Chronicles of America 

The Seigneur of New France

From the beginning of the colony there ran in the minds of French officialdom the idea that the social order should rest upon a seigneurial basis. Historians have commonly attributed to Richelieu the genesis of New World feudalism, but without good reason, for its beginnings antedated the time of the great minister. The charter issued to the ill-starred La Roche in 1598 empowered him "to grant lands to gentlemen in the forms of fiefs and seigneuries," and the different viceroys who had titular charge of the colony before the Company of One Hundred Associates took charge in 1627 had similar powers. Several seigneurial grants in the region of Quebec had, in fact, been made before Richelieu first turned his attention to the colony.

Nor was the adoption of this policy at all unnatural. Despite its increasing obsolescence, the seigneurial system was still strong in France and dominated the greater part of the kingdom. The nobility and even the throne rested upon it. The Church, as suzerain of enormous landed estates, sanctioned and supported it. The masses of the French people were familiar with no other system of landholding. No prolonged quest need accordingly be made to explain why France transplanted feudalism to the shores of the great Canadian waterway; in fact, an explanation would have been demanded had any other policy been considered. No one asks why the Puritans took to Massachusetts Bay the English system of freehold tenure. They took the common law of England and the tenure that went with it. Along with the fleur-de-lis, likewise, went the Custom of Paris and the whole network of social relations based upon a hierarchy of seigneurs and dependents.

The seigneurial system of land tenure, as all students of history know, was feudalism in a somewhat modernized form. During the chaos which came upon Western Europe in the centuries following the collapse of Roman imperial supremacy, every local magnate found himself forced to depend for existence upon the strength of his own castle, under whose walls he gathered as many vassals as he could induce to come. To these he gave the surrounding lands free from all rents, but on condition of aid in time of war. The lord gave the land and promised to protect his vassals, who, on their part, took the land and promised to pay for it not in money or in kind, but in loyalty and service. Thus there was created a close personal relation, a bond of mutual wardship and fidelity which bound liegeman and lord with hoops of steel. The whole social order rested upon this bond and upon the gradations in privilege which it involved in a sequence which became stereotyped. In its day feudalism was a great institution and one which shared with the Christian Church the glory of having made mediaeval life at all worth living. It helped to keep civilization from perishing utterly in a whirl of anarchy, and it enabled Europe to recover inch by inch its former state of order, stability, and law.

But, having done its service to humanity, feudalism did not quietly make way for some other system more suited to the new conditions. It hung on grimly long after the forces which had brought it into being ceased to exist, long after the growth of a strong monarchy in France with a powerful standing army had removed the necessity of mutual guardianship and service. To meet the new conditions the system merely changed its incidents, never its general form. The ancient obligation of military service, no longer needed, gave place to dues and payments. The old personal bond relaxed; the feudal lord became the seigneur, a mere landlord. The vassal became the "censitaire", a mere tenant, paying heavy dues each year in return for protection which, he no longer received nor required. In a word, before 1600 the feudal system had become the seigneurial system, and it was the latter which was established in the French colony of Canada.

In the new land there was reason to hope, however, that this system of social relations based upon landholding would soon work its way back to the vigor which it had displayed in mediaeval days. Here in the midst of an unfathomed wilderness was a small European settlement with hostile tribes on every hand. The royal arm, so strong in affording protection at home, could not strike hard and promptly in behalf of subjects a thousand leagues away. New France, accordingly must organize itself for defense and repel her enemies just as the earldoms and duchies of the crusading centuries had done. And that is just what the colony did, with the seigneurial system as the groundwork of defensive strength. Under stress of the new environment, which was not wholly unlike that of the former feudal days, the military aspects of the system revived and the personal bond regained much of its ancient vigor. The sordid phases of seigneurialism dropped into the background. It was this restored vitality that helped, more than all else, to turn New France into a huge armed camp which hordes of invaders, both white and red, strove vainly to pierce time after time during more than a full century.

