The First French Settlement in Canada

Fishermen from Normandy, Britany, the Basque country, who came ashore in Acadia during the summer months to dry their fish, found that they could carry on profitable trade with the Indians, exchanging axes, knives, pots and cloth for furs. I that epoch, only the rich men in Paris could afford a beaver robe, that could be bartered for an axe or a knife.With such profits possible, many fishermen and their backers turned to the fur trade, which was not only far more profitable but also easier to carry out.

Such a lucrative trade also attracted the attention of some gentlemen of the court who had influence with the king. The king had the power to grant monopolies, the sole right to trade in certain commodities, but the monopolies were granted in return for favours rendered to the crown of France.

Aymar de Chastes, commander of the order of Saint-John, had been a supporter of Henry IV during his battles to gain the throne of France, so it was to him that the king first gave a patent to settle a colony in what we know today as Canada in return for the monopoly of the fur trade.

Aymar de Chastes formed thus a corporation for the purpose of exploiting the fur trade, and he recruited Samuel de Champlain, a geographer, to make a survey of the New World and determine the best place for a fur trading colony.

Among the first members of the corporation was a shrewd sea captain, Francois Grave, Sieur du Pont, who with Pierre Chauvin had established a short-lived colony at Tadoussac in 1600. It was therefore to this area that Francois du Pont directed the expedition, where it arrived on May 24, 1603.

The expedition continued up the Saint Lawrence to Quebec, making contacts with the Indians along the way. It sailed back for France where it arrived on August 16,1603, only to learn that their backer, Aymar de Chastes, had passed away a few weeks earlier.

Samuel de Champlain prevailed then upon Henry IV to find another nobleman to undertake a settlement in America.

The king's choice fell upon Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Monts, governor of the city of Pons. De Monts, a Huguenot, had also been with Chauvin at Tadoussac. He was a nobleman of some means, having married a wealthy young woman.

Pierre du Gua, Sieru de Monts was also practical and shrewd, and apart from his own personal fortune he acquired financial backing by forming a joint stock company among the merchants of Rouen, St. Malo, La Rochelle, and Saint Jean de Luz. Moreover, he was able to profit from the errors of judgment and from the sad experiences of the earlier explorers.
The failures of Roberval and Chauvin at Tadoussac showed that it was not wise to attempt a colony in those northern latitudes. The disastrous results that befell Ribaut and Laudonire in the southern latitudes proved that the French had to stay far enough north of the well established Spanish colonies.

De Monts carefully prepared his expedition to the New World. He first had notices posted in all the ports of France forbidding trade in the territory in which he had a monopoly. He then recruited 120 skilled workers and chartered two ships, one under the command of Pontgrave, while he was in charge of the other. With him were Champlain, Poutrincourt, Boulai, and the master of the vessel, Champdore. He brought along two Catholic priests and a Protestant minister.

The two ships sailed from La Have in March 1604 and arrived at Sable Island on May 1st. Pontgrave's ship went to Canso, while De Monts and Champlain explored the coast of Nova Scotia. Champlain mapped and described in detail the saw-tooth coast of the peninsula from La Heve to Saint Mary's Bay. Many places along the coast still retain the names given by Champlain.

The expedition left Saint Mary's Bay by the "Petit Passage" and entered the Bay of Fundy, then penetrated into the Annapolis Basin. Poutrincourt was especially struck by the advantages that the area offered for a settlement, and asked De Monts if he could have this area for a colony of his own, and De Monts agreed.

The expedition arrived at the mouth of the Saint John River on June 24th, 1604. A large river attracted the attention of the commander, and he named the river and the island Sainte-Croix. De Monts continued then his voyage of exploration as far as Cape Cod.

Having found no location which seemed to offer more advantages than Sainte-Croix Island, the expedition returned there and set about clearing the land and erecting buildings. Meanwhile Pontgrave and Poutrincourt had returned to France with one of the ships, laden with furs and some forty of the l20 men of the expedition.

An early winter proved the error of DeMonts' choice. The buildings were exposed to the chilly north winds, drifting ice prevented access to the mainland, and the island offered no game to supplement the steady diet of salt meat.

Scurvy made its appearance and thirty six of the seventy nine men died from it before spring arrived.

As soon as Pontgrave arrived from France with supplies and 40 more men, the company crossed over to the site selected the year before by Poutrincourt, bringing with them a good part of the buildings of Sainte-Croix. It was the first transportation of pre-fabricated buildings in eastern Canada.

The site chosen for the new establishment was opposite Goat Island in the Annapolis Basin, at a place now known as Lower Granville, just west of Annapolis Royal in Annapolis County, Nova Scotia. This site is considered to be the oldest French settlement in North America.

The artisans reassembled the buildings brought from Sainte-Croix in the form of a hollow square, with a gun platform jutting out from one corner, and a palisade to guard the door on the other.

Once the buildings were finished DeMonts and Poutrincourt returned to France, leaving Pontgrave and Champlain in charge of the colony during his absence, who began bargaining with the Micmac Indians for the skins of moose, beaver and other animals.

In the spring of 1606, Pontgrave had his craftsmen build a boat to set out on another voyage of exploration while waiting for DeMonts' to arrive with supplies. It was the first vessel built in Canada. However storms and rough seas drove them back, and they abandoned the venture. Meanwhile the colonists were anxiously awaiting supplies from France, as Spring was already past and there was no sign of DeMonts' ships.

Poutrincourt arrived in early summer, with fresh supplies and seeds to plant in the virgin soil of the shores of the Riviera Dauphin, the present Annapolis Basin and River. These were the first crops planted on Canadian soil, as far as can be authenticated.

Poutrincourt also brought with him Marco Lescarbot, lawyer and writer and a born leader, Daniel Hay, a surgeon, Louis Hebert, apothecary from Paris, and possibly Claude de La Tour and his son Charles, who was to play a large role in the early history of Acadia.

As one of DeMonts' mandates in his commission was to fully explore the territory over which he exercised a monopoly, and which the King of France claimed, the commander of the colony had instructed Poutrincourt to lead an expedition along the coast of Norembega (present day New England) to find an alternate place to settle. It must be remembered that Port Royal was to be Poutrincourt's domain.

Everything was looking well for the colony. The number of casualties due to scurvy had been reduced to four during the past winter. The land was fertile beyond expectations, and relations with the Indians in Acadia were most friendly. New settlers were expected to arrive with DeMonts ship.

But DeMonts' ship brought orders to abandon the colony and return with everything to France. DeMonts' enemies in France had succeeded in having his monopoly revoked, so that the colony was no longer feasible.  It was therefore "with great grief in their hearts," as Lescarbot says, that the colonists left Port Royal on August 11th 1607, and thus ended the first chapter in the tumultuous history of France's second Port Royal in North America.

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