Denise Larson

Life in Early Quebec
by Denise R. Larson

Denise R. Larson can be reached at She is the author of Companions of Champlain: Founding Families of Quebec, 1608-1635, published by Clearfield Company of Baltimore; 1-800-296-6687;; Item #9914. $22.95 plus $4 postage and handling.



Hale and Hardy Stock

        For two decades a group of demographers at the University of Montreal collaborated on a population study of the founders and pioneers of early Quebec. As members of the Programme de recherche en dmographie historique, their findings were entered into a database at the university, and in 1993 their findings were published in French under the title Naissance dune population. Les Francais etablis au Canada au XVIIe siecle; in English, The First French Canadians, Pioneers in the St. Lawrence Valley. The authors are Hubert Charbonneau, Bertrand Desjardins, Andre Guillemette, Yves Landry, Jacques Legare, and Francois Nault.
        Using the English version, translated by Paola Colozzo, I recently explored their findings and compiled a few facts that might be of interest to family historians and genealogists.
        The study included individuals who lived in Canada in a family setting, i.e., with a spouse or child, from the inception of the trading post at Quebec in 1608 to the end of 1679, the year in which immigration of women to Quebec virtually ceased. The focus of the study was on statistics of origins, births, marriages, and deaths with the stated goal of the analysis of observed phenomena during the birth of a population. Few names of individuals appear in the book, but the Web site of the study (see address below) offers tables of the most common names, both first and family, and search fields.
        The reasons given for selecting the relatively small population of early Quebec, 3,380 individuals, were that the limitations on who could immigrate to Canada in the seventeenth century and the documentation for those who did created a feasible study group. Even though there were contemporary settlements by the English and Spanish in North America, the paper trail no longer exists for them and perhaps never did. If nothing else, the French, especially the clerks and the clergy, were meticulous in their paperwork.
        Though the study was deemed possible, it was not easy. The compilers credit the computer for enabling them to conduct their study, organize their findings, and analyze the data. They found that there was much coming and going from the old world to the new and back again. More than two-thirds of the people who went to Canada in the seventeenth century returned to France. Ultimately, the settlement at Quebec was founded by only ten percent of the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who sailed to Canada in the 1600s. The other ninety percent either died en route, died before having offspring, or left, either to return to France or go elsewhere.
        The compilers estimate that 575 pioneers are represented in one-third of the present-day French-Canadian genes, and approximately 1,500 men and 1,100 women generated two-thirds of the current French-Canadian gene makeup. Some people are concerned about stagnant lines, but the conclusion of the study is that the founders were of good stock. Life expectancy for the pioneers was higher than typical in the seventeenth century. The population back in France would not reach the same longevity until the early nineteenth century.
        The factors that contributed to the lowest mortality rate of the era are: the founders were carefully selected for the rigorous life in untamed Canada; they were going to a wholesome environment with clean water, abundant fish and game and fertile land; and, they were escaping the diseases and epidemics that spread through crowded European cities.
        Life at the trading post had its own difficulties. Of the 3,380 individuals studied, 68 were killed by Iroquois, 52 died as a result of an accident, 4 were murdered, and 4 were legally executed. In later years, during the eighteenth century, the increased frequency of ships calling at Quebec would bring epidemics of measles, smallpox, and yellow fever.
        Of the seventeenth-century women who endured the long sea voyage to Canada, most of them stayed and settled there with their husband or parents or traveled as a Kings Daughter and quickly found a spouse. More than one-half of the pioneer women immigrants were of urban origin. Toward the end of the immigration period, a call went out for women who were accustomed to life on a farm and thus more likely to be trained for and content with life in Canada.
        On the whole, the average pioneer is estimated to have been more educated and affluent than the average Frenchman or Frenchwoman of the era. These adventurers considered their prospects for success to be better in Quebec than in France. Canada offered easier avenues to land ownership and a big-fish-in-a-small-pond opportunity for social advancement.
        With renewed interest in immigration to all parts of Canada, Quebec is bound to evolve with the influx of people from different cultures. Like new branches grafted on to treasured old stock in the vineyards of France, the people of Quebec will continue to add a vibrancy to the Canadian culture that warms the long winter months and highlights the long summer days.

On the Net: Programme de recherche en demographie historique (PRDH) in English:; in French:

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Quebec, a City of Superlatives

Quebec is a small city and the only fortified one in North America. The wall that encloses Quebec is thirty-five feet high and about two miles long. Inside its confines are Upper Town, which includes the Citadel on Cap Diamant and the area north of it; and Lower Town, which lies between the cliffs of Cap Diamant and the Saint Lawrence River.

In Upper Town, the Chateau Frontenac occupies the site of Fort St. Louis, which was built by Samuel de Champlain and his men to protect a trading post that was founded in 1608. The apothecary Louis Hebert built a stone house near the fort. From his home he dispersed medicines to the residents of the post and served in many civil capacities. His wife, Marie Rollet, welcomed orphan Native American children and ran a school for them.

Champlain built his l’Habitation in Lower Town in order to have easy access from the river to the trading post for the hunters who brought in furs and for the ships from France that brought supplies and trading goods to Quebec. The church Notre-Dames-Des-Victoires in the Place Royale stands on the site of the trading post. The courtyard of the square is the former location of Champlain’s garden. The church, built in 1688, is considered the oldest one in Canada.

For more superlatives, the street called Sous-le-Cap is only eight feet, ten inches wide, and is considered the narrowest street in North America, which is not surprising as it is one of the oldest, too. However, the oldest street in Quebec and the oldest commercial street in North America is thought to be Rue du Petit-Champlain, which served as the main thoroughfare during seventeenth-century.

Quebec City is old, and it sits along the Appalachians, the world’s oldest mountains, which have been so worn down by weather and time that they are not much more than rolling hills in most places. Forests cloak them. Hiking trails weave through them. People love them. People love, too, the history and quaintness of old Quebec. We hope that la belle ville will have a very happy 400th anniversary.

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Handicrafts in Canada

Almost as soon as women arrived in New France, spinning wheels were whirling and shuttles on looms were clacking. Sheep brought from France aboard the same ships as the settlers provided wool for spinning yarn; and flax, grown from seed from the Old World, provided long fibers to make into thread for weaving linen. Weaving, crochet, and knitting were not only craft and pastime but the only reliable way to provide new clothing and household furnishings for the habitants of Quebec and other fur-trading posts in the New World.

Native Americans shared their knowledge of cleaning and preparing deerskins for use as clothing. They also demonstrated how boxes and food vessels could be made out of the ply able inner bark of the birch tree. When the supply of European embroidery threads had been depleted, the young pupils of the Ursuline Sisters, who ran a school for native children, showed the sisters how to use moose hair and porcupine quills to make designs on boxes and vestments.

A unique piece of adornment was called the “ceinture flechee,” or arrow sash. It was made by the off-loom method of finger weaving. The distinctive “V” pattern is worked into a long, narrow sash that was used for ceremonial dress, as straps for equipment that must be carried on long treks, and to belt and tie clothing close to the body for warmth.

The Ursulines did not limit their work to fabrics. They alone were the artisans who applied gold leaf to figurines in Quebec’s churches. Among them were also noted carvers.

Potters worked with the clay from the banks of the St. Lawrence River to make earthenware for domestic use. Fanciful patterns were sometimes stamped onto the surface of bowls or cups.

