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Canada, An Early History, Part Three

Edited by: Robert Guisepi



The growth of Anglo-French rivalry

In the 1660s two voyageurs, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson, exasperated by the high cost of the long haul back to Quebec and by the heavy tax on fur pelts, fled to New England. From there they were escorted to England, where in 1668 they persuaded a group of London merchants to attempt to gain the fur trade of the mid-continent by way of Hudson Bay. This led to the formation in 1670 of the Hudson's Bay Company, a late proprietary company that was given exclusive trading rights in all the territory draining into Hudson Bay. New France now found itself caught between the Iroquois, supported by the Dutch and English, to the south and the Hudson's Bay Company to the north. The Count de Frontenac, the governor of New France, after his arrival in 1672 made a vigorous push into the continental interior. Frontenac had been directed to concentrate settlement in areas with easy sea access to France, but he defied those instructions in search of profits from furs. For this and other transgressions he was recalled in 1682.Over the next three decades the French struggled--sometimes with success--to improve their strategic position in America. The British were almost completely expelled from Hudson Bay by 1700, while in the late 1690s Frontenac (who returned as governor in 1689) finally defeated the Iroquois, who sued for peace. Much of this success was lost, however, by the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended Queen Anne's War (1702-13) between the British and French in North America, as well as the War of the Spanish Succession. By that treaty France lost its claim to Hudson Bay, its hold on Acadia, and its position in Newfoundland. After Queen Anne's War there followed a generation of peace during which the governors of New France built a line of fortified posts: Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Chambly on the Richelieu River, Carillon (Ticonderoga) on the portage from Lake George to Lake Champlain; the trading posts of Niagara, Toronto, Detroit, and Michilimackinac extended the line to the west. At the same time, French priests and military emissaries kept the Acadians and the Indian allies of New France aware of their former ties with New France. The Acadians, claiming to be neutral, obstinately refused to take the oath of allegiance to the British crown.

For New France the early 18th century was a period of steady growth. French défrichements ("clearings") spread along the St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal; the iron forges at Saint-Maurice produced iron for Quebec stoves and even cannons; shipbuilding flourished. The colony nevertheless remained largely dependent on the fur trade, which, in turn, depended on keeping the west open. Access to the far west was frustrated, however, by the three Fox wars (1714-42), in which that tribe strove to close the Wisconsin portages to French traders. Then Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Lord de La Vérendrye, turned the flanks of the Fox and Sioux by proceeding by way of Lake Superior and the Rainy River to the Lake of the Woods and the Red and Saskatchewan River country. There he found a new region for the French fur trade and also cut into the English trade in the area of Hudson Bay and the Hayes River.The expansion of New France in these years was challenged, however, by the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe in 1740. In America the war became known as King George's War (1744-48). Fighting broke out again in Acadia, on Lake Champlain, and among the English and French Indian allies in the country of the Great Lakes and the Ohio River valley. It was a confused conflict of raids and reprisals marked by only one action of major significance--the capture of Louisbourg by an expedition from New England. Holding the St. Lawrence River valley, the Great Lakes, and the mouth of the Mississippi River, the French commanded the better strategic position in America. However, the English colonies, if having a less advantageous location, were far wealthier and more populous.

All this was perceived by Roland-Michel Barrin, Marquis de La Galissonière, the exceptionally able governor of New France (1747-49). He declared in a memorandum to the French court that New France must restore its position by a bold advance into the Ohio River valley, which theretofore had not been claimed by New France or its Indian allies. His policy was adopted by his successors, and in 1749 Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville led an expedition down the Ohio to claim the valley for France and to confine English colonists and their fur trade to the east of the Alleghenies. The British colonists, from New York to Virginia, immediately felt the threat to their trade, to their expansion, and to their settlement. In 1749 the Ohio Company was formed in London with English and American support, and the fortress of Halifax in Nova Scotia was built to counter the French fort at Louisbourg, which had been restored to New France by the peace of 1748 ending King George's War. In 1753 an American expedition under George Washington was sent to the Forks of the Ohio to make good the English claim.


The French and Indian War

The French had also been active on the Ohio and had opened a line of communication from Lake Erie to the Forks. The rivals clashed on the Monongahela, and Washington was forced to surrender and retreat. This clash marked the beginning of the Anglo-French war known in America as the French and Indian War (1754-63) and in Europe as the Seven Years' War (1756-63).

At the start of the war, the two sides seemed grossly mismatched. The English colonies contained more than 1,000,000 people, compared to the 70,000 of New France, and were prospering, with strong agricultural economies and growing trade ties with the West Indies and Britain. Their location along the Atlantic coast, the size of their population, and the large area they encompassed meant that the best France could hope for in the war was the maintenance of the status quo. New France, on the other hand, was economically weak, dependent on France for trade and defense, and strategically vulnerable with but two seaward outlets to its continental empire, New Orleans and Quebec. Nonetheless, the French and the local militia were excellent soldiers, experienced in forest warfare and supported by several thousand Indian allies. They also received military help from France in 1756 in the form of twelve battalions of regular troops (about 7,000 soldiers), a contingent of artillery, and the command of the Marquis de Montcalme, an excellent field general.

The conflict was pursued around the globe, with fighting in India, North America, Europe, and elsewhere as well as on the high seas. Since Britain was primarily a sea power it did not at first have the land army resources to overwhelm the French in America and it relied heavily on the colonial militia. The colonies, however, were politically disunited, and their militia forces were neither as well organized nor as well trained as those of New France. Thus, early victories went to the French, who captured Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry in 1757 and sternly repulsed the British at Fort Carillon (Fort Ticonderoga) in 1758. Then numbers and more skillful British generalship began to turn the tide. In 1758 the British captured and razed Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. In 1759 Sir Jeffrey Amherst began a cautious but irresistible advance from Fort William Henry by way of Fort Ticonderoga to Lake Champlain. In the same year an expedition under General James Wolfe sailed up the St. Lawrence and besieged Quebec, which fell to the British after the celebrated Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Sir William Johnson took Niagara, and John Forbes took the Forks of the Ohio. New France was caught in cruelly closing pincers. In 1760 Amherst closed in on Montreal, and New France capitulated. By the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, all French North America east of the Mississippi was ceded to Britain.

The British victory produced three major results: (1) The danger from New France to the American colonies was ended, thus weakening their dependence on Britain. (2) The British (largely Scots with some Americans) took over and expanded the Canadian fur trade. (3) Britain now possessed a colony populated almost wholly by persons of alien descent.

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