The Collapse of One Nation and the Birth of Another

Indigenous Americans sitting with a French Jesuit missionary.
An Iroquoian longhouse.
Samuel de Champlain.
Present-day map of northeast Canada. Quebec is located at the center of the map.
The arrival of the so called king’s daughters in New France.

Samuel de Champlain is usually said to have founded Canada by establishing a French colony in Quebec in 1608. At its inception, though, this Quebec colony was little more than a trading post, with few Frenchmen living there. Because of this, the colonists entered into an alliance with the much larger indigenous Huron nation to avoid attack and to exert trade. The trade partnership, which was beneficial to both parties, consisted of exchanging various European goods for fur, and required that the Hurons trapped furred animals and brought their pelts in canoes to the French merchants.

Mighty guns

Another requirement for the French-Huron partnership was French support for Huron wars. In line with this, early in Quebec’s history, de Champlain and two other Frenchmen joined a small band of Hurons journeying by canoe to face off against the Iroquois tribes, who lived south of Quebec. In the subsequent battle, the intimidating sound and effect of the French guns threw the numerically superior Iroquois into a panic, causing them to flee, while the Huron fighters cheered. The French-Huron alliance had proved to be strong, but as things would turn out, the Huron hegemony over their rivals would not last.

Diseases spread

Soon to affect the Huron–Iroquois power relationship, shortly after the French merchants had established themselves in Quebec, French Jesuit missionaries arrived. The Jesuits’ mission, as it had been established by the Catholic Church, was to try to convert the Hurons and other indigenous peoples to the Catholic faith. Inadvertently though, while meeting with the Hurons, the missionaries brought European viruses and bacteria into the natives’ camps, resulting in epidemics of diseases such as influenza and measles breaking out. Because of these diseases, tragically, over half of an estimated Huron population of about 25,000 was soon wiped out.

In 1649, with their Huron enemies significantly weakened by disease, the Iroquois attacked them. In the fighting that followed, the already decimated Huron nation was decisively defeated, and the few Hurons who survived dispersed. As had been their objective for a long time, the Iroquois now positioned themselves to take over the lucrative French trade partnership that the Hurons had previously enjoyed.

Investments in New France

In an attempt to impose their dominance on the French fur traders and force them to accept new trading partners, the Iroquois, after their victory over the Hurons, went on to attack the vulnerable French settlements in the region. However, lobbying activities by de Champlain and others to have the French king make investments in its North American colony were coincidentally about to pay off. Just in time, as the Iroquois threatened attack, a large regiment of French soldiers arrived, and French supremacy was secured.

Also in the mid-1600s, with the French colony under military guard, the French king recruited about a thousand poor or abandoned young women from the motherland, and dispatched them to North America. These women, known in history as filles du roi, or king’s daughters, were encouraged to marry and have children with the many single men who already lived across the Atlantic. As a result, and according to the king’s plan, soon after the arrival of the 1000-odd French women, so-called New France would see its population of a few thousand people multiply and its geographical area grow.