On my visit to Quebec in the summer of 2014, I drove from Montreal to Quebec City and then two weeks later on to Riviere Ouelle, even further east along the south coast of the St. Lawrence on the Chemin du Roi, or King’s Highway. As I drove through the villages of Berthier sur Mer, Montmagny, L’Islet, and Roch des Aulnaies, I tried to imagine what these villages and the countryside looked like in 1671, with less than 6000 non-natives living in all of Quebec.
In Montreal and Quebec City, I was able to stand in the old parts of the city and shut my eyes and ears to cars, buses, and throngs of tourists and find some semblance of 17th century life amid the still-standing buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. It was harder in the villages. Stone and silver-steepled churches built in the 19th and 20th centuries have replaced wooden churches that had either burned down or were outgrown. Few original homes remain. Post offices, gas stations, and sidewalks now hide what must have been a much more pastoral 17th century landscape with scattered farmhouses, barns, wheat fields, grazing animals, and forests still to be farmed.
Indeed, it is hard to describe or even imagine what Quebec was like in 1671 when Jeanne arrived, but reaching into history is a first step!
Although ancient geologically, Quebec in 1671 was still in the process of being formed from a political and economic perspective. The French had taken a long time to get their roots firmly planted in the North American continent. When the colony finally did take shape, it took on a form that was uniquely Quebec: a mix of French laws, molded by Amerindian practices and culture, the forbidding climate, the vast distance back to the homeland of France, and the mix of very different French people who eventually came to live there.
New France early years
While French fishermen from Normandy and Brittany had discovered fertile fishing waters off the coast of what would be called Newfoundland and Labrador years before, the first French claims in Canada came in the early 16th century. A little over 100 years before Jeanne was born, Jacques Cartier had sailed from the port of St. Malo in Brittany, not very far from Coutances, as part of French exploration initiatives. In 1534 he landed in what is now Eastern Canada, erected crosses, and claimed the land for Francis I – presumably much to the surprise of the members of the Canadian First Nation who met him on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, their home for many centuries.
In between wars, religious turmoil, and dynastic strife in Europe, the French continued to tentatively and sporadically explore the territory along the St. Lawrence and beyond. Actual settlement, however, was minimal. Until Samuel Champlain founded Quebec in 1608, more than 60 years after Jacques Cartier claimed the land for France, the non-native population was limited to fur traders, fishermen and a few merchants. The total French population numbered less than 100 people. Without concerted French support, attempts at permanent settlement failed. Only the trade in beaver furs kept the colony alive. In fact, in the de Ramezay Museum in Montreal, the beaver is credited with being the founder of New France!
French kings granted trading monopolies to various individuals and merchant associations, who apparently failed to make a sustainable effort to colonize the land. Their work was made more difficult since the St. Lawrence, frozen for six months of the year, cut the colony off from the sea. Given the harsh climate, isolation, and rumors and realities about ever-changing relations with the Amerindians, it is not hard to understand why colonists might have been reluctant to emigrate. Only the most adventurous, those with dreams and determination, or those burning with religious zealousness would venture to make the voyage in those early years.
In 1617, a hardy band of settlers arrived. Among them were Louis Hebert and his wife Marie Rollet who brought their three children with them from Normandy. They were the first family to establish a home in Quebec. Neighbors were rare, however. Ten years after their arrival, there were only about 50 permanent settlers making their home in Quebec City, which was not much more than a cluster of hastily constructed buildings, with wharfs and sheds along the waterfront.
Settlement in the colony continued to be slow. Compounding the factors of the weather and unsettled relations with Amerindians, the ratio of men to women was so out of balance that it was difficult to provide incentives for traders, explorers, and soldiers to permanently settle in the colony. Attempts by individual merchants, family members and the church to bring more women as well as settlers to New France had not been significantly successful.
The Catholic Church did its best to aid in colonization. Jesuit priests arrived in Quebec in 1625, as missionaries to the Amerindians. A group of Augustinian nuns from Dieppe arrived in Quebec in 1639, four years before Jeanne was born. They quickly established the Hotel Dieu, the first hospital in America north of Mexico, to minister to the souls and bodies of both the colonists and the natives. That same year, Ursuline nuns, led by Marie de l’Incarnation, opened a convent in Quebec City as a school for young women. Three years later Jeanne Mance, a French missionary from Burgundy, helped found Montreal. The first church was built in Quebec City in 1647 on the site where the Cathedral of Notre Dame now stands. The Catholic Church would continue to play a strong, important role in Quebec not only in maintaining a strict social order where divorce was infrequent but also in maintaining records of parish life – a responsibility near and dear to the hearts of all of us historians!
New France – 1663 – 1671
The French kings persisted, although sporadically distracted by wars in Europe. Finally, in the early 1660’s, Louis XIV and his ministers decided that it was time to turn exploration of New France, as it began to be called, into concerted efforts at settlement. In 1663 he ended the agreement with the merchant association and assumed control of the colony, making it a French province. Installing his own Governor to manage military and external affairs and an Intendant to administer justice, finance and the police, he stepped up efforts to colonize the land. French, as spoken around Paris, became the official language. He sent over troops to protect the settlers from the Amerindians. The first bishop also arrived in 1663, and in 1668 construction was begun on the Jesuit school, le Petit Seminaire.
Progress, though slow, was steady. The census of 1667 counted a population of close to 4000 people for the colony as a whole. Four years later, the population had grown by another 2000 inhabitants. And the colony was growing geographically. By 1671 Father Marquette and Joliet were just a couple years away from exploring the Mississippi River. New France at the time reached out past the Great Lakes up to the Hudson Bay and very soon down to present day Louisiana, although not along the Atlantic seaboard.
Of course, the French were not the only immigrants to North America. On the Atlantic seaboard, many miles south of Quebec City, the population was expanding much more rapidly. A year before Quebec City was founded, English Protestants fleeing from religious persecution in their homeland had established their first settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, on the east coast of what was to become the United States. In 1620 English pilgrims landed on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean north of Virginia at Plymouth Rock. Five years later, the Dutch established New Amsterdam, at the mouth of the Hudson River, a settlement which later would be named New York. In 1630, Boston, Massachusetts was founded; Harvard College opened its doors six years after that. A printing press was brought to America in 1639; a year later, the first book in America, the Bay Psalter, was printed in Boston.
Thus expansion by the French west and south of New France would not only endanger relations with Amerindians. It would also threaten the English neighbors to the south in the new colony of New England with its rapidly increasing (and more educated) population. For the time being though, at least when Jeanne arrived in 1671, life in Quebec City and eastwards was relatively safe and calm.