New France

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NEW FRANCE

The Seigneurial System

New France was a French colony in present-day Quebec and north-eastern Ontario. The colony lasted from 1534, its discovery, when Jacques Cartier was sent to find a route to the Orient and precious gems and metals, to its formal surrender in 1759. An important part in the history of New France was the fur trade, as it brought many new things to the Natives living in Canada and helped New France develop. Europeans traded their supplies with the First Nations peoples for fur pelts, which were very fashionable and expensive in France at the time. Before the Europeans came to Canada, many Native groups, including the Huron, had already lived in the area and established a trading system. When the French claimed the territory they lived on, they became part of the trading system too. The French introduced many new things to the Natives, like manufactured goods such as alcohol and weapons, while the Natives presented the French with not only fur, but knowledge on how to survive in the winter, and food without which survival would have been hard.

Flag of New France in 1663

The Seigneuries

A seigneury was a large piece of land used for farming, granted to loyal supporters and soldiers of France by the king. The seigneuries had great areas, usually around 50 km². They were located along St. Lawrence River, because the three (main) cities of New France (Quebec, Montreal and Trois Rivières) were all on the river. It also supplied them with water for farming, fishing, transportation and personal use. Fields were long and narrow, so that many habitant families that were settled on the seigneury had access to water. In addition, the land along the river was moist and good for farming. A large part of the land was used to provide a site for churches, lumber mills, grain mills, etc., and another was common land, which was used for social gatherings and events.

The Seigneur

A seigneur was a man who had been granted a large piece of land by the king. This land was given to him by the king if he had won his favour by fighting for or supporting him. The seigneur was responsible for settling habitant families on unused land to expand the colony, building a house and flour mill, kept track of the population, the amount of land used for farming and the dues paid. Distribution of the land and the relationships between the seigneur and his tenants were regulated by law. The seigneur could make a court of law and organize a commune. He received from the habitants various forms of rent and later he demanded they work for him certain number of days for free.

The Habitant

A habitant was a French farmer that lived and worked on a seigneury. The farmers paid for the use of the seigneur’s land with a portion of their production, which they earned by growing crops and raising animals. They were protected by the seigneur but they had to pay taxes each year in money or in goods they produced to the seigneur. Taxes were paid to the church and government too. They were also responsible for planting and harvesting the seigneur’s fields without pay. Habitants built churches and roads which they maintained. They had to use seigneur’s mill and they were required to pay the miller. Habitants didn’t have military duties; they only had to protect themselves against Natives. The farmers had to work year-round with very little free time. All members of the family including children were expected to help. The lives of habitants were hard.

The Role of the Church

The Church had a major role in New France, because it had a part in religion, health and education. The Church’s obligations in New France regarding religion were to provide spiritual, legal, government and personal services. Priests were expected to baptize babies, record business transactions, register births and deaths, and even spread the latest news and gossip. The Church had to care for the sick, elderly,...
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