Metal had to be imported from France and worked by tinsmiths to make utensils and kitchen ware, so wood was used whenever possible. Wooden bowls, cups, and platters served as tableware. When a deposit of iron was discovered in 1737, local ironsmiths were able to produce affordable wrought iron pieces such as fences, railings, and weathercocks.

Along with the English after 1763 came the craft of “thrumming,” which is now called rug hooking. It is still popular in the Maritime provinces. The English also spread the popular craft of quilting, an economical way to use fabric scraps and some bunting to produce a warm coverlet.

Handicrafts are still produced in great quantities in Canada, though now many are for ornamentation rather than daily use. The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, now the Canadian Guild of Crafts, was founded to encourage women to revive traditional crafts and to spread knowledge of the craft work that immigrants and refugees brought to Canada, thus enriching the fabric of Canadian culture.

For more information:

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The Canadian Census of 1666

The census of Canada that was ordered by Intendant Jean Talon and carried out in February and March 1666 was one of the earliest official censuses conducted by Europeans. William the Conqueror had ordered that a count be done of the people of England, their land holdings, and personal belongings. Conducted in 1086, the tally was recorded in the Doomsday Book. The first known citywide census was done in 1449 in Nuremberg, Germany.

Talon’s count included the greater Quebec City area, including Beauport and Isle d’Orleans, and the town and environs of Trois Rivieres and Montreal. The original 154-page document is preserved in the Archives of Paris. A copy is held in the parliamentary Library in Ottawa.

In the 1666 census are 3,215 names of individuals who were dwelling in Canada at the time the tally was taken. The census did not include the 1,000 or so members of the Carignan-Salieres Regiment, which had been sent from France in 1665 to quell the Iroquois. It did include the names of fifty Filles du Roi who had been sent from a French orphanage to find husbands in the new settlements of Canada.

The census was undertaken in late winter so that the census takers could travel by sleigh and snowshoe and avoid the wet months when the route might be impassable. Winter was also a good time to find most of the people at home or closeby and before the supply ships made their voyages from and back to France and changed the composition of the population.

Statistics drawn from the 1666 census show that of the 3,215 persons tallied, 2,034 were males and 1,181 were females. Of those, 1,019 were married, 42 widowed, and 2,154 were children or unmarried adults. Though the majority of the population was young, fifteen residents were between the ages of 71 and 90.

The communities of Quebec, Trois Rivieres, and Montreal were service centers for the government officials who carried on the business of the trading posts, for the traders who made contact with the native hunters, and for the other residents who contributed their skills to the settlements. Nearly 800 persons were listed as professionals and tradesmen. There were also about 400 servants. Together, those two groups accounted for more than half of the male population.

Among the tradesmen, there were 36 carpenters, 32 masons, 30 tailors, 22 sailors, 20 shoemakers, 18 merchants and 7 hatters. An interesting category was that of “gentlemen of means.” There were 15 of those. The population of 3,000 was cared for by 5 surgeons, educated by 3 teachers, supplied with produce by 3 gardeners. Their sweet tooth were satisfied by 5 confectioners, and their floors were made warm by the products of the 3 carpet weavers. Several tradesmen had a monopoly on their craft. There was only one button maker, one brick maker, one sword grinder, one printer, one ship captain, one jeweler, and one wooden shoe maker.

The people of early Canada obviously did not huddle in ramshackle huts, eat dried peas, and fold idle hands. The communities were vibrant, with plenty of building construction and local commerce going on. Nearly a thousand more Filles du Roi would soon join the settlement and about 400 former members of the regiment would stay. Together these young couples would help expand the population of Quebec province. A hundred years and three generations later the population would be about twenty times the size it was in 1666.

Reference: “Statistics for the 1666 Census”:

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Origin of the Yule Log

An ancient Germanic harvest festival that was held in November was called the “qiul” or “hiul,” which meant wheel, supposedly in reference to the cycle of the seasons or the rising and setting of the sun. During the event, people congregated around a large log that was set afire and kept going for days. The name of the holiday evolved into “Yule.”

The use of a Yule log persisted into Christian times. A large log, often oak, was carried into a home and lit in the fireplace with much ado. Some stories say that the same log was relit each night during festival time until Twelfth Night, which is Epiphany, January 6, twelve nights from Christmas.

Some folklorists think that the same log was kept burning during the twelve days, the butt end of the huge timber being pushed toward the fireplace as necessary until the last of it was burned to ash, thus signaling the end of the holidays.

Either way, the ashes from the Yule log were said to have healing powers that cured disease in cattle and warded off evil.

Present day practice is to put a fresh log in the fireplace whenever friends and family gather, especially on Christmas Eve. Very few houses are heated with wood, and those that are use energy-efficient stoves, not open fireplaces, so pushing a huge timber into the flames isn’t practical any more.

The most popular Yule log is fuel in the form of food calories, not caloric heat. A Yule cake is baked in a special pan that is shaped like a half-log, the very top of it is flat so that it won’t roll over in the oven. Chocolate frosting is used to mimic the bark of the log. Decorations include mint candies in the shape of leaves and small red candies that resemble berries.

In Canada, the Yule log is known as the Buche de Noel. Other holiday traditions of Quebec and France can be found on the Web site
Joyeux Noel!

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Filles du Roi (Daughters of the King)

To paraphrase Jane Austen’s opening to her novel “Pride and Prejudice,” a successful man should have a wife. Jean Talon, Intendant of Quebec during the mid seventeenth century, did his best to satisfy the needs of the 400 or so men from the Regiment Carignan-Salieres who stayed in Canada to clear and farm the land after their military service was over. From 1665 to 1673, Talon sent about 1,000 eligible young women to Canada, with the understanding that they would marry the former military men. To the women from upper-class families, Talon gave a dowry and expected them to wed the former officers of the regiment. To the others, he granted provisions for a household and 50 livres.

Some sources state that the Filles du Roi were orphans who had lived in government-funded orphanages run by nuns. Other studies contend that at least some of the women had run counter to the law in France and were given over to the nuns for “rehabilitation” as an alternative to being sent to prison for theft, prostitution, and other crimes. Reports from officials in Quebec complained that many of the women were city girls with few skills in subsistence living on a farm. A request was made for country girls, and later recruits were drawn from the provinces.

To answer the need for training for the early arrivals, Marguerite Bourgeoys, the founder of the secular Congregation de Notre-Dame de Montreal, established schools to teach domestic skills and needlework. Taking a maternal interest in the young women, Marguerite carefully questioned the young men of Montreal who came to the door looking for a wife. She continued her contact with the young ladies by running tuition-free schools for both native American and Canadian children. Marguerite and her sisters were ministers to the community, taking Mother Mary as their patron and guide.

In spite of the arrival of so many lovely young ladies, the lure of the boundless wilderness and life of freedom in the woods was strong for the fit young men who had known only the rigidity of life in the villages and cities of France. For the men who were reluctant to settle down as agreed, Talon removed the carrot and brought out the stick. In 1671 Talon signed an ordinance that stripped young bachelors of the rights to fish, hunt, or deal in the fur trade if they did not marry. Essentially, that eliminated the means of earning a living unless a man turned to farming; and to farm, a man needed a wife who would cook, keep house, tend a garden, and work along side him.

