the Americas, the patterns they established served as the template for other European empires. The biggest challenges that they faced in administering their colonial holdings were those of time and space. Communication between colony and the imperial centre was difficult, and it took months for messages, orders, and news to travel across the Atlantic. The distance between Europe and the Americas played a very important role in shaping colonial administration along with patterns and methods of imperial control. The ways in which the Iberian powers politically and economically administered their colonial holdings were also a reflection of the relationship between “mother country” and colony: the American holdings were settlement colonies shaped in the image of Spain and Portugal. Spaniards and Portuguese set up a direct system of governance that exerted tight control over the colonies just as absolutist monarchies at home tightly governed their own people. The Spanish and Portuguese colonies benefited the mother country economically and colonial trade was tightly controlled. This was the model that the Dutch and other European intruders in the Americas sought to emulate.

However much they wanted successful colonies, the Dutch also wanted to weaken the Spanish (and to a lesser extent, the Portuguese) hold on the Americas. This created a dual focus for the Netherlanders: build and disrupt. The Dutch concentrated on weakening their Spanish competitors through piracy in the Caribbean, something for which they seemed to have a true knack. As for the Portuguese, the Dutch took them on more directly, conquering small but important lands in Brazil. Ignoring the Treaty of Tordesillas, the Dutch established a colony on the Hudson River around 1614 and held onto that position until the 1660s. Their colonial economy was a mixed one, but one aspect — the fur trade with the Haudenosaunee — would bring the Dutch into conflict with New France.

Key Points

  • Spain’s first emissaries to the Americas were reconquista-hardened soldiers whose understanding of war was as a means of obtaining plunder, power, and religious conformity.
  • Spain’s influence spread swiftly throughout Mesoamerica and along the Pacific coast of South America.
  • The model of colonialism and imperialism developed by the Iberians would inform the decisions made by the Dutch, English, and French in North America.


Figure 3.7
Cusco battle by Noh-var 2 is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


3.6 France in the Americas

The Spanish literally struck gold in the Caribbean and in the Aztec Empire. The torrent of gold and silver plunder flowing into western Europe changed the continent overnight. Until the 16th century, Iceland, the British Isles, and northwestern France were perceived by the commercial and political leaders of the great Eurasian capitals as the farthest reaches of trade networks, backwaters of economic stagnation with little to offer the rest of the world. In terms of wealth measured in spices or precious metals, northwestern Europe was regarded as impoverished and wanting. Stories of Spanish coups (both political and economic, not to mention territorial) in the Americas did two things: they invigorated the economies of Europe and fuelled interest in further imperial ventures. What if similar riches existed in the northern continent?

French Expeditions

French imperial activity in the New World got off to a poor start. The earliest official French expeditions to North America, and particularly to Canada, were largely forgettable ventures. The first voyages, led by Jacques Cartier between 1534 and 1542, made contact with local peoples, including the Mi’kmaq, Montagnais, Algonquin, and the St. Lawrence Iroquois. Cartier’s mission followed Pizarro’s by only two years. Significantly, Cartier was instructed to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found.” Quoted in Thomas McIlwraith and Edward Muller, North America: The Historical Geography of a Changing Continent (Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 67. Clearly the French Crown would have liked nothing better than to copy the success of the Spanish. These early voyages, however, established that the area contained no bounty of natural or human resources that was valuable to the French at the time. There was, simply put, no gold.

What Cartier came across instead was a region in economic transition. French fishermen had already scouted out North America at least as far as the Gaspé Peninsula, the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at its entrance to the Gulf. When Cartier’s first expedition rounded the northern tip of Newfoundland and arrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he found the local people eager to trade with him and clearly aware of a French interest in obtaining furs. This was a sure sign that there had already been contact between Aboriginal peoples and European fishing/whaling fleets, and that some of the contact relationship involved commerce. The Algonquin people Cartier encountered indicated that they preferred some European goods over others, a sign that they were becoming knowledgable about the newcomers.

Cartier made contact with St. Lawrence Iroquois on the Gaspé, where he offended his hosts by erecting a large cross bearing the words, “Long Live the King of France.” A year later he returned, venturing into the St. Lawrence River and moving westward. At this time many small villages dotted the north shore of the river in particular, especially near Île d’Orléans. Cartier’s team visited the largest village, which he regarded as the “capital” of the St. Lawrence Iroquois, near the site of present-day Quebec City. This was Stadacona and its chief was Donnacona.

IA 1934 stamp. Cartier stands on his ship with his crew and urgently points to land.

Figure 3.8 Postage stamps became an effective way of transmitting images and understandings of the past, starting in the late 19th century. Critics complained that this 1934 stamp made Cartier look surprised to find land.

Cartier’s relationship with the St. Lawrence Iroquois, and especially with Donnacona, was not especially civil. On his first visit, Cartier attempted to abduct several of the Stadaconans, believing that they would make excellent proof of the success of his voyage. He even tried to abduct Donnacona himself, but settled for his two sons, Taignoagny and Domagaya. They travelled back to France where they spent the winter before returning to Stadacona in the summer of 1535 as part of Cartier’s second voyage.

It was during this second tour that Cartier travelled farther upriver to another large settlement, Hochelaga. Unlike Stadacona, Hochelaga was fortified with a triple palisade of wood. The town contained about 3,000 people and was surrounded by cornfields. Its location remains a source of debate, but there is general agreement that it was near the foot of what Cartier called Mount Royal (that is, Montreal), though on which side is uncertain. A drawing made subsequently of Hochelaga by a European artist working from Cartier’s descriptions suggests an Italianate order, which most likely was the artist’s invention. Nevertheless, its 50 longhouses (each perhaps 30 metres deep) are represented. Hochelaga would have been an important meeting place at the confluence of the Ottawa/Outaouais River, the Rivière des Prairies, and the St. Lawrence, abutting Algonquin territory to the north, Mohawk lands to the south, and Stadaconan territory to the east. Those three palisades, however, strongly suggest a community living in the shadow of violence and warfare.

In Hochelaga village, long houses are surrounded by a circular wall with palisades on two sides

Figure 3.9 Hochelaga village, ca. 1535.

Cartier’s expedition returned downriver to Stadacona, where they spent an especially cold and difficult winter. Most of the crew died from cold and scurvy. The good news was a cure provided by the Stadaconans that mitigated the vitamin C deficiency that causes scurvy and without which the whole of the French expedition would have been doomed. Despite Cartier’s erratic and consistently ungrateful behaviour toward the St. Lawrence Iroquois, and despite losing about 50 of his own men — evidently to ailments introduced by the Europeans — Donnaconna supported the foreigners through the winter. The Iroquoian leader made the mistake of telling Cartier about metal sources upriver (likely copper around Lake Superior) and this set off Cartier’s gold fever. The reduced French party would have to be reinforced and in order to do that Cartier would have to first return to France and sell the court of Francis I on the idea of further investment. To that end, and with an eye to supporting a local coup, Cartier abducted Donnaconna, his sons (again), and seven other Stadaconans and took them all to France. Nine of the 10 perished, and the 10th never returned to Canada.

Although Cartier received a warm welcome in Stadacona when he returned for the last time in 1541, that feeling did not last long. In that year the French made the last attempt of the century at establishing a colonial foothold in Canada. Cartier led a settlement cohort of 300 French to Charlesbourg-Royal, a site now identified as at Cap Rouge near Stadacona, but the settlement lasted barely a year, beset as it was by bad weather and hostility from the Stadaconans whose hospitality and generosity Cartier had repeatedly scorned. Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People (Toronto: Key Porter, 1996), 51-53.

Cartier’s account of his 1541 voyage is silent on Hochelaga, from which scholars conclude that the town was gone by then. It may have been destroyed by enemies or disease, but as it was also the practice of Iroquoian farmers to move their villages every few years to find locations with better soil and to escape the accumulation of waste and vermin that beset older settlements, so it may have been dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere. At the present time — and perhaps forever — the fate of Hochelaga remains unknown.

The lacklustre interest on the part of the French in setting up a trading post in the St. Lawrence can be explained by a number of factors. First, Spain had a head start in the Americas and was vigorously protecting its foreign monopoly. This was evident even in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where, after 1543, the Basque whaling fleet — made up of very large, well-armed and generally intimidating ships — “fulfilled [Spain’s] geopolitical aim of controlling the gateway to the gulf at [a] time of transatlantic rivalry….” The rise of New France in the next century allows us to lose sight of this Spanish initiative and its strength in the second half of the 15th century: “For the next 35 years, while the French shelved their explorations, the Strait was the scene of a whaling industry of unprecedented scope and intensity, centred at Red Bay” on the Strait of Belle Isle.Brad Loewen and Vincent Delmas, "The Basques in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Adjacent Shores," Canadian Journal of Archaeology 36, issue 2 (2012): 223. It was fortunate for French interests that the Spanish, Basques, and Portuguese overwhelmingly pursued their maritime interests in the offshore fisheries. They had enough salt at their disposal to process their catch without making landfall and, under those conditions, had no real reason to establish even a toehold. Second, Cartier disappointed his sponsors with samples of quartz and iron pyrites from Canada, which he very optimistically claimed were, respectively, diamonds and gold. (Hence the origin of the French saying, “as false as a diamond from Canada.”) He never found the mythological Kingdom of the Saguenay, which his St. Lawrence Iroquoian hosts painted as a city of gold to rival the Incan capital at Cuzco. Finally, in the latter part of the 16th century, the Wars of Religion distracted the French from further overseas efforts in Canada. Anyone reflecting on the French experience in North America to 1600 would be safe in concluding that it had been a failure and perhaps was over.


As a result of Cartier’s unpromising expeditions, the French retreated from the North and spent much of the next 50 years trying to establish themselves elsewhere in the Americas. In an effort to emulate the success of the combative Dutch, the French turned their attention to Portuguese-claimed territory in Brazil. They established a position at Rio de Janeiro (“France Antarctique”) in 1555 and another much later in 1612 at São Luís (“France Équinoxiale”). Nothing came of either effort.

There was slightly more promise in the prospect of a colony in Florida, which was then controlled by Spain. The ambitious goal in this instance was to weaken the Spanish political hold on the Americas as a whole. In 1564, René Goulaine de Laudonnière led an expedition to Florida, establishing Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River in Timucuan territory near modern-day Jacksonville. Florida’s proximity to the rich Spanish Caribbean made it a strategically important position from which relatively easy wealth could be won. The French hoped to establish a successful settlement there, and thus a stepping-off point to contest Spanish power in the Caribbean. A foothold in Florida could also provide the opportunity to weaken the Spanish Crown through piracy; the prevailing currents and winds of the Caribbean and Atlantic ensured that the treasure fleets travelled up along the Florida coast before venturing out across the Atlantic. The settlement at Fort Caroline also reflected French concerns at home. Rising religious tensions between Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants) made it attractive to send Protestants to Fort Caroline where they could have refuge while, at the same time, serving France.


Figure 3.10 A sketch of Fort Caroline under construction. It is regarded as the oldest fortified European settlement in what is now the United States.

The Spanish, hearing of the French incursion into Spanish territory, established their own colony just south of Fort Caroline at San Agustín (St. Augustine). A September 1565 expedition against the French settlement quickly overwhelmed their defences and the Spanish killed many of the men, sparing most of the women and children. Twenty-five of the Frenchmen escaped, making their way along the Florida coast. The Spanish caught up to them about 15 miles outside of St. Augustine, where Pedro Menéndez de Avilés offered the Protestant Huguenots the chance to renounce their “apostate” faith and embrace Catholicism; their refusal was part of what sealed their fate. The men were executed and Spanish dominance in Florida was secured. The massacre of the French settlers and soldiers marked the end of the French experiment in Florida and their attempts to undermine Spanish political control in the area.

Failure in Florida would cause French to revisit the possibility of colonies in Canada, although a generation would pass before a new French effort in the north came to pass. In the interim, French fishing boats were still making the voyage to the Grand Banks fisheries, and they continued to encounter Aboriginal people who wished to trade. French merchants soon realized the St. Lawrence region was a reliable and rich source of valuable fur-bearing animals, especially the beaver, which were becoming rare in Europe at a time when it was fashionable to wear fur hats. Encouraged by the merchants of its Atlantic ports, the French Crown decided to colonize the territory to secure and expand its influence in America.

Key Points

  • The Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the Americas resulted in rapid economic growth in northwestern Europe, thus enabling and encouraging competitive missions from England, France, and other countries.
  • Cartier’s missions to the St. Lawrence brought back little of wealth but they represent the first sustained and documented contacts between Europeans and Aboriginals in what becomes Canada.
  • The French failed to establish an ongoing presence in the north and in Florida. France retreated from the field for the rest of the century.


Figure 3.8
Timbre-poste du Canada 3 cents Jacques Cartier 1934 by Jean Fex is in the public domain.

Figure 3.9
Viruses move inland along with French traders by the U.S. National Library of Medicine is in the public domain.

Figure 3.10
Founding of Fort Caroline by Rama is in the public domain.


3.7 Summary

Spain was clearly the force with which to contend when it came to the European race across the Atlantic, although perspective is important in making this statement. Western Europe and especially northwestern Europe constituted the outermost fringe of what its people regarded as the “civilized world.” The Holy Lands, the Italian States, Constantinople, India, and even China were far more advanced technologically and economically. While the Europeans were keen to access the spice and silk stores of Asia, Asia was in no special hurry to build trade links with England, the Netherlands, or Portugal. Put simply, there was not much that western Europe had that Asia or even the eastern Mediterranean wanted. Relatively poor, often pummelled by wars, and riven by religious differences, western Europe was both highly motivated by the prospect of potential riches in the Americas and, at the same time, accustomed to competing bitterly with rivals from other polities.

The earliest expeditions from Spain inched their way out of the lower Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi basin and across Florida before refocusing on the western flank of South America and the building of New Spain. Portugal’s focus remained on South America and the west coast of Africa. The lands north of Florida were largely open for probes sent out from England, the Low Countries, France, and even Scandinavia.

The model of imperialism that the Iberians introduced took advantage of existing populations and grafted onto it the absolutist, heavily militarized, and severely Catholic features of the European homelands. Many of the Aboriginal societies they encountered were hierarchical and some were strongly influenced by priesthoods of their own. These coincidences played to Iberian strengths and the early colonies did not require large numbers of emigrants from Europe to create working societies anew. In this respect, in most of Iberian America the Spanish and Portuguese were not “colonists” in the biological sense so much as they were managers and rulers.

This model influenced the northwestern Europeans but it was one that they could not follow utterly. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, the English relied on emigration to (re)populate the territories they claimed. France was reluctant to do the same and it lacked the resources and the will to build much more than a replacement society along the St. Lawrence and a few outposts in Acadia and Louisiana.  Certainly there are echoes of the Iberian experience in the alliance between the French and the Wendat, but there were no singular Aboriginal civilizations of the stature of Mexico, which the French might dominate, let alone enslave.  In short, “colonization” played out differently across the Western Hemisphere: it had different qualities and moved at varying speeds toward distinctive goals.

Set side by side, the French and the English colonies present substantial contrasts. They were, of course, heavily influenced by geography. For the French, the great river and the lakes at its head were a pathway into the interior of the continent. Within slightly more than a century the French had stitched together a chain of alliances and micro-settlements all the way from Placentia to New Orleans. The story of New France is the subject of the next chapter.

Key Terms

absolutist, absolutism: A system of government in which authority is vested in the monarch with no provision for any kind of institutional opposition.

Anglican Church: See Church of England.

aristocracy: A privileged social class whose power is usually derived from birth, heredity, and almost exclusive ownership of land, close connections with the clergy and government, and with the Crown. As a form of government, a system in which a small and wealthy elite holds power to the exclusion of others.

Black Death: Also called simply “the plague,” a highly contagious disease reckoned to have reduced the total human population by 25% and as much as half of Europe’s population in the 14th century. In its aftermath there was social and religious upheaval from China to the British Isles.

chattel slavery: Ownership of a human being as a piece of property.

Church of England: Also known as the Anglican Church, the state church in England established under Henry VIII in opposition to Roman Catholicism.

conquistadore: Term used by the Spanish and Portuguese, meaning conqueror. Covers the military and clergy leaders of the Iberian invasions of the Americas.

divine right of kings: A doctrine based on the belief that the monarch’s power is derived directly from God and not from worldly authorities like a legislature, a council of nobles, or even the Vatican.

Edict of Nantes: A statement of relative religious tolerance in 1598 that brought an end to the Wars of Religion in France and extended civil rights to Protestants (Huguenots).

English Reformation: Term used to describe several events connected to the English break with Catholic Rome under Henry VIII.

Fort Caroline: Reckoned to be the oldest fortified European settlement in what is now the United States; established by the French in 1564.

Hochelaga: St. Lawrence Iroquoian fortified town at or near what is now Montreal.

Huguenots: French Protestants.

Hundred Years’ War: A series of conflicts running from 1337 to 1453 related to royal successions in England and France.

Inquisition: A process and an institution aimed at ensuring Catholic supremacy and religious integrity in Western Europe. In Spain it was geared to eliminating Muslim and Jewish influences at the end of the 15th century and was an important part of the value system carried to the Americas by the conquistadores.

Kingdom of the Saguenay: According to Donnacona and other Stadaconans, a wealthy settlement north of the Laurentian Iroquois territories. Perhaps mythical, perhaps meant to distract or deceive the Europeans, the story may have legitimate roots in an oral tradition now disappeared.

L’Anse aux Meadows: The Viking settlement in northern Newfoundland, established ca. 1000 CE.

Middle Passage: Shipping lanes between Africa and the Americas on which the principal cargo was captive humans, enslaved in west Africa. Mortality rates were as high as 20% on the voyage.

New Spain: From 1522 to 1821, a territory stretching, at its peak, from the north coast of South America through Central America and Mexico to California, and what is now the American Southwest. It also included Florida, which was separated from the rest of New Spain by the French possession, Louisiana.

parliament: Generally, an elective assembly of representatives engaged for the purpose of governing the whole or advising the Crown. Specifically, the English/British elected assembly in Westminster. After 1867, refers as well to the Canadian elected assembly.

Protestant Reformation: Beginning ca. 1517, a movement to reform the Catholic Church and many of its practices. Resulted in a split between reformers and the Papacy and the rise of distinct sects, including the Church of England, the Scottish Presbyterian Church, Methodism, Puritanism, Quakerism, Lutheranism, and many others.

reconquista: Episodes of Spanish-Christian resistance to Spanish/Moorish-Islamic control of the Iberian peninsula, lasting from the eighth or ninth century CE culminating in the surrender of Granada in 1492.

Sapa Inca: Quechua for “the only Inca,” the monarch of the Incan Empire. Atahualpa was the last person to hold this title.

Skraelingar: Term used by the Norse/Vikings to describe Aboriginal North American peoples they encountered between Greenland and Newfoundland. Probably applied to Thule and Innu in particular, perhaps to Beothuk as well.

Stadacona: The village of the St. Lawrence Iroquois at or near the current site of Quebec City.

Treaty of  Tordesillas: The division in 1494 of the Atlantic world between Portugal and Spain. The former acquired Brazil while the latter was acknowledged by the other to have a prior claim to the rest of the Americas.

triangular trade: Commercial traffic beginning with goods from northwestern Europe traded into ports along the west African coast for slaves, ivory, and other commodities, which were then shipped across the Atlantic (the Middle Passage) to colonies in the Americas where they were traded for plantation products, which were subsequently ferried north and east back to northwestern Europe.

Vinland: The name given by the Norse/Vikings to the east coast of North America.

Wars of Religion: A series of wars fought in Europe arising ostensibly from divisions within Christianity. The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) distracted the Crown from transatlantic enterprises.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Why did Europeans become interested in exploring and colonizing the Americas from 1492 through the 17th century?
  2. What is the significance of the religious turmoil in Europe between 1400 and 1600?
  3. What factors contributed to the poor view the French had of North America in the mid-1500s?
  4. Describe the extent of the impact of the Vikings’ migration to North America.
  5. What factors held back French and English efforts in the North Atlantic?
  6. What aspects of the Spanish and Portuguese campaigns in the Americas influenced the French, Dutch, and English?
  7. Explain the evident failure of Cartier’s expeditions.
  8. What do we learn about the Laurentian Iroquois from Cartier’s reports?

 Suggested Readings

  1. Axtell, James. “Trading at the Water’s Edge.” In After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America, edited by James Axtell, 145-181. New York: OUP, 1988.
  2. Havard, Gilles and Cécile Vidal. “Making New France New Again.” Common-Place 7, no.4 (July 2007).
  3. Loewen, Brad and Vincent Delmas. “The Basques in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Adjacent Shores.” Canadian Journal of Archaeology 36, issue 2 (2012): 213-66.
  4. McGhee, Robert. “Vikings and Arctic Farmers: The Norse Atlantic Saga.” In The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  5. Vigneras, L-A. “The Cape Breton landfall in North America: 1494 or 1497? Note on a letter from John Day.” Canadian Historical Review 38, no.3 (1957): 219-28.


This chapter contains material taken from History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877  by Catherine Locks, Sarah K. Mergel, Pamela Thomas Roseman, and Tamara Spike. It is used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 US licence.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikibooks page, “US History/European History,” and is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.


Chapter 4. New France


4.1 Introduction

Map of a small settlement on Ste. Croix Island.

Figure 4.1 Ste. Croix Island was the first of France’s efforts at a year-round settlement. Known by the Passamaquoddy peoples as Muttoneguis, the site is now within the state of Maine.

New France was the area nominally claimed and in some places actually colonized by France in North America. This activity began in 1605 and ended with the loss of almost all of it to Great Britain and Spain in 1763. As Louis XIV took steps to centralize authority in France and its holdings in the 1660s, the political and social structure of New France became more finely tuned and a largely homogeneous population was established. Catholic, ethnically and linguistically French, and subject to the laws of Paris and Versailles rather than local administrations, New France provides a sharp contrast to the diversity of colonial experiments in the English-speaking enclaves on the Atlantic seaboard. New France was distinct in its geography as well; rather than growing outward from a well-entrenched core, its people and its diplomacy rushed into and across the centre of the continent. At its peak in 1712, New France extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The extent to which New France was settled by French colonists, however, was limited to a few concentrated pockets. It is best to think of New France as an enormous zone of influence, one that was divided into five colonies, each with its own administration: Canada, Acadia, Hudson Bay, Newfoundland (Plaisance), and Louisiana.

This chapter describes the establishment and growth of the colony, its economy, and its peoples. While it is easy to find ways in which New France was an extension and product of France itself, it is also important to observe the ways in which it was distinct from the “mother country.”

Learning Objectives

  • Identify, locate, and distinguish between the principal colonies of New France.
  • Account for the growth and setbacks of the colonial enterprise.
  • Explain the implications of an economy based on staple products.
  • Describe the kinds of economies and societies that emerged by the mid-18th century.
  • Assess French colonial attitudes to Aboriginal allies, enemies, and slaves.
  • Describe the role of empire and its relationship to emergent local societies.


Figure 4.1
Buildings on Saint Croix Island – circa 1613 – Project Gutenberg etext 20110 by Tagishsimon is in the public domain.


4.2 Acadia

A half century would pass between Cartier’s kidnappings of Aboriginal men along the St. Lawrence and the arrival of French delegations determined to build a sustained presence. Not surprisingly they would do so first in the lands closest to Europe and near the riches of the Grand Banks fisheries. This territory would become known as Acadia.

Both the Portuguese and the British briefly established positions in the region in the 16th century, but neither built lasting settlements or trading posts. The Portuguese enjoyed a singular advantage in this field: the Azores, a chain of small islands roughly halfway between the European mainland and Newfoundland. This stopping point between Europe and the Grand Banks enabled Portuguese and Basque fleets to make the voyage into the western Atlantic with relative security and was a key factor behind long-term Iberian involvement on the fisheries and whaling grounds. Their endless supplies of salt, moreover, made it possible for the Iberians to preserve their catch of cod without bothering to make landfall. Had they wanted to, they could easily have dominated Newfoundland and its waters. Doing so was, simply, unnecessary.

French missions followed in the late 16th century and were both tentative and unsuccessful at first. There were abortive efforts — on Sable Island using convict settlers in 1599, at Tadoussac the year after, and on Ste. Croix in 1604 — but a viable presence was only established in July 1605, when Port-Royal was founded on the Bay of Fundy in what is now Nova Scotia. Port-Royal was to become the hub of a French colonial territory in what 16th century European maps described as “Arcadia.” The French dropped the “r” and Acadia eventually stretched from Castine (in what is now the mid-coast of Maine), across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (Île Saint-Jean), and all the way to the south coast of Newfoundland.

As colonies go, what distinguishes Acadia as an administrative unit is that so much of it was water: the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of Maine, Cabot Strait, and a long stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is roughly circular and many of the key settlements were along its edge. There were exceptions, and they were very important.

Four long buildings built in a square with an empty courtyard are next to a river.

Figure 4.2 Port-Royal, Acadia, ca. 1612, is based on Champlain’s drawings.

One of the principles embraced in this book is using the group names that peoples preferred for themselves. The people of Acadia are, thus, Acadiens. We could go the extra step and refer to Acadia as “L’Acadie” but, in the interest of keeping it simple, we won’t. The English-language version of the group name – “Acadian” – appears here when used in the context of British administration of or campaigns against the Acadiens. Thus, the “Acadian Expulsion” (which in French is Le Grand Dérangement). Many of the deported Acadiens wound up in Louisiana where their group name evolved into Cajuns, a small jump from les Acadiens but a much bigger leap from “Acadians.” The Acadien people in the Maritimes have survived the disruptions of imperial and inter-colonial wars and they remain one of the strongest threads in the fabric of regional cultures. It is, indeed, the oldest continuous colonial culture in what is now Canada and the two branches of the Acadien family constitute one of the oldest European-descended cultures in North America.

A Difficult Start

The first French settlers arrived mainly from the west-central region of France called Vienne, near Poitiers. (The later settlers of the St. Lawrence originated farther to the northwest, from around Normandy and Paris.) The colony’s first hundred years were marked by conflict and troubles. Port-Royal was barely eight years old in 1613 when a British force out of Virginia burnt it to the ground.

A civil war that lasted until 1645 broke out in 1640 between Acadiens based in the Port-Royal area (and loyal to Governor Charles de Menou d’Aulnay de Charnisay, a Catholic governor) and those attached to the settlement at the mouth of the Saint John River (and affiliated with the Protestant governor, Charles de Saint-Étienne de la Tour). France had badly misunderstood the geography of Acadia and had provided two highly competitive governors for an area divided by only 23 kilometres of water. After many naval and land battles, d’Aulnay came out slightly ahead. In the siege of Saint John (launched by d’Aulnay in April 1645 when La Tour was away in New England), the “Lioness of La Tour,” Françoise-Marie Jacquelin — Charles de la Tour’s wife — led the defending troops. The fort fell and despite promises of mercy, d’Aulnay hanged the garrison; Madame La Tour died in captivity shortly thereafter.


Figure 4.3  A portrait of Françoise-Marie Jacquelin (1602-45).

The Acadien civil war, as bloody and pointless as it was, underlines the many curious aspects of life in the 17th century colony. First, it wasn’t entirely the imposition of one people over another. The Wabanaki Confederacy of Penobscot, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Abenaki peoples grafted the Acadiens onto their lives and struggles. Faced with aggressive British settlements in New England, the Confederacy accepted French fortifications and support. One has to keep in mind, however, that the Wabanaki preferred the French over the English precisely because the French posed fewer threats for several reasons. First, the number of French in Acadia was never as great or as worrisome as the number of English to the south. Second, the Acadien community quickly became a syncretic one, comprising Europeans and Aboriginal peoples whose respective clans intermarried extensively. And while populations merged, so did cultures. By the late 17th century there were many Catholic Mi’kmaqs, perhaps as many as there were Catholic French-Acadiens. The English never made this kind of inroad into Wabanaki society nor did Wabanaki peoples find themselves in English colonial councils.

Mi’kmaq tribes in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of New Brunswick.

Figure 4.4 Approximate boundaries of the traditional territories of the Mi’kmaq.

Third, despite Wabanaki hostility toward New England, Acadia was a trading and seagoing community that often worked with Bostonian merchants. When La Tour’s fortunes were slipping, he sought financial support and muscle from his (fellow Protestant) network in the New England port. Fourth, official French Catholicism in the colonies was not always rigid. Not only did it permit a Protestant governor but it left its people to their own spiritual devices for years at a time. Resident priests were something of a rarity. Besides, the priests/missionaries were often off leading Wabanaki troops against their Protestant English neighbours. Fifth, Acadia had an economy that was integrative and imaginative. Perhaps the highest achievement of d’Aulnay’s career as governor was his support for the draining of the salt marshes, a distinctively Acadien practice that created coastal and river-mouth pasture land on which to raise substantial herds of cattle — without, importantly, alienating Aboriginal land. More than any other governor in New France, d’Aulnay was successful in building a true colony (albeit one that was not entirely French). Finally, despite the horrors of the civil war (and the hangings of the Saint John garrison were especially grisly), the conflict ended with reconciliation: d’Aulnay died and La Tour married d’Aulnay’s widow. This kind of “third-way” resolution was to become a trademark Acadien strategy over the century that followed the war.

In the meantime Acadia had to deal with its vulnerability issues. Its land and sea frontier to the southwest faced New England and other British colonies and its ocean frontier to the north and east was teeming with fleets of working and naval ships from England/Britain, Spain, Portugal, and still other European countries as well. Much more so than Canada, Acadia bristled with garrisons, from Fort Castine (1615) on the Penobscot River in central Maine east through Port-Royal and Fort Beausejour (1751) at opposite ends of the Bay of Fundy to the heavy-weight Fortress of Louisbourg on Île Royale, built in 1713. The first of these stations came into use early and thereafter often as the growing British and French naval presences in the region increasingly were in conflict. Eighteenth century conflict is considered more fully in Chapter 6.

A large church with houses spread out around it.

Figure 4.5 Plan of the western part of the Chignecto Isthmus showing Fort Beausejour and the surrounding area, ca. 1750.

Acadia and French Newfoundland

The fisheries and whaling grounds around the island of Newfoundland attracted fleets from the British West Country ports, from French harbours like St. Malo, from Portugal, and from the Basque villages on the north coast of Spain. Settlements were slow to emerge, not least because England, for example, wanted to control its fleets and sailors; England (and the other European nations involved in the fisheries and in whaling) regarded the Grand Banks and the Strait of Belle Isle as training grounds for voluntary and involuntary navy recruits. Establishing onshore settlements would work against these priorities. (See Chapter 6 for more on this topic.)

Settlement simply wasn’t necessary: the salting of cod could be performed onboard the fishing vessels. Eventually and perhaps inevitably, Europeans (particularly those with a less reliable supply of salt) began landing their catch on the beaches of Newfoundland and drying the fish there before heading home. This was predictably the response first of those fishing fleets, among them the English, that lacked access to salt. It was this process that drew French sailors to Plaisance, or Placentia, where the rocky beaches were perfect for drying fish. In 1655 the French made it the administrative capital for the half of the island that they controlled and began the process of fortifying the harbour and town in 1662. The French lost this position in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), but as a port Placentia remained the only rival to St. John’s in Newfoundland for nearly a century more.

Key Points

  • The establishment of Acadia marks the beginning of French colonial settlement in North America.
  • The French and Acadiens were able to establish good working relations with the Wabanaki Confederacy in part because of a shared distrust of the English and New Englanders.
  • The military component of the French colonial experiment existed in both Acadia and Newfoundland.


Figure 4.2
Port Royal, Nova Scotia – circa 1612 – Project Gutenberg etext 20110 is in the public domain.
Figure 4.3
Portrait Françoise-Marie Jacquelin by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.
Figure 4.4
The Mi’kmaq by Mikmaq is used under a CC-BY-SA 2.5 license.
Figure 4.5
FortBeausejour1750McCordMuseum by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain.


4.3 Canada, 1608-1663

A large, two-story building

Figure 4.6 The Quebec habitation established by Champlain, ca. 1608.

Tadoussac stands as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in Canada. Located where the fresh water of the Saguenay River meets the salt water of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Tadoussac was an outstanding site for hunting seals and whales. The Innu (Montagnais) were doing this when Cartier visited in 1535, and the Basques did it in the same century.

The French settlement was established there in 1600 under the leadership of François Gravé du Pont and Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit. Between them they had merchant and naval credentials that made them good candidates for the first fur-trade monopoly granted by a European monarch. This was a promising start but, like Cartier, they barely lasted their first winter. In 1603, Samuel de Champlain visited the site to assess its prospects. It was there that he met the Innu leader Begourat who was preparing an assault on the Mohawk, some 500 kilometres away. (Begourat’s mission foreshadowed another attack on the Iroquois in which Champlain would become involved, six summers later.) Tadoussac wasn’t an ice-free port but it stayed ice-free longer than Quebec so it would have a role to play for many years to come in the development of the Canadien project.

Go, Habs, Go!

Anyone familiar with hockey will recognize instantly the iconic crest of the Montreal Canadiens but, outside of Quebec, not everyone understands the meaning of the “H” contained within the “C.” Les habitants du Canada is the full and official team name, a fact that deserves mention here because of another nomenclature issue. People in the colony of Canada referred to themselves (and were referred to as) habitants or as Canadiens. Until the Conquest there are, technically speaking, no Canadians (with an “a” instead of an “e”). Thereafter there are both kinds. For the purposes of consistency and respect for historical distinctions, “Canadiens” is used in this text to describe the people of the St. Lawrence Valley whose ancestry is French; “Canadians” will be used later in the text to identify people living in Upper Canada (a.k.a Canada West, Ontario) and those anglophones in Montreal after the Conquest.

Establishing Canada

After spending some time in Acadia, Champlain began the process of establishing a forward post at Quebec in 1609. With a complement of barely 50 men, Champlain was able to achieve much to sustain the French presence. A fortified settlement — a habitation — was constructed and an alliance established among the Algonquin, the Wendat (Huron), and the French. Iroquet and Outchetaguin, respectively leaders of the Algonquin and the Wendat, initiated talks with Champlain and drew the French into a long-running conflict with the Haudenosaunee to the south. The French had signed an alliance with the Innu (Montagnais) and the Algonquin against the Haudenosaunee five years earlier, so Champlain was following through with an earlier commitment to his allies. The battle at Ticonderoga — in which Champlain’s first shot from his arquebus allegedly killed two Onondaga chiefs — was to initiate a long cycle of conflict with the Five Nations. This alliance shaped local patterns over the long term; when Champlain allied himself with the Wendat, their long-standing enemies, the Iroquois, allied themselves with the Dutch and then the British.

Was Champlain duped into these “Mourning Wars” by manipulative Aboriginal allies who could see that his main reason for being in the St. Lawrence was furs and that he’d do whatever was necessary to secure a steady supply? Possibly. Champlain’s vision for the colony in 1609 did not extend very much beyond exploring opportunities for wealth from trade. He had neither the mandate nor the resources to establish a colony of permanent settlers (as opposed to temporary sojourners who would return to France to enjoy their profits). The choices he made in these years have to be understood, therefore, in the context of a man who had no reason to feel confident in the future of the colony he created.

Two groups of naked people shoot arrows at each other while also being shot at with guns.

Figure 4.7 The Wendat and Algonquin armies take the battle to the Onondaga villages in 1609, accompanied by their new French ally, Champlain.

For the first few decades of the colony’s existence, the French population numbered only a few hundred, while the English colonies to the south were much more populous and wealthy. In 1627, France invested in New France, promising land parcels to hundreds of new settlers with the hope of turning what they were now calling “Canada” into an important mercantile and farming colony. Champlain, now in his late 50s, was named governor of New France. Almost immediately the cultural outlines of Canada were being managed: the colony forbade non-Roman Catholics from living there. Cardinal Richelieu’s star was on the ascendant in the French court — he was by 1626 a leading figure in the Catholic Church and was Louis XIII’s chief minister — and he was among the first to see the possibility of a  longer-term commitment to the colony, providing it was a sanctuary for Catholics. Protestants were required to renounce their faith if they wished to establish themselves or stay in New France. Many chose instead to move to the English colonies, a trend that did nothing to increase the size of the French colonies.

Two beavers with big yellow teeth gnaw at the base of a tree.

Figure 4.8 Early European depictions of the beaver showed a fearsome bipedal creature with massive teeth able to build enormous structures. By the 19th century it had become less menacing and, of course, far less common. (Painting by John James Audubon, 1856.)

The Fur Trade and Settlement

The economic development of New France was based on two staple commodities of the time: during the 16th and early 17th centuries, it was dominated by the Atlantic fisheries, and during the latter half of the 17th and 18th centuries, as French settlement penetrated farther into the continental interior, it was dominated by the fur trade.

Officially, the French Crown articulated a desire for a thriving colony in New France. Practically, there was little interest in (and some fear of) depopulating the countryside of France to seed the St. Lawrence Valley and Acadia. And, of course, colonies are costly. Rather than directly sponsor a colonial enterprise, the Crown opted for what we would today call a “P3 model”: a public-private partnership. Monopolistic trading rights were granted to a company combined with an obligation to settle and manage its colonial claims in North America.

In 1627 responsibility for the whole of New France was handed off to the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, a short-lived experiment with what was essentially a joint-stock operation. Shareholders in France were to be badly disappointed when the company’s fleet was captured the following year by the English and the base of operations in Quebec fell in 1629. The Compagnie struggled on after the restoration of New France in 1632 but the Wendat crisis and continuous raids by the Haudenosaunee took a heavy toll. At the mid-17th century the whole of New France was little more than a cluster of trading posts with a negligible population base, one that was heavily dependent on food shipped from France or purchased from Aboriginal farmers and hunters. In 1645 the Compagnie turned to local merchants in the colony and allowed the Communauté des habitants to pay them for the privilege of managing the unwieldy colony. The monopoly in trade collapsed around 1652, opening a decade of fur trading free-for-all in Canada.

Why was this first half-century of colonial activity in New France so unimpressive in its accomplishments? First, there was the Aboriginal context: conflict between the Haudenosaunee Five Nations League and the Wendat-Algonquin-Innu alliance was something that no colonial minister could control or do much to alter. As well, the colony was dependent on Aboriginal traders in the fur trade as it had neither the manpower nor the permission of the local First Nations to engage directly in trapping. Second, Protestant hostility in the form of fur trade competition and armed raids by Dutch and English enemies was more than the French Crown was prepared to counter. Overall, the Crown saw little to be gained in investing heavily in the colony. But substantial investment was necessary. The short growing season of the northern colonies demanded support in the early years as farmers adjusted to new and alien conditions; subsidies would be needed to encourage emigration and cover the costs of clearing new land until crops started to come in. So long as the purpose of the colony was to harvest furs and minimize loss of life, under-investment in a long-term colonial vision was virtually inevitable.

Key Points

  • The French colony of Canada was established in the St. Lawrence Valley to tap fur resources farther inland.
  • Doing so gave shape to the colony’s settlement patterns and was the foundation of all relations with Aboriginal peoples in the region and beyond.
  • France experimented with commercial monopolies in this period.


Figure 4.6
Champlain Habitation de Quebec by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.
Figure 4.7
Iroq2 by Sakateka is in the public domain.
Figure 4.8
American Beaver by BrooklynMuseumBot  is in the public domain.


4.4 Wendake/Huronia and the Fur Trade

A long, tall building with logs used as support beams

Figure 4.9 Iroquoian villages, including those in Wendake (a.k.a Huronia), were complex communities including large populations, longhouses, and defensive palisades, as well as farming operations. This is the interior of a reconstructed Huron-Wendat longhouse.

One of the distinguishing features of Aboriginal cultures in much of what is now Canada is egalitarianism. This is a broad generalization but one that applies as much to hunter-gatherer societies as it does to sedentary agricultural societies. It was rare for a nominal leader in Aboriginal communities to be able to dictate direction or policy. Even when councils, which dominated the longhouse societies, reached decisions, these were not always binding on all parties. In Iroquoian societies in particular, efforts were made to develop consensus arising from discussion, but the record of the Five Nations, for example, shows many instances where one or more member nations went their own way. Individuals had similar options. In hunter-gatherer societies, leadership was as much a recognition of proven success in the field as it was of personality or birth. These cultural traits were not always understood or appreciated by Europeans. What might appear to outsiders as a political union was very often an arrangement subject to regular renewal and rejuvenation. The newcomers were accustomed to hierarchical societies headed by nobles and high clergy; not surprisingly they looked for parallels in Aboriginal communities and often mistook very different arrangements for “chiefdoms,” if not kingdoms. Errors such as these led the Europeans to assume, in some instances, that they could make treaties and pacts once and for all. Aboriginal peoples, however, put an emphasis on renewal and reaffirmation: they expected gifts and declarations of loyalty from one another in commerce and diplomacy and expected no less from their European trading partners.

Europeans in an Aboriginal Marketplace

Some of these features were immediately obvious to sharp-eyed French leaders like Champlain, but not to others. Certainly European traders needed to take pains to conduct themselves according to local standards of commerce and not those of France, Holland, or England. Making that adjustment was often the surest course to success and profits, so there was a powerful incentive for the Europeans to get it right. And sometimes they did.

In many tellings of the history of New France, Champlain appears to engage the largest Iroquoian-speaking nation north of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes in a trade and military alliance. In point of fact, the Wendat approached the French. The first few years of fur trading along the St. Lawrence involved the Algonquin and the Innu in particular. Both were acting as middlemen in their own right, trading goods that had been procured first by their neighbours, generally farther north. That middleman role was taken over by the more powerful Wendat.

The French placed a premium on furs that had seen some use. Contact and wear removes the guard hairs from the pelt and leaves the fur glossier and richer looking — something that the French market preferred. This single fact gave shape to the fur trade. If the French had been interested only in freshly harvested furs, their influence would have spread much more slowly. One region would be denuded of animals, then another and another, sequentially. But the demand for used furs extended the trade out in search of stockpiles already held by Aboriginal families, bands, and communities. It created a series of funnels of trade that passed pelts out of one village or camp and into another and then another, coalescing finally in the hands of the ultimate middleman. From 1610 to 1649, that role was filled by the Wendat Confederacy.

The Wendat

Wendat commerce has to be understood within its cultural context. The accumulation of goods was important and the Wendat were canny traders capable of manipulating supply and demand as needed so as to inflate prices from one season to the next. But wealth was acquired so that it could be given away: acquisitiveness and hoarding for personal use were frowned upon. Generosity and lavish gift-giving was a route to status in many Aboriginal societies and the Wendat were, in this respect, no exception. Although they traded for functional goods — materials that could be used on a day-to-day basis — they also sought luxury items and exotic goods that carried special weight as gifts. So long as the material needs of the Wendat household were met, trade would focus on goods that had the potential to elevate the standing of individuals or their families.

This quality, too, was an asset as far as trade with the French was concerned. The novelty value of French goods could instantly be applied to the social competition that went on in Wendat longhouses. What was of still greater benefit to the French in their quest for large quantities of furs was the simple fact that the Wendat were sedentary. Their longhouses functioned as warehouses, too. Unlike the much more mobile and nomadic northern peoples, the Wendat could stockpile great amounts of furs and other goods in a way that no one else north of Lake Ontario could.

The 1609 Wendat visit to Champlain’s habitation had two purposes. First, it was meant to engage the Innu (Montagnais) in a trade relationship that was already in place between the Wendat and the Algonquin nations. Second, the Wendat wanted to scout out the newcomers whose trade goods were already finding their way into Wendake (a.k.a. Huronia). To confirm the new partnership that now included not only the Innu but the French, the Aboriginal allies proposed a raid on the Mohawk village of Ticonderoga. Champlain agreed to participate, an important step toward a long-term alliance with the Wendat-Algonquin-Innu but also the initiation of a long history of enmity between the Haudenosaunee and the French.

The Haudenosaunee (as discussed in Chapter 5) were engaged in an effectively endless series of raids and counter raids called the “Mourning Wars.” In Iroquoian societies the murder of a member was to be avenged by family; likewise, the murderer was to be protected by their family. Hostages were regularly taken, some of whom might be adopted into their host community as replacements for those who had died or had themselves been captured by the opposition. Captives in warfare typically faced highly structured public torture rituals aimed at testing their courage and endurance. In the absence of a police force and/or penal system these structures gave expression to Iroquoian understandings of justice and personal responsibility. Having committed to the northern alliance, Champlain had — probably unwittingly — inserted the French into generations of revenge killings and assaults.

That was not his goal, of course. His purpose was to gain access to a lucrative supply of furs and in this he was successful. Wendake (Huronia) was 700 km of river route away from Montreal but it produced approximately half of all the furs traded in the 1620s and a substantial share even after the smallpox epidemics of the 1630s and the intensification of war with the Haudenosaunee in the 1640s. For reasons discussed in Chapter 5, Wendake (Huronia) failed to recover from the epidemics and was increasingly unable to defend itself from Haudenosaunee raids. The Confederacy was dispersed in 1649.

By that time the French had established direct contact with many of the northern peoples and had trained dozens of men — coureur de bois — for the task of long-distance canoeing and North American commercial protocols. The loss of Wendake (Huronia) was, however, a significant blow to their Aboriginal neighbours who depended on Wendat corn in particular. The French, as an agricultural society, were able to absorb some of the demand for agricultural produce, a fact that would enhance their position in the fur trade after 1663.

A final note on this phase of the colonial fur trade underlines the very important fact that the fur trade was utterly dependent on the engagement of Aboriginal partners. As the 1620s opened, there were fewer than 70 French residents in Canada. Until the 1670s this would not change greatly. Canada at this stage produced little of its own food, contained a handful of biological families, and the fur trade was its entire raison d’être.

Key Points

  • The fur trade required the exploitation and extension of networks deep into the interior of North America.
  • That network depended on the involvement of Aboriginal traders and merchants, the most important to the French in this period being the Wendat (also known as the Huron) who called their confederacy and homeland Wendake (aka Huronia).
  • Wendat diplomatic and commercial priorities along with their assets made them pivotal players in the early fur trade with Europeans.


Figure 4.9
Reconstructed Huron Wendat long house by Neufast is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


4.5 The Heroic Age of New France

The first 50 or 60 years of French colonial activity in Acadia and the St. Lawrence were challenging but also quite lucrative. There was a degree of independence from the Crown that allowed colonial leaders, entrepreneurs, and even common settler/traders a significant amount of latitude, for good or ill. This was, too, a period in which Aboriginal neighbours and hosts were trying to decide whether they were better off with or without the Europeans. The Five Nations decided early on that the French were unwelcome, and this made the colonial enterprise all the more tenuous.

It is a reflection of these conditions that the colonial phase from around 1600 to 1663 has long been described as the “heroic age of New France.” In terms of building a patriotic myth around the French presence, this has been a useful storyline. It overlooks the fact that French heroism would have counted for little had it not been for the aligned interests of Aboriginal neighbours and hosts. Historians in a post-colonial era tend to eschew the idea that there was much “heroic” to an invading band of merchants whose presence resulted mainly in cultural and demographic losses among the Aborginal peoples.  Chapter 5 accordingly looks at aspects of the Aboriginal history of this period. It is, however, worth considering the circumstances facing the French interlopers in this period and how they met the challenge. No one more represents the pre-royal phase than Champlain.

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) deservedly attracts attention. His early years remain shrouded in mystery — although he was almost certainly born a Huguenot at the end of the Wars of Religion. He may have travelled with Spanish ships to Brazil and Mexico, but the evidence is uncertain. By the time he was in his 30s he was regarded as an accomplished geographer and draughtsman and was receiving a royal pension which, along with an inheritance, allowed him to pursue his interests. It was as a cartographer, it seems, that he was first sent across the North Atlantic by France. There, he quickly acquired additional responsibilities. The first winters spent by the French in Acadia and Quebec were very hard. The weather was cold beyond the expectations and experiences of the French and, 70 years after Cartier’s ordeal, scurvy continued to plague them. Champlain, however, proved to be indefatigably curious, talented, and resourceful.

Faced with another long and depressing winter in Acadia in 1606, Champlain established l’Ordre de Bon Temps (the Order of Good Cheer), the principal objective of which was defeating the mid-winter blues with regular feasts, performances of plays, and other entertainment. In his late 30s, if not his early 40s, he joined in on regional wars as a leader and a combatant. On separate occasions he took an arrow in the neck and two in the knee. Around the same time he sought to impress his Wendat and Algonquin friends by shooting the rapids at Lachine in a canoe, which he accomplished successfully. He travelled wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself and he drew beautiful maps of the lands he visited. He listened well to Aboriginal companions and noted that his informants claimed that Hudson Bay was not the Pacific Ocean but a gulf coming off the Atlantic — many years before the British proved to the satisfaction of Europe that this was the case.

His goals were materialistic and his moral code was flexible when it came to finding wealth in Canada. Indeed, he married a 12-year-old, Hélène Boullé, in Paris not for love or even for companionship, but for the dowry she brought with her. Their marriage was not consummated until Hélène was 14 (if it ever was). She never bore any children, so Champlain adopted three daughters from the Algonquin nation in the late 1620s.

Champlain died in Quebec in 1635 at the age of 59 or 60 years, a devout convert to Catholicism who spent a lifetime skillfully walking the tightrope between sectarian division in his native France. After 30 years off and on in the colonies, Champlain had done much to shape the expectations of France and relations with Aboriginal peoples, both of which had enormous implications and a very long legacy.An excellent source on Samuel de Champlain can be found in: Marcel Trudel, "Samuel de Champlain," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography. .

A detailed map with pictures of people, ships, and sea animals added.

Figure 4.10  An example of Champlain’s cartographic skills, 1612.

Exercise: Think Like a Historian

Biography and Context

Take a look at the biography of either Samuel de Champlain, the Comte de Frontenac, or Jeanne Mance in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Write a 200-word obituary for one of them. In doing so, assume the voice and perspective of someone who occupied a social position either above, below, or level with your subject. Also, consider what the measure of these individuals was in their time.

Feel free to present a critical account — as long as it’s based on fact. As an exercise, this will help develop your ability to select and compress information in tight prose; it also obliges you to look at someone in the past within their historic context. For example, Frontenac didn’t care whether he had voter support — he functioned in a non-democratic environment — so it wouldn’t make sense to say that he should have gone to the polls and campaigned for public approval.

Key Points

  • The period between 1600 and 1663 is sometimes described as the “heroic age” of New France.
  • The French colony was built around a particular kind of commerce in an age of religious combativeness and rising merchant power, all of which gave form to the colony of Canada.


Figure 4.10
Samuel de Champlain Carte geographique de la Nouvelle France by David.Monniaux is in the public domain.


4.6 Canada, 1663-1763

The years between 1649 and 1663 boded ill for Canada while, simultaneously, they offered new opportunities. Wendake’s (Huronia’s) collapse and dispersal eliminated the very backbone of the trade network on which the French relied. The Haudenosaunee weren’t finished there, as they pursued their goal of territorial control across all of southern Ontario and the Ohio Valley. The loss of Wendat support sent a chill through Canadien villages and trading houses, but it also opened up the possibility of a market for colonial farm products. Canada was in a position to become what Wendake (Huronia) had been: the granary of the north. The coureurs de bois, moreover, had by now plunged deep into the interior of the continent by means of the river and lake systems that (including a few portages) joined the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Louisiana and Hudson Bay. The freighting service that they could provide to Aboriginal trading partners enabled the French to step into the role of middlemen themselves or, to be more precise, to eliminate Aboriginal middlemen altogether. There would be Aboriginal trading chiefs who approximated middlemen roles but none would ever attain the stature in the trade once held by the Wendat.

Another change in circumstances was the Crown’s reinvigorated interest in the colony. Louis XIV (born 1638, ruled 1643-1715) came to the throne as a child of five years but his first opportunity to take charge only came in 1661, when he was barely 23 years of age. The death of the chief minister, the gifted and well-connected Cardinal Jules Mazarin, provided Louis with a chance to take power from his mother, the regent. What looks outwardly like a break in the Richelieu-Mazarin legacy was, on closer inspection, a continuation. Louis inherited a system of governance that Mazarin had been building up for years, one that was more centralized and enabled to the Crown to exercise absolute authority. Louis XIV pushed the system farther down that path, took on the mantle of the “Sun King,” made it clear that he subscribed to belief in the divine right of kings (that is, that monarchs derive their power directly from God), and set about declawing the French nobility. Louis XIV’s reign had great consequences for New France: he remained in power for more than 72 years and thereby provided a degree of stability that had hitherto been lacking. Of course, no one in 1661 could know that the Sun King was going to enjoy such longevity. What New France could not mistake, however, was the king’s seriousness of purpose as regards the colonies.

The Royal Administration

In 1663 the era of private monopolies in the colonies came to an end and New France became a royal colony. Troops were sent out almost immediately to counter the Haudenosaunee threat and the men of the Carignan-Salières Regiment were given land and an opportunity to become part of the colonial elite. Immigration was stimulated, as was natural population increase by the recruitment and arrival of the filles du roi (the king’s daughters). Roughly 800 women (most of them young) were sent out from France at the Crown’s expense between 1663 and 1673. The plan was to marry them off to the men of the regiment and anyone else who might thereby be encouraged to settle down, raise a farm and a family, and become a permanent part of Canadien life. Another important category of recruit to the colony was the indentured servant or engagé. Almost exclusively a population made up of men in their early twenties, engagés signed on for three to five years of obedient service to a master in the colony. Often the party that owned the servant’s contract was a religious order. The Sulpicians of Montreal in particular made use of many engagés during the 17th century. The work of servants was hard, mostly thankless, and largely consisted of farm labour. For the most part, attempts at escape were punished publicly and physically. Engagés were too poor to marry and form households and were, in any event, prevented from doing so by law. Freed engagés, on the other hand, could do so, providing they had the necessary resources — which few did.

Age of the king's daughters between 1663 and 1673. Long description available.

Figure 4.11 The king’s daughters (filles du roi) by age between 1663 and 1673. Data is given clockwise starting with 12 to 15 years at 10%. [Long Description]

These population initiatives were mostly the responsibility of Louis’ new Ministre de la Marine, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683). As a royal province, Canada was now viewed by Versailles as more an extension of France than a remote colony. To that end Colbert launched projects that would tailor the embryonic colony into something much more like France, ideally without the institutions that most worried the king. For example, the clergy were to carry on playing important roles (some of which would be enhanced) but they were to defer to the king rather than to Rome. Mercantilism was to become less single-minded: the colonies would continue to serve the interests of the empire first and foremost, but opportunities for economic diversification and greater self-sufficiency would be explored. To that end, Colbert created a new official position in the colonies, one that would represent the Crown’s interests while promoting economic development.

The first occupant of the office of the intendant was Jean Talon (1626-1694). Appointed for two terms (1663-1668 and 1670-1672), Talon initiated bold and ambitious plans to improve the circumstances, potential, and viability of Canada at a time when the colony was economically and physically vulnerable. His strategy included building up agricultural output, establishing shipyards, and generally addressing the trade imbalance of New France by linking Canada with markets in the French West Indies. Very little of this came to pass but the population increased substantially under Talon and the possibility of a self-sufficient colony could now be seen in the distance. At the heart of this was the seigneury, a landholding system akin to French feudalism with distinctive North American modifications.

The Seigneurial System

The key elements of the seigneurial system include the personnel and their roles, the land-use pattern involved, and the ways in which the system integrated into the rest of the economy. Seigneurs occupied a position similar to that of the French nobility, both with regard to their peasantry and the king, to whom they had to swear an oath of loyalty. (Louis XIV was careful not to create a colonial aristocracy that might challenge his authority.) The seigneurs were granted large tracts of land along the river systems of the colonies, out of which they had to carve their own farm or domain. They had to provide common land and long, narrow strips of land stretching back from the riverfront for the censitaires or habitants. The Canadien equivalent of the French peasantry, the habitants were meant to defer to the seigneur, pay a fee or cens et rentes annually and a tithe to the church. The seigneur was to build a manor house on the domain, as well as a gristmill and a church. The seigneury, then, was to become the centre of population and community along the river. Unlike New England townships (as we shall see in Chapter 6), there were no villages to speak of in the seigneurial system, only a small number of large towns/cities. “Thus,” as one study concludes, “the importation of a European system of landholding led, under different geographical circumstances, to a radically modified dispersion of population and activities.”Kenneth Norrie and Doug Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 74. Theoretically, the seigneurial system would produce a linear colony, one that hugged the riverbanks and pushed back the frontiers of forest at its rear.

In practice the seigneuries saw very little settlement before the 1730s. Many of the best seigneuries were granted from 1663 to 1700 but few were actually taken up and developed by the seigneurs. Seigneurs struggled to meet their expensive obligations and often found themselves with a noble-sounding title and a peasant-sized fortune. Habitants put a premium on cleared land and were not tied to the seigneury as fully as French peasants were in Europe: they could pack up and leave for a better piece of land if they so desired. Or, as many did, they could head west and north and join the fur trade. And, of course, fear of Haudenosaunee attacks put a further damper on seigneurial expansion until 1701. Nonetheless, the French had successfully established a core population on the land and Canada inched closer to self-sufficiency. Except for the Carignan-Salières Regiment, officials, and the filles du roi, almost all of the population growth in the century between the start of royal governance and the Conquest came from natural increase. In the whole of Canada’s colonial history from 1608 to 1760, it is reckoned that only 14,000 immigrants became part of the Canadien community.Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 24-5. By contrast Britain sent some 600,000 settlers to its colonies on the Atlantic seaboard in the same period.

The Compact Colony

From Talon on, intendants sought measures to reduce Canadien mobility and increase their commitment to the rural economy of the St. Lawrence Valley. As New France grew more sprawling, the more difficult it became to defend. And the more menfolk there were off trading along James Bay or skirting the Great Lakes in pursuit of furs, the fewer there were at home to build up food production and defend against British attacks. The intendants, however, were swimming against the current: Canadiens — from the habitants to the governors — saw the colony’s future as an expansive one of closely threaded alliances across an overwhelmingly Aboriginal interior.

Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac (1622-1698), is probably the most outstanding example of this view. He was governor of the colony twice, from 1672 to 1682 and then from 1689, dying in office. Not only did he pursue policies that were at odds with those of Paris, he did so at the very time when Talon and Colbert were pulling in the opposite direction. Building forts further inland, encouraging René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle (1643-1687) to explore deep into the far west and down the Mississippi, and doing what he could to expand the fur trade were significant parts of Frontenac’s legacy, all of which was inconsistent with the goal of a “compact colony,” a Canada that was manageably small.

