New World France: A Story of Power and Decline

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

The story of New World France is one of power and decline. Throughout the 16th century, Spain enjoyed a commanding influence in European affairs. Although a wealth of gold and silver was coming in from its American colonies, the Spanish crown spent much of its wealth propping up its military commitments in places like the Netherlands. By the mid-17th century, Spain’s power had diminished—great news for France, which by 1650 had emerged as Spain’s principal rival in the struggle for power over Europe.

Map of New France, by Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635): 1612
New World France by Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635): 1612

To understand France’s relationship to the New World, we have to step back a few years. From the 1580s onward, France had been torn apart by civil war between France’s emerging Protestants and its Catholic majority. It was a civil war pockmarked with brutalities, such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants by Catholics in the streets of Paris, and the assassinations of Catholic and Protestant leaders alike. However, in the 1590s, the Protestant heir to the French throne, Henry IV, poured the oil of concession on France’s troubled waters by offering to turn—officially, but not sincerely—Catholic. This satisfied both exhausted sides in the civil war.

France Explores the New World

A portrait of Henry IV (1553-1610)
King Henry IV (1553-1610)

Under King Henry IV’s power-hungry eye, France rapidly rebuilt its shattered fortunes. Now, the French had been involved in post-Columbus exploration in a limited way during the 1500s. Giovanni de Verrazano, an Italian hired by the king of France, had mapped much of the North American coastline in 1524. In 1535, another French explorer—Jacques Cartier—pushed up the St. Lawrence River toward the headwaters of the Mississippi. The French displayed an unusual incapacity for making things stick. Two settlement attempts, in Florida and South Carolina, ended in failure. One of them, in fact, was destroyed by the Spanish, who did not welcome interlopers in North America. Then the religious civil wars intervened in France.

An illustration of Champlain superintending the building of his habitation, 1608
Champlain superintending the building of his habitation, 1608 by Charles William Jefferys

It was not until after 1600 that French exploration in North America caught its second wind. After several false starts, Samuel de Champlain organized a successful settlement overlooking the St. Lawrence River at Quebec in 1608. From then on, the French had a stable beachhead in North America, which they named New France. The French had the uncommon good sense not to expect gold mines on the St. Lawrence River. Instead, they found—and found in abundance—something that was almost as valuable as a luxury commodity, and that was fur: beaver, fox, lynch, otter. Europeans had begun trading with the Indians for fur very early on, because fur was an extremely expensive luxury commodity in the clothing industry in Europe.

In 1543, as early as then, Jacques Cartier was surprised to sight Indians along what he thought was an unexplored Atlantic coastline, waving furs on sticks as an invitation for the Europeans to come down to the beach and trade. European bootleggers had already been there even before Cartier’s official exploration voyage. However, trade along the St. Lawrence was managed by a powerful federation of Indian tribes—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondega, Cayuga, and Seneca—who were collectively known as the Iroquois, or the Five Nations. The Iroquois menaced the French as the chief fur suppliers. They also menaced the French chief Indian allies in the fur supply, the Algonquins and the Hurons.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In 1609, Champlain and nine French soldiers joined an Algonquin attack on the Iroquois, using firearms to inflict mortal wounds on three Iroquois chiefs, and, in the process, making the Iroquois mortal enemies of the French. The Iroquois made it virtually impossible for the French to develop the fur trade anywhere south of the St. Lawrence. Because of this, by the 1680s, the French were increasingly extending the reach of their trade westward to the headwaters of the Mississippi and then down the Mississippi River.

The French Extend Their Reach

A painting of LaSalle Taking Possession of Louisiana.
Robert La Salle explored the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire Mississippi basin for New France. He named Louisiana after King Louis XIV (J.N. Marchand-1900)

In 1682, Robert La Salle led an ambitious French expedition down the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, where he claimed the mouth of the Mississippi for France as Louisiana, in honor of the French king, Louis XIV. Other French traders followed La Salle, establishing fur trading posts along the Mississippi River and at Biloxi and Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico. Then, in 1718, a private company, the Company of the Indies, with a license for development in Louisiana, established an administrative capital for Louisiana at New Orleans on the Mississippi River.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A map of New France colonies
New France colonies

The French did not, however, even with all that ambitious exploration in  the Mississippi River Valley, succeed in building a strong settler society. Much of France’s exploration and opening up of North America remained limited to extraction rather than settlement. What’s more, after the fur trade, the principal pursuit of the French in North America was not settlement of colonies, but the religious conversion of the Indians. They were not nearly so successful with this with the Indians as the Spanish had been. They managed to make Louisiana and New France less than desirable locations for entrepreneurs.

In addition, in the absence of any forms of quick wealth—like gold and silver—the French crown saw only minimal returns on its promotion of New World colonization, especially in Louisiana. The French crown preferred to keep its attention fixed on King Louis XIV’s ambitious plans for European dominance.

Emigration Forbidden

The one component of French society that might have had enough incentive to ignore the deficits of French colonial society was France’s minority Protestants. This incentive was because the French Protestants, otherwise known as Huguenots, were the one group in France’s society that really had an incentive to go someplace where they could behave and worship in freedom.

The French crown feared that if Protestants were given license to move to New France or encouraged to settle in Louisiana, they might prove too fractious or too unreliable if too many of them emigrated to America. Consequently, French Protestant emigration was forbidden, an excellent example of cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Above all, King Louis XIV’s various military adventures in Europe drained the French population of potential settlers, and drained the French treasury of funds that it might have used to further support exploration in America under the French flag. The Company of the Indies, for instance, was able to recruit only 5,400 Europeans to settle Louisiana by 1730. To an unhelpful degree, the French crown insisted on using Louisiana as a dumping ground for convicts. In New France, the isolation and transient nature of the fur trade held the population to more than 3,000 by 1660.

By 1700, with some French government subsidies for transportation, that population had increased to 15,000 habitants. Even with that effort, however, by 1750 the population of New France—from one end of the St. Lawrence to the other—stood at only 52,000. It was not the French, but the Dutch, who may have had the best hope of wringing lasting profits from an American investment.

From the lecture series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, taught by multiple professors.

Images courtesy of:
By I, JF Lepage [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)] via Wikimedia Commons
By Charles William Jefferys – http://data2.archives.ca/e/e440/e010999684-v8.jpg, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Painting by J.N. Marchand.gettyimages.ca [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons By Judicieux, Rowanwindwhistler [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] via Wikimedia commons