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.




Ancestors & Colonization: Quebec

When I was exploring my German immigrant ancestors in the context of decolonization, I was struck by the feeling that they arrived after the major struggles of colonization in their part of the country.  For my dad’s family who arrived in the mid-1800s, it was a generation earlier that treaties were pressed upon the Indigenous peoples of those lands, who were forced to move further west or to Oklahoma.  In another branch of my family, my mom’s father was from Austria, and immigrated even later, via Canada, to Detroit in late 1915.

I wonder if these Germanic immigrants even thought about it, or if so, maybe it was like, “We just got here, we don’t have anything to do with those struggles you all had before.” Though, of course, the German farmers benefitted from those earlier actions, because now land was available for low prices. But it can leave a feeling of distant non-involvement, a sense that colonization wasn’t very much about my family.  My mom’s mother was also an immigrant to the United States, but her background is more complex, because she came from Quebec.

When I was younger, the very first ancestors I was curious about were those of my grandmother, born Yvonne Tremblay.  That intensified when I became a feminist, and wanted to learn about my motherline.  Plus, as I have written about elsewhere, she was “part Indian,” and I was curious about that. It turned out that Quebec province kept very good records, and I was able to learn a lot, even before the age of the internet.  But I wasn’t asking questions then about colonization or decolonization.  So this week, I decided to reopen that window of exploration, to see what I could find.

While the information available about my Scottish and Innu ancestors stops with Peter Macleod and Marie Madeleine Montagnaise, (my great-great-great-grandparents), the information about my French ancestors in Quebec goes back to some of the original colonizers.  Yesterday, I learned that one ancestor, Jean Guyon, my 11th great-grandfather, arrived in 1634. But not to get egotistical about it, they say three out of four Quebecois descend from him. And in fact, I am descended from him via four separate lines of ancestry. I am including this monument to the first Tremblays in Quebec, Pierre Tremblay and Ozanne Achon, who arrived in 1657.

Pierre Trembly Ozanne Achon

Today, in my family tree, I accidentally came upon the name Helene Desportes, my 9th great-grandmother. Her birth was listed as 1620 in Quebec, and it turns out she is said to be the first white child born in Canada, though she might have been born on the ship just before arrival. One of my methods is to do an internet search for any of these early names, and I learned there is a recent biography about her, Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

Suddenly, there is a whole new world to explore–okay that was the wrong phrase to use–in my decolonization understanding.