Bringing out the carrot once more, Talon offered 20 livres to a man who married at age 20 or younger. Talon gave appointments to civil offices and monetary bonuses to men who fathered large families. The annual award for 10 children born to a wedded couple was 300 livres, the average annual wage in France. For 12 children, it was 400 livres, proving the adage of cheaper by the dozen.

Encouraged by free land and French livres, Canadian settlers saw the advantage of having large families. By 1760 there were approximately 85,000 inhabitants in Canada, but they were no match for the much larger population in the British colonies to the south. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended French rule in North America, but a way of life went on in rural Canada, unencumbered by the arguments and contentions in the courthouses of Quebec and London.

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The Carignan-Salieres Regiment

The year 1660 was the hardest ever for the inhabitants of the fur trading post at Quebec. The attacks by the marauding Iroquois seemed unrelenting. Leaving the protection of the fortified post to tend crops or cut wood was very dangerous. Many people were killed outright or taken prisoner. It became acutely evident that the mercantile companies under whose protection the post operated had sent an insufficient number of armed men to keep the post and its people safe.

A turn of affairs came in 1663. The king of France dissolved the mercantile company that held a monopoly of trade in Canada, and he and his ministers took direct control. In response to the pleas of the people, Louis XIV sent a full regiment, the Carignan-Salieres, to drive the Iroquois away from Quebec.

Arriving in 1665, the Carignan-Salieres Regiment comprised 20 companies of 50 men and officers, for a total of about 1,200 men. They constructed and manned three forts on the Richelieu River, and in doing so cut off access to Quebec by the Iroquois. The regiment conducted forays into Iroquois territory to the west, and soon afterward the inhabitants of the post and their native allies were left in relative peace.

So successful was the campaign that the regiment was recalled to France in 1668. In the hopes of beefing up the local militia for the continued protection of the post and to encourage settlement around Quebec, any member of the regiment who would stay in Canada was promised some land for farming. Officials back in Paris hoped that the post would become self-sufficient and no longer require supply shipments from France, which had been the mainstay of Quebec since its founding in 1608. The mercantile companies had discouraged farming for fear that it would drive away the fur-bearing animals and hurt the fur trade. The restrictions were so tight that not a single plow was allowed to be shipped to Quebec until 20 years after its founding. Before that, all tilling had to be done by hand, so it was no wonder that only about 20 acres had been cleared by the time the plow finally arrived.

When the regiment was ready to leave, about 400 men agreed to stay in Canada and be farmers or traders and join the militia. According to Rene Jette in his “Dictionnaire genealogique des familles du Quebec des origines a 1730,” no complete roll of the regiment is known to exist, but many from the regiment married filles du roi, young women who were brought to Canada from France with the understanding they would marry the former soldiers and set up households near Quebec. Some family farms prospered, some men took to the woods, but all found a new way of life in the New World.

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Work songs of Canada

Nature was both the friend and foe of the French-Canadian voyageur, as he paddled his canoe along the waterways of North America. The voyageur, an agent for the French government in Canada, met with native Americans at designated places to exchange European goods for fur pelts. He then returned to Montreal or Quebec with a canoe laden with the furs of beaver and mink.

Perhaps to appease Mother Nature and entertain himself and his fellow traders as they struck a rhythmic pattern with their paddles, the voyageurs of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sang songs with repeated choruses. These tunes are now called chanties, for the French word “chanter,” meaning “to sing.” Some of the tunes used French melodies but localized lyrics, others were fully Canadian in origin.

The western ballad “Shenandoah” is believed to have originated as a French-Canadian voyageur song. It tells of an Indian chief who lives near the Missouri River.

The most popular boat songs were “En Roulant ma Boule,” “V’la l’bon Vent,” “Lev’ ton Pied,” “C’est l’Vent frivolant,” and “Suivons le Vent.” “En Roulant" tells the story of three ducks, one of which is shot by the son of the king. The other songs emphasize the importance of the elements, especially wind, which could be at the canoer’s back or could stir the waters to whitecaps and make the going hard.

Lumberjacks in the North Woods had their own repertoire of songs. Lumbering was not a major industry in New France as there was not a great demand for wood shipped from the New World. France had maintained its native forests and could provide for the needs of its populace. Other markets, including the British Royal Navy, opened in the nineteenth century and the demand for wood products rose. Hale and hardy men took to the woods to provide the raw materials. As they worked, they sang songs all their own.

Winter was when the men could be away from their farms and out on the frozen ground harvesting wood. “Dans les Chantiers” is the most famous French lumberjack song. It tells of the harsh conditions of working in the snow and cold, the meals that the camp cook prepared, and the workers’ longing for home. “Chantier” means lumber camp, and the word “shanty” is derived from it. The camp buildings were rough structures that were used as temporary housing for the lumberjacks. Once the spring melt was on and the ground thawed, the mud made wood hauling just about impossible. No woodsman ventured into the forests in the summertime, when the sap was running, the leaves were full, and the black flies and mosquitoes were ravenous. Late fall, after the farm harvest, and winter were the seasons when the song of the lumberjack rang through the North Woods of Canada and Maine.

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Voyageur and Coureur de Bois

Voyageur or coureur? Government contractor or black market entrepreneur? Either way, they were hardy men who plied paddle to river and lake throughout Canada to collect furs in exchange for European goods in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

The French government was very well organized and very strict about permits to trade with the natives in New France. The land governed was so vast, however, that enforcement of the law was as successful as holding water in a sieve.

Voyageurs were law-abiding men who played by the rules, did not make nearly as much money as a coureur, were often frustrated by the bureaucracy in the trade, but whose families were safe and welcome in the French trading posts at Quebec and Montreal.
Many young men were eager to earn their fortune and enjoy the freedom of life in the American wilds and were too impatient to wait for official permits. They were the coureurs who struck out on their own, learned the language and ways of the land and traded furs for goods and money with whomever was willing to strike a deal.

One of the most famous of the coureurs was a man known as Cadieux. His story has become a legend of resourcefulness, endurance, and sacrifice. In 1709, while he and his family traveled the Ottawa River in their birch-bark canoe, they came upon an Iroquois raiding party. Cadieux landed and lured the attackers away from the canoe. His family escaped to Montreal. Cadieux alluded the warriors but starved to death on Allumette Island. Before he died, however, he supposedly wrote his sad story in his own blood on a piece of birch bark. His body and lament were later found near a portage trail.
The voyageur was not his own man as was the coureur. Once trade associations were formed in the mid to late eighteenth century, the once independent voyageur had to relinquish trade negotiations to an appointed “bourgeois.” This minor official often wore a beaver tophat and sat in the middle of one of the canoes in the expedition. Sometimes a “commis” or clerk would go along as well. There was also a guide in the lead canoe and a bowman and stern man in each vessel. The voyageur was reduced to a paddler, but those who wintered over west of Lake Superior deemed themselves a “homme du nord.” Voyageurs who worked east of the lake were called “mangeur de lard” because they were able to draw on the more diverse food and resources that were available closer to Montreal and thus lived “high on the hog.” They did not have to subsist on fish and pemmican as did the hardier homme du nord.

The fur trade industry finally met its end with the construction of roads and railroads, the depletion of animal resources, and a change in style. Beaver skin hats became old fashion. Silk hats were la derriere mode. Once again, trade turned towards the Far East where worms spun gold from, not straw, but mulberry leaves.

