Montreal Under French Rule

Prior to the year 1535 the history of Montreal is but largely conjecture. The chief cause of its first settlement was, no doubt, the wonderful fertility of the island, together with its position as regards the waterways of the country; to the east being a broad, safe river leading to the great gulf; while to the west, there was spread out like a fan thousands of miles of more or less navigable water-courses that permitted the canoes of the Indians to penetrate into the interior in all directions.

The discovery of Newfoundland by Cabot, in 1497, was the first of a series of explorations that finally brought Jacques Cartier up the St. Lawrence. A native of St. Malo, he had been for some time engaged in the cod fisheries of Newfoundland, and had taken the lead in exploring the coasts of the then mysterious continent of the western hemisphere. Having received a commission from Francis I, of France, in 1534, he sailed up the St. Lawrence as far as Gaspe, but returned to France the same year. The following year, however, a better equipped expedition took him to Quebec, then called Stadacona, where he left his ships and proceeded up the river in smaller boats, and arrived off Hochelaga (as Montreal was then called) on the 3rd October, 1535.

The reports that he had heard at Quebec of a large Indian town up the river Cartier now found to be true. The village lay on a plateau, well back from the river, and was encompassed by three separate rows o f palisades, one within the other. There was but one single entrance, and that was well guarded with pikes and stakes. Inside this defence were about fifty cabins or lodges, constructed the form of a tunnel, each being fifty feet long and fifteen feet broad. These were built of wood, covered with bark, and contained several chambers. For further defence a gallery was erected above the doors and along the outer row of palisades, on which there was stores of stones and pieces of rock ready to hurl down at any attacking parties. The village contained over a thousand people, and Cartier was received with every sign of welcome. It was an incident of this visit that eventually gave Montreal its name. Cartier was conducted by his Indian hosts to the top of the mountain that rose up behind the village, and so impressed was he by the magnificent view that he named the height Mont Royal. This, with a slight corruption, gives us the Montreal of today.

Five years later Jacques Cartier again visited the locality, leaving his fort at Quebec for the purpose of gathering information of the country above the rapids at Lachine. Nothing much is to be learned from this visit, however, and after wards, for nearly one hundred years-a blank. It is easy to imagine an incursion of the savage Iroquois sweeping down on the Algonquin village, massacring the inhabitants and giving the whole place to the flames; then, laden with their spoil, returning to their own land, leaving black, silent ruins to mark the site of our present city.

The next landmark in the early history of Montreal is the visit of Samuel de Chain plain in 1611. Champlain, who was a distinguished French naval officer, had been for some time engaged in trading expeditions along the Gulf, where there were several posts around which a prosperous trade in furs was carried on. After founding Quebec and fortifying the settlement made there, he started on the expedition up the Richelieu river that led to the great lake now bearing his name. Then, two years later, he determined to found a trading-post on the island of Montreal, where he anticipated establishing a trade with the Indian tribes as they descended from the interior by the Ottawa river.

When he arrived at Montreal there was neither town nor friendly Indian tribe to welcome him, as on the occasion of Cartier’s visit; the only evidence of the old settlement being deserted meadow-lands, that showed signs of having been cultivated in years gone by. At that titne a small stream flowed into the St. Lawrence at a point near where the Lachine Canal now starts, a branch of which ran along Craig street. It was on the corner of the little peninsula made by this stream and the St. Lawrence that Champlain selected the site for his trading-post, naming it Place Royale. The Custom House now occupies the spot. Champlain relates that, after clearing the land, he utilized the clay, which existed in large quantities around, to build a wall four feet thick and three to four feet high, in order to keep out the water when the ice came down in the spring.

