The French elite could have made most of North America a
Francophone culture had they put their minds to it. But they were
usually embroiled in prestigious Continental bickering. Besides, they
had less pressing needs than the Spanish and English for a
New World - dietetically, climatically, economically, and socially.
As for sugar, this could come from a couple of
Caribbean islands. And their fish were brought up
from fishing grounds all the way to offshore America,
the rights to which they never gave up.
The seagoing men of Bretagne and Normandie had
long possessed traditions of great lands
on the other side of the Newfoundland Banks.
Still, the French had their share of Renaissance psyche.
In 1524, a little late, King Francis I
authorized an exploration of routes to the true Indies,
it being now acknowledged we were treating
with an intervening set of continents.
Sites for expediting exploitation of nature -
furs, fish, oils, and timber - were a priority,
and possibly the settlement of colonists to back up pioneer
traders and fisherfolk.
Leader of the King's expedition was another Italian navigator,
Giovanni da Verrazzano, the last of the "Big Four" -
Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and now himself -
to hoist anchor for America.
Departing in 1524, he explored the
Atlantic Coast from Cape Fear in the Carolinas
to Newfoundland. He ventured into New York Bay and
up the River that came to be named a hundred years later for later
explorer of the region, Henry Hudson. He made a second voyage.
Verrazzano was an enlightened man, friendly and concerned for the
Indians, whose life was cut short by a misunderstanding. Having gone
ashore in a dingy one day to palaver with some men
whom he had sighted, he was seized, butchered, and
eaten by them before the horrified eyes of his crew,
watching from a safe distance aboard ship.
It is not known whether the Indians were quite hungry, or
whether they took him for one of the bad guys
who had already brought miseries to their kin, or whether
this was standard practice in respect to foreigners.
One source says that he was roasted before eating.
(On the importance of this distinction, one may consult
Claude Levi-Straus, The Raw and the Cooked.)
At that, his finale might be considered more sacrificial and
worthy than that of Henrik Hudson, last seen alive
set adrift by his own mutinous crew.
Ten years later, Jacques Cartier set off on the first of several voyages
that brought him into the region of coastal Canada
(St. Lawrence Bay, Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Maine, and
laid claim to these areas by the usual "International Law of
Acquisition by Conquest." He was not perilously contested by the
Indians, who had no "international" law, so far as the Europeans
could tell. He was a better explorer than assayer of minerals,
for on one trip he brought home a cargo of iron pyrite
("fools' gold") which he thought to be gold, and
one of quartz which he thought to be diamonds.
He did not, at least, take out his frustrations,
as did Columbus and the early West Indies Spaniards,
on hapless Indians for not disgorging precious metals.
In 1562, Florida received the French
settlement referred to earlier, recklessly,
for it was distinctly claimed by Spain, which had the
boats to enforce its pretensions; it was wiped out
by the Spanish, a massacre five years later
reciprocated by the French. But the Spaniards
managed the last massacre.
The French made an incursion at Rio de Janeiro in 1555 and were
rebuffed, and a party of French Jesuits proselytizing in the Amazon
were ousted. The French, however, were never without a few
delightful islands in the Caribbean, where plantations were rich, slaves
plentiful, and life for the colons easy, until the French Revolution of 1789.
French activity in America picked up again with the extensive
Northern explorations of Samuel de Champlain that
began in 1598, by which time, we noted,
the Spanish had created a vast New Spain complete with
cities, cathedrals, universities, slaves and Inquisition.
In 1604, with Pierre du Gua de Monts,
he set up a colony of 80 persons on St. Croix,
located on what is today the boundary between Maine and
New Brunswick (Canada), of whom 36 died over
the first winter. Survivors moved across the Bay of Fundy to
establish Port Royal in today's Nova Scotia.
It was descendants of these people of French
Nova Scotia who, for refusing allegiance
to England, were exiled in 1755
by the English to Louisiana (then French).
There they founded the 'Cajun' culture.
Upon traversing Northeastern Indian America,
Champlain founded Quebec in 1608.
Thereafter French explorers, with furs, religion, and
national honor in mind, busily investigated the giant region
quartered by the Alleghenies to the East, the Great Lakes
on the North, the Mississippi on the West and the Gulf of Mexico on
the South. Illustrious leaders of the exploratory parties,
who gave names to places later prominent, were
Jean Nicolet (in the Great Lakes region),
Father Jacques Marquette and Trader Louis Joliet (who
moved farther West still and descended the
Mississippi to the Arkansas River), and
Robert de La Salle.
La Salle had two prominent co-leaders, Hennepin and Tonti.
