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Cartier and the Northwest Passage: 1534-1542

The two northern Atlantic kingdoms, France and England, look enviously at the wealth which Portugal derives from trade with the spice islands of the east. France is the first to seek a western route to the same pot of gold.

In 1534 the French king, Francis I, sends Jacques Cartier - with two ships and sixty-one men - to look for a northwest passage linking the Atlantic, above the continent of America, with the Pacific. Cartier discovers the great inlet of the St Lawrence river, which he hopes will prove to be the mouth of a channel through the continent. He postpones the exploration until the next summer and returns to France. Meanwhile he claims the whole region for his king, under the title New France.

In 1535 Cartier sails and rows his longboats up the St Lawrence as far as an island occupied by Huron Indians. They make him welcome and take him to the highest point on their island. He names it Mont Réal, or Mount Royal.

Cartier returns for a third visit in 1541-2. An attempt to found a colony comes to nothing. But his discoveries prompt the interest of French fur traders in these regions. In 1611 Samuel de Champlain establishes the beginning of a settlement on the same Huron island, today the site of Montreal. Three years earlier Champlain has formed a settlement at Quebec. Thus Cartier's search for a way through to the east lays the foundation, unwittingly, for the French empire in the west.

New France: 1608-1671

The founder of Quebec in 1608, Samuel de Champlain, works ceaselessly to explore the region and to build up the French fur trade with the help of the Huron Indians. But progress is slow. By the time of Champlain's death, in 1635, the settlers in Quebec number fewer than 100. And this is in spite of the personal involvement of Richelieu.

Richelieu forms in 1627 the Company of New France, consisting of One Hundred Associates (of whom Champlain is one). The Associates pledge themselves to transport at least 200 settlers to the colony each year, but this target is never reached. By 1660 New France still has only about 2300 European inhabitants (Boston at the time has a larger population).

In these circumstances the French fur traders find it very hard to get their wares to the St Lawrence, particularly after the friendly Huron have been driven west by the Iroquois in 1648-50. In 1660 the settlers appeal to Louis XIV for help. He responds by turning New France into a royal province.

It will henceforth be ruled by a governor, with military, religous and educational support supplied by France. The new resolution is accompanied by a rapid increase in settlement. During the 1660s more than 3000 colonists are sent out, including a due proportion of girls of marriageable age.

The decade proves a turning point for New France. The level of population reaches a point where it is able to increase by natural growth (most of the inhabitants of the thriving French colony in the next century descend from this first major influx of settlers), and explorers now begin the process of pressing west and south from the Great Lakes.

In 1668 a Jesuit mission is established at the junction of the three western Great Lakes, in a settlement which the missionaries name Sault Sainte Marie. This pivotal point is selected in 1671 as an appropriate place from which to claim the entire interior of the American continent for the king of France.

Ohio and Mississippi: 1669-1682

The great central valley of north America, watered by the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is first visited by Europeans during the late 1660s and 1670s. This development is the direct result of the growth of the colony of New France during the 1660s. As the French explore through and around the Great Lakes, they begin also to move down the rivers running south from this region.

The nearest large river to the eastern lakes, and the first to receive attention, is the Ohio. Robert de La Salle explores the Ohio valley during 1669, in a journey which provides the basis for the later French claim to this area.

Four years later a much more dramatic expedition is undertaken by a trader, Louis Jolliet, and a Jesuit priest, Jacques Marquette (founder in 1668 of the mission at Sault Sainte Marie). With five companions, in 1673, they make their way round Lake Michigan in two birch bark canoes. From Green Bay they paddle up the Fox river, before carrying their canoes overland to the Wisconsin and thus on to the Mississippi.

They travel down the Mississippi as far as its junction with the Arkansas river, by which time they are convinced that it must flow into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Pacific. With this information they make their way back to Lake Michigan.

Inspired by their example, La Salle becomes determined to reach the mouth of the Mississippi. After two false starts, several disasters and a long struggle for funds, he finally achieves the task in 1682. At the mouth of the great river he claims possession for France of the entire region drained by the Mississippi and its many tributaries, naming it Louisiana - in honour of his monarch, Louis XIV.

It is some time before the southern region becomes a desirable colony, though there is a brief flurry of excitement with John Law's Mississippi Scheme of 1717 and the founding of New Orleans in 1718. But the Ohio valley is a region of great significance in the 18th century, being hotly disputed between the French and the British.

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