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Wolfe and Montcalm
Chapter II Physiognomy of New France


MONTCALM was greatly interested in his visit to the little city of Quebec, which already occupied so prominent a place in the history of New France. Everything was new to him in this New World: its society, so young as compared with that which he had left, and nature, herself, so wild and so grand as compared with the soft, sunny fields, vineyards and smiling landscapes of France. The limited area enclosed within the walls of Quebec swarmed with soldiers, militiamen and Red Skins, who were being hastened to the frontier to meet the enemy. The gathering was as weird in its costumes as in its manners. With his usual activity the marquis had soon carefully visited both the city and the ramparts. M. de Longueuil and the intendant who accompanied him indicated the principal points of interest, the chateau St. Louis, whose stern and imposing mass of masonry dominated the crest of the cape; and at its foot the Lower Town—the principal centre of business and of shipping. Up from the heart of the narrow and tortuous streets rose the steeples of the churches of Notre Dame, of the Jesuits, of the R^collets, the seminary, the bishop's palace, the Ursuline convent, the ruins of the Hotel-Dieu, destroyed by fire the previous year, and farther away, in the valley of the St. Charles the monastery of the General Hospital; finally at the foot of the cliff the intendant's palace. All indicated, at a glance, that this was in very truth, the heart of New France. The three palaces of the governor, the intendant, and the bishop, were the visible expression of that triple power which radiated from Quebec to the very extremities of this immense continent. Within the walls alone five churches, three monasteries, a college, and a seminary illustrated the important part played by Catholicism in its progress. The colony consisted only of two long-drawn-out parishes ranged one on either side of the St. Lawrence. Beyond it in all directions, its mantle of verdure covering mountains, plains and valleys, stretched the vast, primeval forest, with its lakes, its swamps, its numberless rivers, their cataracts roaring night and day; with its myriads of babbling brooks beneath the overhanging foliage; with its bare or moss grown rocks and headlands, uplifting their eternal foreheads to the winds or snows, the sunshine or the rain, affording safe retreats for the wild beasts of the woods and for the still wilder native tribes.

These tribes were scattered almost everywhere. To the east lived the Etchemins, the Abdnaquis, the Micmacs, implacable enemies of the English; to the south, the five Iroquois nations, traditional foes of the French, but at that time undecided, and merely seeking for an occasion to range themselves on one side or the other; farther away were the Chaouenons, the Miamis, the Cherokees; and towards the great West, the Poutdotamis, the Otta-was, the Illinois, the Sakis, and a multitude of other indigenous tribes almost all friendly to the French. I have indicated elsewhere the reason for this sympathy ; it suffices to recall here, in passing, that English colonization was founded upon an altogether different principle from that of the French: egoism was its leading motive ; and this distinction Indian sagacity had not failed to discern.

Canada presented only three vulnerable points: the waterways of the St. Lawrence, of Lake Champ-lain, and of the Great Lakes. The citadel of Louis-bo urg guarded the entrance to the Gulf; Fort St. Frdddric protected the head of. Lake Champlain, and Fort Frontenac, the outlet of the Great Lakes. The upper country which extended backwards for a distance then unknown, afforded a vast field for the exploits of the coureurs de bois. There was formed that hardy race of pioneers from among whose ranks came the most illustrious discoverers: the Joliets, the Nicolas Perrots, the Nicolets, the La Vérendryes and so. many others. An indomitable, undisciplined race, it was often cruel from having witnessed such nameless inhumanity.

