Chronicles of America 

Louis XIV and New France

The progress of New France, as reported in these dispatches from Quebec, with their figures of slow growth in population, of poor crops, and of failing trade, of Indian troubles and dangers from the English, of privations at times and of deficits always, must often have dampened the royal hopes. The requests for subsidies from the royal purse were especially relentless. Every second dispatch contained pleas for money or for things which were bound to cost money if the King provided them: money to enable some one to clear his lands, or to start an industry, or to take a trip of exploration to the wilds; money to provide more priests, to build churches, or to repair fortifications; money to pension officials--the call for money was incessant year after year. In the face of these multifarious demands upon his exchequer, Louis XIV was amazingly generous, but the more he gave, the more the colony asked from him. Until the end of his days, he never failed in response if the object seemed worthy of his support. It was not until the Grand Monarch was gathered to his fathers that the officials of New France began to ply their requests in vain.

So much for the frame of government in the colony during the age of Louis XIV. Now as to the happenings during the decade following 1663. The new administration made a promising start under the headship of De Mezy, a fellow townsman and friend of Bishop Laval, who arrived in the autumn of 1663 to take up his duties as governor. In a few days he and the bishop had amicably chosen the five residents of the colony who were to serve as councilors, and the council began its sessions. But troubles soon loomed into view, brought on in part by Laval's desire to settle up some old scores now that he had the power as a member of the Sovereign Council and was the dominating influence in its deliberations. Under the bishop's inspiration the Council ordered the seizure of some papers belonging to Peronne Dumesnil, a former agent of the now defunct Company of One Hundred Associates. Dumesnil retorted by filing a "dossier" of charges against some of the councilors; and the colonists at once ranged themselves into two opposing factions--those who believed the charges and those who did not. The bishop had become the stormy petrel of colonial politics, and nature had in truth well fitted him for just such a role.

Soon, moreover, the relations between Mezy and Laval themselves became less cordial. For a year the governor had proved ready to give way graciously on every point; but there was a limit to his amenability, and now his proud spirit began to chafe under the dictation of his ecclesiastical colleague. At length he ventured to show a mind of his own; and then the breach between him and Laval widened quickly. Three of the councillors having joined the bishop against him, Mezy undertook a "coup d'etat", dismissed these councilors from their posts, and called a mass-meeting of the people to choose their successors. On the governor's part this was a serious tactical error. He could hardly expect that a monarch who was doing his best to crush out the last vestige of representative government in France would welcome its establishment and encouragement by one of his own officials in the New World. But Mezy did not live to obey the recall which speedily came from the King as the outcome of this indiscretion. In the spring of 1665 he was taken ill and died at Quebec. "He went to rest among the paupers," says Parkman, "and the priests, serenely triumphant, sang requiems over his grave."

But discord within its borders was not the colony's only trouble during these years. The scourge of the Iroquois was again upon the land. During the years 1663 and 1664 bands of Mohawks and Oneidas raided the regions of the Richelieu and penetrated to the settlement at Three Rivers. These "petites guerres" were making things intolerable for the colonists, and the King was urged to send out a force of troops large enough to crush the bothersome savages once for all. This plea met with a ready response, and in June, 1665, Prouville de Tracy with two hundred officers and men of the Regiment de Carignan-Salieres disembarked at Quebec. The remaining companies of the regiment, making a force almost a thousand strong, arrived a little later. The people were now sure that deliverance was at hand, and the whole colony was in a frenzy of joy.

Following the arrival of the troops came Courcelle, the new governor, and Jean Talon, who was to take the post of intendant. These were gala days in New France; the whole colony had caught the spirit of the new imperialism. The banners and the trumpets, the scarlet cloaks and the perukes, the glittering profusion of gold lace and feathers, the clanking of swords and muskets, transformed Quebec in a season from a wilderness village to a Versailles in miniature. But there was little time for dress parades and affairs of ceremony. Tracy had come to give the Iroquois their "coup de grace", and the work must be done quickly. The King could not afford to have a thousand soldiers of the grand army eating their heads off through the long months of a Canadian winter.

The work of getting the expedition ready, therefore, was pushed rapidly ahead. Snowshoes were provided for the regiment, provisions and supplies were gathered, and in January, 1666, the expedition started up the frozen Richelieu, traversed Lake Champlain, and moved across to the headwaters of the Hudson. It was a spectacle new to the northern wilderness of America, this glittering and picturesque cavalcade of regulars flanked by troops of militiamen and bands of fur-clothed Indians moving on its errand of destruction along the frozen rivers. But the French regular troops were not habituated to long marches on snowshoes in the dead of winter; and they made progress so slowly that the Dutch settlers of the region had time to warn the Mohawks of the approach of the expedition. This upset all French plans, since the leaders had hoped to fall upon the Mohawk villages and to destroy them before the tribesmen could either make preparations for defense or withdraw southward. Foiled in this plan, and afraid that an early thaw might make their route of return impossible, the French gave up their project and started home again. They had not managed to reach, much less to destroy, the villages of their enemies.

But the undertaking was not an absolute failure. The Mohawks were astute enough to see that only the inexperience of the French had stood between them and destruction. Here was an enemy which had proved able to come through the dead of winter right into the regions which had hitherto been regarded as inaccessible from the north. The French might be depended to come again and, by reason of greater experience, to make a better job of their coming. The Iroquois reasoning was quite correct, as the sequel soon disclosed. In September of the same year the French had once again equipped their expedition, more effectively this time. Traveling overland along nearly the same route, it reached the country of the Mohawks without a mishap. The Indians saved themselves by a rapid flight to the forests, but their palisaded strongholds were demolished, their houses set afire, their "caches" of corn dug out and destroyed. The Mohawks were left to face the oncoming winter with nothing but the woods to shelter them. Having finished their task of punishment, Tracy and his regiment made their way leisurely back to Quebec.

The Mohawks were now quite ready to make terms, and in 1667 they sent a delegation to Quebec to proffer peace. Two raids into their territories in successive years had taught them that they could not safely leave their homes to make war against the tribes of the west so long as the French were their enemies. And the desire to dominate the region of the lakes was a first principle of Iroquois policy at this time. An armistice was accordingly concluded, which lasted without serious interruption for more than a decade. One of the provisions of the peace was that Jesuit missions should be established in the Iroquois territory, this being the usual way in which the French assured themselves of diplomatic intercourse with the tribes.

With its trade routes once more securely open, New France now began a period of marked prosperity. Tracy and his staff went back to France, but most of his soldiers remained and became settlers. Wives for these soldiers were sent out under royal auspices, and liberal grants of money were provided to get the new households established. Since 1664, the trade of the colony had been once more in the hands of a commercial organization, the Company of the West Indies, whose financial success was, for the time being, assured by the revival of the fur traffic. Industries were beginning to spring into being, the population was increasing rapidly, and the King was showing a lively interest in all the colony's affairs. It was therefore a prosperous and promising colony to which Governor Frontenac came in 1672.

Back to: French Exploration of America