French colonisation of the Americas

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North America

The French established colonies across the New World in the 17th century. They were developed to export sugar and furs, among other products. Explorers and settlers from France settled in what is now Canada, the Mississippi Valley and along the Gulf coast, in what is now Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, founding the cities of Quebec, Montreal, Detroit, Michigan, Saint Louis, Missouri, Mobile, Alabama, Biloxi, Mississippi, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and New Orleans, Louisiana.

The first French attempt at colonisation was Fort Caroline in 1564, made by Huguenots. This colony was destroyed the next year by the Spanish from nearby Saint Augustine. The next attempt came in 1598, on Sable Island, southeast of present-day Nova Scotia. This colony went unsupplied, and the 12 survivors returned to France in 1605. The next, and first successful colony, was Acadia, founded in 1604, with the settlement of Saint Croix Island. Settlement of Acadia later centered around Port Royal, now Annapolis.

The French were very interested in the fur trade, and purchased fur from and formed alliances with Native American tribes, such as the Huron and Ottawa. They actively engaged in warfare with the traditional enemies of the Hurons and Ottawas, the Iroquois. French Jesuits also attempted to Christianize many native groups through the establishment of missions, such as Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.

French Huguenots established self-governing colonies beyond the control of the French state: for example, Huguenot refugees founded New Paltz, New York in the 1660's, part of a large Huguenot migration to the nominally Dutch New Netherlands. These Huguenots, let by Louis Dubois, formed an early self-governing unit called the duzine, made treaties with the local native Americans to purchase land from the Hudson River to the mountains, and otherwise prospered even after the English took control of the Hudson River and New York. (The village today boasts the oldest street in the United States with the original stone houses).

France once held vast possessions in North America, including the Mississippi and St. Lawrence river valleys, and the Great Lakes region. Quebec was founded in 1608, and Montreal in 1642. New France had 2500 settlers by 1666. The colony grew slowly, in part because religious minorities were not permitted to settle; New France was to be solely Roman Catholic. The first French attempt to colonise the Mississippi area was a failure.

Having explored the Mississippi Valley to its mouth, from the direction of Canada, in the North, in 1682, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle named the great central belt of territory Louisiane in honour of Louis XIV of France. In 1684, he left France with 4 ships and 300 colonists to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. The expedition was plagued by pirates, hostile Indians and poor navigation. They set up Fort Saint Louis, near Victoria, Texas. The colony lasted only until 1688, when local Indians massacred the 20 remaining adults, and took 5 children as captives. The colony of Louisiana was ultimately founded in 1699 and its capital, New Orleans, in 1718. France soon came into conflict with Great Britain, whose colonies bordered French colonies in several places. This led to the French and Indian Wars.

Following the French defeat in the Seven Years' War, the Treaty of Paris of February 10, 1763, divided French territory on the North American continent between the British and the Spanish. The sole exception was the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the Canadian coast, retained as a fishing outpost.

The French were able to briefly regain some of their former possessions in North America from the Spanish in 1800, during the Napoleonic Era, under the Treaty of San Ildefonse. However, France did not have the navy to resupply its North American holdings – the blockade of the French Empire was a key part of British strategy against Napoleon – and because France did not want its possessions to fall into the hands of the British, Napoleon sold this colonial Louisiana to the United States, a sale referred to as the Louisiana Purchase. The date of this was May 3, 1803 and the fee, 15 million dollars, a considerable sum for the young American state. However, the land was extensive – from New Orleans to Montana – and from British colonial days, French Louisiana had begun to seem a constraint on the potential for expansion beyond the Appalachians. The purchase opened the way for the 19th century settlers.

Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are France's only remaining possessions north of the Caribbean.

Caribbean islands

  • Haiti, called Saint-Domingue by the French, was first settled in 1625 with French rights confirmed by the Spanish in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. It became independent from France in 1804.
  • Guadeloupe, which includes the islands of Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, Les Saintes, La Désirade, Marie-Galante and Guadeloupe was settled by the French about 1635, after an unsuccessful Spanish attempt at colonisation. It remains a French overseas department. Guadeloupe and Martinique were captured by the British during the French and Indian War from 1759 to 1763. The French regained the islands at the end of the war by treaty, in exchange for all of Canada--a sign of the importance of the sugar trade in that era.
  • Saint Lucia was founded by the French in 1650. It changed hands between the British and French 14 times before 1814, after which it remained in British hands.
  • Dominica, called Dominique in French, was a French colony, until it was ceded to the British in 1763.
  • Tobago was a French colony before being captured by the British in 1762.
  • Saint Croix was a French possession from 1650 to 1733, when it was sold to Denmark.

South America

French Guiana was first settled by the French in 1604. It remains an overseas department of France. From 1555 to 1567, French Huguenots, under the leadership of vice-admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, made an attempt to establish the France Antarctique in Brazil, but were expelled. From 1612 to 1615, a new failed attempt was made in São Luís, Brazil.

See also


  • The French Founders of North America and Their Heritage, Sabra Holbrook, Atheneum, New York, 1976, hardback, ISBN 0-689-30490-0
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