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Cartier Explores Canada

 

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Canada, An Early History

Edited by: Robert Guisepi

2002

Canada to 1763

Prehistory to early European contact 

Pre-contact aboriginal history 

The first humans to make their homes in North America migrated from Asia. It is generally thought that this migration took place over a now-submerged land bridge from Siberia to Alaska sometime between about 20,000 and 35,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age; the argument has been made, however, that some people arrived earlier, possibly up to 60,000 years ago. Unknown numbers of people moved southward along the western edge of the North American ice cap. The presence of the ice, which for a time virtually covered Canada, makes it reasonable to assume that the southern reaches of North America were settled before Canada, and that the Inuit (Eskimo) who live in Canada's Arctic regions today were the last of the aboriginal peoples to reach Canada. There is general agreement that Native American peoples are related to Asiatic peoples, and that the closest resemblances are between North American Arctic peoples and their counterparts in Siberia.

Although there are no written records detailing the history of American Indian society prior to the first contact with Europeans, archaeological evidence and oral traditions give a reasonably complete picture of the pre-contact period. There were 12 major language groups among the peoples living in what is now Canada: Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan, Athabascan, Kootenaian, Salishan, Wakashan, Tsimshian, Haidan, Tlinglit, Inuktitut, and Beothukan. Within each language group there were usually political and cultural divisions. Among the Iroquoian people, for example, there were two major subgroups, the Iroquois and the Huron. These subgroups were also divided; at the time of contact the Iroquois had organized themselves into a confederacy, the Iroquois League, consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined later. There was much variety in cultures, means of subsistence, tribal laws and customs, and philosophies of trade and intertribal relations in pre-contact Canada. The peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, such as the Huron, Iroquois, Petun, Neutral, Ottawa, and Algonquin, created a mixed subsistence economy of hunting and agriculture supplemented by trade. Semi permanent villages were built, trails were cleared between villages, fields were cultivated, and game was hunted. There was a high level of political organization among some of these peoples; both the Huron and the Iroquois formed political and religious confederacies and both created extensive trade systems and political alliances with other groups. Peoples living in the far north do not appear to have formed larger political communities, while those of the west coast and the Eastern Woodlands formed sophisticated political, social, and cultural institutions. Climate and geography undoubtedly were major factors affecting the nature of the societies that evolved in the various regions of North America. The one characteristic virtually all the groups in precontact Canada shared was that they were self-governing and politically independent.

 

European contact and early exploration

At the beginning of the 9th century AD, sea borne Norse invaders pushed out of the Scandinavian Peninsula to Britain, Ireland, and northern Europe. In the mid-9th century a number of Norse craft reached Iceland, where a permanent settlement was established. Near the end of the 10th century the Norse reached Greenland and ventured to the coast of North America; at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland are the remains of what are believed to be as many as three Norse settlements. According to available evidence the Norse settlers and the Inuit (whom the Norse called Skraeling) initially fought each other then established a regular trade relationship. The Norse settlements were soon abandoned, probably as the Norse withdrew from Greenland.

Europeans did not return to northern North America until the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto, known in English as John Cabot, sailed from Bristol in 1497 under a commission from the English king to search for a short route to Asia (what became known as the Northwest Passage). In that voyage and in a voyage the following year, during which he died, Cabot and his sons explored the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, and possibly Nova Scotia. They discovered that the cold northwest Atlantic waters were teeming with fish; soon Portuguese, Spanish, and French fishing crews braved the Atlantic crossing to fish in the waters of the Grand Banks. Some began to land on the coast of Newfoundland to dry their catch before returning to Europe. Despite Cabot's explorations, the English paid little heed to the Atlantic fishery until the early 1580s; in 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert laid claim to the lands around present-day St. John's in Newfoundland, probably as a base for an English fishery. The French also claimed parts of Newfoundland, primarily on the north and west coasts of the island, as bases for their own fishing endeavors. The fishery ushered in the initial period of contact between the Indians and the Europeans. Although each was deeply suspicious of the other, a sporadic trade was conducted in scattered locations between the fishing crews and the Indians, with the latter trading furs for iron and other manufactured goods.