He reached the mouth of the Mississippi by land in
1683. Two years later he returned by sea,
but could not find the River's mouth again and
sailed West to Texas. Turning back, and still looking,
he was killed by his own men, who, reasonably,
were tired of proceeding up one bayou after another.
But their own colony in turn was destroyed by Indians.
Meanwhile Tonti, an Italian conquistidorial type
with an artificial arm of iron, made his way
down the Father of Waters toward a rendezvous with
La Salle, which, of course, failed to occur.
Still, within ten years, Frenchmen had firmly established
themselves in a huge region generally called Louisiana,
with strategic settlements at Biloxi and St. Louis.
Jesuit explorer-missionaries went practically everywhere,
building mission houses, converting a few Indians, and
writing many volumes of early anthropology.
In 1701 Cadillac founded Detroit, "the Straits"
between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.
In 1718, New Orleans was founded.
Cadillac became Governor of Louisiana,
despite a reputation for being a troublemaker
among the Indian nations and a bootlegger of liquor at
"elephantesque" prices to the natives, according to
Quebec Governor Frontenac. Its exploitation
was turned over to a corporation, in this regard
following the English pattern,
the Compagnie des Indes Orientales.
For various reasons, such as superior economic conditions in the
home country and the cold climate of Canada (though not in the
territory of Southern Louisiana), French settlement
proceeded at a slower pace than the English -
after an earlier start.
Their settlements were well-organized; their desertion rate was
less than of the English colonies; the sobriety of the
Franco-Canadienne culture under Catholic tutelage
could have been a model for the Puritans down South,
had the latter not hated them so.
The supply of immigrants was never satisfactory.
(Nor is it hardly ever to a colonial elite.)
There were numbers of beached sailors and fishermen,
friars and acolytes, and the usual consignments of convicts,
destitutes and orphans, vagrants, and persons deemed a
nuisance for prostitution or pimping. (The heroine of the important
French novel, Manon Lescaut, later the opera Manon, was of this ilk,
transported to New Orleans.) Many poor came as indentured
servants. About 80% of the emigrants went to
the Antilles, 20% to Canada, in the years
1640 to 1715, perhaps
45,000 in all. Louisiana, a little later,
came in for a small share of the emigrants. Since France held
twenty million inhabitants in this period,
most populous of European nations,
the overall rate appears pathetic, only six hundred a year,
most from the Northwest of France.
But then, the French were well off at home.
At the end of the sixteenth century Henri IV
assured his people of "la poul au pot tout les dimanches,"
echoed in America only centuries later as a
Republican slogan of prosperity, "a chicken in every pot."
Across Canada and the upper United States of today
scurried the coureurs de bois, the forest runners in their
moccasins and snow-shoes, assimilating with Indians often,
and sometimes intermarrying, trading illegally for furs,
which were supposed to be the preserve of government trappers,
and which, during most of the seventeenth century,
were garbing the ladies of Paris .
Matters went fairly well for New France.
A bad of it was: too few people.
A good of it was: they were well-counted.
Between 1666 and 1760,
thirty-six censuses of the Canadian population were taken.
Ecclesiastical baptismal, marriage, and death records were
carefully maintained. Essentially from the fifty thousand
came the millions of Québécois of today,
plus two million United Statesians in
Northern New England, Louisiana and elsewhere.
Whatever their overall domineering and occasional
gruesome episodes, the French earned better relations with the
Indians than Portuguese, Spaniards or Englishmen,
these being more intent upon conquest, exploitation and
extirpation than accommodation.
The mollifying, even anthropological, attitudes of the
French Jesuits toward the Indians helped greatly.
Not that the French were free of gross errors.
Indeed Champlain himself could be held initially
responsible for a system of tri-cornered hostilities that
lasted a century and a half. He inexcusably shot and
killed an Iroquois chief. The Iroquois Federation
thenceforth sided with the English.
At all times, it was ordinary for the French and
English to incite Indians against the other,
and to ally themselves when convenient with the tribes.
All manner of diplomatic tactics and nasty tricks
were pursued. Money, liquor, goods, and propaganda
plied the Indians; notwithstanding, the Indians had
already for centuries found enough cause to nourish traditional
enmities, such as between the Algonquin Tribes of the
North and West and the Iroquois of the Hudson Valley region.
(The powerful Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Confederation
commanded the vital great fault of the Hudson Valley that
divided the Adirondack Mountains from the
Green Mountains of Vermont.)
Agreements were made and broken all around.
Indian allies decamped when they felt like it.
Not that the English colonials set them a proud example:
Colonial militias were the bane of the English regular troop
commanders; they were undisciplined, casual, erratically dedicated,
and prone to quit for home. The Indians had not read
Machiavelli's "Prince", but they knew and practiced
all of the tactics that he described; also, true to form,
as I mentioned earlier, they were no more capable than
the Italian states, the most sophisticated in the world, or
the German states that were chopped to pieces in the
Thirty Years' War of 1608-48,
to consolidate and throw out the intruders.