Montreal and the West

The history of Montreal in these years exemplifies some of the problems facing Canada and New France as a whole. Ville-Marie was established in 1642 as a religious outpost by the Société de Notre-Dame. This was a project in which Jeanne Mance (1606-1673), a member of the Ursuline order of nuns and the founder of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, played a leading part. Montreal’s role quickly changed to fur-trade entrepôt. The population reached about 600 in 1685, many of whom were soldiers. The village was constantly under attack or seige or threat of these from the Haudenosaunee through the 17th century, and the destruction of Lachine in 1689 only a few kilometres away nearly doomed the village. From 1687 until the signing of the Great Peace of 1701 (discussed in Chapter 5), Montreal suffered from war with the Iroquois, a series of crop failures, and epidemics, which included a particularly virulent measles outbreak in 1687 that claimed 6% of the colonist population followed by another bout with smallpox in 1703. Small wonder that the opening of opportunities in the West was seized upon by many of its inhabitants: there were jobs to be had and possibly fortunes to be made in Detroit and the Pays d’en Haut.Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 59-62.


Figure 4.12 Plans for the expansion of the Hôtel-Dieu, 1695.

Some of the outcomes of Frontenac’s efforts should have been predictable. Longer supply lines in the fur trade required new systems of administration and investment. Larger, consolidated fur trade businesses began to emerge and demands for greater protection in the West were coming in from French traders and Aboriginal allies alike. Rapid expansion into the West and South also brought an expanded supply of furs and, shortly thereafter, a glut on the European market. As one study points out, the fur trade did not respond well to market forces overseas: prices fell but the need for supplies continued to rise. Kenneth Norrie and Doug Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 80-81. In part, responsibility for the deteriorating economy stemmed from a crisis of control. As one historian has memorably put it (her words having been translated from French into English), “Confusion reigned as market conditions continued to deteriorate. The interior monopoly was violated, and each [Canadien trader] struggled to save his own skin.”Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 75. Other historians have placed responsibility for the glut with Aboriginal suppliers:

Instead of fewer furs coming in in response, however, there were more. This result … reflects a particular response of some native tribes. Many of them were nomadic, and accumulation of goods presented real difficulties. Extra pots, pans, or whatever, could be burdensome during the journeys from place to place. There was, in other words, a fixed number of goods desired by many [Aboriginal] bands. The higher the price for their furs, the fewer the furs that would be necessary to supply their wants. In times of lower prices, however, more would be needed and more would be supplied.Kenneth Norrie and Doug Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 80.

There were diplomatic considerations as well. Just because the market was bad that didn’t mean that New France could suddenly stop the cycle of gift-giving and commerce that undergirded alliances in the North and West. In this respect European and Aboriginal markets worked at cross-purposes, and France was soon awash in furs while bills for colonial expenses piled up higher and higher. Exports tripled between 1685 and 1700.Ibid., 80-1. Prices continued to fall after the Great Peace of 1701 and they stayed low for the duration of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) concluded the war in North America, although it stuttered on for a few more months in Europe. It had the ironic effect of intensifying expansionist tendencies in Canada. Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Acadia were all handed over to the British. New France was reduced, though not severely, but in areas where the French had expended a great deal of effort. Rather than take this as a sign that the goal of a compact colony was more necessary than ever, it spurred new efforts. The loss of Hudson Bay certainly refocused French efforts along the Laurentian-Great Lakes routes and into the Pays d’en Haut. This situation arose in large part because France sought to use New France as a whole as a tool against Britain. By hemming in the 13 mainland British colonies, New France would frustrate British plans for continental dominance and, at the same time, limit the amount of support the British-American colonies could offer Britain in wars against France. For once, the imperial objectives of France were congruent with the more materialistic goals of the fur-trading colonists.

Exceptional Growth

After the Treaty of Utrecht, Canada improved on its uneven agricultural record and its population expanded rapidly. Women in the colony married younger than their counterparts in New England and France; they began producing children at a younger age and continued doing so for much of the rest of their lives. If widowed — and, thanks to risks in the fur trade, intercolonial wars, and attacks by Aboriginals, they often were — they remarried quickly. The effects were remarkable: by the middle of the 18th century, completed family size averaged between six and eight children, despite high infant mortality rates.Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 25-26. A high ratio of men to women in most of this period, combined with official encouragements to marry and form families and a strong cultural disinclination to reduce fertility in any way, shape, or form, yielded one of the most profoundly reproductive communities in the post-contact period.

Not only did the colony as a whole grow from about 10,000 in 1700 to nearly 50,000 people in 1760, the towns of Quebec and Montreal became somewhat more substantial. The former grew to about 8,000 and the latter to 3,500. The addition of the Fortress of Louisbourg and military reinforcements for the many fortifications that sprang up in the interior of the continent added still more “urban” people who were dependent on the farm produce of the Canadien seigneuries. For those habitants whose farmlands were sufficiently productive, these were good years and farm prices were healthy. For those living on newly cleared lands or in the tertiary “ranges” or rangs of the seigneuries, where soil was almost invariably worse and transportation more difficult, rising demand made little difference. For seigneurs — who received rents based on a share of output — the more mature farming areas were finally generating something like wealth.

Historians have maintained that the average censitaire in Canada was better off than his or her feudal counterpart in France. Some have argued, too, that they enjoyed greater liberties. By the same token, the seigneurs are widely thought to have been significantly less well off than even the more modest nobility in France, but were gaining on at least the lower aristocracy by mid-century. The impression remains, however, of a slow rate of change. Certainly there was no wave-after-wave of immigration as there was in the British colonies to the south, no land-hungry new arrivals whose presence alone could drive up the price of land. However impressive the natural increase of the Canadien population, the bottom line is this: the biological settler colony (as opposed to the territorial claim of New France) was vastly smaller than its neighbours.

The remainder of Canadien society presents something of a puzzle. Historians have long debated the importance of the merchant class in the colony. Insofar as their businesses remained mostly tied to the fur trade they weren’t significant agents for social and economic change before 1760. French merchants continued to exert a tremendous influence and controlled much of the import-export business from their homes in La Rochelle and Bordeaux. Economic historians Norrie and Owram have argued that what emerged by the mid-18th century, if not earlier, was a metropolitan-hinterland relationship of two steps: merchants in France capitalized and made the greatest profits from the traffic across the Atlantic, and they also had a hefty influence on the merchant class of Canada — often by dint of the fact that those colonial merchants were their employees/agents. The Canadien merchants, by extension, enjoyed a similar relationship with the interior of North America as the metropolis of a further hinterland.Ibid., 90-2. Wealthy and influential merchants in the colony were nonetheless secondary to those in the home ports on the west coast of France and only some could translate their wealth into the status of a seigneur. This meant that upward social mobility was limited.

Canadien Society

This was a society with significant fracture lines and divisions. It wore the stamp of feudalism (however incomplete and modified to local circumstances) and had a strong military presence (with all the ranks and divisions that implies), a very large clerical presence with spiritual and everyday authority, a wealthy merchant class, and colonial managers who were regularly refreshed by new personnel from Louis XIV’s absolutist France. The poor and the common population were expected to recognize their superiors and show them deference. Indeed, no one was free from responsibilities of this kind: an insult inflicted on an official of rank or a senior cleric by an artisan or a creditor could result in a beating or a lawsuit. Cases seeking réparation d’injure verbale originated in all quarters of colonial French society and could involve men and women alike as both complainants and perpetrators. Canadiens and Canadiennes alike bridled at some of the social restraints imposed on them.Peter N. Moogk, "'Thieving Buggers' and 'Stupid Sluts': Insults and Popular Culture in New France, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Vol.XXXVI (October 1979): 524-47. They were notoriously lax when it came to behaviour in church and records suggest that some appropriated titles — such as écuyer or esquire — to which they were not entitled. In a new country where reputations could be built, rebuilt, revised, and reduced, there was both sensitivity to status and a contrary willingness to undermine it. Gossip was an important regulating force when it came to domestic relations, probably more powerful than what little police force existed in the colony.André Lachance and Sylvie Savoie, "Violence, Marriage, and Family Honour: Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Marriage in New France," in Essays in the History of Canadian Law, vol.V: Crime and Criminal Justice, eds. Jim Phillips, Tina Loo, and Susan Lewthwaite (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1994): 143-73.

This was, then, a rapidly growing Canadien society atop which there was an edifice of metropolitan French authorities, some of whom wrestled mightily with the question of how far one should even want to control the colonials.

Key Points

  • The loss of Wendake (Huronia) forced changes on the colony of Canada.
  • The introduction of royal administration placed a greater priority on establishing a more self-sufficient, Catholic, and compact colony along the St. Lawrence.
  • A semi-feudal system of landownership and use was introduced that made Canada unique among European colonies in North America.
  • The years between 1663 and 1712 saw an aggressive expansion of fur trade operations deep into the continent’s interior.
  • The Treaty of Utrecht brought significant change to the shape and opportunities of New France.


Figure 4.11
Filles du Roi by Age by John Belshaw is used under a CC-BY 4.0 license.

Figure 4.12  
Plan de l Hotel-Dieu de Montreal, Gedeon de Catalogne, 1695 by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.

Long Descriptions

Figure 4.11 long description: Filles du Roi by Age, 1663 to 1673. Age
Percentage 12 to 15 years
10% 16 to 25 years
57% 26 years and older
22% Unknown

[Return to Figure 4.11]


4.7 Canada and Catholicism

A drawing showing the location of various buildings.

Figure 4.13 Quebec in 1700, its skyline punctuated by church spires. The key indicates the position of the Seminaire, the Jesuits, the Recollets, the cathedral, and the Hôtel-Dieu.

Although the early French strategy in Canada was primarily economic, there was a cultural agenda as well. The French did try to Christianize some groups of Aboriginals, most notably the Wendat.


In 1615, the first Recollets (a monastic order of the Catholic Church) arrived in New France to go out among the locals — particularly the Algonquin — to Christianize them. Evicted from the colony in 1629 by the English, the Recollets were replaced almost immediately by the missionaries from the Jesuit Order, also known as the Society of Jesus. Over the next 20 years, the Jesuits worked among the villages of the Wendat Confederacy in particular, learning their language and their culture. The Jesuit approach was distinct from that of most other missionary groups in that they did not try to Europeanize the Aboriginal people; that is, they did not attempt to change their socioeconomic culture into something resembling European styles of living before attempting to win their souls. Instead, the Jesuits sought common cultural elements that would help bridge belief systems. To be sure, as far as the Jesuits were concerned, this was a bridge that ran one way only — toward Christianity. The efforts to convert the Wendat were largely unsuccessful, with very few converts, perhaps fewer than 10 in 50 years. However, the Jesuit experience in Canada is significant as the missionaries wrote extensive reports back to their order in France, detailing the practices and beliefs of the Wendat. Much of the information we have about the Wendat and other groups in the Quebec area comes from these letters, collectively called the Jesuit Relations. The Wendat experience of this initiative is considered in Chapter 5.

The modest success of the missionary efforts should not overshadow the larger Catholic agenda of the French empire in North America. Religious politics in Europe were divisive; national identity was, in many respects, secondary to sectarian identity. This was the context for the colonial project of New France: it began as a commercial enterprise sustained and managed by religious officials. Until 1663 the colony was in the hands of private commercial monopolies with imperial oversight in the hands of the king’s ministers — Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin — both of whom were simultaneously high-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church. The Recollet, Jesuit, Sulpician, and Ursuline projects both before and after the royal administration were extensions of a Catholic Church agenda that sought a cultural colony as well as a settler colony. This could be seen in declining tolerance for Protestantism in New France. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (1598), which drew an end to many of the civic freedoms enjoyed by Protestants in France for nearly a century. Many fled the port cities for North America, though not for New France. As the Huguenots were leaving, the Recollets’ presence expanded in Canada (in 1670) and in Plaisance as well. There was to be more Catholicism, not less, in New France as it became more a mirror of the institutions and values of the imperial centre. This played out in interesting ways in Montreal.

The Sulpicians

When Ville-Marie was established in 1642, it was as a religious centre, a role that was quickly eclipsed by the fur trade. After 1657 the Sulpicians came to play a key role in Montreal in particular, where they were missionaries to the settlers rather than Aboriginal people. The demarcation of Church responsibilities in the colony handed the Jesuits the missionary roles among the Aboriginals, leaving the Sulpicians with more material tasks. The clergy of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice had a key administrative role more involved with municipal authority than the saving of souls. They had responsibility for the poor, physical infrastructure, schools, courts, cartography, and business, among other things.Brian Young, In Its Corporate Capacity: the Seminary of Montreal as a Business Institution, 1816-76 (Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986), 3-37. They were French, not Canadien, drawn from a well-educated and generally upper-class population; many, according to historian Louise Dechêne, “had large private fortunes.”Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 261. Some were disappointed at the lack of opportunity to salvage Aboriginal souls, and some felt robbed of the prospect of martyrdom. The seminary itself didn’t engage much in education until the mid-18th century. The main task of the Sulpicians was managing their seigneurial properties, which were extensive. When we think of the Catholic Church in the colony in this period, then, it is a rather textured thing — a bureaucratic businesslike operation that played a day-to-day role in the health and welfare of the community, produced food and created jobs, policed behaviour (in particular, relations between the troops and the local population), and of course undertook spiritual tasks.

People kneel and pray while axes are brought down on their heads. Two men are tied to stakes

Figure 4.14 The martyrdom of Brebeuf, a Jesuit, at the hands of the Haudenosaunee in 1649. It was this kind of sacrifice that many of the colonial clergy sought for themselves.

It would be a mistake to imagine the Catholic Church in New France as a monolithic structure. There was competition between the orders and there was little love lost between the Jesuits (loyal to Rome first and foremost) and the Sulpicians (whose origin and outlook was Parisian or Gallican). Nor were the colonists as deferential as one might expect when it came to the Church. The evidence strongly suggests that the Canadiens adopted a casual attitude toward the clergy, which could (and did) sometimes express itself as contempt. The Jesuits were frequently accused of interfering in the fur trade and commerce generally, which earned them a poor reputation with the coureurs de bois, voyageurs, and some merchants. The Sulpicians, for their part, had a reputation as moralistic busybodies.

The fur trade wealth that accumulated in Montreal and Quebec was sometimes spent ostentatiously: by men on houses, horses, and fine suits, and by women on extravagant dresses. These expressions of prosperity attracted clerical condemnation, which was, of course, unwelcome. The fact that the clergy were overwhelmingly French in a sea of Canadiens paved the way for snobbery and prejudice that was mutual. And on the ground, in the individual parishes, it was often the case that there were simply too few priests and nuns to go around. Seigneuries without resident clerics were probably the norm rather than the exception. The habitants were expected to pay (through tithes and subscriptions) for a church building on their seigneury and sometimes a house for the priest as well. While there was some enthusiasm on the part of the habitants for the spiritual and civil services that a resident priest could provide, there was little enthusiasm for the costs entailed. In addition to tithes, the clergy regularly assessed charges for burials, provision of sacramental bread, and so on, and fines for a variety of offences associated with deviation from church-sanctioned practices.Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 260-69. What the colonists clearly wanted was an ongoing relationship with a curé loyal to their parish, a chapel or church they could call their own, a role to play in the running of the parish (something else the clergy were reluctant to allow), and a place to focus social energies and receive the sacraments of marriage, baptism, and last rights. So long as Canada was a long string of underpopulated seigneuries and not a few concentrated settlements, it would be difficult to meet these expectations.

Key Points

  • The French regime introduced a Christianizing agenda during its first decade of colonial activity.
  • Recollets and Jesuits had different approaches to Christianizing the Aboriginal peoples.
  • The roles played by the Catholic Church were many and diverse.


Figure 4.13
La ville de Québec en 1700 by Jeangagnon is used under a CC-BY-SA 2.5 license.

Figure 4.14
Canadian martyrs 1649 by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.


4.8 Louisiana and the Pays d'en Haut

An old map showing the great lakes, rivers, and mountain ranges.

Figure 4.15 Vincenzo Coronelli’s 1688 map of the Pays d’en Haut.

The Wendat Confederacy collapsed in 1649 following tragic defeats by both smallpox and the Haudenosaunee. The loss of their favoured middlemen in the fur trade, however, enabled French voyageurs to push beyond the boundaries of Wendake (Huronia) and into the upper Great Lakes. In 1659, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, who would go on to lead the British charge into Hudson Bay, were the first French traders to reach the western shore of Lake Superior. The 1670s and 1680s saw missionary and exploratory activity expand in the region — known as the Pays d’en Haut. Still searching for a route to the Pacific, voyageurs were initially hopeful about the Mississippi system. They soon realized that they were to be disappointed. Nevertheless, in 1699 French territorial claims in North America expanded dramatically when Louisiana was founded in the basin of the Mississippi. Until 1713, the French laid claim to a trading network that extended from Plaisance through Acadia and Canada, as far north as Hudson Bay, all around the Great Lakes and down to the Gulf of Mexico. This network was maintained through a vast system of fortifications.

People and buildings along a river.

Figure 4.16 The French established posts along the Mississippi like this one, Arkansas Post (ca. 1689).

Louisiana and the Ohio

Louisiana was the southernmost administrative district of New France and was under French control from 1682 to 1763 and 1800 to 1803. It originally covered a far-reaching territory that included most of the drainage basin of the Mississippi River and stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains. The relative success of the New France project rested in the ability of the French to hem in their competition and, in this respect, Lousiana and the Ohio were as integral to the success of Canada, as Canada was to that of the Pays d’en Haut and the Mississippi. By means of careful diplomacy among the Aboriginal nations of the Ohio Valley and the lands on either side of the Mississippi, the French were able to contain the British settlements to the east of the Appalachian Mountains until the mid-18th century. As well, they were able to exploit Aboriginal dissatisfaction with British colonists even within the English colonies. This was the case in South Carolina in the early 1700s when Aboriginal frustration with English trade partners and colonists made Louisiana an attractive alternative source of goods. In this way the French were able to work through third parties to hinder the survival of their English foes. The French pursued a virtually identical strategy in the south where they competed effectively against the Spanish. French rifles and other goods spread out across east Texas and as far west as New Mexico, undermining what loyalty and/or deference the Spanish were able to command among their own Aboriginal allies.

The bridges between Louisiana and Canada were the Ohio and Illinois Valleys. Inaccessible to the French until the 1700s, the territory had changed hands between Aboriginal groups during the period called the “Beaver Wars.” For reasons that go well beyond an interest in gaining dominance in the beaver-pelt trade, the Five Nations League expanded westward, raiding for personnel and subduing potentially dangerous neighbours. In the process, they drove off much of the indigenous population of the Ohio Valley, unintentionally making it more attractive to two groups: Aboriginal peoples being squeezed out of the region east of Appalachia (across which British-American settlement was spilling) and Euro-North Americans who saw opportunities and dangers in a vacuum. French efforts were the most substantial once peace had been won with the Haudenosaunee.

New France territory in 1713. Long description available.

Figure 4.17 A map of New France, ca. 1713. [Long Description]

By means of gift diplomacy the French hoped to guarantee Aboriginal support in the region and use it to keep the British out of the Ohio. From the Ottawa Valley south to Louisiana, New France had a small population. It relied heavily on friendly contacts with local Aboriginal communities. Because the French settlers lacked the appetite for land that characterized English settlement, and because they relied exclusively on Aboriginal peoples to supply them with fur at trading posts, the French built a complex series of military, commercial, personal, and diplomatic connections. These became the most enduring alliances between the French and the Aboriginal American community.

A wall made of stone bricks with a bastion with small wimdows built off the corner.

Figure 4.18 Fort de Chartres in what is now southwestern Illinois. The fort was originally built in 1720 and then rebuilt in stone in the 1750s. It fell into ruins and was restored as a heritage site in the 20th century. This bastion gives a sense of the investment made by Canadien and Louisianan authorities.

In 1682, the French explorer de La Salle named the region Louisiana to honour France’s King Louis XIV. The first permanent settlement, Fort Maurepas, was founded in 1699 near the mouth of the Mississippi by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, a French military officer from Canada. An inland trading post followed in 1714 in the territories of the Natchitoches, which served as an interface between French, Aboriginal, and Spanish/Mexican commercial interests in Texas. Soon cotton plantations began to appear.

The South and West in New France

For historians of Canada, Louisiana is an opportunity to test certain assumptions. Individuals like d’Iberville connect the histories of the two regions, so they were not entirely isolates. News of practices in one could reach the other, while at the same time, distinctive and seemingly contradictory trends could be found. The seigneurial system never took root in Louisiana (nor was it applied to Île Royale or with any rigour to Acadia); instead, individual land title was made available. Social relations were different as well. Colbert introduced the Code Noir in 1685 to regulate slavery and establish racialized boundaries in the French sugar colonies; its tenets were subsequently transferred to Louisiana to support slavery in the cotton plantation economy after about 1717. Slavery was, to be sure, found in Canada although it was more likely to involve Aboriginal slaves than Africans and more likely to be domestic in character than forced agricultural labour. But what is perhaps more noteworthy is that while interracial marriage and miscegnation occurred everywhere else in New France, in Louisiana’s plantation districts it was officially prohibited. Spread thinly everywhere but the St. Lawrence, Acadia, and New Orleans, the French coureur de bois readily married into local Aboriginal communities. This was, of course, a diplomatic strategy as well as a biological/sentimental one: working in such small numbers, the French outside of the main population centres had to make an effort to be on good terms with their hosts. To turn this comparison on its head, why was slavery not the norm in Canada? The Canadien economy was simply not one that could benefit from or sustain an army of forced labour.

In some respects there were peculiar similarities between the colonies. Where Canada and its hinterland had a trade in beaver pelts and moose hides, Louisiana’s chief export for many years was deer skins. The Choctaw nation was the main supplier, and they were as closely aligned with Louisiana as the Wendat had been with Canada. Another parallel was the rivalry between the Choctaw and the Chickasaw, the latter being allies and trading partners of the English in South Carolina. Both Aboriginal groups found themselves trading their captive enemies to their respective European allies as slaves.Allan Greer, The People of New France (Toronto: U of T Press, 2000), 105-108. As the French discovered, to their chagrin, accepting a slave-gift from one allied nation meant that the slave’s nation of origin was ruled out as another ally. In this way, Aboriginal slave exchanges purposefully set limits on whom the French could engage with diplomatically.Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 222. This was particularly the case in the Pays d’en Haut.

Distances between the colonies within New France were so great that each region enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. Although New France as a whole was governed out of Quebec City and, later, Montreal, Louisiana was administered principally from Mobile, then Biloxi, and finally from New Orleans. Upper Louisiana extended into the Illinois territory and was a zone in which New Orleans’ authority competed with Montreal’s. Throughout much of Louisiana and the Pays d’en Haut, administrative control was more theoretical than practical; French settlers and farmers soon found themselves integrated less into a European system and more into an Aboriginal world.

Key Points

  • At its maximum size, New France was much more than Canada and Acadia.
  • Louisiana and the Pays d’en Haut were principally areas of French influence, rather than settlement colonies.
  • Each of the regions of New France had distinctive economic and social characteristics and a degree of mutual autonomy.


Figure 4.15
Vincenzo Coronelli Partie occidentale du Canada 1688 by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.

Figure 4.16
ArkansasPost1689 by Samuel Peoples  is in the public domain.

Figure 4.17
Nouvelle-France map-en by Pinpin is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 4.18
Ft de Chartres-bastion-1 by Kbh3rd is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Long description

Figure 4.17 long description: In 1713, France held modern day Labrador, much of Quebec, southern Ontario and southern Manitoba and a part of Saskatchewan. Their territory also stretched south through the middle of the eastern United States all the way down to the top of the Gulf of Mexico. Britain held the eastern coast of the United States and had recently acquired Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and parts of Northern Onatio, Quebec, and Manitoba. Spain held Florida, parts of the central United States, and Mexico. [Return to Figure 4.17]


4.9 War in the Pays d'en Haut

The French enjoyed the support of most of the Aboriginal nations in the Ohio, Great Lakes, Mississippi, and Illinois territories for several reasons. They did not demand concessions of land, they arrived as (and generally behaved as) guests, they regularly and systematically gave gifts of various kinds to maintain alliances, and they engaged in a fur trade that was lucrative for most of the Aboriginal participants. However, the French record in the Pays d’en Haut was not unblemished.


Figure 4.19 Detail from a map of the Pays d’en Haut in 1718. The Meskwaki and their allies, the Mascouten and the Kickapoo controlled much of the rivers system to the south and west of Lake Michigan.

The Fox Wars

From about 1700 the French were at odds with the Meskwaki (a.k.a. Fox) who controlled the river corridor that connects Lake Michigan to the upper Mississippi valley. The Meskwaki sought to hold their position as intermediaries in trade between the Council of Three Fires (the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Anishinaabe/Ojibwa) and their French partners and the Sioux nations to the west. The Meskwaki had little reason to love the French; it is likely that the Wendat — armed by the French — displaced them from southern Ontario in the early 17th century. The French, for their part, wanted unfettered access to the Sioux and the Plains. The Meskwaki held certain advantages at the beginning of the conflict but the tide quickly turned badly against them.

Two major conflicts erupted between the French and their allies and the Meskwaki in the 18th century in what became known as the “Fox Wars.” The first occurred in 1701 at Fort Pontchartrain (Detroit), after which a lively traffic in Meskwaki slaves opened between Green Bay and New France. War picked up again in 1712 and was more or less continuous into the late 1720s, at which point it became a genocidal campaign with even the smallest numbers of refugees from devastating battles being hunted down and executed. From 1728 to 1732 the governor of New France, Beauharnois, punished the Meskwaki. The governor’s biographer attests that he

encouraged post commanders, western allies, and mission Indians to fall upon the remaining Foxes at every opportunity, until “that damned nation shall be entirely extinguished.” In 1733 the principal Fox chief, Kiala, begged for mercy. Beauharnois sent him to Martinique in slavery. If the remaining Foxes would not be dispersed among the missions within the colony, they were to be killed. S. Dale Standen, “BEAUHARNOIS DE LA BOISCHE, CHARLES DE, Marquis de BEAUHARNOIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography 3 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Access October 20, 2014,

Only a few hundred Meskwaki survived the Fox Wars.

It is important to note that, whatever Beauharnois might have wanted, it could not come to pass without the support of the Aboriginal allies. What this grim campaign in the Pays d’en Haut reveals is complex. First, it puts the lie to the myth of unqualified positive relations between the French and their Aboriginal neighbours. The French may not have been interested in annexing lands but they were as driven by greed and pride as any other peoples. Second, the Fox Wars were a test of the strength of French diplomacy among their allies. A test that the French passed utterly. Third, and to build on that last point, the influence of European goods, commerce, and military alliances was having far-flung impacts across the middle of North America, and not only in Canada, Acadia, or the Mississippi Delta. Generally the position of the French was strong. The same could not be said of the Virginian colonists who at this time decided to explore the possibility of expanding across the Appalachian Mountains and into the Ohio Valley.

Key Points

  • The Pays d’en Haut was a critical bridge between the two larger French settlement colonies.
  • The Fox Wars constituted a test of the ability of the French to secure their goals among Aboriginal communities.
  • The French were, with the support of their allies, able to inflict significant losses on enemies located thousands of kilometres away from Canada and Louisiana.


Figure 4.19
Michigan 1718 by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.


4.10 Summary

From the outset, France (like the Netherlands) wanted commercial outposts, not permanent settlement. Agricultural efforts in Acadia and the St. Lawrence would take decades of effort and setbacks to take root, and this model of colonization never spread much west or south of Montreal.

The Canadien heartland of farms was itself made possible by the disappearance of the Laurentian Iroquois some time between Cartier and the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1608. Without firing a single arquebus the French inherited “widowed lands” from the indigenous peoples. They were able to fit into the economic niche of food producers that had previously been filled by the Stadaconans, Hochelagans, and — after 1649 — the Wendat. Elsewhere, the French simply lacked the wherewithal to push anyone around, let alone off their land, although they might do so with the assistance of Aboriginal force (which always brought its own agenda).

Large-scale immigration was also held back by the peculiar economic conditions of northern New France. Fur trading was the biggest earner in Canada, so adult males regularly left their farms around ploughing and planting time to voyage west and north in search of trading partners. This slowed the progress of a farming frontier, even in regions where the French did not have to compete for land. (By contrast, in the English colonies to the south, especially in the plantation colonies, there was almost immediate and long-running competition with Aboriginal neighbours over land for farming.) Early Canadiens were not so land-hungry — not because they were more restrained or enlightened in their respect for Aboriginal property; their numbers were limited and they needed Aboriginal peoples as trade partners. This relationship almost immediately embroiled the French in local conflicts in which they were obliged to participate or risk losing trade.

In sum, the French colonial model created dangers that were not helpful in attracting settlers. The long battle with the Haudenosaunee Five Nations that ran almost uninterrupted from 1609 to 1701 is the best example of this limitation. Due to their small population, their reliance on trade, and their half-hearted commitment to agriculture (and thus land), French colonists needed to develop strong ties to Aboriginal communities. In part due to the assiduous cultivation of those ties for trade and security purposes, the French were eventually able to exert influence over a large territory within North America.

Spanish colonies might have enjoyed powerful local authority and so might the English (as we’ll see in Chapters 6 and Chapter 7) but France remained very much in charge of New France. This was driven by the economic priorities of mercantilism, which was an economic doctrine stating that a nation’s power depended on the value of its exports. Under mercantilism (as will be explored in Chapter 7), nations sought to establish colonies to produce goods for use in the home country as a chief means of acquiring economic strength. Essentially, mercantilists believed that colonies existed not for the benefit of settlers, but for the benefit of the home country. For France and Britain, the ultimate goal of mercantilism was to run trade surpluses — to haul in valuable materials from North America and use them to increase export trade in Europe — so that gold and silver would pour into Paris and London. The government took its share through duties and taxes; the remainder went to merchants. In France in particular, the Crown got much richer, as did the traders based in the coastal port cities (of which both Cartier and Champlain were representative). The Crown and the regional bourgeoisie became unlikely allies. The French regime spent a fortune on naval supplies and shipping — as did the British government — and these navies served not only to protect the colonial investments but to threaten the colonies of the other empires as well. They also played a role in relations with the Aboriginal host communities, as Chapter 5 shows.

Key Terms

Cajuns: Francophone settlers in Louisiana descended mostly from Acadiens.

censitaires: Also known as “habitants”; the rent-paying tenants of the seigneurs. The rent is known as the cens.

Code Noir: Introduced under Louis XIV in 1685, the Code Noir established the ground rules for slavery in the French colonies. This included a prohibition of any religion other than Catholicism, the range of discipline permissible, and the conditions required for manumission (freeing of slaves).

Compagnie des Cent-AssociésThe Company of One Hundred Associates (sometimes called the Company of New France or Compagnie de la Nouvelle France) was chartered in 1627 to operate the fur trade in Canada and Acadia and establish settlements. It followed two earlier chartered efforts, the Compagnie des Marchands and the Compagnie de Montmorency. The Compagnie des Cent-Associés ceased operating in 1663.

Communauté des habitantsAlso known as the “Compagnie des habitants”; it worked in conjunction with the Compagnie des Cent-Associés in an arrangement that sublet the Cent-Associés’ monopoly to residents in the colony of Canada.

coureurs de bois: In English, known as “runners of the woods.” The first coureurs de bois were young men dispatched by Champlain to reside among the Wendat, learn the Wyandot language, and develop an understanding of local trade protocols. Subsequently the coureurs were more likely to be independent or semi-independent traders seeking Aboriginal sources of furs across the interior of North America.

filles du roi: In English, known as “the king’s daughters.” Between 1663 and about 1673, this cohort of women (mostly young and many orphans) was recruited by the Crown’s agents (mostly in Paris) for settlement in Canada. Their passage was paid for by the king and they were provided with a dowry as an incentive to marriage.

Fort Beausejour: Built by the French in 1751 on the Chignecto Isthmus, which connects modern New Brunswick to Nova Scotia. This was an important land corridor connecting the Fortress of Louisbourg with Acadien settlements and Canada. The fort was also intended to support Mi’kmaq allies during war. Captured by the British in 1755, the name was changed to Fort Cumberland.

Gallican, Gallicanism: A perspective widely held in France and its colonies from the 17th century that spiritual authority resides with the Pope but civil authority with the monarch. Because much of what the colonial clergy attended to was essentially “civil” — farming, administering the colony generally, etc. — many of the Catholic clergy looked first to Paris for leadership and not to the Vatican. This position was challenged with some finality at the First Vatican Council of 1868 at which papal infallibility was defined.

gift diplomacy: In the context of European-Aboriginal relations, the practice of renewing — annually or otherwise regularly — diplomatic relations and alliances by providing gifts to leadership figures. It includes the practice of “covering the dead,” a round of gift-giving following wartime deaths of an ally’s soldiers.

habitants: See censitaires.

Hôtel-Dieu: Or “hostel of God.” In Montreal the Hôtel-Dieu hospital was established and run by the Ursuline nuns.

Île Royale: Established as a colonial site by the French in 1713, it is the location of the Fortress of Louisbourg. Captured by the British in 1755, it was renamed Cape Breton Island.

Île Saint-Jean: Part of the French colony of Acadia, it was captured by the British in 1758 and renamed Saint John’s Island and then Prince Edward Island.

intendant: Beginning in 1663, the administrative officer responsible for civil affairs in New France. The intendant’s portfolio included judicial affairs, infrastructure, military preparedness, addressing issues of corruption, and colonial finances. Notionally the most powerful figure in the colony, in practice the intendant was often rivalled by the governor.

Jesuit Order: The Society of Jesus was established in 1534 and is characterized by its fierce loyalty to papal authority in all matters. Their members first arrived in Canada in 1625 to assist the Recollets in missionary work among the Aboriginal population. The Jesuits played a pivotal role in French relations with Wendake (Huronia).

Jesuit Relations: Reports from Jesuit missionaries in Canada and an important source of historical and ethnographical material on the Wendat and other First Nations. In part the Relations served as a means to secure more funding from France. They were eventually published for a wider readership and were, thus, a source of revenue for the order.

l’Ordre de Bon TempsThe Order of Good Cheer was suggested by Champlain in 1606 as a means of improving morale among the residents at Port-Royal. It is reckoned that the first meeting of the Order constitutes the first performance of European-style theatre in North America.

Recollets: A Franciscan order whose members were the first missionaries in New France, arriving in 1615. The Recollets are credited with the first batch of beer in New France (1620) and were responsible for recruiting the Jesuit Order into the missionary field in Canada in 1625. Expelled from New France in 1629, they returned in 1670 and served until their numbers were depleted after the Conquest.

seigneurs, seigneury: The seigneurial system in New France and especially in the colony of Canada sought to reproduce elements of the French feudal system. Although some of the seigneurs in Canada were nobles, most were military officers and members of the clergy. Rent values were based on rates set by the Crown, not on the scarcity of land or labour. Seigneurs had to provide their tenants (censitaires, habitants) with a gristmill (the use of which was essentially taxed) and the tenants provided an annual round of labour (corvée), which might involve road building or erecting a chapel.

Sulpicians: Operating out of the Parisian parish of Saint-Sulpice (from which their name derives), the Sulpicians were a wealthy order without a vow of poverty. This distinguished them from the more austere Jesuits and Récollets.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Why did France resume efforts to establish a colonial presence in North America?
  2. Describe the relationship(s) between the four regions of New France.
  3. What factors restricted the growth and success of Acadia?
  4. What factors limited the establishment of colonies in Newfoundland?
  5. What did Champlain do that facilitated the growth of the colony of Canada?
  6. Why was Canada so difficult to get up and running?
  7. What role(s) did the fur trade play in the colonial project in the 17th century?
  8. What was the nature of the relationship between Canada and Wendake?
  9. What features of Wendat society and economy made the Confederacy prime partners in New France’s fur trade experiment?
  10. What were some of the characteristics of slavery in New France?
  11. Explain Colbert’s vision of a “compact colony” for Canada. What steps did Colbert take to achieve this? Account for its failure.
  12. What roles were played by the Roman Catholic Church in New France?

 Suggested Readings

  1. Donovan, Kenneth. “Slaves and their Owners in Île Royale, 1713-1760.” Acadiensis XXV, no.1 (Autumn 1995): 3-32.
  2. Hynes, Gisa. “Some Aspects of the Demography of Port Royal, 1650-1755.” Acadiensis III, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 3-17.
  3. Lachance, André and Sylvie Savoie. “Violence, Marriage, and Family Honour: Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Marriage in New France.” Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Volume V: Crime and Criminal Justice. Edited by Jim Phillips, Tina Loo, and Susan Lewthwaite, 143-173. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.


Chapter 5. Aboriginal Canada in the Era of Contact


5.1 Introduction

A man and a women wearing loose clothing, pointy hats, and blankets worn like capes.

Figure 5.1  An 18th century Abenaki couple (artist unknown).

For the first 300 years of contact between Europe and Canada, Aboriginal autonomy remained more or less intact. Displacement had occurred in some places, but the limited ambitions of New France as a settlement colony mitigated wholesale loss of lands and power. That is not to say that Aboriginal life was not under threat. The proto-contact period, the contact period, and the post-contact period all witnessed changes in Aboriginal life and authority that were profound. Aboriginal people and societies were not, however, being acted upon. There were many Aboriginal agendas: economic, political, military, and territorial. What were the priorities driving Aboriginal people at a time when territory was being lost in increments to newcomers, long-time neighbours were squeezing westward and colliding with others, and epidemics were cutting a swath through populations? How did Aboriginal people perceive what was taking place, and what future did they seek to create for themselves under changing circumstances?

Learning Objectives

  • Ÿ Describe the ways in which Aboriginal people perceived the newcomers.
  • Ÿ Analyze the impact of the European intrusion on the traditional patterns of Aboriginal life.
  • Ÿ Describe the Columbian Exchange and its ramifications for Aboriginal societies.
  • Ÿ Enumerate some of the major Aboriginal political responses to invasion.
  • Account for Aboriginal engagement in the fur trade.


Figure 5.1
Abenaki Couple by File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske) is in the public domain.


5.2 The Columbian Exchange

The diversity of languages along the Pacific Northwest coast presented a barrier to trade and diplomacy. These weren’t mere dialectal variants; the enormous gulf between languages was both difficult to cross and proudly guarded. Consequently, there arose a “trade jargon” — a dialect that exists only where there is trade to conduct — to use as a working language over an extensive region. How old it is remains unknown, but linguists have concluded that Chinook, or chinuk wawa, existed before Europeans arrived in the late 18th century. In what is now central and northern Ontario, the language traders adopted was Wendat, because it was in the Wendat villages that most of the trademarts were held.

The cover page of Gill's Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon.

Figure 5.2 The Chinook jargon combined elements of several northwest coast languages and grafted on English, French, Spanish, and even Russian elements as well. A trade dialect, some words are still used regularly in British Columbia. (Chinook Jargon handbook, 19th century.)

The use of either a hybrid trade jargon or the language of a dominant player in trade arose precisely because trade and alliances were critical parts of Aboriginal life. When Europeans showed up, Aboriginal people understood them principally in this context: as a source of goods and as possible allies or adversaries. Almost immediately, Aboriginal people threw themselves into the business of acquiring exotic trade goods from the “foreigners with hairy faces.” The consequences for societies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were enormous.

For better or worse, there was no turning back from the connection forged between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the late 15th century. Goods, crops, mineral wealth, words, and medicines flowed east into Europe while livestock, humans, plants, ideas, and much more travelled west into the Americas. This flow and counterflow is known as the Columbian Exchange.For a survey of this subject, see Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (NY: Fawcett, 1988).

Crops and Animals

Agricultural and horticultural civilizations in the Americas were capable of building up surpluses for local trade. Having baskets full of grain or root crops ready to exchange for flint or copper was simply part of everyday business. The lands from the Caribbean north offered products such as squash, beans, maize, tobacco, potatoes, chocolate, corn, and tomatoes, all of which were quickly taken up by Europeans. Peppers and vanilla were also soon embraced. Necessity explains European interest in some of these foods: early voyagers had typically eaten their way through their onboard stocks and were hungry, and hospitable locals fed them local specialities.

Corn and grain.

Figure 5.3 Maize was only one of many plants that would transform global diets and enable a massive increase in human and food-animal populations.

The short- and long-term consequences of introducing these exotic crops to the European diet cannot be understated. Early exploration missions into the western Atlantic were ostensibly interested in finding a passage to Asia to acquire spices and silks; instead they acquired foods that became staples in daily living. More than that, these plants revolutionized life in the Old World: potatoes replaced grains in many parts of Europe; manioc (or cassava), while not having a huge impact on European diets, underwrote a population explosion in Africa and thus contributed to the rise and longevity of the slave trade; maize and sweet potatoes spread to China; other crops from South America contributed to the change in diet as well. For Europe, Asia, and Africa these crops — especially the starchy plants — turbo-charged population growth. The diet of the poor improved, as did birth rates.

These new crops required new land use techniques, which meant that agricultural practices and land ownership patterns changed dramatically. The quantities of food that could be produced during this “Americanized” agricultural era increased at such a rate that Old World societies were able to escape the limits of subsistence agriculture and build more and larger cities on the strength of agricultural surpluses. As well, famines occurred less frequently.

The export of animals from the Americas to Europe was less notable.Victoria Dickenson, "Cartier, Champlain, and the Fruits of the New World: Botanical Exchange in the 16th and 17th Centuries," Scienta Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine 31, no.1-2 (2008): 27-47.  The main export was the turkey; by 1524 the turkey reached the British Isles, and by 1558 it had become popular at banquets in England and in other parts of Europe. English settlers subsequently brought the domesticated turkey back to North America and interbred it with native wild turkeys in the 1600s.

The exported animal that had the greatest symbolic and visual impact on both Europe and the Americas was the lowly cochineal, a small insect that lives on cactus plants throughout the American southwest and Meso-America. Harvested in the thousands, the female conchineal’s remains yield a variety of bright red dyes. The red uniforms that became the trademark of British troops owe their colour to the cochineal.

A person uses a deer tail to brush cochineal beetles off a cactus into a bowl.

Figure 5.4 Harvesting cochineal beetles with a deer tail. Attributed to José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez, ca. 1777.

Food crops travelling the other way — from Europe — were of minimal interest to Aboriginal peoples, as they had all the food they needed. Indeed, many of the European foods that arrived in the Americas were used to sustain settler communities, not to trade with the Natives. Reassuringly familiar items like Old World grains (oats, wheat, barley), soft and hard tree fruits (peaches, plums, pears), wine grapes, and onions all made the move west, as did olives and tea in warmer locations.

However, plantation crops had significant impact on the Aboriginal population as they forced a change in diet by competing with other food crops. The cultivation of new crops also contributed to the enslavement of native people and the trade in Africans. These introduced crops included coffee, sugar, bananas, rice, and indigo — all suitable for large-scale production. None of these crops significantly improved Aboriginal diets. Indeed, the plantation crops were grown almost exclusively for consumption and further refinement in Europe.

The arrival of livestock, especially horses, in the Americas had very different implications. About 4,500 years after an early, Pleistocene-era horse went extinct, Spanish conquistadores brought their horses to North America to facilitate rapid movement across the land and lead cavalry charges. For the Aboriginal peoples at the time, the very idea of a human riding another animal was so fantastic that they could barely comprehend what they were seeing. But the awe in which horses were initially held did not last long. The rulers of New Spain had to prohibit Aboriginal people from riding horses, a sure sign that they wanted to do so.

Horses spread north from Mexico into what is now the American southwest, and by 1606 the Navajo were stealing them from Spanish settlements. Those horses that managed to escape from corrals found themselves in an almost ideal environment of grasslands extending from Texas to the Yukon. They went feral and multiplied rapidly.

For southwestern peoples, the horse became a commodity in their existing trade network. Horses were passed along in conservative numbers for generations until they reached the northern Plains in the 1730s. Around 1750, HBC traders observed Cree-Assiniboine riders with horses sporting Spanish brands.Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 270. By that time the Andalusian Mustang breed imported by the Spanish — noteworthy for its short legs and barrel chest — was being bred into something more hardy by the Liksiyu of the Columbia Plateau in what is now northern Oregon. Despite having no experience with domestic animals, the Liksiyu were able to geld their animals and selectively breed them. The animals they produced were known by the name given the Liksiyu by the French: cayuse. By the early 19th century, horses had reached the British Columbian plateau; the local variant name for these horses, cayoosh, refers to a pony similar to the cayuse but bred by Aboriginal people to have stronger hindquarters suitable for the mountains.Wikipedia: Cayuse.

The horse had a profound impact on Plains culture. People who had depended on dogs (sometimes in the hundreds) to haul their belongings, infants, and foodstuffs in travois could move much more easily on horseback.  A well-packed horse could carry more material goods than dogs could, and careful and stealthy herding of bison to jump sites like Head-Smashed-In was made redundant by death-defying charges on horseback. The Cree, Assiniboine, and other Plains communities expanded significantly, from fewer than 50 to more than 200 hundred per band, simply because the horse gave them the ability to move more goods and more people and to hunt bison over a wider range. Commerce benefited, too, from the ability of horses to carry trade farther, faster and in larger quantities. The horse also changed dramatically the nature of Plains warfare and raiding (often for more horses). In every respect, the horse was a transformational force in Plains cultures.

Aboriginal peoples deployed and valued horses in other ways as well. The Five Nations early identified the hauling capacity of horses and, according to historian Denys Delâge, the Mohawks and the Onondagas both asked the Dutch for horses to drag logs. He notes, too, that there was no mention of using the horses to haul ploughs, just to move stumps and other potentially useful obstacles closer to their refortified villages.Denys Delâge, Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600-64 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993), 160. Horses in battle may have been effective in the grasslands of the Plains or the Columbia Basin but they would have been a liability in the hardwood forests and hill country of the Haudenosaunee.

The horse also revolutionized Aboriginal life in less obvious ways. Aboriginal people had to learn — from more experienced neighbours and from direct experience — how to care for their herds. The newly learned practices of animal husbandry were passed down from adults to children, and skills to manage horses were  mastered, including how best to use them as pack animals and how to ride them into battle or into a bison herd. Diets changed as a result of the horse revolution as well. Becoming more efficient bison hunters meant that some Plains nations threw themselves into that economy and, as one scholar puts it, “abandoned their ‘ecological safety nets’ … what they lost in diversity they made up for by increased trade with those peoples who had not abandoned the old ways.”Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 309-12. The availability of horses also provided young men with more time to engage in warfare and “counting coup.”

More warfare — now augmented by guns — meant more fatalities among the men and, thus, more widows. It became possible and in some regards necessary for men to take multiple wives and for widows to seek security in polygynous relationships. Under these circumstances women’s condition changed radically: they went from living and being heavily overworked in a pedestrian culture in which they carried significant burdens long distances to one marked by greater chance of widowhood but, more generally, relative prosperity, less likelihood of famine, time to develop more artistic skills, and the opportunity to ride rather than walk Ibid., 273.

Other livestock also were part of the Columbian Exchange, including cows and pigs. Cattle were unknown in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Evidence suggests that the Vikings brought European cattle to Newfoundland, but when their colony disappeared, so did their cattle. The Portuguese attempted to introduce cattle to Sable Island in 1518 but that colonial effort flickered out quickly. Cartier’s settlement at Cap Rouge had its own little herd of two dozen, and the newcomer community ate them up within the year. The Acadiens enjoyed more success because their drained salt marshes provided cattle with the grazing and salt they required, and the farmers didn’t need to clear tracts of forest land.

On the whole, cattle in subsequent centuries fared little better. Without natural grazing patches in abundance, Canadien farmers viewed their Gascony and Breton cattle as something of an expensive luxury in the mid-17th century and their numbers never grew greatly in the age of New France. Better results would follow on the West Coast. Descendants of a herd brought to Central America in 1519 by Cortés were shipped north from Alto California to Yuquot (Friendly Cove) in 1790, in the very heart of Nuu-chah-nulth territory. In the early 19th century, fur traders drove Californian cattle along the Brigade Trails into the Interior where herds thrived on bunchgrass. By 1848 there were said to be 5,000 head at Fort Kamloops alone and, with the help of horses, they made short work of the bunchgrass environment in a matter of decades.Ian MacLachlan, “The Historical Development of Cattle in Canada” (unpublished manuscript, 1996, minor edits 2006), 2-5. .

Aboriginal people had few opportunities and few incentives to experiment in cattle-raising, but there are a few notable exceptions. The herds introduced to the Nicola, Thompson, and Okanagan Valleys in the 19th century were typically tended by Aboriginal cowboys. Also, the Acadien-Mi’kmaq community raised dairy cattle, as did Loyalist Mohawk settlements in what is now southern Ontario. In the late 19th century, the disappearance of bison herds made cattle ranching more appealing. Overall, this introduced species neither displaced Aboriginal peoples in Canada, nor did it especially excite them.

Pigs were another new species in the Americas. The Spanish explorer Hernándo de Soto brought 13 pigs to the Florida mainland. As well, Sable Island was, once more, a testing ground and it hosted the first piggeries in what became Canada. In 1598 Marquis de La Roche-Mesgouez introduced a small herd whose fate is unknown.

Pigs are an almost indestructible species and their numbers grew wherever they were introduced. Settlers liked them because their meat could be preserved in several different ways and they could eat almost every part of them. Aboriginal peoples, however, were less enthused about the introduction of pigs because they easily invaded crops. Fences offer little protection against pigs, and they regularly found their way into horticultural areas. On Vancouver Island, for example, pigs destroyed camas pastures and thus threatened Aboriginal survival.

Other animals that were imported from Europe to Canada included sheep, chickens, cats, rats and, evidently, honey bees. Evidence that any of these were especially sought after by Aboriginal peoples in the North is difficult to find. On the whole, introduced foodstuffs did far less for Aboriginal peoples than the exported plants did for the rest of the world. Native peoples found that their wild meats and plants, the products of their own gardens, and the protein that could be harvested from lakes, rivers, and oceans were infinitely preferable to the new foods brought in.

Food, however, is one of the most subtle elements in the language of imperialism. Historian Beverly Soloway has explored the ways in which the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the far north in the 17th century and the introduction of a British planted-food model disrupted (and, in many cases, eradicated) indigenous plant foodways of the Cree (Mushkegowuck) in the Canadian subarctic. The consequence of this horticultural imperialism, Soloway argues, continues into the present day in the form of poorer diets and food insecurity, an indication that the Columbian Exchange is far from finished.The subject of “Transforming Indigenous Foodways” is investigated at where you can listen to Beverly Soloway’s lecture on “‘mus co shee’: Indigenous Plant Foods and Horticultural Imperialism in the Canadian Sub-Arctic.

Exercise: History Around You

The World’s Larder

What’s for dinner tonight? Do a quick survey of what’s in your fridge and on the shelves, and give some thought to what you’ve eaten over the last few days. If your diet includes prepackaged food, check out the ingredients. How much of that diet derives from foodstuffs first produced by indigenous peoples of the Americas? If you consider yourself either Asian or of Asian ancestry, what share of your diet is made up of fully Asian materials? If you are European or of European ancestry, what share consists of foods originally produced by Europeans? What does the balance look like? To what extent has the Columbian Exchange become, literally, a part of your very fibre?

Key Points

  • Historically important crops and other goods travelled from the Americas to Europe, while invasive species made their way in the other direction in the Columbian Exchange.
  • Livestock — especially horses, cattle, and pigs — had a significant impact on Aboriginal landscapes, livelihoods, cultures, and health.


Figure 5.2 
Gill’s Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon by Joe Mabel is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 5.3
Maize by Editor at Large is in the public domain.

Figure 5.4 
Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail by Xocoyotzin is in the public domain.


5.3 The Widowed Land

In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, awed by its splendour. It was, he reported, “so big and so remarkable [as to be]…almost unbelievable, for the city is much larger than Granada and very much stronger…with many more people than Granada had when it was taken…[It] is as large as Seville or Cordova.” Quoted in Ray Hutchison, Mark Gottdiener, Michael T. Ryan, The New Urban Sociology, 5th ed. (Toronto: Westview Press, 2014), 38. Cortés, however, was not an indifferent tourist eager to see the sights and then be on his way.

The Fall of Mexico

Despite their advantages, the Spanish did not defeat the Aztec coalition outright; rather they experienced a resounding defeat at the hands of the Aztecs in 1520 and were forced to flee the capital city. Those Spaniards who were captured were sacrificed at the pyramid of Huitzilopochtli; this occurred on the night of June 30-July 1, 1520, called La Noche Triste (the Sad Night) by the Spaniards. But this defeat was only a temporary setback for the Europeans, who received aid from two sources. The first of these was a massive Aboriginal army raised among the dissatisfied tribute-paying nations whose territories lay along the road from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan. The second was much more subtle.

In 1521, smallpox struck Tenochtitlan. The disease had been introduced into the city by a Spanish slave, left behind when the Europeans retreated. An Aztec account of events (compiled 30 to 40 years later in the Florentine Codex) portrays the magnitude of what followed:

After the Spaniards had left the city of Mexico, and before they had made any preparations to attack us again, there came amongst us a great sickness, a general plague. It began in the month of Tepeilhuitl. It raged amongst us, killing vast numbers of people. It covered many all over with sores: on the face, on the head, on the chest, everywhere. […] Nobody could move himself, nor turn his head, nor flex any part of his body. The sores were so terrible that the victims could not lie face down, nor on their backs, nor move from one side to the other. […] Many died of the disease, and many others died merely of hunger. They starved to death because there was no one left alive to care for them. […] The worst phase of this pestilence lasted sixty days, sixty days of horror … then it diminished, but it never stopped entirely…. And when this had happened, the Spanish returned.Quoted in Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes Since 1492 (Toronto: Viking, 1992), 45.

Those struck by the disease were too weak to move, and even if they survived, were in no condition to cultivate food. The inhabitants of the city were literally starving to death.

On August 21, 1521, the Spanish re-entered the city, overwhelmed its last defences, declared victory, and accepted the surrender of the remaining Aztec military. The conditions they encountered were horrifying. Bernal Díaz del Castillo (ca.1492-1584), a conquistadore and eyewitness, wrote some years later that the Spaniards “found the houses full of corpses, and some poor Mexicans still in [the houses] who could not move away…The city looked as though it had been ploughed up. The roots of any edible greenery had been dug out, boiled and eaten, and they had even cooked the bark of some of the trees.”Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. John M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1963), 407.

Smallpox was the real conquistadore in Mexico; Cortés and his small army simply mopped up. The collapse of the most powerful indigenous empire in North America in this manner was a foretaste of events that would follow in the territories that eventually became Canada and the United States.

Exotic Diseases

The Americas gave the rest of the world the basis of life: easily grown carbohydrates complemented with beans, squash and, of course, chocolate. The rest of the world gave the Americas death. Unchecked by extant immunities, diseases like smallpox, typhus, measles, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, pertussis (whooping cough), and influenza were responsible for the destruction of large segments of the Caribs, Arawaks, Beothuks, and Meso-American empires. These diseases worked their way across the whole of the continent. The last of the great smallpox epidemics in Canada took place on the West Coast as recently as 1862-63, claiming around 20,000 lives. That sad episode is considered in Chapter 13, but it is a number worth pondering for a moment here: 20,000 dead in the space of less than a year represents a lot of communities utterly destroyed and huge numbers of corpses with no one to bury them. Generally, attacks of exotic diseases were worst for island-based societies like the Beothuk of Newfoundland and perhaps the Pentlatch of Vancouver Island insofar as their ability to retreat was limited by geography and the ocean.

These “new” diseases that Europeans brought to the Americas were dangerous both at home and abroad, but they were devastating in the New World, where they killed thousands. Europeans had built up varying levels of immunities over generations, which the people in the Americas had not. Europeans had had the advantage of being exposed to domestic animals, which put them at constant risk of some trans-species epidemic. (Even today we worry about “swine flu” or “bird flu,” both of which may be transmuted by contact with living animals or by eating improperly prepared meat.) More importantly, millennia of exposure to these illnesses produced physical immune responses, either through first exposure to the virus, by being passed across generations via mothers’ milk, or through “chance inoculation,” as was the case with milk maids who were constantly in contact with cowpox (a close relative of smallpox), which gave them a greater degree of immunity to the smallpox virus.

People in the Americas had none of these advantages. Because they had few domesticated animals they had little exposure to cross-species viruses, and large urban settlements like Tenochtitlan or crowded islands like those in the Caribbean were perfect environments for smallpox to thrive. Historians do not agree on the magnitude of the devastation — there is no way to know with absolute accuracy how many people were here before the virgin soil epidemics and no way to know how many perished — but there is consensus that the mortality rates were astonishingly high with no parallels in the history of humanity.

Scholars currently generally agree that there were approximately 50 million people living in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. Of that number, some 6 million were living in the Aztec Empire, another 8 million in the Mayan States, 11 million in what is now Brazil, and 12 million in the Inca Empire. What is now Canada is reckoned to have had a pre-contact population of about 500,000, although high estimates run to as many as 2 million. The impact of exotic epidemics on Meso-America and the Caribbean provides a benchmark for the effects on the population as a whole because the Spanish were in a position to observe some Aboriginal communities as they passed through the catastrophe: the lowest estimates are of an astonishing 90% death toll by the end of the 17th century. Warfare between the European invaders and the locals claimed many lives as well. Island populations fared especially badly, some disappearing entirely. On the mainland, however, it was not much better: the last three decades of the 16th century saw the population of present-day Mexico drop from 6 million to about 1 million people. According to some estimates, it has taken nearly 500 years for the Maya population to rebound to its late 15th century level. In what is now Brazil, the indigenous population declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated 4 to 8 million to some 300,000. These three areas alone lost more than all of Europe during the Black Death.The field of contact-era demography changed dramatically in the 1960s with the publication of Henry Dobyns’ 1966 study, "Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques With a New Hemispheric Estimate" in Current Anthropology 7 (1966): 395-416. Previous estimates of one million people north of the Rio Grande were suddenly increased to 9.8 - 12.25 million. Scholars have since revised this number upward and, sometimes, downward. Some of the key and relevant studies are: Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, NC: Greewood Press, 1972); William M Denevan, ed., The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976); Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); and Douglas H. Ubelaker, “North American Indian Population Size: Changing Perspectives,” in Disease and Demography in the Americas, eds. John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker (Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1992).

Some scholars estimate that between 50% and 90% of the North American population died in the wake of the Spanish voyages. Spanish explorers like Ponce de León raced back and forth across the Florida peninsula with a small herd of pigs to feed his troops: his principal legacy was a massive die-off of indigenous humans. In 1618-1619, smallpox killed 90% of the Native Americans in the area of the Massachusetts Bay. Historians believe many Mohawk in present-day New York became infected after contact with children of Dutch traders at Fort Orange (Albany, New York) in 1634. Disease swept through Mohawk villages, reaching the Onondaga at Lake Ontario by 1636.

Many of these epidemics occurred in the proto-contact period, after contact but ahead of sustained relationships. In some cases, the viruses were passed along inland to people and communities who would, in essence, never see a European with their own eyes. In other words, there are no European eyewitness accounts. One can easily imagine this situation from the perspective of New France in the 1640s: no one from that colony had ventured farther west than Georgian Bay, and therefore they couldn’t know what was happening beyond Lake Huron. It is also possible that European fishing fleets introduced exotic diseases before Cartier, perhaps before Cabot. Cornelius J. Jaenen, Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1976), 98-99. If that is the case, one may speculate on how much of the natural landscape of North America was, indeed, already a land widowed for a century before resettlement began. Perhaps  bison herds grew to their enormous numbers because the number of humans preying on them had fallen. Perhaps the lushness of the eastern hardwood forests was due to human neglect.On the topic of environmental changes coupled to population crises, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1983).

