New France was the name of the French colonial empire in North America. The coastal regions, claimed in the 1530s by Jacques Cartier, were gradually augmented by French explorers and fur traders. In a series of wars for control of North America (1689–1763), virtually all of New France was lost to the British, the final blow coming with the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). During the entire period of French control, only about 12,000 permanent settlers immigrated to New France, with concentrations in three regions: the fur-trading region along the St. Lawrence Seaway, known as Canada (see Canada—immigration survey and policy overview); the Atlantic settlements, known as Acadia; and the interior watershed, known as Louisiana. Despite limited settlement, French occupation led to a permanent French culture pattern in modern Quebec and a distinctive French influence in modern Louisiana.
During the 16th century, there was little interest in settling any part of New France. Cartier had observed of the rocky coast of Labrador, that this must have been “the land God gave to Cain.” In 1541, he and the seigneur de Roberval (Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval) attempted to establish the colony of Charlesbourg-Royal, near presentday Quebec City, but it was abandoned in the following year. Fishermen continued to ply the rich waters off Newfoundland, and merchants gradually developed a lucrative trade in furs with the Native Americans along the Atlantic and St. Lawrence coastal areas. The French government encouraged development by granting trade monopolies, but early settlements on the Magdalen Islands, Sable Island, Tadoussac, and St. Croix Island all failed.
Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent French settlement at Quebec in 1608, a fur-trading post that linked France with the vast interior regions of North America and formed the core of the Canada settlement. Along with the commercial impulse came missionaries. In 1642, the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal pour la conversion des Sauvages de la Nouvelle France founded Ville Marie, later known as Montreal. Administrative mismanagement, failure to secure settlers, and the constant threat from local native groups brought a complete reorganization of the government, which was brought under royal control in 1663. During the intendancy of Jean Talon (1663–72), new energy was brought to the governance of the region. A benevolent autocracy was established in which trade was diversified, western expansion was encouraged, and planned immigration was pursued. Through an agreement with the French West Indies Company, between 1663 and 1673, several thousand settlers arrived, most from Brittany and Île-de- France, though some were recruited from Holland, Portugal, and various German states. Among this wave of immigrants, however, were few families. Most were trappers, soldiers, churchmen, prisoners, and young indentured servants (see indentured servitude); by 1672, all plans for systematic immigration were stopped. After 1706, merchants from a number of European countries and their local agents were granted permission to do business in Canada, leading to a thriving trade in Quebec and Montreal. Indentured servants occasionally came, and soldiers who were stationed in the colony as a result of the ongoing conflict with Britain sometimes stayed on. The number of slaves was always small, perhaps 4,000 Native American and African slaves for the entire duration of New France. More than a thousand convicts were forcibly transported. Remarkably, from this miscellaneous and meager collection of 9,000 immigrants, the population of Canada swelled to 70,000 at the time of the Seven Years’ War.
In the 1630s, the French government had great hopes for establishing an outpost in Acadia to combat the rapidly growing population of the British colonies in New England. When a settlement plan for Nova Scotia foundered, the government offered little additional support. As a result, the small Acadian population was forced to become self-reliant, and many enjoyed closer commercial contacts with New England than with Canada. When Nova Scotia was ceded to Britain (1713) at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, France focused Acadian development on the almost uninhabited but strategically located Île Royale (later Cape Breton), where it founded Louisbourg. During the next 45 years, Louisbourg developed into an important commercial city and fishing port and boasted one of the strongest fortified posts in North America. Although numbering several thousand inhabitants by the mid-18th century, Louisbourg fell victim to the international rivalry between Britain and France. It was captured by Britain in 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) but returned at war’s end. It was seized again in 1758, during the Seven Years’ War. With formal capitulation to Britain in 1760, most of the French inhabitants either returned to Europe or migrated to Louisiana leaving only about a thousand settlers throughout Acadia.
French expansion into the Great Lakes and the interior waterways was spurred by the intrepid coureurs de bois (forest runners). Their restless search for new sources of furs and their native lifestyle, often taking Indian wives, greatly extended French commercial influence. Behind them came the explorers and churchmen. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Jesuit Jacques Marquette explored the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, and in 1682, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle followed the entire course of the river to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming for France all the lands drained by its tributaries and naming the region Louisiana, in honor of Louis XIV (r. 1648–1715). Only slowly did the French government follow. Louisiana was officially established as a colony in 1699. In order to meet the growing threat from Spain in the south and Britain on the Atlantic seaboard, France then built a string of forts from the Great Lakes along the interior waterways, including Natchitoches on the Red River (1714), the first permanent settlement, and New Orleans (1718) at the mouth of the Mississippi. Between 1712 and 1731, Louisiana was a proprietary colony, with exclusive trading rights and failed settlement schemes passing from one hand to another. It then reverted to royal control. Difficult to defend and producing disappointing revenues, Louisiana was secretly ceded to Spain in 1762. Between 1760 and 1790, about 4,000 French Acadians relocated to Louisiana.
New France suffered from several problems that made its existence as a French outpost problematic. Foremost was a lack of settlers. Despite establishment of the powerful Compagnie de la Nouvelle France in 1627 with royal support, it was difficult to find settlers who wished to immigrate to a cold and distant land. As late as 1663, the population was only about 3,000. By 1700, the European population of New France was still only 15,000. Also, the French government paid little attention to New France, finding it relatively easy to control according to mercantilistic principles, as virtually all trade had to come through the St. Lawrence and Quebec. These weaknesses came together during the 18th century in the developing contest with Britain for control of North America. Although France’s army in Europe was superior, the king sent few troops to America. Left to defend themselves, French trading companies were at a severe disadvantage. When the Seven Years’ War commenced, New France’s population was only 75,000, compared to 1.2 million in Britain’s various colonies. In 1763, France signed the Treaty of Paris, handing over New France east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain. In doing so, 80,000 French-speaking Canadians became British subjects.