Ridpath's History of the United States
Volume I


Chapter IV
The French in America

France was not slow to profit by the discoveries of Columbus. As early as 1504 the fishermen of Normandy and Brittany began to ply their vocation on the banks of Newfoundland. A map of the Gulf of St. Lawrence was drawn by a Frenchman in the year 1506. Two years later some Indians were taken to France; and in 1518 the attention of Francis I. ws turned to the colonization of the New World. Five years afterward a voyage of discovery and exploration was planned, and John Verrazzani, a native of Florence, was commissioned to conduct the expedition. The special object had in view was to discover a northwest passage to Asia.

In January, 1524, Verrazzani left the shores of Europe. His fleet consisted at first of four vessels; but three of them were damaged in a storm, and the voyage was undertaken with a single ship, called the Dolphin. For fifty days, through the buffetings of tempestuous weather, the courageous mariner held on his course, and on the 7th day of March discovered the mainland in the latitude of Wilmington. He finally anchored somehwere along the law sandy beach which stretches between the mouth of Cape Fear River and Pamlico Sound. Here he began a traffic with the natives. The Indians of this neighborhood were found to be a gentle and fimid sort of cretures, unsuspicious and confiding. A half-drowned sailor who was washed ashore by the surf was treated with great kindness, and as soon as opportunity offered, permitted to return to the ship.

After a few days the voyage was continued toward the north. The whole coast of New Jersey was explored, and the hills marked as containing minerals. The harbor of New York was entered, and its safe and spacious waters were noted with admiration. At Newport, Rhode Island, Verrazzani anchored for fifteen days, and a trade was again opened with the Indians. Before leaving the place the French sailors repaid the confidence of the natives by kidnapping a child and attempting to steal a defenseless Indian girl.

Sailing from Newport, Verrazzani continued his explorations northward. The long and broken line of the New England coast was traced with considerable care. The Indians of the north were wary and suspicious. They would buy neither ornaments nor toys, but were eager to purchase knives and weaons of iron. Passing to the east of Nova Scotia, the bold navigator reached Newfoundland in the latter part of May. In July he returned to France and published an account, still extant, of his great discoveries. The name of New France was now given to the whole country whose seacoast had been traced by the adventurous crew of the Dolphin.

Such was the distracted condition of France at this time, that another expedition was not planned for a period of ten years. In 1534, however, James Cartier, a seaman of St. Malo, in Brittany, made a new voyage to America. Two ships were fitted out for the enterprise, and after no more than twenty days of sailing under cloudless skies anchored on the 10th day of May off the coast of Newfoundland. Before the middle of July, Cartier had circumnavigated the island to the northward, crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the south of Anticosti, and entered the Bay of Chaleurs. Not finding, a he had hoped, a passage out of this bay westward, he changed his course to the north again, and ascended the coast as far as Gaspe Bay. Here, upon a point of land, he set up a cross bearing a shield with the lily of France, and proclaimed the French king monarch of the country. Pressing his way still farther northward, and then westward, he entered the St. Lawrence, and ascended the broad estuary until the narrowing banks made him aware that he was in the mouth of the river. Cartier, thinking it impracticable to pass the winter in the New World, now turned his prows toward France, and in thirty days anchored his ships in the harbor of St. Malo.

So great was the fame of Cartier's first voyage that another was planned immediately. Three good ships were provided, and quite a number of young noblemen joined the expedition. Colonization rather than discovery was now the inspiring motive. The sails were set by zealous and excited crews, and on the 19th of May the new voyage was begun. This time there was stormy weather, yet the passage to Newfoundland was made by the 10th of August. It was the day of St. Lawrence, and the name of that martyr was accordingly given to the gulf, and afterward to the noble stream which enteres it from the west. Sailing northward around Anticosti, the expedition proceeded up the river to the island of Orleans, where the ships were moored in a place of safety. Two Indians whom Cartier had taken with him to France in the previous year now gave information that higher up the river there was an important town on the island of Hochelaga. Proceeding thither in his boats, the French captain found it as the Indians had said. A beautiful village lay there at the foot of a high hill in the middle of the island. Climbing to the top of the hill, Cartier, as suggested by the scene around him, named the island and town Mont-Real. The country was declared to belong by right of discovery to the king of France; and then the boats dropped down the river to the ships. During this winter twenty-five of Cartier's men were sept off by the scurvy, a malady hitherto unknown in Europe.

