Tangled up in internal warfare, France was a late-comer onto the international exploration scene. Their emergence into overseas exploration was rocky from the start with much of the land already divided between Spain and Portugal. The French experienced more challenges with the first voyages of Jacques Cartier. His voyages in the mid-1500s brought exciting encounters with Native peoples and promise of new trade back to France (Lecture February 23). Unfortunately, his first contact with the Micmac tribe and the capture of the chief’s sons also brought about the beginnings of the French explorers’ efforts to adapt the New World to their needs and desires. Future explorers faced the challenging endeavor of exploring new land while keeping working relationships with Native peoples and maintaining profitable trade. Samuel de Champlain, who is often considered the Father of New France, saw firsthand many of the challenges ahead for the French as he settled and explored New France in the early 17th century (Champlain 1). In the exploration and settlement of New France, the French faced multiple challenges including their interactions with Native tribes, the profitability of the fur trade and their agricultural settlements, as well as wavering support from France. Most often, the French adapted to these challenges by trying to change their surroundings, including the Natives, rather than change themselves and how they behaved.
One of the most prominent obstacles explorers and settlers to New France faced were the challenging encounters with the Native tribes. In the explorers’ efforts to set up reliable and profitable fur trade networks, they had many close interactions with Native tribes like the Montagnais, Etchemins, and Ottawa. Samuel de Champlain’s firsthand accounts show the many challenges he dealt with in interacting with Native tribes to maintain the fur trade, as well as create settlements in New France. The trade agreement between the French and the Montagnais, observed by Champlain, established the trade alliance between the two groups and also promised the Natives help in their conflict with the neighboring Iroquois tribe (Champlain 68-69). Though this was a great step for the settlement and profitability of New France, Champlain soon discovered that it was not quite enough to just have a trade alliance with the Native tribes. There needed to be a deeper understanding of cultures and differences between the Natives and the French, and many of the settlers, explorers, and Champlain himself simply did not have that understanding. From the evidence in his writings, it is clear that Champlain was challenged by his lack of understanding about the Native peoples and their customs, and much of that might have stemmed from his inability to speak any Native language. He did not ever converse directly with any of the Native peoples in their language, but rather used an interpreter for all of his interactions (Champlain 6). Therefore, this shows that when faced with the challenge of a language barrier, Champlain chose to have others adapt around him, rather than adapt himself to the situation.
Another major misunderstanding and challenge for the French was the Natives’ views on religion. Champlain specifically details the faults he finds with the way the Natives viewed God, praying, and the origin story (Champlain 72-75). One of the tribal chiefs talks to Champlain about his religious beliefs and how he prays, and instead of trying to understand the culture behind what the chief is saying, Champlain writes the beliefs off as being “visions of the Devil” (Champlain 75). Champlain seems to adapt to many of the challenges he faced with the Natives by trying to change the Native’s behavior. He had missionaries sent to New France in order to “civilize” the Native people to European beliefs and lifestyle (Champlain 5). In his Québec settlement, he wanted Natives to adopt a sedentary agricultural lifestyle centered on the Catholic faith (Champlain 76). Other settlers to New France, like the Jesuit missionaries and Ursuline nuns, also saw the Natives as a challenge that must be changed and adapted to European norms. The Ursuline nuns created schools for both French settler girls and Native girls, but they had a heavy focus on purifying and instructing the Native girls to adopt Catholic European standards. When the Native girls are brought to the school, the nuns go through a process of cleansing and scrubbing the girls (Lecture February 23). This cleansing process creates a blank slate for the nuns to instruct, and can also be seen as a cultural purifying process where all traces of native culture are scrubbed out. Through both Champlain’s and the Ursuline nuns’ encounters with the Native people of New France, it can be seen that they sought to change the Natives and eliminate the challenge of trying to understand native culture and religion by simply making the Natives like the Europeans.
