Time for Part Three of Chapter 3 & two more to go!
The Northwest Passage
The desire to find a water route to the riches of the Far East first sent French explorers to North America. Magellan's voyage had shown there was no short route through the southern continent. But French explorers thought that there might be such a route through the northern landmass. Several expeditions sailed from France in search of this northern route, which was called the Northwest Passage.
Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sea captain living in France, commanded the first of these expeditions. In 1524 he sailed from what is now North Carolina northward to Newfoundland. Verrazano did not find the Northwest Passage, but he taught mapmakers something about the eastern coast of North America.
The French in North America
Ten years after Verrazano's explorations, Jacques Cartier made the first of three voyages to North America. During these voyages he discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He sailed up the broad St. Lawrence River as far as present-day Montreal. France based its claims to the St. Lawrence region on Cartier's discoveries.
Samuel de Champlain started the first permanent French colony along the St. Lawrence river at Quebec in 1608. He explored as far west as Lake Huron and as far south as New York State. In his honor the body of water along the boundary between present-day New York and Vermont is called Lake Champlain. Samuel de Champlain made 20 exploring trips to the region, gaining the title Father of New France. Champlain became the governor of France's first colony in the New World.
It was Champlain who sent Jean Nicolet west to visit the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin. Nicolet claimed the lands he saw for the king of France. Years later the French returned to explore this land. Father Jacques Marquette, a missionary, and Louis Joliet, a trader, reached the northern part of the Mississippi River in 1673. By canoe, they traveled as far as the Arkansas River before turning back.
It remained for another French explorer, Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, to travel all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Before this, La Salle had explored the Ohio River country and claimed it for France. He traveled down the Mississippi in 1682, claiming all the land drained by that mighty river for France. La Salle named the land Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV of France.
At its greatest extent the French empire in North America stretched from the St. Lawrence River in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. In addition, France claimed vast unsettled lands between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. Water routes held together this far-reaching empire.
Travelers could go by canoe from Quebec, on the St. Lawrence, to New Orleans, on the Mississippi. Canoes had to be carried around rapids or for short distances from waterway to waterway. Such a task on land was called a portages, from the French word porter, which means "to carry." But even with the portages, water travel was much easier and faster than overland travel. The St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, the Ohio, and the Mississippi and its tributaries were "water highways" for the French in North America.
The Fur Trade
None of these water highways was the Northwest Passage through the North American continent. Still they permitted the French to carry on a rich business in furs. Sailors on fishing boats visiting the St. Lawrence region brought iron weapons, tools, and trinkets, which they bartered for furs.
Fur-bearing animals had become scarce in France. But it was the custom for French nobility and wealthy business leaders to wear clothing made of fur or decorated with fur. For these reasons the price of furs was high. Thousands of people living in the region called New France made their living from the fur trade.
French fur traders traveled long distances into the interior of the North American continent. Often they lived for years with Indians, learning their languages and their ways. The French government tried to control traders by requiring each to have a license to trade furs. However, many traders broke the law. They kept on the move, and few settled anywhere for long.
Most of France's New World empire remained unsettled. Probably no more than 100,000 people moved there from France. In an effort to attract permanent colonists, the French king granted land to aristocrats, or people of high social standing. The aristocrats had to find settlers and pay for their passage to New France. But this failed.
Some of the people who settled New France were missionaries. Thousands of French soldiers came from Europe to North America. Although most of the soldiers returned to France, some remained in the new lands. While stationed in New France, the soldiers built many forts. Most were located on "water highways."
French settlers did little to profit from the rich lands of the Mississippi River valley. Instead, settlements in that region were chiefly trading posts or forts designed to protect people from the Indians, the English, or the Spanish. The same was true of French settlements west of the Mississippi. Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches (now called Natchitoches) on the Red River in Louisiana was an early center of the western fur trade. So, too, was St. Louis, which later became known as the Gateway to the West.
French Influence in America
The most heavily settled parts of the French empire in North America were along the St. Lawrence River. Today this area is in Quebec, one of the provinces of Canada. The Canadian cities of Quebec and Montreal contain large numbers of French-speaking people. Indeed, Canada is now a bilingual nation; that is, two languages--English and French--are officially used there. The widespread use of French in the province of Quebec stems from the time when eastern Canada was part of France's North American empire.
Two of the 50 United States have French names. They are Vermont, which means "green mountain," and Louisiana. Not long after La Salle claimed Louisiana, the French took steps to found permanent settlements along the lower Mississippi River. In this region you can clearly see French influence in the United States today.
The land the French called Louisiana included not only the present-day state, but also parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. In 1689, the Sieur de Bienville and the Sieur d'Iberville, sons of a prominent Quebec family named Le Moyne, received permission from Louis XIV to colonize the mouth of the Mississippi. Mobile in Alabama, New Orleans in Louisiana, and Biloxi and Natchez in Mississippi were the results of their efforts.
In 1718, the Sieur de Bienville laid out the city of New Orleans on a site he had chosen about twenty years earlier. Almost overnight, New Orleans began to rival Montreal and Quebec as the largest city in New France. It became the capital of French Louisiana in 1722. To promote the city's growth, Beienville had a shipload of young, single women sent from France. They were accompanied by nuns until suitable husbands could be found. Fur traders and other men traveled down the Mississippi from as far away as Illinois to claim a bride. Bienville also welcomed immigrants from all nations. Today the French Quarter reminds us that New Orleans was originally a French city.
Other parts of the lower Mississippi region also show French influence. Louisiana's present capital, Baton Rouge, has a French name. French influence in Louisiana was increased when thousands of Acadians settled there. The Acadiansn were exiled from Nova Scotia by the English in 1755. At first the French-speaking Acadians were scattered throughout the English colonies, but eventually most of them settled in Louisiana.
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