The first grant of a seigneury in the territory of New France was made in 1623 to Louis Hebert, a Paris apothecary who had come to Quebec with Champlain some years before this date. His land consisted of a tract upon the height above the settlement, and here he had cleared the fields and built a home for himself. By this indenture feudalism cast its first anchor in New France, and Hebert became the colony's first patron of husbandry. Other grants soon followed, particularly during the years when the Company of One Hundred Associates was in control of the land, for, by the terms of its charter, this organization was empowered to grant large tracts as seigneuries and also to issue patents of nobility. It was doubtless assumed by the King that such grants would be made only to persons who would actually emigrate to New France and who would thus help in the upbuilding of the colony, but the Company did not live up to this policy. Instead, it made lavish donations, some of them containing a hundred square miles or more, to directors and friends of the Company in France who neither came to the colony themselves nor sent representatives to undertake the clearing of these large estates. One director took the entire Island of Orleans; others secured generous slices of the best lands on both shores of the St. Lawrence; but not one of them lifted a finger in the way of redeeming these huge concessions from a state of wilderness primeval. The tracts were merely held in the hope that some day they would become valuable. Out of sixty seigneuries which were granted by the Company during the years from 1632 to 1663 not more than a half-dozen grants were made to "bona fide" colonists. At the latter date the total area of cleared land was scarcely four thousand "arpents".


Any of various French units of land measurement, especially one used in parts of Canada and the southern United States and equal to about 0.4 hectare (0.85 acre).

[French, from Old French, from Latin arepennis, half acre.]

Source: American Heritage Dictionary at

With the royal action of 1663 which took the colony from the Company and reconstructed its government, the seigneurial system was galvanized at once with new energy. The uncleared tracts which the officials of the Company had carved out among themselves were declared to be forfeited to the Crown and actual occupancy was held to be, for the future, the essential of every seigneurial grant. A vigorous effort was made to obtain settlers, and with considerable success, for in the years 1665-1667 the population of the colony more than doubled. Nothing was left undone by the royal authorities in securing and transporting emigrants. Officials from Paris scoured the provinces, offering free passage to Quebec and free grants of land upon arrival. The campaign was successful, and many shiploads of excellent colonists, most of them hardy peasants from Normandy, Brittany, Perche, and Picardy, were sent during these banner years.

On their arrival at Quebec the incoming settlers were taken in hand by officials and were turned over to the various seigneurs who were ready to provide them with lands and to help them in getting well started. If the newcomer happened to be a man of some account at home, and particularly if he brought some money with him, he had the opportunity to become a seigneur himself. He merely applied to the intendant, who was quite willing to endow with a seigneury any one who appeared likely to get it cleared and ready for future settlers. In this matter the officials, following out the spirit of the royal orders, were prone to err on the side of liberality. Too often they gave large seigneurial grants to men who had neither the energy nor the funds to do what was expected of a seigneur in the new land.

As for extent, the seigneuries varied greatly. Some were as large as a European dukedom; others contained only a few thousand "arpents". There was no fixed rule; within reasonable limits each applicant obtained what he asked for, but it was generally understood that men who had been members of the French "noblesse" before coming to the colony were entitled to larger areas than those who were not. In any case little attention was paid to exact boundaries, and no surveys were made. In making his request for a seigneury each applicant set forth what he wanted, and this he frequently did in such broad terms as, "all lands between such-and-such a river and the seigneury of the Sieur de So-and-So." These descriptions, rarely adequate or accurate, were copied into the patent, causing often hopeless confusion of boundaries and unneighborly squabbles. It was fortunate that most seigneurs had more land than they could use; otherwise there would have been as many lawsuits as seigneuries.