Smallpox in Canada

Smallpox may have been the chief culprit behind the disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquois. From 1535 to 1542, Cartier was an occasional guest in two significant centres: Stadacona and Hochelaga. By 1600 both were gone, as were the many smaller, related settlements that lined the north shore of the river. Historians thought, for many years, that  their Algonquin and/or Montagnais neighbours sent them packing or that the Five Nations League assimilated them. Archaeologists have traced St. Lawrence Iroquois women to Wendake (Huronia) after 1615 on the strength of their distinctive pottery; the absence of St. Lawrence Iroquoian men’s artifacts — specifically clay pipes — is taken as evidence that the Wendat killed the men and took the women  as captives.Marcel Moussette, "A Universe under Strain: Amerindian Nations in North-Eastern North America in the 16th Century," Post-Medieval Archaeology 43, issue 1 (2009): 39. It is possible, too, that climate change in the late 15th century affected the St. Lawrence peoples. On balance of evidence, however, the likelihood is greater that they were raided out of existence. Keep in mind that Hochelaga was surrounded by a triple palisade, which the Hochelagans certainly did not build for its looks. No explanation for the disappearing Iroquoians, however, is as convincing as the prospect of an epidemic, which would have scoured the valley clean (leaving it conveniently available for resettlement by the French).

Historians know this is a possibility because of what happened in Wendake (Huronia)  from 1634 to 1639. In those years smallpox laid waste to the towns of the Wendat Confederacy, claiming half the Wendat population. It is not known if the route taken by smallpox passed through Mohawk lands to Wendat fortress villages or whether it came via the early settlements at New France. Regardless, the high rate of fatalities caused breakdowns in Aboriginal societies and disrupted generational exchanges of culture. For the Wendat this meant that a rising cohort of young warriors were lost and so too were the elders whose knowledge of the culture and diplomacy were never more needed. A decade later Wendake (Huronia) was no more. It is entirely possible that a similar scenario befell the Stadaconans, the Hochelagans, and their neighbours a century earlier.

For Aboriginal communities, the disease epidemics caused, at the very least, confusion. The unfamiliar symptoms of smallpox and measles — fever, severe weakness, rashes, pustules — would have been frightening. Aboriginal healers responded to the exotic diseases as they did to any other injury or indigenous ailment (like poisoning, parasites, gallstones, or tumours): they understood them as the work of an aggrieved or malicious spirit and would convene a healing ceremony in the victim’s longhouse with relatives nearby for support. Of course, this response was akin to setting up a campfire in a gunpowder mill. Smallpox spreads principally through droplets expelled by breathing and coughing; offering an infected person spiritual support at close quarters was a fatal error.

The Wendat tried to determine what had changed in their world to cause the disease, and the answer was the French. In particular, many blamed the Jesuit missionaries they had hosted at the villages since the early 1630s (and on whose records we rely heavily for this information). The Wendat were partly right in determining that the epidemic came from the Europeans, although which ones we cannot say for sure in most cases. Despite the mistrust, some of the Wendat nevertheless turned to the Jesuits for spiritual answers, which resulted in villages fractured between traditionalists and converts.

The one response to the smallpox epidemic that could have helped stem the spread was quarantine, but the Wendat never attempted that. In their culture, illness was something through which people were marshalled by their shamans and their kin; leaving someone to die alone in fear and isolation would have been unforgivable. However, this laudable ethos resulted in hundreds of thousands of people dying.

The Haudenosaunee response to the 1630s smallpox epidemic was to attack Wendake (Huronia), which made sense in the light of  the Mourning Wars that continued during these years. There was ample opportunity for attack as the Wendat were weakened by disease (and divided over the presence of the Jesuit missionaries). The Iroquois had economic goals in mind, too, as they hoped to improve their position in the fur trade economies of both the French and the Dutch colonies or at least act as spoilers who could undermine the success enjoyed by their rivals. Perhaps most importantly, it was common practice among the Iroquois (and many other peoples) to adopt into their communities captives taken in military campaigns, especially when a loss of population at home had left them low in numbers. Attacking the Wendat presented the opportunity for revenge, victory, profit, and adoptees to replace those Mohawk lost in the epidemic of 1634.

All of these factors would continue to play a role in Haudenosaunee military campaigns across the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes for the rest of the century. Epidemics had the effect of clearing important pieces from the chessboard. With the Wendat Confederacy out of the way by 1649, there was little to stop Haudenosaunee influence from spreading west. Within 30 years the Iroquois were on the (abandoned) doorstep of Cahokia; a generation later they were in control of the whole Ohio Valley. The so-called Beaver Wars were partly about controlling the flow of goods to the Europeans, but they were also driven by a separate Iroquoian agenda.

Arrows showing movement from the south side of Lake Ontario across to the north side of Lake Ontario

Figure 5.5 Expansion of Five Nations Territory during the Beaver Wars.

Epidemics continued to work their way across the continent. There is simply no way to know how far and how fast they spread. At least once a century there was another pandemic that shellacked Aboriginal populations. An epidemic in 1702 covered most of the Great Lakes region and another in 1736-38 arrived on the Plains, in what is now southern Manitoba. Disease, as is often the case, followed troops into the field during the Seven Years’ War: from the 1750s through the 1780s smallpox turned up like a fire that could not be fully extinguished. In 1781-82 smallpox appeared on the northern Plains, in this case originating in New Spain and carried north along the horse-trading network. In remarkably well-documented accounts from York Factory and Cumberland House in what is now northeast Saskatchewan, the HBC traders applied what little they knew of quarantine practices to isolate their Aboriginal partner populations from the infected. The Cumberland House Journal, written by William Tomison, indicates that inherited immunities protected the European population entirely while every single infected Aboriginal person died.

In the midst of the grim and tragic conditions that prevailed, there were a few acts of genuine compassion: “In their primitive and already crowded quarters at Cumberland House, Tomison’s Caucasian HBC servants, under his direction, took in the dying Indians, provided them with food, shelter and 24 h care (nearly a century in advance of the arrival of Grey Nuns in the northwest), and then, in most instances, dug their graves in deeply frozen ground in midwinter.” Some of the horrors are recorded in the Cumberland House Journal:

15th Tuesday. Late in the Evening a Distressed Woman and her Child came here, these are all that is alive out of one Tent, and has not yet been ailing. The News she brings is still more and more alarming … the small pox rageing amongst them with its greatest fury, and carrying all before it, they chiefly Die within the third or fourth Night, and those that survive after that time are left to be devoured by the wild beasts.C. Stuart Houston and Stan Houston, "The First Smallpox Epidemic on the Canadian Plains: In the Fur-Traders' Words," Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases 11, no.2 (March/April 2000): 112-115.

Aboriginal peoples on the Plains in particular were caught in the crosshairs of disease vectors. Ships from Britain entering Hudson Bay ensured that there was a regular supply of measles and influenza outbreaks heading west along the Saskatchewan River system; the York/Columbia Express (see Chapters 8 and Chapter 13) made it possible for infected Europeans to reach deep into the country and pass along their illnesses; likewise infectious diseases worked their way west from Montreal along trading corridors, with the two lines meeting in the north-central Plains. And then there were epidemics from New Spain that rushed north on horseback. Having acquired British or Canadian products for trade into the Aboriginal economy, the Cree, Assiniboine, and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) were moving within a vector of death in which there was no question of “if,” only “when.”

Similarly, the 1780s Prairie epidemic may have collided in what is now British Columbia with smallpox introduced from the Pacific coast. Some historians and archaeologists believe that Pacific Northwest populations crumbled by as much as 90%. The numbers are uncertain because there are only abandoned village sites and conflicting oral accounts to rely on. More reliable is the evidence of the impact of smallpox in the 1830s on the Plains and its destruction of the Mandan-Hidatsa farm villages and trademarts on which the Iron Confederacy (Cree, Assiniboine, Anishinaabe) largely depended. Measles likely first came ashore on Haida Gwaii at about the same time, taking 30% or more of the population.Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22-3.

The mechanics of demographic change are important to this story. Like all societies, Aboriginal nations depend on growth by having more births and immigrants than deaths. Historical demographers believe that pre-contact mortality rates in Native societies were no better than they were for pre-contact Europeans: life expectancies were not especially high and infant mortality rates may well have been crippling. The difference between the two cultures, however, was that the fertility rate among Aboriginal people appears to have been lower than it was in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The lack of domesticated dairy animals meant that Aboriginal women likely nursed their children for two or more years, effectively dampening their fertility. Any sudden acceleration in mortality levels, then, could only be smoothed out over a longer period of time. And in the years of contact and increased conflict with neighbours, time was a commodity in short supply. Immigration from neighbouring or related First Nations — voluntary or involuntary — drew in new populations to some Aboriginal communities but it did so at the price of other societies, a zero-sum proposition for the aggregate indigenous population.

Once again, the Columbian Exchange seems to have been uneven. The only affliction that Europe suffered after contact and that is thought to have its origins in the Americas is syphilis. At its worst, syphilis is a dreadful, disfiguring, and miserable illness, not something to be taken lightly. Although the origin of syphilis has been widely debated and its exact origin is unknown, Europeans like Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that the disease was well known among the Amerindians of the Caribbean in the early 1500s. Skeletal remains of Native Americans from this period and earlier suggest that here, in contrast to other regions of the world, the disease had a congenital form. Lesions on the skull and other parts of the skeleton are a feature associated with the late stages of the disease. A second theory that has received a good deal of support in the 21st century is that syphilis existed in Europe prior to the voyages of Columbus, but that it was unrecognized until it became common and widely spread in the Italian Wars that followed the discovery of the New World. Certainly the timing is suspicious: the Americas are encountered in 1492 and syphilis spiralled out of Italy and across France in 1494. The conquistadore Cortés, the man whose expedition introduced smallpox into the heart of Mexico, was himself a victim of syphilis, which he contracted in Haiti.

Key Points

  • Exotic diseases introduced by the Europeans had disastrous consequences for Aboriginal communities.
  • The speed with which exotic diseases cleared out as much as 90% of the indigenous population in the Americas made this “New World” appear to the newcomers to be a “vacant land.”
  • Nothing in the Columbian Exchange was as pivotal as smallpox and the virgin soil epidemics.
  • Exotic diseases played a critical role in the early history of New France.
  • Losses to epidemics provoked community responses from Aboriginal peoples that included consolidation, adoption, conquest, and migration.


Figure 5.5
Iroquois Settlement on the north shore of Lake Ontario 1665-1701 by Junction416 is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


5.4 Strategic Encounters

Karl Marx, the German philosopher and historian, wrote that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in The Portable Karl Marx, ed. Eugene Kamenka (London: Penguin, 1983), 287. We encounter the world not as we would like it to be, not “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Aboriginal peoples in North America were not simply acted upon, they were actors. They made their history by making their own choices, but they did so in the context of early globalization and all the while carrying the burden of their own histories. In some historical accounts of the era, Aboriginal people confront the technological and organizational advantages of Europeans and generally come off badly. Consider that Aboriginal people were engaged in the very human business of confronting and wrestling with their own history on a stage where Europeans suddenly had a role. This complicated relationship was most often expressed in the language of trade and warfare.


The measure of the extent and intensity of Aboriginal commercial networks is made clear by looking at the proto-contact era. We know when Europeans officially arrived in the Americas and when official voyages took place from Spain, France, England, and other countries. And we know that unofficial and irregular contact involved the fishing and whaling fleets of the north Atlantic and that some of those arrived before the chartered explorers did. We can deduce from the official reports some aspects of the contact experience in those instances. What is more difficult to know is the extent of first contact. How far inland and upriver did the ripples of contact spread?

By 1535, Aboriginal peoples of the Maritimes and the Gaspé had identified the trading opportunities represented by European sailing ships. The peoples of the Gulf of St. Lawrence were integrating European iron and copper products into their hunting and domestic toolkits. These products had value in and of themselves, but they also had commercial value in the existing indigenous marketplace. Long before Europeans established trading posts, Aboriginal merchants were meeting at places at or near Tadoussac to exchange exotic goods for furs. By 1580, European goods were showing up in Wendat villages — a full quarter century before Champlain met with Outchetaguin, the first Wendat representative to come calling on the French at Quebec.

An aboriginal man and woman in loose clothing hold paddles and blankets around their shoulders

Figure 5.6 Algonquian couple, 18th century (artist unknown).

Aboriginal peoples from the Mi’kmaq through the Gaspé Iroquois to the Laurentian Iroquois were eager to trade with Cartier when he arrived. Twenty fur-laden Mi’kmaq canoes paddled out to meet Cartier’s boats — they weren’t afraid and they knew that the Europeans were open to trading. As a means of attracting the attention of the French, the “Gaspesians” (as they’ve come down to us) waved long poles bedecked in furs. Clearly they knew what caught the visitors’ fancy, in more ways than one: Cartier noted that the locals were careful to have their womenfolk retreat to safety away from the foreshore as French ships approached, from which Cartier deduced that there had been incidents of sexual assault of some kind. Aboriginal management of these encounters took several forms during Cartier’s visits. On his second voyage, Donnacona (the headman at Stadacona) tried to prevent Cartier from leaving so that his village, through control of Cartier, could by extension control and dominate the French-Aboriginal trade.

The fur trade even at this early stage allowed Aboriginal people access to metal tools that would make their lives easier. Steel knives, copper pots, and kettles replaced stone tools and ceramic pots and woven baskets. Iron axes replaced stone axes. These changes advanced the ability of Aboriginal people to kill their food and/or their enemies; they facilitated food preparation; and nets, firearms, and hatchets made hunting easier and more productive. These labour-saving technologies helped them acquire more and better food, increased mobility (a copper pot is the epitome of portability), and allowed them to clear forests faster to plant more crops. In the arms race between Aboriginal peoples, a metal-tipped arrow was an important advantage in its own right. Riflery — which came later and was often dangerously unreliable but very dramatic — might further tip the scales. Aboriginal women in particular benefited from metal cooking utensils, iron scraping tools, and sewing needles, all of which revolutionized their lives. In exchange, the indigenous traders had to provide the Europeans with something they had in abundance — beaver pelts — and did not particularly need.

An important feature of the trade in beaver pelts was that they were most highly valued after they had been treated with natural oils and the long and rough guard-hairs had been removed. The most effective way to do this in pre-industrial society was to wear the pelts or to sleep in them. In short, what the Europeans wanted most of all was used pelts: those that had become a shiny black by being slept on or draped across a sweaty human body. Small wonder that the Aboriginal traders thought they were on to a good thing: from their perspective this was new money for old rope, as the saying goes.

There were, to be sure, drawbacks to the fur trade for the Aboriginal people, liabilities that would have been noticed even in the early stages. Their everyday lives were easier, but this change hampered their original way of life and some modification of culture occurred. The Aboriginal people began to depend on European goods in particular and some individuals and communities lost sight of their original ways of life before the arrival of metal goods. The location of flint or obsidian quarries for arrowheads became less important; the ability to chip a rock into a usable projectile point also disappeared. As Maritime peoples sacrificed more and more of their time on the seashore in order to pursue fur-bearing animals or trade partners farther inland, they came to rely on the French for foodstuffs. Increasingly, too, alcohol entered the trade equation and elicited a highly disruptive change.

A simple stone mask.

Figure 5.7 The Nisga’a people developed a sculptural form that was significantly different from that of their coastal neighbours and every bit as engaging. A stone mask, made ca. 1800.

Trade School

Historians in the 20th century debated whether Aboriginal motivations in the fur trade had been misunderstood. Generations assumed that a profit motive lay behind Aboriginal trade, one that fit nicely into European notions of classical economic theory. Over and over, however, the record revealed little price fluctuation: in the eastern woodlands at least, while there were price markups from trapper through middleman to the final Aboriginal trader, the price paid by the French was remarkably stable. This is explained by other historians as evidence of the importance of the social function of Aboriginal commerce. The act of trade was at least as significant as the quantity being traded. Nomadic peoples — even semi-nomadic peoples — have limited use for material goods and simply cannot accumulate riches in the way that sedentary societies might. Status, however, can be acquired through trade and through economic leadership; likewise a reliable and dependable source of goods has a value in itself. Every Euro-Canadian trader’s journal describes in some detail the elaborate gift-giving, speaking, and welcoming rituals that preceded trade. Days could pass between the meeting of the trade partners and the actual beginning of trade. Although some of the Aboriginal speeches announced expectations that quality goods in fair quantity would be exchanged for pelts, at the heart of these protocols was the relationship itself. Some historians have countered that, in some regions like the Subarctic and the West, stable prices disguise increased demands in other areas by Aboriginal traders: in their own specific context Aboriginal merchants were driving up their profits by squeezing other Aboriginal traders. Still other historians have responded with a critique that focuses on the alienation of Aboriginal production from Aboriginal control. Once dependency set in, it didn’t matter that the Aboriginal traders/communities weren’t employees of the trading companies: they had become a colonized working class anyway. When we see Aboriginal traders entering into commerce with Europeans from the 15th to the 20th centuries, then, it is important to be aware that the worth of the fur trade might be measured differently in each culture and context. As might success.For a thorough survey of this field, see Michael Payne, “Fur Trade Historiography: Past Conditions, Present Circumstances, and a Hint of Future Prospects,” From Rupert’s Land to Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001): 3-22.

It is hardly surprising to find that some Aboriginal groups became competitive and jealous of one another’s accomplishments in the trade. Once again, keeping in mind the smallness of the French settlements — only a few hundred people at best during most of the 17th century — Aboriginal traders saw them more as travelling merchants showing up with goods to sell, rather than as competition for resources. The goods that Aboriginal partners received, then, fit within the context of indigenous relations.

Champlain’s participation in the attack on Ticonderoga in 1609 and his continued support for trade with the Wendat excluded the Haudenosaunee from access to European goods, though not for long. The arrival of the Dutch in 1615 at the mouth of the Hudson River provided the Five Nations a strong commercial monopoly of their own. Their lands, however, lacked the fur resources open to Wendat traders’ partners farther north. Diverting that trade into their own hands was clearly a consideration when the Haudenosaunee launched raids against Wendat traders, travellers, and villages in the 1630s and 1640s. They were also recovering from the 1630s smallpox epidemic, which meant they were on the lookout for hostages who could be absorbed into Haudenosaunee society to replenish their numbers. These two strategies of aggression were to shape the Five Nations’ relations with the French. Having scattered the Wendat Confederacy in 1649, the League turned its attention to the destruction of Canada. The eradication of the French trading presence would force the fur trade from the north into Haudenosaunee hands and they would hold a monopoly as middlemen to the Dutch.

For some Aboriginal peoples, there was no going back. For others, there was no reason to do so. So long as trade survived so did the new technological paradigm.


Colonial societies often exhibit a badly tilted imbalance between the number of men and women. This was the case in early New France, on the western fur trade frontier, and in British Columbia from the 1840s through the 1930s. Under these circumstances it was inevitable that newcomer males — though not Catholic priests — would look to the Aboriginal population for sexual and marriage partners.

Interracial sexual relations (or miscegnation) between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples occurred from the earliest days of New France and Newfoundland. The record suggests, not surprisingly, that these weren’t always consensual. More permanent heterosexual alliances, however, did not take long to appear. These were enabled by Aboriginal cultural practices that included polygyny. As well, Aboriginal men were, in some settings, comfortable with the idea of sharing their wife with newcomers, a practice that can be situated within the context of gift-giving diplomacy and the building of alliances. Aboriginal women, too, were not without power in building these relationships and recognized the value of both sex and the adoption of an outsider into the family through marriage. Divorce, in Aboriginal societies, was generally widely accepted and an easy thing to conclude. This gave women some ability to walk away (in some instances, literally) from a bad pairing.

As indicated above, demographic conditions among the Europeans abetted miscegnation. This was also sometimes the case among Aboriginal populations, as occurred in and around Montreal and in the outlying mission settlements of Mohawks in the late 17th and 18th centuries where there were more women than men. Conditions in some of the early mixed communities of Europeans and Aboriginals were generally poor. Disease continued to beat down Aboriginal numbers, which had psychological as well as physiological impacts. Cultural change was also underway: the Catholic priests were not necessarily receptive to the needs or motivations of women and, according to their creed, promoted a patriarchal model of relationships that robbed Aboriginal women of their traditional rights to divorce. As one historian has put it, “Women, still responsible for the heavy labour and often mistreated by husbands they could no longer divorce, began to despair. The need to love and procreate languished, along with the will to live, in these first generations torn between two worlds. ‘We rarely see the natives age,’ one governor remarked.”Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 7. Fertility and longevity, as this evidence suggests, suffered as did the women whose roles were being refashioned by others.

Farther inland, away from the intense oversight of the clergy in the St. Lawrence, Aboriginal-European relationships rapidly developed. Aboriginal communities treated these arrangements as confirmation of commercial and military alliances; Europeans, too, understood that they were more than convenient sexual liaisons. No Catholic priest would assent to a marriage in which one party was not Catholic, so these “marriages” were confirmed á là façon du pays (according to the custom of the country). And that façon or style was, of course, Aboriginal and, as one historian has said, it “converted trader strangers into relatives.”Jennifer S. H. Brown, "Children of the Early Fur Trades," in Childhood and Family in Canadian History, ed. Joy Parr (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 45. These were Aboriginal protocols and expectations with which the Europeans would necessarily comply. If and when it came time for the French fur trader to return to Canada and/or France, this was taken in stride by Aboriginal cultures that were permissive of divorce and the end of relationships. Moreover, the matrilineal tendencies of Aboriginal cultures meant that any children arising from the relationship would be raised by their Aboriginal kin, so there was no question of childhood abandonment through divorce.

A map of the land between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

Figure 5.8 Michilimackinac emerged as a leading centre of trade and cultural melding in the 18th century.

The challenge for Aboriginal peoples who viewed miscegnation as a means to secure resources, cooperation, and stability in their relationships with New France was the clergy. Missionaries were adamantly opposed to miscegnation and, of course, to any coupling outside of wedlock. They fulminated against Michilimackinac in particular, a hub of fur trade activity that they regarded as “a den of sin.”Ibid., 46. In 1709 intermarriage was forbidden in the new fur trade centre of Fort Pontchartain du Détroit by order of the governor. These prohibitions were aimed first at the Euro-Canadian fur traders, but they had an impact on the Aboriginal partner community as well. Some Aboriginal women at Détroit and at the more Europeanized trading centres responded by accepting baptism from the clergy as a first step toward legitimizing the union. Their motivation was the rising fertility among Aboriginal women connected with fur trade society. Traditionally, the time between births was three or four years, but in mixed marriages the intervals were much shorter, no doubt due to both the expectations of the European partner and changes in diet and routine in fur trade post/fort society. The difference in birth rate was drastic; if a woman married at 18 in Aboriginal society, she might have four children by the time she turned 30; if she married a European, she might have as many as seven. Under the circumstances, a strategy of inclusion that involved accepting the sacraments from a missionary might serve to both protect the woman and preserve the status of her children within an increasingly blended fur trade society. (The experience of the children of these relationships is considered further in Chapter 8, Chapter 12, and Chapter 13.)

The effects of cultural adjustment were felt across most of North America by the early 18th century: wherever Aboriginal trading communities gathered in proximity to fur trade posts of the French (and, later, the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies), the risks increased of exposure to disease and alcohol. The latter was heavily regulated and its sale was essentially illegal under the French regime, but it made its way into the trade equation anyhow. In every instance we see Aboriginal societies attempting to process the array of changes through well-established and largely effective cultural filters. Too many of the adjustments, however, came with a high cost. What appeared at first as opportunities consistent with familiar principles and goals too often became complicated and intractable.

Key Points

  • Cultural and technological change among Aboriginal societies often took place in the proto-contact phase, before establishing direct relations with Europeans.
  • Aboriginal participants in trade saw important advantages to trade with the newcomers and acted accordingly.
  • The introduction of metal tools and some manufactured goods led to some advantages and liabilities as well.
  • The terms and protocols of trade were set by Aboriginal participants and Europeans had to conform.
  • Relationships between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples frequently took the form of marriages, most of which played a role in binding the newcomer trader to the Aboriginal woman’s family/clan/village.


Figure 5.6 
Algonquin Couple by Poisend-Ivy is in the public domain.

Figure 5.7
Nisgaa mask by Jastrow is in the public domain.

Figure 5.8 
A plan of the Straits of St. Mary, and Michilimakinac by File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske) is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


5.5 Strategic Alliances

Aboriginal diplomacy in the years between 1530 and 1867 was complex and fluid. Alliances between First Nations were formed, served for a while, and then sometimes shattered or slowly dissolved. Looking back along the timeline one might get the impression that these alliances were in many instances short-lived, showing instability or even fickleness among partners. One need only look at the brief shelf life of European alliances (or, indeed, any in the 20th century) to see, however, that Aboriginal agreements were reasonably durable. For the European intruders, the character of these alliances might not have been clear, nor was their purpose always obvious. In an era when European nation states were increasingly emphasizing common language and culture (or enforcing the same on subject groups) the fact that Algonquian-speakers did not automatically share a common purpose or that Iroquoian-speakers were clearly at odds was perplexing for some of the newcomers.

The Wabanaki Confederacy

The area described now as the Maritimes, Newfoundland, Maine, Vermont, and the Gaspé Peninsula was among the first to experience sustained contact with Europeans. The Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Wuastukwiuk (Malecite), Pasamaquoddy, and Penobscot (Western Abenaki) together covered much of this territory and somewhat more. They shared many cultural features and traditions, including a suite of common ancestral stories. They also shared common enemies in the Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee League. Wabanaki tradition indicates that they invited the French deep into their territory along the St. Lawrence with an eye to positioning them against the Iroquois enemies.

Relations with the French were thereafter very good, although the same could not be said of the English. The Pequot War in New England in 1637 gave the Penobscot cause for alarm. Their neighbours, the Naragansett, had sided with the English against the Pequot whose main village was razed by the colonists with hardly a soul left alive. The brutality of the English disturbed even the Naragansett, but they carried on with their alliance, to the disquiet of the Penobscot. Subsequently in 1675-78, large-scale conflict broke out again in Metacomet’s War (or King Philip’s War). This began as an attempt to push the rapidly growing English Puritan colonists back into the sea. An imbalance of numbers (there were already more than 80,000 New Englanders and Metacomet’s alliance was down to fewer than 10,000, thanks mainly to pandemics earlier in the century) and the hostility of neighbouring Aboriginal peoples such as the Mohawk doomed the crusade from the outset.Harold E.L. Prins, “Children of Gluskap: Wabanaki Indians on the Eve of the European Invasion,” in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, Emerson W. Baker, Edwin A. Churchill, Richard D’Abate, Kristine L. Jones, Victor A. Conrad, and Harald E.L. Prins, editors (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994): 95-117.

Some 3,000 Naragansett Confederacy people died in this war and others were shipped off into slavery in the West Indies. It is believed that a large number fled north into the Penobscot and Pasamaquoddy territories. If the foundation of a Wabanaki Confederacy wasn’t already laid in 1678 it certainly was soon thereafter. The Wabanaki Confederacy viewed the English as their principal threat and conducted effective land and sea attacks for the next hundred years, earning the long-term enmity of the British regime in Halifax as well as that of their old enemies, the Puritan colonists of New England. In the 18th century, the Wabanaki Confederacy would prove to be the most important and valuable ally of the French. Catholic missionaries moved into their territories and spent at least as much time evangelizing the Wabanaki peoples as they did ministering to the Acadians. At no point in the century of conflict that followed Metacomet’s War were the Wabanaki doing the bidding of the French, however much the English might have thought that was the case. The Wabanaki agenda was consistently the preservation if not the restoration of their lands in the face of English colonial growth.

The Haudenosaunee League of Five Nations

No political organization in Aboriginal North America was to play as important and as lasting a role in the post-contact period as the Haudenosaunee. Known to the French as the Iroquois and to the English as the Five Nations, the Haudenosaunee alliance came together sometime around 1450, which makes it significantly older than Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Original members of this cultural and ceremonial organization or League — the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca — resolved long-standing differences by acceptance of the Great Law of Peace. The number of Haudenosaunee villages was not great at the time of contact, nor were they located close to one another. All were well fortified, an indication that peace between the League members hadn’t eliminated external threats. The Onondaga villages were the geographical centre of the Five Nations and they hosted the main council. Being a matrilineal culture, the council received much direction from the women in the community, a practice that was evidently recommended by the Great Peacemaker in the mid-1400s. This prophet arose in the Wendat villages of the north and he made it his goal to end the Mourning Wars between the Iroquoian-speaking peoples. In this he succeeded only partially, as the Wendat, Erieehronon (Erie), Tionontati (Petun or Tobacco), and Attawandaron (Neutral) remained on the outside of the League. The Five Nations were, however, increased to six in 1722 when the Tuscarora abandoned North Carolina and moved north to join the Oneida.Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701-1754 (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1983): 29-42.

As a military organization, the League was highly effective. During the Beaver Wars (ca.1630-1701) they were able to expand their influence over much of the lands west of  and some to the east of Appalachia. Indeed, it was the extension of League influence into the Carolinas that brought them into contact with the Tuscarora, a branch of the family that had been lost sight of, perhaps for centuries. The initial impetus of the Great Peace, of course, predates the arrival of the Europeans and so it has to be seen in the context of pre-contact circumstances. Although the Five Nations were arrayed across what is now upstate New York, their presence extended in the 17th century into the lands north of Lake Ontario. Their conflict with Algonquian-speakers to the east and north, and spectacularly with the Wendat to the west had its roots long before the Dutch and French ingratiated themselves into North American affairs. The strength of the French-Wendat-Algonquin alliance, however, catalyzed Haudenosaunee mobilization. A century of relative success in the conflicts that followed enabled the Haudenosaunee to play a critical role in regional politics.

The Wendat Confederacy

The French called them the Huron, a term that either described the way they wore their hair or was derived from an Algonquin description. The Wendat (or Wyandot) were a loose but effective federation of four Iroquoian-speaking tribes or nations. The Arendarrhonons (People of the Rock), Attingueenougnahak (People of the Cord), Attignaouantan (People of the Bear), and the Tahontaenrat (People of the Deer) joined in an alliance probably in the 1500s. Archaeological evidence suggests that some of their lands were at one time along the north shore of Lake Ontario, but in the 16th century they coalesced around Georgian Bay.James F. Pendergast, "The Confusing Identities Attributed to Stadacona and Hochelaga," Journal of Canadian Studies (Winter 1998): 3-4. By the time of Champlain’s visit to their villages in 1615, there were some 25,000 to 30,000 Wendat in Wendake, also known as the Huron Confederacy or Huronia.

Fear of Haudenosaunee attacks in the continuing Mourning Wars may have motivated the Wendat to relocate to new territories. Relocation to Georgian Bay could have arisen, too, from commercial interests as that locale is at the confluence of several key water routes running north, south, and east. As agricultural people, the Wendat moved from time to time to new, fresh farmland but this was an arduous business that involved dismantling and rebuilding longhouses, erecting new palisades, disinterring and reburying the dead, and so on. A long-distance move, therefore, was not undertaken lightly. Whatever considerations took them to Georgian Bay, the outcome was economically favourable. They were able to trade surplus maize, other food crops, tobacco (usually obtained from the Iroquoian Tionontati to the south), squirrel skins (traded on from the other Iroquoians in the region, the Attawandaron), and manufactured products like fishing nets for meat, hides, and, of course, furs. As their population grew they became the dominant military force in the region as well. They had the commercial and physical power to lay claim to extensive trading zones and to charge tolls for passage along the many canoe routes through the interior. As the French would discover, trade in and around Wendake (Huronia) was conducted in Wyandot (a variant of Iroquois), by Algonquin, Anishinaabe, and other trading peoples. This was a sure sign of who held the most influence in the trade networks.Bruce G. Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985): 157-61.

As the dominant trading hub in the region, the Wendat had a close relationship with the Algonquin and Innu (Montagnais) Their alliance — less formal and more functional — was a thorn in the side of the Haudenosaunee and governed much of what the French could do in the St.Lawrence for the better part of a century. For example, when, in 1626, the French established a pact with the Attawandaron, the Wendat moved quickly to sabotage it and force the French traders back into Wendat-controlled channels.

Council of Three Fires

Known in Anishinaabe as Niswi-mishkodewin, the Council of Three Fires was a venerable alliance between the Odawa (Ottawa) of Lake Huron’s north shore, the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa) of the Sault Narrows between Lakes Huron and Superior, and the Potawatomi of what is now Michigan. Algonquian-speaking and closely related by (sometimes strategic) intermarriage, the Council was a buffer between the expansive Haudenosaunee and the fur resources of the north. They absorbed many refugees from the dying Wendat Confederacy and experienced significant growth in the century that followed. It was an Anishinaabe population boom that drove the Council deeper into Dakota Sioux territory on the western shore of Lake Michigan, onto the Plains (where they adapted and emerged as a distinctive Plains Ojibwa culture), and into southern Ontario, replacing Iroquoian-speaking peoples and gradually pushing back the Haudenosaunee. This last move was, in some measures, a restoration of Wendat claims.

The Three Fires controlled a pivotal part of North America: the upper Great Lakes. This gave them access to the rivers of the north, the Plains of the West, the Mississippi and St. Lawrence river systems, and the economies in each of these regions. Headquartered seasonally at Michilimackinac, the Council generally sided with the French in the colonial wars, although individual member tribes/communities could set their own course and often did so. In 1763 the Odawa leader Pontiac led a challenge to putative British control over the Ohio Valley and the Pays d’en Haut.See Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

The Iron Confederacy

The alliance of Cree, Assiniboine, and Anishinaabeg (a.k.a. Saulteaux, Plains Ojibwa) arose in the 17th century if not earlier. Driven in large measure by the technological advantages acquired during the early days of the fur trade, the Confederacy diffused rifles, metal blades, and metal tools across the Plains from northeast to southwest. The Cree had been at the tail end of trade originating in Canada in the 1600s, but the arrival of the HBC in their territory gave them access to newer and better quality goods. The brief advantage of their rivals (which included the A’aninin or Gros Ventres) who were first to acquire horses was reversed by the better-armed Iron Confederacy. This alliance was as much about economic power as it was about military resilience; the Confederacy could reach deep into the Missouri Valley to raid or trade for horses and also to exchange (at a considerable markup) British goods for the Aboriginal products that mattered most to the Confederacy and, of course, furs.

Chipewyan Solidarity

The Dene nations to the north and west of Hudson Bay were placed into serious peril by the acquisition of guns by their Cree neighbours and enemies. The Chipewyan were the worst affected and earliest to respond strategically. Much of the credit for this repositioning has been attributed to Thanadelthur, a singular character in Chipewyan history. Captured in 1713 during an attack by the Cree, Thanadelthur made good an escape and, finding refuge at the HBC’s York Factory, developed a plan for the survival of her people. She persuaded the English traders that the Chipewyan had direct access to superior furs and copper and that establishing a post in their territory would benefit the company’s bottom line. This plan would only work if the Chipewyan could get breathing room from the Cree, so Thanadelthur turned her attention to a party of Cree who were amenable to seeking peace. The mission that Thanadelthur led north into Chipewyan territory nearly ended in disaster but she is credited with singlehandedly persuading both Aboriginal parties to agree to a lasting peace. The HBC established direct links to the northern peoples, providing them with guns with which they could at last counter the Cree.

Three consequences arose from Thanadelthur’s actions. First, the Chipewyan tightened the loose alliances between their own peoples, building commercial and military solidarity where before there had been little. Second, by driving the Cree back the Chipewyan found themselves expanding into boreal forests; soon they were adapting the canoe-based systems of transportation familiar to their enemies (which superseded their pedestrian and dog-haulage systems wherever it made sense to do so). Finally, better transportation, arms, and mutual support meant that the Chipewyan themselves became expansive, pushing the Dene and other western groups farther inland while exhausting beaver stocks all the way to the Mackenzie River.Alan D. McMillan, Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988): 230-35.

The Blackfoot Confederacy

The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy) is of uncertain age. Linguistic evidence (with Algonquian roots) suggests an origin in or near what is now New Brunswick and Maine. The population shifted west at least 400 years before contact with Europeans and so were well established as a Plains culture by that time. The Kanai (or Blood), the Siksika (or Blackfoot), and the Piikuni (also known as the Piegan or Pikuni) occupied the core of the Confederacy, which was enlarged by alliances with the A’aninin and the Tsuu T’ina (or Sarcee) made during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Niitsitapi would come to epitomize the bison-hunting cultures of the northern Plains and were early adapters of horses. Their aggressive defence of their territories and what neighbours complained of as overcharging for access to resources and travel corridors earned them the enmity of the Kutenai in particular, who were forced out of the western Plains and into the cordillera. Niitsitapi leadership, as in many Plains societies, was more corporate and less individualistic than in some eastern woodlands societies. This made the Confederacy better equipped to counter attacks on any member and, in later years, to negotiate with a single voice when it came to diplomacy and, indeed, treaty-making.

Across the Rockies

Alliances emerged and shifted between the Aboriginal peoples of the interior plateau during the proto-contact and early contact periods. Three examples are of special importance.

The Okanagan-Secwepemc-Nlaka’pamux alliance of the early 19th century reflects a process of Interior Salishan consolidation. Years of conflict between the Okanagan and Secwepemc in particular had obliged the latter to tighten their own internal alliances against their southern neighbours. Itinerant Okanagan made contact with Euro-Canadians in Montana in the late 18th century and may have been motivated (and enabled) by new trade goods and access to horses to bind together their erstwhile enemies. By about 1810 the alliance was secured under the military and hereditary leadership of N’kwala.

While the Nuu-cha-nulth and Clayoquot peoples were consolidating their hold on the west coast of Vancouver Island by (sometimes brutal) military means, the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Johnstone Strait were becoming a federation in every way but name. Their raiding parties pushed neighbours farther south, allowing them to colonize vacated territories. By the early 1800s their numbers were rising and the villages were many. In both cases, political realignments were underway before the arrival of Europeans, but it seems likely that the newcomers provided a further stimulus as local leaders sought to establish monopolies in trade.

Finally, and in response to Kwakwaka’wakw raids, the Hul’qumi’num-speaking peoples of the southern Salish Sea abandoned long traditions of village autonomy and established a working alliance in the early 19th century.

Key Points

  • Aboriginal societies forged alliances among themselves against their neighbours and against the European newcomers.
  • Many noteworthy alliances existed among post-contact Aboriginal peoples in what is now Canada, including the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Wendat Confederacy, the Council of Three Fires, the Iron Confederacy, and the Niitsitapi/Blackfoot Confederacy. Some of these predate contact. Another alliance, the Haudenosaunee League of Five Nations, was centred to the south of Canada but had an enormous influence on Canadian history.
  • Some of these alliances were motivated by or strengthened as a result of contact with Europeans.


5.6 Belief and Culture: The Wendat Experience


Figure 5.9 A ca. 1660 map of Wendake (Huronia), now dotted with missions and Christian place names. From the Historia Canadensis.

Although Aboriginal populations remained dominant — in numbers and authority — through the 17th century across most of North America, change was upon them. It came so quickly in some instances and with such intensity that it produced a crisis of faith of sorts. Aboriginal peoples began to doubt themselves and their ability to adapt successfully to new forces in their midst. The European agenda of religious conversion took advantage of this trauma, not always with success, but reliably and in ways that worsened the crisis.

The Black Robes

The first of the French missionaries to arrive were priests of the Recollet order. From 1615 to 1629 the Recollets worked with Aboriginal individuals near the St. Lawrence and in Wendake (Huronia). They were understood by Aboriginal groups to be emissaries from the French with exotic spiritual ideas; the missionaries were something to be tolerated but not indulged. The focus of the Recollets was on individual conversions but even more on the needs of French traders living among the Wendat. The arrival of the Recollets’ successors, the Jesuits, changed the missionary approach.

The Jesuits were closely tied to the Compagnie des Cent-Associés and were part of the restoration of French authority after a brief English occupation of the colony. The Jesuit approach was to convert whole communities rather than individuals. They did so by exercising greater control over the behaviour of the coureur de bois and working from within the host-community culture. They studied Wyandot (the language of the Wendat), represented the French enterprise in the field, and attempted (with mixed success) to live among the Wendat according to their hosts’ practices, rather than imposing their own.

People walk in line around a pit carrying dead bodies on their backs.

Figure 5.10 The Wendat Feast of the Dead entailed moving remains from one ossuary to a new one as village sites moved. Missionaries were both horrified and impressed by this cultural expression of intergenerational connection, so alien to their own experience. By J-F Lafitau, 1724.

The Wendat response to the clerics was mixed. On the one hand, the custom of exchanging community members had been well established in Wendat culture, so sending a few young men to Quebec to learn about the newcomers and accepting a few coureurs de bois or priests into their own villages just made sense. The priests’ agenda of cultural change, however, was not especially welcome. Various attempts were made to encourage the missionaries to return to New France, and plots were considered that would see them murdered by non-Wendat neighbours (and then invoking plausible deniability). But Champlain insisted on missionaries as part of the trading relationship so they were tolerated. Even the priests, however, knew that they were being judged by the Wendat and that they fell well short of being impressive. One report in the Jesuit Relations admits that the Wendat “gazed attentively at the Fathers, measured them with their eyes, asked if they were ill-natured, if they paddled well; then took them by the hands, and made signs to them that it would be necessary to handle the paddles well.”Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, XV (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1898), 163, quoted in Olive Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106.

Exercise: Think Like A Historian

The Missionary Position

In an account of life among the indigenous peoples of the Gaspé and what is now northeast New Brunswick, Christien Le Clerq (a Recollet missionary among the Mi’kmaq from 1675-1686) described the minutest details of personal habits and relationships. Christien Le Clerq, reprinted in William Ganong (ed. And trans.), New Relation of Gaspesia (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1910), quoted in Tom Thorner, ed., “A Few Acres of Snow”: Documents in Canadian History, 1577-1867 (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1997): 30-44. Take a look at these three passages:

They never quarrel and never are angry with one another, not because of any inclination they have to practice virtue, but for their own satisfaction, and in the fear … of troubling their repose, of which they are wholly idolaters. Indeed, if any natural antipathy exists between husband and wife, or if they cannot live together in perfect understanding, they separate from one another, in order to seek elsewhere the peace and union which they cannot find together. Consequently they cannot understand how one can submit to the indissolubility of marriage. ‘Does thou not see,’ they will say to you, ‘that thou hast no sense? My wife does not get on with me, and I do not get on with her. She will agree well with such a one, who does not agree with his own wife. Why dost thou wish that we four be unhappy for the rest of our days?’ in a word, they hold it as a maxim that each one is free: that one can do whatever he wishes: and that it is not sensible to put constraint upon men. It is necessary, say they, to live without annoyance and disquiet, to be content with that which one has, and to endure with constancy the misfortunes of nature, because the sun, or he who has made and governs all, orders it thus. […] In a word, they rely upon liking nothing, and upon not becoming attached to the goods of the earth, in order not to be grieved or sad when they lose them.
…[I]n fact they do not know what civility is, nor decorum. Since they consider themselves all equal, and one as great, as powerful, and as rich as another, they mock openly at our bowings, at our compliments, and at our embracings. They never remove their hats when they enter our dwellings; this ceremony seems to them too troublesome.
They [the Aboriginal peoples] hunt for vermin [on their bodies] before everybody, without turning aside even a little. They make it walk for fun upon their hands, and they eat it as if it were something good. They find the use of our handkerchiefs ridiculous; they mock at us and say that it is placing excrements in our pockets. Finally, however calm it may be outside of the wigwam, there always prevails inside a very inconvenient wind, since these Indians let it go very freely, especially when they have eaten much moose…..

What does Le Clerq admire and what does he criticize? Keeping in mind that he is a man of the cloth devoted to the spiritual and not the material, in what ways is he criticizing his own culture? What do these accounts reveal about French society in the late 17th century? What insights can we obtain about Mi’kmaq society through the filter of Le Clerq? Is he reliable?

The Whirlwind Years

Conditions changed in the 1630s. The Recollets had been replaced in Canada and Wendake (Huronia) by the Jesuits (although they continued in Acadia) at a time when Haudenosaunee hostilities were on the rise, as was smallpox. Of all the pivotal moments in this history none is as consequential as the arrival of exotic diseases. In 1636 smallpox swept through the Wendat villages. Over a five-year period the disease picked away at the Wendat past and future, claiming the lives of elders (who were both the story-keepers and political memory of their community) and children in particular. Wendat people who might find solace or reassurance in traditional shamanic responses increasingly turned to the Jesuits for answers. Whatever good the missionaries might have done in this respect, their efforts foundered as perhaps two-thirds of the Wendat population died in the space of four years. The Jesuit practice of administering deathbed baptisms was interpreted, too, as causing death. This was the closest the Wendat came to drawing a direct connection between the presence of Europeans and the appalling mortality rates associated with virgin soil diseases.

The Wendat system of governance, which emphasized individual freedom, played further havoc with the solidarity of Wendake (Huronia). Only converts to Catholicism were permitted to trade for French muskets and this led growing numbers to look more closely at what the Jesuits had to offer. There were trade goods, yes, but also there was a spiritual commodity on offer: many Wendat were drawn to Christianity because they perceived

… Jesus of Nazareth as a protective spirit who was supposed to bring good fortune to the devotee and to avert misfortune. This utilitarian approach to Christ explains the quick abandonment of the new faith when the Hurons were beset by imported diseases and by Iroquois attacks. Native Christians fared no better than traditionalists, and so, when Jesus failed as a guardian spirit, disillusioned converts reverted to aboriginal practices and beliefs. Their initial view of Jesus explains why there were so many apostates among the Hurons.Peter Moogk, "Writing the Cultural History of Pre-1760 European Colonists," French Colonial History, 4 (2003): 2.

While traditional beliefs among Iroquoian peoples could accommodate different, overlapping, and even contradictory spirit figures, Christianity’s monotheistic intolerance of other divinities meant that converts were effectively removed from their traditionalist kin and neighbours. At death — and keep in mind that 1636-49 saw an astonishing amount of death among the Wendat — families would be eternally lost to one another rather than rejoined in the hereafter. The position of traditionalists hardened against the Jesuits and even against the converts. Those Wendat communities with less exposure to the missionaries pulled back at the very moment when military unity was essential. Wendat women also proved reluctant to embrace Christianity, for a variety of reasons. Its patriarchal values were the most obvious difficulty: a matrilineal tradition would be subverted by a belief system that marginalized female voices.

The epidemics served to make the Wendat more vulnerable to Haudenosaunee attacks, and the loss of thousands of children meant that the stock of warriors was not going to be replenished in a hurry. The Haudenosaunee Five Nations League was able to acquire rifles from their Dutch trade partners and thus posed an even more fearsome danger than before. There was a brief peace in the late 1630s that evaporated in the 1640s as the Haudenosaunee launched wave after wave of attacks on their neighbours. From the European perspective, these Beaver Wars were about acquiring better hunting grounds or, similarly, unimpeded access to trade networks that would deliver pelts to their Hudson River corridor. The League’s own demographic crisis probably mattered more. Like the Wendat they had lost large numbers to disease (and significant numbers in conflict with the Confederacy) and one way of rebuilding the population was by means of raiding for captives. The evidence is clear that large numbers of Wendat women and children were marched and canoed across southern Ontario in these years into the villages of the League.Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: OUP, 2002), 100-113.

It is easy to imagine the Wendat in a reactive state under these circumstances. Their society had collapsed in the space of 40 years from one of regional economic, cultural, and political dominance to insignificance. And yet every step along the way was connected to a vision of sustaining and advancing Wendake (Huronia). Accepting missionaries and French trade was bound up in consolidating commercial primacy and acquiring European goods with the continuance and expansion of gift-giving diplomacy and influence; conversion was motivated by a desire to keep kin together in the afterlife or to gain better access to French weaponry.

The retreat from Wendake (Huronia) in 1649-50 took the majority of the Wendat in one of four directions: some joined with the Tionontati and Attawandaron to the south (although that ended badly with further Haudenosaunee raids); some aligned with their longstanding trade partners in the Council of Three Fires (the Anishinaabeg in particular) and came to have considerable influence in developments in those communities; many fled to New France where they were to live under the watchful eye of the Jesuits near Quebec and provide generations of warriors in defence of the Laurentian colony; still others joined up — willingly or not — with the Haudenosaunee, where common elements of their traditional culture would have a good chance of surviving and, if so inclined, they would have a chance to avenge themselves on the French.

Key Points

  • Missionary activity in New France quickly became a part of the fur trade enterprise.
  • The Jesuits enjoyed somewhat more success in Wendake (Huronia) than the Recollets but their work was mostly undone by disease and warfare.
  • French reluctance or inability to trade more rifles more rapidly to the Wendat contributed to fractiousness within the Confederacy and severe losses to Haudenosaunee raids.
  • The missionary presence played a role in the destruction of Wendake (Huronia).


Figure 5.9
Carte Huronie en 1660 by ChristianT is in the public domain.

Figure 5.10
Huron Feast of the Dead by Neufast is in the public domain.


5.7 The Five Nations: War, Population, and Diplomacy

From the highest elevation, it might seem as though Aboriginal peoples did little to resist European intrusion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the history of Canada from 1600 to 1867 is marked by continual — and continually shifting — resistance mounted by Aboriginal peoples.

The League of the Great Law of Peace

No Aboriginal nation was to manifest such a key role in the political history of northeastern North America in the 17th and 18th centuries as the Haudenosaunee Five Nations League. The Haudenosaunee allied with the Dutch and then the English, but contained them to their seaboard markets; they tore up Wendake (Huronia) by the roots and became dominant across an area that covered what are now nine American states and all of southwestern Ontario; they expanded their League while exacting tribute from intimidated Aboriginal nations all around them. They became a military, economic, and political force with which to be reckoned.

Haudenosaunee traditions of warfare were never static. Their success arose from an ability to adapt tactics of both conflict and diplomacy in ways that their neighbours could not foresee. The Haudenosaunee were able to do this in part because their councils worked so effectively. Their processes demanded unanimity and they were able to achieve that because avoiding internal fractiousness was valued so highly. Political geography was another source of strength. The League’s territory included unimpeded access to the lower Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario), the St. Lawrence, the Lake Champlain corridor, and the Hudson River. They were a short voyage from New Amsterdam, as compared to the Wendat, who were hundreds of kilometres from the St. Lawrence. The Haudenosaunee could thus play a role as adversary or ally on short notice.

The French earned the enmity of the Haudenosaunee at Ticonderoga in 1610 but there were opportunities to win peace as well, although neither party was especially interested. In 1624 the League struck a peace with the Algonquin and Wendat so that they could turn their efforts against the Mahican (a.k.a. Mohican) whose lands lay along the Hudson River and who enjoyed primacy in the fur trade with the Dutch. Both the French and the Dutch were unhappy with this outcome, but it was a clear demonstration of the commercial goals of the League: they now could enter markets in both New Netherland and New England.

The Mourning Wars

The peace with the Wendat-Algonquin alliance lasted until 1636, although peace with the French was never assured. Champlain’s principal concern was to ensure the safe passage of the Wendat fur fleet in the spring. To that end he requested more troops from France and ordered the building of fortified settlements (including Trois-Rivières) along the St. Lawrence in 1634. The Haudenosaunee response was to build their own chain of fortified positions from which to better raid the fur brigades. For the next decade the League focused its efforts on harassing and capturing the Wendat-Algonquin fleets. This process intensified in the 1640s until 1647-1648 when the focus shifted to attacks on Wendat villages. Conflict between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee had not before this time been so comprehensive. The Mourning Wars to that point had been retaliatory and retributory, but not a scorched-earth program. Taking the war into the heartland of the Wendat was a significant change in strategy, against which the Wendat failed badly.

The change in Haudenosaunee tactics reflected new circumstances. If the French were to be starved of furs to the point that they would seek peace and commerce with the League, then clearly their Wendat supply network had to be shattered. If the impact of smallpox and other exotic diseases on the Haudenosaunee was to be survived, then the practice of adopting captives would need to be more vigorously pursued. To that end, clearing out as many captives as could be harvested from a Wendat village and then torching it made sense. The loss of homes and food stores reduced the competition’s ability to serve the fur trade and made it impossible for captives to expect sanctuary at home if they were to run away. The Wendats’ trading partners would look elsewhere for maize and the Five Nations aimed to be the last major farming community in the region. Furs would head across Lake Ontario to the lands of the League, Haudenosaunee numbers would be replenished, and the Dutch and English would have no incentive to look beyond the Mohawk trademarts and merchants.

The largest share of the Wendat exiles wound up in the League. The Tahontaenrat joined the Seneca, the Arendarhonon were absorbed by the Seneca as well but also by the Onondaga, and the Attignawantan were adopted by the Mohawk. These realignments were complex and they had interesting outcomes. Some of the Wendat took their Catholicism with them into the Five Nations and the Mohawk villages in particular; subsequently there was a significant out-migration to the area just south of Montreal where offshoot pro-French and pro-Catholic villages were established. As well, some of the former Wendat became prominent figures within Haudenosaunee political and military life.Bruce G. Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985): 259-80.

By 1660 the Haudenosaunee controlled the western lands that extended from the former Wendake (Huronia) east to the Ottawa River and south around Lake Michigan through the Ohio Valley. French accounts at the time suggest that the impacts of smallpox in the 1660s — on top of war losses in the 1640s and 1650s — combined with captive adoptions to create a situation in which there were more “foreigners” in Haudenosaunee villages than natives. The League’s purposes and vision did not change in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it is worth noting that by the 1660s the Five Nations was made up of very different personnel. It had, in effect, become an instrument for a more cosmopolitan Aboriginal control of the region.

The Iroquois Wars

For the remainder of the century, the League pursued a complex plan to do two things: secure its southern frontiers against the rival Susquehannock nation and contain the French threat. The League established a truce with the French (1667) and with the northern and eastern Algonquin (1672). Turning their attention to the south, they secured that frontier by 1679 only to discover the French and French allies back in their western lands. This provoked the bloodiest confrontations to date between the Haudenosaunee and the French.

Expansion of Five Nations Territory during the Beaver Wars

Figure 5.11 Haudenosaunee conquests after the fall of Wendake (Huronia) extended deep into the Pays d’en Haut and south along Appalachia, where tribute states were established.

In 1680 the League returned to raiding Canadian settlements. The French replied with new infusions of troops and, in 1687, a path of devastation across Seneca territory. On July 26, 1689, the Haudenosaunee launched a reprisal attack on the village of Lachine, about 10 kilometres upriver from Montreal. Some 200 French and their allies were killed; the same number captured and marched off to League villages for torture and/or adoption. Lachine was razed.

The tide turned to the advantage of the French with the return of Count Frontenac, who found his forces facing both the Haudenosaunee and the English. Fortunately for Frontenac, the English were ineffectual as warriors and unreliable as allies to the Haudenosaunee. He was able to inflict a telling blow on League villages and food stores in the winter of 1694, an attack that, for once, caught the Haudenosaunee by surprise. The damage was severe and, following further French predations in 1696, the Haudenosaunee began to seek peace. The war with the French would, however, persist until 1701.

In the history of intercolonial conflict in North America the standard practice was to negotiate treaties between the European players and treat the Aboriginal participants as subsidiaries. A treaty with the English was, as far as the French were concerned, binding on the Aboriginal allies of the English. Frontenac broke with that practice in 1697: he regarded the Treaty of Ryswick of that year as having no purchase on the Haudenosaunee and he pressed for a separate treaty. This he won at the Great Peace of Montreal.

This treaty contains french writing and many roughly drawn pictures.

Figure 5.12 The Treaty of 1701, signed with pictograms.

From the Haudenosaunee perspective, the 1701 Great Peace reflected a need to reconcile conflicts within the League. It was reckoned that two-thirds of the Mohawk population had gone over to the French side while the remainder continued their staunch loyalty to the British. By winning a peace with the French and their allies, the Haudenosaunee were in a position to whipsaw the English against the French for trade and military support. This was confirmed when the Haudensaunee struck a separate treaty with the English at Albany in the same year. Having given the French permission to build a trading post at Detroit (Fort Pontchartrain), they secured commitments from the English to keep the French out of that very region.

It was this strategy of ostensible neutrality coupled with the Europeans’ fear that the Five Nations could tip either way that the Haudenosaunee used to protect their territory. Signing two treaties with the Europeans underlined, too, the Five Nations’ self-awareness as an autonomous political entity. One obvious goal of the Haudenosaunee — one that other Aboriginal nations did not pursue with as much success or alacrity — was containing the newcomer settlements. So long as the Haudenosaunee were a buffer state between the French and the English, the Europeans were happy with their continued presence. The Five Nations knew this and would find ways to exploit their position in the 18th century.

At the same time, by 1712 it was clear that the League was not the force it had been. Its warrior numbers had been reduced by half, the Mohawk had lost as much as two-thirds of their population to villages nearer to Canada, and the League was divided over whether the English were a threat or a source of support against the French.Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701-1754 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 70-1.

Key Points

  • The Haudenosaunee League was positioned and equipped to be a resilient Aboriginal force and commercial hub.
  • Destroying the French-Wendat-Algonquin fur trade alliance was part of a larger Haudenosaunee agenda in the late 17th century.
  • Having destroyed Wendake (Huronia), the Five Nations launched a military campaign that won them a huge territory and an advantageous position as a buffer state between the English and the French.


Figure 5.11
5NationsExpansion by Codex Sinaiticus is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.

Figure 5.12
Grande Paix Montreal by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.


5.8 Summary

The significance of the Columbian Exchange and the sharing of foodways, technology, and cultures that resulted can hardly be overstated. While a profound social and economic revolution shook the Eastern Hemisphere as the influx of crops and mineral wealth made merchants and monarchs wealthy, the Western Hemisphere struggled to adapt to new diseases, animals, and neighbours. The arrival of new technologies — iron tools, copper pots, rifles, axes — both broadened the Aboriginal world and narrowed it. As one scholar puts it, there was a “shift in subsistence strategies brought about by the fur trade as [pre-contact] exploitation of the total environment gave way to the specialized pursuit of fur-bearing animals.” Under these circumstances, food supplies sometimes suffered and Aboriginal peoples turned to the fur trade posts “to offset the increased danger of famine that this switch in emphasis entailed.”Olive Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117. This dependence was something that the French and the English encouraged.

Similarly, traditional ideas about the structure and inhabitants of the world were put aside as Europeans and Aboriginal peoples encountered and ultimately learned from each other. Genetic histories and futures, too, were inextricably intertwined. What is most important to note, however, is that these changes and adjustments did not occur in a short period of time. They are underway even now. There is a tipping point in the history of Aboriginal North America, that moment at which the issue at stake is not the quality of the relationship between two peoples but how to strategize survival in the face of a European imperialism that was, ironically, bankrolled by Aboriginal gold and silver and fed by New World potatoes. The shifting boundaries of conflict between the many peoples of North America is the subject of the next chapter.

