Home / About / Portrait / History / Québec, a New French Colony (1608–1755)


Québec, a New French Colony (1608–1755)


Champlain Founds Québec

On July 3, 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence River in the company of 26 recruits—lumberjacks, carpenters, and laborers. At the behest of Pierre Dugua de Mons, who held a monopoly over the fur trade, Champlain had come to establish a trading post. When he arrived, he could find no trace of Stadacona. Its Iroquois population had abandoned the St. Lawrence Valley for reasons that remain a mystery to this day. Only the nomadic Algonquins ventured there to barter and fish for eels.

Champlain settled along Québec’s shoreline, a natural harbor where Place Royale is situated today. The location was perfect. From atop Cape Diamond, it was easy to keep an eye on comings and goings along the St. Lawrence River.

Champlain quickly erected his wooden Habitation on the site of today’s Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church. The building served as a home, fort, and store. It soon became a meeting place where various Amerindians came to barter furs for European goods.

Fabulous Ludovica

In a journal entry from 1618, Champlain outlined a plan to found a large city along the banks of Rivière Saint-Charles (today’s Saint-Roch and Saint-Sauveur districts) and to name it Ludovica in honor of King Louis XIII. The project would never come to anything, however, as Champlain’s vision of a great city died with him.

The Upper Town Is Born

Champlain also gave thought to the city’s defenses. In 1620 he began to construct Fort Saint-Louis on the headlands near where the Château Frontenac stands today. It was the beginning of the Upper Town. The location was a strategic one: the fort looked out across the river and down on the Habitation below. A few wooden buildings surrounded by a palisade made up the fort, while a trail connecting the Lower Town’s Habitation to Fort Saint-Louis traced the same route as part of today’s Côte de la Montagne.

Château Living

There was a succession of four Saint-Louis forts and two châteaux between 1620 and 1834. They were the seat of the colony’s executive power for more than 200 years and also served as the official residence for all governors of the French Regime and many belonging to the British Regime. Balls, receptions, and other events were held there. It is even said that to impress his First Nations guests, Governor Frontenac served them ice cream of every color prepared by his confectioner.

In the Crosshairs of the English

Prior to the War of the Conquest, Québec City had twice been attacked by the English. On the first occasion, in 1629, the Kirke brothers took control of the city in the name of England. Champlain and much of the population fled, leaving a few settlers behind them. The city was returned to France in 1632.

The second attack occurred on October 16, 1690. William Phips landed in Québec City with a fleet of around thirty ships and more than 2,000 men. It was then that Governor Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, responded with his famous tirade against Phips’ messenger, who had come to demand that he surrender the city: “I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouths of my cannons and muskets.” Phips’ troops were repelled, and his fleet set off for New England. 

Québec City only escaped a third assault thanks to Mother Nature. In July of 1711, British Admiral Hovenden Walker set sail with a fleet of 70 ships and 12,000 men to seize the capital. On a stormy night, eight of his ships broke up against the rocky coastline of Île aux Oeufs on the north shore. Nearly 750 men were lost. Battered and shaken, Walker turned back.

Quite a Performance!

A rowboat flying a white flag was dispatched from Admiral Phips’ ship, with his envoy on board. As soon as he landed in town, he was blindfolded to hide the city’s weak defenses. While on his way to meet Frontenac, the envoy was repeatedly harassed by the same small group, and he believed he had encountered a large and boisterous population.

In Remembrance

Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church was built in Place Royale in 1688. First named Enfant-Jésus, it became Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire following the victory against Phips. After the failed invasion of 1711, it was renamed Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.

Québec City Strengthens Its Defenses

From 1620 to 1665, Québec City’s fortifications were quite rudimentary. In 1690, a wall consisting of 11 redoubts (towers) linked by palisades was hastily erected. It was the first in a series of walls built to encircle the city. It would not be until 1745—when Québec was panic-stricken after the fall of Louisbourg (the capital of the Île Royale colony, today Cape Breton Island) to the English—that a new wall permanently surrounded the city. Following the plans of engineer Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry, these fortifications were formed from previous walls.

A Capital Is Born

Since its founding, Québec City had been ruled by a governor. His responsibilities included the military command, the civil administration, and the execution of royal decrees. The only authority not granted to him was financial management, which was ensured by trading companies more interested in the fur trade than any commitment to populate the colony. Interestingly, governors were occasionally stakeholders in these companies.

But things changed in 1663: King Louis XIV of France took direct control of the colony and established a true colonial administration. Henceforth an intendant and a sovereign council ruled the city, along with a governor. Québec City officially became the capital of New France.

The King’s Eyes and Ears

Louis XIV thus described the intendant’s role. Jean Talon was the first to hold the position. During his two terms in office (1665–1668 and 1670–1672), Talon worked to boost the colony’s population and economic development. We owe him the shipbuilding yard on Rivière Saint-Charles as well as the first brewery in New France, built in the Lower Town in what is today the Îlot des Palais sector.

The Clergy Leaves Its Mark

The clergy became involved very early on in Québec City’s growth. The arrival of the Récollets in 1615 marked the beginning of a large scale conversion effort. Ten years later the Jesuits arrived and founded Collège des Jésuites in 1635. In 1639 three Ursulines, including Marie de l’Incarnation, founded a monastery and a school for girls. And in the same year, three hospital sisters founded Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. In 1692, under the guidance of Msgr. de Saint-Vallier, Hôpital Général was established.

In 1659 François de Laval arrived in Québec City as vicar apostolic. He founded Séminaire de Québec in 1663 to recruit and train clergy, and then Petit Séminaire in 1668. He was appointed the first bishop of the diocese of Québec upon its creation in 1674. The Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix Church (today, Notre-Dame-de-Québec) then became a cathedral.

Over the years, Québec City evolved. It became the seat of political power and an administrative, religious, and commercial center. By the end of the French Regime, its 8,000 inhabitants lived in the Saint-Roch and Saint-Jean neighborhoods, as well as the seigneuries stretching from Beauport to Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures.

Growing with the Merchant Class

Québec City was New France’s main port. It was part of a commercial trading network between France, the Antilles, Acadia, and Newfoundland. Ships exported furs and wood and imported products from Europe and the Antilles. This shipping trade was central to Place Royale.

A First Businesswoman!

Marie-Anne Barbel, wife of bourgeois merchant Jean-Louis Fornel, managed her husband’s store while he pursued his interest in the fur trade. When her husband died, she continued to look after the business. Her real estate holdings were impressive: seven houses in the Lower Town, a home in the Upper Town, land along the water’s edge, a seigneury, and five plots of land just outside the city. The War of the Conquest cost her vast sums of money and shelling damaged her properties, but she survived until 1793, when she died at the ripe old age of 90.

A Developer Ahead of his Time

Henry Hiché (1672–1758), a merchant and senior civil servant, sold so many parcels of land in Saint-Roch that part of the district was named after him.