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Giants begins with “G”

Perhaps it is only a coincidence, or perhaps it is for the same reason that “gee,” “golly,” and “gosh” begin with the letter “g,” that Samuel de Champlain encountered the legends of three giants, all of whose names begin with “g.”

While sailing near the Baie des Chaleurs accompanied by Native Americans in 1603, Champlain was warned about Gougou, a monster of huge proportions who scooped up men and ate them. Those he did not consume right away were kept in his pocket, which was big enough to hold Champlain’s ship. Gougou made terrible hissing sounds that warned the men to stay away from the giant’s island in the bay.

Champlain neither heard nor saw Gougou, but he did include the account in his log. It is possible that Gougou reminded him of the French legend of loup-Garou, a gigantic monster that was said to resemble a panther, hyena, or wolf (loup) with human characteristics. The loup-Garou were believed to be the reincarnations of evil people and condemned criminals.

The People of the Dawn would have spoken to Champlain of the great Glooskap, a more people-friendly character who was said to inhabit eastern Canada and Maine. According to legends told by the Wabinaki people, Glooskap was the first human on Earth and was taller than the tallest pine tree and extremely strong. He often crossed the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and Maine and had many adventures during his travels.

Not having a written language, the native people told their stories to their children during the long winter nights. They spoke of Glooskap, and how he lived in a cave and was accompanied by a black wolf and a white wolf. He created humans the size they are now, but he had to protect them from the ice giants and a witch who took the form of a panther. Her name was Pukjinskwest. She had the magic to cover the moon with a special cloak while she stole children in the dark of the night. When she proclaimed herself chief, an old friend of Glooskap, a fox, told the witch he would carry her to an island filled with turtle eggs, her favorite food. On the way, the fox dumped Pukjinskwest into the sea. Forced to admit she was not chief or else the fox would let her drown, Pukjinskwest was carried to the moon, which shines with the light of her eyes.

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A gift for Father

What would Samuel de Champlain have liked to receive in recognition as Father of New France? He might have chosen one of the new scientific inventions of the age that could have helped him search the coast of North America for the entrance to the fabled Strait of Anian by which the Greek pilot Juan de Fuca claimed to have sailed in 1592 from the Pacific Ocean to the North Sea -- and then back again.

Hitting the market in 1608, the year that Champlain and his companions founded Quebec, was the perspective glass, also called the perspective cylinder, the spyglass, or the telescopium -- what we know as the telescope. Hans Lipperhey, a spectacle-maker (optician) in Middelburg, Holland, had been able to grind unusually fine lenses and had struck on the idea of placing two, one concave and one convex, in a tube to look through and see objects at a distance. The military grabbed the idea to see what the enemy was up to. Astronomers seized upon the concept to find new celestial bodies. Investors and ship owners jumped at the chance to be the first to call out the flags of approaching ships and have the docks ready for quick unloading, and sailors could eye the same banners and know if friend or foe had appeared on the horizon.

In just a few years’ time, telescopes advanced from a multiplication of three to the power of twenty and thirty times what the naked eye could see. With such an instrument, Champlain could have examined a coastline for hostile marauders before sending a landing party. He would have been better able to avoid contact with pirates or privateers at sea while on his way to and from the trading post in Canada. A telescope would have been a prized possession during his day.

Christopher Columbus’ epic voyage in 1492 opened the floodgates for the newest and most innovative sailing tools for the booming sea trade. The Chinese and Arabs had used a simple form of the astrolabe for centuries to chart celestial bodies and later to sail in coastal waters, but Europeans who wanted to sail across open water out of sight of land needed a slightly different instrument. This was developed in the late sixteenth century. By 1603 Champlain was able to purchase a navigator’s astrolabe for crossing the Atlantic. Records show that he had such an instrument and probably used it during his many voyages until he lost in 1613 during a very difficult portage. It was later found and eventually given to the Museum of Civilization Canada.

Unfortunately for Champlain and the spice merchants of Europe, de Fuca’s tale was just a “fish story.” His claim to fame from the stir he caused was the naming of a California tectonic plate after him. His false claim, made for whatever reason, did spur the monarchies of Europe to send explorers like Champlain across the Atlantic. There might not have been an easy passage to the oldest civilizations on Earth, but there was the adventure of exploring a whole New World, telescope and astrolabe in hand.

For more information on telescopes, readers are referred to the book Stargazer by Fred Watson.

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Provinces of the progenitors

When exploring the history of a culture or civilization, the question of where the people originally came from eventually arises. Usually the answer is conjecture, a list of possibilities without the means of proof. The origin of Canadian society, Quebec specifically, is one of the very few exceptions.

Settlement in early Quebec was tightly restricted by both the French government and the mercantile companies that were granted a monopoly to the fur trade. Skilled craftsmen were recruited to construct the trading post, clerks were hired to run it, and service providers, such as administrators and doctors, were commissioned to take care of its inhabitants.

Samuel de Champlain was the driving force behind the settlement of families at the post. The mercantile companies discouraged farming and immigration to Quebec for fear of ruining the hunting grounds and the supply of fur for the European market. Champlain saw it differently. He envisioned a network of trading partners with the many tribes of native peoples and a thriving city on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

In time, Champlain’s plan took hold, but not until long after his death in 1635. During the twenty-seven years that he labored to bring families and start farms in Quebec, fewer than a dozen and a half families did so. His own wife stayed in Canada for only four years, and the couple was childless.

When Champlain passed away on Christmas Day 1635, there were only about fifty inhabitants of French origin in the environs of Quebec. The majority of those progenitors, the first of a family to immigrate, came from the little province of Perche, which is tucked between Normandy, Ile de France, and Maine in France. The head of the Giffard family was a master surgeon, and he seemed to have recruited several craftsmen to join him and his family in Canada. Other men from Perche were Zacherie Cloutier, a master carpenter; Jean Cote; Jean Guyon, a master mason; Jean Juchereau, a fur merchant; and Henri Pinguet, a merchant.

From Normandy, a large province in northern France, came Jean Bourdon, a surveyor and engineer; Pierre Desportes; Noel Langlois, a ship’s pilot; Nicolas Marsolet, an interpreter and fur merchant; and Jean Nicolet, an interpreter.

From Brittany, a province with a strong maritime heritage, came Guillaume Couillard, a seaman and carpenter; and Olivier Tardif or Letardif, an interpreter and commissioner for the mercantile company that controlled the post.

From Picardy, a province east of Normandy and also on the English Channel, came Philippe Amiot or Amyot and his family. Pierre Delaunay was from the province of Maine.  Louis Hebert and his family were from Paris in the province of Ile de France.

The origins of Abraham Martin, a pilot, and his wife, Marguerite Langlois, are unknown. Marguerite was the sister of Francoise Langlois, who married Pierre Desportes. The four traveled to Quebec together in 1620. Though Pierre was from Normandy, there are no documents that show the home province of Abraham or the Langlois sisters.

The people who did stay for the long term prospered. Though they suffered raids by the Iroquois, near starvation during a siege by English adventurers, illness, and injury, the families found freedom from Old World restrictions and exciting opportunities. They worked hard to survive and did not become rich, except in the pleasures of forest, farm, and family.

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Favorite First Names

The dozen and a half families who settled at the fur-trading post at Quebec in the early 1600's brought their family customs and their French culture with them. When it came time to name the babies born in New France, the parents kept to tradition and used names that were popular in their family and in France at that time.