Key Terms

Attawandaron: An Iroquoian people located in the contact and post-contact periods in what is now southwestern Ontario. Also known as the Neutral.

Blackfoot Confederacy: Also known as the Niitsitapi, an alliance centred in the western Plains, in territory that extended from what is now southern Alberta into Montana; consisting of the Piikuni (Piegan), Siksika (Blackfoot), Kanai (Blood), Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), and A’aninin (Gros Ventre).

cayoosh, cayuse: Regional words for “horse” in the Cordillera and western Plains. Derived from the Cayuse First Nation, who were responsible for significant advances in breeding in the 18th century.

Chinook, chinuk wawa: A trade dialect developed on the West Coast comprising elements from several Aboriginal languages and subsequently adopting words from various European languages.

Columbian Exchange: The traffic of goods, ideas, matériel, foodstuffs, technology, knowledge, and bacteria between Europe and Africa (on the one hand) and the Americas (on the other).

disease vectors: Viruses and bacteria transferred from one living host to another. Examples include droplets (like those produced in coughing or sneezing), parasites (like fleas or mosquitos), food, animal bites, and sexual intercourse. May also refer to the territory covered by a disease as it moves through a geographical area.

Michilimackinac: An important centre of trade in the pre- and post-contact periods, historically dominated by the Odawa and Ojibwe. Located at the narrows between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, Michilimackinac was used as a mission centre by the Jesuits and, later, as a trading post site by the North West Company.

miscegnation: Derived from the Latin verb for “to mix” and the noun for “kind,” the term that has been used for the last two centuries to describe interracial marriage.

polygyny: Describes a plural marriage in which two or more women share the same husband.

Pontiac: Also known as Obwandiyag, Pontiac (ca.1720-1769) was an Odawa (Ottawa) leader who launched a campaign against the British at the end of the Seven Years’ War in the region around Fort Detroit.

virgin soil epidemics: Attributed to the anthropologist/historian Alfred Crosby, the term describing a situation in which a disease/bacteria/virus discovers a population with no natural immunities arising from previous encounters. Very high mortalities are a typical consequence.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What is the Columbian Exchange?
  2. How did the Columbian Exchange improve life for Aboriginal societies? How did it benefit Europeans?
  3. How does our current understanding of exotic diseases in the Americas frame the history of Native-newcomer relations?
  4. What were the immediate and short-term responses of Aboriginal peoples in the northeast to smallpox?
  5. How have historians come to understand Aboriginal motivations in the fur trade?
  6. Why would Aboriginal women enter into marriages with European men?
  7. In what ways did Aboriginal societies adjust to the intrusion of Europeans from the 1500s on?
  8. Why did the Wendat tolerate the “Black Robes”? Why did some Wendat accept Christianity? What impact did this have on the entire Wendat society?
  9. In what ways did Amerindians control the fur trade?
  10. What motivated the Haudenosaunee in their campaigns from the 1640s through the rest of the 17th century?

Suggested Readings

  1. Gilbert, William. “Beothuk-European Contact in the 16th Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence.” Acadiensis XXXX, no.1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24-44.
  2. Moogk, Peter. “The ‘Others’ Who Never Were: Eastern Woodlands Amerindians and Europeans in the Seventeenth Century.” French Colonial History 1 (2002): 77-100.
  3. Moussette, Marcel. “A Universe under Strain: Amerindian Nations in North-Eastern North America in the 16th Century.” Post-Medieval Archaeology 43, issue 1 (2009): 30-47.
  4. Noel, Jan. “Fertile with Fine Talk: Ungoverned Tongues among Haudenosaunee Women and their Neighbors.” Ethnohistory 57, no.2 (Spring 2010): 201-23.
  5. Reid, John G. “How Wide is the Atlantic Ocean? Not Wide Enough!” Acadiensis XXXIV, no.2 (Spring 2005): 81-87.


This chapter contains material taken from U.S. History: The New World: 1492-1600/Exploration and Conquest of the New World/The Clash of Culture created by Boundless. It is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

This chapter contains material taken from Transforming Indigenous Foodways by Ian Mosby. It is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5 Canada license.



Chapter 6. Intercolonial Rivalries, Imperial Ambitions, and the Conquest


6.1 Introduction

The markets and monarchies of Western Europe existed in very uncomfortable tension. So, too, did their religious and political alliances and identities. The conflicts of the old countries became those of the new. The colonies, however, had given birth to rivalries of their own and often set the agenda for their respective masters. The relationship between New France and Britain’s American colonies was to prove pivotal in the evolution of what became the modern state of Canada. The country’s origins lay along the banks of the St. Lawrence and in Acadia, but also in the port towns of New England and the trans-Appalachian west of New York and Pennsylvania.

This chapter surveys the military and commercial conflict that led to the Seven Years’ War and British claims over most of what had been New France. It also considers the extent to which the boundaries between English, Dutch, and French colonies (populated in part by Africans as well as Europeans) blurred and the places where distinctively new communities were beginning to arise.

Learning Objectives

  • ŸDemonstrate clearly an understanding of the geopolitical situation of New France and its neighbours.
  • Express familiarity with Louisbourg, Acadia, New England, and Newfoundland’s pluralistic frontiers.
  • Analyze the strategic role assigned to Canada within the French imperial system.
  • Ÿ Describe the economic, imperial, and regional roots of conflict in North America.
  • Ÿ Understand the French-English struggle for power in North America in the 18th century.
  • Ÿ Explain the significance of conflict in Acadia and the expulsion of the Acadians.
  • Ÿ Understand how and why the conquest of Canada occurred.


6.2 The British Colonies, ca.1600-1700

In accounts of American history, “Thirteen Colonies” is shorthand for the English-speaking colonies arrayed along the east coast of North America, which rebelled against Britain in 1775-83. But the term ignores the existence of two other English-speaking colonies — Nova Scotia and Newfoundland — which continued under uninterrupted British rule. It tends, as well, to confuse matters concerning Canada. The French colony was British war booty after 1763, the most culturally subjugated of all the colonies, but it did not rebel either.

These differences matter because of the critical role the American Revolution played in Canadian history. The creation of the United States of America marked, simultaneously, the destruction of an older polity and a culture of relative colonial autonomy within the empire. The pre-revolutionary society could accommodate both loyalism and democratic urges, but after the Revolution America lost the powerful voice of those who represented loyalty to the Crown. Some of the Loyalists were silenced, and some made their way to Britain; the largest number headed for Nova Scotia and Canada, laying the foundations for a different colonial experiment. To the extent that the British North America of 1783 (pre-Confederation Canada) and thereafter had roots that ran deep in the the Thirteen (revolutionary) Colonies, it is important to understand some of their history as well.

Colonies of Exiles

The first century of English colonial settlement in North America can be characterized as a period in which exiles dominated. Religious sects had arisen in England in the wake of the Reformation, many of them highly critical of the new Church of England headed by the monarch. The Quakers and Puritans were among the more vocal and, although they enjoyed the better part of a century of rising influence in England, by the mid-1600s they were pitted against more powerful forces. The English Civil War (1642-51) led to the execution of King Charles I at the hand of a Puritan-influenced Parliament. The Restoration that followed in 1660 turned the tide against the non-conformists. Charles II took an understandably dim view of the sect he regarded as responsible for the regicide of his father.

The New England colonies established between 1610 and the 1620s were dominated by Puritan settlers. They had chosen exile and the opportunity to build a godly “city on the hill” rather than continue under compromised circumstances in Anglican England. Likewise the Quakers of William Penn’s Pennsylvania considered themselves religious refugees. The Catholics of Maryland, too, left Protestant England in search of asylum.

Many of the earliest settlers in these colonies were criminals. For centuries the British used their colonies abroad as dumping grounds for dissidents, dissenters, and deviants (however defined). The poor, as well, were shipped out in large numbers, many of them as indentured servants serving terms of five to seven years (which some would not survive). In the West Indies, the English developed an economic model based on African slavery, one they later exported to the southern North American colonies. In short, a great many early settlers in these locales were there as refugees, as property, and against their will. As a result, their relationship with England was predictably complex.

Key Points

  • The history of the Thirteen Colonies represents a prelude to the early history of English Canada.
  • Several of the Thirteen Colonies were established as denominational-specific refuges during an era of heightened Protestant sectarian disagreement.
  • Not all of the settlers were willing immigrants.


6.3 Competing Mercantile Economies

It is easy to imagine the colonial world of North America as sharing many common features, made up as it was of Europeans who had gone into self-imposed (or sometimes imposed) exile from their home countries. In fact, the colonies were each organized around very different cultural and economic principles. Even among the first English-speaking colonies there were significant differences. In some instances they were also complementary.

Mercantilism and Colonialism

One of the unifying features of the North American colonial world was mercantilism, an economic doctrine that held that a nation’s power depended on the value of its exports. The role of government in a mercantilist age is to control all foreign trade to achieve a highly positive balance of exports over imports. Under mercantilism, nations sought to establish colonies to produce goods over which the home economy had monopolistic control. Mercantilists believed that colonies existed not for the benefit of settlers, but for the benefit of the imperial centre. Britain and France embraced mercantilism, hoping to run trade surpluses, so that gold and silver would pour into London and Paris. Governments took their share through duties and taxes, with much of the remainder going to merchants.

This accumulation of wealth enabled the building of remarkable navies and land armies. It led to a  level of ostentatious living that had not previously been witnessed, including building palaces for monarchs and ruling classes, evident in the grand manorial estates of the era. It also stimulated the growth of a class of merchants, or bourgeois, based in port towns and wherever manufacturers converted colonial raw materials into value-added products. These port towns with access to colonial materials became prosperous hubs of activity protected by the monarch. The loyalty to the Crown by the merchant class was to prove pivotal in the evolution of European absolutism in the 17th and 18th centuries. It allowed Louis XIV of France to neuter the political threat posed by a troublesome aristocracy while intensifying a network of national economic and military purpose. It also required the establishment of banking systems to both preserve and lend out the hard currency coming into the home countries. In the 18th century, these changes were key to the emergence of both modern capitalism and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

Colonial Self-Sufficiency

For the colonies mercantilism had rather different consequences. Royal domination of New France from 1663 created a highly centralized and decisive colonial government, which was clearly an extension of Louis XIV’s absolute power. Under Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the first Minister of the Marine (a court position that placed him in charge of the French Navy and New France), efforts were made to maximize the profitability of Canada by reducing its demand for supplies from France. That meant, first and foremost, establishing a viable, modestly self-sufficient compact colony that could feed itself. At the same time, Colbert made sure that the manufacturing sector in New France remained dependent on French exports. The impressive iron forges at Saint-Maurice (built in the 1730s) were the exception that proved the rule: Canada was dependent on French manufacturers and was organized so that the principal economic activity was trading in fur, the staple product desired most from the colony by the French market. As a result, Canada developed a tightly governed economy under mercantilism with infrastructure that reflected its needs: docks and harbours, storehouses for furs, and a workforce just large enough to trade furs, fight local wars, and develop a farming sector that could meet subsistence needs. This was where colonial capital was spent, rather than on, say, wool or hemp production and mills (with skilled workers from France) that would turn raw materials into cloth or rope.


Figure 6.1 The forges at Saint-Maurice, overlooking the St. Lawrence.

British mercantilism was somewhat different, and it mainly took two forms. First, the English established chartered monopoly firms like the East India Company whose purpose was antithetical to settlement and self-sufficiency. Second, English (after union with Scotland in 1707, British) mercantilism regulated trade. The imperial government placed tariffs on imports and gave bounties for exports of processed goods, and it banned completely the export of some raw materials. The colonies were thus captive markets for English/British industry. English/British mercantilism meant that the government and the merchants became partners with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires and the colonies.

Throughout the 17th century, Parliament passed the Navigation Acts to increase the benefit England derived from its colonies.  The Navigation Acts required that any colonial imports or exports travel only on ships registered in England. The colonies could not import anything manufactured outside the British Isles unless the goods were first taken to British ports, where importers paid taxes. The plantation colonies were forbidden to export tobacco and sugar to any nation other than England. This policy continued through the 18th century as well.Kenneth Norrie and Doug Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 19-61.

Colonists in English/British and French America recognized the mercantilist limits placed on them. The prospect of free trade was held out repeatedly as a goal of entrepreneurial colonists. Illicit trade between colonists in Acadia and New England, Canada and New York, and the West Indies and Newfoundland was a thriving business and, essentially, free trade by other means. Colonial merchants and traders who eluded mercantilist restrictions were an important part of colonial life in the 18th century. Nevertheless, close economic regulation persisted in Canada long after the Conquest and it was an aggravating factor in the American Revolution. Most importantly, because Canada was not able to provide for itself, it was left wholly dependent on France for a great many manufactured products, especially military supplies. Mercantilism, then, was to prove a fatal miscalculation when it came to times of war.

Key Points

  • Mercantilism was in place in both the French and English colonies.
  • Successes in the colonies led to wealth accumulation in the imperial centres, resulting in important economic, political, and social changes.
  • Legislation like the Navigation Acts favoured colonial exporters and shipbuilders but not colonial manufacturers.
  • Colonists worked within the mercantilist constraints, but looked for ways to circumvent them as well.


Figure 6.1
Maurice River by primaire is used under a CC-BY-SA 2.5 license.


6.4 International Fisheries

Fishing was the first economic activity of Europeans in what is now Canada, and it persisted for centuries. Europe’s demand for fish was almost insatiable, due in large part to dietary restrictions requiring Catholics to be meat-free at least one day a week and on many holy days in the church calendar. The fisheries, however, were surpassed by other economic activities over time, and all of those successor activities — even the fur trade — required more settlement than did the fisheries. In short, other economic activities resulted in colonies being established. In contrast, the fisheries of the Grand Banks — a chain of shallows several kilometres offshore of Newfoundland providing some of the most fertile fishing grounds anywhere — actually deterred settlements on shore. These little colonies grew only slowly and very reluctantly.

At first it was an advantage to European empires to actively discourage settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador. For Britain, the Grand Banks became known as the nursery of the navy, as the annual fishing fleet’s voyages there provided a training program that produced capable sailors for the Royal Navy.  By 1620 (at which point New France contained a few dozen settlers), 300 fishing boats worked the Grand Banks, employing some 10,000 sailors. In the absence of refrigeration, the catch was preserved by salting. Some Europeans had access to salt and so could clean and pack cod on board their ships without even setting foot on land. The British had a less reliable supply of salt, however, so they erected modest stations on the shoreline where they dried the fish, and they sold their surplus to Spain and Portugal.

As the plantation economies (see Section 6.5) grew in North America and the West Indies, there emerged a further market for Grand Banks fish from the burgeoning slave population. By the 1670s there were 1,700 permanent residents of Newfoundland and another 4,500 in the summer months. It took another century for this number to double.Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 30.

Newfoundland fisheries formed one leg of three-legged trade between the colony, Spain and the Mediterranean, and England. A ship of 250 tons of cod could earn 14% profit on the Newfoundland-to-Spain leg, and about the same shipping goods (wine, fruit, olive oil, and cork) from Spain to England. But crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean was dangerous; the cost of the risk was spread mostly by selling shares, mainly to merchants based in the port towns of the northeast Atlantic.

Under these circumstances of rigid mercantilism, there was effectively no colonial presence outside of a few key harbours.Gordon W. Handcock, "So Longe as There Comes Noe Women": Origins of English Settlement in Newfoundland (1989), 23-72. The requirement for government was likewise very small. Competition for prime harbour locations on which to establish fish drying racks was the driving force behind administration: whoever arrived first effectively formed the government for the season. Nowhere in North America was the relationship between economy and polity so clear.

Key Points

  • Long after the voyages of Cabot and Cartier, the fisheries of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks were an international affair.
  • The development of colonial settlements in Newfoundland was not in the best interest of imperial governments until the mid-18th century.
  • The fisheries fit within a larger Atlantic economic order that included Europe, Africa, and the West Indies.


6.5 The Plantation Colonies

Plantation economies arose first in the West Indies. These produced enormous quantities of products that were essentially new to Europe. Sugar, for example, competed more with honey than with other sources of cane, so there was no displacement of an indigenous European sugar industry to worry about. Likewise the production of tobacco on island colonies added something new to the European marketplace; there were no existing producers of tobacco in Europe who might, for example, block imports of the colonial product. In the 17th century the business model of plantation farming was transported to the mainland of North America and took root from the Carolinas north to Maryland.

Of the colonies associated with the plantation economy, none matters more to the history of Canada than Virginia. First colonized early in the 17th century, it grew rapidly and was aggressively expansive. What emerged was an economy based on private land ownership that resembled in some measure the aristocratic norms of England. Large landholdings conferred power and respectability on owners, all of whom depended on armies of unpaid labour in order to plant, maintain, harvest, and ship their products.

Tobacco was the main crop of the colony from the early 17th century. Initially this labour-intensive plant was managed by indentured servants: English workers and then Africans were recruited for fixed terms as indentured servants.  While this indentured servitude was an option for many people — both whites and Africans — in many colonies (including Vancouver Island in the 19th century), in the West Indies and the mainland plantation colonies, it sometimes was a death sentence. Working conditions were poor, and most workers did not adjust well to the climate and the environment.  Chattel slavery and African prisoners soon became synonymous, and ubiquitous in the plantation colonies. Aboriginal people were enslaved as well, though most were exported (mainly from North Carolina) to the West Indies to reduce the likelihood of them running away. It has been estimated by one American historian that the number of Aboriginal individuals enslaved between 1670 and 1715 was approximately 24,000 to 50,000.Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670-1717 (Princeton: Yale University Press, 2002), 298–301.

Growing tobacco required large tracts of land that favoured river transportation over roads. The plantation economy therefore snaked its way deep into the colony’s hinterland and, as the tobacco crop ate into the soil fertility, the leading landowners looked for new territories into which they could expand. Virginia was the first of the plantation colonies to turn its attention to New France as it sought to punch a hole in the Appalachian barrier to settlement in the West, but that did not happen until the mid-18th century.

Remarkably, perhaps, for a colony built on a foundation of inequality, Virginia was the first to experiment successfully with a kind of democratic representative government. The House of Burgesses was established in the 1620s as a legislative body that both advised and, in some measure, directed the governor. In practical terms it became a colony run by the largest and wealthiest planters; offers of free land were taken up by English emigrants but they had to have sufficient capital to make a go of it. These factors — the high costs of plantation farming, the implications of having to purchase and manage a workforce made up of African slaves, and the enormous profits that could be made from tobacco farming — sustained a gentry-style regime with strong common interests and anxieties.

Key Points

  • Plantation colonies were typically organized around large estates rather than small holdings in order to better exploit slave labour.
  • Colonies like Virginia combined manorial wealth with innovative traditions of democratic government.
  • The land hunger that was hardwired into plantation economies led to 18th century pressures to cross the Appalachian Mountains into territories claimed by New France and its Aboriginal allies.


6.6 Contrasting Farming Frontiers

The colonies north of Virginia were built on a model of small independent producers: farmers who owned and worked their own piece of land usually using family labour. This model was very different from the historical system of British farming under feudalism, which was based on peasants being under obligation to landlords. Although most coastal colonies (Newfoundland, Maine, Boston, New York) were oriented to fishing, the bulk of colonial growth from New England south to the Potomac River was based on the land ownership model of independent farmers. These colonies were not free of slavery, but it was never applied as extensively or as intensively as in the plantation colonies to the south, where the land parcels were much larger.

All the English colonies generally adhered to a block-shaped survey pattern of farmland, which was different from the seigneurial system in New France. There, farms were divided into long strips of land running back from the river and administered in a quasi-feudal relationship with the seigneur, who was obliged to provide the community of habitants or censitaires a mill, a church, and other built facilities in support of their farming efforts.

Plots of land are in thin columns so that all have access to the river. There is a church and a mill

Figure 6.2 Illustration of land distribution under the seigneurial system in Canada from 1627 to 1854.

The different land use patterns had different implications. A colony that covered the landscape like a spreading checkerboard (the English system) was more difficult to subdue by an army, but impossible to defend against guerrilla-style offensives. Massachusetts developed in this township pattern: Boston remained pre-eminent as the colony’s port and centre of commerce, and there were several smaller tidewater settlements, but the second tier of rural towns were all more or less equal, and they carpeted the colonial landscape rather than running across it in a string. Family homes in the English colonies, however, were more likely to be clustered in a village setting around a square or commons, which strengthened community ties, but also made small, individual towns a good target for raiding parties from the north.

In contrast, the French model of narrow strips of property along the river was more easily patrolled (and taxed), but also vulnerable to an invading naval force sailing up the St. Lawrence, which could — and did — systematically lay waste to one farm after the next. The river and, from the 1730s, the Chemin du Roy at the back of the first row or rang of seigneuries connected the major settlements with the markets. It also allowed neighbouring farm families to see each other’s homes and promote a lively Canadien  culture. As well, it made possible the unchallenged rise of three main settlements: Montreal, Trois Rivières, and Quebec.

Exercise: History Around You

Seigneurialism’s Fingerprint

Landscapes are historic documents. Take a look at the map coordinates below using satellite images such as Google Earth.

  • 45°09’49.2″N 123°01’59.9″W
  • 53°33’57.1″N 113°26’20.6″W
  • 49°44’10.4″N 97°07’14.2″W
  • 29°56’40.7″N 90°09’13.7″W
  • 49°54’56.2″N 97°07’09.8″W
  • 42°23’03.8″N 82°54’45.4″W

These images show evidence of French and/or Métis occupation. If you look closely, can you see where the seigneurial strips run up against other kinds of land use? What is the consequence in urban areas?

Land and Society

Land use also impacted the family structure in the French and English colonies. Inheritance laws in New England placed a premium on primogeniture, the practice of leaving the majority share of the property to the eldest male heir. In Canada, coparcenary ensured that widows inherited half of the estate and all of the surviving children got their own share — all of which were divided in a pattern of long and progressively narrower and narrower strips. Those who had to move away might, however, find land nearby in the deuxième or troisième rang, the subsequent range or row of farms in the same seigneury. In practice, these narrow strips of land were uneconomical to farm and so they were farmed together (or one sibling might buy out another), the end effect being that more members of an extended family remained on the land. In contrast, in New England, the “secondary” offspring and the widow of the landowner often had to look elsewhere for their fortune, sometimes moving to another piece of land farther west and generally nearer to the frontier of colonial settlement.

On balance, free land without any feudal encumbrances had a greater attraction to potential settlers than did the quasi-feudal qualities of the seigneurial system. Setting aside the climate differences between New England and Canada, this accessibility to land and the lack of Old World systems of deference seems to have worked to the advantage of the English colonies, which grew much more rapidly. Economic historians have long debated whether the seigneurial system was a drag on the Canadian economy as censitaires transferred some of their income in the form of rents to seigneurs who, in turn, sent much of that wealth out of the colony.R.C. Harris, The Seigneurial System in Early Canada: A Geographical Study (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1966); Allan Greer, Peasant, Lord and Merchant (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985); Leslie Choquette, Frenchmen into Peasants: Modernity and Tradition in the Peopling of French Canada (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). On the whole, it seems likely that this quasi-feudal relationship came at a high cost; it is difficult to determine whether the additional infrastructure costs associated with the English landholding system (the expense of building roads and of the individual farmers having to provide their own mills) had comparable negative impacts.

Farms in Acadia, as we have seen, were different again. There, drained marshland was the focus of farming efforts and individual ownership was the rule. Large families were the norm in the 18th century and yet subdividing of property did not reach a critical point before the expulsion took place. As was the case in Canada and Virginia, most Acadian properties were on waterways and towns or villages of any size were few, far between, and small.

Key Points

  • Agricultural colonies differed in their land-ownership systems.
  • Land-use differences created and/or reinforced distinct administrative and social relations.
  • Town and city growth was limited in some colonies because of their economies and economic geography.


Figure 6.2
Seigneurial system by Cleduc is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


6.7 Triangular Trade

A circle of trade from Europe to Africa to South America and the United States and back to Europe

Figure 6.3 Triangular trade is often represented in this manner, but it was more complicated and often reversed direction.

Both the French and the English colonies participated in what came to be known as triangular trade. This involved sending goods by sailing ships from Europe to Africa, buying slaves who were then transported across the Atlantic to the plantation colonies of the West Indies, loading up on products like sugar and tobacco, taking those north to the North American colonies where some trade took place before heading on home to Europe. This, at least, was the general idea behind the model of trade developed under the mercantilist system that dominated in all of the colonies. Certainly seaborne trade in these centuries depended entirely on trade winds that circulated the Atlantic in this clockwise direction.

The trade winds that blew from Africa to the Caribbean made the Middle Passage of the slave trade a possibility. The Gulf Stream that runs from the Caribbean along the east coast of North America and curves along Nova Scotia’s southern flank and over the Grand Banks of Newfoundland was critically important to the economy of the region. It made the movement of goods like sugar and molasses from West Indian plantation colonies to distillers in ports like Boston and St. John’s a possibility. The predictability of shipping routes also made piracy on the east coast an attractive prospect. The Gulf Stream, too, ensured warm ocean waters and contributed significantly to the health of the fisheries in the region.


Figure 6.4 Cutaway diagram of an Atlantic slave ship, ca. 1790. Accounts of the middle passage describe closely packed human cargo shackled in place in conditions that were traumatizing if not fatal.

In practice, the triangular trade was almost always foreshortened. Ships suitable for carrying humans packed together for the lethal Middle Passage were not built to carry cash crops as well. Instead of cycling north they would work their way south of the equator where the winds would take them back to Africa for more human cargo. Similarly, fishing and whaling vessels such as those that formed the Portuguese and Basque fleets were able to strike out across the Atlantic from the Azores and head straight to the Grand Banks, cruising back to Europe along the Gulf Stream. English colonial traders tacked against the prevailing winds to the West Indies where they traded timbers and textiles into a market that was meant to be fully controlled by merchants in England.Kenneth Morgan, Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

A map marking Basque fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Figure 6.5 The Gulf of St. Lawrence, showing Basque fisheries from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Acadians similarly bucked the currents to reach New England ports where they had trade contacts and even political allies. The broadest pattern of trade, however, and certainly the flow of capital that made the colonial system function as it did, adhered to the triangular pattern — even if the individual ship’s captains did not. Colonial success was often determined by geography: stopping points along these major routes significantly affected economies. Wealth and influence accumulated fastest in the African kingdoms along the Bight of Benin, on the largest and most easily reached Caribbean islands, in spacious and safe ports like New York, Providence, Boston, Halifax, and St. John’s, and in protected European centres of merchant power like Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Honfleur, and St. Malo. Isolation from this important corridor largely explains the decline of England’s east coast port cities (like Norwich) and the relatively slow growth of the economy of the St. Lawrence (as well as that of Île Saint-Jean). The French colonies in Canada did, however, have another asset, which is explored in the next chapter.

Key Points

  • The North American colonies were all part of a trade network that connected three, sometimes four continents.
  • The structure of sea travel encouraged the growth of the slave trade and, thus, enabled plantation economies to exploit that model of labour.


Figure 6.3
Triangular trade by Sémhur is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 6.4
Slave ship diagram by Quibik is in the public domain.

Figure 6.5
Basques Newfoundland by Sugaar is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


6.8 The Fur Trade in Global Perspective

Different styles of hats from 1776 to 1825.

Figure 6.6 The soft under-fur of the beaver — the felt — is what hat-makers in Europe sought. As small a change in style as an increase in brim diameter could send ripples through the whole fur trade.

The rise of the fur trade in the colonial context is a story of both supply and demand. The aristocracy of Europe always was a reliable market for fur, a product that was viewed as functional, fashionable, and even regal depending on the specimen and the wearer. European fur-bearing animal stocks, however, were being depleted by overhunting and by competition from expanding farming frontiers for territory. Beavers were effectively extinct in the British Isles by the 16th century; in France their numbers were similarly reduced.

Beavers and Bourgeois

Meeting royal and aristocratic demand for furs became the task of merchants. Their principal source was Russia, but the discovery that furs could be obtained much more cheaply from North America reoriented the supply lines. Merchants on the Atlantic coast of Europe parlayed what they earned in the fisheries into fur-trading operations, and the wealth they gained fuelled the rise of a merchant class that would, itself, demand more furs. Soon the wealthiest merchants were sporting fur hats and trim on their coats. The top hat (or stovepipe hat) didn’t appear until the 19th century, but its forerunners were symbols of rising merchant status, adding height to the wearer and acting as a kind of mercantile crown. This meant that even if demand for furs among the gentry was fully satisfied, there was a growing and effectively insatiable market in the cities of Western Europe where a new class of citizen — the bourgeois or bourgeoisie — was sufficiently prosperous and influential to drive the industry forward.

The French were the first into the fray, at least officially. Five years after Champlain struck a commercial and military alliance with the Algonquian and Wendat, the Dutch began to explore the possibilities of a trade along the Hudson River. This river marked the approximate boundary between Mohawk (Haudenosaunee) and Mahican territories. It connects (with a few portages) the French settlements on the St. Lawrence via Lake Champlain with the Dutch and (later) British settlements of New Amsterdam. Furs from Fort Orange (now Albany, New York) were transferred downriver to New Amsterdam (New York after 1667), most of which seemed to be coming from the lands around Lake Ontario. All of the North American colonies, even the Carolinas, produced some furs for markets in Europe, and there was a lively trade in furs and deer hides out of Louisiana, but the best furs were to be obtained north of the Great Lakes.

What Europeans wanted most was treated pelts that had been cleaned of the longer guard hairs, leaving more of the rich felt exposed and ready for use.Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966):12-14. But catching, killing, skinning, and tanning beaver hides was a labourious process and that left the guard hairs in place. Aboriginal peoples who had already done all the work of trapping and processing inadvertently added value: by using the pelts as blankets or clothing they wore off the guard hairs. This was a feature of the fur trade that required traders (French or Aboriginal) to probe deeper into the continent in search of new supplies of worn pelts, which explains the speed with which New France penetrated the river systems of North America.

A ledger showing the type, number, and value of different types of furs.

Figure 6.7 Fur trade ledger from York Factory, 1714-15.

Furs and Frontiers

As Europeans looked to their Aboriginal trading partners to access pelts from farther inland, particularly in the North where colder climates produced healthier pelts, the fur trade invaded all the early colonies and dictated their size and shape. While Virginia and the other plantation and farming colonies set their foundations in concentrated areas, New France stretched its network — and then its forts, posts, and influence — farther into the interior of North America so that virtually all the major rivers and lakes of the continent were contained within its sphere of commercial influence. The English response was to attempt, repeatedly, to capture the French positions on the St. Lawrence, thinking that the fur supply would simply continue to flow downstream and into their hands. In the late 1600s the English tried a different tactic, encouraging their Haudenosaunee allies to weaken the French-Algonquin supply lines. Having pressed the French from the south, the English then turned to the far north (see Chapter 8.)

From the 1670s, then, the French faced the English on two fur trading frontiers and found themselves engaged in a long-running battle with the Haudenosaunee, who were acting in their own interests and, occasionally, as clients/allies of the English. Much of the conflict between France and England in the colonial theatre related to this competition.

Key Points

  • The North American fur trade was a response to declining populations of fur-bearing animals in Western Europe and the cost of purchasing and importing furs from Russia.
  • The qualities most sought after in beaver and other fur pelts necessitated trading farther into the interior of the continent, thus propelling New France outward from the St. Lawrence.


Figure 6.6
Eight different styles of beaver hats by ~Pyb is in the public domain.

Figure 6.7
Hudson’s Bay Company. List of skins traded by Kürschner is in the public domain.


6.9 Colonial Conflict to 1713

Any odds-maker looking at the prospects for French victory against the English in the colonial wars from the 1620s on would have to call it a long shot. The colonies all depended on naval support, and England’s Royal Navy was larger than that of France or Spain by 1660. The population in the English colonies grew at a much faster rate so that by 1760 they were 20 times larger than New France. What settlement existed in New France was stretched out and difficult to defend, certainly compared to the more urban and compact colonies to the south. Many of the young Canadiens who might act as a colonial regiment were off trading for furs in the spring and summer — precisely when they were needed most at home for defence.  Nevertheless, the French record against the British in North America is remarkably good.

This is, however, a two-dimensional view in a three-dimensional world. Aboriginal nations were in an almost constant state of resistance against European intruders in these years. Whether it was the Beaver Wars or the Wabanaki Wars or battles too small to acquire a name, Aboriginal communities in northeastern North America were struggling to adjust to a world in which trade relationships were changing, epidemics were devastating their numbers, and aggressive neighbours (European or Aboriginal) were impinging on their lands. Some of these conflicts become apparent in the historical record only when they folded neatly into intercolonial or inter-imperial wars. While it is true that the French, to take one side, sought out and nurtured alliances with Aboriginal partners in their struggle to contain the British and their colonists, it is also true that Aboriginal nations had their own agendas and welcomed the French into their crusades, regardless of the European context.

The End of the Iroquois Wars

As described in Chapter 5, the Haudenosaunee launched attacks against Canada in the late 1680s, one of which was a spectacular assault on Lachine. The governor, Count Frontenac, responded with raids against the settlements of the Iroquois and those of their English allies. The French forces by this time had adopted guerrilla tactics favoured by the Algonquin and the nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy. The raids were lightning-fast and terrifying. By destabilizing the English colonial frontier, Frontenac hoped to sever the connection between his two enemies, and he was eventually successful. This was a bloody, no-holds-barred campaign in which civilians and children were not spared.

The English colonists responded with a naval assault that captured the Acadian capital of Port-Royal and then a failed attempt to take Quebec. It was in this latter conflict that Massachusetts’ future governor, Sir William Phips, demanded Frontenac’s surrender, to which the latter offered to reply from the “mouths of my cannon and muskets.” Phips’s forces found Quebec a challenging opponent, and they became anxious about the coming winter and freeze-up on the river. They retreated with nothing to show for their efforts. Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville captained several naval sorties into Hudson Bay in an effort to root out the English HBC, but the outcomes of these battles were continually undone the next season.

The European powers were too preoccupied with their own conflicts to wade in on either side, which is much of the reason that there was no decisive result. France and England were consumed with sectarian wars involving, among others, the Protestant alliance between England and the Netherlands against their common Catholic foe, France. The War of the League of Augsburg lasted nine years in Europe and the outcomes in North America were decided at the treaty table in 1697 (in the Treaty of Ryswick), not on the battlefield. This was a theme that was repeated throughout the 18th century when colonial conflicts would be fought mostly by locals and settled abroad by the mother countries after the fact.

A key outcome of the War of the League of Augsburg was the appearance of sharp divisions within the Haudenosaunee League. For the Mohawk, located farthest east, the British position at Fort Albany (formerly Fort Orange) was regarded as part of a deepening pact. They were not about to desert this asset and commitment. That was not the case, however, for the rest of the Iroquois. The League had played a key role in renewing hostilities with the French at Lachine, and they didn’t care one way or the other about agreements made at Ryswick: they had their own agenda. The French felt similarly that Ryswick addressed European issues and that Canadian security against the Iroquois had to be resolved in battle. It took another three years for the two sides to become sufficiently exhausted by war to seek a separate peace. The agreement signed by the Oneida, the Seneca, the Onondaga (whose main village had been levelled), and the Cayuga, on the one side, and the French, on the other, was the Great Peace of 1701. War between the two parties had been almost continuous since 1608 and now, with the exception of the Mohawk (which was a very big exception indeed), Canada could relax a little. For the League, however, it meant that their relationship with the English was compromised. How badly compromised would soon be revealed.

The War of the Spanish Succession

Within a year the peace in Europe was shattered. England and France were once again at war. In North America, conflict followed quickly. In this relatively short period of time, however, much had changed. Frontenac had completed building a chain of forts deep into the Mississippi Valley and his plans for a more integrated New France were gaining ground. The forts were established both for trade and to consolidate military alliances with Aboriginal nations. The Great Peace gave the French some room to manoeuvre in the Ohio Valley and build a presence and forge a role with the Council of Three Fires. Moving the principal western post from Michilimackinac to Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (Detroit) created opportunities for closer connections with the Potawatomi and the Miami (another Algonquian-speaking group, one that had been displaced by the Haudenosaunee during the Beaver Wars and was at this time returning to the Ohio Valley). The fort attracted conflict almost immediately, especially between the Council (which regarded the Miami as intruders in their zone of influence) and various Iroquois who were now able to participate in regional trade under the protection of the Great Peace. Diplomacy on the part of the French was essential to taking advantage of the western forces that could be mustered in another war with English colonists, but this endeavour was neither smooth nor particularly successful.

As well, years of war had hardened New France. Canadien soldiers emerged as ferocious guerrilla fighters who could more than hold their own against the Haudenosaunee and take the battle to the enemy’s doorstep with impunity. The administrative structure of New France was also militaristic.  Frontenac had put his stamp on the whole of the colony in this respect and was able to deploy resources without difficulty. This simplified the business of building alliances with Aboriginal nations. While the individual British colonies had to work out their own alliances piecemeal, New France could speak with one voice when it came to the Wabanaki Confederacy or the peoples of the Pays d’en Haut.

These were important differences. While the French were establishing outposts throughout Aboriginal territory and extending their commercial and military influence, they were not claiming land for their own exclusive use. New Englanders, New Yorkers, and other English colonists, however, were much more aggressive in this respect, enlarging their frontiers inch by inch in smaller conflicts with native populations. It was for this reason that the Wabanaki Confederacy aligned so strongly with the French. The presence of priests in their communities gradually and successfully introduced Catholicism, giving the Wabanaki another reason to despise their Protestant English neighbours.

The War of the Spanish Succession (also known as Queen Anne’s War) began officially in 1702. The first five years were dominated by failed New England attempts to retake Port Royal (which had been handed back to France at Ryswick) and highly effective assaults by the French-Wabanaki alliance on New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts, a village of hardly 300 people, saw more than a hundred prisoners being marched off to Caughnawaga (a.k.a Kahnawà:ke and Kahnawake), a mostly Iroquois mission village near Montreal where many were adopted into their captors’ population. New England responded with raids on Acadia, which had roughly the same impact.  It wasn’t until 1710 that a British force was brought into the struggle and was able to capture Port Royal (renamed Annapolis Royal). In 1711 Britain once again attempted to take Canada. Seven regiments along with 1,500 colonials sailed into the St. Lawrence. Ten of their ships were sunk and the expedition failed.

The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 ended the war and settled the disposition of territorial prizes, mostly to the disadvantage of New France. On balance, the French were right to claim victory on the battlefield, but the French colonies did badly at the bargaining table. The treaty resulted in the relinquishing of French claims to mainland Acadia, Hudson Bay, and Newfoundland, including the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. France retained Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island); the Acadians remained a question mark for the British throughout their new possession, now called Nova Scotia. This outcome was, of course, very bad news for the Wabanaki Confederacy, as it was now sandwiched between two regions of British colonization.

European control in North America in 1702. Long description available.

Figure 6.8 European claims and spheres of influence in North America, 1702 [Long Description]

Key Points

  • New France was able to withstand repeated attacks from the British and the British colonies by forging alliances with Aboriginal neighbours and by adapting their guerrilla warfare techniques.
  • Aboriginal interest in the fur trade and regional security resulted in alliances with colonial settlements and imperial powers.
  • Whatever the outcome of war on the colonial battlefields, the final outcomes were settled at the treaty table in Europe.
  • The Treaty of Utrecht reconfigured the colonial map in North America.


Figure 6.8
QueenAnnesWarBefore by Magicpiano is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Long Descriptions

Figure 6.8 long description: In 1702, Spain controlled Mexico, some of the southern states, and Florida. Britain controlled a strip of the eastern coast of the United States and France controlled the maritime provinces. Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Rupert’s Land were disputed between France and Britain. [Return to Figure 6.8]


6.10 Acadia 1713-1755


Figure 6.9 Île Saint-Jean (a.k.a. Prince Edward Island) in the 1740s was a significant piece of the Acadian farming and seagoing frontier.

Historians think of Acadia as a society as much as a place. After 1713, the French possessions in the region were both reduced and augmented. Île Saint-Jean and Île Royale were some distance from the Bay of Fundy where most of the Acadian settlements were located. Those were now under the nominal control of the British. The two islands held a rump population of Acadians but, soon after Utrecht, the French erected the largest of their colonial outposts on Royale: Fortress Louisbourg. Built in 1720, Louisbourg soon became the busiest of the French ports in North America and rivalled most of the British ports to the south in terms of volume of trade. Clearly it had both military and commercial functions. It also served as the administrative headquarters for the two colonies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Louisbourg played a role, too, in sustaining the Acadian communities then behind enemy lines in Nova Scotia. At first the French sought to entice Acadians from the Bay of Fundy to resettle on Île Royale. The soil around Louisbourg, however, was too miserly so the Acadians opted to stay put. This pleased the British insofar as Acadian farms contributed positively to Nova Scotia’s bottom line, but the question of Acadian loyalty was to dog both sides for decades. The British were certain that Louisbourg was a disruptive factor in the internal affairs of Nova Scotia; the Acadians were exasperated by years of war and oscillations between British and French overlords, on the one hand, and enemy pirates and raiders on the other. The French, for their part, wanted some time to rebuild their position without being drawn too far into the affairs of the Acadians and the Wabanaki Confederacy.

An old map showing the location of Louisbourg.

Figure 6.10 Fortress Louisbourg, ca. 1752.

Repeated efforts were made on the part of the British to secure an oath of loyalty from the Acadians. France, of course, did not want this but, more importantly, neither did the Wabanaki Confederacy. Pro-British Acadians, the Wabanaki concluded, would be by definition hostile to the Confederacy. Indeed, the French spurred on Wabanaki attacks on the British throughout the 18th century, using the Confederacy as the means to harass their enemy.

The Third Wabanaki War

The Wabanaki did not need much encouragement. Immediately after Utrecht they complained of British and New Englander incursions into their territory and pointed out that, regardless of what France signed away, they did not agree to any division of their lands with the Europeans. This was definitely true of the Mi’kmaq and probably the Abenaki (Malecite) as well. The New Englanders understood the situation differently and repeatedly edged into Wabanaki territory, establishing settlements and sometimes forts. This occurred over a broad geography, from Vermont to Île Royale, and the Wabanaki response was, likewise, wide-ranging. The Third Wabanaki War (also known as Father Rale’s War) entailed serious frontier squirmishes, naval battles, assaults on fortified positions, and guerrilla attacks designed to terrorize one another. From 1722 to 1725 the Confederacy launched raid after raid on British settlements in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Nova Scotia. They targeted individual towns and farmhouses in an attempt to drive the New Englanders back to their pre-1713 positions and the British from their newly claimed lands. The New Englanders retaliated and the British established Fort Canso, a fishing post and defensive position across Chedabucto Bay from Île Royale, in a territory that was unambiguously claimed by the Mi’kmaq.

For the most part these hostilities — although almost continuously running and bitterly fought — were inconclusive. However, in the western theatre of war the Confederacy and New England came to an agreement called Dummer’s Treaty (1727), named for the Governor of Massachusetts. The terms were not favourable for the Confederacy but they established the principle that the Wabanaki were legitimate inhabitants of the region now described as New Brunswick and that they would have to be consulted in future diplomatic agreements.

Acadia’s “Golden Age”

Despite the conflict in Maine and eastern Nova Scotia, life in the Bay of Fundy was largely peaceful for the core Acadian settlements. Their system of governance was like that of the English colonies although with a slight seigneurial twist. A century of benign neglect by France had come with a cost in terms of security and vulnerability but there were freedoms arising from that as well. Local councils provided a largely informal administrative system, one that (after Utrecht) sent representation to the British headquarters at Annapolis. The British showed official tolerance for Catholicism, although the colony was not especially well supplied with clergy. What churchmen there were provided a level of leadership but not authority, another distinction from what existed in nearby Canada under the royal administration.

The period from 1713 to 1748 has been described by historian Naomi Griffiths as a “golden age,” one in which family sizes grew and average life expectancies improved and were better than in France, Canada, or New England. Direct involvement in war was very limited, epidemics ignored the growing Acadian settlements, and commerce with New England was conducted in a largely effective and mutually beneficial way. Illicit trade with Louisbourg also thrived as Acadians shipped boatloads of surplus livestock to the French bastion.Naomi Griffiths, "The Golden Age: Acadian Life, 1713-1748," Histoire Sociale/Social History 17, 33 (May 1984): 21-34.

Some of these quality-of-life indicators can be measured and verified but, against that trend, this was also an era of significant Acadian and Mi’kmaq migration out of the Fundy Basin and onto Île Saint-Jean by the 1750s.  As well, the putative peacefulness of the region was regularly jeopardized by British imperial designs and Mi’kmaq resistance. The existence throughout this period of an Acadian militia also indicated that things were not all well among the people known to the British as “the neutral French.”

The story of Acadia from 1713 to the 1750s sometimes references the benefits of isolationism. By staying out of the way of wars, minimizing contact with their neighbours, and growing rapidly from internal sources, the Acadians were able to avoid combat deaths, epidemics, and internal division. This is not supported by evidence of extensive external trade and considerable immigration: a third of the individuals involved in 174 marriages at Grand-Pré in the 18th century came from France, Île Royale, and even Canada. Whatever caveats might be added to the story of a “golden age,” Griffiths is right that the key to understanding the more positive aspects of this community memory is that it sustained the Acadians in what was to come after 1748.

Nova Scotia, Acadia, Wabanaki

European war from 1740-48 (the War of the Austrian Succession) provided the French with an excuse to attack Nova Scotia from Louisbourg. In reply, New Englanders mounted an assault on the fortress and found its defences to be easily penetrated. Louisbourg was captured in June 1745 and, for the next three years, the British and New Englanders controlled the whole of the North American foreshore from Georgia to Newfoundland. They took advantage of this situation to clear Île Royale of several thousand francophones, including many Acadians. This was a grim foretaste of things to come.

The New Englanders’ capture of Fortress Louisbourg was not a victory they were able to enjoy very long. The 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (which restored the status quo ante bellum) had several immediate consequences for the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq. The first of these was pressure from the French to take their side, an offer the Acadians declined. Knowledge that their Acadian subjects might yet jump to the enemy, however, placed the British in a dilemma. The prospect of an end to Acadian neutrality and the certainty of renewed Mi’kmaq hostilities prompted the British to establish new positions in Mi’kmaq territory. The foremost of these was Halifax, placed squarely where the British had earlier promised the Mi’kmaq they would not go: at Jipugtug (Chebucto). Its establishment in 1749 and the arrival of more than 2,000 settlers resulted in another conflict that came to be known as the Mi’kmaq War or Father Le Loutre’s War.

A sketch of houses organized into blocks and the gallows and stocks labled.

Figure 6.11 An orderly representation of early Halifax, 1750, complete with stocks and gallows by the waterfront.

Halifax was established under the governorship of Edward Cornwallis (1713-1776), a 36-year-old British aristocrat who started his term hopeful that peace could be established with the Wabanaki Confederacy. Initially it looked as though his goals would be realized: he had a good-sized core of British settlers, Royal Navy support, and a signed agreement with the Wabanaki. Sadly, the Mi’kmaq were not part of the treaty process. They responded with a letter that made clear their position: “The place where you are, where you are building dwellings, where you are now building a fort, where you want, as it were, to enthrone yourself, this land of which you want to make yourself absolute master, this land belongs to me.”Quoted and translated in L.F.S. Upton, Micmacs and Colonists: Indian-White Relations in the Maritimes, 1713-1867 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1977), 201. Mi’kmaq attacks followed soon after.

Cornwallis’s response was to stand his ground and, indeed, to expand the British military presence in the region. New forts and barracks went up at Windsor, Dartmouth, Grand Pré, Bedford, Mirligueche (Lunenburg), and Chignecto (Fort Lawrence). Much of this construction was in and around the Minas Basin, part of the Acadian heartland. The disputed territory to the north (the area that later became New Brunswick) bristled with French forts in response. Cornwallis’s gestures may have been large but his effectiveness was questionable. In 1749 he announced a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps. This was a practice common in New England for a century or more and the French were already offering the Mi’kmaq a bounty on British scalps. The bounty was wholly ineffective and failed to mobilize a strong response to the Aboriginal militias.

A map of Acadia and Nova Scotia, 1754

Figure 6.12 Acadia and Nova Scotia, 1754.

Father Jean-Louis Le Loutre was a Catholic priest deeply involved in the Wabanaki resistance and, when it came to English scalps, the paymaster of the French as well. In the late 1740s he organized an Acadian exodus to Île Saint-Jean. Reducing the number of Acadians in Nova Scotia was a means of weakening British food supplies, but the French/Acadians/Wabanaki were able to keep open and protect a land corridor that ran across the disputed territories, the Chignecto Isthmus, making travel from Canada to Louisbourg possible.

Under the circumstances, Cornwallis could not gain any ground, nor could he subdue his opponents. He left the colony and the war dragged on inconclusively until 1755. The legacy of his term, however, is important: no comparably sized region in the history of British North America was ever so militarized, no conflict so intractable, and never was so much potential goodwill lost. What looks on the face of it like an Acadian victory was in fact a disaster, one that unfolded in different ways. The Acadians who relocated to Île Saint-Jean were beset in 1749 by a plague of black mice that destroyed their crops. This was followed by another plague in 1750, this time of locusts. In 1751 drought struck. And, of course, the British were becoming increasingly exasperated with the Acadians. Hundreds if not thousands had abandoned neutrality and sworn loyalty to France. Indeed, many of the British settlers brought in by Cornwallis and his successor — some of whom were actually German and French Protestants — deserted the British and joined the Acadians and the French.

Oaths and Exile

The new governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence (1709-1760), decided to push the issue of an Acadian oath of loyalty. The Acadians who remained in the Minas Basin and generally on the north shore of Nova Scotia were still reluctant. International circumstances had changed, however. War had broken out in the Ohio Valley in 1754 and Europe was edging toward another precipice of its own. A joint British-New England operation captured Fort Beauséjour. The Wabanaki raids, too, continued. Further Acadian refusal to take the oath in 1755 prompted Lawrence, with the support of Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, to begin relocating Acadians to the British colonies to the south, to France, to Louisiana (where they adapted to bayou life as Cajuns), to wherever they could be sent.The complex context of the expulsion is considered in Naomi Griffiths, From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604-1755 (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 431-64.  The British forces set ablaze the emptied Acadian villages and then repopulated them with British American colonists called planters and by new immigrants from Yorkshire. The Acadian Expulsion (in French, Le Grand Dérangement) did not occur overnight. This was an eight-year long episode, during which time some Acadians returned, a great many perished, one group hijacked their captors’ ship and sailed to Canada, and those on Île Saint-Jean thought, mice and locusts notwithstanding, they had made a smart move.

A painting of the city of Grymross on fire.

Figure 6.13 “A View of the Plundering and Burning of the City of Grymross” was painted in 1758 and is thought to be the only contemporaneous study of the Acadian deportation. One gets a sense of the “scorched earth” policy at work, although the scalpings are not depicted here. (Grimross is now Gagetown, New Brunswick.)

Key Points

  • The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) redefined the boundaries of Acadia in such a way as to worsen tensions between the French, the British, the Wabanaki Confederacy, and the Acadians.
  • The Acadian response to repeated turnovers in imperial masters and ongoing tensions was to seek a position as the “neutral French.”
  • Acadian communities enjoyed significant growth in this period, marked by natural population growth and increased farm productivity.
  • Renewed struggles between the French and the British and between the British and the Mi’kmaq at mid-century resulted in a more militarized region and, ultimately, the Acadian Expulsion.


Figure 6.9
Acadie1744 IPE by Jeangagnon  is in the public domain.

Figure 6.10
Plan de Louisbourg vers 1751 by AYE R is in the public domain.

Figure 6.11
StocksHalifaxNovaScotia1750 by WarBaCoN is in the public domain.

Figure 6.12<
Acadie 1743 nl by Mikmaq is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 6.13
A View of the Plundering and Burning of the City of Grymross by Hantsheroes is in the public domain.


6.11 The Seven Years' War

If one looks at North American history only through the lens of British and French interests, then it is true that most of the imperial wars to 1755 began as offshoots of European conflicts. From an Aboriginal perspective, this was far less often the case. Certainly the War of the Austrian Succession was, in the Maritimes, much more about the ongoing Wabanaki resistance than transatlantic affairs. The Seven Years’ War provides another example of this pattern.

A drawing of the Fort de la Présentation which includes a cemetery, and walls.

Figure 6.14 Fort de la Présentation was built by the Suplicians in 1749 as a mission to the Mohawks. By 1755 it had a population of 3,000 Haudenosaunee (Montreal had 4,000 people) and it was being repurposed for war.

Conflict in the Ohio Valley

Led by George Washington (1732-1799), a scion of the Virginian gentry and shareholder in a speculative land company, a Virginian party set out in 1753 to request that the French relinquish their position in the Ohio Valley. The result was intensified French activity in the region. The following year Washington returned (once again under orders from Virginia’s governor) and ambushed a French detachment. The French response (along with several of their Aboriginal allies) was to pursue and capture Washington at Fort Necessity before releasing him with a clear message for Virginia: the Ohio Valley was beyond their grasp.

To this point in time, British conflict with the French had focused on the frontiers between New England and Acadia, New York, and Canada. The other British colonies had not been involved and there were occasions, such as during the War of the Austrian Succession, where New England struggled on its own without even the help of New York. British American population and economic growth by 1754, however, had reached a point where many of the largest colonies felt friction with New France. Georgia in the south was pinched between Florida and Louisiana; Virginia was both powerful and rich as well as increasingly cramped on the tidewater side of the Appalachians; New York’s ambitions for the west, along with those of Pennsylvania, pulled it into conflict in the Ohio; New England and Nova Scotia, as we have seen, continued to wrestle with Wabanaki Confederacy attacks and uncertainty about the Acadians and the future of Louisbourg. It was, perhaps ironically, the shared French threat that first brought together the disparate and disunified 13 British American colonies in an effort to work out solutions to common problems (and thus pave the way for further collaborations in 1775).

The French and Indian War

The American name for the Seven Years’ War  — the French and Indian War — reflects their perception that this was a battle against two old foes, and not merely one. Despite a massive imbalance in population numbers that favoured the British colonies (there were 20 British Americans for every resident of New France), the French colonies held their own. They did so principally by having better Aboriginal allies. The Council of the Three Fires — in particular, the Ottawa and the Potawatomi — were of special importance. The Haudenosaunee might have challenged French activity in the Ohio, but the British refused to support them against the expanding chain of French military/trading forts running from Lake Ontario to New Orleans.

Indeed, the Haudenosaunee were a powerful third force in the Ohio Valley. Since the Beaver Wars they had been extracting tribute from smaller client nations to the south, including the Shawnee and the Delaware. Recognizing that neither the French nor the British fully respected their interest in the region, they sought to whipsaw the Europeans against one another by means of a policy of “aggressive neutrality.”Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 16. This strategy presented its own challenges, not least because Haudenosaunee control of the region was gradually shifting. Decades of human depopulation and warfare had allowed some of the local ecosystem to recover, making it highly desirable hunting grounds once again. Other Aboriginal peoples were, as a consequence, returning to the Haudenosaunee territories (to the chagrin of the Five Nations). These Aboriginal “colonists” in the Ohio were at odds with one another, as well as with the League and the British-Americans. Shawnee and Delaware resettlements in the Ohio were rubbing up against Miamis, Mascouten, and Kickapoos from west of the Great Lakes (they had shifted eastward to capitalize on trade with the British), and Wyandot (Wendat/Huron) remnants were huddled around the west end of Lake Erie. One scholar describes it as “a world of multiethnic villages outside of the French alliance and beyond the authority of the Iroquois Confederacy.”Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 331-2. There was, therefore, little Aboriginal solidarity and quite a lot of negotiable loyalties in relation to alliances with the Europeans, Canadiens, and Americans.


Figure 6.15 The Seven Years’ War in North America.

From 1754 to 1757 the war mostly tilted in favour of New France. For the first two years it was exclusively a colonial affair, but with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1756 new strategies emerged. The British, under Prime Minister William Pitt, believed they could tie up French armies in Europe and make use of their superior navy to harass the colonies of France abroad. France by contrast, under Louis XV, stuck to the tried-and-tested strategy of conceding little and banking on a good outcome at the treaty table. After all, return to the status quo ante bellum had worked well for France in one treaty after the next.

European War in North America

Nevertheless, France did commit regular troops to New France under the leadership of Louis-Joseph, the Marquis de Montcalm (1712-1759) in 1756. This was following a career marked by defeats and retreats in Europe. By that time the governor general of New France, the born-in-Canada Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial (1698-1778), had scored several important defensive victories against the British and the British Americans. In the Ohio and along the Great Lakes, Vaudreuil’s forces proved consistently more able than those of the British. The defeat of the British-American General Braddock in the Ohio in 1755 was a major coup for New France. Vaudreuil’s success stemmed from effective deployment of Aboriginal militias. Both Vaudreuil and Montcalm’s aide-de-camp, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, promoted the use of forest combat conducted by their Aboriginal allies and Canadien irregulars. As Bougainville explained, “In this sort of warfare it is necessary to adjust to their ways.”Ibid., 340. The only offensive the British and their colonists were able to mount successfully was that against Fort Beauséjour, mentioned above.

Fortress Quebec is located on a small peninsula.

Figure 6.16 Fortress Quebec was, as this map shows, highly defendable, a tough nut to crack.

Montcalm’s arrival turned the colonial defence from a successful strategy of harrying the British with surgical strikes against their frontier to one of sit-and-wait. The new commander was more comfortable with set-piece battles, regarded Aboriginal warfare as uncivilized and unworthy, and demonstrated an unwillingness to press his foot down on an enemy’s throat. By 1758 he had lost the Ohio Valley which, in any event, he regarded as secondary to the importance of securing the St. Lawrence Valley. More than that, Montcalm went out of his way to undermine the reputations of his rival Vaudreuil and his friend, the intendant François Bigot. In 1758 Montcalm’s intrigues in the palaces of Paris paid out and he was promoted to lieutenant-governor and thus placed above Vaudreuil in the command of forces in Canada.

In 1759 the Royal Navy swept up the St. Lawrence and confronted Montcalm at the citadel of Quebec. Even in this instance, Montcalm’s instincts proved flawed. He thought (wrongly) that the river itself would confound the British, who were unfamiliar with its currents and hazards. He neglected to defend the height of land across the river from Quebec, which allowed the British to bombard the city into dust.W. J. Eccles, “MONTCALM, LOUIS-JOSEPH DE, Marquis de MONTCALM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol 3 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed January 12, 2015, .