Clothed in Indian costume, accustomed to great fatigue, knowing all the forest trails as well as the Indians themselves, often allied to them by more or less regular marriages, and possessing a great influence among their tribes, the courcurs de bois were of inestimable use in times of war. They would arrive at certain periods of the year, usually accompanied by Indians, paddling, like them, their birchbark canoes, and singing Canadian songs. These lost children of civilization had acquired the habits of their newly-found companions, becoming as proud and careless as themselves, their arms, hands and breasts tattooed, their muscles dry and hard, their keen eyes lighting up their almost copper-coloured features. They came from the depths of the forest, where they had filled their boats with packages of furs bought from the Indians. Brave, often to rashness, but not understanding braveness as Europeans do, they fought in the manner of savages, that is to say they practised a guerilla warfare. To retire was not to them a flight or a disgrace, but simply a means for attaining a better position. Their lack of discipline was a danger to regular armies, which they exposed to confusion and a" breaking of the ranks, and thus their services were most highly esteemed upon expeditions of discovery and operations involving stealth and surprise.

From the time that Champlain, the greatest of French discoverers, had first penetrated into the valley of the Great Lakes, these vast regions had become the domain of France. She had acquired a double right to them, that of first occupant, and that of a civilizing power, which in the eyes of reason and of right is the only positive justification for the invasion of a barbarous country.

In 1673 Joliet and Marquette had entrusted themselves to the unknown waters of the Mississippi, and had descended their mighty flood to Arkansas; La Salle had discovered its mouth and sounded its delta under a tropical sky in 1682. It was Frenchmen who upon perceiving from the heights of the Alleghanies the beautiful branch of the Mississippi whose gilded waters meander through the valley of the Ohio had exclaimed: La Belle Riviere, which thence became its first name. La Vérendrye had been the first to gaze upon the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. This was in 1743. Before the explorers had drawn the maps of this country missionaries had watered it with their blood. In the wildest and most distant villages a little cross might often be seen surmounting a cabin of bark, upon whose threshold would appear the black robe of the priest or the coarse mantle of some monk or friar.

To the eternal honour of France we may say with a Protestant historian: "Peaceful, benign, beneficent, were the weapons of this conquest. France aimed to subdue, not by the sword, but by the cross ; not to overwhelm and crusK the nations she invaded, but to convert, to civilize and embrace them among her children." And again: "The French colonists acted towards the inconstant and sanguinary race who claimed the sovereignty of this land in a spirit of gentleness that affords a striking contrast with the cruel rapacity of the Spaniards and the harshness of the English. The scheme of English colonization made no account of the Indian tribes. In the scheme of French colonization they were all in all." The French wrought in the spirit of their great leader, Champlain, who was often heard to say that the saving of a soul was worth more than the conquest of an empire.

The neighbouring colonies were born and had grown up in a spirit of hostility or at least of indifference in regard to the Indians. They had remained shut in on the east side of the mountains which separated them from us, so little had interest and ambition directed their eyes and their footsteps in the direction of the setting sun. It had taken them more than a century to decide to venture towards the west, for their traditional conduct towards the aborigines had rendered their approach of them as difficult as it was easy to the French. Had the experience of a century taught them anything ? Did they bring to the Indians any benefit, any lofty idea, any civilization? No, nothing of the kind. Traffic and spirituous liquors were all that they offered them. But they were as rich in these as they were destitute of everything else, and it is easy to understand the demoralization which accompanied these new invaders.

In a few years, thanks to their methods, they offered a formidable competition to the French traders, and attracted a good number of tribes, to whom they sold, at more advantageous terms, arms, ammunition, merchandise, and, in fact, everything with which they could tempt them.

In 1748 Canada was governed by an officer of marine, who lacked external grace, because of a bodily deformity, but who was extremely intelligent, well informed, active and of keen discernment, and who later gave good proof of his possession of these qualities by gaining a brilliant victory over the English off the island of Minorca. The Count de la Galissonniére strongly urged the attention of his government to the danger which threatened New France from the other side of the Alleghanies, and to the necessity of protecting it by a system of forts, calculated at the same time to connect it with Louisiana.

New France bore a striking analogy to the two great rivers which traversed it, whose sources although they approached each other never met. In proportion as the distance was increased from its points of support—one at the north, at the entrance of the St. Lawrence, and the other at the south, at the mouth of the Mississippi—its power decreased, and disappeared altogether before a point of union was reached. The colony would be cut in two unless the plans of La Galissonniere were speedily executed, and this was a matter that claimed the serious attention of the following administrations.