The obligations imposed upon the seigneurs were not burdensome. No initial payment was asked, and there were no annual rentals to be paid to the Crown. Each seigneur had to render the ceremony of fealty and homage to the royal representative at Quebec. Each was liable for military service, although that obligation was not written into the grant. When a seigneury changed owners otherwise than by inheritance in direct succession, a payment known as the "quint" (being, as the name connotes, one-fifth of the reported value) became payable to the royal treasury, but this was rarely collected. The most important obligation imposed upon the Canadian seigneur, and one which did not exist at all in France, was that of getting settlers established upon his lands. This obligation the authorities insisted upon above all others. The Canadian seigneur was expected to live on his domain, to gather dependents around him, to build a mill for grinding their grain, to have them level the forest, clear the fields, and make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. In other words, the Canadian seigneur was to be a royal immigration and land agent combined. He was not given his generous landed patrimony in order that he should sit idly by and wait for the unearned increment to come.

Many of the seigneurs fulfilled this trust to the letter. Robert Giffard, who received the seigneury of Beauport just below Quebec, was one of these; Charles Le Moyne, Sieur de Longueuil, was another. Both brought many settlers from France and saw them safely through the years of pioneering. Others, however, did no more than flock to Quebec when ships were expected, like so many real estate agents explaining to the new arrivals what they had to offer in the way of lands fertile and well situated. Still others did not even do so much, but merely put forth one excuse after another to explain why their tracts remained without settlements at all. From time to time the authorities prodded these seigneurial drones and threatened them with the forfeiture of their estates; but some of the laggards had friends among the members of the Sovereign Council or possessed other means of warding off action, so that final decrees of forefeiture were rarely issued. Occasionally there were seigneurs whose estates were so favorably situated that they could exact a bonus from intending settlers, but the King very soon put a stop to this practice. By the Arrets of Marly in 1711 he decreed that no bonus or "prix d'entree" should be exacted by any seigneur, but that every settler was to have land for the asking and at the rate of the annual dues customary in the neighborhood.

At this date there were some ninety seigneuries in the colony, about which we have considerable information owing to a careful survey which was made in 1712 at the King's request. This work was entrusted to an engineer, Gedeon de Catalogne, who had come to Quebec a quarter of a century earlier to help with the fortifications. Catalogne spent two years in his survey, during which time he visited practically all the colonial estates. As a result he prepared and sent to France a full report giving in each case the location and extent of the seigneury, the name of its owner, the nature of the soil, and its suitability for various uses, the products, the population, the condition of the people, the provisions made for religious instruction, and various other matters.[1] With the report he sent three maps, one of which has disappeared. The others show the location of all seigneuries in the regions of Quebec and Three Rivers.

[Footnote 1: This report was printed for the first time in the author's "Documents relating to the Seigniorial Tenure in Canada" (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1908).]

From Catalogne's survey we know that before 1712 nearly all the territory on both shores of the St. Lawrence from below Quebec to above Montreal had been parceled into seigneuries. Likewise the islands in the river and the land on both sides of the Richelieu in the region toward Lake Champlain had been allotted. Many of the seigneuries in this latter belt had been given to officers of the Carignan-Salieres regiment which had come out with Tracy in 1665 to chastise the Mohawks. After the work of the regiment had been finished, Talon suggested to the King that it be disbanded in Canada, that the officers be persuaded to accept seigneuries, and that the soldiers be given lands within the estates of their officers. The Grand Monarque not only assented but promised a liberal money bonus to all who would remain. Accordingly, more than twenty officers, chiefly captains or lieutenants, and nearly four hundred men, agreed to stay in New France under these arrangements.

Here was an experiment in the system of imperial Rome repeated in the New World. When the empire of the Caesars was beginning to give way before the oncoming Goths and Huns, the practice of disbanding the legions on the frontier so that they might settle there and form an iron ring against the invaders was adopted and served its purpose for a time. It was from these "praedia militaria" that Talon got the idea which he now transmitted to the French King with the suggestion that "the practice of these sagacious and warlike Romans might be advantageously followed in a land which, being so far away from its sovereign, must trust for existence to the strength, of its own arms." In keeping with the same precedent, Talon located the military seigneuries in that section of the colony where they would be most useful as a barrier against the enemy; that is to say, he placed them in the colony's most vulnerable region. This was the area along the Richelieu from Lake Champlain to its confluence with the St. Lawrence at Sorel. It was by this route that the Mohawks had already come more than once on their errands of massacre, and it was by this portal that the English were likely to come if they should ever attempt to overwhelm New France by an overland assault. The region of the Richelieu was therefore made as strong against incursion as this colonizing measure could make it.