The British forces, under the command of Major General James Wolfe (1727-1759), reached the Île d’Orléans in mid-June hoping for a quick victory. Although his army was smaller than he’d hoped, Wolfe nevertheless had some 7,000 troops and the support of nearly 200 vessels. Exploratory attacks on Canadien positions failed repeatedly, as had the relentless shelling of the Lower Town. By mid-September Wolfe’s troops were burning out the Canadien farmers, destroying their crops and thousands of homes in the hope of creating pressures on Quebec that might pay off  the following year. Many of his troops had deserted, morale was low, illness was depleting the ranks, freeze-up of the river was quickly approaching, and Wolfe himself was convinced that his mission was a failure. He was ready to abandon the attack and let the French and Canadiens struggle through a winter with limited food supplies, which he hoped would soften them up for a springtime assault.

This painting shows debris scattered around the town and buildings that have been destroyed.

Figure 6.17 “Après Guerre” shows the devastation of the Lower Town of Quebec. It was painted by Richard Short, an officer in Wolfe’s army who fought at the battle of the Plains of Abraham and Ste. Foy.

The almost chance discovery of a landing point at a cove called L’Anse-au-Foulon was seized upon by Wolfe. On September 13, 1759, he assembled his troops on the Plains of Abraham. At this point, Montcalm had several options: wait for his reinforcements to arrive along Wolfe’s western flank and pin down the British; send out snipers along with Aboriginal and Canadien militiamen to gun-and-run until Wolfe’s troops were depleted and/or demoralized; stay in the citadel and wait out a British force that had little appetite or ability for a long siege in the face of oncoming winter (and just hope for the arrival of the French fleet); or march out onto the field and confront Wolfe. He chose the last of these.

The Blame Game

Louis du Pont Duchambon de Vergor was born in France in the year of the Treaty of Utrecht and joined the French military in 1730. The whole of his military career was spent in New France. His principal talents were skimming money out of the colonial purse, serving as “pimp” to the intendant François Bigot, privateering a bit on the side, and underperforming spectacularly in his military duties. Mme. Élizabeth Bégon de la Cour (1696-1755), a Montreal woman of considerable influence and even more wit, described Vergor as “the most dull-witted fellow I have ever met but he knows all the angles.”Céline Dupré, “ROCBERT DE LA MORANDIÈRE, MARIE-ÉLISABETH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol 3 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed December 13, 2014, . This was, however, the man left in charge of Fort Beauséjour in 1754 and responsible for its fall to a British-New England force a year later. More than that, his actions played a role in precipitating the Acadian expulsion.

Low on credible troops, Vergor persuaded local Acadians to assist in the defence of the fort by promising that, if they were captured by the British, he would protect their official neutrality by claiming to have forced them into a compromised position. A two-week long siege, mutiny among the Acadians, and an exploding cannonball sealed Beauséjour’s fate: on June 16 Vergor ran up the white flag of surrender. The outcome for the Acadians who could not escape capture was exile, their participation in the battle taken by the British as confirmation that the Acadians were merely hiding behind a façade of neutrality. Vergor’s defence of Beauséjour was certainly anything but gifted. He was packed off to Canada where, in 1757, he walked away from a court martial thanks to his friend Bigot, who paid off the jury. For the next two years Vergor played a minor role in the defence of Canada, and the late summer of 1759 found him in charge of a sentry post at the Anse au Foulon. It was there, in the early hours of September 13, that Wolfe’s forces found a path from the river to the Plains of Abraham, surprised the inattentive Vergor and his men, and assembled for the battle with Montcalm. Having lost Acadia, Vergor might be blamed for the fall of Canada as well.Bernard Pothier, “DU PONT DUCHAMBON DE VERGOR, LOUIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed December 13, 2014, .

Victory, it must be added, was by no means guaranteed to the British troops that day. Wolfe seized on the worst position he could have selected and stayed there, despite better options. Montcalm’s insistence on attacking in columns rather than in lines, on using regular troops and set-piece tactics rather than letting loose Vaudreuil’s shock troops, cost the French dearly. It is a pivotal moment in the history of Canada, and yet it unfolds so badly that its two principal actors — Wolfe and Montcalm — were both killed or mortally wounded in battle, something that rarely happened in European warfare. Considering the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, historian William Eccles wrote many years ago that “perhaps the most overlooked determining factor in history has been stupidity.”W.J.Eccles, "The Battle of Quebec: A Reappraissal," Essays on New France (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 133.

From Defeat to Conquest

To be sure, the war was far from over in September 1759. The bulk of the French troops retreated to Montreal where they licked their wounds. The Chevalier de Lévis, Montcalm’s successor, had 7,000 troops with him in April 1760 when he confronted a much smaller and rather sickly British army at the Battle of Sainte-Foy. The French won easily but they could not retake Quebec, and the hoped-for French fleet failed to arrive (having been sent to the bottom of the sea by the Royal Navy at Quiberon Bay). Instead, British ships reached Quebec when the river ice melted and in September, one year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Montreal fell.

A great deal has been written about this battle because it represents for many a turning point in the history of Canada. It is the moment at which Canada fell to the British; it is the moment of “the Conquest.” Of course it was not: that happened at the treaty table four years later. What Wolfe accomplished on the Plains of Abraham might well have been undone at the Treaty of Paris. Britain decided that, strategically, Canada was a better choice than one of its other prizes: the sugar colony of Guadeloupe. Keeping Canada would put an end to the hemorrhaging expense of continuous colonial war in North America. This would, of course, entail maintaining a northern colony populated by hostiles, so it was not entirely positive from the perspective of Britain. France, for its part, agreed with the decision. Canada would be hard for Britain to hold and the removal of French influence from the Ohio would be like unstopping a drain: the American colonists would become difficult to contain. Being allowed to keep the lucrative West Indian island must have seemed to the French negotiators like the best possible outcome. Besides, Quebec had fallen before in colonial struggles, and it had always been restored, a possibility that could be held out to the Canadiens and those business interests in La Rochelle and Breton whose livelihoods were closely tied to that of the colony. In other words, France had not entirely given up on Canada, nor had Canada given up entirely on France.Helen Dewar, "Canada or Guadeloupe?: French and British Perceptions of Empire, 1760-1763," Canadian Historical Review 91, no.4 (2010): 637-60. As for the British, winning New France was one thing, but holding it was another.


Figure 6.18 Map of Montreal in 1749. The fortifications can be seen as can the gardens of the seminary and the Hôtel-Dieu.

The Legacy of the Seven Years’ War

First, New France was at an end. The British claimed everything north of Florida. France gave Louisiana west of the Mississippi River to its ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss to Britain of Florida (which Spain had handed to Britain in exchange for the return of Havana, Cuba). France held on to western Louisiana until 1803, but otherwise its colonial presence north of the Caribbean was reduced to the tiny islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Britain’s position as the dominant colonial power in the eastern half of North America was confirmed.

By 1763, British-controlled eastern North America

Figure 6.19 The outcome of the Seven Years’ War looked like a commanding future for Britain in North America. Everything from tidewater to the Mississippi, the Gulf to the Arctic, was British.

Second, French absolutism was in trouble. The war in Europe had been expensive and the country was impoverished as a result. Many factors contributed to the French Revolution in 1789, and the Seven Years’ War was one of them. This situation curtailed any hope of a restoration of French power in North America. It also led to further global conflicts and, more importantly, to the rise of secular and democratic modern society — not just in France but all around Western Europe and across the Atlantic.

Third, the outcome boded ill for Aboriginal peoples. For many of the nations, the elimination of French power in North America meant the disappearance of a strong counterweight to British expansion. Most obviously the Haudenosaunee strategy of whipsawing the two European powers against one another was eliminated. Pressures increased on Native populations from the Atlantic seaboard through the Ohio and Mississippi, producing waves of refugees as one population after the next was dispossessed. These westward-moving exiles, in turn, pushed other Aboriginal peoples along as well. Tensions built swiftly and produced further conflict.

Fourth, the British American colonies felt entitled to the spoils of war. The Ohio Valley lay ahead of them, unopposed by French forts (regardless of Aboriginal resistance). More to the point, the British regime was not certain that it was ready to unleash colonial America from behind the Appalachian barrier. The farther the colonies spread, the more likely it was that Britain would be called on to defend them against Aboriginal attacks. The cost of the Seven Years’ War was high enough and Britain’s treasury needed time to recover. As well, Britain feared that an open frontier would only make the Americans more difficult to govern.

Finally, the war had provided an opportunity for militiamen from New England through Virginia to cut their teeth on battle. George Washington, for one, had gone from a brash and inexperienced soldier at age 22 to a far more confident and mature military leader, thanks to the opportunities provided him by service to Britain. The Seven Years’ War was the first occasion in which the Thirteen Colonies had pursued common goals, and it gave a boost to their ambitions.

For Acadia and Canada the end of the war brought uncertainty and fear. Acadian society was shattered by the Expulsion. Its outposts on the western mainland of Northumberland Strait and in the new British colony of Prince Edward Island struggled to survive under the new administration. No doubt more than a few hoped for another exchange of imperial masters, but that wheel had stopped turning. The Canadiens, for their part, continued to hope for relief from France while watching nervously the deportation of the Acadians.

The “land hunger” that had propelled British Americans into the Ohio and into wars against the Wabanaki Confederacy was to have very direct consequences for Nova Scotia and Canada. Some of these would be felt immediately as migrants poured (in smallish numbers) into both colonies. The trickle, however, would become a torrent in less than a generation.

Key Points

  • The first intercolonial conflicts associated with the Seven Years’ War took place in the Ohio Valley and were instigated by Virginian expansionism into French/Aboriginal territory.
  • The involvement of Virginia presaged a war between New France and the whole of the British colonies, rather than just New England, Nova Scotia, or New York.
  • British success was predicated mainly on a vastly larger colonial population and a significant commitment of military resources.
  • The Conquest of Canada occured at the negotiating table.
  • The outcome of the Seven Years’ War had almost immediate implications for relations between Britain and its original colonies and for the French absolutist regime. It also boded ill for Aboriginal peoples in the Ohio Valley and beyond.


Figure 6.14
Fort de La Présentation by Charny is used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

Figure 6.15
French and Indian War by Hoodinski is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 6.16
Fortress Québec by Tango22 is in the public domain.

Figure 6.17
Après guerre by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.

Figure 6.18
Map of Montreal 1749 by Jeangagnon is in the public domain.

Figure 6.19
NorthAmerica1762-83 by Creysmon07 is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


6.12 Summary

Intercolonial conflict passed through several distinct stages. At first there was an impromptu quality to much of the conflict that was determined by the size of settlements. When Quebec City was small, it took little more than a couple of boats out of Boston to cause it grief or to capture it. In the 1600s these were settlements of a few dozen people, none of which were ferociously loyal to the towns they defended. Protecting Quebec in 1629 was more like protecting a warehouse than a community.

There is, as well, an entrepreneurial aspect to conflicts in the 17th century and among some of the wars and raids of the 18th century. Privately-funded attacks on enemy colonies were typical of raids out of New England. These were conducted by merchants, investors, and local government officials, not the British Navy. They had personal gain and the protection of their own interests at heart, rather than those of the Empire. Even George Washington’s disastrous invasion of the Ohio Valley on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia was not conducted as the business of Britain.

Threaded throughout these two centuries, too, were conflicting imperial agendas. Tensions in Europe regularly spilled over into North America: a continental war could easily become an intercolonial war. Historians of Canada have long pointed to this fact, highlighting the exception of the Seven Years’ War that began in North America before being taken up in Europe. That narrative, however, often overlooks the almost continuous wars between Aboriginal forces and their European neighbours. The background to some of these intercolonial conflicts is, in fact, decades-old struggles between colonial nodes and Aboriginal nations. One difference is that an official European war might produce additional military or naval resources for the colonists to use against their indigenous opponents.

There is also the quality of warfare to consider, specifically the contrast between guerrilla warfare and the use of well-drilled European armies and colonial militia. The character of warfare changed through the 18th century, becoming increasingly European in style and focused much more on the role of professional soldiery and less on the use of terror and fire by both European and Aboriginal participants. The latter style persisted but the standing army was only a revolution away.

Behind all of this lay a growing economic presence in North America. New France had become a functional social and economic colony. By 1759 generations had been born and raised in the St. Lawrence with no firsthand knowledge of France. The same, of course, was true of the diverse settlers and slaves in the Thirteen Colonies. The economic presence, then, was both imperial and local. The creation of successful colonies always carried with it the possibility that local sensibilities would emerge. Some of these, of course, would conflict with those of empire.

Key Terms

Acadian Expulsion: The removal of Acadians and other francophones from Île Royale after 1745, and accelerating after 1755 as the British forcibly removed the larger portion of the colonist population. In French it is called Le Grand Dérangement.

Annapolis Royal: British name for Port Royal.

Battle of Sainte-Foy: Battle on April 28, 1760, near the citadel of Quebec with the French/Canadien forces attacking the British. General Murray repeated many of the errors of Montcalm only months before. The British survived (having suffered more than a thousand casualties) by hunkering in the fortress until British naval reinforcements arrived.

bourgeois, bourgeoisie: Originally someone who lived in the town (French: bourg; German: burg; English: borough), typically associated with merchants, professionals, etc. By the 18th century the bourgeoisie emerged as a distinct social class, a “middle class.”

Chemin du Roy: The “King’s Road,” built in the 1730s; a major infrastructure project in its time. One of the longest continuous roads in North America, it connected seigneuries on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.

coparcenary: A system of joint/shared inheritance of property.

East India Company: Established in 1600, the largest of Britain’s chartered trade monopolies. It dominated trade and was an instrument of British imperialism in Asia and was the model on which the Hudson’s Bay Company was based.

Father Le Loutre’s War: (1749-1755) Also called the Mi’kmaq (or Micmac) War, a conflict that pitted the Mi’kmaq and some of the Acadian communities against the British and New England interests in Nova Scotia. Name derived from the role played by Catholic Abbé Jean-Louis Le Loutre, a missionary who led the French, Acadian, and Wabanaki forces.

Father Rale’s War: (1722-1725) Named for Father Sébastien Rale, a Catholic priest who nominally led the Wabanaki forces, this conflict is known by several other names as well. It was provoked by New England expansion into unceded Wabanaki territory in what is now Maine and New Brunswick. The French were allied with the Wabanaki against the British and New England forces.

feudalism: An economic and landholding system of social, legal, and military customs based on notions of mutual responsibility. Land ownership was typically by a manorial elite for which a peasantry laboured. The aristocratic landowners, in turn, owed labour to the higher nobility, including the king.

Fortress Louisbourg: Established in 1713 as a fishing village, an important fortified centre of trade and naval activity from the 1720s on. Louisbourg was one of the largest towns in New France by the 1740s and an important asset in French efforts to harass the British in Acadia. Twice captured by the British and New Englanders, it was largely demolished in 1758.

free trade: A philosophy of commerce that calls for limited or no tariffs and protectionism. Free trade is in stark contrast to mercantilism.

Great Peace of 1701: Also called the Great Peace of Montreal; a treaty struck between New France and 40 Aboriginal nations. The Great Peace drew to an end the long-running war between Canada and the Haudenosaunee Five Nations and what had become known in some circles as the Beaver Wars.

guard hairs: The barbed outer hairs found on many mammal pelts, typically longer than the underpelt and more easily shed.

guerrillaA form of warfare distinguished by the lack of structure and organization typical of formal warfare. Characterized by ambushes, small units, and lightning raids, guerrilla warfare aims to demoralize and wear down a larger opponent that lacks the same speed and mobility.

Gulf Stream: A strong current that runs from the Caribbean along the east coast of North America, across the Atlantic, and along northwestern Europe. It accelerates sea traffic heading east and can impede vessels heading west.

illicit trade: In the context of mercantilism, unsanctioned trade between colonies.

indentured servants: Individuals contracted on a multi-year, fixed-term basis to work in the colonies. Usually taken up by young men and women whose passage would be paid by their employer. At the end of the indenture young men would typically receive a new suit. Large numbers of migrants from Britain to the Thirteen Colonies are thought to have started in indentured servitude. This system was regularly abused and, in some circumstances, was barely distinguishable from slavery.

Le Grand Dérangement: See Acadian Expulsion.

Loyalists: British-American colonists who were opposed to the revolutionary position struck by other colonists. At the end of the Revolution, many Loyalists joined an exodus to other parts of British America, particularly Nova Scotia and Quebec.

Mi’kmaq War: See Father Le Loutre’s War.

New Amsterdam: The Dutch colonial settlement at the mouth of the Hudson River in what was called New Netherland. Subsequently renamed New York.

New England: In the pre-Revolutionary years refers to the British colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, along with the territory roughly described now by the State of Maine.

nursery of the navy: The Grand Banks and other fisheries in the northwest Atlantic that were regarded by imperial powers in Europe as training grounds for sailors and recruitment grounds for their respective navies.

Pays d’en Haut: A part of New France containing much of what is now Ontario, the whole of the Great Lakes, and notionally all the lands draining into them. Extended as far as the Upper Mississippi and the Missouri. Translates roughly into the “upper country.”

Plains of Abraham: Located near to the Citadel of Quebec; the site of what proved to be a pivotal battle between British and French/Canadien/Aboriginal forces in September 1759.

planters: Some 2,000 settlers in Nova Scotia in the period between the Acadian Expulsion and the 1780s, drawn from New England.

primogeniture: System of inheritance that favours the eldest male offspring. Compare with coparcenary.

regicide: The murder of a king.

staple: A raw material or unprocessed product. Fish and furs were primary staples in the early colonial economies of New France and British America. Lumber and grain were later staple exports from New France and British North America. For the staple theory, see Chapter 9.

status quo ante bellum: A term used in treaty-making meaning a return to how things were before the war.

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748): Concluded the War of the Austrian Succession. Restored the status quo ante bellum in North America.

Treaty of Paris (1765): Ended the Seven Years’ War. France ceded all of its territory east of the Mississippi (including all of Canada, Acadia, and Île Royale) to Britain and granted Louisiana and lands west of the Mississippi to its ally Spain. Britain returned to France the sugar islands of Guadeloupe. France retained St. Pierre and Miquelon along with fishing rights on the Grand Banks.

Treaty of Ryswick (1697): Terminated the War of the League of Augsburg; restored the status quo ante bellum in North America.

Treaty of Utrecht (1713): Ended the War of the Spanish Succession. French claims on territory in Newfoundland and on Hudson Bay were ceded to Britain as was Acadia (Nova Scotia) except for Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. In what ways did English expansion into North America in the 1600s contrast with New France?
  2. How did mercantilism shape colonial North America as a whole?
  3. What was the impact of the seigneurial system on the development of New France?
  4. Why did towns remain small in Newfoundland and in New France?
  5. How did the colonial world fit into the larger Atlantic Rim economy?
  6. In what ways did English expansion in North America in the 1600s and 1700s challenge the French presence in North America? How did France respond?
  7. To what extent were colonial conflicts a product of imperial rivalries, as opposed to local issues?
  8. To what extent were inter-colonial conflicts bound up in Aboriginal agendas?
  9. Detail New France’s liabilities and assets in confronting the English colonies from 1689 to 1760.
  10. In what ways was the experience of Acadians different from that of Canadiens?
  11. After initial French successes in the Seven Years’ War, why was Britain able to gain the upper hand in 1757?
  12. Why were the “neutral French” deported in 1755 and not at an earlier point between 1713 and 1755?
  13. Why did New France fall?

Suggested Readings

  1. Balvay, Arnaud. “Tattooing and its Role in French-Native American Relations in the Eighteenth Century.” French Colonial History 9 (2008): 1-14.
  2. Dewar, Helen. “Canada or Guadeloupe?: French and British Perceptions of Empire, 1760-1763.” Canadian Historical Review 91, no.4 (2010): 637-60.
  3. Griffiths, Naomi. “The Decision to Deport.” In From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604-1755 , 431-64. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.
  4. Wicken, William. “Mi’kmaq Decisions: Antoine Tecouenemac, the Conquest, and the Treaty of Utrecht.” In The Conquest of Acadia, 1710: Imperial, Colonial, and Aboriginal Constructions, 86-100. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.


This chapter contains material taken from U.S. History created by OpenStax CollegeIt is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

This chapter contains material taken from U.S. History created by Boundless. It is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “History of Newfoundland and Labrador,” is used under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.


Chapter 7. British North America at Peace and at War (1763-1818)


7.1 Introduction

Having won most of a continent in one war, Britain nearly lost it all in the next. The American Revolution (or War of Independence) quickly unraveled Britain’s first empire and left it, ironically, defending much of what had been New France against its own people.

The 55 years following the Conquest witnessed imperial uncertainty as to how to best manage the northern colonies and what sort of relationship to build with the former colonies to the south. It was also a time of a new configuration of British colonies whose institutions were similar but not identical to those in the old Thirteen Colonies. As well, there was the principal problem of Quebec’s place within the new geopolitical reality. For Britain, it was a question of control softened by appeasement on key issues; for the Canadiens, it was a balancing act between avoiding the fate that befell the Acadians and aggressively promoting claims to a future in North America as French people with a Catholic faith.

Barely a generation passed before war was renewed between Britain and the United States. In the meantime, Aboriginal challenges to American settlement continued, with implications for British North America and the Council of Three Fires. Colonial life in Nova Scotia was overtaken by the largest of the Loyalist waves, and the region’s demographic, economic, and social order changed dramatically once again. These years witnessed the beginnings of truly urban trends in what was to become Canada, specifically at Halifax, Saint John, and Montreal. The last of these — the seat of the fur trade in the Province of Quebec — shifted rather abruptly from being the western gate of a shrunken province to the hub of an agriculturally focused settlement colony stretching into the Great Lakes. Newfoundland — the oldest site of continuous European activity in North America — only begin to grow as a colony in these years.

This chapter studies the fluidity of constitutional reforms in Quebec, the creation of two new Loyalist colonies, and the concurrent commercial and political developments.

Learning Objectives

  •  Distinguish between the different colonial economies and societies in British North America in this era.
  • Understand the ambivalent relationship between the British North Americans and the ideology of anti-imperial revolution.
  • Position the Aboriginal nations in their struggle for control of the interior of North America.
  • Explain the emergence and survival of both Upper Canada and New Brunswick.
  • Describe and account for the constitutional changes that took place between 1763 and 1818.
  • Illustrate the different colonial systems emerging in each of the British Atlantic colonies.


7.2 Pyrrhic Victories

Britain’s successes under the Treaty of Paris (1783) translated into wholesale control of North America. Notwithstanding western Louisiana — an area of much more concern to Spain than to Britain — everything north of the Rio Grande was now nominally British. There was, however, no time allowed for celebrations.

Unbroken Conflict in the Pays d’en Haut

There existed a critical difference between the approach taken by the French and that adopted by the British when it came to outposts in the Pays d’en Haut. The French approached the building of forts and trading posts as guests in the lands of others; the British viewed places like Detroit as an asset that had fallen to them as part of the spoils of war. It was their possession, and not a place deep in Aboriginal territory. For that matter, the Native population, the British believed, were every bit as conquered as their defeated French allies. As the British repopulated the French outposts this attitude quickly poisoned relations with the indigenous peoples. As well, the giving of gifts observed annually by the French was, for the Aboriginal nations involved, a means of building up the status and thus the influence of Aboriginal leaders. The British misread this convention as the issuing of bribes which, they believed, was no longer necessary with the French out of the way. They failed to follow, as well, the French practice of “covering deaths” with gifts, a way of recognizing the loss of life among allied Aboriginal nations. Not surprisingly, the British soon wore out their welcome.

Pontiac’s War is the name given to a long-running series of conflicts in the Ohio and Great Lakes region that stemmed from the British takeover. Despite the name, it was not all masterminded or executed by Pontiac, an Odawa (Ottawa) leader (although that is how it was portrayed in textbooks for more than a century). The conflict had its roots in British American expansion into the region, which was a key reason for Aboriginal alliances with the French in the Seven Years’ War. Of course, not all Aboriginal peoples signed on with the French. The Haudenosaunee, the Shawnee, the Seneca/Mingo, and 10 other Aboriginal nations signed the Treaty of Easton in 1758, along with representatives from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Under this agreement the British and their colonies relinquished land in the Ohio Valley to its Aboriginal owners and financially compensated the Lenape (Delaware) for their loss of lands in New Jersey. In exchange, the Aboriginal signatories agreed not to side with the French in the war. In short, the Treaty of Easton recognized aboriginal title and committed the British and Americans to respect it in the Ohio Valley.

Even before the Seven Years’ War was over, however, British American settlement in the Ohio Valley was underway and the terms of the Treaty of Easton seemingly ignored. Nations that had been allied to the British found themselves at odds with their erstwhile partners, but were at a loss as to how to shift the balance back. The French were a spent force after 1760, a fact that was confirmed in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. An alliance of Aboriginal parties that had hitherto been in conflict seemed the only solution.

A map showing the location of forts and battles in Pontiac's War.

Figure 7.1 Battle sites in Pontiac’s War.

Attacks on British American positions began as early as February 1763, before the Treaty of Paris had been signed. There was, in other words, no post-war period of peace in the Ohio: war continued with few breaks from before 1754 to about 1766. The Seneca broke ranks with the Haudenosaunee to join in the rising that also included the Council of the Three Fires (Odawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Wendat, and others) and the peoples of the Ohio most directly affected. Intellectual and spiritual leadership was provided by Neolin the Prophet, a Lenape (Delaware) visionary whose call to reject Euro-American materialism, alcohol, and ways of living had an enormous appeal and influenced Pontiac and other 18th and 19th century resistance movements. Ready for change, the Ohioans found a field general in Pontiac, whose forces attacked and laid siege (unsuccessfully) to the British at Fort Detroit. The war spread quickly across the region as others, inspired spiritually and militarily, took up arms.

It was at Fort Pitt in late July 1763 that one of the most ominous chapters in North American conflict occurred. General Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797) had badly underestimated anti-British feeling in the West and had, as a consequence, under-supplied the region with soldiers. Small forts containing only a few hundred troops and as many civilians were being reduced to ash, their commanders humiliated and then tortured to death. Amherst sent a message to Colonel Henry Bouquet, who was en route to Fort Pitt, directing him to try biological warfare as a solution: “Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”Elizabeth A. Fenn, “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst,” The Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (March 2000): 1553-54. Amherst had already articulated a take-no-prisoners position, and he viewed the Aboriginal warriors as unworthy of the respect he would accord to a “civilized” nation’s army. Soon after he wrote to Bouquet: “You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” At Fort Pitt Bouquet initiated talks with Aboriginal leaders, gifting them with blankets taken from the smallpox hospital.

It is not clear whether the blankets mentioned by Amherst were responsible for a smallpox epidemic. It is, however, well known that smallpox was rampant throughout the field of battle during the Seven Years’ War and that Aboriginal communities continued to suffer terribly as a result. An ugly background noise to the colonial period, smallpox and its effects (death, disfigurement, blindness) were cited by Neolin as cause to push the British Americans out of the Ohio. Smallpox was evident after Fort Pitt, but we cannot be sure whether it was caused by Bouquet and his blankets. Regardless, smallpox probably did play a role in stopping Pontiac’s War.

By 1767 treaties had been signed across the region, mostly by the people who were not immediately at the sharp edge of British-American expansion. Historians have observed that this conflict, one of the bloodiest in a long series of very bloody confrontations, was the first in which both sides embraced a policy of, for all intents and purposes, “ethnic cleansing.” As historian Daniel Richter has observed, from the time of Pontiac on, Aboriginal peoples viewed all Europeans and Americans as “whites” and the Euro-Americans viewed the multitude of Aboriginal nations as, simply, “Indians.”Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 208. This attitude produced levels of intolerance that infected the century to come and beyond.

The Proclamation Act

Partly in response to the terrors of the Ohio Valley, the British government crafted the Act of Proclamation (or Royal Proclamation), which it passed on October 7, 1763. The Act was principally a guideline for the governance of North America after the Treaty of Paris. It created the Province of Quebec  as a separate colonial unit consisting roughly of the lands draining into the St. Lawrence, from Detroit east to the Gaspé. Quebec was thus cut off from the Ohio Valley and the western frontier of the former New France. Provisions were included in the Act for the imposition of English civil law, but the French civil law, the Coutume de Paris, survived. The British promised their French Catholic subjects that they would not be deported, nor would their religion face persecution. Catholics, however, were not permitted to hold office of any kind (as was the rule in Britain).

The Catholic clergy endured as well under the Act, although their numbers were reduced by death and emigration to France after the peace and they were not replenished. Governor James Murray (1721-1794) sought to use the clergy to his own ends, seeking by means of rewards and tolerance to secure their loyalty. He recognized their influence on the populace and was inclined to put plans for Protestantization on the back burner. Nonetheless, assimilation of the Canadiens was intended to be their fate just as expulsion was that of the Acadians.

In the Ohio Valley the British sought to place a barrier between the two warring parties. They understood the source of friction to be American colonists’ appetite for land. By guaranteeing the Aboriginal nations that land title could be extinguished only by the authority of the Crown, the Proclamation Act intended to put an end to unbridled settler expansionism. It was intended to buy peace and encourage trust among the Aboriginal nations, but it was also intended to restrain the American colonists who, the British realized, could prove very difficult to manage in the trans-Appalachian west. This was a feature of the Proclamation Act that, of course, was strongly criticized by the American colonists.

In summary, the British had fought to win Canada, but once it was theirs they began to realize what a challenge it was to govern. Having defeated the French, the British anticipated that there would be peace in the Pays d’en Haut; that proved not to be the case. The American colonists in particular were aggrieved: they had started the war with an incursion into the Ohio and that victory was meant to allow them westward expansion. Now the British — their imperial masters — were telling them to get back behind the Appalachians. Everywhere the British and their colonists turned, the triumphs at Louisbourg, Quebec, and the treaty table seemed hollow and pyrrhic.

Key Points

  • The end of the Seven Years’ War did not conclude the Aboriginal campaign to control European settlement and commerce in the Ohio Valley.
  • The Treaty of Easton recognized Aboriginal title to land and other resources, an important precursor to similar provisions in the Proclamation Act of 1763.
  • British military conduct in the West included efforts to achieve victory through biological warfare. This marked a change in British attitudes toward Aboriginal peoples.
  • The Proclamation Act created the Province of Quebec, reassured the Canadiens, and protected Catholic rights while limiting Canadien-Catholic engagement in positions of authority. It addressed Aboriginal concerns by denying American settlers access to lands west of Appalachia.


Figure 7.1
Pontiac’s war by Mahahahaneapneap is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


7.3 Government

The Proclamation Act was essentially Canada’s first constitution. France never implemented anything of this order. It is noteworthy because of its (limited) tolerance, its demarcation of the Ohioan west, its recognition of Aboriginal title, and its assimilationist agenda. As well, it did not attempt to reproduce in the Province of Quebec the kind of representative councils found in the colonies to the south. Canada was to be governed by governors, much as it had been under France.

Canada under Military Occupation

The first governor was James Murray, a Scot with a long career as a professional soldier who had been at Louisbourg and was Wolfe’s junior commander at Quebec. It was Murray whose forces were defeated in April 1760 at Sainte-Foy and who demonstrated  prudence by sitting tight in the citadel until reinforcements arrived to restore full British authority. From 1760 to the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Murray’s mandate was to keep a lid on Canadien resentment, ensure the locals (and their Aboriginal neighbours) did not rise up, and be prepared in case a French fleet suddenly appeared on the St. Lawrence. And, of course, there was always the possibility that France would take back Canada at the treaty table. With all those things in mind and having been taught a lesson at Sainte-Foy, Murray looked for ways to stabilize his situation and that of Canada’s.

There was, to begin, an iron-fist approach. Acadians who had fled the Expulsion to the Gaspé community of Bonaventure were to be rounded up and exiled, not least because they had — unsuccessfully — supported a small French supply fleet heading for Quebec, one that would have inconvenienced if not endangered Murray’s position. Murray was, however, also tough on British troops who mistreated the locals. His strategy was to be both feared and respected. In his own words, Murray believed the Canadiens “hardly will hereafter be easi[ly] persuaded to take up Arms against a Nation they admire, and who will have it allways in their [power?] to burn or destroy.”G. P. Browne, “MURRAY, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed August 26, 2014, . To that end he allowed widespread use of the French civil law, promoted Canadien militia leaders, and even appointed Franco-Catholics to important offices. He had an understandable suspicion of the clergy: their influence was significant in the Acadian-Wabanaki resistance over the last 20 years.

As for the economy, the British introduced some changes. When the aristocracy and bourgeoisie of France looked at Canada they saw luxurious and highly marketable furs; when the British military looked at their new colony they saw supplies that were needed by navies and armies. Ship masts, pitch and tar, whale and seal oil, iron ore, and potash drew Murray’s attention, as did agricultural potential. These were, however, still staple products, exports onto which little value had been added. Murray’s initiatives made the economy of Quebec wider but it was hardly any deeper. The fur trade continued to dominate, regardless of new initiatives, but even in 1763 it was becoming dominated by British-American merchants whose better credit lines, superior connections to military personnel in the western forts, and access to English-speaking markets in London enabled them to push the Canadien marchands to one side.

Murray’s tenure was brief — he was recalled in 1766 and replaced by Guy Carleton (1724-1808)  — but his half-dozen years of authority first in the city of Quebec, then over the whole of the Province of Quebec, established relationships and expectations that had a lasting impact. The clergy, under Bishop Jean-Olivier Briand (1715-1794), seized on the opportunity to preserve their influence, especially over education. Much of Quebec’s Lower Town was rebuilt according to the style of the ancien régime. The seigneurial system, like many other elements of pre-Conquest Canadien society, was encouraged to survive. All this, however, did not diminish the most obvious fact that Canadiens were living under military occupation.

Domination and Adjustment

Assessing the impact of these years has long been a concern of Canadian historians. Some French-Canadian historians argue that the Conquest was followed by the departure (voluntary or otherwise) of leading figures in Canadien society: not just government officials but also key actors in the economy and in society generally. This loss of significant personnel, they argue, led to a parallel collapse in Canadien economic prosperity and social capital. This perspective is referred to as the decapitation thesis.

Other interpretations have focused more on evidence of continuity (as can be seen in the survival of seigneurialism, the Church, and schools) and on the structural changes in the economy that disadvantaged Canadiens. Rather than point to “decapitation,” these historians have argued that Canadien marchands were impacted by the introduction of a new currency and investment environment, the leeching of fur resources from the Pays d’en Haut eastward to the British American colonies and southward to Louisiana, and the replacement of a more oligarchical model of enterprise with one that was more competitive and dominated by large numbers of smaller firms. Patronage from Murray and Carleton may not have favoured the British-Americans very much, but it did so to the disadvantage of the Canadiens.José Iguartua, "A Change in Climate: The Conquest and the Marchands of Montreal," Historical Papers (1974): 115-34.

The greatest controversy of the Murray regime pertains to his failure to create an elective assembly, which eventually cost him his job. By 1765 enough merchants had moved north from the old Thirteen Colonies to change the political dynamics of occupied New France. They set up shop in Montréal and Québec hoping to siphon off wealth from the British military presence and the fur trade. They expected that, as advertised in the Proclamation Act, they would instantly become electors and leading figures in the new British colony. Their expectations were based on the very clauses that froze Murray in his tracks. The Proclamation Act allowed for the creation of a council that would, according to British law, permit only Protestants to hold office. But the total number of Protestants in the Province of Quebec in 1764 was minuscule. Murray estimated there were only 200 Protestant households, and he could not imagine them having authority over 70,000 Catholic Canadiens without provoking a severe backlash. He resisted calls to establish an elected assembly under these circumstances.

Rather than worsen the situation for himself, Murray — perhaps unwisely — pursued land policies that discouraged further British immigration. In doing so, he continued to fall afoul of the British Protestants, especially the Montreal merchants. An alarming array of charges — later thrown out of court — were brought against him and he was recalled to Britain in 1766.

James Murray’s successor, Guy Carleton, was another military man, an officer who served under Wolfe at both Louisbourg and Quebec. Initially he courted favour with the British merchants of the province and split with Murray’s advisors, but within a year he was following a path that Murray had blazed. Both governors looked at the demographics of the province and concluded that the Canadiens were going to dominate the region for the foreseeable future, and there was little to suggest that assimilationist policies would have much effect. They both determined that maintaining the trust and cooperation of the French settlers was preferable to conceding authority to a handful of British-American newcomers who might not have staying power in the colony. Carleton deferred and deflected demands for an assembly and did his best to reinforce the credibility of the seigneurs. Remarkably, Carleton spent four years of his tenure in London, lobbying for constitutional changes that would transition the province out of military possession and into a viable colony.

The Quebec Act, 1774

What the British-American merchants wanted most from a new constitution was an elected assembly. They didn’t get one; instead the Quebec Act entrenched the practice of Murray and Carleton in the form of an appointed legislative council that devised laws in partnership with and at the command of the governor. The new constitution shelved the Proclamation Act’s objective of anglicization and permitted Catholics to hold a greater variety of positions, including seats on the council. It entrenched British criminal law and recognized the Coutume de Paris. As well, British common law played a role in administrative matters and in some criminal cases. The church could resume collecting tithes and seigneurs could once again collect dues.

The flow of authority from Britain to Canada. Long description available.

Figure 7.2 An administrative flow chart of the Quebec Act. Note the complex judiciary and the continuing influence of the Pope. [Long Description]

This was a constitution designed to win the support of the French-speaking majority in the colony, or at least the social and cultural leaders of that majority — the clergy and the seigneurs.  Canadiens were unfamiliar with democratic institutions like the assemblies found in New England and the other British-American colonies, and they were accustomed to an oligarchically structured administration run by the King’s representative in Fortress Quebec. But the habitants were none too pleased to see the Church and the seigneurs once again in a position to tax them. The British-American immigrants were predictably livid at the non-elective constitution. Critics in the other British colonies joined in the chorus of voices calling for the familiar freedoms enjoyed to the south. Moreover, British-Americans worried that this rejection of an assembly boded ill for their own institutions. Britain increasingly held with mercantilist control of commerce (through taxes and tariffs); the Americans feared that their assemblies were now in the crosshairs as well.

The one feature of the Quebec Act that secured anglo-merchant support in Montreal simultaneously inflamed British-American outrage. The new constitution extended the western boundaries of the Province of Quebec to include the Ohio Valley (see Figures 7.3 and 7.4), which gave the Montreal merchants (British and French) renewed priority and privileges in the region. Fur traders from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York — regarded by the Montrealers as interlopers — were now in a weaker position. The Canadien population around Detroit, moreover, made it the third- or fourth-largest town in the province (after Quebec, Montreal, and perhaps Trois-Rivières), so for the majority of the colony’s population, this seemed like an appropriate reunification.

This made the fur traders of Montreal very happy, but the British-Americans regarded it as another act of British perfidy, one that joined a growing list of administrative changes that damaged colonists’ interests. Coming as it did six months after Bostonians dramatically protested a stealthy British tax on tea, some British-Americans interpreted the Quebec Act as vindictive punishment, a sign that the Crown was arbitrary and ill-disposed to the colonies. It was one of several factors that contributed to the breaking of relations between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies and is classed in American histories as one of the Intolerable Acts.

The province of Quebec in 1774 had much different borders than those of modern day Quebec.

Figure 7.3 Province of Quebec in 1774



Figure 7.4 British North America, showing the colonies from Maryland to Newfoundland, 1776.

As enlightened and permissive as the Quebec Act appears to be toward Canadien-Catholic society and culture, there is an important caveat to note. The Act came with so-called secret instructions to the governor. When circumstances improved, he was to take steps to anglicize the population. Protestantism was to be favoured; Catholicism might be tolerated but did not extend to approving Papal instructions from Rome. There was to be only one centre of authority, and that was the British Parliament (via Quebec). Assimilation, then, was still on the cards. Within months of the Quebec Act being passed, however, the British administration in the province was doing all it could to ensure the support of the Canadiens in what looked likely to be a disruption in the normal course of colonial business for the next year or two.

Key Points

  • Early attempts on the part of the British to govern New France were marked by expectations of cultural assimilation and the extinguishing of Catholicism, but in practice tolerance and inclusion were viewed as necessary to maintaining a loyal population.
  • Attempts to integrate the economy of the Province of Quebec into the British mercantile system resulted in the rise of a British/British-American merchant class in Montreal and Quebec where they were able to out-compete the Canadien marchands.
  • The anglophone community countered the pragmatic compromises of Governors Murray and Carleton with demands for greater liberties for themselves, fewer for the Canadiens, and a greater role in governing the colony.
  • The Quebec Act was an articulation of Carleton’s policy of cautious tolerance and inclusion; it included provisions for British common law and the continuance of the Coutume de Paris in areas like seigneurial law. It also provoked a hostile response from the Americans.
  • “Secret instructions” to the governor revealed that the policy of tolerance was meant to be a temporary measure and that cultural assimilation of the French was a long-term goal.


Figure 7.2
Constitution-of-quebec-1775 by Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 7.3
Province of Quebec 1774 by Harfang is in the public domain.

Figure 7.4
A general map of the northern British colonies in America by File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske) is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Long Description

Figure 7.2 long description: A chart describing the flow of authority between Britain and Canada according to the Quebec Act. The British Crown held sovereignty and was represented in Canada by the Governor of the Province of Quebec. In addition to the Crown, Great Britain’s government was made up of the Lords of Trade and Plantation, who appointed and instructed the governor of Quebec, and the King’s Privy Council. The King’s Privy Council functioned as the final court of appeal for Quebec’s justice system. The governor of the province of Quebec had a number of responsibilities, including appointing the justice magistrates, forming the legislative council in Quebec, and approving the nomination of the Bishop of Quebec by the Pope. The Governor and the Legislative council, which consisted from 17 to 23 members, made up the government of Quebec. The legislative council exercised legislative and executive powers and directed the public administration and civil servants, who administer the civil affairs for the population of the province of Quebec, which at the time had about 90,000 people. The Justice system was divided into civil and criminal justice systems, which exersized judiciary power. The civil justice system included the Court of Appeal and the Courts of Common Please. The criminal justice system included the Court of the King’s Bench, the Courts of Oyer and Terminer, the Courts of Quarter Sessions, the Courts of Weekly Sessions, and Justices of the Peace. The religious, social, and cultural life of subjects of the Catholic faith was managed by the Lower Clergy, who were directed by the Bishop of Quebec. [Return to Figure 7.2]


7.4 Revolutionary British America

Carleton wasn’t the only governor facing recalcitrant and angry merchants. The cost of the Seven Years’ War in North America was significant and the British Treasury looked to the colonies to recoup some of the Crown’s expenses. Taxing the people who were supposedly the principal beneficiaries of the Conquest (that is, the British-Americans) seemed like a good and fair idea.

Revolutionary Colonies

The British Thirteen Colonies had been administered by what came to be known as “salutary neglect,” a kind of autonomy in everything but name. Each colony’s assembly was in some measure distinct and all had their own particular kind of relationship with Britain. One commonality, however, was the notion that the Colonies were not to be taxed. Resistance to taxation without representation had a long history in the Colonies and it flared up in the 1750s, the 1760s, and — finally — in the 1770s. As King George III’s government pushed in the direction of more direct and authoritarian rule over the colonies, the colonists themselves were pulling in a different direction. Philosophical discussions regarding classical views on democratic principles and rights became widespread and informed a Whig challenge to imperial rule. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), an English immigrant to America in 1774 who popularized new ideas associated with human rights, provided much of the vocabulary needed to mobilize colonial support for revolution. At the same time, there were scores of merchants and investors in the main port cities who saw glory and prosperity in a future outside of British trade constraints. The Revolution, then, was spurred by a desire to conserve existing rights, an aversion to taxes, awareness of opportunities for wealth-making, and a suite of truly revolutionary ideas about who should govern whom.

Some colonists rejected the revolutionary approach. Perhaps as many as one in five Americans advocated loyalism: finding ways to continue living under British rule. The Loyalists took positions across a broad spectrum and were motivated by very different concerns. Some were Tories who rejected the ideas of Paine and the prospect of change of any kind. They were at one end of the spectrum. Others took the perspective that negotiations with Britain could improve relationships without sacrificing two centuries of deep cultural, economic, and political connection. The Haudenosaunee, for their part, had a long-standing relationship with Britain, and the Seneca/Mingo and Mohawk in particular were anxious about American colonists’ hunger for their lands. Iroquois loyalists were to play a key role in the British military campaign. (Ironically, the Boston protesters of 1773 chose to disguise themselves as Mohawks when they attacked the tea ship, the Dartmouth.)

Settlers along the Ohio Valley frontier, especially German and Dutch immigrants, had survived Pontiac’s War and continued threats from Aboriginal neighbours only because of the protection offered by British soldiers and forts. They had little connection to the rising discontent in New England or Virginia and good cause to be favourably disposed to the British. African-American slaves were promised their freedom by both sides in the conflict and a great many elected to join the British against their owners. To the north and east, whole colonies rejected the Revolution.

Revolutionary Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland

The Patriots — the American revolutionary leadership — had good reason to expect support from the Canadiens. After all, more than any other colony they were living under British rule and an unelected, oligarchical administration. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) famously claimed that winning Canada away from Britain was “a mere matter of marching.” France — always happy to put a stick in Britain’s spokes — discretely supported revolutionary feeling in the province. American agitators went from town to town cajoling and threatening Canadiens to thrust off Europe and accept a North American destiny. Keep in mind that the Anglo-Canadian merchants of Montreal were hungry for democratic institutions, so the rhetoric of the Patriots appealed to many of them. Against this backdrop, the British turned to their carefully groomed allies among the seigneurs and the clergy to encourage Canadien loyalism. Both sides were disappointed. The Canadiens failed to rise up against the British and they did little to push back the Americans’ invasion.

Generations of war between New England, New York, Acadia, and Canada had taught the Americans to watch the northern frontier. The British already had a strong military presence there; if it was speedily reinforced it would become a base of operations against the Revolution. The Patriots sent their new continental army north in the spring of 1775, early in the conflict, hoping to fire up the Canadiens and dislodge the British. They failed on the first count but were able to drive Carleton’s forces from Montreal and push him back into the citadel at Quebec City.

The Canadiens were not fans of the British regime but they hated — or at least deeply mistrusted — the New Englanders at least as much. Like the Acadians before them, the Canadiens pursued a self-interested neutrality, supplying both sides (sometimes at an inflated profit) and generally staying out of the way. Although Bishop Briand was disappointed by the lacklustre response of the populace to his call to arms, the clergy may have been successful in fanning the flames of anti-Protestant sentiment. Certainly the Church believed it had much to fear in the rhetoric of the Patriots. Hierarchical elements of life in Quebec, then, were factors that both dampened and incited revolutionary sympathies among the Canadiens.

Carleton, for his part, was able to repel the two-pronged American attacks on Montreal and Quebec but he was unable — even with British reinforcements — to press the advantage home. By 1777 the Patriots had given up hope of a northern front against the British, and the British had reoriented their efforts to the tidewater ports.

The situation in Nova Scotia was more complex. There, the post-Expulsion population was made up of English and Scots settlers at Halifax along with a garrison of soldiers and hangers-on, New Englanders — or Planters — who had come northeast to take up farmland, an infusion of more than a thousand farmers from Yorkshire who emigrated because of worsening economic and tenancy conditions at home, and German and other non-anglophone immigrants (some of whom were relocated Pennsylvania Dutch). Efforts by the Nova Scotian regime to build the population had, then, met with some success. But the towns and settlements were ethnically distinct: the Chignecto Isthmus was dominated by New Englanders who were at odds with neighbouring Yorkshire immigrants. Lunenburg was the site of German/Swiss settlement and the target of repeated Mi’kmaq and Acadian raids. The 8,000 or so Planters focused on the Bay of Fundy, and the Pennsylvania Dutch worked their way up the Petitcodiac River to “the Bend” (a.k.a. Moncton). In the northeast of the colony, on the frontier of the Gaspé, returning Acadians were permitted to establish new communities. There was widespread instability throughout the colony in the 1760s as the Mi’kmaq War continued. By the time of the Revolution, Nova Scotia was still little more than a collection of loosely connected outports and farming villages with not much in the way of a shared identity.

New Englanders in the colony were, of course, interested in how events in Massachusetts appeared to be unfolding and there was some sympathy for a local insurrection against the British. The colonial governor was never in a particularly powerful position, despite the presence of the Royal Navy. Unlike the Province of Quebec, Nova Scotia had an elected assembly. But the electorate was a small one, made up of property owners and the pool of potential assembly members was, in practice, restricted to those men wealthy enough to participate. This left the merchant class of Halifax in a position of powerful influence. Corruption in their dealings with the military and administrative establishment was widespread; attempts to expose it ultimately cost Governor Francis Legge his job. Before that occurred, however, Legge was assigned the task of raising a colony-wide levy and a militia in support of Britain’s campaign against the revolutionary colonies to the west and south. This initiative was akin to prodding a hornet’s nest: the New Englanders — who constituted at least 50% of the Nova Scotian population — objected to the idea of fighting their kin and called for an end to the tax and the militia campaign. Realizing that he was on the brink of inspiring rather than suppressing revolutionaries, the governor prudently backed down.

This was not enough for some New Englanders in the colony. Two incidents occurred that deserve mention: the raids launched by freebooters out of the Machias Basin, and the insurrectionary efforts of John Allan (1747-1805) and Jonathan Eddy (1726-1804) in the Chignecto Isthmus. The former were using the Revolution as an excuse to line their own pockets, and they were badly disorganized and undersupported by their own people (that is, settlers from New England). The Allan and Eddy rising was divisive even among the New Englanders, who would have preferred waiting for a liberating army from the Thirteen Colonies.

George Washington (by this time a general in the Continental Army) refused requests to intervene, citing the presence of the Royal Navy at Halifax and the strategic challenges of holding onto a prize that was in no way unified. The Yorkshiremen remained loyal to the British cause, what few Acadians and Mi’kmaq could be drawn into the conflict favoured the Patriots, but the pivotal population of New Englanders chose to remain neutral. Eddy’s attack on Fort Cumberland in November 1776 failed and Nova Scotia’s flirtation with revolution came to an end. Raids on outports by privateers working out of New England and New York thereafter only served to alienate the Nova Scotians further from the American cause.


Figure 7.5 Jonathan Eddy, leader of the failed rising for independence in Nova Scotia.

There are echoes of the Nova Scotian experience in Newfoundland. Both colonies had a British naval presence and a population that was disaffected from Britain (in the case of Newfoundland, large numbers of Catholic Irish immigrants). In Newfoundland these were not characteristics that either restrained or propelled support for the Revolution. The naval presence, for example, was an indifferent factor because it was so small and badly maintained. Newfoundland was a place where the navy harvested sailors, not one where it patrolled the waters. If there had been local discontent, it would have been difficult to muster and almost impossible to focus: the settlements were even smaller and more isolated from one another than on the mainland and there was barely any administrative presence at which to aim revolutionary fervour. In Newfoundland, the orientation of communities was toward the sea, the fisheries, and the export market, not toward one another. The population had little to do with New England and was in no way caught up in the rhetoric of the Revolution. What’s more, there was money to be made in loyalism: the Americans had been frozen out of the Grand Banks early in the war and the French left it as soon as it looked likely they’d join in on the side of the Americans. This left Newfoundland’s fishing fleet in a very good position to expand exports into both the West Indies and Europe. And, as was the case in Nova Scotia, the arrival of American pirates was unlikely to spark sympathy for the cause of the Thirteen Colonies. Finally, the French briefly captured St. John’s in 1762, which resulted in a British counter-invasion, all of which reinforced Newfoundland’s loyalty to the Crown.

A painting of French troops at St. John's.

Figure 7.6 The French capture of St. John’s, 1762.

The Loyalist Exodus

By July 4, 1776, the Patriots controlled the majority of territory within the Thirteen Colonies and expelled all royal officials. Colonists who openly proclaimed their loyalty to the Crown were driven from their communities, often violently. Bostonian Patriots set the tone in 1774 with an attack on a local customs officer, John Malcolm, and the practice of terrorizing officials and critics of the Revolution spread rapidly. Mobs, often calling themselves “Sons of Liberty,” harassed and brutalized suspected Loyalists or Tories using torture techniques such as tarring-and-feathering, locking them in stockades, and forcing “riding the rail” (that is, being straddled over and tied to a long wooden rail which was carried and bounced along in order to inflict injury to their genitals and thighs). All of these treatments were accompanied by public humiliation. Loyalist regiments were assembled across the colonies in support of the British cause and what is usually described as a battle between colonists and the Crown was, in fact, a civil war between American colonists. Mortality rates among the Loyalist regiments increased and levels of brutality on both sides were high. 

After the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Patriots equated loyalism with treason and meted out punishment accordingly. This is not to say that the British and their allies did not engage in brutal treatment of the Patriots; it is merely to point out the context of the Loyalist emigration.

The liberty tree. Long description available

Figure 7.7 “The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering,” attributed to Philip Dawe, 1774. John Malcolm, a tax collector is shown. He was subsequently hoisted into the liberty tree. [Long Description]

When the Loyalist cause was defeated, many Loyalists fled to Britain, Canada, and other parts of the British Empire. The departure of royal officials, rich merchants, and landed gentry destroyed the hierarchical networks that thrived in the colonies. Key members of the elite families that owned and controlled much of the commerce and industry in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston left the United States, undermining the cohesion of the old upper class and disrupting the social structure of the colonies. The largest number of these exiles made their way to Quebec and Nova Scotia, although the wealthiest and those who formerly held key positions in the British administration of the colonies were more likely to head to Britain.

Evacuations. Longdescription available.

Figure 7.8 “Tory Refugees on the Way to Canada” by Howard Pyle, 1901. This 20th century imagining of the Loyalist migration emphasizes the forced aspects of the migration. [Long Description]

The Loyalist exodus to what remained of British North America consisted of a wide array of people. In a 1999 article in the journal Acadiensis, Barry Cahill makes an important distinction between Loyalists of colour (of which there were fewer than a hundred by his reckoning) and “fugitive” African-Americans who were “seeking refuge from slavery.” This second, much larger body of migrants were opposed to being chattel property, not to revolutionary ideals.Barry Cahill, "The Black Loyalist Myth in Nova Scotia," Acadiensis XXIX, no.1 (Autumn 1999). Some 3,000 African-American slaves — thanks in no small measure to Guy Carleton’s willful disregard for orders to obstruct their passage — travelled from New York to Nova Scotia. Most settled in and around Halifax, some taking up farming.

The refugee slaves were quickly caught in a legal grey area wherein they were regarded as “slaves” even though they might not have “owners.” The British regime took no steps to emancipate the Loyalists of colour, and some of the White Loyalists who had been slave owners before the Revolution expressed a desire to restore that system of relationships. In 1787 the British government arranged for members of the Afro-Nova Scotian community to relocate to the West African community of Sierra Leone, an offer that was taken up by many who were tired of bitter winters and shoddy treatment by White Haligonians. As the Nova Scotian historian Barry Cahill points out, the story of the Black Loyalists has become part of the narrative of inclusivity in Canada, but it is mostly a fiction: “One cannot right the wrongs of history by turning Black people into honorary Whites, fugitive slaves into Loyalists. To do so is to permit the colonization of Black history by White historical myths.”Ibid.

A list entitled "Negro Men and Boys, also their ages and vales"

Figure 7.9 A page from the Book of Negros, a tabulation of African-Americans heading from New York to Nova Scotia. Note that ages are mostly rounded and that “values” are provided.

Another group of “Loyalists” whose agenda was, like the African-Americans, distinct from those of the colonial Tories was the Aboriginal group of refugees. Roughly 2,000 Haudenosaunee, principally Mohawk, left their homeland for a large swath of what is now southern Ontario under the leadership of Thayendenaga (a.k.a. Joseph Brant, 1743-1807). Thayendenaga’s links with the British were diplomatic, military, and familial: he was connected to the British administration under William Johnson through his older sister, Konwatsi’tsiaienni (a.k.a. Degonwadonti, Mary Brant) who was Johnson’s consort.

The Haudenosaunees’ experience represents a further wrinkle or branch of what is too often presented as an unproblematic Loyalist mythology. Unlike the individual farming frontier loyalists of German and other European extraction who arrived nearby from western Pennsylvania and New York, the Mohawk Loyalists arrived and functioned as a group, as their own society. They injected into early southern Ontario a large and well-organized people well ahead of the settler waves that would travel up the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario.

The largest wave of Loyalist refugees — some 30,000 — headed to Nova Scotia. Like their pre-Loyalist Planter predecessors and Yorkshire-born neighbours, they took up land that had been cleared or drained by Acadians and began the arduous process of clearing hardwood forests for their new settlements. Many settled in areas where they might be depended upon to fight against invading American forces. The Saint John Valley in particular witnessed substantial Loyalist establishments, the most important being Fredericton. This new concentration of population led to the creation of a new colony, New Brunswick, whose political offices were immediately filled by Loyalists. Similarly, the colony of Cape Breton was briefly called into existence to administer the Loyalist arrivals there.

Roughly 10,000 Loyalists entered the Province of Quebec. There they encountered the seigneurial system of landholding, which frustrated attempts to settle the newcomers. Some went to the Gaspé and others into the Eastern Townships southwest of Montreal. The largest group that reached the St. Lawrence — some 7,000 — were sent upstream to the north shore of Lake Ontario.Christopher Moore, The Loyalists: Revolution Exile Settlement (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994).

Bisecting a Continent

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 reduced British North America significantly. The Province of Quebec lost Detroit and all the lands south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Huron. There remained uncertainty about the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick; it would be unresolved for 50 years more. British forts in what the Americans now called their northwest were a sore spot for another decade as well until Jay’s Treaty impelled the British to leave the region for good. The Loyalist exodus helped decide other territorial claims as the British were then able to convincingly settle regions that had been in dispute.

It would be many years before British North Americans would begin to conceptualize their lands as something like “Canada,” but the outcome of the American Revolution nevertheless produced two separate entities. In some respects, it restored the old territorial division between England and France in North America before the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), although now Britain was playing the role in the north formerly played by France.

Key Points

  • The American Revolution divided colonists in all the British possessions in North America along ideological, ethnic, and sectarian lines.
  • Three British colonies — Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland — did not join in the Revolution, although factions within each supported it.
  • Loyalists or Tories emerged in the Thirteen Colonies who eventually abandoned the United States at the end of the Revolution and formed a core population in British North America.
  • A large proportion of the Loyalist migration comprised former African-American slaves and members of the Mohawk nation.
  • The end of the Revolution established two separate colonial identities in North America, north of New Spain: the republican United States and the British-controlled and nominally loyal colonies collectively known as British North America.


Figure 7.5
Colonel Jonathan Eddy by Hantsheroes is in the public domain.

Figure 7.6
Perspective view of the French attack on Newfoundland near St. John’s by Pierre5018 is in the public domain.

Figure 7.7
The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering (1774) – 02 by Quadell is in the public domain.

Figure 7.8
Tory Refugees by Djmaschek is in the public domain.