Nearly thirty years after, the Company of Notre Dame of Montreal was formed in France, and a large sum of money contributed in order to establish a religious settlement in place of a mere trading-post. The idea arose simultane ously in the minds of a tax-collector in Anjou, named de la Dauversiere, and one Jean Jacques Olier, a young priest, afterwards known as founder of the Seminary of St. Sulpice. The story of how these two men found each other out and together developed the plan is surrounded by the semi-mysterious, semi-miraculous details peculiar to the times. Their plans, however, matured sufficiently to send out to Canada an expedition of some forty men and four women, including amongst them that devout young nun Jeanne Mance, referred to hereafter. The expedition was placed under the command of Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and arrived at Quebec in 1641. Montreal at this time belonged to Lauzon, one of the Company of the Hundred Associates (chartered in 1627 for the colonization of Canada), who had been induced to transfer his title to the new Company, subject to certain conditions anent the fur trade. The little band was received at Quebec with a studious courtesy that barely covered, however, a persistent antagonism on the part of the Jesuits, who had no desire to see the foundation of another order in the country of which they had grown to consider themselves the spiritual guardians. In spite of opposition from both the Church and the Governor, Montmagny, who looked on Maisonneuve as a rival, Maisonneuve and his followers started up the river on May 8th, and landed on the 18th landed on the triangle of land formed by the junction of the small stream with the St. Lawrence, before described. There after landing stores, baggage and arms, an altar was raised and worship made, concluding with this prophetic address of the Jesuit priest Father Vimont : ” You are a grain of mustard-seed that shall rise and grow till its branches overshadow the earth. You are few, but your work is the work of God. His smile is oil you, and your children shall fill the land.”

The essentials of the proposed establishment were to be a seminary of priests, a nuns’ hospital and a school, the settlement that was to be formed around being simply for their defence and maintenance. This was in part accomplished, Marguerite Bourgeois joining the band of pioneers, somewhat later, to found the teaching order of the Congregation de Notre Dame. A year after the landing, a reinforcement arrived that brought news of the magnificent gift of 42,000 livres from Madame de Bullion (a wealthy French lady), for the erection and maintenance of a hospital. All work on clearing and tilling the land was neglected until this hospital was built, and, although apparently unneeded at the time, it proved more than useful during long years of struggles with the Indians. Jeanne Mance took charge of it, and devoted her life, not only to nursing the sick Frenchmen, but also to nursing and converting the sick Indians. In 1657 the Seminary of St. Sulpice was founded, and six years later became virtual proprietors of the island, the remnant of the Company of Notre Dame de Montreal being so reduced in both zeal and purse that they begged the priests of the Seminary to take their charge off their hands. So valuable did this charge become in after years that today the Seminary is the wealthiest religious institution on the continent. Their home, erected in 1710, still remains on Place d’Armes Square. The Seminary also owned a fortified Indian mission post built in 1694, which was situated beyond the walls of the town and known as the Fort de la Montagne. Around it was the village of the Indian converts, but all that now remains of this historic place are the two quaint and massive towers in the grounds of the Montreal College on Sherbrooke street. In one of those towers the sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame spent their days in teaching the Catholic faith to the more friendly Indians.

About 1660 the colony, which then consisted of one hundred and sixty men, with some women and children, was rein forced by about one hundred more immigrants from France, who found the settlement to consist of some forty small houses parallel to the river (along what is now St. Paul street), a fort and a massive stone windmill. In 1672 the original Notre Dame Church was built, replacing the first temporary parish church (situated a little to the east), and for the better defence of the town against the Indians, a palisade was built in 1685.

Now come those weary years of warfare, during which the colony had to contend with incessant attacks by the Indians; the savage Iroquois waging a merciless war, with brief intervals of a deceitful peace, granted but to further their own ends in other quarters. At night skulking among the houses, by day lying in ambush outside the walls, they were ever on the lookout to murder or mutilate the settlers, and that ofttitnes within sight of the very windows of the town. The loss amongst the French was of such extent that, in 166r, Maisonneuve resolved to form a military fraternity for defensive purposes. His proclamation reads : “We, Paul de Chomedey, governor of the Island of Montreal and lands thereon dependent, on information given us from divers quarters that the Iroquois have formed the design of seizing upon the settlement by surprise and force, have thought it our duty, seeing the island is the property of the Holy Virgin, to invite and ex hort those zealous for her service to unite together by squads, z/ ~ each of seven _,persons, and, after choosing a corporal by plurality of voices, to report themselves to us for enrolment in our garrison, and, in this capacity, to obey our orders, to the end that the country may be saved.” Twenty squads, numbering in all one hundred and forty men, answered this appeal, and were known as ”Soldiers of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” The settlement reached a state of religious exaltation over waging war against the “myrmidons of Satan,” as the Indians were regarded, and those who died fighting felt sure of paradise as the reward of their martyrdom. What alone saved the colony from total destruction at this time were the intertribal hostilities of the Indians themselves. The Iroquois were ever at war with either the Hurons, Algonquins or the Mohawks, and, with one or two exceptions, were never really resolved on the total destruction of the French. The various settlements, on the other hand, being more or less grouped around three fortified postsMontreal, Three Rivers and Quebec-invariably united forces; the outlying settlers taking refuge in the towns in times of danger, and thus strengthening the defending force of the points attacked. On one occasion, when the savages had made elaborate plans for a combined effort to sweep down and totally destroy the white population, the bravery of a few devoted Montreal men, under Dollard, saved the country, although at the cost of all their lives.