The most often given name was Marie for the girls and Joseph for the boys. These names honored the Holy Family with the hope of gaining luck and blessings for the child. Marie and Joseph were sometimes used alone as first names, but Marie was typically hyphenated with another name, such as the very popular Marie-Madeleine.

The second most popular name for girls, used alone or joined with another name, was Louise. Also frequently used were Anne, Marguerite, Francoise, Genevieve, Charlotte, Jeanne, and Elisabeth, with an "s" rather than a "z" as in English. In birth records of the 1600s in Quebec, there were also a few girls with names of Angelique, Agathe (Agnes), Barbe (Barbara), Catherine, Cecile, Claire, Denyse (Denise), Helene, or Marthe, one or two called Rosalie or Suzanne, and a Catherine-Ursule.

For the boys, closely following Joseph in frequency was the name Jean, especially when coupled with Baptiste. Charles, Louis, Pierre, and Francois were definite favorites. Used less frequently but still popular were the names Augustin, Guillaume (William), Jacques, Nicolas, Noel, and Paul. Some boys were called Denis, Martin, Michel (Michael) or Simon, but only a few were called Adrien, Claude, Daniel, Etienne, Ignace, Rene, Robert, Thomas, or Zacharie. Only one was found who had been baptized Joseph-Narcisse. He was the last child of twenty born to the same mother and father.

The families of these children were the founders of the fur-trading post at Quebec. The men arrived first, in 1608, to construct the buildings and establish trade agreements with the native hunters. Louis Hebert returned to France to bring back his wife, Marie Rollet, and three children. They arrived in Quebec July 15, 1617, and were the first French family to take up residence in Canada. The Giffard family arrived in 1634, and the Amiot family in 1635.

The surnames of the other families living in Quebec during the lifetime of Samuel de Champlain are Boucher, Bourdon, Cloutier, Cote/Coste, Couillard, Delaunay, Desportes, Guyon, Juchereau, Langlois, Marsolet, Martin, Nicolet, Pinguet, and Tardif/Letardif. Along with Champlain and his wife, Helene Boulle, these eighteen families saw Quebec through its earliest years and proved that Europeans could survive the harshness of the climate of northern America. Though other families would follow, these dozen and a half are the pioneers who led the way from a centuries-old heritage in Europe to the establishment of a unique culture in the New World.

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Survival in the New World

Senior citizens might grouse at the long line at the prescription counter, and young children might fidget while waiting to see a pediatrician, but all can count their lucky stars that they have modern medical care.

In the early days of Quebec, young couples at the fur-trading post were eager to start families but knew that dangers would present themselves.

An apothecary, Louis Hebert, served as the post's first doctor. His daughter-in-law and a granddaughter were midwives. The few precious medicines that Louis brought with him from France were supplemented with the herbs he grew in his home garden and any medicinals that the native people shared with him.

Birth is a natural part of life, but the early seventeenth century experienced epidemics of small pox, which was often fatal. Complications of birth often brought death to both mother and child. Injuries and illness took the lives of many children and youth who had survived infancy.
Adults who married and had children knew of the risks. Couples often had very large families with the hope that most of their offspring would survive to help them farm and take care of them in their old age.

A simple survey of the Hebert family, the first one from France to settle in Quebec, shows the rigors of surviving in the New World in the seventeenth and early eighteen century. Louis and his wife, Marie Rollet, had three children, all born in France. Only two survived in Canada to marry and raise families. Of the resulting fourteen children, the grandchildren of Louis and Marie, nine grew into adulthood. Of the children who died young, more than half died at birth or in infancy. The next generation shows a survival rate of approximately two out of three living long enough to marry and have children. By the fifth generation, the great-great-grandchildren of Louis and Marie, the survival average still held true.

The saddest tale, one that takes a compiler and reader beyond the coldness of statistics, is the story of Joseph Fournier and Barbe Girard, who married in Quebec in 1661. Of their seventeen children, only seven lived long enough to marry. Six of the children of Joseph and Barbe died the same day they were born. Four others did not live through childhood.
In early Quebec, the only equivalent to a nursing home for adults who lived to be elderly was a hospital run by religious orders. A few widows were allowed to live in convents with the sisters in exchange for a donation to the order. As for retired couples, the family farm often was deeded to one of their married sons with the condition that the son and his wife would care for the older couple in the family home for as long as the elders lived. In some areas, this arrangement resulted in the eventual construction of a housing group, the "big house, little house, back house, barn." The little house was the modest home of the senior parents. The son constructed the big house to hold his growing family and often to please his wife by giving her a larger and more modern dwelling. The back house held wood to heat the buildings and household supplies and should not be confused with the outhouse, the outdoor privy, which was small and portable. When the waste pit was full, a new one was dug and the structure was moved. The barn was for the animals and their food.

Survival was chancy in early Quebec, but those who did live to through adulthood found the joy of a close-knit community of neighbors and relatives, self-sufficiency on generous acreage, and all the pleasures that family can bring.

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Winter weddings

June is the favored month by modern brides. School is over, families can gather, and travel is easy.

In the early days of Quebec, after its founding in 1608, winter was the time for get-togethers and celebrations. The harvest finished in October, and food was plentiful. Travel conditions were not an issue as everyone who came from France settled near the fur-trading post in Quebec or in nearby Beauport. Winter was a time when the colonists were left on their own, with no hope of visiting ships until spring. This presented a social need to stay close to one another and share in family and community events.

A simplified study of marriage dates of the Hebert family through five generations in Quebec found that, of the forty marriages for which a month was given, more than half took place in October through February. The most popular months for matrimony were October and November. January and February saw half as many as took place in the two earlier months. Curiously, there were no weddings in December. Perhaps knowing that the long winter was head, the villagers thought to spread the gatherings throughout the season, thus reserving December for the Christmas and New Year’s celebration that immediately followed.

A wedding in early Quebec would have been a simple affair. Samuel de Champlain, founder of the colony and its governor, often stood as witness to a marriage. Wedding ceremonies took place in the house of the parents of one of the couple or at a mutual friend’s house, probably depending on who had enough room to accommodate the guests.

The wedding dinner would have included delicacies baked with flour and dried fruits from France if it took place when supplies brought that summer were still available. By the end of winter, the fare would have relied more heavily on venison brought in by hunters and garden produce such as pumpkins, squash, and dried peas and kidney beans laid aside in a root cellar. Native fruits such as blueberries and cranberries might have been dried and on hand. Some of the dishes might have been sweetened with honey or maple sap. There’s no evidence that, at the time, the process of boiling the sap to make syrup or sugar was known, though native peoples did have a way to draw sap from the trees and used the liquid in food.

Unless widowed and remarrying, the engaged couple would be young, in their teenage years or just turned twenty. Life expectancy in the early seventeenth century was shortened by illness and injury. Parents would want their children, especially their daughters, to be wed and provided for as soon as reasonable to be assured of a future support structure.

When Shakespeare, who was a contemporary of Champlain, wrote that his character Juliet was age 14 when she married Romeo, Shakespeare was not being a
rebel. He was using the norms of the day for the daughters of the well-to-do. Champlain himself made an advantageous match with the Boulle family and wed Helene when she was 14.