With the opening of spring, preparations were made to return to France. The terrible winter had proved too much for French enthusiasm. The emblem of Catholicism, bearing the arms of France, was again planted in the soil of the New World, and the homeward voyage began; but before the ships had left their anchorage, the kindly king of the Hurons, who had treated Cartier with so much generosity, was decoyed on board and carried off to die. On the 6th day of July the fleet reached St. Malo in safety; but by the accounts which Cartier published on his return the French were greatly discouraged. Neither silver nor gold had been found on the banks of the St. Lawrence; and what was a new world good for that had not silver and gold?

Francis of La Roque, lord of Roberval, in Picardy, was the next to undertake the colonization of the countries discovered by the French. This nobleman, four years after Cartier's return from his second voyage, was commissioned by the court of France to plant a colony on the St. Lawrence. The man, however, who was chiefly relied on to give character and direction to the proposed colony was no other than James Cartier. He only seemed competent t conduct the enterprise with any promise of success. His name was accordingly added to the list, and he was honored with the office of chief pilot and captain-general of the expedition.

The next thing to be done was to find material for the colony. This was a difficult task. The French peasants and mechanics were not eager to embark for a country which promised nothing better than savages and snow. Cartier's honest narrative about the resources of New France had left no room for further dreaming. So the work of enlisting volunteers went on slowly, unti the government adopted the plan of opening the prisons of the kingdom and giving freedom to whoever would join the expedition. There was a rush of robbers, swindlers and murderers, and the lists were immediately filled. Only counterfeiters and traitors were denied the privilege of gaining their liberty in the New World.

In the latter part of May, 1841, five ships, under the immediate command of Cartier, left France, and soon reached the St. Lawrence. The expedition proceeded up the river to the preent site of Quebec, whee a fort was erected and named Charlesbourg. Here the colonists passed the winter. Cartier, offended because of the subordinate position which he held, was sullen and gloomy, and made no effort to prosecute discovereis which could benefit no one but the ambitious Roberval. The two leaders never acted in concert; and when La Roque, in June of the following year, arrived with immigrants and supplies, Cartier secretly sailed away with his part of the Squadron, and returned to Europe. Robervale was left in New France with three shiploads of criminals who could only be restrained by whipping and hanging. During the autumn some feeble efforts were made to discover a northern passage; the winter was long and severe, and spring was welcomed by the colonists chiefly for the opportunity which it gave them of returning to France. The enterprise undertaken with so much pomp had resulted in nothing. In the year 1549 Roberval, with a large company of emigrants, sailed on a second voyage, but the fleet was never heard of afterward.

A period of fifty years now elapsed before the French authorities again attempted to colonize America. Meanwhile, private enterprise and religious persecution had co-operated in an effort to accomplish in Florida and Carolina what the government had failed to accompllish on the St. Lawrence. About the middle of the sixteenth century Coligni, the Protestant admiral of France, formed the design of establishing in America a refuge for the persecuted Huguenots of his own country. In 1562 this liberal and influential minister obtained from the sovereign, Charles IX., the coveted privilege of planting a colony of Protestants in the New World. John Ribault, of Dieppe, a brave and experienced sailor, was selected to lead the Huguenots to the land of promise. Sailing in February, the company reached the coast of Florida at a point where three years later St. Augustine was founded. The River St. John's, called by the Spaniards the St. Matthew, was entered by the French and named the River of May. The vessels then continued northward along the coast until they came to the entrance of Port Royal; here it was determined to make the settlement. The colonists were landed on an island, and a stone engraved with the arms of their native land was set up to mark the place. A fort was erected, and in honor of Charles IX. named Carolina--a name which a century afterward was retained by the English and applied to the whole country from the Savannah River to the southern boundary of Virginia. In this fort Ribault left twenty-six men to keep possession, and then sailed back to France for additional emigrants and stores. But civil war was now raging in the kingdom, and it was quite impossible to procure either supplies or colonists. No re-enforcements were sent to Carolina, and in the following spring the men in the fort, discouraged with long waiting, grew mutinous, and killed their leader for attempting to control them. Then they constructed a rude brig and put to sea. After they had been driven about by the winds for a long time, they were picked up half-starved by an English ship and carried to the coast of France.