A chain of forts was constructed at an enormous cost at the principal points where the enemy might issue. Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Niagara River; Fort Duquesne at the junction of the river Alleghany with the Ohio; Forts Machault, Le Bceuf and Presqu'ile, which established communication with Lake Erie ; Fort Miami, on the river of the same name ; Fort Vincennes, on the Ouabache; and finally, on the Mississippi, Fort de Chartres, the only one of them all which was worthy the name of fort, built in stone with four bastions, and impregnable except with artillery. Before the formal declaration of the war which had brought Montcalm to Canada, three famous conflicts had taken place on the undecided frontiers of the two colonies ; one at Fort Necessity, where Jumonville had been killed; another near Fort Duquesne, where General Braddock had paid for his proud temerity with his life ; the third at the head of Lake George, where Baron de Dies-kau had been defeated, wounded and taken prisoner. The detailed explanation of these events had absorbed the attention of Montcalm from the time of his first conversations at Quebec, because it gave him the key of the situation. He had listened to the recital of the facts from the mouths of the French and Canadian officers who had taken part in one or the other of these actions. The marquis had observed with no less interest the composition of the colonial society, whose charm and originality he had heard praised, and which he promised to avail himself of in order to relieve the irksomeness of his exile.

This little world was a miniature of French society, having like it its various strata and its well-worked degrees. At the top were the nobility of sword or of robe: the seigneurs, the public officials, the higher clergy. In the second rank came the landed gentry and the traders, to which might be added the clergy of the country parts; and finally in the third class were the common people or habitants the large body of farmers which then as now had nothing in common with the French peasant, particularly with the type of former times. Conscious of his importance and of his dignity, the habitant, to quote an expression of Montcalm's, "lives like the small gentry of France."

The privileges of the seigneurs being less in Canada than in France, and the tenants or holders of the conceded seigniorial lands (censitaires) being more independent than in the motherland, there was neither the same gulf nor yet the same prejudices between them: the different classes lived, as a rule, in perfect harmony. Those who could boast of education were limited in number, but what these enjoyed of it was indeed excellent. This class included those who had taken the classical course at the Jesuit College in Quebec, or who had studied in Europe. The women were better educated than the men, thanks to the greater opportunities for study which they enjoyed, in the various convents scattered through both town and country. Although there were parish schools the masses of the people did not know how to read or write. It might be said that their instruction was confined to the teaching that they received from the pulpit.

The spirit of revolt against all law, divine and human, which was then finding expression in France, had not. reached the colony. Both civil and religious authority were acknowledged without questioning. This authority was concentrated in three hands: that of the governor, that of the intendant and that of the bishop, who generally gave each other a loyal and mutual support. The result was a strong unity of action, which in times of war was of inappreciable value, and which explains the long resistance of Canada to an enemy infinitely superior in numbers and in resources of all kinds, but weakened by divisions.

This absolute system of government, so useful without the colony, was fatal to its internal concerns. It killed all initiative. It kept the people in a constant state of tutelage, and opened the door to many abuses. While upon the other side of the frontier the spirit of democracy prevailed to an exaggerated extent, here the monarchical regime degenerated into autocracy.

From the earliest days of the colony the people had been carefully excluded from public affairs; they had not understood their rights, nor aspired to the conquest of liberty. All spirit of independence was not smothered, however, in the bosom of the rude and valorous race. It has never been found possible so to restrain human nature that it cannot find an outlet in some manner. The egress here supplied was the forest, which presented openings on all sides in its thousands of mysterious pathways, with its wandering tribes, its freedom and deliverance from all restraint, and the attraction of its many adventures. For Canadian youth it had a special fascination, inspiring and cultivating their native love of travel. The most sanguine dispositions were unable to resist its allurements, and so went to swell the ranks of the army of woodsmen or coureurs de bois.


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