The majority of marriages in early Quebec took place when the bride was in her later teens, about 18, and the groom was a few years older. Family bonds were very close and tight, with parents helping their sons acquire appointments, take over the family business or farm, or lease or buy land of their own. Houses were often within calling distance of one another, and relatives often lived in a row, guaranteeing help in a time of crisis or attendance at a festivity.

With no description of any of the young brides’ attire in early Quebec, we can only imagine that out of a sea chest came a treasured gown that had been brought from France and worn only on the most special occasions. Not being so sentimental, the father of the groom might have loaned his son a new coat or vest knitted or crocheted by his wife from the wool of their sheep or woven from linen made from the flax grown on their few acres of cleared land.

Whatever the menu and the dress, most couples in the early days of Quebec managed to have many children of their own, losing some to childbirth, illness, and accident, but surviving in a wilderness made home by the warm company of family.

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Wintering over

With heating fuel prices going up as the temperature goes down, Mainers are wrapping themselves in lap robes like their grandmothers did to stay warm.

The Europeans who came to New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had an even more difficult time dealing with the cold. They assumed that the climate near the St. Lawrence River would be the same as that of France because both are within the same degrees of latitude. “Never assume” is an old adage for a good reason. Ocean currents soften the effects of weather along the European coast but pack a blow of cold and ice for the North American seaboard, as the hale and hearty fishermen who followed the fish across the Atlantic soon found out. They eventually worked out a routine of sailing from European ports in late winter or early spring in time to arrive at thefishing grounds, fill the ships’ holds with cod, then depart in August before the worst storms arose.

On land, after the fur-trading post at Quebec opened in 1608, some of the staff who worked for the mercantile companies had to stay year-round. With plenty of wood to burn, venison to eat, furs to wrap in, and staples from the Old World, the men who stayed at the post survived in the strange new land.

The hunters and fur traders, and later the missionaries who ventured away from the post and out into the woods had a harder time of it. They found that most of the native people were not much better off than they were. Some tribes built long houses of bark and mats strewn over a framework of sapling poles. Inside, a line of small fires went down the center of the dirt floor, each family tending one. The smoke had to find its way out of small openings in the matting overhead, and the smoky residue caused plenty of eye irritation and even blindness in the older people.

A missionary named LeJeune wintered with a tribe in 1634 and described the living conditions in a report to his superiors. In addition to the cold and the smoke, he had to contend with heat and dogs. The hut that he stayed in was a small conical one. Its framework was placed on top of a wall of snow, not on the ground, so when he laid down, his head was nearly against the snow. The space was so small that the men nearly roasted on one side of their bodies while the other side nearly froze. They were so crammed together for warmth that none of them could stretch out without colliding with a neighbor or one of the smelly, flea-bitten dogs. LeJeune wrote to his superior that since none of the men complained at all about the conditions, the superior should not send whiners to minister to the native tribes.

This winter, if the wood stove puffs back a little, the house walls lack some insulation, and the dog gets underfoot, maybe we shouldn’t complain too loudly. With a good supply of hot cocoa, a puff quilt, and plenty of CDs for entertainment, we can probably rough it ’til spring.

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Foods new and old

During this season of gathering to share plenty of good food and the latest news, let’s look at what was served at a feast, called a tabagie, that Native Americans held in honor of Samuel de Champlain in 1613.

In preparation of the celebration the chiefs sent men to neighboring tribes to ask them to attend the tabagie the next day. Each arrived with a wooden bowl and spoon. The first course of the festive meal was soup made with crushed corn and small pieces of meat and fish. The most commonly eaten meats were moose, bear, beaver, and fowl. The fish could have been salmon or other river or lake fish. Lobster probably was not served. Lobster was more often used as bait by Native Americans than as food.

In addition to the soup, the guests were given boiled fish as well as chunks of meat that had been broiled over a bed of coals. As a beverage, Champlain remarked that they were given “beautiful clear water.”

The offering of any other foods at the tabagie would have depended on whether the hosting tribe was one that cultivated crops or gathered wild foods. Some native tribes cleared plots of ground for planting, while others relied on gathering fruits, such as raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, and plums; nuts; roots; and herbs to supplement meat from the hunt, fish from rivers and lakes, and eels and mussels. In season, there were fiddleheads and mushrooms. Of those who did farm, they raised corn, squashes, pumpkins, sunflowers, and beans, which Champlain identified as Brazilian beans, which we call kidney beans. He had seen the plant and the bean during his explorations of South America before venturing north to Canada.

One of the customs of the tribe was that the host would not eat, but would spend his time serving his guests. He might have had his fill from taste testing the food or would enjoy his portion at his leisure after his guests were gone. Preparation and serving to large crowds can be hard work, as any attentive hostess would agree.

After the feasting was done, the chiefs and tribe councilors sat around the meeting place, filling their pipes with tobacco and smoke it, not saying a word, for a half hour. Once their food was settled, the elders conversed with Champlain through an interpreter about plans for a future settlement comprising both tribes and French settlers.

One of Champlain’s priorities was to encourage the native people to settle in one place and to show them how to plant a greater variety of crops and raise livestock so as to fend off starvation during the long Canadian winters and to educate them in the ways of
European civilization. France was a bountiful country and did not need foodstuffs from the New World. Merchants wanted fish from the Georges bank and furs from the vast forests, not barley and maize and other crops that would grow in northern climates.

The sharing was reciprocal. During the harshest winters, the people of Quebec shared from their stores of dried peas and prunes, salted meat and fish, bread baked from flour from France, and anything they had been able to harvest and store from their own garden plots.

The spirit of sharing food in times of both abundance and need started in the New World years before the Pilgrims hosted the Indians at Plymouth. No matter where it started or where we are or who we’re with, giving thanks and sharing are good traditions to continue.

For more information on native foods and recipes, see “Spirit of the Harvest” by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991)

Source: “Voyages de la Nouvelle France” by Samuel de Champlain, translated by Annie Netteleton Bourne, Brook House Press, 2000.

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A world treasure

Christmas is a time of celebration but also the close of the year. The days are short, and the nights are long and cold. Festivities of the solstice, the shortest day, and the holidays lighten the spirit and encourage people to think ahead to the warm days of spring.

In Quebec in the winter of 1635, the mood was not merry. Samuel de Champlain, founder and governor of the city and leader of the people, had been laid low by a stroke and was dying. The once-hearty man, son of a sea captain and his wife, Marguerite, had weathered storms during dozens of Atlantic crossings, explored the wilds of western forests in the New World, negotiated with kings, councils, and mercantile companies, all for the sake of the colonists of Quebec and the success of the community.

Now at age 65, with no children of his own, his thoughts might have been on his young wife, Helene, whom he had married when she was 14, the same age of Juliet in Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare and Champlain were contemporaries, one innovative in stories for the stage, the other staging expeditions to test the claims made by sailors about a passage through North America to Asia. Helene, whose marriage to Champlain had been considered advantageous, would be well provided for and would live out the rest of her days in a French convent that she founded.

But what of the colony in Quebec? It literally wa not out of the woods yet. The trading post had a population of about 200 people, and only a few acres
of land had been cleared of trees and made suitable for growing crops. The nearby native tribes had accepted the presence and assistance of the French, but the marauding Iroquois had not. There was always a lurking fear among both the colonists and the friendly tribes of attack or capture by the Iroquois. The darkest days of fear came in 1660s, when no one was safe, not to cut wood, harvest crops, or go out to the river to fish. Relief came with the arrival of the Regiment de Carignan-Salieres in the spring of 1665, one thousand men strong, who fortified the trading post and took action against the Iroquois, who then aligned themselves with the English in the south.