More destructive to France-in-America than any contrary
Indian alliance that could be formed by the English was the
course of French experience and therefore policy in Europe
during the eighteenth century. This was what wrecked all
that had been so well-founded in North America:
a great set of opening gates in the St. Lawrence region,
a vast area between the Alleghenies and Mississippi,
down to West Florida and New Orleans, and the
huge unmarked stretches of the West as far as the Pacific,
where Spanish claims ended,
English claims were weak, and
Russians had hardly begun to arrive after the
long journey down the Pacific Coast from the Bering Straits.
England and France fought the War of the League of Augsburg, and
this was called King William's War by the colonists.
The Iroquois supported the English, the Algonquin the French.
When it was over, the status quo ante was largely re-affirmed.
There followed from 1702 to 1713 the
War of the Spanish Succession, that English colonists termed
Queen Anne's War. Its end in the Treaty of Utrecht
re-sorted various claims, and gave to England monopoly
of the slave trade to Spanish possessions. (Since English
slavers were becoming the cheapest and most efficient as well,
there was little opposition on the part of
Speaking still of true wars involving the nations and
not of the continual and deadly skirmishing of the frontier, the
next war to occur was the War of the Austrian Succession
known by the colonials as King George's War.
Back and forth raged the contestants in Europe and
on the seas, but then a kind of truce
prevailed and ended the fray in America.
Meanwhile, despite all warfare, irregular Virginia and
Pennsylvania traders had reached the
Indian villages along the Mississippi River.
In the 1750's the French put up a determined effort
to defend the Ohio Valley from English colonial encroachments.
Hot bloods like young George Washington,
who was a land surveyor by occupation, and
had a speculator's interest in land acquisition,
found the French activity distasteful, and were
quite ready to fight to stretch the boundaries of Virginia
westward. He was commissioned in the Virginia militia,
built a small Fort Necessity, and had to surrender his
detachment and the fort when attacked by the French.
The true crisis of North American colonial history came with the
Seven Years' War, in America called the French-Indian War.
Although Quebec was captured by the British in a famous struggle,
on the whole the French and Indian alliance had
conducted itself rather well,
achieving its share of scalps and burnt villages,
minor victories and even several larger ones.
Still, its results were disastrous for French state
interests in the development of North America.
For, in Europe, the French alliance was doing poorly.
And when it was "over, over there", French diplomats
dipped deeply into their American pockets and
turned all of Canada and all of the territory
South of Canada, West of the Alleghenies and
East of the Mississippi over to the English.
Exception was made in the case of New Orleans.
Even Florida was conceded to Britain by Spain.
There would later on occur another chance to be clever,
but the French government failed this time as well,
with Napoleon Bonaparte as fool instead of some King Louis,
because the Louisiana territory West of the
Mississippi which France would soon acquire from Spain
(1801) would be sold treacherously for a trifling sum
(that some say was never paid over anyhow).
The French people, as such, could hardly be said
to have suffered a perceptible diminution of
its living conditions, nor, for that matter, the English an
improvement, with the Treaty of 1763.
Still, because of the imbecility of most wars,
the French-Indian War has reason to be declared important,
and it is well that West of the Atlantic syncline
schoolchildren are taught about it, even prejudicially,
to make them feel that the ancestors of some of them had not been
sold like trinkets over a velvet table abroad, but,
rather, had heroically smashed the French and Indians.
Indeed, such is the idiocy of history, that
the victorious English were required by the costs of their victory
to impose burdens on their colonists to the extent of firing up the
movement toward revolt and independence. In this sense, children,
France could be deemed to have won the French-Indian War.
French emigration to America continued, so that French
lineage is traceable in some 5% of Americans.
Catholics trekked over the border from French Canada into
the practically indistinguishable topography of New England.
French Huguenots, exiled or out of resentment at the
treatment accorded them in France, emigrated to
various points up and down the Atlantic coastline.
The Catholic Louisiana contingent maintained a
Francophone character, while merging into the
Southern Plantation culture and its aftermath.
French America, like Spanish, Portuguese, and British America,
would find itself in the relationship of
client to American America.
Apart from demography, political relations
between France and America usually prospered.
A revolutionary alliance, a twin ideological revolution, and
alliances in great wars outweighed
occasional inimical encounters.
Gradually, American presence and culture swelled in
bulk and attraction until they would fashion
more French attitudes, decisions, and customs
than vice versa, in war and in peace.
But this would follow the world wars.