French and Innu in Early Quebec

Samuel de Champlain map of Quebec

1612 Map of New France by Samuel de Champlain

Some thoughts on early French and Innu ancestors, on reading Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

I was surprised to learn that the primary Indigenous nation at the Quebec settlement in 1620 (later, Quebec City) were the Montagnais (Innu.) I had thought they had been mostly living further downriver and inland. But the Quebec settlement was one of the summer dwelling places in their vast territory along the St. Lawrence, where they fished, gathered herbs and berries, and traded with their neighbors for corn and tobacco.

In the early days of the settlement, the Innu, along with the Huron (Wendat) from further west, and other Algonquin tribes, were the main trading partners of the French.  Beaver pelts were the primary export from the colony.  Interestingly, the French especially valued the used pelts–those having been worn for a few years–after the longer hairs had worn off, because the French used the shorter hairs to felt for popular hats back in Europe. So what a great opportunity!  The Innu could trade the pelts they were about to discard, for copper kettles, metal tools, firearms, blankets, and food.

In the early days of the settlement, hundreds of canoes would arrive each summer, bringing furs for the annual trade. The French settlers had become part of earlier trading patterns. (The French made the choice to ally with the Huron and Montagnais against the Iroquois, and those earlier rivalries were exacerbated by competition to control the beaver trade. The Iroquois had allied with the English and the Dutch.)

But beginning in the 1630s, as in so many other places on this continent, diseases from the Europeans proved decimating for the Native peoples who had no natural immunity to them. Measles, smallpox, plague. The Huron/Wendat lost 50% of their people, and losses were said to be similar among the Montagnais/Innu. That, combined with increasing hostilities with the Iroquois, caused the remaining Innu eventually to go further downstream or inland.

French colonization took a different shape from English colonization.  There was more interaction with–and valuing of–Indigenous peoples as trading partners and allies. But an underlying driving force of this colonization was the desire of French Catholics to convert the Indigenous people to Christianity, to “save their souls,” which for them was inextricably linked with their also adopting French customs and lifestyles.  The Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns settled in Quebec with a special call to this mission.

Native people were seen as “savages” who must be “civilized.” The French colonizers would send a few people to live among the tribes to learn their languages and customs. They invited Native people to send their children to be educated, and a few did send their children to the Ursuline school. There were many positive connections between the two groups. The Indigenous people were interested in the French, they shared a love of pageantry and celebration, they valued the trade, but ultimately and unsurprisingly, most were unlikely to give up their own ways for the ways of the French during these years.

More later on their different cultural strategies to survive the hard winters…

Montagnais as seen by Champlain detail

Detail from the map–Champlain’s drawing of Montagnais/Innu people.