Figure 7.9
2book0706b by Dr Wilson is in the public domain.

Long Description

Figure 7.7 long description: A man being restrained by a group of men is covered in feathers. Behind them, a tree labelled “liberty tree” has a noose hanging from its branches. [Return to Figure 7.7]

Figure 7.8 long description: A family with their belongings packed onto horses head off down the road. The man carrying a gun looks behind them to see people waving their fists at them. [Return to Figure 7.8]


7.5 Interwar Years: The Atlantic Colonies


Figure 7.10 Painted in 1835, this work by Robert Petley shows African-American refugees — nominally “Black Loyalists” — near Bedford Basin.

Greater Nova Scotia

The population of Nova Scotia changed radically at the end of the Revolution. In 1764 there were about 13,000 people in the whole colony, which included what would become New Brunswick and Cape Breton. Halifax was easily the largest town but with only 3,000 people. Up to 30,000 Loyalists arrived from the old British colonies and the pattern of settlement changed overnight.Statistics Canada, Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871.

The Saint John River Valley became a particular focus of growth, as did port communities like Shelburne and the Afro-Nova Scotian community of Birchtown — the largest free Black community in North America. Saint John emerged as a modest-sized town and was the first incorporated city in what is now Canada. It was also a highly exclusive centre, with civic laws prohibiting the settling of African-New Brunswickers and barring from the trades and other occupations Whites who were neither Loyalists nor descended from Loyalists. Indeed, Loyalism was more of a fetish in Saint John than in many other settlements. The town attracted many of the most socially distinguished refugees, including the family of General Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), the Continental Army commander who switched to the British side in the course of the war.

The Saint John settlers petitioned London for a separate colony of their own, partly because they felt distant from and ignored by Halifax, but also because they regarded Haligonians as suspiciously democratic in their politics. Thus, in 1784, Nova Scotia was partitioned into two colonies along the Fundy-Chignecto axis.  A new capital for New Brunswick was established at Fredericton, nearly 100 kilometres up the Saint John River. This position was more easily defended than Saint John, should the Americans choose to attack some day, but it divided New Brunswick society into an administrative capital and a commercial capital. Acadians returned in growing numbers but they gave the Saint John region a wide berth, preferring to settle instead on the northeast coast of the renamed colony.

The years after 1783 proved particularly disappointing for the part of the Wabanaki Confederacy living in New Brunswick. During the Revolution they had shelved their hostility toward the British and provided support against the American rebels and expansionists from Maine. After the war and the Treaty of Paris, the Mi’kmaq and Malicite were neglected by authorities in both Saint John and Halifax. The Proclamation Act of 1763, which obliged Parliament to address Aboriginal land title, was held to apply only to the Ohio Valley and not to the Wabanaki homeland. The new regimes in Fredericton and Halifax were no less anti-Catholic than was the case before 1775, perhaps more so. This didn’t help the Mi’kmaq, whose people had been converting to Catholicism since 1610. Marginalized in the post-Revolutionary War years, the Mi’kmaq made common cause with other groups who found themselves out of the mainstream: African Loyalists, Irish immigrants, and Acadian returnees. Intermarriage between the groups was common, especially on the south shore of Nova Scotia.

Similar practices occurred in Cape Breton, also carved off from Nova Scotia in 1784. Returning Acadians were generally pushed along through Nova Scotia and on to the island where they settled in communities alongside Irish immigrants. Scots began arriving about the same time. Cape Breton’s future as a community of Gaelic-speaking, coal-mining fiddle players was, however, still some decades away.

The economy of Cape Breton — and that of the rest of the Maritimes — enjoyed a brief surge in the post-revolutionary years. The British Navigation Acts prohibited the transport of British goods on ships that were not British-made. This meant that products of British colonies as well as in the home country could only be carried in ships built either in Britain or her colonies. When the British made it clear that the Acts were going to be applied to post-revolutionary New England (the source of much of Britain’s colonial shipping capacity, lumber, and surplus fish sales), the Maritimes stepped — or fell — into the breach. Shipbuilding, mast-making, and the fisheries expanded to take advantage of the exclusive markets in the West Indies. Sadly, the region simply could not achieve the level of surpluses needed to serve and control the market. Food production in the colonies was limited and little was left over for export. Although shipping surged forward, it could not hope to fill the gap left by New England.

Exercise: Documents

Loyalist Women in Exile

In 1787 Polly Dibblee wrote to her brother, William Jarvis, complaining of the plight of Loyalist exiles in New Brunswick.

Kingston, New Brunswick
[17 November 1787]

Dear BillyI have received your two Letters and the Trunk, and I feel the good Effects of the Clothes you sent me and my Children, and I value them to be worth more than I should have valued a thousand Pounds sterling in the year 1774. Alas, my Brother, that Providence should permit so many Evils to fall on me and my Fatherless Children — I know the sensibility of your Heart — therefore will not exaggerate in my story, lest I should contribute towards your Infelicity on my account— Since I wrote you, I have been twice burnt out, and left destitute of Food and Raiment; and in this dreary Country I know not where to find Relief — for Poverty has expelled Friendship and charity from the human Heart, and planted in its stead the Law of self-preservation – which scarcely can preserve alive the rustic Hero in this frozen Climate and barren Wilderness—

You say “that you have received accounts of the great sufferings of the Loyalists for want of Provisions, and I hope that you and your Children have not had the fate to live on Potatoes alone”— I assure you, my dear Billy, that many have been the Days since my arrival in this inhospitable Country, that I should have thought myself and Family truly happy could we have “had Potatoes alone” –but this mighty Boon was denied us!– I could have borne these Burdens of Loyalty with Fortitude had not my poor Children in doleful accents cried, Mama, why don’t you help me and give me Bread?

O gracious God, that I should live to see such times under the Protection of a British Government for whose sake we have Done and suffered every thing but that of Dying—

May you never Experience such heart piercing troubles as I have and still labour under — You may Depend on it that the Sufferings of the poor Loyalists are beyond all possible Description— The old Egyptians who required Brick without giving straw were more Merciful than to turn the Israelites into a thick Wood to gain Subsistence from an uncultivated Wilderness— Nay, the British Government allowed to the first Inhabitants of Halifax, Provisions for seven years, and have denied them to the Loyalists after two years– which proves to me that the British Rulers value Loyal Subjects less than the Refuse of the Gaols of England and America in former Days— Inhumane Treatment I suffered under the Power of American Mobs and Rebels for that Loyalty, which is now thought handsomely compensated for, by neglect and starvation— I dare not let my Friends at Stamford know of my Calamitous Situation lest it should bring down the grey Hairs of my Mother to the Grave; and besides they could not relieve me without distressing themselves should I apply– as they have been ruined by the Rebels during the War— therefore I have no other Ground to hope, but , on your Goodness and Bounty—

I wish every possible happiness may attend you, and your amiable Wife, and Child–and my Children have sense enough to know they have an Uncle Billy, and beg he will always remember them as they deserve.

I have only to add– that by your Brother Dibblee’s Death– my Miseries were rendered Compleat in this World but as God is just and Merciful my prospects in a future World are substantial and pleasing— I will therefore endeavour to live on hopes till I hear again from you— I remain in possession of a graceful Heart,

Dear Billy,
Your affectionate Sister,
Polly DibbleeLetter from Polly Dibblee to William Jarvis, 17 November 1787, Kingston, "Loyalist Women in New Brunswick, 1783-1827," Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives, diplomatic rendition, document no. 13_41. Audit Office, series 13, bundle 41, is available at National Archives, London.

Correspondences are a way of showing what one, as the author, thinks but they are also a means of changing the mind of the reader to whom the letter is sent.

What does Polly Dibblee want from her brother? How does she hope that he will understand her situation and that of the Loyalists generally? What message does she wish to convey?

Note that some words are capitalized mid-sentence — is there a pattern?

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island’s situation was unusual in the region. Acadians from all over Nova Scotia fled to the island beginning on 1755, one step ahead of the Expulsion and war. They brought the size of the Acadian population to more than 5,000. Their conditions were difficult: housing was inadequate, food was in short supply following three bad seasons in a row, and everyone was nervous at the prospect of further deportations. They didn’t have long to wait. In 1758 — in the midst of the Seven Years’ War — a local expulsion began. Nearly 1,000 deportees died in shipwrecks on the way to France in late 1758.

In 1767 the whole of St. John’s Island, as it was then known, was divided into 67 lots of roughly 20,000 acres apiece. These were distributed in a lottery in London to aristocratic and other well-to-do investors whose responsibility it was to settle the land with farmers. Rather than wait on a natural flow of immigrants, this experiment proposed to draft settlers into a quasi-feudal tenant-farmer agricultural colony. The project failed badly. Settlers were slow in coming and the absentee landlords (or proprietors) sometimes abandoned entirely their obligations to the colony. From late in the 18th century until the 1870s, the Islanders would petition and demand of Britain that the unsettled and unserviced land be put up for freehold sale. Islanders were convinced that this system was a drag on their economic growth and a constraint on investment in the colony.

Efforts to seize defaulting proprietors’ lands led to the recall of Governor Walter Patterson in 1786. It was out of this failed attempt to repossess the land — a process called escheat  — that Islanders initiated an indigenous political movement and the Escheat Party, which was clearly in opposition to the interests of the larger landowners and their British sponsors. In 1798, in order to avoid confusion with St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Saint John, New Brunswick, the British government changed the colony’s name to Prince Edward Island. The colony developed strong links with British markets and was an early tourist resort for wealthy travellers from late 18th century England and for ships sailing out of New England.


Figure 7.11 Prince Edward Island in 1775, showing the proprietors’ land parcels.


The War of Independence was a pivotal time for Newfoundland. The fisheries economy of the colony was always exposed during wartime because of the demand created for naval sailors, many of whom were plucked from Newfoundland’s cod industry. As well, Newfoundland shipping was increasingly vulnerable to American privateers who could, by seizing Newfoundland craft, hurt the British economy, reduce the size of the Newfoundland fleet, deny the Royal Navy some sailors, and head for home with a valuable supply of cod. The loss of food supplies from New England in the early years of the war was an even more significant trauma for the island colony, one that provoked famine conditions for two years."Exploration and Settlement," Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage.

The population of Newfoundland was made up mostly of transient fishermen, people who worked with the fleets from Europe without sinking roots into the outport communities and the resident community. The transients left in large numbers as wartime conditions worsened. For the first time, Newfoundlanders were mostly residents.

Increasingly, the residents became merchants. The business model of the transient or migratory fishery had been irrevocably damaged by the war and Britain could no longer run the colony as a fishery station. Now there was room for residents to engage more fully with the fisheries and with import/export economies, as was made clear with two developments.

First, St. John’s emerged as a hub of commercial and administrative activity. At the end of the Revolution there were barely a thousand people in St. John’s; less than 30 years later there were more than 10,000. Second, the population of the colony as a whole expanded dramatically, rising to 20,000 in 1800. Fed mostly by Irish immigration (both Catholic and Protestant), the population continued to grow into the mid-19th century.


Figure 7.12 James Cook’s map of Newfoundland, published 1775. Three years later Cook was charting the Pacific coastline of North America.

Tension existed within this community because Newfoundland lacked a formal, elective type of government; in its place it had a small elite of St. John’s merchants (mostly Protestant) and an officers’ corps, both of which advised the governor. This arrangement alienated some of the Irish and others in the community, and led to a failed coup in 1800, which ended with the execution of eight members of the conspiracy.

More subtly, the demographics of Newfoundland did much to shape the community that evolved. At the start of the century one legacy of the transient fisheries was still evident: the distorted ratio of men to women. Because Britain did not (officially) want to stimulate settlement and colonial population growth, it had discouraged female immigration. As residency grew, this constraint was lifted and the number of women in Newfoundland increased, resulting in an intensification of permanent settlement in individual outports.

Regular traffic between Newfoundland and Ireland enabled men to find brides at home and bring them to the colony. It also produced generations of children, something that had not been witnessed in the Euro-Newfoundlander population in any significant numbers before 1800. For the first time, education became the focus of attention. As Willeen Keough has shown, the arrival of Irish women on the southern Avalon created a cadre of females who were part- or full-owners of fishing businesses (called “plantations”), employers of fisheries “servants,” active in the shore crews, owner/operators of small businesses, farmers, and key to the emergence of a household economy consisting of more than one generation.Willeen Keough, "The Riddle of Peggy Mountain: Regulation of Irish Women's Sexualtiy on the Southern Avalon," Acadiensis 31, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 38-70.

These changes in Newfoundland society had a visible impact on the landscape. Forests along the foreshore were cut down and used for lumber and fuel. Even before the great boom in Newfoundland’s forest industry in the 19th century, more and more rock was emerging from underneath the stumps of former tree stands. Whaling, which had been a pastime of the Basque fleet for centuries, had severely reduced cetacean numbers and may have stimulated the health of the cod population as they were no longer prey or competitors of the large sea mammals. The capture of foreshore positions for fishing stations and deforestation had another impact: it reduced Aboriginal access to traditional resources.

The Beothuk, an Algonkian-speaking group about whom little is known, engaged in trade and scavenging but increasingly avoided direct contact with Europeans as the fleet-sizes increased.William Gilbert, “Beothuk-European Contact in the 16th Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence,” Acadiensis XXXX, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24-44. They retreated inland when the European fishing crews were on shore, and then raided their abandoned sites for metal nails from which they could fashion their own tools. There was armed conflict between the Beothuk and the Europeans, and also against the Mi’kmaq who had settlements along the south coast of Newfoundland. The Beothuk depended heavily on the migratory caribou herd, which was impacted by European settlement on the Avalon Peninsula, and on the spawning routes of the salmon fishery, which was disrupted by Euro-Newfoundlanders’ logging along the island’s river systems.Ralph T. Pastore, “The Collapse of the Beothuk World,” Acadiensis XIX, no. 1 (Fall 1989): 59-64.


Figure 7.13 A miniature portrait of Demasduit by Lady Henrietta Hamilton, ca.1819.

Exotic diseases cut a swathe through their population, especially tuberculosis. By the start of the 19th century, the resource base of the Beothuk was badly depleted and they were facing famine. In 1819 and 1823, two women from a shrinking Beothuk population established the longest known relationships with Europeans. The first, Demasduit, was captured in a brutal assault that claimed the life of her husband and doomed her infant child. She nevertheless lived in St. John’s for nearly a year before perishing from tuberculosis. Shanawdithit and two members of her family were on the brink of starvation when they threw themselves on the mercy of the European community. Her relations died soon after — again, from tuberculosis — and Shanawdithit succumbed herself after six years among the Europeans. Much of what is known about the Beothuk derives from these two brief encounters. By 1829, or possibly not long after, the Beothuk were extinct.

The Beothuk were among the first Aboriginal people to encounter Europeans. Their disappearance in the early 19th century had a number of impacts on colonial understanding of indigenous peoples. The Beothuk were characterized for generations as a primitive people, a Paleo-Indian branch that was backward by Aboriginal standards and thus doomed to disappear. Explaining their extinction implicitly involved exculpation of European guilt: if they were doomed, they were doomed and nothing that Europeans did to slow or hasten that outcome would matter. What’s more, the Beothuk — the original “red indians” — as a “fated” people were invoked as foreshadowing of what awaited Aboriginal people across North America.Donald H. Holly Jr. and Paul Sant Cassia, "A Historiography of an Ahistoricity: On the Beothuk Indians," History & Anthropology 14, issue 2 (June 2003): 127-40.

Key Points

  • The Loyalist migration transformed and complicated the population and political geography of Nova Scotia and Quebec, producing new colonial configurations and social problems.
  • The colonial landscape of Prince Edward Island was swept clean and was marked by a unique absentee landowner class.
  • Newfoundland’s settler society was spurred on by the commercial possibilities created by the Revolution and it started to grow in earnest.
  • The fate of the Beothuk points to the ecological incompatibility of the newcomer and Aboriginal societies on Newfoundland.


Figure 7.10
Bedford Basin near Halifax by Robert Petley is in the public domain. This image is available from the Library and Archives Canada, acc. no. 1938-220-1.

Figure 7.11
Prince Edward Island map 1775 by SriMesh is in the public domain.

Figure 7.12
Cooks Karte von Neufundland by Schaengel89 is in the public domain.

Figure 7.13
Demasduit by Nikater is in the public domain.


7.6 Interwar Years: The Canadas


Figure 7.14 The first elected assembly in Lower Canada, 1793, debating whether to use English, French, or both in debates. The governor’s chateau can be seen out the window and up the hill.

In 1791 the Constitutional Act replaced the Quebec Act and redefined the province’s boundaries. What had been the heartland of old Canada, stretching east from the Ottawa River’s junction with the St. Lawrence to the Gulf, became Lower Canada. Everything to the west became Upper Canada. Excluded from these borders were the 1.5 million acres to the north and west that drain into Hudson Bay and which remained under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. (See Chapter 8.)

Bisecting Canada

Britain had several goals in mind with the Constitutional Act. First was to establish consistency in administrative structure in each of the colonies of British North America, and the creation of the colonies of New Brunswick and Cape Breton in 1784 provided a template for this purpose. As well, there was a desire to create some consistency within the British Parliamentary system: the British were starting to conceive of their model as an idea that could be exported around the globe.

The second goal was to ensure the power of the executive over elected representatives, which in some measure contradicted the first goal. The governor’s powers were, in fact, to increase at the head of an appointed executive council. An elected legislative council could draft legislation and recommend action, but it was the executive (over which the governor ruled) that made the key decisions.

What Britain sought, then, was the form of parliamentary government (an elected assembly, a royal representative in council), but its function would be defined by its loyalty to the Crown. Clearly the events in the American colonies had an impact on this thinking: there would be less autonomy allowed to colonial governments, not more.

The third goal of the Constitutional Act was to cut imperial costs by making it possible for the local governments to raise funds for local projects. This seems a small thing, but in the context of mercantilism it represented a break with the policy of heavy dependence on the mother country. Having self-sustaining but beholden colonies was the new objective.

Finally, the drafters of the new constitution envisioned two separate cultures in the Canadas, one that was predominantly Catholic and francophone (Lower Canada), the other made up chiefly of anglophones and influenced strongly by the Church of England (Upper Canada). To that end, the Clergy Reserves were created in the Constitutional Act: one-seventh of all lands in Upper Canada were granted to the Anglican Church. Moreover, land in Upper Canada would be surveyed according to British land-use practices: in blocks rather than in the narrow seigneurial strips. Dividing the colony thus addressed religious differences in Canada and land-use issues as well. It also attended to the issue of civil law. Upper Canada would have British common law while Lower Canada would continue to use the Coutume de Paris where appropriate.

This provision for separate legal codes had an interesting impact on electoral regulations. In both colonies the vote was available to almost any adult over the age of 21 years who owned a rather modest amount of property. Even tenants in the towns could vote, providing they paid enough in rents to qualify. This made for a fairly broad franchise. Because of the peculiarities of property law in Lower Canada, however, it also meant that women could vote. While women in Upper Canada were sealed off from the franchise by British common law (which restricted their property rights), those barriers didn’t apply in Lower Canada. That fact, coupled with land title and inheritance laws that made a great many women property owners meant that for nearly 60 years some women in Lower Canada could vote.

The Constitutional Act would ultimately prove flawed. In less than a generation it was criticized for the way it favoured the Anglican elite in both colonies. Appointments to the executive councils were filled mostly by leading merchants and a sampling of the emergent local aristocracy, creating a pair of oligarchical governments. In Lower Canada this included many powerful anglophone merchants from Montreal who were, of course, a tiny but privileged ethnic and linguistic minority in the colony. In Upper Canada the council was dominated by military men, key Loyalists with wealth, and beginning in 1813, Bishop John Strachan (1778-1867). The 35-five-year-old Rector of York (later Toronto) was to become pivotal in building a tight network of elite leaders.

In Lower Canada the dominance of the anglophone-dominated executive was referred to disparagingly as the Chateau Clique, a reference to the fact that this tight little group met at and ran the colony from the governor’s residence. In Upper Canada the parallel term was Family Compact, but it was only coined in the 1820s. Both groups gained more authority after the War of 1812 when, for a while, the lustre was back on loyalism and Toryism.

Upper Canada

The period from 1784 to around 1818 can be described as one of readjustment and resettlement. Aboriginal claims to territory in the region were more tenacious than ever, having lost so much south of the Great Lakes to the Americans. One branch of the Anishinaabeg (a.k.a. the Mississauga) sold a huge tract of land north of Lake Ontario so that the British could resettle non-Aboriginal Loyalists. Further purchases were made north of Lake Erie along the Grand River to make way for the Loyalist Mohawk (see Figure 7.15). Along with non-Aboriginal Loyalists, the Mohawk were making their way across what is now upstate New York, heading for the Niagara Escarpment between Lakes Ontario and Lake Erie.

The map of Upper Canada became a patchwork of treaties — effectively bills of sale by which Aboriginal title was extinguished. Often this was done in a hurry and details were not well addressed. Aboriginal signatories focused on promises made verbally; British-Canadian officials would later emphasize what was (and wasn’t) written down. These arrangements were further compromised by uncertainty about annuities (annual payments by the British to the Anishinaabeg that look something like rents) as opposed to once-and-for-all purchase payments. No specific lands were set aside or “reserved” for Aboriginal participants: there was thought to be sufficient unclaimed land to the west in Upper Canada so the Anishinaabeg quietly moved along to a different locale.


Figure 7.15 Thomas Ridout’s map of Grand River Lands held by the Mohawk Nation, 1821.

Upper Canadian society from 1783 to the 1820s has been characterized as one of intensifying settlement, land clearing, and organization. Keeping in mind that the territory was barely marked by French settlement before 1759 and that between 1763 and 1791 the British merely replaced the French in their forts and posts, little of the land had been cleared, and there was essentially no infrastructure. It has been noted that Upper Canada was the first British colony anywhere that lacked a seaport.Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 162. Whatever was produced in these years had to make it to the rapids at Lachine and from there, with some difficulty, to Montreal. Resolving the difficulties of shipping goods in and out of the colony occupied a central part of the political debates in Upper Canada for many years and continued after 1867 to inform political discourse in Canada.

The first Loyalist settlements in the colony were essentially engrossments around existing military positions. The Niagara frontier as well as the eastern end of Lake Ontario were both strategically important and convenient. Garrisons provided a market for farm surpluses as well as a sense of security in the event of further conflict (whether with the Americans or the Aboriginal populations).

Settlement in Upper Canada was encouraged to 1820 by free land grants, but these were not allocated evenly. Officers in the British forces could claim as much as 5,000 acres while just about everyone else received 200 acres. With the Clergy Reserves taking up valuable waterfront space and officers’ grants also occupying choice locations, typical settlers often had to head to less convenient or viable sites while the best land sat idle. And settlers were expected to achieve clear — if difficult — goals within a year of arriving, as can be seen in Figure 7.16.

Conditions for settling on Yonge-Street in 1978. Long description available.

Figure 7.16 The long straight road heading north from York (Toronto) attracted farming settlers before it became urban. [Long Description]

Growth depended heavily on immigration and, perhaps ironically, much of that came from the United States. Claims to land across New York were made through the 1780s and 1790s with the effect that the best land was quickly spoken for. This obliged many American would-be farmers to become Canadian farming pioneers.

By 1800 the population of Upper Canada had grown from a few thousand to as much as 25,000, a significant number being Late Loyalists. To some extent the new farms could sell some of their surplus south of the border to nascent American settlements, but the goal for most at this stage was mere subsistence. What sustained many farm families in these days was British commitment to the colony. The Loyalists had earned support and the British government felt a moral obligation (and political pressure) to provide it. They had lost their homes and businesses and were waiting on compensation claims against the United States (most of which never came), and they needed defending. Britain provided direct subsidies and stimulated economic growth by maintaining garrisons throughout the colony.

One has to imagine the possible complexities of identity among some of the settlers in Upper Canada at this time. New York Patriots who fought against the British and drove terrified Loyalists from their homes in order to win lands in the Ohio Valley now moved into British North America and back under British rule. There they were neighbours to established United Empire Loyalist families and mostly dependent on the British garrisons to buy their farm surpluses. Joseph Brant’s Mohawk community might have scratched their collective heads as well: they had resisted (unsuccessfully) American expansionism, abandoned their ancestral lands and moved to the Grand River where a main source of wealth came from selling off parcels of their grant to American migrants.

The first generation of Upper Canadians was distinguished by their relative wealth coming into the colony. Some of the Late Loyalists who arrived across the New York-Niagara frontier into what is now southern Ontario were beneficiaries of land speculation. Some had started farms, which they then sold at a profit before heading west in search of free Canadian grants. Coupled to British subsidies, this was a cohort that started well, had a safety net of sorts, and had an artificial local market in the garrisons; they would turn to wheat as their principal cash crop. The Napoleonic Wars created new demand for wheat from the colonies so Upper Canadians (and some Maritimers) did well by this. Also, there appeared early on in the Canadas the means of adding value to grain and preserving it for later consumption by brewing. John Molson opened his first brewery in Montreal in 1786 and, thanks largely to thirsty garrison troops in the Canadas, he quickly amassed a fortune. Other brewers and distillers appeared across the Upper Canadian landscape in the decades to come, particularly around the area of London and York (Toronto).

The principal model of economic and social organization in these years was the family farm. This resulted in the arrival of Euro-Canadian children and, almost immediately, concerns regarding education. As historian Jane Errington has observed, these events coincided with a growing concern in the English-speaking world regarding the role of women in domestic settings, in towns, and in the nurturing of knowledge in children. Restrictively domestic notions of womanhood worked for a while against the education of girls but soon went by the wayside, while at the same time women struggled to secure teaching jobs before the War of 1812. Universal education of some kind for boys and girls was an accepted principle by the first years of the 19th  century in Upper Canada and the size and sophistication of the local school came to be a measure of local progress.Jane Errington, "Ladies and Schoolmistresses: Educating Women in Early Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada," Historical Studies in Education 6, issue 1 (1994): 71-96. Some of these schools were private operations and thus a source of currency in an economy where cash was not always easy to come by. (For a further discussion of education initiatives, see Chapters 10 and 12.)

Lower Canada

The American Revolution confirmed Quebec’s status as a British province. This occurred in two ways. First, there was the lack of interest shown by the Canadiens who might have joined or at least supported more vigorously the cause of the Continental Army. Second, although France in 1778 joined the Thirteen Colonies in their fight against the British, they played no role at the treaty table, and there was no hope of restoring Canada to France. Denied that possibility, the Canadiens found themselves cut off from the Ohio as well by the Treaty of Paris (1783). The Constitutional Act (1791) did further territorial damage by restricting Lower Canada to the St. Lawrence Valley.

Montreal’s role changed as well. It was no longer attached to its hinterland, much of which was now being administered by a separate colonial regime in Upper Canada (although that would prove to matter very little in practical terms). And with the Constitutional Act, Montreal’s British merchant elite lost the possibility of establishing an anglophone-Protestant population capable of shifting the cultural balance of power in the Province of Quebec. Île de Montréal was once again an island of English-speakers in a francophone colony. However, the border between Upper and Lower Canada took time to firm up. Loyalists settled most heavily in and around the Bay of Quinte, establishing the town of Kingston. These communities depended heavily on Montreal as their cultural and commercial metropolis and continued to do so for decades.

A sign advertising a circus and fireworks.

Figure 7.17 Montreal was the centre of culture and urban excitement in the Canadas on the eve of the War of 1812.

Like the Maritime colonies, Lower Canada benefited somewhat from the post-Revolutionary War boom in British shipbuilding and shipping. As the most mature of the agricultural economies still under British control, Lower Canada fed many of the newer settlements to the east and to the west. This was reflected in substantial population growth, almost all of which came from natural increase. The crude birth rate (CBR) in the towns (Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Quebec) rose from 22.1 per 1,000 women (aged 15 to 45) in 1790 to a high of 37.5 in 1811, falling a bit then surging to 43.8 in 1818. The rural CBR was vastly greater, rising from 47.5 per 1,000 in 1790 to the mid-50s through most of the period, with peaks of about 56 in both 1795 and 1818. The growth of towns was significant but not staggering. The number of town-dwellers rose from 32,000 in 1786 to 41,042 in 1818. The countryside, however, more than doubled in size in the same years from 114,502 individuals to 283,433.T.J.A. Le Goff, "The Agricultural Crisis in Lower Canada, 1802-12: A Review of a Controversy," in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 25, 32.

A nagging problem in Lower Canada, one that would only get worse, was the availability of land. One reason for moving the Loyalists west was the difficulties entailed in fitting them into the seigneurial landscape. British and British American settlers wanted to be freeholders, not tenant farmers of any kind (another provision of the Constitutional Act). What’s more, the best riverfront land was already spoken for. From the perspective of the habitants, too, there were limits. Successive generations had carved the farms into less and less viable lots. Generations were parting ways as sons and daughters sought land in other parts of the colony. Further, operating costs were rising: even before the Seven Years’ War observers commented on how the Canadiens had cleared the forest far back from the river, using the wood for construction, fencing, and fuel. The effect was dramatic: by 1791 there was hardly a tree within a kilometre of the St. Lawrence. The amount of labour and money that had to be set aside for building materials and fuel rose, all of which had to be transported farther from forest to farm.

This clear-cutting of the valley had other ramifications. Habitat changes reduced the number of forest birds and thus increased the population of mosquitos. Wildlife generally was depleted and wildfowl in particular. The Canadien diet became less reliant on game and more on domesticated animals for protein. This, of course, required reassigning crop resources as feed or fields for grazing rather than for sale or the production of cash crops.Colin M. Coates, The Metamorphoses of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000), 32-41. Historian Colin Coates has found evidence of marginal farm incomes in an interesting change in social behaviour. Coates observed a spike (from about 1800) in requests that clergy permit marriages between cousins. He argues that this arose because poorer families sought tighter internal alliances in order to better deflect loss of land and resources to people outside the extended family. Alternatively, Coates proposes that cousin-cousine marriages were a sign that the pool of possible marriage partners was shrinking as newcomers to seigneuries were kept away by the lack of available land.Ibid., 67-8.

The colonial economy also began to change around 1800. The fur trade through Montreal was increasingly challenged in the West by the Hudson’s Bay Company, adding some uncertainty to its future. As is described in Chapter 8, turmoil and outright fur trade warfare had an impact on lives in the West; it also impacted fortunes in Lower Canada. Secondly, the timber trade in all of the colonies was stimulated by the Napoleonic Wars, which had the effect of redirecting Canadien labour from farms to forests. This produced some wealth and helped household incomes in the seigneuries as well, but it created new problems and patterns in its own right. Finally, the British market at last accepted grain from British North America and the United States, and a new market thus appeared overnight in the 1790s for farm surpluses.T. J. A. Le Goff, "The Agricultural Crisis in Lower Canada, 1802-12: A Review of a Controversy," in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 10. This marked a significant opportunity for growers and shippers of Canadian farm produce, although it also brought with it increased dependency on the British marketplace and a reorientation away from markets as distant as the Mediterranean.

Key Points

  • The Constitutional Act created the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada and established conditions for executive and oligarchical rule.
  • The constitution was the subject of criticism from about 1800 on.
  • Upper Canada grew rapidly from a core group of Loyalists to which were added Aboriginal and American migrants as well as British immigrants.
  • The farming frontier in Upper Canada was a source of wealth attributable to farm output and the sale of lands.
  • Population increases by natural means in Lower Canada placed pressure on the landscape.


Figure 7.14
Débat sur les langues lors de la première Assemblée législative du Bas-Canada le 21 janvier 1793 by Varing is in the public domain.

Figure 7.15
Thomas Ridout map of Grand River Indian Lands, 1821 by NormanEinstein is in the public domain.

Figure 7.16
Notice to settlers on Yonge Street 1798 by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain.

Figure 7.17
Circus Montreal 9 March 1812 by Skeezix1000 is in the public domain.

Long Descriptions

Figure 7.16 long description: Council-office, December 29, 1798. Yonge-Street. Notice is hereby given to all persons settled, or about to settle on Young-Street, and whole locations have not yet been confirmed by order of the President in council, that before such locations can be confirmed it will be expected that the following CONDITIONS be complied with: First. That within twelve months from the time they are permitted to occupy their respective lots, they do cause to be erected thereon a good and sufficient dwelling house, of at least 16 feet by 20 in the clear, and do occupy the frame in Person, or by a substantial Tenant. Second. That within the frame period of time, they do clear and fence five acres, of their respective lots, in a substantial manner. Third. That within the frame period of time, they do open as much of the Yonge-Street road as lies between the front of their lots and the middle of the said road, amounting to one acre or thereabouts. John Small, C.E.C. [Return to Figure 7.16]


7.7 Slavery

African slavery existed in the colonies of New France and British North America for over 200 years, yet there remains a profound silence in classrooms and teaching resources about Canada’s involvement in the trade and ownership of humans. According to available historical documents, at least 4,000 Africans were held in bondage in the two centuries of colonial settlements in New France, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Upper Canada. Thayendenaga (Joseph Brant) owned slaves. Other Loyalists brought their slaves with them into exile. In the absence of plantations, most slaves were held in small numbers and likely worked principally in household roles. Their living conditions varied dramatically and, whatever humanity was shown them on a day-to-day basis, they were chattel slaves and could be sold. Family members could be sold separately. The absence of plantation conditions does not mean that the lot of slaves was much better in New France or British North America than it was in the American South.

Aboriginal Slavery

Similarly, Aboriginal slaves could be found throughout New France, many of them acquired as captives from the Fox Nation and, before that, from northern Louisiana. In the southern reaches of New France in particular the currency for slaves was rifles and horses, and some Aboriginal groups, like the Caddoans, were fearsomely well armed as a result.Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 317. Although Aboriginal slaves were forbidden in Louisiana, they were not in Canada and Acadia. Giving slaves as gifts was commonly practised by many of the Canadiens’ Aboriginal allies in the Pays d’en Haut and, especially after the Great Peace of 1701, this was a means of reaffirming the relationship. Aboriginal slavers handed on (usually with some ceremony) the captives they scooped up in raids on Plains nations to allies from the Illinois territory eastward, even as far as the Wabanaki Confederacy. In some cases, western Aboriginal slaves were exchanged for English captives who were then returned to Boston.

Slaves certainly appeared in greater numbers in the St. Lawrence Valley in the early 18th century. Typically the Aboriginal slaves found in the Laurentian settlements (and very heavily concentrated in Montreal) were male, obtained when they were around 14 years old, and originated in the Illinois country. When furs and slaves from the West were taken to South Carolina for trade with the English, the French regime sought to stop the practice quickly. Furs and slaves were part of the diplomatic relationship on the frontier; if Western nations were happy trading or giving slaves to the English, the alliances might crumble. For that reason, ostensibly, slave owning in Montreal was actively encouraged to offset the Carolinian demand.

One study points to an irony in the slave-trading business in the Pays d’en Haut. Originally, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it was grease for the wheels of diplomacy, a means of ensuring a continuance of the Great Peace between the French and their allies and, as well, among their allies. But growing demand for Aboriginal slaves in the towns and farms of Canada meant that Aboriginal allies were motivated to engage in war against their neighbours to obtain prisoners. Further, Aboriginal torture practices associated with captives began to change and even fade away because the injuries that were traditionally inflicted on prisoners (even those who might become adoptees) reduced their value to French buyers and allies. More war but less torture is a trade-off of sorts, but not a great one if the motivation is to enslave greater numbers.Brett Rushforth, "'A Little Flesh We Offer You': The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 60, no.4 (October 2003): 777-808.

The context of slavery in eastern woodland Aboriginal societies has already been explored: it was closer to adoption than to chattel slavery. For the French, however, ownership was complete and included the children of slaves in perpetuity. Nevertheless, freedom could be obtained and there is evidence to suggest adoption-like conditions in some Canadien households. On the West Coast, Aboriginal societies maintained slaves as chattel, some of whom were executed during potlatches as a symbolic disposal of property.

African Slavery

The arrival of liberated African slaves from the American colonies in the 1770s and 1780s complicated the issue of slavery. As freedmen (and women) they became critics of the abuse of African slaves in particular.  In the early 1790s this became a greater public issue and Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806), the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, from 1791 to 1796, championed legislation intended to bring a gradual end to slavery in Upper Canada. This was a remarkable initiative in that it was the first limitation on slavery in the British Empire. It was, however, also a slippery piece of law that did not prohibit slave owners from selling their people to buyers in the United States, keeping the children of slaves in bondage, and holding the slaves already in their possession until their death. What it did do was prohibit the import of new slaves. The “peculiar institution,” as 19th century Southerners who were averse to the word “slavery” called it, continued in Canada until the British Parliament voted for abolition in 1834.

Marie-Joseph Angélique

Among the most famous of Canadian slaves is Marie-Joseph Angélique. She achieved notoriety in her lifetime by tragedy and arson, and in our time by the work of historians of New France curious about the extensive labour force working in bondage on farms and in the fur trade.  Angélique was born into slavery in Portugal and arrived in Montreal via New England in 1725.  She was a young adult, about 20 years of age, and, although she was unmarried, she had three children while the property of a prosperous Montreal fur trader, François Poulin de Francheville. Her owner died in 1733 and Angélique evidently took a lover from among the White indentured servants (who themselves occupied a position near to slavery). Learning that Thérèse de Couagne, Francheville’s widow and heir was planning to sell her, Angélique and her lover made a run for it. Angélique was captured and returned to de Couagne, which was a mistake. The young woman wreaked vengeance on de Couagne by setting fire to the house. The flames spread rapidly, destroying 46 buildings and the convent and hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu. Suspicion fell immediately on Angélique. Denying her guilt to the end, she was convicted and sentenced to execution but not before a post-trial round of torture and public shaming. The executioner strangled Angélique and then hanged her from the burnt-out rafters of de Couagne’s ruined house.  Her executioner was another slave, Mathieu Léveillé, brought to Montreal from Martinique when the position came open a few years earlier.Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007).

Key Points

  • Slavery in British North America was commonplace and involved holding Aboriginal and African people as property. Their labour was frequently used in domestic environments but also on farms.
  • Much of the slave trade in New France involved captive Aboriginals sent east from allied nations in the Pays d’en Haut and considered to be diplomatic gifts.
  • Steps were first taken toward abolition under the leadership of Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe, whose 1793 legislation was the first of its kind in the British Empire.


7.8 The War of 1812

The situation in Europe had changed drastically by the end of the 18th century. Inspired by the American Revolution and especially by its democratic ideals, the common people of France took up arms against their absolutist rulers. From 1789 to 1793, the French Revolution took the form of civil war and bitter infighting. France exported its violence in the French Revolutionary Wars that ran from 1792 with little in the way of breaks until the first years of the new century. An increasingly militarized state, France reverted in 1803 from republic to empire, with General Napoleon Bonaparte its new emperor. What followed was a near-global series of conflicts known collectively as the Napoleonic Wars.

Britain declared war in 1793 and one of the first consequences was a tightening of the Navigation Acts that closed off American access to the West Indies. The Americans responded with the Embargo Act (1807). The effect of these changes was to lift the Maritime economy once again. Baltic sources of lumber were soon closed off to Britain, which benefited the New Brunswick forest industry. On the whole, the Napoleonic Wars were very good to British North America’s economy. Conflict on land and sea in North America, however, put a damper on things. The first of these conflicts was a resumption of unfinished Aboriginal business in the Ohio Valley.

Tecumseh’s War

The first Northwest Indian War (or Little Turtle’s War) followed hard on the heels of the American Revolution and lasted until the defeat of Aboriginal forces by American soldiers at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Aboriginal people thereafter ceded most of the Ohio Valley to the United States, moving farther west into the “Indian Territory” or “Indiana.” In the years that followed, many leaders of Aboriginal tribes (that is, smaller units of organization) in the American “Northwest” tried to adapt to the newcomers’ ways. They signed treaties ceding lands in Ohio and Indiana to the United States, thus allowing for American settlers to move in and slowly expand American territory.

The chiefs who supported peace with the United States dominated the Amerindians of the area, such as the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape, until 1805 when smallpox, influenza, and other illnesses swept through the Aboriginal population. Among the dead was a Lenape leader, Buckongahelas, who had shepherded his tribe from Delaware to Indiana to escape American expansion years before. He and others like him did not trust the Americans and did not want contact with them, due in part to the history of violent conflict between the newcomers and the Lenape. With the death of Buckongahelas, new leaders rose from the tribes in the region, including two brothers from the Shawnee: Tenskwatawa (1768-1836), also known as “the Prophet,” and his brother Tecumseh (1768-1813).


Figure 7.18 A portrait of Tecumseh by Benson John Lossing.

Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh both opposed American expansion into the region and what they saw as an unhealthy American influence on their people. Tenskwatawa had himself been a heavy drinker before having a transformative experience during an illness in 1805. From then on, he promoted a return to the old ways, calling upon Aboriginal peoples of the Ohio and the Northwest to throw off Euro-American technologies, products, clothing styles, and cultural adaptations. This included rejecting Christianity. In this respect he was following in the footsteps of Neolin the Prophet. Tecumseh’s contribution was to argue for a unified, pan-Aboriginal front that ignored the ancient distinctions between First Nations.

The leader of a large and extensive confederacy of mostly Algonquian-speaking peoples in the Ohio and lands to the west, Tecumseh’s message was one of common ownership of Aboriginal land, as opposed to individual tribal treaties that signed away, piecemeal, the Ohio and then the rest of the continent. As the brothers rose to prominence and attracted followers, they drew American attention and contempt, which, in turn, created problems for pro-American Aboriginal peoples who sought a peaceful co-existence with the settlers.

In 1808 the brothers and their followers moved westward and established Prophetstown on the Wabash River where it joins the Tippecanoe River, south of Lake Michigan. There, in November 1811, the Americans launched an attack on what had grown into a community of more than 3,000 Aboriginal people. Tecumseh was away on a recruiting mission and Tenskwatawa led his people to defeat. Tecumseh wasted no time in rebuilding the alliance, pointing to Prophetstown as an indication of what lay in store for Aboriginal people who did not resist American incursions. Tecumseh sought out support from the British, which he secured. It was for this reason that the Americans accused the British of stirring up trouble on their western frontier.

The Second American War of Independence

Meanwhile, the British were harassing American shipping headed to France. The Royal Navy tried to starve France of imports and American shipping was an easy target. As well, the British were looking for British sailors who jumped ship to American vessels. There were plenty and they provided an excuse for the Royal Navy to seize American ships. An attempt to stop the American vessel Chesapeake in 1807 resulted in American casualties (including three dead) and the seizing of four alleged British deserters. The Chesapeake Affair pushed the so-called War Hawks in the U.S. Congress to agitate for war with Britain. It took nearly five years but they got a declaration of war on June 1, 1812. For the Americans this seemed like an enormous risk, one requiring a lot of bravado. But it wasn’t. Britain was not prepared to turn the full force of its military might on the United States; it was too busy in Europe fighting France. In fact, the British government had not wanted a war with the Americans at all. The actions of British admirals on the high seas reflected the needs of the Royal Navy, not the desires of the British government.

Nor did the rise in hostilities necessarily reflect the desires and interests of settlers on either side of the border. Trade across the frontier between British North America and the United States had, in fact, been stimulated by the Napoleonic conflict. Rising British demand for wheat could not be met by British North America alone, and American producers and shippers took advantage of the situation to export their grain through Canadian ports (as well as Halifax and Saint John). According to contemporaries, American grain shippers smuggled sledges over snow and ice to Montreal in winter and in summer, “gigantic rafts loaded with the produce of forest and farm and guarded by armed men were floated down the Lake Champlain route from Vermont north.”T. J. A. Le Goff, "The Agricultural Crisis in Lower Canada, 1802-12: A Review of a Controversy," in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 22.

Upper Canadian settlers in the Niagara Escarpment included a great many Americans who had simply migrated westward and paid little heed to the border between the two countries. Likewise, Canadian exporters on the north side of Lakes Erie and Ontario shipped goods across the water to American ports. Families in exile since 1783 were in some instances reunited by these economic linkages before 1812. War, in these circumstances, was bad for business, even if one’s business was subsistence farming. Such concerns did not, of course, factor into the thinking of Britain or Washington.

The Americans could not attack Great Britain directly; an invasion of the British Isles was out of the question. To conduct the war, the Americans had to find British military targets at sea, in the form of the Royal Navy, and on land in North America, where the first obvious target was Canada. By 1812, some Americans believed that an invasion of Canada would trigger a Canadian revolt and help ensure an American victory, which might even bring the war to a quick end. They were wrong. The former American president Thomas Jefferson famously claimed that the “acquisition of Canada” would be a “mere matter of marching.” The war in the north went badly for the Americans at every stage.

Although the United States had declared war, Britain was better able to communicate to their colonists in North America about the outbreak of official hostilities. For this reason, the American garrison at Fort Michilimackinac was surprised when a British force arrived in July 1812 and demanded their surrender. The British force was small, consisting of the garrison from St. Joseph Island along with Aboriginal warriors from several nations and some Canadians. The fort fell without a shot being fired. It was an inauspicious start for the Americans, and it sent a signal to Tecumseh that it was time to ready his troops for a coordinated attack on the Americans.

British relations with the Aboriginal nations of the Great Lakes had improved after 1783. Rounds of gift-giving and quiet support for anyone who was harassing the Americans repaired Britain’s reputation in the Ohio and the Northwest. (The War Hawks were right in their suspicions in this regard.) Keeping the Americans off-balance in the West was undoubtedly in the best interests of the British and Canadians, although the settler society was hardly anti-American. Efforts to drum up support and voluntarism among the Upper Canadians was, as historian Jane Errington has demonstrated, largely a failure.E. Jane Errington, "Reluctant Warriors: British North Americans and the War of 1812," in The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814, eds. David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001), 325-36.

The War in Canada

Tecumseh joined General Isaac Brock (1769-1812) near Detroit in an effort to jointly capture Detroit. Victory followed quickly on August 16, 1812, one that demonstrated a shared genius on the part of both commanders for psychological warfare. Through clever ploys and simple deception, they were able to convince the Americans that their forces were much larger than they actually were, and they both preyed on the Americans’ fear of an unbridled Aboriginal attack. Brock had nothing but good things to say about Tecumseh. “A more sagacious or a more gallant Warrior does not I believe exist,” he wrote.Herbert C. W. Goltz, “TECUMSEH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed August 30, 2014, . The fall of Detroit meant that the whole of the American Northwest was vulnerable. More Aboriginal troops were emboldened to rise against the Americans and support the British, and they were all further encouraged by the subsequent fall of Fort Dearborn (Chicago) to a force of Potawatomi. Neither Tecumseh nor Brock would have long to savour these victories.

Tecumseh’s path took him into battles along the Lake Erie frontier. His forces were obliged to follow in the wake of Major General Henry Procter, a commander who lacked Brock’s resolve and imagination. Following setbacks on the lake and at Amherstburg, Procter led a retreat up the Valley of the Thames repeatedly refusing to take up offensive positions. Finally, at Moraviantown on October 5, 1813, Procter stopped running. His troops were, however, much depleted and demoralized. Against an American force three times that of the British-Aboriginal-Canadian alliance, the outcome was almost certain. Tecumseh was one of the casualties of the battle. With his death the Confederacy and the dream of a unified Aboriginal homeland in the Great Lakes region perished as well. The Aboriginal warriors from across the region dispersed and thereafter played only a minor and supporting role in the war.


Figure 7.19 A sketch of the troops arrayed at the Battle of the Thames, showing where Tecumseh fell.

Brock peeled off from the western frontier to defend the Niagara Peninsula in October 1812. An American assault on Queenston Heights failed badly with 1,000 American soldiers captured, but Brock died leading an attempt to dislodge the Americans from the hilltop. In April 1813 the Americans launched a new cross-lake offensive, briefly capturing, burning, and looting York, then the colony’s capital. This was the first instance of destruction of public buildings for which the Americans would repeatedly pay a high price in 1815. The main focus of battle then shifted back to the Niagara Peninsula where Fort George fell to the Americans, but the Aboriginal forces — alerted by Laura Secord, a local woman who had overheard American officers laying out their plans  — were able to repel them at Beaver Dams on June 24, 1813. British regulars and Canadian militia played a larger role at Lundy’s Lane on July 25, but the outcome was largely inconclusive. This became a theme of naval battles on the Great Lakes in the year that followed.

The Americans were clearly exploring the pinch-points of Canada’s supply lines. Capturing the Niagara would have controlled the flow of supplies between Lake Erie and downstream Lake Ontario. Likewise the eastern end of Lake Ontario at Prescott became a target in an effort to cut off Upper Canadian troops from Montreal suppliers. The Battle of Ogdensburg, however, provided another victory for the British. The American garrison withdrew and commerce across the border resumed as though there was no war. Likewise the American attacks in late 1813 failed along the Champlain corridor. (Champlain Lake issues into Champlain River and then into the St. Lawrence and was a Haudenosaunee invasion route for centuries.) Battles at Chateauguay and Crysler’s Farm went well for the British forces. Importantly, Chateauguay was fought mostly by Canadien Voltigeurs, a volunteer regiment bolstered by promises of significant land grants at the end of the war, along with Mohawks from near Montreal.

Heading to a Draw

By 1813 American attacks on the Canadas ended. Abandoning their position around Fort George, the Americans decided to torch the town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) and did so with the enthusiastic support of pro-American Canadians led by a member of the legislative assembly of Upper Canada, John Willcocks. The burning of Newark — and the subsequent deaths of civilians from exposure in metre-deep snow — led to the retributive assault on Lewiston, New York, which was only halted by Tuscarora warriors who interceded on behalf of American settlers. This moment stands out in the War of 1812 because it reflects the lack of the pan-Aboriginal vision that Tecumseh had in mind: the troops stopped by the Tuscarora — the sixth of the expanded Six Nations Iroquois — included a large contingent of Mohawk warriors. Disunity among the Haudenosaunee clearly had not improved since 1783.

The Burning of Newark

Newark was Upper Canada’s original capital, but Governor Simcoe thought it was too vulnerable to attack and so moved the seat of government to York. He was prescient. The Americans were withdrawing from the Niagara Peninsula in the second week of December 1813. Their Canadian allies, led by John Willcocks, were exasperated at this turn of events and demanded that Newark pay a price for Upper Canada’s resistance. Willcocks and his volunteer regiment, overseen by the American troops, razed the town by fire. One eyewitness, a 16-year-old girl named Amelia Ryerse, subsequently reported on what she had observed: “When I looked up I saw the hillside and the fields as far as the eye could reach covered with American soldiers… My mother knew instinctively what they were going to do. She entreated the commanding officer to spare her property and said that she was a widow with a young family. He answered her civilly and respectfully and regretted that his orders were to burn… Very soon we saw a column of dark smoke rise from every building and what at early morn had been a prosperous homestead, at noon there were only smouldering ruins.”Quoted in Alistair Sweeney, Fire Along the Frontier: Great Battles of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2012), 187. Accounts claim that 149 homes were destroyed. The burning of Newark as well as the American attempt to raze York contributed significantly to the British decision to later torch the American capital.

The war dragged on for another year and a half, but the theatre of conflict was no longer along the British North American frontier. The sacking of York was avenged by the burning of public buildings in Washington. The Royal Navy’s attempts to press Britain’s advantage at sea led only to stalemates, such as the shelling of Baltimore. British failure at New Orleans early in 1815 failed to dislodge the Americans from the Mississippi Valley holdings they had recently acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase.

Historians are divided over the outcome of the war, although everyone agrees that the Aboriginal peoples of North America lost. Tecumseh’s Confederacy fell to pieces with his death, the Haudenosaunee remained divided, and even if the British and Americans could agree to provide a sacrosanct Indian territory in the midwest there was no one of Tecumseh’s stature left to pull it together. Continental domination, in any event, was within the grasp of the Americans and this was certainly confirmed by the outcome of the war. Aboriginal populations across the northwest and the southeast were forcibly relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma, part of which is remembered as the “Trail of Tears.”  The Wyandot — a coalition of Wendat (Huron) and Tionontati (Petun) — were among those removed to Kansas in the 1840s. British commitments to their Aboriginal allies grew stale and a centuries-old partnership turned into something more like guardianship in the decade that was to follow.

Canada was a victor in that it did not lose any territory. Britain didn’t concede anything at the Treaty of Ghent, so it can be argued that the American failure to punish Britain for the Chesapeake counts as a British win. But the Americans had inflicted serious wounds on Canada, on British forces, on Aboriginal alliances, and on the British Treasury. It was back to the status quo ante bellum after Ghent, but America was a changed nation. British North America’s survival was earned and deserved, but it lived with the consequences of 1812-1815 for many years to come.

Rush-Bagot, Republicanism, and British North American Identity

In 1817 the British and Americans signed the Rush-Bagot Treaty, which demilitarized the Great Lakes. Rather than a zone of conflict they became a zone of commerce. This worked splendidly for small and large merchants alike. Ideologically, however, it represented a significant change.

The elites of British North America were distinguished by a number of qualities, one of which was their Toryism. Loyalists from 1783 and their heirs were reinforced by a mythological legacy of 1812-1815 when, it was claimed, brave Canadian militiamen repelled American armies. This account purposely underplays the lack of interest (if not distaste) many Canadians felt toward fighting with their southern neighbours, but it served to legitimate the Chateau Clique in Lower Canada and the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Maritime colonies. It was also a foil to brandish against those more republican-minded British North Americans who were outspoken in their admiration of American political institutions. To be a republican — rather than a Tory — was to climb into bed with the enemy to the south, not to mention the enemy in France. Toryism and privilege were safe for the time being.

No one was completely fooled by the more exaggerated claims of Tory myth-makers; there was no chance that a British North American militia could hold off an American assault without British support. British North Americans would continue, therefore, to thread their Western Hemispheric identity with one that involved Britain. Certainly the economy would continue to point in that direction as the colonies strove to survive and advance in the depression years after the Napoleonic Wars.

Key Points

  • The years between 1783 and 1815 were marked by almost continuous Aboriginal resistance to American expansion into the Ohio Valley and what the Americans described as the “Northwest.”
  • Americans suspected the British of stirring up and provisioning Aboriginal resistance which, combined with British attacks on American shipping, contributed to a growing call in Washington for a “second War of Independence.”
  • The initial stages of the War of 1812 went well for the British/Canadian/Aboriginal forces but significant setbacks at Moraviantown and along the Niagara Escarpment resulted in an inconclusive outcome.
  • The War of 1812 became a myth-building moment in the development of an anglo-Canadian identity.


Figure 7.18
Tecumseh02 by Nikater is in the public domain.

Figure 7.19
Battle-of-the-Thames-array by Acdixon is in the public domain.


7.9 Summary

In the half century or so between the Conquest and the end of the War of 1812, colonial North America was essentially reinvented. New France disappeared from the maps, although the people of New France were still a prominent part of the landscape. British authority spread out across the continent and then snapped back to, ironically, the boundaries of pre-1713 New France (less the Ohio, the Pays en Haut, and Louisiana). Nova Scotia, similarly, expanded, divided, contracted. New colonies were carved out of what had been Canada and Acadia. Newfoundland became less “a great ship moored off the Grand Banks” and more a settlement colony with permanent residents and a formalized system of colonial administration.Jerry Bannister, "Naval Government 1729-1815," on Silk Gowns and Sou'westers: History of the Law and the Courts (2000). Accessed 23 December 2014, .

The greatest change, of course, came in the form of the new republic comprising the Thirteen Colonies. Their War of Independence was simultaneously a civil war, one that resulted in the exodus of 80,000 to 100,000 Loyalists, roughly half of whom made their way to the remaining colonies. The Loyalist legacy is a complex issue. As an infusion of population and especially families, the Loyalists very abruptly accelerated the settlement process of the northern colonies. Looked at another way, they accelerated the process of displacing Aboriginal peoples, removing them from their traditional lands, overwhelming their numbers, and thus outweighing whatever threat they might still pose to newcomer communities, whether in the Maritimes or around the Great Lakes.

Administratively, the Loyalists brought particular demands. They were loyal to the Crown but they were accustomed to a degree of self-government in the old Thirteen Colonies. This necessitated the creation of New Brunswick and Upper Canada, two colonies in which Loyalist agendas would dominate political life for the better part of a century. The Loyalists brought with them a suite of values, as well, that informed British North American life. Among the elite there was a strong tendency toward conservative principles and a deep-seated mistrust of democratic and republican ideals. Many of the frontier farmers, Mohawk, German settlers, and freed slaves who were part of the migration north, however, came with different political positions in their cultural baggage. It is commonly claimed that the Loyalist legacy in modern Canada is detectable as a strain of patriarchal and aristocratic conservatism distinct from what is found south of the border. However true that may be, historians and political scientists agree, too, that there were contrary tendencies within the exile community.

At the very least, the Loyalist migration defined the revised British North America in opposition to the United States. Enmity, suspicion, lingering attachment, and admiration were all part of the range of emotions felt toward the United States by this cadre of refugees and those who joined them in later generations. By 1815 British North America had demonstrated a convincing unwillingness to disappear. The War of 1812 brought to the surface tensions that existed between Loyalists and Late Loyalists, between the official notion of a British colony and a transplanted community of Americans, especially in Upper Canada. It also drew to an end the military role of Aboriginal peoples in the Great Lakes colony and farther east. Some alliances, like the Council of Three Fires, continued but the military value of Aboriginal allies was no longer a currency in Aboriginal-European diplomacy in British North America.

Key Terms

abolition: Refers to the abolition of the institution of slavery. In Britain a single piece of legislation resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1834. Abolition in Upper Canada was initiated by John Graves Simcoe in 1793.

aboriginal title: Aboriginal ownership of land and/or territory and/or other material resources.

absentee landlords: Also called proprietors, the main landowners on Prince Edward Island whose land was allocated to them in a lottery held in London in 1767. Few of them visited the island and few attended to the responsibilities they were given as landlords. Most, however, attempted to charge significant rents to their tenant farmers in the colony. See also escheat.

Act of Proclamation (1763): Also called the Proclamation Act, the legislation that created the Province of Quebec and recognized Aboriginal title in the west. The Act angered American settlers because it hampered westward movement into the Ohio Valley.

African-American slaves: Chattel slaves, principally from Africa, who worked primarily on plantations. Slavery occurred throughout North America in both European and Aboriginal communities. Some African-American (as opposed to African-Caribbean) slaves were later freed (see freedmen) depending on their role in the American Revolution.

anglicization: British policy of replacing French culture — language, customs, laws, and Catholic religion — with those of Anglican/Protestant Britain.

brewing: The production of beer, like the distilling of whisky, was a means of adding value to surplus grain being grown in Upper and Lower Canada beginning in the 1780s. John Molson of Montreal was an early participant in brewing and, like many Canadians who followed in his footsteps in the liquor production trade, amassed a great fortune.