Adam Daulac, or Dollard, was a young French officer, aged twenty-five, who had left France to redeem some act of dishonour. Anxious for a noteworthy exploit to do so, he invited some sixteen young men to join him for an attack on the Indians, regardless of their numbers, as they descended the Ottawa; it being known that a large number of the Iroquois had wintered in the forests of the Ottawa valley. These seventeen youths, after receiving the last rites of the Church, embarked, with plenty of arms and ammunition, and slowly made their way up the Ottawa river, past Carillon, until they reached the foot of the Long Sault Rapids. Here a ruined palisade fort was occupied, and a wait of somedays ensued. In the meantime, they were joined by some forty friendly Indians, who, however, deserted later on. The first canoe party that appeared was surprised and killed, this act bringing down the whole body of two hundred Iroquois, mad for revenge. Three times was the rude fort rushed, and three times were the invaders beaten off. Then they sent for the aid of their Mohawk allies, stationed at the mouth of the Richelieu, six hundred in all, whom they had been on their way to join for the purpose of a combined attack on the French settlements. It was at this critical moment that the friendly Indians deserted and the weakness of the defending force became known. But still the defenders fought doggedly on, almost dead from exhaustion and thirst, but still repulsing attack after attack. The end came at last, a concentrated attack bringing the savages hewing and cutting at the palisades. Even then the end might not have been, had not a roughly-manufactured bomb-meant for hurling amongst the foe-exploded inside the fort, killing and wounding many of the French, and creating a c confusion which enabled the Iroquois to make a breach in the palisade. One after another, the little band of heroes was shot down, until only four were left, barely alive, to meet death by torture later. But their work was well done. The Iroquois did not need much, imagination to foresee the result of an attack against a people, seventeen of whom had inflicted such punishment on eight hundred of their best warriors, and kept them at bay for so long.

In spite of the knowledge of this heroic deed, Dollard’s name has only been thought worthy of bestowal on a short, narrow lane running off St. James street, which not one person in a hundred is even aware has a name. But yet there is erected a monument in a public square to Chenier-a rebel against his Queen and his country!

To return to Montreal. Several streets were now being laid out and substantial stone houses erected, the town proper lying between the river and what is now Notre Dame street. The character of the town was rapidly changing, and, later on, when Maisonneuve was removed by Mezy (the governor-general of New France) and immediately reappointed, the autocracy of the Seminary was largely curtailed; as by this step the governor of Montreal took his appointment from the State instead of the seigneurs. About this time, a council was formed for the government of the colony, which consisted of the governor-general, the Bishop of Quebec (Laval), five councillors and a secretary. This possessed absolute legislative, executive and judicial powers, as in 1663 all government was vested therein by a decree of the French crown. It has already been stated that the original idea in founding Montreal was to have a settlement around a seminary, hospital and school, but the settlement was to be a necessary detail only. This new form of government, however, brought a very different future into sight. The colonists were now entering with keenness into the fur trade; and Louis the Fourteenth, commencing to show some of the remarkable interest that he took in his North American colony, was sending over soldiers, settlers, farming stock, and a number of young women as wives for the settlers. In 1665 over two thousand were sent out, and, with hardy fighters to subdue the Indians and the influx of fresh blood and stock into the country, Montreal shared with Quebec a new lease of life, and one the more beneficial owing to the long spell of peace conferred on the country by the expedition under Tracy against the Iroquois, that destroyed all their strongholds up the Richelieu.