Explorers and founders also encountered problems with the economic profitability of the fur trade and agricultural settlements of New France. The original success of the colony was pegged on the discovery of a Northwest Passage that would lead to trade with Asia and India, but this task was quite dangerous and proved to be fruitless (Lecture February 23). Fur traders and fisherman had been profiting from the riches of the New World since the 1500s, but France wanted New France to be a powerful economic holding (Champlain 6). In 1603, Champlain and Pont-Gravé made a trade alliance with the Montagnais people on behalf of France (Champlain 13, 67-70). This alliance allowed the French to have support from the Natives in the fur trade, which proved to be extremely profitable for the French crown, but not for many French merchants (Champlain 13). In order to raise funds to establish what they thought would be profitable settlements in Acadia, the king gave a monopoly on the fur trade to a new vice admiralty of New France (Champlain 14). This attempt to adapt to the challenge of creating lucrative trade markets and profitable settlements by creating a monopoly jeopardized the colony and angered many Natives and other French traders that had been invested in the fur trade for many years (Champlain 14-16). Unfortunately, the fur trade without the monopoly floundered as an excess of traders and merchants flooded the Saint Lawrence Valley trying to profit from the Natives’ furs (Champlain 18). Much like how they faced their issues with the Native people, the French took advantage of their surroundings by monopolizing the fur trade in their effort to adapt to the challenge of creating a profitable colony. Their zealousness to take over the fur trade led to a depletion of fur pelts in the Saint Lawrence area, and shows further how the French tried to make New France adapt to their needs rather than adapt themselves to New France.
Champlain also tried to take on the challenge of settling New France agriculturally in order to make the land profitable for France. In his first journeys to New France, Champlain saw their explorations as a perfect way to scope out land that would be profitable to cultivate in the future. He did not disregard the natural beauty in the forests, but certainly sought to adapt any flat land he found into agricultural land (Champlain 34-36). In 1608, Champlain founded Québec in the hopes that it would become a self-sufficient agricultural settlement (Champlain 76). He wanted the majority of the labor force in his colony to be made up of Native peoples (Champlain 76). He felt that the Native people would be improved if he introduced agriculture to them, and they would no longer suffer from hunger during the winter (Champlain 77). He did not, however, consider how the harsh winters of Canada would impact his agricultural efforts and leave the settlement relying on the support of supplies from France (Champlain 116). Champlain’s attempt to create an agricultural settlement in an area that was not profitable enough to be self-sufficient shows how many of the French tried to adapt to New World challenges with solutions that had succeeded in Europe. This situation also illustrates how much the French of the New World relied on France for support in their endeavors to take on the challenges of settling and exploring New France.
In order to survive, New France needed plenty of support from France, but that support was not always consistent. Often dealing with their own internal issues, France could not always focus their energy on the fledgling colony. Champlain struggled to gain French support for his settlement at Québec and was forced to return to France every year for ten years to lobby to the court for their help (Champlain 17). The revolving door of viceroys to New France did not aid Champlain in his administrative struggles to keep the colony alive. Champlain describes the struggles he faced in establishing a compromise between the merchants angered by the fur trade monopoly and the viceroy who had been given the trade monopoly. He feels pressure from the new trading company and feels that he does not have much recourse because he lacks support from France (Champlain 108). In this situation, it seems that Champlain did not know how to adapt to the challenge of maintaining a new colony without consistent support of France. This lack of support, combined with lack of supplies and threat of attack, led to the colony of Québec being seized by the English in 1628 (Champlain 116).
The French settlers and explorers of New France encountered many challenging situations in their efforts to make the colony thrive. Many of these struggles can be seen in the accounts of Samuel de Champlain and his experiences in settling New France. He, and other French settlers, faced challenges in understanding and interacting with the Native people, and often rather than try to understand, they tried to change the Natives to be more like Europeans. They encountered issues in maintaining a profitable fur trade, as well as establishing self-sufficient agricultural settlements because they tried to adapt to these challenges by using methods that had worked in France, but were not fit for the New World. Champlain and the settlement of Québec also faced many challenges in gaining consistent support from France, and they simply could not adapt if France was not backing them whole-heartedly.