With the regiment’s reinforcement, the colony lived on. It survived capture in 1659 and was named a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1985, three hundred and fifty years after Champlain’s passing. Quebec had been his offspring, his hope for the future. He would have been proud.

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Founding fathers of New France

As we drag out the backyard grill to celebrate Father’s Day, let’s give a nod to Louis Hebert, the first father and farmer in Quebec, and Samuel de
Champlain, who is called the Father of New France. The Heberts, Louis, his wife, Marie, and their children, Guillaume, Guillemette, and Anne, left Paris in 1617. Louis had given up his position as an apothecary in the king’s court, tending to the medicinal needs of royalty and courtiers, to become the ad hoc doctor and de facto official at a fur trading post in the wilds of the New World. He was the very first Frenchman to bring his family to the North America, and he did so three years before the Mayflower arrived in Massachusetts. The Hebert family landed at Tadoussac and transferred to a smaller vessel to take them to Quebec, where Louis had cleared some land in the hopes of developing a medicinal herb garden, something that would not have been possible in Paris. Plants were the basis for most treatments of ailments in the seventeenth century, and the study of herbs was extremely important. An apothecary of good repute and skill with herbs was considered more valuable than a physician, whose most common treatment for practically any illness was purging with laxatives or bloodletting with cuts or leeches.

In addition to herbs, Louis experimented with growing plants that he found growing in the countryside and those that native people brought to him. These included corn, melons, squashes, and pumpkins. As an employee of the mercantile company who had sponsored the establishment of the trading post at Quebec, and like many other fathers who have to do the gardening after coming home from work, Louis had to tend his fields on his own time. He and his family were able to supplement the diet of the colonists, who numbered only about fifty during the first twenty years or so of the settlement. If there had been a Father’s Day in the seventeenth century, on the spit at the Hebert’s house would have been the meat from deer, moose, possum, or turkey, which were common and plentiful in the area.

Louis gave ten energetic years to the community at Quebec before he fell from scaffolding while repairing a roof and died in 1627. His only grandson, Joseph, was still a youth when he died while a prisoner of the Iroquois, but his wife and daughter Guillemette continued to live in the settlement. Sam Champlain looked out for those under his care at the remote trading post at Quebec. Crossing the stormy North Atlantic twenty-three times during his career as cartographer, navigator, and explorer, Champlain was like a mother hen to the small settlement. He often sought an audience with the king of France to ask for more funding from the mercantile companies, more troops for security, more settlers for the land. Though most of his pleas fell on deaf ears, and the king’s advisors felt as Voltaire later quipped -- that Canada was no more than “a few acres of snow” -- Champlain continued his work of mapping North America and making alliances with the native people. He was respected by the colonists, fellow mariners, and even his rivals in exploration, who used his charts and sailing directions when approaching the American coast.

Champlain died on Christmas day in 1635. His gift to the world was Quebec, the birthplace of Canada and a World Heritage City as designated by UNESCO in 1985. In 2008 Quebec will celebrate the 400th anniversary of its founding. Many descendants of the first families will attend, and the memory, and perhaps even the spirit of Champlain surely will be there.

Source: “La belle France: a Short History” by Alistair Horne, Alfred a. Knopf, 2005.

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Pioneering women in New France

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, let us remember the pioneering women of French Canada who nurtured a new culture in a strange new world called North America.

Arriving in 1617 to a rough, remote trading post on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, the women of the Hebert family, Marie Rollet and her daughters Guillemette and Anne, had to rely on their strength and ingenuity to make a home for themselves and her husband, Louis, and son, Guillaume.

Luckily, the men at Quebec helped Louis and Guillaume construct a large stone house on the promontory overlooking the river. The Hebert’s home became a gathering place for the clerks and craftsmen who ran the fur trading post. Samuel de Champlain, who founded the settlement in 1608 and continued his support throughout his life, frequented the Hebert’s house. In his reports to the king about Quebec and his voyages, Champlain commended Mme Hebert for establishing a school in her home for orphans of the native people they had encountered and befriended. The fifty-some Europeans who lived in Quebec went to the Hebert’s house for aid, comfort, and socializing. In the spring of 1627, while waiting for supply ships to arrive from France, everyone at the post met at Marie’s to pool what foodstuffs they had for a true potluck dinner. She used her great brewing cauldron to cook the feast for the day.

Two years later the mood was not so festive. Marie, now a widow, had to make a very hard decision. The Kirke brothers, David, Louis, and Thomas, had illegally seized Quebec for the English crown, and all the French inhabitants were given the choice of returning to France or staying under the rule of the Kirkes. Marie knew that she had nothing in France to return to and nothing to take there should she go. All her energy had gone into the care of her family, home, and the tiny post community.

After consulting with Champlain, Marie decided to remain in Quebec, as did her daughter Guillemette and son-in-law, Guillaume Couillard. This was a brave thing to do. Though the Kirkes were working for the English, their mother had been from the French city of Dieppe and their father was a Scot. Champlain, who had negotiated the truce, felt that the conduct and manners of Louis Kirke, the leader, were so like a French gentleman’s that Louis could be trusted not to harm the settlers.

The Kirkes were true to their word and allowed the few remaining families to farm their land in safety, but the French were happy to see Champlain return a few years later with the news that Quebec was to be released back to him by order of the English king. The Kirkes said their adieu, and life at the post returned to normal.

“Normal” was life on a few acres of land carved from the forest, a few dozen people to rely on, a couple of stout buildings. They knew an incessant wariness, a watchfulness for any signs of the approach of hostile Iroquois toward the post to attack it or take captive one of its inhabitants for ransom or worse. They would also keep an eye out for the supply ships from France that would supplement their garden produce.

Eventually the colony grew. Marie’s granddaughter Francoise became a “sage-femme,” a midwife, and was well respected in the settlement for her community spirit and wisdom. Marie’s daughter-in-law Helen Desportes also served as a midwife.

Life went on. Babies were born and the colony grew, with both native Canadians and new arrivals from France, who joined the intrepid women who had faced an uncertain future and founded a country.

Source: “Introduction to New France” by Marcel Trudel, Quintin Publications, 1997.

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Snow Removal

The January 1906 issue of The Bath Daily Times reported on "the manner in which snow is hauled off Front Street the moment it appears." The residents complained that it ruined the sleighing. Evidently the city workers in Bath, which lies along the broad Kennebec River, were too fastidious about snow removal from the few city streets that were paved.

During the eighteenth century in Quebec there were no such complaints. The first road was just being put through and it was dirt. When all the land along the St. Lawrence riverfront had been divided and settled, a road along the backside of the frontage lots was cleared. Still called a fronteau, in spite of not being along water, the road gave access to the second section of lots. This established the "premier rang" and "deuxieme rang," or first and second row. The families who lived along the Òrang roadÓ had to maintain the road and clear the snow from it in the area that fronted their lot. This was done by hitching up a team and using a plough after each significant snowfall.