Talon, the Intendent of New France at this time, was a vigorous and zealous administrator, who, by force of example, did his best to further the development of the country. Searching for minerals, developing manufactories and fisheries, and everywhere enquiring where there were wrongs or injustices to redress, he did much to help the prosperity of the country. till 1838,) Louis the Fourteenth, for his part, saw to the population question, sending over large numbers of people each year (especially marriageable women), and inducing his discharged soldiers to marry and settle in the country. Most of the villages around Montreal and Quebec were thus founded, the early settlement taking its name from the officer of the regiment, who became the seigneur and subdivided the track of land, granted by the King, amongst his soldiers, after reserving sufficient for himself. This plan had a great advantage, as it created a line of sentinels ready to give the alarm when the enemy approached. Berthierville, Sorel, Varennes, Vercheres, etc., are examples of this protective colonization.

The population of already showing signs Montreal had now grown to about eight hundred, and was of that deterioration of character that led up to such terrible scenes of debauchery and vice in later years. The seigneurs and traders, who were for the most part of humble degree in the social scale, became deeply imbued with a mania for becoming noblesse. Patents of nobility were issued by influence or bribery, an example of the latter being the case of Jacques LeBer (owner of the historic mill at St. Anne de Bellevue), who paid six thousand livres to be made a ” gentleman.” The evil of this sys tem soon became evident. The ” gentilhomme ” would not work in the usual way and the way his country would benefit by, but would depart for the woods and engage with the Indians in the fur trade, the excitement and adventure of which were more congenial than the dull life of a town trader or an agriculturist. The savage their usefulness as colonists, deprived the country freedom of the woods destroyed of effective men, and left the cultivation of the ground neglected. Good came out of the evil in some instances, such men as DuIhut, Iberville, La Salle, SaintCastin, etc., being the pioneers of the first western American civilization that led to the discovery of the Ohio and the Rocky Mountains, the exploration of the Mississippi to its mouth, and the founding of Detroit, St. Louis and New Orleans. Early in the eighteenth century the manufacture of coarse wool and linen was started, and cloth for the priests and pupils was woven fully equal to the French goods. A certain quantity of timber and wheat was exported, but the staple trade was in fur. A great annual fair was established in Montreal, partly to prevent that wholesale taking to the woods by the young men, just now men tioned. In the market-place, between St. Paul street and the river, booths were set up, and merchants from Quebec and the whole of Montreal would turn out to get a share of the profits that were to be made. Naked painted Indians, French bush-rangers, merchants, habitants and priests made a weirdly picturesque scene, but one that was invariably accompanied by such wholesale absortion of brandy that the fair would close amidst a pandemonium of drunken devilment.

Several causes were now at work that were conspiring to impair Montreal’s prosperity. Louis the Fourteenth, in his prodigal generosity to his colony, would never refuse a request for help, and, in addition to giving money to churches, missions, hospitals, etc., he established funds for helping poor people and subsidized nearly every branch of trade. In consequence, the colonists, instead of depending on themselves, looked to him for support on every occasion. The fisheries-at which the New England colonies were coining money-were neglected, and the population, from the Intendant downward, developed into a class of deceitful mendicants. Then the Church festivals were so numerous that less than ninety working-days were left during the entire season, and, as a climax, a paper currency was put into circulation by successive governors and intendants that proved valueless. In 1714 over two million livres of paper was on the country, which the government redeemed at half face value; but a worthless re-issue was afterwards made and the people had to stand the loss. (It was this fact that had much to do with the willing submission to the British in 1760, as the people knew they were practically ruined under the old regime, and any conditions under the new rule could not possibly be worse than the old and might be much better.) Another grievance the merchants had, and that was the prohibition of meeting together for discussing their affairs. The first bourse or exchange was only permitted in Montreal in 1717. The beaver trade helped along the ruin, the wholesale slaughter of the animal so glutting the market that the skins were unsaleable to the dealers in France; consequently, bills of exchange given in Montreal for the purchases were unpaid, with attendant loss and confusion throughout the town.