All who took lands in this region, whether seigneurs or habitants, were to assemble in arms at the royal call. Their uniforms and muskets they kept for service, and never during subsequent years was such a call without response. These military settlers and their sons after them were only too ready to rally around the royal "oriflamme" at any opportunity. It was from the armed seigneuries of the Richelieu that Hertel de Rouville, St. Ours, and others quietly slipped forth and leaped with all the advantage of surprise upon the lonely hamlets of outlying Massachusetts or New York. How the English feared these "gentilshommes" let their own records tell, for there these French colonials put many a streak of blood and fire.

But not all of the seigneuries were settled in this way, and it was well for the best interests of the colony that they were not. Too often the good soldier made only an indifferent yeoman. First in war, he was last in peace. The task of hammering spears into ploughshares and swords into pruning-hooks was not altogether to his liking. Most of the officers gradually grew tired of their role as gentlemen of the wilderness, and eventually sold or mortgaged their seigneuries and made their way back to France. Many of the soldiers succumbed to the lure of the western fur traffic and became "coureurs-de-bois". But many others stuck valiantly to the soil, and today their descendants by the thousand possess this fertile land.

What were the obligations of the settler who took a grant of land within a seigneury? On the whole they were neither numerous nor burdensome, and in no sense were they comparable with those laid upon the hapless peasantry in France during the days before the great Revolution. Every habitant had a written title-deed from his seigneur and the terms of this deed were explicit. The seigneur could exact nothing that was not stipulated therein. These title-deeds were made by the notaries, of whom there seem to have been plenty in New France; the census of 1681 listed no fewer than twenty-four of them in a population which had not yet reached ten thousand. When the deed had been signed, the notary gave one copy to each of the parties; the original he kept himself. These scribes were men of limited education and did not always do their work with proper care, but on the whole they rendered useful service.

The deed first set forth the situation and area of the habitant's farm. The ordinary extent was from one hundred to four hundred "arpents", usually in the shape of a parallelogram with a narrow frontage on the river, and extending inland to a much greater distance. Every one wanted to be near the main road which ran along the shore; it was only after all this land had been taken up that the incoming settlers were willing to have farms in the "second range" on the uplands away from the stream. At any rate, the habitant took his land subject to yearly payments known as the "cens et rentes". The amount was small, a few sous together with a stated donation in grain or poultry to be delivered each autumn. Reckoned in terms of present-day rentals, the "cens et rentes" amounted to half a dozen chickens or a bushel of grain for each fifty or sixty acres of land. Yet this was the only payment which the habitants of New France regularly made in return for their lands. Each autumn at Michaelmas they gathered at the seigneur's house, their carryalls filling his yard. One by one they handed over their quota of grain or poultry and counted out their "cens" in copper coins. The occasion became a neighborhood festival to which the women came with the men. There was a general retailing of local gossip and a squaring-up of accounts among the neighbors themselves.

But while this was the only regular payment made by the habitant, it was not the only obligation imposed upon him. In New France the seigneur had the exclusive right of grinding all grain, and the habitants were bound by their title-deeds to bring their grist to his mill and to pay the legal toll for milling. This "banalite", as it was called, did not bear heavily upon the people; most of the complaints concerning it came rather from the seigneurs who claimed that the legal toll, which amounted to one-fourteenth of the grain, did not suffice to pay expenses. Some of the seigneurs did not build mills at all, but the authorities eventually moved them to action by ordering that those who did not provide mills at once would not be allowed to enforce the obligation of toll at any future date. Most of the seigneurial mills were crude, wind-driven affairs which made poor flour and often kept the habitants waiting for days to get it. Usually built in tower-like fashion, they were loopholed in order to afford places of refuge and defense against Indian attack.