 

The settlement of New France

Jacques Cartier

The discoverer of the great entry to Canada, the St. Lawrence River, was the Frenchman Jacques Cartier. In 1534, in a voyage conducted with great competence, he explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence and claimed its shores for the French crown. In the following year, Cartier ascended the river itself and visited the sites of Stadacona (modern Quebec city) and Hochelaga (Montreal). So favorable were his reports that the French king, anxious to challenge the claims of Spain in the New World, decided to set up a fortified settlement. Internal and European politics delayed the enterprise until 1541, when, under the command of the Lord de Roberval, Cartier returned to Stadacona and founded Charlesbourg-Royal just northwest of Quebec. Cartier had hoped to discover precious gems and minerals, as the Spaniards had done in Mexico and Peru, but the mineral specimens he sent home were worthless; "false as a Canadian diamond" became a common French expression. Disappointed in his attempt to reach the mythical "Kingdom of Saguenay," the reputed source of precious metals, Cartier returned to France after a severe winter, deserting Roberval, who had arrived in Newfoundland with reinforcements. Roberval also failed, and during the century only two subsequent attempts were made at exploiting the French claim to the lands of the St. Lawrence. The French claim remained; it had only to be made good by actual occupation.

 

Samuel de Champlain

In 1604 the French navigator Samuel de Champlain, under the Lord de Monts, who had received a grant of the monopoly, led a group of settlers from the St. Lawrence region to Acadia. He chose as a site Dochet Island in the St. Croix River, on the present boundary between the United States and Canada. But the island proved unsuitable, and in 1605 the colony was moved across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal (now Annapolis, N.S.). The colony was to be a trading post and a center of settlement, but the rugged, forested inlets of the Nova Scotian peninsula, the heavy forests of the St. John River, and the many bays and beaches of Cape Breton and Prince Edward islands made it impossible to enforce the monopoly of the fur trade against enterprising interlopers.

In 1608, therefore, de Monts and Champlain left Acadia and returned to the St. Lawrence. At "the place where the river narrowed" (Quebec), they built a "habitation" (i.e., a fur-trading fort, or factory) to control the great river and to be the entrepôt of its fur trade. Already in 1603 Champlain had noted that the Iroquois, whom Jacques Cartier had found there, had withdrawn from the St. Lawrence under pressure from the Algonquin Indians of the North Country and Acadia. The French then became the allies of the Algonquin in the rivalry that began for control of the inland fur trade. In 1609, in accordance with this alliance, Champlain and three companions joined an Algonquin war party in a raid against the Mohawk, the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. The party ascended the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain. In an encounter with a Mohawk band, the firearms of Champlain and his men killed some Iroquois and panicked the remainder. This skirmish signaled the initial commitment of New France to the side of the Algonquin and the Huron (who were Iroquoian but hostile to the confederacy) in the century-long struggle for control of the output of furs from as far away as the western Great Lakes. That commitment deepened in succeeding years. The conflict between the Iroquois and Huron was based on trade rivalries that had existed since before European settlement. While French support went to the Huron, the Dutch, followed by the English, sided with the Iroquois.

The company of de Monts and his frequent successors, for whom Champlain remained the lieutenant in New France, had the obligation to bring out settlers, as well as the exclusive right (seldom enforced) to trade in furs. Their efforts at settlement were even less successful, partly because settlement was not easy in a country of heavy forests and severe winters and partly because the fur trade had little need of settlers beyond its own employees. The company, moreover, had scant funds to bring out and establish colonists on the land. Champlain did the best he could, and he also encouraged missionaries (first the Recollects [Franciscans], then the Jesuits) to come to Quebec to convert the Indians. His greatest interest, however, lay in exploration. Already in Acadia, in 1606 and 1607, he had surveyed the coast southward and westward to Stage Harbor, only to be rebuffed by hostile Indians.

In 1613 Champlain set out from Quebec to explore the upper St. Lawrence basin. He passed Montreal Island, not settled since Cartier's time but used by traders who bypassed Quebec. In order to avoid the heavy rapids of the St. Lawrence, he ascended its great tributary, the Ottawa River, only to be turned back at Allumette Island by the Algonquin middlemen who were trading for the furs of the Huron and other people farther inland and who wished to retain that trade. At Allumette, Champlain, however, heard of the "inland sea" (Hudson Bay), the existence of which he had divined before he could have heard of Henry Hudson's discovery of it in 1610. Undaunted, he ascended the Ottawa again in 1615, traversed the Mattawa River, Lake Nipissing, and the French River to Georgian Bay, and turned south to "Huronia" (the land of the Huron). He wintered with the Indians and went with a Huron war party to raid an Onondaga village south of the St. Lawrence. He was slightly wounded and the party was repulsed, but Champlain had once more confirmed the alliance of the French with the northern tribes and the Huron against the Iroquois and, by the opening of the Ottawa route, had secured the mid-continent for the French fur trade.
The discovery of this inland, central region was perhaps Champlain's main achievement. He had no success, however, from 1616 to 1627 in maintaining the fur trade. The fault was not entirely his, for the enterprise in itself was very difficult. The coupling of trade and settlement was somewhat contradictory, and it was impossible to finance both out of annual profits, especially as the French government failed to uphold the monopoly.

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