Social life ill Montreal at this period was far from pleasant, one young officer writing at the time as follows: “During a part of the winter I was hunting with the Algonquins; the rest of it I spent here very disagreeably. One can go to neither a pleasure party, nor play a game of cards, nor visit the ladies, without the cure knowing it and preaching about it publicly from his pulpit. The priests refuse communion to masqueraders, and even go in search of them to pull off their masks and overwhelm them with abuse. They watch more closely over the women and girls than do their husbands and fathers. They prohibit and burn all books but books of devotion. I cannot think of this tyranny without cursing the indiscreet zeal of the cure of this town. He came into the house where I lived, and finding some books on my table, presently pounced on the romance of ` Pretonius,’ which I valued more than my life, because it was not mutilated. He tore out almost all the leaves, so that if my host had not restrained me when I came in and saw the miserable wreck, I should have run after this rampant shepherd and torn every hair of his beard.”

Although the above extract was probably written whilst smarting under a personal grievance at the destruction of a valued book, the writer only describes (though somewhat vividly) the rigorous conduct of the Sulpicians towards all sorts of annisements they disapproved of. This excess of zeal on the part of the priests was no doubt caused by the evil ways of the people, together with the knowledge that the community, over which they had at first complete religious control, was now no longer content to conduct their lives and habits entirely under the influence of the Church. Protestants were rigorously debarred from the colony.

The inflexible severity of the clerical seigneurs was in strong contrast to the wild viciousness of the lawless bands that were continually passing through Montreal. If hard pushed by justice, they had only to cross the river to be beyond the jurisdiction of the island authorities. A large trade `vas carried on in brandy, the liquor being taken to variOUS posts further up the island, or on the lower shores of the Ottawa, to entice the their furs to barter them at prices much below their value in Montreal. Drunkenness prevailed throughout the colony, and only abated as the population increased and the cures grew more numerous, the Church doing great work in educating the people to more orderly lives. The women were extravagant to a degree in personal adornment, and, in the words of the writer of the day, ” many are discreet and a good number are lazy. They are fond of dress and show, and each tries to outdo the rest in the art of catching a husband.” There was much jealousy of the Quebec ladies because of the great chances they had of getting husbands, as a large num ber of ” young gentlemen ” came over in the ships to Quebec, but never proceeded as far as Montreal.

One section of the community in those days stands out prominently for purity of life and the exercise of Christian charity. The hospital nuns, usually ladies of gentle birth and bringing up, gave their whole lives to the attention of the sick and the wounded, who had to rely almost entirely on the nuns’ skill for relief, owing to the absence of proper doctors. The emigrant ships from France would always bring over infection of some sort, whilst incessant wars and quarrels turned in a never-failing supply of wounded men. Many dying in carrying out their duty, never complaining, suffering hardships unspeakable, and yet ever exercising that tender kindness which is so immeasurably comforting to the suffering, their lives are in vivid contrast to the viciousness of the people and the bigotry of the priesthood. One woman, however, of this period has been held up for special veneration to whom no veneration can be accorded here. This woman, Jeanne LeBer, was the daughter of a leading merchant of Montreal, and, being of a very susceptible nature, became at last completely imbued with the idea that she was specially consecrated to heaven. After giving up her suitors and her family (the younger members of which, being motherless, greatly needed her help), she wished to renounce her inheritance, which was considerable. This was forbidden, however, by her spiritual adviser!

For ten years she immured herself in her room, and then had a cell built behind the altar in the church of the Congregation, where she would lie, in an old, coarse, tattered and unwashed garment, on a bed of straw. Here she lived for twenty years, not even the prayers of her dying father being able to draw her from her cell. A reputation for miracles, of course, soon became hers; and after her death, in 1714, at the age of fifty-two, the image of the Virgin, in the church in which she had her cell, was reputed to heal the lame and cure the sick.

Here again, what strong contrast between the two types. The hospital nttn devoting her life to helping the sick and needy, risking health and life itself in her noble work of charity. The other secluding herself from the world, in which we are all sent by our Creator to do our work-one for the other-wasting her life in a wrapt idolatry of her own untried virtues.