Coligni did not yet despair of success in what he had undertaken. Two years after the first attempt another colony was planned, and Laudonniere chosen leader. The character, however, of this second Protestant company was very bad. Many of them were abandoned men, of little industry and no prudence. The harbor of Port Royal was now shunned by the Huguenots, and a point on the River St. John's about fifteen miles west of where St. Augustine now stands was selected for the settlement. A fort was built here, and tings were going well until a part of the colonists, under the pretext of excaping from famine, contrived to get away with two ships. Instead of returning to France, as they had promised, they began to practice piracy in the adjacent seas, until they were caught, brought back, and justly hanged. The rest of the settlers, improvident and dissatisfied, were on the eve of breaking up the colony, when Ribault arrived with supplies of every sort, and restored order and content. It was at this time that the Spaniard Melendez, as already narrated, discovered the whereabouts of the Huguenots, and murdered the entire company.

It remained for Dominic de Gourges, a soldier of Gascony, to visit the Spaniards of St. Augustine with signal vengeance. This man fitted out three ships, mostly with his own means, and with only fifty daring seamen on board arrived in mid-winter on the coast of Florida. With this handful of soldiers he surprised successively three Spanish forts on the St. John's, and made prisoners of the inmates. Then, when he was unable to hold his position any longer, he hanged his leading captives to the branches of the trees, and put up this inscription to explain what he had done: "Not as Spaniards, but as murderers."

But the time had now come when a colony of Frenchmen should actually be established in America. In the year 1603 the sovereignty of the country from the latitude of Philadelphia to one degree north of Montreal was granted to De Monts. The items of chief importance in the patent which he received from the king were a monopoly of the fur-trade of the new country and religious freedom for Huguenot immigrants. De Monts, with two shiploads of colonists, left France early in March of 1604, and after a pleasant voyage reached the Bay of Fundy. The summer was spent in making explorations and in trafficking with the natives. De Monts seems to have been uncertain as to where he should plant his colony; but while in this frame of mind, Poutrincourt, the captain of one of the ships, being greatly pleased with a harbor which he had discovered on the northwest coast of Nova Scotia, asked and obtained a grant of the same, together with some beautiful lands adjacent, and he and a part of the crew went on shore. De Monts, with the rest of the colony, crossed to the west side of the bay, and began to build a fort on an island at the mouth of the St. Croix River. But in the following spring they abandoned this place, and returned to the harbor which had been granted to Poutrincourt. Here, on teh 14th day of November, 1605, the foundations of the first permanent French settlement in America was laid. the name of Port Royal was given t the harbor and the fort, and the whole country, including Nova Scotia, the surrounding islands, and the mainland as far south as the St. Croix River, was called Acadia.

Two years before the settlement was made at Port Royal, Samuel Champlain, one of the most eminent and soldierly men of his times, was commissioned by a company of Rouen merchants to explore the country of the St. Lawrence and establish a trading-post. The trders saw that a traffic in the furs which those regions so abundantly supplied was a surer road to riches than rambling about in search of gold and diamonds. Under this commission, Champlain crossed the ocean, entered the gulf, sailed up the river, and with remarkable prudence and good judgment selected the spot on which Quebec now stands as the site for a fort. In the autumn of 1603 he returned to France, and published and faithful account of his expedition.

In the year 1608, Champlain again visited America, and on the 3d of July in that year the foundations of Quebec were laid. In the following year he and two other Frenchmen joined a company of Huron and Algonquin Indians who were at war with the Iroquois of New York. While marching with this party of warriors, he ascended the Sorel River until he came to the long, narrow lake which he was the first white man to look upon, and which has ever since borne the name of its discoverer.

Champlain was a religious enthusiast, and on that account the development of his colony was for some time hindered. In 1612 the Protestant party came into power in France, and the great conde, the protector of the Protestants, became viceroy of the French empire in America. Now, for the third time, Champlain came to New France, and the success of the colony at Quebec was fully assured. Franciscan monks came over and began to preach among the Indians. These friars and the Protestants quarreled a good deal, and the settlement was much disturbed. A second time Champlain went with a war party against the Iroquois. His company was defeated, he himself wounded and obliged to remain all winter among the Hurons; but in the summer of 1617 he returned to the colony, in 1620 began to build, and four years afterward completed, the strong fortress of St. Louis. When the heavy bastions of this castle appeared on the high cliff above the town and river, the permanence of the French settlements in the valley of the St. Lawrence was no longer doubtful. To Samuel Champlain, more than to any other man--more than to the French government itself--the success of the North American colonies of France must be attributed.


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