Monday, May 30, 2011

The French in Mainland North America

Early French exploration began in 1534 because King Francis I was eager to catch up to Spain and their colonization efforts of the New World.

And idea circulating at this time was that of the Great River of the West, better known as the Northwest Passage. This idea was borrowed from discoveries in human anatomy. Early modern Europeans thought that oceans were like the circulatory system and that there should be an east-west artery through the huge land mass of North America.

Jacque Cartier was assigned to seek out gold, silver, and this all-water route through North America to Asia. He headed way to the northeast, sailing through the Strait of Belle Island between the Canadian mainland and Newfoundland down into the Gulf of St Lawrence so he could avoid the Spanish Armada, Spain's fleet of warships designed to protect their holds in the Americas.

Cartier's first voyage was brief and in the summer of 1534 where it was warm and land was bountiful. Cartier, after he was met by men waving fur on stick, was excited by the possibilities for trade and welcomed opportunities for exchange. Cartier came in contact with the coastal Indians in what is now Quebec Providence; they lived simply and the French had much of what the Indians wanted. Cartier and his men had to return to France, but Cartier promised to return shortly.

Cartier returned in 1535 and stayed until 1536, bringing with him more men and having the intention of full exploration despite objections of the coastal Indians to push upriving, as they had wanted to preserve their status as the gatekeepers to interior trade. Cartier wanted to open diplomatic negotiations with the powerful town of Hochelaga, which is now the modern-day city of Montreal. Negotiations are a flop, the French seem to be a very inferior trading partner to the prosperous people of interior Canada, so Cartier and his men continue upriver to seek the Northwest Passage to Asia.

Cartier's second trip was miserable. There were black flies, heat, and La Chine, formidable rapids in the middle of Canada in which Cartier and his men can't portage (carry a canoe or other small boat to be able to traverse). To make matters worse, the crew experienced the early snowfall of North America and the harsh weather nearly killed them. The crew was eager to go back to France and the Indians were eager to see them leave.

Cartier, because of his two voyages, was considered a failure. He didn't find an interior passage to Asia, he didn't fond gold or silver like the Spanish had in South America, he discovered that the North American Indians were very unlike the great Mexican and South American civilizations. Cartier discovered that Canada seemed to be a very difficult place to farm--there was a very short growing season as Canada had less than 130 frost-free days; they could grow corn but the French don't like corn very much and wheat needed a longer growing season. It wasn't immediately apparent what one could do there to make money--coastal fishing didn't require land settlement but fur trapping did. However, it would still be decades before the French return to the mainland.

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