Luckily, the width of a lot was not excessive. Rangs were long narrow strips of land, usually three or four "arpents" wide (an arpent is about 65 meters or 213 feet long) but very long. This was done to give each household access to the river, which was the sole means of transportation during the seventeenth century. Quebec was founded by Samuel de Champlain and his companions in 1608, and settlement outside the city spread very, very slowly. It was not until a century after Quebec's establishment that a second row of farm lots was required.

When the land along the St. Lawrence was first apportioned, the lots ran back along parallel lines at a northwest by southwest angle from the river until a natural boundary was reached. The back line could be another river or a steep cliff. Eventually, the lot length was pegged at one mile, giving each lot a rough ratio of 1:10. This uniformity was crucial when the rang road was constructed, ensuring that the thoroughfare would be straight and not run in a zigzag fashion along difficult terrain.

The second rang lots often were purchased by or for the children or grandchildren of the family who lived on the riverfront lot in an effort to have everyone in the family live closeby. This continued the practice of having neighbors within shouting distance for safety as well as social reasons. During the early days of Quebec, there were often raids, both by unfriendly native tribes and European enemies, most frequently the English.

When the second section of rang was installed, many of the older houses that sat near the river were moved to the opposite end of the lot so as to have road frontage and be across the way from the new neighbors who were settling on the newly divided lots. The move could most easily be accomplished during the winter, when the ground was frozen and the buildings could be placed on logs and pulled across the land.

Given that a century had passed since the first rang was settled, some houses were left in place and in time fell into their foundations. This happened when the house was built below a steep hill to be close to the river and could not be easily uplifted and moved. A lot might also have contained too much rough terrain to permit movement of a building. Old foundations, sporting the crowns of trees overhead instead of roofs, were once a common occurrence along the St. Lawrence.

Source: Marcel Rioux and Yves Martin, French Canadian Society, McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto 1969.

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When taxes filled a larder

France was not always the belle of Europe, a land of park-like beauty, elegant style and fine wine. During the seventeenth century, the country was in chaos. A civil war called the Frondes ranged during the mid 1600s. The economy was in tatters and the countryside was in ruins. The price of a farm big enough to support a family would have cost the average work a hundred years’ worth of wages. Even if any could afford to buy it, he would have had to fight off the marauding bands of unemployed mercenaries, thieves, and murderers who wandered the countryside, slaughtering livestock, assaulting peasants, and stealing anything they could carry away.

It was during this turmoil that a small number of Frenchmen and their families determined that life in the wild and unfamiliar forests of Canada was preferable to the devastation at home in France. They transported a few personal items, seeds for planting and memories of friends and family with them aboard small ships that sailed from La Rochelle to Quebec in New France.

Not having the money to buy land outright, most pioneering families rented a plot of land called a rang from the land-grant holder, the seignior, who had been given the land by the French government under the condition that the seigniory be subdivided and developed by families who the grant holder would bring from France. Seigniories were awarded to nobles, leading merchants and friends of the king. The renters were called censitaires and the rental dues were called “cens et rentes,” which amounted to a little cash and some farm produce such as butter, ham or poultry. Another tax, which was an old French custom, was the “droit de peche,” through which one in every eleven fish were delivered to the seignior’s door, which might entail walking for miles to make the payment.

On his side of the agreement, the seignior had to build and maintain a mill and an oven for use by the habitants who lived on the seigniory. Some seignior demanded payment of four loaves of bread for use of the mill and oven.

When the law changed in 1711 to allow renters to purchase the land, some seigniors called for the right to use the “retrait roturier” to buy the farm at sale price from the habitant. If the farmer did take possession and resell the farm, the seignior could collect “lods et ventes,” which amounted to one twelfth of the value, payable at transfer.

The seignior could also expect to collect the “corve.” A much-hated tax in France, the corve was paid through hard labor instead of hard currency. Abused as it was in France, the corve enabled lords to enhance their manors and holdings while the peasant’s homes and fields suffered neglect. Across the Atlantic, however, the corve in Quebec mutated into little more than clearing of a road between the first and second row of rangs and maintenance of that portion of the road that ran in front of a habitant’s farm. Many seigniories were owned by absent landlords who remained in France and did little but collect the rent, which led to a very independently minded community of habitants.

Almost totally self-sufficient, the habitants of the eighteenth century continued the conversion of the corve to benefit themselves. Corves were called when there was a house or barn to build or move, a harvest to be brought in, sheep to shear and wool to spin. Corves became the barnraisings and autumn festivals of Quebec.

When we write a check to the IRS and walk to the mailbox to send it, we can think of our ancestors who carried fish, bread, hams and butter to the seignior’s door to pay their annual taxes.

Source: Documents Relating to the Seigniorial Tenure in Canada: 1598-1854, William Bennett Munro, The Champlain Society, 1908; Toronto reprint 1968.

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Home on the rang

The January 1906 issue of The Bath Daily Times reported on "the manner in which snow is hauled off Front Street the moment it appears." The residents complained that it ruined the sleighing. Evidently the city workers in Bath, which lies along the broad Kennebec River, were too fastidious about snow removal from the few city streets that were paved.

During the eighteenth century in Quebec there were no such complaints. The first road was just being put through and it was dirt. When all the land along the St. Lawrence riverfront had been divided and settled, a road along the backside of the frontage lots was cleared. Still called a fronteau, in spite of not being along water, the road gave access to the second section of lots. This established the “premier rang” and “deuxieme rang,” or first and second row. The families who lived along the “rang road” had to maintain the road and clear the snow from it in the area that fronted their lot. This was done by hitching up a team and using a plough after each significant snowfall.

Luckily, the width of a lot was not excessive. Rangs were long narrow strips of land, usually three or four “arpents” wide (an arpent is about 65 meters or 213 feet long) but very long. This was done to give each household access to the river, which was the sole means of transportation during the seventeenth century. Quebec was founded by Samuel de Champlain and his companions in 1608, and settlement outside the city spread very, very slowly. It was not until a century after Quebec’s establishment that a second row of farm lots was required.

When the land along the St. Lawrence was first apportioned, the lots ran back along parallel lines at a northwest by southwest angle from the river until a natural boundary was reached. The back line could be another river or a steep cliff. Eventually, the lot length was pegged at one mile, giving each lot a rough ratio of 1:10. This uniformity was crucial when the rang road was constructed, ensuring that the thoroughfare would be straight and not run in a zigzag fashion along difficult terrain.

The second rang lots often were purchased by or for the children or grandchildren of the family who lived on the riverfront lot in an effort to have everyone in the family live closeby. This continued the practice of having neighbors within shouting distance for safety as well as social reasons. During the early days of Quebec, there were often raids, both by unfriendly native tribes and European enemies, most frequently the English.

When the second section of rang was installed, many of the older houses that sat near the river were moved to the opposite end of the lot so as to have road frontage and be across the way from the new neighbors who were settling on the newly divided lots. The move could most easily be accomplished during the winter, when the ground was frozen and the buildings could be placed on logs and pulled across the land.

Given that a century had passed since the first rang was settled, some houses were left in place and in time fell into their foundations. This happened when the house was built below a steep hill to be close to the river and could not be easily uplifted and moved. A lot might also have contained too much rough terrain to permit movement of a building. Old foundations, sporting the crowns of trees overhead instead of roofs, were once a common occurrence along the St. Lawrence.

Source: Marcel Rioux and Yves Martin, French Canadian Society, McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto 1969.

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Copyright © 2006, Denise R. Larson


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