British North America: Term used intermittently after 1783 to describe the colonies left to Britain after the Revolution. Initially these included Newfoundland, the Province of Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. Subsequently the list would increase to include new colonies (Cape Breton Island and New Brunswick), a partitioned colony (Upper and Lower Canada), and in very general terms Rupert’s Land (which was not administered by a Crown delegate). Vancouver Island and British Columbia would also be regarded as part of British North America before Confederation.

Chateau Clique: A highly influential cadre of economic and social leaders who fashioned themselves politically as the British (or Tory) Party in Lower Canada. Their numbers included prominent merchants like James McGill and John Molson. Their agenda included assimilation of the French Catholic population and perpetuating a hierarchical social and political order.

Chesapeake Affair: During the Napoleonic Wars, a British attempt to reduce American shipping to France by capturing U.S. shipping and impressing (forcing) sailors into the British Navy. In 1807 the USS Chesapeake, a warship, was bombarded and captured by the HMS Leopard; four sailors were seized and tried for desertion from the British Navy, one of whom was subsequently hanged. The Americans regarded this as an act of aggression and it fomented war fever in some quarters. See War Hawks.

Clergy Reserves: Created by the Constitutional Act (1791), land parcels set aside (one-seventh of all public lands) in Upper Canada for the use of the Church of England (a.k.a. Anglican Church). There were smaller Clergy Reserves in Lower Canada as well.

common law: British code of laws dealing with property, contracts, and other civil matters.

Constitutional Act (1791): The legislation that created two colonies — Upper and Lower Canada — out of what was left of the Province of Quebec after the Treaty of Paris, 1783. In Upper Canada the British common law was applied while the Coutume de Paris survived in Lower Canada. Both colonies received their own administrative structures.

Coutume de ParisA code of civil law developed in and for Paris and extended to New France. Addressed land ownership and use, family relations, and inheritance.

decapitation thesis: Historical theory that explains the apparent loss of Canadien leadership in the colony after the Conquest as the result of an exodus of leading commercial, administrative, and social figures to France.

Embargo Act (1807): In an attempt to force British and French respect for American shipping, federal legislation that was passed in Washington that effectively closed off all exports to foreign ports. The objective was to starve the importing nations of American goods and thus oblige them to cease preying on American shipping. It was repealed in 1809.

escheat: A movement to force unimproved lands on Prince Edward Island back into the hands of the Crown. The Escheat Party made the land issue the dominant one in the colony in the 19th century.

Family Compact: An association of leading individuals and families in Upper Canada devoted to the suppression of republican tendencies in the colony and perpetuating an oligarchy in government.

Fort Pitt: Site of modern-day Pittsburgh. Replaced the French establishment, Fort Duquesne.

franchise: The ability and right to vote in a democratic society. It is always arbitrarily determined and is defined as much by who it excludes as by who it includes. “Universal adult male suffrage” was never achieved in British North America before Confederation, far less the extension of the franchise to women or Aboriginal peoples generally.

freedmen: Slaves who, by manumission or by emancipation, were freed from slavery.

Intolerable Acts: A number of taxes and tariffs introduced by the British government during the Seven Years’ War that targeted the American colonies in an effort to recover financial losses. Following on American protests, Parliament passed more laws that gave Britain greater powers in the colonies. It also introduced the Quebec Act, which reattached the Ohio Valley and the Northwest to the Province of Quebec and enhanced the rights of the Catholic Church; both provisions were provocative in the Thirteen Colonies. Together, the Intolerable Acts catalyzed the revolutionary movement in the colonies.

Jay’s Treaty (1794): A treaty that resolved several issues outstanding from the Treaty of Paris (1783). The Americans were keen to address the continuing British presence and role in the Ohio/Northwest. The British wished to secure American neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars and clarify the boundaries with Canada.

Late Loyalists: American immigrants who arrived in British North America in the years after the Revolution, especially in the 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century. Their “loyalism” was never certain and they were often outspoken critics of Toryism.

Louisiana Purchase: The sale of the Louisiana Territory by Napoleon to the United States. In 1800 France briefly reacquired the territory, which encompassed the western half of the Mississippi drainage (that is, from New Orleans to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan). Less than three years later, France decided to forgo attempts to rebuild New France and sold the territory back to the United States.

marchands: The Canadien merchants of Montreal, as opposed to the post-Conquest British and British-American merchants who arrived to take over the fur trade.

Napoleonic Wars: A series of wars involving France and much of the rest of Europe from 1803 to 1815. The War of 1812 was a chapter in the larger conflict.

Northwest Indian War: (1785-1795) Part of an ongoing attempt to insulate the Ohio Valley and what the Americans now referred to as their Northwest Territory against American invasion. Also known as Little Turtle’s War. Followed on Pontiac’s Rebellion and anticipated Tecumseh’s War.

Pennsylvania Dutch: German settlers in Pennsylvania, many of whom moved to Nova Scotia shortly after the Conquest.

pre-Loyalists: Non-francophone settlers in British North America who arrived before the Loyalist migration in 1783-84. Almost exclusively associated with settlers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

proprietors: See absentee landlords.

Province of Quebec: Created by the Act of Proclamation (1763), included lands from Detroit to the Gaspé but removed the Ohio Valley and the west from Quebec’s (Canada’s) control.

Quebec Act (1774): Also called the British North America Act, 1774 (not to be confused with the British North America Act of 1867); the legislation that restored the Ohio Valley and the northwestern Pays d’en Haut to the Province of Quebec, provided official recognition of the rights of Catholics in the colony, and restored the Coutume de Paris and the ability of the Catholic Church to collect tithes. It recognized the rights of seigneurs and irritated the Thirteen Colonies where it was seen as cheating the Appalachian colonies of their prize in the Ohio. It was grouped with the other Intolerable Acts. It is regarded as a partial cause of the American Revolution.

taxation without representation: A principle espoused by American colonists in the 1770s articulating the view that British law forbade the seizing of a citizen’s property by the state without his consent (which could be given by an elected representative in Parliament). As the colonies had no representatives in Parliament, the colonists maintained that they could not be taxed.

Tories: Associated with Loyalists in the American Revolution whose philosophical position was opposed to the Whiggish/republican stance of Thomas Paine and the Patriots.

Treaty of Ghent (1814-1815): Intended to end the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The treaty was agreed to in 1814 but not signed into law by the American Senate until February 1815. The treaty restored the status quo ante bellum between British North America and the United States, which meant that Britain was removed from the American Northwest, leaving Aboriginal peoples without an ally to help defend their interests.

Treaty of Paris (1783): Ended the American Revolution (War of Independence). Not to be confused with the Treaty of Paris, 1763. Britain recognized the independence and sovereignty of the United States of America. Boundaries were established (and later disputed) between the United States and British North America. The United States was to compensate Loyalists for lost property, which never occurred.See also Jay’s Treaty.

United Empire Loyalists: An honorific title taken by Loyalists and their descendants to celebrate their migration to British North America at the end of the Revolution. Typically signals a strong Tory bent.

War Hawks: American politicians mainly from the South and West who were angered by British predations on American shipping out of their ports and British-Aboriginal harassment of settlers and American regiments. Their enthusiasm for war finally won out over New England caution in 1812.

Whig: A mutable term associated with the British Whigs (a radical/liberal political party), the American Patriots/Whigs (revolutionaries in 1775-1783), and 19th century Canadian liberals. Common features include a challenge to the prerogatives of the Crown, a suspicion of Catholicism, and belief in individual rights and liberties. In the American colonies it developed into a form of republicanism.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What was the significance of continued Aboriginal resistance to the British in the West?
  2. Of what significance was the Proclamation Act of 1763 to Aboriginal nations, to the Canadiens, and to the new, English-speaking settlers of Canada?
  3. Why did Governor James Murray choose not to persecute the Catholic Church? In what other ways was he conciliatory to the colony’s French-speaking population and why?
  4. In what ways did the British regime change the economy of Canada and Nova Scotia?
  5. What was the Quebec Act and what was its importance?
  6. Characterize the Nova Scotian population and economy in these years.
  7. What developments precipitated the American Revolution?
  8. Who were the Loyalists? To what were they “loyal”?
  9. Why did Canada and Nova Scotia not join in the Revolution?
  10. What impact did the arrival of the Loyalists have on the Maritime colonies?
  11. Why was the Constitutional Act considered necessary? What problems did it seek to address?
  12. Who were the Late Loyalists and what was their impact on life in Upper Canada?
  13. How and why was the landscape of the Canadas undergoing change?
  14. What was the nature and character of slavery in British North America before 1818?
  15. In what ways did the Napoleonic Wars benefit the Maritimes, Newfoundland, and the Canadas?
  16. What was the character of Aboriginal resistance to American westward expansion?
  17. In what ways did British and Aboriginal agendas vis-à-vis the United States correspond?
  18. What were the outcomes of the War of 1812?

Suggested Readings

  1. Bannister, Jerry. “Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789.” Acadiensis XXVII, no.2 (Spring 1998): 95-123.
  2. Fenn, Elizabeth A.“Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst.” The Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (Mar., 2000): 1552-1580.
  3. Keough, Willeen. “The Riddle of Peggy Mountain: Regulation of Irish Women’s Sexuality on the Southern Avalon, 1750–1860.” Acadiensis XXXI, no.2 (Spring 2002): 38-70.
  4. Morgan, Cecilia. “’Of Slender Frame and Delicate Appearance’: the Placing of Laura Secord in the Narratives of Canadian Loyalist History.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 5, no.1 (1994): 195-212.
  5. Pastore, Ralph T. “The Collapse of the Beothuk World.” Acadiensis XX, no.1 (Autumn 1990): 52-71.
  6. Reid, John G. “Pax Britannica or Pax Indigena? Planter Nova Scotia (1760-1782) and Competing Strategies of Pacification.” Canadian Historical Review 85, no.4 (December 2004): 669-692.


This chapter contains material taken from U.S. History: The American Revolution: 1763-1783/Patriots and Loyalists  created by Boundless. It is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

This chapter contains material taken from Slavery in Canada? I Never Learned That! by Natasha Henry. It is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5 Canada license.


Chapter 8. Rupert's Land and the Northern Plains, 1690-1870


8.1 Introduction


Figure 8.1 A fanciful map of Churchill Harbour on Hudson Bay, ca. 1624, by Jens Munck.

Canada, as we have already seen, is a series of histories that sometimes intersect and collide. There is some similarity in the themes of eastern woodlands histories in part because the environment supported agriculture and other food resources to such an extent that human populations could thrive from the Saguenay south to the Carolinas, from the Gaspé west to the Plains. Physical conditions in the North — the subarctic and the Arctic — and across the parklands and Prairies to the Rocky Mountains are significantly different. They challenge human ingenuity, resourcefulness, and resilience in many ways and support a widely distributed population more easily than a concentrated, agrarian society. The multitude of lakes and marshes also sustain beaver populations in massive numbers.

The Aboriginal world of the West and the North was introduced to European goods at first indirectly via trading middlemen like the Innu, the Wendat, and the Anishinaabeg. The proto-contact phase thus lasted for a century or more, much more in some instances. The arrival of the newcomers at first intensified existing practices and then led to modification and finally to outright changes. For Europeans, the North was not the passage they’d been seeking, but it was a gateway.

One way of reaching the interior of North America from Europe was along the St. Lawrence, but the voyage across Hudson Bay took newcomers deeper into the continent’s heart. New products and the arrival of horses transformed life in the lowlands around the bay and across the Plains. The emergence of the “new nation” — the Métis — and their neighbours the “country born” gave substance to the concept of  fur trade society. The Inuit, by contrast, experienced little in the way of intrusion — cultural or physical — in these years. This chapter looks at the region not as a frontier of imperial commerce but as a hub of trade and relationships that extended outward in many directions. The impact of the fur trade and generations of conflict following the arrival of Europeans in the North and West is also considered.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the motives and methods of European and Canadian fur traders.
  • Establish what the indigenous societies and their leaders hoped for their future and how their lives were changed by the fur trade.
  • Become familiar with the landscape and peoples of the North and the western Plains of what becomes Canada.
  • Identify separate British and Canadien, and combined British/Canadien commercial, social, and imperial agendas and activities in Rupert’s Land.
  • Develop an appreciation of how the Aboriginal world across the West and the North functioned as a social and economic environment.


Figure 8.1
Map of Churchill Harbour by Geo Swan is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


8.2 Northerners

The carrying capacity of a landscape refers to the quantity, quality, and distribution of resources necessary to support human populations. This is implicitly a reflection of other environmental considerations like climate, water supply, and soil quality, and it is independent of external factors like enemy populations or the presence of predators (e.g., bears, big cats, wolves). The carrying capacity of northern Canada presents severe upward limits on the size of the population that can exist in pre-industrial conditions.

Aboriginal peoples in the North typically organized themselves into small family-based groups, all of which harvested food and material resources extensively rather than intensively. As hunter-gatherer-fisher societies rather than farming societies, their survival depended on their knowledge of the landscape, seasonal and immediate weather, travel routes, and the movement of migratory animals. Inuit populations, which faced some of the most daunting environmental challenges on the planet, were necessarily small and isolated, only coming together seasonally and even then not in very large numbers.Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004), 21. There are no indications of major population concentrations or villages north of the treeline prior to contact, and the evidence continues to suggest that transmission of trade goods across the Arctic was much, much slower than was the case in the southern half of what became Canada.


Figure 8.2 Sadlermiut man paddling an inflated walrus- or seal-skin bladder, ca. 1824.

Pre- and Proto-Contact

The indigenous social landscape of the Arctic reveals much about the character of human migration. Between 900 CE and 1500 CE the Thule people moved steadily across the Arctic Ocean’s shoreline and islands from Alaska to Labrador. Their advance was slowed but not halted by the indigenous Dorset people, whose members may have encountered Norse expeditions before being effectively overwhelmed by the Inuit. Notwithstanding what may well have been a Dorset enclave of Sadlermiut to ca. 1903, the whole culture was gone by the early 16th century. The timing of the final collapse of the Dorset may indicate the impact of early European contact and the possibility of yet another disease frontier. In any event, Inuit culture — descended from Thule traditions — dominated the arctic rim of North America from ca. 1500 to the present. A hunting and gathering people, they participated in Aboriginal trade networks and had a fully developed trade dialect, but were slow to integrate into the European fur trade system. In part this is because, like the Beothuk, they could obtain much of what they needed by raiding and/or picking over fishing and whaling sites abandoned by Europeans. Passing fishing fleets, as well, acted as informal trading partners with the added bonus that they did not represent competition for land resources.

European interest in the North was muted for centuries in part because the landscape did not support significant populations of beaver. However, once the market appeared for other species, such as the arctic fox, the Euro-Canadian presence grew. As a result, the proto-contact period in the North lasted much longer than it did anywhere else in North America.

Trade between Inuit and Europeans occurred around Hudson Strait from 1611 if not earlier, and fur supply ships on their way to posts in Hudson Bay often stopped to trade along the north coast of Ungava. The first long-term European presence among the Inuit, however, did not arrive until the Moravian mission of 1811 at Kuujjuaq (a.k.a. Fort Chimo), fully two centuries later.Keith J. Crowe, A History of the Aboriginal Peoples of Northern Canada (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974), 98-101. The Inuit farther west were from time to time impacted by a European presence that they did not necessarily see or meet. For example, the early struggles between the French and the English at the south end of Hudson Bay resulted in 1686 in the closing of three HBC posts, and six years later Prince of Wales Fort was closed. These events and an outbreak of disease on the west coast of Hudson Bay prompted the Cree to explore opportunities to the south, and the Chipewyan (a.k.a. Denesuline) followed suit. The Inuit, in turn, moved into the vacuum that was left by the Chipewyan.Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: OUP, 2002), 137-8. They were seizing an opportunity, one they probably did not realize arose in part from European naval battles a few hundred miles away that had repercussions throughout the region.

The Arctic fur trade was simply a bridge too far for Europeans and Canadiens in the 18th century. The same was true for most of the 19th century. Wintering on the Arctic Ocean did not appeal to the outsiders, and there was not enough time in the year to complete an annual circuit from York Factory or Fort William. The expeditions of John Franklin in 1819, 1825, 1826-27, and 1845 give some indication of the difficulties encountered by Europeans in the North. Two of Franklin’s voyages were famous disasters and the others failed to fully complete their missions. They were organized along all-male, naval/military lines, and the shipping technology placed a premium on size, weight, and sails. On land they travelled with the destination — rather than survival — foremost in their minds. The Inuit, by contrast, made use of light, fast, minimal draught paddle-powered kayaks that did not rely on wind; their itineraries were based on the location of food supplies, regardless of detours, and they travelled in family units in which all members contributed to success in many ways. Women in particular ensured the survival of their people on long journeys by preparing food, clothing, hides for shelter, snowshoes, and moccasins; snaring small animals; and helping repair canoes. Samuel Hearne learned this lesson the hard way in the 1770s, but it was a lesson seemingly lost to his 19th century successors. The inability of the newcomers to penetrate and survive in this region slowed their advance, moderated some aspects of cultural change among Aboriginal peoples, and proved to be an advantage to the indigenous population in many ways.


Figure 8.3 Missions to discover the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition did not return empty handed. An 1859 team recovered this message with marginal notes indicating the ships were trapped in the ice, the remaining officers and crew had set off on foot, and Franklin was dead two months later. The Erebus was finally located in 2014.

Key Points

  • Aboriginal life and trade in the North is structured differently from what we have seen south of the treeline.
  • The landscape, climate, and fur resources placed limits on direct European engagement in the region.
  • European attempts to penetrate the North before the 20th century were largely unsuccessful.


Figure 8.2
Sadlermiut whaling by Kompakt  is in the public domain.

Figure 8.3
Franklin expedition note by Petecarney is in the public domain.


8.3 Intrusions during the 17th Century

Cultures on the Arctic. Long description available.

Figure 8.4 Cultures present in the Arctic, 900 to 1500 CE.[Long Description]

Until the 1690s, Europeans made only small forays into the lands of the Innu (Montagnais and Naskapi), the Cree, the Chipewyan, and the Inuit. Existing networks of traders and middlemen (such as the Wendat and the Montagnais) made it unnecessary for the French to extend their reach farther north. Another factor that limited the French intrusion in the North was the persistent belief that a body of water bisected the continent. Given how deeply the St. Lawrence penetrates North America and how much farther still the Great Lakes basin can be followed inland, this makes some sense. What massive river must somewhere feed into the Great Lakes and thus into the St. Lawrence? Would it just be a matter of finding the right portage? Somewhere between the Missouri and the Assiniboine, it was reckoned, there was a river that was to the west what the St. Lawrence was to the east. That hope that a waterway to the Pacific and then to China existed was difficult to shake and it served to delay French movement northward from the colony of Canada.

The British were similarly impelled to hunt out a northwest passage. They, however, came at the problem from the North, via Hudson Strait and then Hudson Bay.Historically, the possessive is used: i.e.: Hudson's Bay. In the 20th century the possessive gradually fell out of use for the place but not for the company, thus: Hudson Bay and Hudson's Bay Company. The first documented attempt to do so was that of Henry Hudson in 1610-11. It ended badly for Hudson: his crew mutinied and cast Hudson, his son, and his remaining loyal crew adrift. Efforts to find a northwest passage would continue for more than two centuries but, in the meantime, there were renewed fur trading opportunities in the North.

It is likely that the Cree first encountered Europeans before Hudson’s ill-fated expedition. A single Cree male, without being urged to do so, offered Hudson and his crew deer and beaver pelts and then withdrew them when goods offered in exchange were not to his liking. This story is taken by some scholars as evidence that the Cree trader was familiar with European goods and their value relative to Aboriginal products.Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: OUP, 2002), 73. For the next 40 years, Cree furs would find their way into the hands of merchants on the St. Lawrence via Anishinaabe and Algonquin middlemen and the Wendat trademart. The destruction of the Wendat Confederacy closed that outlet, although their first-tier middlemen were still mostly in place.

The prospect of direct trade was attractive to the Cree. Price markups that were added as goods passed south along the way to New France meant that the original suppliers on Hudson Bay received far less than their commercial allies closer to the St. Lawrence. And the goods the Cree received in return were costly and of poorer quality. With that in mind, Cree trappers attempted from the 1670s on (if not earlier) to draw the attention of the French to their rich stock of fur animals in the North. The French, however, were in the midst of their compact colony experiment and were concerned that opening posts on “the frozen sea” would undermine what little progress had been made in the development of the St. Lawrence Valley.

Two French fur traders (and brothers-in-law) — Pierre Esprit-Radisson (1636-1710) and Médard des Grosilliers (1618-1696) — held a different perspective. They tried to demonstrate the value of this new market intelligence by heading straight to James Bay. They returned with a daunting number of high-quality pelts. Rather than receive a hero’s welcome, however, they were disciplined for ignoring the governor’s strictures against trading farther north. Subsequently Radisson and Grosilliers took their knowledge to Bostonian merchants and then to the English. They found an interested party in Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682), an entrepreneurially astute German-born cousin of King Charles II. In 1670 a monopolistic charter modelled on the East India Company was granted to “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay,” known more economically as the Hudson’s Bay Company (or simply, the HBC). The territory under the prince’s watch was a massive drainage basin, which the Crown named Rupert’s Land.

Rupert’s Land included the land surrounding Hudson’s Bay and the southern prairies.

Figure 8.5 Approximate boundaries of Rupert’s Land.

Into the Bay

Looked at straight on, the map of North America shows Hudson Bay as a gut that sags into the middle of Canada. For navigators, however, it is a vast inland sea with a huge coastline, a gulf that opens through the wide channel of Hudson Strait into the North Atlantic. In nautical miles, the distance between Bristol and York Factory is almost exactly the same as between La Rochelle and Montreal. There was hope, too, that one of the river systems that empties into the western bay might lead to a Pacific opening. On this score the British (and the French) were disappointed. Once in the bay, however, European fur traders had direct access to the principal Aboriginal trappers and traders with whom the French had been dealing second-hand down south. This cheered them up.

In 1668, two years before the formation of the HBC, the English established a fort in an area on James Bay (known to the Cree as Waskaganish) and named it Rupert House (a.k.a. Charles Fort). The HBC followed up with two other James Bay posts: Moose Fort (a.k.a. Moose Factory) in 1673 and Fort Albany in 1677. The French launched a response almost immediately. In 1672, in a case of foreshadowing that was ignored by the English, a Jesuit priest (Charles Albanel) and a small party of French from Canada crossed Innu territory from Tadoussac via the Saguenay and reached Rupert House. The intent of this mission was evidently diplomatic but it was inconclusive: no one was at home at the HBC fort, so the Jesuit left a note and his party returned to Canada.

A more robust response came in 1686 when Chevalier de Troyes, a French captain recently arrived in Canada, led an overland expedition to James Bay. The attack on Moose Fort was successful and de Troyes (along with the d’Iberville brothers) went on to capture Rupert House and then Fort Albany. This hat-trick campaign took place when France and England were officially at peace, another case where colonial agendas superseded imperial interests. The English returned in 1688 but failed to win back the forts; they were more successful in 1696. The Treaty of Ryswick the following year settled very little and war on the bay resumed in five years’ time. It was not until the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) that French claims on both James Bay and Hudson Bay were formally relinquished.

More than two generations of intermittent conflict and what the Cree experienced as useful competition between the Europeans around the bay finally came to a close. The 18th century would see the French presence expand in the West and the HBC would follow suit. Thanks to wars in the eastern woodlands and in Europe, as well as skirmishes in the bay itself, the cultural and other consequences of commerce between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parties in the West and North were at this stage not yet extensive. Things would quickly change in this regard.

Exercise: Documents

Beaver Fever

The fur trade in the interior of North America is about beaver. In countless museum exhibits, films, re-enactments, and so on, it’s about beaver. The crest of the HBC proudly incorporates a beaver. Truth be told, the HBC (and the North West Company) were pretty open-minded when it came to other kinds of pelts. Certainly beaver pelts were at the heart of the industry and some of the confusion arises from what might be called the “exchange rate” of the fur trade: the “made beaver.” This standard was based on an adult male beaver taken in winter, when the fur would be at its thickest.

All commodities traded in or out of Rupert’s Land were reckoned in terms of their “made beaver” value. Look at this record of furs traded at Fort York (York Factory) in 1714-15. The left-hand ledger shows the quantity of furs purchased at the fort and their relative value in “made beaver.” The right-hand ledger shows the value of European goods reckoned per “made beaver.” For example, while red fox pelts were accepted at par with “made beaver,” white foxes were only half as valuable. And one “made beaver” could purchase two “scrapers.” Just looking at the columns (and not the very-difficult-to-read material at the bottom), how many different animal remains were being traded at Fort York and what was the most valuable? Looking at the right-hand column, what does 21,078 “made beaver” buy?

A list of furs and their values.

Key Points

  • French forays into the Hudson Bay drainage before the late 1600s were largely unnecessary and less promising than explorations into the West.
  • British interest in the region resulted in the creation of a chartered monopoly and the erection of forts along the edge of Hudson Bay.
  • The HBC monopoly was not a deterrent to French incursions and competition, all of which worked to the advantage of Cree and Innu traders.


Figure 8.4
Arctic cultures 900-1500 by Masae is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 8.5
Ruperts land by Themightyquill is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Long Descriptions

Figure 8.4 long description: In 900 C E, the Dorset, Norse, Innu, and Beothuk people occupied different parts of the Arctic. By 1300 C E, the Thule people had taken over most of the Dorset territory and by 1500 C E there were no more Dorset people in the Arctic. [Return to Figure 8.4]


8.4 Commerce, Collusion, and Conflict in the 18th Century

Hudson Bay represented a commercial zone rather than a colonial environment until the 19th century. The Cree and the Chipewyan brought furs from across the drainage basin of the bay to the HBC’s shoreline posts. The Europeans huddled in their forts, living off food supplies from Britain, and bracing themselves against the climate, mosquitos, isolation, and the fearsome sound of pack ice on the northern sea. It was an unambitious but lucrative strategy, because even a fraction of Rupert’s Land had the potential to produce huge quantities of beaver pelts. The HBC traders thus acquired a reputation for “sleeping by the bay” and their apparent inertia continued until 1775, when they had to burst out of the coastal sanctuaries and push into new trading relationships.


Figure 8.6 A complex map of the Chipewyan territory north of Prince of Wales Fort, ca. 1716. It derives from Aboriginal sources (the topographic features) and British observations about navigational and human migration features.

The Swampy/Lowland Cree

Cree trade goods continued to head south to New France (and, after 1760, to British Canada), and Aboriginal traders around the bay developed alternative strategies for success. Establishing a middleman cordon around the HBC forts — called a home guard — ensured that bands that had a prior claim to the territory enjoyed first access to trade goods. And they could charge a tariff on other, visiting Aboriginal traders. The HBC encouraged this arrangement because it improved their access to skilled hunters and, thus, fresh meat.Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: OUP, 2002), 117. For the lowland Cree and the Chipewyan it provided access to trade goods, including foodstuffs imported from Britain.

Relations between the Cree and the Europeans were uneven. Cree priorities were critically important. Treaties or agreements of some kind were reached by the Cree with the 1668 exploratory expedition that resulted in Fort Charles (Rupert House). Those documents have not, however, survived. Whether written or verbal, agreements were sought and reached at every site occupied by the English and the Cree alike. The Cree were looking for reliable and long-term commercial alliances, not incidental trade opportunities.

Conflict in this environment was both familiar to and distinct from what occurred in the eastern woodlands. As one study points out, “Living conditions in the North did not allow for wars: Amerindians and Inuit may have killed each other on sight (if they could), or even raided each other, but this never led to military campaigns as such.”Ibid., 120-1. Another scholar of the region, however, points to the advantage enjoyed by the Cree in battle because of their access to British guns and how they used these very effectively against the Chipewyan and other Athabascan-speakers.J. Colin Yerbury, The Subarctic Indians and the Fur Trade, 1680-1860 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986), 18.

What historians agree on is that there were no “wars” but there was “warfare,” and it was both bloody and nearly catastrophic for the underequipped and badly outnumbered Chipewyan. Their numbers may have been reduced by hundreds if not thousands. Henry Kelsey’s expedition into the parkland of north-central Saskatchewan via the Nelson River in 1690-92 reported almost continuous conflict between the Cree and their northern neighbours. Athabaskan slaves were regularly encountered in and around York Factory, a sign of the effectiveness of Cree raiding parties. The predations by the Cree extended deep into the subarctic.

In 1715 HBC regional Governor James Knight sought to put an end to the conflict and placed his trust in an escaped slave of the Cree, an adolescent Chipewyan woman named Thanadelthur (ca. 1697-1717). Knight hoped she would act as an intermediary between a large party of Cree and representatives of the Chipewyan, whom they would have to seek out. For her part, Thanadelthur’s aims included opening a supply line of arms to the Chipewyan and some commercial success for her immediate family. The success of the peace mission has always been ascribed to the oratorical skills and persuasive powers of Thanadelthur who is said to have entreated both sides for hours until her voice failed.

The Chipewyan had much to gain — including the promise of an HBC post in their own territory and a supply of guns to level the balance of power in the North — but they had much to lose as well. The Cree were more than capable of overpowering the Chipewyan, and it is almost certain that the former were relinquishing access to territories to which they had some ancestral claim (real or imagined). Discerning motivations in 1715 is difficult in part because so many of the key pieces on the board are difficult to identify.

A Changing Aboriginal Geography

What we can say with some certainty, however, is that the 50 years after the fall of Wendake (Huronia) and the course of the Beaver Wars had witnessed significant change in the Cree situation. Populations from the Great Lakes were heading west in large numbers. These included the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) with Wendat refugees in their midst, along with some Woodland Cree, whose most recent homeland was between the Innu, Nippising, and Anishinaabe to the south and the Lowland or Swampy Cree to the north. As the Great Peace (1701) took hold, populations began to recover, which added to increasing resource pressures. The Sioux, the Grôs Ventre (who are variously identified as the Snake, Atsina, or Hidatsa but not all three at once), Arapaho, and Assiniboine were all being pushed west as a result. The Cree, who had the best access to British guns, enjoyed a period of population growth and aggressive expansion out of the lowlands, across the parkland and onto the Plains. In the North they harried, as we know, the Chipewyan but also the Dogrib (Tlicho) Dene and the Dunne-za (another Athabascan-speaking people who were driven westward into what is now British Columbia). Even the Plains Cree were being negatively impacted by a coming generation of newer Plains-bound Cree.

The Cree-Chipewyan peace of 1715 enabled a rapid extension of Cree and British influence from Prince of Wales Fort (a.k.a. Fort Churchill) on Hudson Bay to communities deep in the subarctic, the spread of guns and iron products into the North, and growing trade dependence on the part of the Chipewyan. Achieving peace in the North cost the Cree little and allowed them to hold the line of their expansion at the Churchill River. And from 1717 to 1759 the Cree were able to act as middlemen between the HBC and Athabaskan-speakers as far west as the Peace River District. None of this should lead us to think there was a common “Cree agenda.” Neither the Lowland, Woodland, Subarctic, nor Plains Cree had the kind of political unity that allowed for a single diplomatic purpose in the North, on the Prairies, or with regard to the Europeans. This disunity was also flexibility: unlike the Blackfoot or even the Anishinaabeg, the Cree bands could develop several strategies at once, and they had the numbers to make a difference.

The arrival of European technologies in the North did not occur in a static physical or social environment. Around 1700 the North American climate was changing, becoming colder overall. Areas of human occupation were shrinking or moving south, something that was apparent in the high Arctic where the Thule abandoned ocean islands and concentrated on the mainland coast. This produced some unusually large communities, such as Kittigazuit, a Siglit village at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, whose population reached 1,000 to 2,000 individuals. This was the largest collection of households between Siberia and Greenland. What’s more, the architectural challenges of living in a colder climate saw the end of stone- and/or turf-constructed dwellings, and the appearance of igloos and tents.Donald Purich, The Inuit and Their Land: The Story of Nunavut (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1992), 26. These developments were all part of the transition from the older Thule culture to the emergent Inuit culture, one that depended on smaller bands hunting for caribou and muskox on land, and whales, walrus, and seals at sea. The guns of the 18th and 19th centuries would have been useless to whalers; people with a more eclectic appetite would find more use for firearms.

A Plurality of Markets

Similarly, the Cree market for European goods related to their own needs but also to evolving conditions in the West. Principally the Cree sought European goods that they could trade to other partners. As much as they wanted some European products, their chief goal was to obtain Aboriginal products from neighbours to the south and west. What they traded for in the North, therefore, had to have an appeal beyond the Cree themselves. The loss of Wendat farm products had the effect of refocusing northern trade toward the last major Aboriginal agricultural societies in the region: the Mandan-Hidatsa. These midwestern settlements were also where the Cree and other northern peoples would find access to Spanish trade goods, including horses. In short, some of the material the Cree traded for at Hudson Bay might have limited or no value to the Cree; demand for British imports in trademarts more than a thousand kilometres inland determined their currency value.

Guns offer a good example. English-made guns in this era were muzzle-loading. They required powder and shot. The flintlock was, in the 18th century, just overtaking the matchlock musket and both kinds of guns could be found in the West and the North. The metal from which the English guns were made did not perform especially well in extremely cold temperatures. Stories of misfires blinding the shooter are common enough, as are examples of guns being repurposed into spears and other tools. In short, they were awkward to use, dependent on imported supplies like gunpowder that could run out and thereby render the musket just dead weight, and on the whole were unreliable. They could, however, fetch a good price in the Mandan-Hidatsa villages.

This is what made the Iron Confederacy so successful in the 18th century and into the 19th as well. The Cree could access British goods, the Assiniboine had entry into the central Plains marketplace, and the Anishinaabe, for their part, could secure French/Canadien/Canadian goods. The ways in which that eastern trade system integrated into the West and North was to drive cultural and commercial evolution across the region.

Key Points

  • The HBC trading strategy was to build strong, fortified posts on Hudson Bay with substantial warehousing capacity and to wait for the furs to come to them.
  • Aboriginal groups in the North — especially the Lowland/Swampy Cree — operated their own monopolies in trade that extended from the bay to the Peace District and the Upper Mississippi.
  • Aboriginal traders were motivated to engage with the Europeans by their desire to own products generated by other Aboriginal peoples, including horses.


Figure 8.6
Native Map Seventeen Rivers beyond Churchill 1719 (1969) by Wyman Laliberte is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


8.5 The Montrealers versus the HBC

The routes of Henry Kelsey, Alexander Henday, and Samuel Hearne took on their respective voyages.

Figure 8.7 More than a half century would pass between Henry Kelsey’s exploration of the South Saskatchewan River in 1690-92 and Alexander Henday’s 1754-55 voyage across the northern plains. Samuel Hearne’s two 1770-72 journeys took him north of the treeline and into the Coppermine River basin.

Although the French were blocked from directly reclaiming territory on Hudson Bay, there was nothing to stop them from extending a string of trading posts in the Ungava Peninsula and the West. This strategy allowed them to block the supply of furs heading downriver to the bay.

Before the Conquest

This chapter opens in 1727 with the western expeditions of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye. His mission represents, in part, a resumption of French efforts to find a northwest passage to the Pacific. His contacts around Lake Superior included Tacchigis, Ochagach, and Mateblanche, three Cree informants who provided La Vérendrye with intelligence and maps of the lake and river systems across the West. Complications arose when the Cree-French party encountered the Dakota Sioux at Lake of the Woods. There was long-standing enmity between the Dakota and the Cree, but also a recent alliance between the Dakota and the French in the Pays d’en Haut. The Dakota responded to this new French-Cree configuration as a betrayal on the part of the Europeans and slaughtered 19 in La Vérendrye’s group, including one of his sons.Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since The World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People (Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1996), 79-81.


Figure 8.8 Ogagach’s ca.1730 map of the chain of rivers and lakes between Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior has been likened to a subway station map in that it compresses distances and focuses on destinations.

These French incursions and uncertain relations with some of their own Aboriginal trading partners obliged the British to launch ambitious building projects on Hudson Bay. The most outstanding of these, though never completed, is Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River. Begun in 1731, it was taken by the French in 1782 (during the American Revolution) without a shot being fired. The structure was partially demolished by the French before they handed it back to the British a year later. This was a minor setback for the HBC and the French were, in any event, out of the picture after the War of Independence (1775-83). But it was part of a larger emerging competitive era, one which had its centre along the St. Lawrence.


Figure 8.9 Prince of Wales Fort, built in the 18th century, is still an imposing stone structure ringed with cannons. (Photo: Ansgar Walk)

The Rise of the Montreal Merchants

After the Conquest the main players in the fur trade out of Montreal were British-American merchants. Their trading houses absorbed elements of the old French operations, and the largest and most successful of the new conglomerate enterprises to emerge was the North West Company (NWC). Its leaders were mainly Scots who (like its founder, Simon McTavish) arrived in Canada after the Treaty of Paris (1763) and before the arrival of the Loyalists (1783). They had deftly avoided taking the American side in the War of Independence but that didn’t make them warm friends of the English regime. Nor did their Presbyterian creed stop them from marrying French-Canadian Catholic women. Between the Conquest and the end of the American Revolution they worked in competition with one another in the near-west and the Pays d’en Haut. The outcome of the Revolution and the Treaty of Paris (1783) encouraged them to band together; they were further obliged to develop new strategies for an area north of the 49th parallel after Jay’s Treaty (1794) reduced their ability to work in what was now the American northwest. Hard-headed businessmen with strong connections in New York, the Nor’Westers were a fluid and sometimes fractious set of partnerships that did their level best to subvert the HBC and evade the monopoly held in Asia by the British East India Company.

There may have been discontinuities in entrepreneurial leadership in Montreal, but the fieldwork remained structured much as before. The main corridor of trade was along the Canadian Shield via the site of Wendake (Huronia), into the northern Great Lakes, on to Michilimackinac, and then to the NWC’s main posts at, first, Grand Portage then at Fort William (now part of the city of Thunder Bay). Canadiens continued to play an important role in the actual trading and transshipment process, as did Iroquois, and Métis trip men and voyageurs. (Looking at a typical personnel list from any western expedition, it is difficult to imagine that it would be conducted in any language other than French.) The NWC pressed far into the interior of North America, seeking out furs. This expansionism was a direct challenge to their chief competitors, the HBC, which was just breaking out of its shoreline redoubts and heading upriver.

Another feature that distinguished the NWC is that it operated on a profit-sharing basis. A trader in the company could easily amass a good deal of wealth and had the motivation to do so. The wintering partners — the prominent NWC employees who spent the year in the West — were also part of the decision-making processes of the company. Sometimes also called hivernants, they would meet annually with the Montreal agents at Fort William where company-wide plans would be made in council. The family connections within the NWC — with McTavish at its centre — contributed a patriarchal structure to the decision making.

Oppossing forts sit on each side of the river.

Figure 8.10 At the junction of the Red River and Pembina River in what is now North Dakota, an HBC fort (left) opposes an NWC fort (right). This was at the border of Assiniboine, Lakota Sioux, and Anishinaabe territories, ca.1822. (Painting by Peter Rindisbacher.)

The consultative approach and shareholder system of the NWC was a stark contrast to the hierarchical business model of the HBC. Headquartered in London, the HBC was led by individuals with no direct experience of the fur trade who have been described, consequently, as “cautious, even timid.” Its employees were called “servants,” a title that reflects the deferential and status-conscious relationship they had with their “officers.” Indeed, many of the “servants” were working off seven-year indentures and could look forward at the end to a good letter of reference and a suit of clothes. “But,” as one scholar of the HBC says, “if the Hudson’s Bay Company was at times sluggish, it was never inert. Rigor mortis was not setting in. When it embarked in new directions the Company moved forward relentlessly, and all its advantages of organization and experience made it a formidable competitor.”Daniel Francis, "Traders and Indians," The Prairie West: Historical Readings, eds. R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1992), 69. And when the HBC seemed most on the ropes — as it did in the first two decades of the 19th century — it bounced back.

Key Points

  • By the mid-18th century, French traders were making headway into the West.
  • The post-Conquest fur trade saw the rise of British and British-American merchants in Montreal.
  • The two principal fur trade companies were organized very differently and each had specific strengths and weaknesses.


Figure 8.7
Hudson Bay Exploration Western Interior map de by Alexrk2 is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 8.8
La Vérendrye Map by BlueCanoe is in the public domain.

Figure 8.9
Churchill Fort Prince of Wales 1996-08-12 by Ansgar Walk is used under a CC-BY-SA 2.5 license.

Figure 8.10
View of the two Company Forts on the level prairie at Pembina on the Red River by LibraryArchives is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


8.6 Fur Trade Wars


Figure 8.11 The title page of Samuel Hearne’s account of his travels in the North. Eighteenth century explorer literature had a growing market in Britain and it became, in these years, a means for an old fur trade hand to earn a living in retirement.

The two companies found themselves increasingly in conflict in the West. NWC forts and trading posts glared across rivers at their HBC opposites, strange mirror images of Euro-Canadian commercial activity in a land dominated by Ojibwa and Cree. Competition between the English company and Montreal traders had been bloody since before the Conquest; the fact that they were both saluting the Union Jack after 1763 did little to ameliorate feelings. Moves were made in 1790 on the part of the NWC’s leadership to have Britain end the HBC monopoly, but that effort came to nothing.

The Montreal Factions

Relations within the NWC itself were hardly placid. The costs associated with long-distance transportation of goods and personnel to and from Montreal ate into profits. Tensions rose between the “winterers” and the agents, resulting in reorganizations and then, in response, breakaway partnerships such as the XY Company (a.k.a. the New North West Company). The 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century saw the Nor’Westers’ profitability and share of the fur supply rise while their unity fractured and healed. Their accomplishments in the West were hurried and impressive.

The pace had been set by people like Peter Pond (ca. 1740-1807), a bizarre and homicidal individual whose efforts in the West in the 1780s took him into the Athabasca system, a first for a non-Aboriginal and a seminal moment in the history of the NWC. A decade later (making good use of Pond’s maps) Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820), another NWC agent, explored the river than now bears his name and then, four years later, he crossed the whole continent, emerging near the main village of the Nuxalk (Bella Coola). (Mackenzie  was the first European to cross the continent; his accomplishment predates the American expedition of Lewis and Clark by a decade.)

The NWC subsequently sent out two other missions: one headed by Simon Fraser (1776-1862) in 1808 and the other by David Thompson (1770-1857) in 1811. In the process the company moved into what is now northern British Columbia, what Fraser called New Caledonia. A few years later they closed the loop by purchasing John Jacob Astor’s Fort Astoria in 1812, which transferred to the NWC the Pacific Fur Company’s (PFC) control of posts reaching as far north as Thompson Rivers Post (Fort Kamloops). This expansion on the part of the NWC carved a path running northwest from Lake of the Woods to the Mackenzie River, right across the southwesterly course of the HBC’s growth. Repeatedly the companies’ representatives would come to blows.


Figure 8.12 A detail from a map arising from John Franklin’s disastrous 1819-20 expedition from Hudson Bay to the Mackenzie Delta. Note the presence of NWC and HBC posts on Methye Lake.

The Western Nations

This situation was not assisted by a change in Aboriginal attitudes toward trade. For peoples like the Chipewyan and the most northwestern of the Cree, having a trading post on their doorstep or even just somewhat nearer to their territory was an important advantage. Mackenzie reported that such groups normally travelled hundreds of miles to trade, journeys that took them away from their homelands, their hunting, and their other customary practices. They were, therefore, happy to encounter forthcoming traders who would “relieve them from such long, toilsome, and dangerous journies; and were immediately reconciled to give an advanced price for the articles necessary to their comfort and convenience.”Barry M. Gough, “POND, PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed November 26, 2014, .

Others were not so favourably impressed. The Niitsitapi and Grôs Ventres nursed a growing hostility toward the fur traders who were supplying their Cree adversaries with arms. Conflict broke out sporadically. Events in the cordillera region took a similar turn from 1795 when the Kutenai and Flathead (a.k.a. Salish) acquired guns from the NWC and American traders for use (successfully in 1810 and 1812) against their Piikuni (Piegan) enemies. The Piikuni thus joined the ranks of First Nations embittered against the newcomers. Even the Cree turned on the Euro-Canadians. In 1779 at Fort Montagne d’Aigle on the Saskatchewan River and again in 1781 at Fort des Trembles on the Assiniboine River, the Cree demonstrated their unwillingness to be cowed by arrogant traders.Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: OUP, 2002), 175-6. The possibility arose in 1779-80 that the western Plains people — whose lands were increasingly saturated with fur traders of varying moral quality — would turn the newcomers out of the Plains entirely. Smallpox intervened in 1780 and further serious talk of a clearing of the West did not arise.

Conflict in the northwest was endemic after the fall of Wendake and the Beaver Wars, as Aboriginal peoples worked toward a readjustment of territory and resources. The 18th century witnessed British-American expansion into the trans-Appalachian west, causing further disruptions in traditional territories and invasions by displaced populations. Pressures were growing from all sides and they would not be relieved by landscape-scouring epidemics. Movement into new territories required adjustments and usually the occupants put up a fight.  Some of the social and cultural changes that came with these movements and activities can only be described as revolutionary.

Key Points

  • Montreal traders were setting the pace in the West and entering into direct competition with the HBC in Rupert’s Land, regardless of the latter’s monopoly.
  • Political and social changes in the Western nations were manifest in changing attitudes toward the Europeans and Euro-Canadians.


Figure 8.11
A journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the northern ocean : undertaken by order of the Hudson’s Bay Company for the discovery of copper mines, a north west passage, & c. in the years 1769, 1770, 1771 & 1772 by Samuel Hearne is in the public domain.

Figure 8.12
Franklin map fur route 3751971809 c0c67ca7d3 o huge map (2) by Kayoty is in the public domain.


8.7 Cultural Change on the Plains

Among the transformative forces that jolted the Plains in the 18th and 19th centuries, none was more sweeping than the arrival of horses, which happened on the northern Plains in the 1730s.

A Mounted Revolution

Horses reached the Iron Confederacy and the Niitsitapi around 1750 and were available to the Métis shortly thereafter. Horses allowed the Niitsitapi and Assiniboine to refine an existing Plains culture and they had even deeper impacts on the Cree. The culture of the Great Plains was being made over in a southwest to northeast direction. The Assiniboine adopted the horse culture shortly after the Shoshoni and then coached their Cree allies. The hundred years that followed would see elements of the Woodland and Swampy Cree move farther and farther into the Plains. Mounted, the Cree became a cavalry capable of raiding neighbours with speed and impunity. This era, sometimes called the “Horse Wars,” had a revolutionary effect on Plains culture.

The horse had its own needs, potential, and limitations. It could not flourish in the subarctic or in the swampy lowlands. Where it did well, however, it made possible a burgeoning of Plains people’s arts and crafts. The feathered headdress or war bonnet so utterly associated with Plains peoples in 20th century popular culture came into widespread use in these years simply because it could be carried from place to place more easily and it was no longer competing with other goods and belongings for space on a dog-pulled travois. As a weapon in war and in the harvest of bison, the horse knew no peer on the Plains. As an instrument leading to an improved quality of life, it was unprecedented. And it would, as well, contribute to a coming catastrophe. By 1818 horses were everywhere in abundance and literally eating into the bison range.

Horses carry people and pull supplies. Some dogs also are pulling supplies behind them.

Figure 8.13 George Catlin’s ca.1850s sketch of Sioux making use of dogs and horses to move camp.

Despite the arrival of horses, the Plains Cree still made use of enormous numbers of dogs in the mid-19th century. Assiniboine dogs — thought to be either wolves or recent descendants of wolves — were also used in their hundreds. Although hunting dogs worked and lived closely with Aboriginal men, the larger pack was the responsibility of women in Plains culture; they had to attend to everything from their feeding to training as pack animals to the culling of litters and preparing dog flesh for ceremonial feasts. It appears that the arrival of the horse enabled Plains populations of dogs to grow. Accounts survive of as many as a thousand dogs in one encampment, and many European travellers commented on the howling and whining of Aboriginal hounds.On dogs in Plains societies, see J.J. Audubon, Quadrupeds of North America III (New York: J.J. Audubon, 1854) and D.G. Mandelbaum,   The Plains Cree. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 37,  part 2 (1940), cited in "The Dogs of the Great Plains Nations," in Dog Law Reporter: Reflections on the Society of Dogs and Men. Accessed November 30, 2014, .

A village is situated at the top of a cliff next to a river.

Figure 8.14 The Mandan villages were protected from bison herds by the clever use of topography, including rivers, cliffs, and canyons that isolated the fields. (Painted by Karl Bodmer, ca. 1839.)

Power on the Plains

Historians remain divided on the character and depth of alliances and animosities on the Plains. This disagreement arises from inconsistencies in the written record and gaps in the oral accounts. What is certain is that the Cree emerged as a powerhouse in the parkland and farther north in the early fur trade period (ca. 1680-1750). Their effective monopoly on HBC goods paired with Anishinaabeg control over much of the trade coming out of Montreal before the Conquest, and Assiniboine military strength meant that the Iron Confederacy members moved from being on the geographic and economic periphery of the North American trade system to being leaders. The Spanish would not trade guns to the nations of the south and southwest, and the French had issues with some of the Plains nations. The British-supplied Cree and Anishinaabeg — along with their partners the Assiniboine — enjoyed a privileged position. And being better armed they were able to protect that interest as they moved in greater numbers onto the Plains.

One of their rival groups, the Shoshoni, felt the effects of this changed balance. The Shoshoni had an outstanding reputation as makers of sinew-backed bows, a commodity they had customarily traded northward to the Niitsitapi, the Cree, and others. With iron arrowheads, these bows were lethally accurate weapons in war and in hunting, much more so than pre-19th century guns. (As late as 1811 it was reported that Piikani of the Niitsitapi Confederacy reckoned that a Shoshoni bow was worth a horse or a gun.) The Shoshoni also had, by the early 18th century, access to Spanish horses via southern neighbours and allies, and used them for raiding. The horse gave them a great advantage in battles in the 1730s against the Niitsitapi and the Cree, not least because of the shock value of these alien animals.

Shoshoni raids deep into the South Saskatchewan River drainage in the mid-18th century, however, found the Cree well armed with English guns and very effective as marksmen. Guns turned the tide of Shoshoni dominance on the northern Plains. The Cree armed their sometimes-allies the Niitsitapi, and the Shoshoni were driven south. Once the Iron and the Niitsitapi Confederacies acquired horses of their own, the balance of power between those two sides shifted. Without a common enemy to their south, the Niitsitapi and the Cree-Assiniboine found themselves in conflict over trade, the supply of horses, access to gunpowder and shot, and the locations of British and Canadian fur trade posts.John S. Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988).

These developments collectively contributed to the emergence of a common “Plains Indian” culture in the late 18th century. Mounted, well-armed, and capable of riding and shooting in large numbers — whether at enemies or bison herds — the Cree, Assiniboine, Plains Anishinaabe, and the Niitsitapi became a different kind of society. Better food supplies allowed their population to grow and life expectancies to improve. The stratifications in Niitsitapi society became more elaborate; the size of tipi rings enlarged; encampments grew from 50 to 200 individuals.

For women, it is likely that the bison tradition emerging in the late 18th century was a setback. The hunt and warfare became a greater preoccupation and source of prestige for men, while women’s work increased in the butchering and preparation of meat. Nevertheless, the changes that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries were partly a product of women’s roles. Warfare and raids often entailed the capture and abduction of women and, of course, sometimes women moved from one society to another under less violent circumstances. They brought with them their skills in making handicrafts, clothes, tipis, and food, as well as their language, as they settled into a new, perhaps married, life in the adoptive community. These aspects of material and non-material culture were the property of women and were diverse and changing. Women in Niitsitapi culture, for example, were recognized as conduits for change and agents of adaptability.Blana Tovias, Colonialism on the Prairies: Blackfoot Settlement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920 (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2011), 86-8. The emergent Plains culture owed almost as much to women as it did to horses and guns. Aboriginal women played a comparable transformative role in fur trade society as well.

A stop-motion film of a bison running.

Figure 8.15 19th century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge took an interest in the gait of animals in motion. His study of a bison gives a sense of its mass and power.

Key Points

  • The arrival of horses on the northern Plains had a revolutionary impact on Aboriginal cultures, economies, and relations with neighbours and newcomers.
  • The power and influence of the Woods and Plains Cree increased dramatically in the years after the arrival of horses, gradually making them the most numerous and dominant force on the Plains.
  • The emergence of common elements of a Plains culture in the 18th and 19th century was tied to increased dependence on the bison herds.


Figure 8.13
Band of Sioux Moving Camp by George Catlin is in the public domain. This image is from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and cannot be used for commercial purposes.

Figure 8.14
Karl Bodmer Travels in America (49) by John Sweeney is in the public domain.

Figure 8.15
Muybridge Buffalo galloping by Leonid 2 is in the public domain.


8.8 Fur Trade Society and the Métis

Metis clothing. Long description avialable.

Figure 8.16 Métis style went beyond a mix of European and Aboriginal to produce something distinctive. [Long Description] (Painting by Peter Rindisbacher, ca. 1825-26)

The dynamic of the northwestern fur trade was different from what was observed in the south and even around the Great Lakes in several ways. One of these was the contrasting patterns of migration. The wintering partners of the NWC and their Montreal-based competitors struggled across hundreds of miles of river, rapids, and portages with their long freight canoes in order to reach Lake Superior every spring to hand over their furs and collect new trade goods. Then, after a relatively brief stay, they’d return to the northwest. This ordeal would take the better part of spring and summer, depending on how far into the region their trade post was located. Similarly, the HBC traders in the field after 1775 raced across the North each spring and summer to reach Hudson Bay before the ice arrived. Aboriginal people, for their part, might journey long distances once a year to trade at the post before heading back into their home country to, among other things, capture more fur-bearing animals. In other words, the trading post, depending on its size and importance, might be the focus of concentrated activity for a brief part of the year and more or less abandoned at other times.

The larger forts, however, offered a different scenario. Home guards were established on or close to their doorstep, a reliably accessible source of labour, food, and intelligence for the Euro-Canadians. For the Aboriginal community itself, proximity to the fort gave them control over which other Aboriginal traders might gain access.

It was in the context of these two broad types of interaction that a fur trade society emerged. In cases where there was an established home guard, the Europeans and Canadians had to concede that their ability to trade was limited. The HBC could claim to have a monopoly but so too might the Cree home guard. In the late 18th century, when northwestern peoples began to sour toward the traders, the home guard bands constituted an important line of defence: they were allies whether the HBC wanted it to be so or not. The head office in London, however, wanted to keep Aboriginal partners at arm’s length and was particularly critical of romantic and/or sexual relations between the personnel and Aboriginal women.

Country Marriages

At the smaller posts farther inland, the situation was a little different. From the viewpoint of the European, marrying an Aboriginal trader’s daughter (or wife or sister) meant that the band would return reliably each year with new shipments of furs; from the perspective of Aboriginal people, intermarriage ensured privileged access to European products. Aboriginal women also brought with them skills necessary to succeed in the fur trade and the northern environment. They manufactured snowshoes, moccasins, tents, mitts, and other goods without which the European trader would do badly — if not perish. Of course, they also provided a sexual partnership and an intimate human relationship — without which the European trader might despair. The benefits arising for Aboriginal women were considerable. They had direct and generous (though rarely unimpeded) access to trade goods, many of which were designed to ease the work of women in particular: cooking tools, sewing needles, and knives figured high on this list.

This position as a “woman in between” gave them status in their Aboriginal community and influence in the European establishments as well. That position might be compromised or eliminated, however, if the fur trader spouse returned to Europe or Canada. In many instances the Aboriginal women remarried other traders, which allowed them to continue in their roles. (In the worst case scenarios in the 19th century senior HBC fur traders introduced European/Canadian women to fur trade society, a move that decreased the status of Aboriginal women in an increasingly race-conscious environment.)

The children born of these unions did not follow a singular path. In the 18th century the HBC denounced and forbade liaisons between its servants and the Aboriginal peoples, which may have simply driven the practice into the shadows. There were substantial numbers of children at the forts around 1750. By 1800 other solutions were being explored, including resettlement of the offspring. Daughters whose fathers were important officers in the HBC were married when they reached adulthood to young European traders. They were thus drawn into a complex kin network that stretched to, perhaps, the Orkney Islands on the one side and the Coppermine River on the other. For reasons associated principally with the structure of year-round life at HBC posts and with the HBC management’s efforts to limit intermarriage, these relationships developed along lines that favoured British influences in important ways. The offspring of intermarriage involving the HBC, in short, developed identities that were more strongly British than not; some, however, were utterly Aboriginal. But there was not much in the middle.

The contrast with the Canadien-Aboriginal experience is sharp. In the more transiently populated forts on the French/Montreal frontier around the Great Lakes, it was more likely that Canadien traders would return to Canada annually or after a few years in the field. Relationships under these circumstances were more casually structured and a female partner would sometimes be handed on to a retiring trader’s successor. As postings in the West lengthened and particularly as succeeding generations of voyageurs/winterers became more contemptuous of the soft life in Canada, marriages were more likely to be at least confirmed à  la façon du pays (in the custom of the country). As the influence of the clergy in the West increased, clergymen sometimes also formalized them further with conversion rites and the sacrament of marriage.

In the French and then the post-Conquest Montrealers’ posts, intermarriage and miscegnation occurred regularly enough to become a concern for both priests and managers. There were so many offspring (and widows and abandoned wives) of traders living in and around forts from Detroit north through Michilimackinac, Fort William, and onto the Plains that the NWC was regularly faced with requests for support when its men left the field. The Catholic clergy played an important role in the socialization of the Métis (“mixed-blood”) children and by the late 1700s there were sufficient numbers — a cultural critical mass — to generate a distinct group of people.Jacqueline Peterson, “Many roads to Red River: Métis genesis in the Great Lakes region, 1680-1815,” The New Peoples: Being and becoming Métis in North America, Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer Brown, eds. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985), 37-72.

Fur Trade Dialects

A sure sign of the emergence of a self-sustaining culture was the appearance around 1800 of a Métis language, Michif, which mainly combined French nouns with Cree verb phrases. (This was an almost unique phenomenon in North America which, outside of the Russian-Aleut communities in Alaska, constitutes the only true “mixed language,” as opposed to a trading dialect or a pidgin. By contrast, Bungee arose around the English-speaking settlements of Red River, layering elements of Anishinaabe/Ojibwa atop a substantial foundation of English and Gaelic to create what linguists call a “creole.”)  Michif, along with a distinctive style of dress, manner of living, and awareness of shared interests, set the Métis apart from their Aboriginal and European cousins and sent them down a path toward nationhood in their own right. Between 1800 and 1820, the Métis advanced their own economic interests as carters, voyageurs, farmers, bison hunters, trappers, and manufacturers of pemmican. Their great technological contribution to Western life — the Red River cart — enabled the Métis to freight large quantities of pemmican and trade goods across the open prairie and even across rivers, something that was beyond the means of Aboriginal and European traders alike.


