While the Spanish pursued conquest and gold and silver treasure in the New World, the French and Dutch had somewhat more modest aspirations: the fur trade.
The French interest in the New World began to unfold with the voyages of Jacques Cartier in 1534 and 1536. Steering clear of Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, Cartier sailed into the modern-day Gulf of St. Lawrence. On his second voyage he made contacts with Native Americans along the St. Lawrence River; contacts that would be exploited by French merchants over the next few decades. Colonization did not begin until early in the 17th century, when the desire to protect the highly lucrative fur trade motivated the Crown and Samuel de Champlain to action.
Quebec Colony and New France
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain, who had recently helped establish a French colony at Acadia (modern-day Nova Scotia), established a colony of Quebec. Champlain was a master mariner and cartographer who established relationships with the Algonkian, Montagnais, Huron, and others for the purpose of acquiring furs.
Champlain had the wherewithal to recognize that indigenous Americans had a different economy than that of Europeans. He learned that in the gift economy of the Indians, the giving of gifts was central to good relations. When one gave gifts, one created an obligation which would then result in a reciprocal gift – in this case Champlain gave the Indians European manufactured goods such as knives, guns, cooking pots, blankets, beads, mirrors, etc., and received gifts of furs in return.
Also abetting the expansion of the French fur trade and colonization were the coureurs du bois, or “runners of the woods,” who married into indigenous tribes and became intermediaries in the fur trade. They traveled far to the west, beyond the Great Lakes, and eventually down the Mississippi, out onto the plains and up into the Rocky Mountains. They were instrumental in expanding the French fur trade and their offspring can be found as the mixed blood “Metis” who still inhabit the northern plains.
The members of the monastic order of the “Society of Jesus,” or Jesuits, were also instrumental to the establishment of New France. Jesuits were determined to bring Christianity to the Indians and lived among them, helping and sometimes healing those who suffered from the European diseases to which they had no resistance. Jesuits who had the most success were those who learned the ways and language of the Indians and stuck with them in hard times. Indeed, Jesuits stayed in the New World and founded many city universities in the U.S.
About the same time Samuel de Champlain was unloading gifts to the Indians of the St. Lawrence valley, Henry Hudson, an English captain sailing for the Dutch East India Company, sailed up the river that today bears his name. His voyage paved the way for Dutch colonization in the region.
Fort Amsterdam and the community around it, New Amsterdam, were established in subsequent years on the southern end of Manhattan Island. The Dutch West India Company used this location to begin commerce with the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance that controlled the territory south of the Great Lakes Ontario and Erie. It was no small irony that the Protestant Dutch allied with the Iroquois, while the Catholic French allied with the Iroquois arch-enemies, the Huron.
But for the next few decades, this was not a big issue as there were plenty of beaver pelts for the taking. The Dutch soon built a fort upriver at the mouth of the Mohawk River that they called Fort Orange, today known as Albany, New York. The Dutch monarch encouraged settlement by granting lands to aristocrats, lands that became known as the Dutch Land Grants. Numerous families that still inhabit the region can trace their roots to these grants, including the influential Roosevelt clan.
French and Dutch Influence
The Dutch as well as the French made their influence felt in the interior of North America. The Dutch in the Hudson River valley, and the French in the far-flung region of the Trans-Appalachian West. Indeed, French place-names abound west of the Appalachians as do Dutch place-names in the Hudson valley. The country that is today Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois was known to the French as the pays d’en haute, or “high country,” in contrast to the lowlands of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. French names are found from Detroit to St. Louis to New Orleans.
While the United States was certainly a political child of England, the land of North America still retains the story of Empire as it unfolded in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French, Dutch, and of course the Spanish all had a hand in the conquest of the continent before the thirteen colonies achieved their independence.
- W.J. Eccles, France in America, revised edition (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1990).
- Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! (New York: Norton, 2009).