Another seigneurial obligation was that of giving to the seigneur certain days of "corvee", or forced labor, in each year. In France this was a grievous burden; peasants were taken from their own lands at inconvenient seasons and forced to work for weeks on the seigneur's domain. But there was nothing of this sort in Canada. The amount of "corvee" was limited to six days at the most in any year, of which only two days could be asked for at seed-time and two days at harvest. The seigneur, for his part, did not usually exact even this amount, because the neighborhood custom required that he should furnish both food and tools to those whom he called upon to work for him.

Besides, there were various details of a minor sort incidental to the seigneurial system. If the habitant caught fish in the river, one fish in every eleven belonged to the seigneur. But seldom was any attention paid to this stipulation. The seigneur was entitled to take firewood and building materials from the lands of his habitants if he desired, but he rarely availed himself of this right. On the morning of every May Day the habitants were under strict injunction to plant a Maypole before the seigneur's house, and this they never failed to do, because the seigneur in return was expected to dispense hospitality to all who came. Bright and early in the morning the whole community appeared and greeted the seigneur with a salvo of blank musketry. With them they carried a tall fir-tree, pulled bare to within a few feet of the top where a tuft of green remained. Having planted this Maypole in the ground, they joined in dancing and a "feu de joie" in the seigneur's honor, and then adjourned for cakes and wine at his table. There is no doubt that such good things disappeared with celerity before appetites whetted by an hour's exercise in the clear spring air. After drinking to the seigneur's health and to the health of all his kin, the merry company returned to their homes, leaving behind them the pole as a souvenir of their homage. That the seigneur was more than a mere landlord such an occasion testified.

The seigneurs of New France had the right to hold courts for the settlement of disputes among their tenantry, but they rarely availed themselves of this privilege because, owing to the sparseness of the population in most of the seigneuries, the fines and fees did not produce enough income to make such a procedure worth while. In a few populous districts there were seigneurial courts with regular judges who held sessions once or twice each week. In some others the seigneur himself sat in judgment behind the living-room table in his own home and meted out justice after his own fashion. The Custom of Paris was the common law of the land, and all were supposed to know its provisions, though few save the royal judges had any such knowledge. When the seigneur himself heard the suitors, his decision was not always in keeping with the law but it usually satisfied the disputants, so that appeals to the royal courts were not common. These latter tribunals, each with a judge of its own, sat at Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal. Their procedure, like that of the seigneurial courts, was simple, free from chicane, and inexpensive. A lawsuit in New France did not bring ruinous costs. "I will not say," remarks the facetious La Hontan, "that the Goddess of Justice is more chaste here than in France, but at any rate, if she is sold, she is sold more cheaply. In Canada we do not pass through the clutches of advocates, the talons of attorneys, and the claws of clerks. These vermin do not as yet infest the land. Every one here pleads his own cause. Our Themis is prompt, and she does not bristle with fees, costs, and charges."

Throughout the French period there was no complaint from the habitants concerning the burdens of the seigneurial tenure. Here and there disputes arose as to the exact scope and nature of various obligations, but these the intendant adjusted with a firm hand and an eye to the general interest. On the whole, the system rendered a highly useful service, by bringing the entire rural population into close and neighborly contact, by affording a firm foundation for the colony's social structure, and by contributing greatly to the defensive unity of New France. So long as the land was weak and depended for its very existence upon the solidarity of its people, so long as the intendant was there to guide the system with a praetorian hand and to prevent abuses, so long as strength was more to be desired than opulence, the seigneurial system served New France better than any other scheme of landholding would have done. It was only when the administration of the country came into new and alien hands that Canadian seigneurialism became a barrier to economic progress and an obsolete system which had to be abolished.

Back to: French Exploration of America