The corruption among the government officials, which had been rife for some time, reached its limit some ten years before the English took possession of Montreal. The intendant at that time was a man named Bigot, and he stands out as the worst of the crowd of scoundrels who were doing their best to ruin the colony. The inteudant was practically civil governor, being supervisor of trade, finance, justice, etc. As though scenting the destruction that was shortly to overtake the French cause, and wishing to make all they could while their time lasted, Bigot and his subordinates exercised every kind of fraud and peculation that their positions made so easy for them to do. Goods were sent him from France (escaping duty), and resold to the King as being colonial manufacture, at huge advance in price. No one was allowed to sell goods to the King except themselves, and they made use of this monopoly to charge fourfold for everything. Large quantities of goods were sold out of the King’s stores as being valueless, and then bought back again at an advance of over a million francs. An order was issued by which the inhabitants had to sell their grain at a fixed low price, and, after the Intendant had bought it all up and a famine ensued, it was sold back again at a great profit. So on ad infinitum. But the day of reckoning came at last, and when Bigot returned to France, after the English conquest, lie was thrown into the Bastille, and in 1763 sentenced to banishment for life, confiscation of all his property and a fine of one and a half million francs.

Social life during these last years of French rule was brilliant in the extreme, the halls, dinners and receptions being equal to those in France itself. The town consisted of a number of good stone and timber houses, and was of a narrow oblong form, surrounded by a bastioned stone wall. The Seminary, three churches and the fort showed up prominently above the houses. A dry ditch eight feet deep surrounded the walls, but the town, although capable of defence against the Indians, could not have withstood an attack from cannon for an hour. The constant wars with the English kept the population in a flutter of excitement, and large bodies of Indian allies, ever waiting for a chance of booty and massacre by accompanying the French expeditions, were generally encamped near the walls. Amidst all the licentiousness, gambling, peculation and drunkenness at this time, Montcalm alone stands apart as a true, courageous gentleman, fighting against the corruption of the Intendant and the insane jealousy of the Governor, Vaudreuil. In 1758 came the news of the departure from England of a great expedition for the conquest of Canada. Then came the siege and capture of Quebec, the death of Montcalm, and the falling of one post after another, until Montreal was alone left to France out of her once great North American colony. On the fall of Quebec, Vaudreuil and Levis moved their headquarters to Montreal, and, after making a futile attempt to retake Quebec in the following year, resolved to make their filial stand on the island. The city, however, was spared, the horrors of a siege or attack. A force under Colonel Haviland advanced to Longueuil, opposite the town on the south. General Murray, with fifty-one vessels, came up to within two miles of the city on the east; whilst General Amherst advanced from the west, camping on a height overlooking the town and known now as Cote des Neiges. There was no option for the French but to surrender, and the next morning, September 8th, without a shot being fired, Vaudreuil signed the capitulation by which Canada and all its dependencies passed to the British. Fifty-five articles covered the terms of surrender, the most important being that the French military were to be sent home, free exercise of religion was to be assured, religious communities were to retain all their property and privileges, and the people were to continue in the free enjoyment of all their property. One clause of the capitulation Amherst absolutely refused, and that was permission for the French troops to march out with their arms and the honours of war. In his own words: ” I am fully resolved, for the infamous part the troops have acted in exciting the savages to perpetrate the most horrid and unheard of barbarities in the whole progress of the war, and for other open treacheries and flagrant breaches of faith, to manifest to all the world by this capitulation my detestation of such practices.”

The same evening, a British force under Colonel Haldimand entered the town by the Recollet Gate and occupied the Recollet Quarter, which was then a large open space and chiefly covered by the monastery gardens; while the French withdrew to their camp by the citadel at the eastern end of the town. The following morning, a British detachment of artillery was drawn up on the Place d’ Armes, and there the French army marched to lay down their arms. The British flag floated over the town, and French rule in Canada was over.

Here Montreal made a fresh start; with new blood, with the Anglo-Saxon tenacity of purpose, with honest government, with enlarged and popular liberties, and with the newly-awakened knowledge that her destiny was her own, to make or to mar.