Figure 8.17 Red River carts were amphibious craft consisting of a flatbed attached to two large, convex spoked wheels. No metal was used in their construction and the wheels could be removed and strapped to the bottom so that the vehicle became a raft. They were invariably pulled by oxen. (Painting by William Hind, ca. 1862)

It was the pemmican trade that became the Métis niche, especially in what is now southeastern Manitoba and North Dakota. It was to define their relationship with newcomers on the northern Plains and it would become an important part of the “New Nation’s” identity.


The terminology used to describe liaisons between European men and Aboriginal women has evolved a great deal since the contact era. In 17th century New France, there was enthusiasm at official levels for building a colony of people drawn from both societies (so long as they were Catholic) and there was, as a consequence, little opprobrium attached to children who were the product of miscegenation. In Spanish colonies the term for the children of native and European parents was (and is) mestizo. In French colonies the term most often used today is métis. Note that it is not capitalized in this instance, because it describes a heritage, not a culture. When métis people in North America achieved a consciousness of a separate identity, they became Métis. So, it is possible to speak of someone who is métis but not Métis.

Most, but not all Métis (and métis too) were the descendants of French and French-Canadian traders and Aboriginal women (mostly Anishinaabeg or Cree). By contrast, the children of British men and Aboriginal women were described in a number of ways. Historians, looking at that population retrospectively, use the term country born. There was a time when half-breed was not necessarily a derogative term, but by the middle of the 19th century it very commonly was. As notions of race and immutable race differences became more widespread, the terminology became more derisive and was hurled as an insult.  Other terms such as bois-brûlés (which means “burnt wood”) was used by francophones and still occasionally makes an appearance. Métissage is an attractive word sometimes used to describe the mixing of European and Aboriginal cultures in these populations. It is certainly a better choice than mixed-race marriages,” which perpetuates obsolete and discredited notions of racial categories.

Key Points

  • The Western fur trade in the early 19th century was long-ranging, defined by chains of forts and posts that covered thousands of kilometres and created many intersections for different peoples.
  • Relations between Aboriginal and European/Euro-Canadian participants in the fur trade frequently included sexual and/or marital partnerships.
  • The role of the Aboriginal and métis women in these relationships was often critical to the success of the fur trade business.
  • The people arising from these relationships began to define themselves as different from both Aboriginal and European ancestries.


Figure 8.16
A halfcast [sic] and his two wives / Un Métis et ses deux épouses by LibraryArchives is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Figure 8.17
Manitoba Settler’s House and Red River Cart by Geo Swan is in the public domain.

Long Descriptions

Figure 8.16 long description: The women wear long dresses and colourful pants. One woman has a shawl wrapped around her body and over her head. A man wears a decorated top hat, a patterned vest, a long tunic, and leggings. [Return to Figure 8.16]


8.9 Community and Crisis at Red River

A boat is moored at the dock with many people gathered around it.

Figure 8.18 Driven from their homeland by poverty and loss of land, the Red River settlers found themselves caught up in similar issues in North America.

The HBC continued to trade in all the lands around the bay but increasingly it pushed into the Prairies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1811 it established a fort and settlement at Red River in response to NWC incursions into what the Royal Charter made clear was territory covered by the HBC monopoly.

The Selkirk Colony

This was done under the leadership of the HBC’s Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk (1771-1820), a Scot who had engaged in several other settlement schemes in British North America (all with mixed results). Selkirk was moved by the situation of the Highland and Lowland Scots who were forced off their lands by the clearances — the consolidation of feudal lands to enable the building of greater sheep flocks and thus feed the ravenous woollen industry in industrializing Britain. While touring the Canadas he was feted by the largely Scottish Montreal merchant establishment, which included representatives of the NWC. Knowing something of the strengths and weaknesses of their operations, he returned to Britain where he secured an influential number of shares in the HBC and then convinced the old monopoly to move into the Red River Valley. The Red River or Selkirk Colony (also called Assiniboia) was intended to absorb Highlanders,  retired HBC employees, and (eventually) demobilized Swiss mercenaries. The fact that it straddled the NWC’s main access routes and trading territories provoked a decade of hostilities between two already deeply competitive firms.

The Selkirk Colony was enormous, four times the size of New Brunswick and 20% larger than Upper Canada. It contained both NWC and HBC posts. It was, as well, home to large numbers of Métis, some of whom were farmers but most of whom earned at least part of their living from the pemmican trade with the NWC. A high-protein mash of dried bison and berry jerky, pemmican was the staff of life for Western fur traders and was literally the fuel that drove the fast-moving, long-distance NWC canoe brigades. One estimate claims that “several million kilograms of pemmican were consumed in the fur country each year.”Daniel Francis, "Traders and Indians," in The Prairie West: Historical Readings, eds. R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1992), 71. The enormous scale of the bison hunts in the 18th and 19th centuries were, in this respect, mobile food-processing operations in which Aboriginal women were a central part. Far from being just a matter of diet, the production, sale, and storage of pemmican was a huge business that operated symbiotically with the fur trade. Neither economy could survive without the other.

The Red River Colony imposed on that economic order and, when famine threatened the settlement in mid-winter 1814, Governor Miles Macdonnell (1767-1828) issued what became known as the Pemmican Proclamation. This law was meant to stop the export of pemmican to NWC forts in the West and retain it for the HBC settlers. If it had been successful it  might have ruined the NWC and it certainly would have impoverished the Métis, at least temporarily. Tension between the Métis and the NWC on the one hand and Macdonnell, the HBC, and the Selkirk settlers on the other had been simmering; the Pemmican Proclamation pushed the colony to boiling point. A fearful two-thirds of the settlers prudently left the colony that spring, assisted by an NWC that was only too happy to see them off. The remainder were more or less chased away and the settlement was razed. Selkirk, not to be outdone, found another group of settlers to send to Red River in 1816, along with a new governor, Robert Semple (1777-1816).Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 22-90.

Seven Oaks

Matters came to a head on June 19, 1816, at the Battle of Seven Oaks (in present-day West Kildonan in Winnipeg). A party of Métis, having recovered pemmican from HBC posts farther west, were on their way to a rendezvous at an NWC post when they confronted  a party from the Red River Settlement, one that included Semple himself. The result was a bloodbath. Semple and 19 others of the HBC people were killed in the shootout; only one of the Métis party died.

Seven Oaks is important in the history of the West and of Canada for at least four reasons. First, it aggravated already very poor relations between the two companies. The fur trade wars were then at full tilt, with HBC and NWC personnel murdering one another across the whole of the West. Second, this chaos was destabilizing and expensive: it stretched both companies to their limit, leading to amalgamation in 1821 under the Hudson’s Bay Company name. Third, it marked the emergence of the Métis as a self-aware nation. The Selkirk Colony gave the Métis an issue on which they could start to imagine a political destiny and it framed an issue of rights to which the Métis would aspire.


Figure 8.19 Cuthbert Grant, 1793-1854.

Much of the legwork in this process has been ascribed to their leader at Seven Oaks, Cuthbert Grant. The son of a Scottish trader and a woman of Cree or Assiniboine background, Grant was well educated, intelligent, and articulate. According to his biographer, he mobilized Métis feeling in the years leading to Seven Oaks, creating a viable force out of what had been a largely disparate population. The fact that he did so to enable the success of the NWC — with which he and his father had long been associated — takes nothing away from this accomplishment.George Woodcock, “GRANT, CUTHBERT (d. 1854),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed August 29, 2014, . At Seven Oaks Grant led them to their first “wartime” victory and, as is often said, got “blood on the flag.” The Métis, consequently, would grow as a force on the Plains in the 19th century.

Fourth and finally, Seven Oaks was an important military, commercial, and cultural event. It also resonates as an environmental turning point, as the next two sections argue.

Key Points

  • In the early 19th century the HBC moved inland from its seaboard forts and confronted its principal competition.
  • The Red River Colony was located at an intersection of conflicting interests in the fur trade.
  • The Métis at Red River had a distinctive economic and political role to play.


Figure 8.18
Historic dock, engraving by Schell & Hogan from Picteresque Canada, vol.1, pg. 317 (Toronto, 1882). This reproduction is a copy of the version available at and cannot be used for commercial purposes.

Figure 8.19
Cuthbert Grant by Jonasz is in the public domain.


8.10 The New HBC and the New Nation to 1860

In the days and months after Seven Oaks, the colony at Red River was more divided than ever. The Métis under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant had taken an important step toward becoming a self-aware and tightly knit nation in their own right. Their allies in the NWC (and their head office in Montreal) were buoyed by the apparent weakness of the HBC and its bothersome colony. The HBC, on the other hand, had the support of the British government; the death of Governor Semple hardened their commitment to the HBC.

A map of Assiniboia.

Figure 8.20 The Selkirk or Red River Colony on the eve of the Treaty of 1818.

Some resolution was achieved in the Treaty of 1818, a lesser-known agreement that came to have a lasting impact on the shape of Canadian history. Also known as the Anglo-American Convention, it tidied up a few issues left outstanding from the Treaty of Ghent (1814).  Specifically, it addressed the issue of boundaries in the West. The treaty makers drew a straight line across the continent along the 49th parallel from Lake of the Woods to the Columbia River. The United States ceded to the British some territory in what is now southern Alberta. More critically, the Red River Colony lost its southern drainage and the important village of Pembina; the lands of the Red River Valley — the homeland of the Métis — were thus partitioned.

Geopolitical change told only part of the story. The year 1818 saw the return of plagues to the Prairies, accompanied by famine and armed conflict over diminished resources. Severe climate change and fluctuations aggravated matters. Massive demographic disasters ensued and the fur trade came close to a total collapse.

These new conditions set the stage for the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company in 1821. The merger was both an act of desperation and an inspired reorganization.

Merger: HBC

Despite the distances involved in freighting trade goods from Montreal to the West and back again over land and by rivers and lakes, the NWC was arguably the stronger company in 1816. By 1818, however, some rot was beginning to show. Disaffection with the Montreal leadership was leading to desertions to the HBC and American competitors. The arrest and trial of several NWC employees and allies for the murder of Semple turned out badly for the HBC — everyone charged was acquitted and an independent investigation concluded that the HBC’s people fired the first shot. A counter case against Lord Selkirk demoralized the colony’s leader and he died in 1820 at 49 years of age. The British government was exasperated by the fur trade wars and insisted on a merger. Selkirk’s death, confusion at the head office of the NWC, and general battle fatigue among the wintering partners cleared the way for a single monopoly. In 1821 the companies became one: the NWC disappeared, redundant posts were dismantled, pensions were issued, and the NWC’s business model of shareholding traders became the norm in the new HBC.

The appointment of Sir George Simpson as governor of the HBC in 1822 brought significant changes. Simpson’s style was autocratic and it took time for him to win the support and (as an outsider) respect of the traders in the field. Many of the former NWC employees remained rightly mistrustful of the HBC. Simpson initially regarded with contempt the Canadiens he inherited from the NWC and sought their dismissal. Two years later, after observing the usefulness and work ethic of the Canadiens, his opinion softened somewhat. He did, however, limit the possibilities for promotion for Canadiens and Iroquois.

One of Simpson’s other initiatives was the York Factory Express (also called the Columbia Express), a route that connected York Factory to Fort Vancouver by combining the assets and knowledge of the two former competitors. The 4,000-plus kilometre route combined the use of York boats — heavy, wide draught wooden dinghies with sails — and horse brigades. The York boat fleet travelled between Hudson’s Bay and the foothills of the Rockies along the North Saskatchewan River, a route that included heavy and awkward portages that looked nothing like the days of birchbark canoes. Between the mountains and the sea the Express made use of ponies set out along well-developed brigade trails (many of which are highway routes today).

From York Factory, west to Edmonton, and south west to Fort Vancouver.

Figure 8.21 Map of the route of the York Factory Express, 1820s to 1840s.

A growing American presence south of the 49th parallel, however, compromised the monopoly. New limitations on the trade in liquor in Rupert’s Land and Assiniboia created a vacuum into which American whisky traders moved. This was how American and Métis traders in the southern half of the bisected Selkirk Colony encouraged the diversion of furs away from the HBC. Efforts to stamp out these “free traders” would culminate in the trial of Guillaume Sayer (ca.1801-1849).

An NWC employee in his youth, Sayer spent much of the 1820s and 1830s working for the HBC. In 1849 he was caught trading furs to Americans at Pembina, formerly part of the Selkirk Colony. Sayer’s trial at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) became a major public event. It was bound up in public resentment toward the monopolistic HBC and, also, in the ideal of Métis liberty. Sayer’s cause was taken up by Louis Riel Sr., a Métis whose fame would be eclipsed one day by his son and namesake (a mere five years old at the time of the trial). Under Riel Sr.’s leadership and encouragement, the Métis gathered in large numbers at the fort’s courthouse, demanding a fair trial for Sayer. Although he was found guilty by a jury of his peers, the judge — Adam Thom — was intimidated by the armed crowd outside. He decided not to sentence Sayer and gave him back his freedom (which he enjoyed for three months and then died). The trial’s outcome was a signal that the Company’s monopoly was broken and it was a further advance in the formation of a national consciousness among the Métis. Riel Sr.’s fame arising from the trial would serve his son well.

Grand Couteau

Two years after the Sayer Trial, a battle between the Sioux and the Métis fixed the reputation of the latter as a fighting force deserving respect. The annual (sometimes biannual) Métis bison hunt had grown in size and efficiency since the late 18th century. By 1851, however, the bison herds were shrinking. Overhunting and the westward migration of Aboriginal peoples pushed along by the arrival of American settlers below the 49th parallel were wearing down the bison numbers. The Lakota Sioux determined to reduce European predations on what they regarded as their herds. From a Sioux perspective, as well, the Métis were not observing basic conservationist principles. Pemmican continued to be produced at surplus rates in the 1840s and 1850s even as a market for bison robes and hides was opening up. Métis exploitation of the bison as a commercial resource to complement their slowly advancing agricultural settlements to the north no doubt impacted the herd populations in the eastern and central plains.

Grand Couteau, a plateau in central North Dakota, has multiple layers of significance for North American history. It was the site of the first major conflict between an Aboriginal people and the Métis. Both laid claim to the right to hunt herds, the Métis appropriating a European notion of property (that is, livestock that are not fenced in cannot be said to “belong” to anyone in particular) while sustaining a Plains hunting culture very similar to that of the Sioux. Both the Sioux and the Métis arrived at Grand Couteau in armed and mounted cavalry formations. The Métis, moreover, had an advantage in the form of Red River carts that could be flipped up or on their side to provide cover from sniper fire. Both were tightly organized and capable of showing incredible cool under fire. What’s more, the Métis bison hunting parties had evolved into very large endeavours. (There were said to be more than a thousand participants and a similar number of carts heading to Grand Couteau, although not all were present at the battle.) Managing those numbers meant that military discipline was the norm. It was, as well, potentially brutal and sometimes remorseless. Against this were 2,000 Sioux warriors in the field that day in early July 1851 when Sioux scouts encountered outriders from one of three Métis hunting parties. The end effects proved significant to both parties.

The Métis emerged victorious, their discipline and philosophy of sacrifice to the needs of the larger community vindicated; their confidence was high and Grand Couteau would stand for many years as a symbol of their potential.Irene M. Spry, “The métis and mixed-bloods of Rupert’s Land before 1870,” The New Peoples: Being and becoming Métis in North America, Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer Brown, eds. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985), 95-118. For their part, the Sioux fared less well and would adopt different strategies for survival in a world of shrinking resources, the most immediate of which was signing their first treaty with the United States a mere two weeks after Grand Couteau.

As for the bison, their numbers continued to shrink. Grand Couteau was, in this regard, a case of closing the metaphorical bison pen after the last buffalo had bolted. As the map in Figure 8.22  indicates, the herds were hunted out of the Dakotas and southern Manitoba until what little was left could be found in the borderlands of Alberta and Montana in the late 1860s.

The gradual disappearance of wild bison. Long description available.

Figure 8.22 Extermination of the bison to 1889. This map is based on William Temple Hornaday’s late-19th-century research. Dark numbers indicate the population of bison as of January 1, 1889. Light numbers give the date of local extermination. Light brown indicates original range, brown shows range in 1870. Dark brown shows remainder in 1889. [Long Description]

Key Points

  • The Treaty of 1818 began to give shape to what emerged eventually as Western Canada. It also bisected the Red River Settlement, the Métis communities, and the Blackfoot Confederacy, among others.
  • Exhausted by battle and legal wrangling, the HBC and NWC merged in 1821.
  • The Sayer Trial of 1849 spelled the end of the HBC monopoly in trade and opened commerce across the West.
  • The Battle at Grand Couteau signalled the rise of the Métis as a militarized force on the Plains and the coming crisis of shrinking bison herds.


Figure 8.20
Selkirks land grant (Assiniboia) by J Hazard is in the public domain.

Figure 8.21
York-Factory-Express by Pfly is used under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 International license.

Figure 8.22
Extermination of bison to 1889 by Cephas is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Long Description

Figure 8.22 long description: Originally, bison could be found throughout almost the entire United States and up into Alberta, Saskatchewan, Southern Manitoba, and southern Northwest Territories. However, by 1889, the bison numbered no more than 800 and could only be found in a few locations. [Return to Figure 8.22]


8.11 Environmental Apocaplyse

It may seem melodramatic to describe the situation as apocalyptic. But for the Aboriginal peoples of the region and for the animals on which they depended for survival, it could hardly be viewed otherwise. Famine conditions broke out at Red River in 1816 in part because of a temporary poor climate pattern. But the writing was on the wall even beforehand: the bison herds on which so many Plains cultures (including the Métis) depended were being obliterated in the northeastern Plains. The fur trade, too, was moving farther and farther west. Swans had disappeared from around James Bay by 1785 due to over-hunting (for their skins and feathers);  rabbits, geese, and deer were consumed in prodigious amounts by all of the HBC and NWC posts; partridge were vastly reduced in number and getting harder to find.Laurel Sefton MacDowell, An Environmental History of Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), 34. The signs were everywhere that the situation and many species were no longer sustainable.

Further, the explosion of Mount Tambora in faraway Indonesia in 1815 threw tons of material into the atmosphere, blocking out light and polluting the air, causing the Year Without Summer. A disastrous year for crops and grazing animals in 1816 was only the worst of several successive years of severe hardship. For Aboriginal people, the loss of game was a terrible burden. Faced, too, with measles, smallpox, whooping cough, and tuberculosis in these years, whole communities disappeared while others fled their home territories in search of better prospects elsewhere.

These environmental conditions had a significant impact on bison herd numbers as well. The largest numbers of animals continued to move west. This meant that pursuit of the herds became even more imperative than before. Mounted hunts inevitably increased the radius of individual bands and made conflict over territory and resources inevitable, not least because horseback hunters were more effective in reducing bison stocks. Horse travel also made it possible to move bacteria and viruses long distances in record time. The possibility of quarantining part of the Plains during epidemics had passed. Aboriginal peoples looked at these changing conditions and some decided to explore other strategies for survival, including Prairie farming and treaties with their neighbours and with newcomers.

The beaver population was also in dramatic decline. The NWC system, being more democratic than the top-down business model of the HBC, made it possible for young men to make a fortune as fur traders; but these fortunes could only be made by mining out the very last beaver in any give territory in short order. One response was to look farther afield, to plunder furs west of the Rockies, but that, too, was a short-term solution. More promising still was the advance made into the North-Western Territories by the HBC. The Company’s new licence to these expanded territories extended its monopoly and presence from the Arctic to California and from the Pacific to Hudson Bay, including the whole coastline of what is now northern Quebec. The impact on animal populations was almost immediate.

The cataclysmic changes of the period from 1816 into the 1820s and the unification of the fur trading companies meant that the HBC became the de facto government of the Prairie West (and large parts of the trans-mountain West). While this was not good for the wildlife, it did put the Company in a position to launch an inoculation campaign in an effort to curtail epidemics (which it did), put an end to the trade in alcohol (which it mostly did), and experiment with conservation measures (which it did clumsily). It also worked to limit farming in the West, viewing the possible influx of settlers as detrimental to its relationship with the Plains peoples in particular and to its interest in fur-bearing animals.

Another force stood in the way of a farming frontier across the West, and it stands as a further wrinkle in the story of large mammals thundering across the Plains. As we have seen, the number and size of Aboriginal farming societies had been falling since the 15th century. These higher density settlements would have had an interest in managing bison populations; otherwise attempts at agriculture would be frustrated. Coupled with climate change, the disappearance of the Mississippian farmers and even farming villages as far north as Alberta reduced obstacles to the growth of bison numbers. The massive herds were themselves an historic anomaly, in part a product of changes in the human ecology on the Plains. The bison posed a major challenge to agriculture: they were notorious for trampling crops and a herd could make short work of a farmer or hunter caught in the open.Olive Patricia Dickason, "A Historical Reconstruction for the Northwestern Plains," in The Prairie West: Historical Readings (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1992), 53. It was only their removal by over-hunting (and the development of cold-steel ploughs) that made the agricultural revolution on the Plains in the late 19th century conceivable.

Disease and Aboriginal Populations

The saga of invasive diseases was far from over in the 18th century. Epidemics continued to take a toll and force change upon Aboriginal societies. Outbreaks of influenza (an exotic disease) struck the Chipewyan and northern Cree in 1748-49. Those who did not die from the sickness faced starvation in its aftermath.J. Colin Yerbury, The Subarctic Indians and the Fur Trade, 1680-1860 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986), 39. Smallpox made a continent-wide appearance in 1781-82, distributed on horseback; it was devastating for Plains and parkland peoples alike. Faced with high mortalities from this outbreak and by a mounted and well-armed Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) enemy, the Shoshoni retreated from what is now southern Alberta. Disease thus allowed the Niitsitapi to extend their range into Montana. Winners in these conflicts were, nevertheless, themselves greatly reduced by epidemics and not all enjoyed a speedy recovery.

We have seen how, in the 18th century, trade networks across the Plains focused on the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. For the Cree and their neighbours, the Mandan villages were the key to survival to the 1830s, the last link to the ancient Mississipian farming cultures. It was their position as a hub of trade that doomed the Mandan-Hidatsa villages and many of the people with whom they traded. Smallpox struck the Mandan in 1837-38 and was thus passed along to many in the trading community. It then spread north to the Assiniboine. Some of the Cree communities fared relatively well because the HBC traders inoculated many people along with numbers of the Anishinaabeg. The Assiniboine, whose population was historically much larger and their individual bands inflated since the arrival of horses if not earlier, however, were easy targets for smallpox. The Mandan, likewise suffered horrendously: they were a village population with no hope of retreat in the face of, first, whooping cough, then cholera and tuberculosis, and then smallpox. The 1837 smallpox epidemic killed 6,000 of the Niitsitapi as well, who were subsequently forced westward. Hundreds if not thousands died in the famines and dislocations that followed the 1830s disaster. Aboriginal communities folded into one another and whole populations fled still farther west.

Smallpox and then scarlet fever pursued these populations even as they pursued one another. Both diseases devastated the Plains Cree of the Qu’Appelle Valley twice in the 1850s and the Niitsitapi suffered from scarlet fever, possibly introduced into the region by the Hind Expedition (see Chapter 14). One historian has suggested that the Niitsitapis’ “recent abandonment of the centuries-old practice of maintaining fresh water supplies by conserving beaver stocks” worsened their situation.James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: U of R Press, 2013), p.75. The environmental impact of the fur trade and Aboriginal competition cut deep.

The westward exodus of both the Niitsitapi and the Plains Cree culminated in further catastrophe. Nearly a century of raiding by the Cree embittered the Niitsitapi against their northeastern enemies. Although the two nations temporarily worked out an alliance of their own, by the mid-19th century the Cree were determined to secure primacy over the Plains and the remaining bison herds.Shepard Krech III, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999): 123-49. The Niitsitapi, for their part, had their backs to a wall of mountains. The Kutenai, another historic Plains peoples, had already been pushed across the Rockies (perhaps by the Niitsitapi); the Niitsitapi were not about to follow them. Conflict between the Cree and Niitsitapi increased through the 1850s and 1860s, culminating in the Battle at Oldman River (a.k.a. Battle of the Belly River) in what is now southern Alberta in the autumn of 1870. The Niitsitapi repelled the ambush launched by the Cree, Anishinaabe, and a much-reduced Assiniboine, and the Iron Confederacy suffered extensive fatalities. The two sides agreed to peace soon thereafter.

Figure 8.23 Piapot (a.k.a. Payipwat, Kisikawasan) became an important Plains Cree leader in his 40s and was influential in Cree politics from the 1860s to the early 20th century.

The cumulative and complementary effects of epidemics, warfare, and the extensive deaths associated with the work of the American whisky traders (who pushed as far north as Fort Edmonton) were truly horrific. Pockets of the Plains turned into genuine boneyards. Desperation was the order of the day. It was in this context of exhaustion and vastly depleted population numbers that the people of the Plains approached the prospect of annexation by Canada and the possibilities held out in the Numbered Treaties of the 1870s.

Key Points

  • The new and expanded HBC adapted many features of the NWC and extended its systems to incorporate trading posts and forts from the Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean, around the Great Lakes, and on the Ungava Peninsula.
  • The fur trade proved to be unsustainable, as was the bison hunt, producing food shortages and even famine.
  • The return of epidemics and the arrival of new exotic diseases had disastrous effects on Aboriginal populations.
  • A shrinking resource base, demographic calamities, and fear of starvation pitted Aboriginal communities against one another and challenged the survival of the fur trade.


Figure 8.23
Piapot by Sven Manguard is in the public domain.


8.12 Summary

An unfinished map of North America with lots of detail in the south east but a blank northwest

Figure 8.24 European perspectives on the northwest are made clear in this ca.1750 map by Robert Sayer. Is there a northwest passage through “Parts Unknown”? The mythical “River of the West” holds out some hope, as does all that terra incognita.

The Napoleonic Wars, of which the War of 1812 was a part, barely touched the Prairie West. The Battle at Seven Oaks was an entirely separate event, one that reflected the isolation of the region from global events. Having said that, the region was fully vulnerable to global trade, and it was competition in Atlantic marketplaces that brought the HBC, the NWC, and their respective allies to blows in 1816. The theme of competing visions of the economy and orientation of the economy of the West was, in fact, to dominate debate and life on the Plains for the next 60 years. The consolidation of the NWC into the HBC left many of the Métis on the outside looking in. The fur trade’s best years, however, were behind it and the years ahead were nothing like those that had passed. The subsequent crash of beaver and, slightly later, bison populations brought to an end nearly a century of flourishing Plains cultures, culminating in some of the bloodiest wars in Canadian history and, thereafter, the arrival of a new imperial master from the east and the signing of treaties.

Overall, we may characterize the history of the West and the North in the years from 1670 to 1870 as an age of Aboriginal dynamism and continuity and European/Canadian intrusion on an almost haphazard basis. It is one region in what is now Canada where we can observe Aboriginal agendas playing out over a sustained period of time without being drawn into intercolonial wars. The transformation of pedestrian and clannish people from the Hudson Bay Lowlands into a mounted and armed Plains cavalry capable of reaching far greater numbers and conducting dramatic raids and hunts across a huge range tells us two things. First, Aboriginal peoples were never static and always adaptable and that there is no single typology for historic Aboriginal peoples that suffices. Second, it shows how the world that Canadians encountered in the West in the late 19th century was a changed place, turning on a series of revolutions in social and economic organization. The Canadians who arrived on the scene in the 1860s and 1870s, however, would mistake what they saw for a timeless and primitive land of warring and starving Natives lorded over by an autocratic HBC. This unsophisticated view would lead the Canadians to make a series of fateful errors as they sought to expand their own vision of a unified British North America.

Key Terms

Assiniboia: Synonymous with Selkirk Colony or Red River Colony. The Treaty of 1818 divided it at the 49th parallel, thereby reducing Assiniboia significantly. After Confederation and the creation of the province of Manitoba, the name was applied to a new regional administrative unit in the North West Territories. This District of Assiniboia ran horizontally across the southern Canadian Prairies and was bounded on the east by Manitoba, on the south by the 49th parallel and the United States, on the west by the District of Alberta, and on the north by the District of Saskatchewan.

Battle of Seven Oaks: On June 19, 1816, a battle of two parties made up of HBC employees (including Governor Robert Semple) and Red River settlers against a party of Métis, Canadiens, and Aboriginals connected with the NWC. This was a violent chapter in the Pemmican War and was provoked by a food shortage and the HBC’s consequent attempt to control the movement and sale of pemmican.

Bungee: Dialect that arose around the English-speaking settlements of Red River, layering elements of Anishinaabe/Ojibwa atop a substantial foundation of English and Gaelic to create what linguists call a “creole.”

clearances: The consolidation of feudal lands to enable the building of greater sheep flocks that would thus feed the ravenous woolen industry in industrializing Britain. The Highland Clearances resulted in the displacement of large numbers of Scots, as did the Lowland Clearances, contributing to a massive out-migration in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Columbia Express: Route connecting York Factory to the mouth of the Columbia River by combining the assets and knowledge of the HBC. Also called the York Factory Express.

Dorset: The Paleo-Eskimo culture that existed in the Canadian Arctic from about 500 BCE-1500 CE. Succeeded by the Inuit Culture.

Fort Astoria: Established at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811 by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, Astoria was the first American position on the northwest coast. It was soon sold to the North West Company.

Grand Couteau: Plateau in central North Dakota, the site of a key battle between Métis and Sioux bison-hunting parties.

hivernants: see wintering partners

home guard: Middleman cordon around the HBC forts established by Aboriginal groups that had a prior claim to the territory. Ensured that they enjoyed first access to trade goods.

Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC): In 1670, a monopolistic charter modelled on the East India Company that was granted to “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay.”

Métis, métisCapitalized, it refers to people of mixed ancestry (European and Aboriginal) who self-identify with a synthetic culture that evolved mainly around the Great Lakes and on the Plains. Not capitalized, it is sometimes used to refer to people in British North America (and sometimes in the United States) of combined European and Aboriginal ancestry.

Michif: A hybrid language used by the Métis.

New Caledonia: Technically the north-central part of what is now mainland British Columbia and an administrative centre at Fort St. James. In practice, “New Caledonia” was used to encompass most of (if not all) of the mainland colony.

Nor’Westers: See North West Company.

North West Company (NWC): A joint-stock fur trading company established in Montreal after the Conquest, led by British-American and Scottish merchants. The principle competition to the HBC.

northwest passage: A searched-for water passage connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific.

North-Western Territories: Lands draining into the Arctic Ocean and thus not within the charter of the HBC. Includes much of northern British Columbia and Alberta and what are now called the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Numbered Treaties: A total of 11 treaties negotiated between Canada and Aboriginal peoples (principally in the West) in the post-Confederation period.

Pacific Fur Company (PFC): Created by the New York-based entrepreneur, John Jacob Astor, the PFC established Fort Astoria on the northwest coast but lasted for less than three years as competition in the North American fur trade.

pemmican:  A food made mainly from bison meat and fat and berries, which was the staff of life for western fur traders and was literally the fuel that drove the fast-moving, long-distance NWC canoe brigades.

Pemmican Proclamation: Imposed by the Red River Colony when famine threatened the settlement in mid-winter 1814, issued by Governor Miles Macdonnell (1767-1828). Was meant to stop the export of pemmican to NWC forts in the West and retain it for the HBC’s settlers.

Red River Colony: Selkirk Colony, also called Assiniboia.

Red River cart: Two-wheeled vehicle with large spoked and detachable wooden wheels on an axle supporting a flat-bed. Sometimes covered, usually pulled by oxen. Wheels could be removed to enable floating as a raft across rivers and streams. Definitive technology arising from Métis culture.

Rupert’s Land: According to the HBC’s charter of 1670, all the lands draining into Hudson Bay. Includes northwestern Quebec, northern Ontario, most of Manitoba, some of central Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as southeastern Nunuvat.

Selkirk Colony: Red River Colony, also called Assiniboia.

Thule: Arctic culture that evolved into Inuit culture. The Thule migrated across and occupied the Arctic mainland and islands beginning about 1000 CE and reached Labrador and Greenland ca. 1300 CE.

Treaty of 1818: A treaty signed by Britain and the United States recognizing the 49th parallel from Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains as the boundary between the United States and British North America; also established the Columbia District (a.k.a. Oregon Territory) as an area of joint jurisdiction for a period of 10 years.

trip men: See voyageurs.

Upper Fort Garry: Located near the heart of what is now Winnipeg. Lower Fort Garry and Upper Fort Garry were important administrative and shipping centres along the Red River system.

voyageurs: Members of fur trade business whose principal task was to move furs, people, and materials across great distances. Some voyageurs were also traders.

whisky traders: Principally independent American fur traders whose principal stock was alcohol.

wintering partners: The prominent NWC employees who spent the year in the West. As part of the decision-making process, they would meet annually with the Montreal agents at Fort William where company-wide plans would be made in council. Also called hivernants.

XY Company: the New North West Company.

Year Without Summer: The summer of 1816, marked by a very poor growing season caused by the explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

York boats: Heavy wide draught wooden dinghies with sails that travelled between Hudson Bay and the foothills of the Rockies along the North Saskatchewan.

York Factory Express: see Columbia Express.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. In what ways did the arrival of the Europeans in the late 17th century alter the way of life of Amerindians?
  2. Explain the difference in the French and English approach to westward exploration in the 1700s.
  3. What were the motivations of Aboriginal traders in the West?
  4. What changes took place in Aboriginal societies, economies, and cultures during the 18th century? How were these connected to and/or independent from the arrival of Europeans and Canadiens/Canadians?
  5. What were the relative strengths and weaknesses of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company?
  6. What were the sources of violent conflict between the competing fur trade companies and their allies?
  7. What was pemmican and why was it important to the western fur trade?
  8. In what ways did the Métis constitute a “New Nation”? In what ways were they distinct from the country born in the 19th century?
  9. What roles did Aboriginal women perform in the western fur trade?
  10. Why did the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merge? What was the impact of the merger?
  11. What were some of the environmental and demographic consequences of the fur trade?
  12. What strategies did Aboriginal societies adopt in the face of changing circumstances?
  13. What is the significance of Seven Oaks and Grand Couteau in the history of the Métis nation?

Suggested Readings

  1. Macdougall, Brenda and Nicole St-Onge. “Rooted in Mobility: Métis Buffalo-Hunting Brigades.” Manitoba History 71 (Winter 2013): 21-32.
  2. Peers, Laura. “‘Almost True’: Peter Rindisbacher’s Early Images of Rupert’s Land, 1821-26.” Art History 32, no.3 (June 2009): 516-544.
  3. Podruchny, Carolyn. “Unfair Masters and Rascally Servants? Labour Relations Among Bourgeois, Clerks and Voyageurs in the Montréal Fur Trade, 1780-1821.” Labour/Le Travail 43 (Spring 1999): 43-70.
  4. Van Kirk, Sylvia. “From ‘Marrying-In’ to ‘Marrying-Out’: Changing Patterns of Aboriginal/Non-Aboriginal Marriage in Colonial Canad.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23, no.3 (2002): 1-11.


Figure 8.24
Terra Incognita by Leiris202 is used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.


Chapter 9. Economic Transformation and Continuity, 1818-1860s


9.1 Introduction

The Napoleonic Wars ended French hegemony in Europe and provided Britain with newfound elbow room in an evolving world economy. British North America, too, could afford to relax a little: American expansionists along the eastern seaboard turned their hungry eyes from the North to the West. The wars of the early 19th century were fought on battlefields and at sea, but they were also in the new workplaces that would come to be known as “industrial manufactories.” The half century that followed 1818 would see the spread of new ideas and practices, some of them associated with empire, others with the scientific and technological enlightenment that would lead into economic and industrial revolution.

While there were many significant changes in the economies of British North America, continuity still existed. Agriculture was a leading force in the economy, as was the fishery. These were joined by other staple production activities that gave shape to the colonies and their societies just as the fur trade informed much of life in New France.

What most distinctly marks the period from 1818 to 1860 is British North America’s changing relationship with the world marketplace. The loss of preferential tariffs in Britain changed the economic stakes, but it also changed the psychology of trade. If the empire wasn’t the raison d’être for the colonial economies, what was?  Even if industrialization and social change took place slowly in British North America, that wasn’t the case in Britain. There, British North Americans could see from a distance a future comprising densely populated cities whose purpose was not commerce but production of goods. They could see, too, changes in infrastructure and sources of energy: wood and wind would give way to coal and steam by Confederation. The colonial economies of 1818 would either evolve significantly by 1860 or they would be on the precipice of enormous change. Either way, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, British North Americans had examples to which they could turn. These models were both physical and intellectual: this was an era of changing economies and changing minds.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the broad economic trends of the era.
  • Account for important changes in the British North American economy.
  • Account for continuities in the British North American economy.
  • Demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of how economic structures pertain to social and political change.
  • Correlate changing economic times with emergent economic policies.
  • Identify the economic ideologies and ideas of the era and how they informed debate and direction in the economy of British North America.


9.2 The Dismal Science

The late 18th century was a period of unprecedented intellectual excitement. Revolutions associated with political power structures were driven by new ideas that were themselves revolutionary. Political ideas like democracy and those set out in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man proposed to overturn the fundamental relationships between social classes and centuries-old notions of both deference and noblesse oblige. At the same time, new fields of study were emerging that would challenge the power of older institutions. Geology threatened the Christian belief in a world that was a mere 4,000 years old; three centuries of refining navigational tools had produced the equipment necessary to look into space and into individual cells. The world was about to become much older, much newer, much larger, and much smaller at the same time.

Economics, as well, was about to emerge as an arena of serious study and debate as early practitioners searched for overarching principles and values that would help them formulate the right questions before rushing off in search of the right answers. Two influential British figures in this respect deserve mention: Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith.

Malthus and the Agricultural Revolution

A cover page of an essay.

Figure 9.1 Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population was a pioneering attempt to apply scientific principles to the workings of the economy.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was a smalltown vicar concerned with the relationship between famine and population growth. In 1798 he published An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that population growth would always be reined in by positive restraints that raise the death rate and negative checks that lower the birth rate. It is thanks to Malthus that economics acquired the title “the dismal science,” because he could see no morally defensible way around a cycle of increased food production followed by population booms and then by famine and collapse. (As a vicar, he could not entertain the notion of birth control, although he did advocate for personal sexual restraint.)

Malthus was proved wrong, at least for two centuries. Food production could increase more rapidly than he anticipated and fertility rates would, simultaneously and against all predictions, drop significantly in the industrializing world. But Malthus provides an important window into how people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries understood the world around them. Famines had wracked Europe for centuries and Malthus’s generation bore witness to them. And the last major famine in the British Isles — the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s — was yet to come. People who thought about economies understood shortages not as mere inconveniences that might run the price up a bit, but as terrible events they had seen in their lifetimes, the kind of thing that led to violence, starvation, and mass die-offs. Malthus posited a scientific system for understanding why this was so, why prosperity and growth seemed always to be followed by starvation, war, and mortality.

A graph depicting Malthus' theory. Long description available.

Figure 9.2 Malthus reckoned that population increased much faster than food production and that famines were thus inevitable. [Long Description]

There was something else that Malthus observed without necessarily realizing it. When he wrote about increases in agricultural output he did so in the context of the agricultural revolution. Food productivity had been climbing steadily in Europe and North America since about 1700. More effective farming techniques and different landhold patterns lay behind these changes, as did improved infrastructure and thus better communication between markets and farmers. Whether he knew it or not, the rate of agricultural increase that he described as a fact was, in reality, part of his own historical context. Earlier generations simply could not have imagined the rate of food production growth that lay at the heart of Malthus’s model.

Malthus and many of his contemporaries were keenly aware of one other truth: Britain’s population was surging. It had nearly doubled in the 18th century; more than 4 million people had been added. It was this growth that would spur enormous economic changes in Britain and provide the fuel for an explosion of immigration to British North America and other colonies.

An Economic Revolution

In short, ideas about the economy were evolving at a time when the economy itself was transforming. In our own era, we are accustomed to the idea of change, not least because we can look back on a record of nearly 300 years of significant change. But in the late 18th century change was still rather frightening. Centuries of feudal relations and food production were only just beginning to face challenges. Absolutism was, until the 1780s, impregnable across Europe. Colonies followed the direction of empires and both France and Britain were very conservative in this respect. The vast majority of humans lived on the land. With the exception of small numbers of emigrants to the colonies, farming people stayed put; people mostly lived, married, and died in the village of their birth. It was rare for Europeans to travel far unless they were wealthy or in an army.

North America changed all of that. Revolution in the British colonies was both stimulated by and responsible for emergent ideas about government and citizenship. What followed in France was more than an echo in that it rocked to its foundations the very idea of absolutist government and an aristocracy. Additionally, the Americas were the scene of widespread experimentation with non-feudal landholding systems that produced dramatically higher surpluses. The modest family farm of New England and Upper Canada would be a conceptual force strong enough to topple whole regimes in Europe. The mass production possible in slave colonies, moreover, created a need for bigger and better freight shipping, warehousing, and processing. In the 1770s and 1790s important technological changes in the processing of raw cotton and the weaving of cotton cloth transformed overnight the plantations of the American South, causing an explosion in technology that would lead ultimately to wholesale industrialization around the North Atlantic.

The principal beneficiaries of all this activity were the advocates of mercantilism. The merchants and shipowners of Europe’s westward-facing ports had enjoyed 200 years of accumulating wealth in trade between North America and the empire. Their money — their capital — was now substantial, and they were beginning to invest in projects that had nothing to do with fishing boats or beaver pelts. What British historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the age of revolution” that began in the second half of the 18th century would, thus, have many and widespread ramifications, not the least of which were economic.Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (NY: Vintage Books, 1962, 1996).


Figure 9.3 Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and a severe critic of mercantilism.

Classical Liberal Economics

Adam Smith (1723-1790) had a thing or two to say on these topics. His 1776 book, generally known by the shortened title The Wealth of Nations, argued for the free movement of investment. Removing constraints and allowing capital to be invested where profits are likely to be greatest would produce economic growth for the greater good of the nation, he argued. This was a revolutionary proposition in a world governed by tariffs and Navigation Acts; it was revolutionary, too, in that it called for the betterment of “the nation” rather than the Crown. To much of the European and even the North American establishment, wealth rightly belonged to those of good birth and royal favour. Handing power over the economy to mere merchants and capitalists was akin to handing them a loaded gun. Nevertheless, new schools of economic thought advocating a liberal approach were on the rise and they challenged efforts to conserve the old order of economic power.

The wars in Europe arising from the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic era postponed the peacetime necessary to test some of the theories of Malthus and Smith, but it was during this 30-year period of instability that many of the key economic changes took root. As is often the case, the wars presented opportunities to build capacity for production because the state reliably demanded large quantities of goods for its troops. Wool production increased in Europe; cotton production increased in the American South; timber, shipping, and fisheries production increased dramatically in British North America. Then, in 1818, it all collapsed.

The 19th century opened, then, with a flurry of new ideas. The United States was a democracy, a republic, and a nation state. There was no crown to enrich or serve, no suggestion that the president was infallible due to the kind of divine right enjoyed by Louis XIV in France. Britain might be known as the United Kingdom, but the power of its kings had never been more compromised than it was under George III. France, of course, had become a republic and would spend the next hundred years reinventing itself as a secular democracy and, again, a nation state. What then was the purpose of the economy in a colony? How might it grow and to what end?

Key Points

  • The 19th century arrived on the heels of challenging new ideas about the nature of the economy, the relationship between the individual and the state, and how best to meet the needs of growing populations.
  • Merchants in Europe and North America were in a position to provide investment capital that could finance independent and state projects without the involvement of the Crown.
  • There was growing interest in eliminating tariffs so that British producers could compete more aggressively in global markets.


Figure 9.1
An Essay on the Principle of Population by Lupo is in the public domain.

Figure 9.2
Malthusian catastrophe by Kravietz is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 9.3
AdamSmith by Protonk is in the public domain.

Long Descriptions

Figure 9.2 long description: A graph comparing the rate of population growth and the production of food, according to Malthus. The production of food rises at a steady but gradual rate while population grow exponentially. The point on the graph where population surpasses food production is labeled, “Malthusian Catastrophe” [Return to Figure 9.2]


9.3 British North America between the Wars

The war in Europe and the War of 1812 were over in 1815. British North America would not face another external threat to its survival until the American Civil War in the 1860s. It is worth remembering that a generation had been raised in Europe in the shadow of the French Revolution and war, followed by Napoleon’s expansionism. And a generation of British North Americans had found jobs building ships, stitching sails, winding ropes, casting cannons, and supplying food to huge armies and fleets abroad. Suddenly that came to an end. As the armies of Europe demobilized, the economies of the North Atlantic adjusted to peacetime. For the most part, it was a very uncomfortable transition.

What most of British North America had in common was an ample supply of available land. Not all of it was of the same quality. Newfoundland’s agricultural potential was very limited and so it never experienced that “farming frontier” settlement boom found in other colonies. Nova Scotia, too, was limited by thin soil outside of the valleys along the Bay of Fundy. Population poured into Lower Canada’s Eastern Townships but the limits of that territory were reached in a few decades. The big winner was Upper Canada, whose population grew almost entirely on the strength of new farm settlement, rising from 14,000 in 1791 to 95,000 at the end of the War of 1812. By 1824 it had grown again by 50%, and by 1840 there were more than 430,000 people in the colony.Douglas McCalla, "The 'Loyalist' Economy of Upper Canada," Social History 16, no.32 (November 1983): 285. Immigration dominated the engines of population growth in the colony and the few thousand Loyalists who founded the colony were quickly and severely outnumbered.

Until the War of 1812, however, the ability of British North American farmers to make much economic headway was limited by landscape. Clearing heavily treed land was difficult work. One estimate reckons that a single farmer (perhaps making use of some extended family labour) could clear 1.5 to 3 acres a year and that a minimum of 3 acres was needed to achieve subsistence.Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 168.  This produced a colony of subsistence farming right down to the end of the war, by which time the colony began to round a corner.

The Economic Impact of 1812

Several aspects of the economy changed with the War of 1812. First, the war was itself a dissuasive force when it came to continued American immigration into British North America. The Late Loyalists were American migrants who reached the limits of upstate New York and simply crossed into the Niagara Peninsula. After 1812 that traffic slowed significantly. The fall of Tecumseh’s forces opened up lands in the Ohio and farther west for Americans and, of course, the border now meant more than it did before the war. The colonial administration of Upper Canada, feeling insecure and vengeful, cut off land grants to Americans, effectively freezing economic growth in the Niagara for a generation. Immigration sources would have to change. Britain offered up new possibilities: in this new post-war age, however, they would arrive by the boatload and not as individual migrants or families. The population boom of the 18th century — which had seemed at the time like a huge increase in national wealth and power, insofar as it provided an enormous number of troops to fight against France — was now a liability. The British government decided to direct the outflow of population to reduce unemployment and suffering at home and to increase the economic capacity of its colonies abroad. For a decade waves of state-sponsored emigrants departed Britain and wound up in British North America.

Secondly, the British economy was badly beaten up by the conflict in Europe and the North American theatre of combat. Certainly there had been growth sponsored by the war itself and there was already evidence of the coming industrial revolution. But, beginning in 1815, a recession settled in. Unemployment spread throughout the British Isles and demand for British North American exports declined sharply. Recovery was in the near future, but the post-war crash was a foretaste of the kind of economic volatility that the new industrial economy had in store for the whole Atlantic rim.

Key Points

  • The end of the Napoleonic Wars witnessed a significant downturn in the North Atlantic economy.
  • British North America’s agricultural sector was marked by subsistence farming through the War of 1812 and thereafter grew only slowly.
  • British North America’s recovery would depend on Britain’s recovery.


9.4 The Lower Canadian Economy

As the oldest settlement colony in British North America, Lower Canada had certain advantages. The infrastructure of banks, warehouses, shipping capacity, merchant houses, schools and hospitals, and the military were all much more evolved than in any of the other colonies. Against that, much of the best arable land was spoken for by 1818, some farmland was in need of rest and fertilizing, and the demographic model of large, often extended farm families meant that greater resources had to be dedicated to subsistence than was the case with smaller families in the English Protestant colonies.

Although wheat remained an important share of Lower Canadian farm production throughout the first half of the 19th century, the colony never developed the same degree of dependence on grain as did Upper Canada. Nor did it achieve the same surpluses for export. By the 1830s Lower Canada was a net importer of wheat (overwhelmingly from Upper Canada). This reflects three things: a move to mixed farming geared to feeding Lower Canada first, a rising population that effectively ate up the surplus, and soil exhaustion. It has to be said, too, that Lower Canada’s farm belt was less well suited to wheat than was Upper Canada’s.

Growth in the colony’s economy was stimulated by the trade in timber. The Napoleonic Wars, as we have seen elsewhere, stimulated growth in logging camps and the squaring of timbers. This trend continued into the 1820s and 1830s. The tributaries of the St. Lawrence — including the Ottawa River Valley — hummed with activity as logging camps spread along the fringe of colonial settlement. It has been observed that farming in Lower Canada took place at the heart of the colony, the fur trade far beyond its limits, and logging right at its edge.Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 146-7. Each of these sectors was organized differently: from the family farm, to the far-ranging fur trade in which voyageurs and coureurs de bois predominated, to the typically all-male logging camp in which wage labour was the norm. This last mode of production — wage labour with a large number of semi-skilled workers — would emerge as a characteristic of British North America as a whole in the 19th century.

Agriculture remained at the heart of the economy in Lower Canada throughout the 19th century because culturally and socially there were pressures to stay on the land. The clergy and the state alike were heavily invested in the administrative and confessional units bound up in the seigneuries, as were, of course, the seigneurs. The question then arises, why was the Lower Canadian farming sector seemingly stagnant?

One school of thought places the blame on cultural timidity, a mentalité among farmers that was unprogressive. This was the stand taken by Fernand Ouellet in a study published in 1980.Fernand Ouellet, Economic and Social History of Quebec, 1760-1850 (Ottawa: Gage, 1980). Historical geographer Cole Harris took the same view, saying that by the 1820s, “French-Canadian agriculture, inflexible, uncompetitive, and largely subsistent, was incapable of supporting a growing population.”Cole Harris, "Of Poverty and Helplessness in Petite-Nation," Canadian Historical Review 52, issue 1 (March 1971): 23-50. Harris has since changed his view and has joined the ranks of historians who argue that the pre-1850 farm economy in Lower Canada was, in fact, diversifying, that there is evidence of experimentation and growth.Cole Harris, The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada Before Confederation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 242-259. The issue arises as to whether stagnation (or growth, come to that) was related to the “peasant” condition of Canadien farmers. Their farms were much more organized around subsistence than commercial sales, so breaking out of that pattern (one that dates back to the 1660s) was a unique challenge.See also Serge Courville and Normand Séguin, Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century Quebec (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1989). I am grateful to Frank Abbott for his insights into this debate. The rise of larger cities and concentrated lumber industries meant new growing markets for farm surpluses, and this was no doubt critical in the move to a commercialized agricultural sector. The archetypal rural cash crop in Lower Canada — maple syrup — would clearly benefit from an urban or working-class marketplace.

Regardless of the historical forces that abetted or obstructed change on the seigneuries, there remained the critical shortfall of the farming sector in Lower Canada: the colony was unable to support its rapidly increasing population. The principal results would be movement within the colony — mostly to the towns and cities but also to more marginal, newly opened seigneurial lands — and emigration. They found a welcome of sorts in New England. By the 1830s industrialization was underway in Massachusetts and demand for labour in the state’s textile mills was expanding more rapidly than could be met by the local labour supply. Rather than move to more marginal farm land in, say, the Saguenay Valley or off to a farming frontier in another part of British North America — that is, to an anglophone, Protestant colony — Canadiens found it easier to sojourn in New England where wage labour was good.

The limits of Lower Canadian agriculture and its ongoing vulnerabilities were issues in the political unrest of the 1830s. So too was the outmigration to New England and the movement off the land into the towns of Lower Canada. From a cultural perspective, economic worries and depopulation of the countryside looked like a threat to the survival of the Canadien fact. Together these social issues would produce political tensions that came to a head in 1837-38.

Key Points

  • The transition out of a subsistence-oriented farming economy into a commercialized agricultural sector was more complex in Lower Canada than elsewhere in British North America because of well-established practices and conditions.
  • The growth of the timber economy provided an outlet for surplus labour and a market for farm products.
  • Constraint in the farming sector was a catalyst for migration to cities and towns and to New England mills.


9.5 Building the Wheat Economy in Upper Canada


Figure 9.4 An 1855 map of Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) by Joseph Hutchins Colton. The counties are easily visible as are the growing number of towns and villages.

Upper Canada was the principal beneficiary of British emigration in these years — the destination of choice.Hugh J.M. Johnston, British Emigration Policy 1815-1830: “Shovelling Out the Paupers” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 51–4. One consequence was that the sale of lands (and the speculation in land values) was a major source of wealth. Immigrants with a bit of money could buy ready-cleared properties or better located farms facing water routes that positioned them to realize success either in farming or in land resale. Against this setting, the market for British North American grain had taken a tumble after the end of the war, especially in 1820, and prices fell badly. Up to about 1816 the rapid growth in the British population discussed earlier needed feeding and had been the source of wealth for anyone who could produce a surplus of wheat. After two generations of slow pioneering farm expansion, Upper Canadians were finally in a position to do well on that market. The post-war economic crisis, coupled with increased production of wheat in the colony (much of it coming from post-war immigrants) made for increased competition in a shrinking market and, therefore, economic uncertainty.

Colonial Grain in Imperial Markets

Things were made more complex by the Corn Laws, which were protective tariffs put in place as part of the mercantilist system that channelled colonial products to imperial ports and limited colonial imports from non-imperial sources.  The Corn Laws were introduced in 1815 and, for five years, British North American grain enjoyed the same privileged status on the British market as homegrown grain. Then, in 1820, British grain output improved and Upper Canadian wheat growers found their product reduced to the same status as “foreign” grain. For the next seven years farmers in British North America struggled along until their privileged status was restored. A wheat boom followed that lasted into the 1850s.

These developments further encouraged people to move into farming. The number of larger farms increased, and the number of acres under plough nearly doubled from 1826 to 1832. Farmers, too, stretched their productive capacity to take advantage of their place in the British market, which could mean going into debt.

Related to the growing farm economy was the rise of a colonial merchant class in Upper Canada that specialized in the wheat business. Their profits were tied to bulk shipping, so these merchants were inclined to support infrastructure improvements that benefitted the movement of bulk freight. Mostly this meant storage facilities, docks, shipping capacity, and eventually canals. Farmers, however, were more likely to want improvements in local roads. Some of the merchants discovered, too, that there was money to be made in transshipping American wheat and flour. Once the foreign product was in British North America it was treated as though it were covered favourably by the Corn Laws. When it came to raising revenues for government, business merchants (through the dominant political oligarchy) invariably supported property taxes and taxes on land sales while farmers (who were most hard hit by taxes) preferred duties charged on trade (which was anathema to merchants). These developments resulted in tensions between farmers in Upper Canada and merchants.

The staple theory, already discussed in terms of how it applied to resources like fish and furs, can be used to understand the wheat economy as well. The lack of diversification in the Upper Canadian farming economy is a symptom of the limits of a staple-dominated system. Tobacco was a popular crop in the 1820s, as was dairy production, but neither came close to wheat as a principal product. Wheat, unlike fur, is not a luxury product: a lot of wheat is needed to turn a profit. It is what economists refer to as a high-bulk, low-value product. It requires larger ships to move a greater volume, and that investment in specialized shipping does not necessarily support the movement of any other goods. In other words, grain ships are grain ships, not container ships that can carry a multitude of different products. Nor are they smaller, faster vessels designed to transport textile products. Further, any shipping requires the infrastructure of waterfront docks, warehouses dedicated to stockpiling grain, and improvements in shipping routes. Since the vast majority of British North American grain originated in Upper Canada, the priority was building canals in order to load up barges on Lake Ontario or even Lake Erie and send them downriver to Montreal or, better still, put the grain onto ships that could head straight out into the Atlantic.


Figure 9.5 An 1824 land deed from Upper Canada. The buying and selling of farmland was a critical part of the colony’s economy and an important function of the government.

The Upper Canadian wheat economy comprised, therefore, several elements: profitable and speculative land sales; the business of land clearing (forestry) and preparing for farming (or sale); farming itself; and shipping. Given the privileged character of land grants in Upper Canada and the obvious fact that shipping is not something in which farmers are typically involved, most of the money in the wheat economy was made by people who did not actually work the land. Farmers did well and some did very well, but not so well as those who owned the infrastructure and the merchant houses responsible for the movement and sale of wheat.

It has to be added, too, that not all farmers were beneficiaries of the wheat economy. It has been observed that the self-sufficient farm in pre-Confederation British North America is something of a myth: farmers everywhere turned from time to time to other sources of income or revenue. In Upper Canada it was the larger and better capitalized farms that could afford to specialize in grain sufficiently to profit by the wheat economy. Rather than “mining wheat,” as it has been called, Upper Canadian farmers more often grew a variety of crops destined for the growing townships nearby with their expanding non-farming populations.Marvin McInnis, "Marketable Surpluses in Ontario Farming, 1860," in Perspectives on Canadian Economic History, ed. Douglas McCalla (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 55. Obviously, for the multitude of smaller farming households, the construction of canals was of little value: they needed roads to transport their wheat to town markets.

Key Points

  • The Upper Canadian economy was based on a combination of wheat farming and land sales, which had a reciprocal relationship.
  • The wheat economy was highly vulnerable to changes in the trade environment with Britain, and this was beyond the control of the colonials.
  • Buying and selling land, along with marketing wheat in the Atlantic, generated a merchant and financial elite in the colony.
  • The character of the wheat economy determined where resources would be spent to build up infrastructure.


Figure 9.4
Canada West by BotMultichillT  is in the public domain.

Figure 9.5
Province of Upper-Canada land deed by BrianJGraham is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.


9.6 The Atlantic Colonies

As was the case with the Canadas, the Maritimes and Newfoundland also enjoyed an economic boom during the war years. After the war, they staggered and struggled until eventually entering an unparalleled period of prosperity. Expanding Atlantic markets would, overall, usher in an age of wind, wood, and water for the four colonies, even as steam-driven shipping was chugging across the ocean.


Various imperial tariff policies favoured wood products from British North America, most of which came from New Brunswick. Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland profited as well in the short run, but New Brunswick enjoyed two key advantages over the other colonies in this regard. First, it had better and bigger forests; second, it was criss-crossed by rivers that allowed logging camps to move deep into the interior in search of more trees.

While all four Atlantic colonies engaged in the lumber trade, they did so in different ways. Prince Edward Islanders depleted their own forests and then shipped out to New Brunswick in large numbers to work as seasonal labourers in the mainland logging camps. As well, Prince Edward Island manufactured some of the largest and most diverse ships associated with the forest industry. Newfoundland, too, produced large numbers of ships from its own forest supplies, but these were overwhelmingly in servi