Montreal : a Town in colonial America

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Both an island and a town, Montreal boasted two essential geographical features that made it an indispensable site for Indigenous peoples and, later, European colonists: the Saint Lawrence River and its tributaries and the Lachine Rapids. The former offered vital routes of communication with the interior of the continent, while the latter forced travellers to portage. However, the European town began life as a missionary project inspired by France’s Catholic Counter-Reformation. 


A site for encounters

At the time of the first recorded contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans, during the visit of Jacques Cartier in 1535, the island was occupied by a group known as the "Hochelagans", a subgroup of what anthropologists were later to call the Saint Laurence Iroquoians. The villagers' lifeways were based on agriculture, hunting and fishing. According to Cartier, they were grouped together in a fortified village, depicted in a stylized way by Giacomo Gastaldi in the third volume of Delle navigationi et viaggi, Giovanni Battista Ramusios's collection of travel narratives, published in the mid-16th century (the so-called Ramusio plan).

The fate of the Hochelagans, and, more generally, the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, is uncertain: there is no trace of these villages in narratives sources dating from the early 18th century. Anthropologists and historians continue to formulate hypotheses: perhaps they were dispersed and absorbed into other Iroquoian communities as a result of warfare or devastating epidemic diseases unleashed by the arrival of Europeans in the Americas? Maybe both? This question has not yet been answered and there are doubts that it ever will be.

A Spiritual Utopia

As a result, by the 17th Century, Montreal island appeared to have been abandoned. A group of pious Frenchmen, forming the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal, decided to make the most of the island’s strategic position and create what would now be described as a utopia, by building a fortified town where French colonists and Indigenous converts could live together as at the time of the first Christians. Ownership of the island was obtained in 1640 and the first colonists arrived there in 1642. They named the town they founded Ville-Marie.

This project turned out to be long-lasting and, in 1663, the Seigneury of Montreal was granted to the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris, four of whose members had been present on the island since 1657. As seigneurs of both the town and the surrounding countryside and priests of the local parish, the Sulpicians were to play an important role in the history of Montreal. For example, it was their first superior, Dollier de Casson, who drew up the plans for the first church, construction of which began in 1673. A map from 1685 shows the church in the town centre. Dollier also drafted a manuscript entitled Histoire du Montréal which recounted, year by year, events in Montreal from 1640 onwards. His manuscript would not be published until the 19th century.

A commercial and military town
At the time when all these changes were happening, the town lost its status as a missionary town, to become a commercial crossroads. As of 1667 the great fair of Montreal was held, with pelts brought in by the Native Canadians. In 1672, at the height of this fair, an estimated 900 Natives Canadians came to trade there, on the banks of the Saint Laurence. Then, the main fur merchants moved into the town and, in the 18th century, some of them had built themselves spacious residences. But soon, the taste for furs became so great that this fair was no longer enough: before the end of the 17th century, Montreal became the departure point for convoys of boats on the way to the Pays d’en Haut, as part of an expansion that would soon reach the Pacific.
Soon the town acquired another function, which was military. After a truce between 1667 and 1680, hostilities with the Iroquois started up again. Montreal was then seen as a strategic site in the defence of the colony and the base for supplying military posts in the West. It was also seen as a defence position against soldiers from the British colonies to the south. In 1687, a palisade of cedar stakes was raised, with seven gates, which was to evolve according to urban growth and military needs. This initial palisade was finally replaced by stone fortifications whose construction began in1717. Later, in the 18th century, faubourgs grew up outside these walls.

A town and its population

Numerous maps, from the 18th century show a town dominated by two large public squares: the Place d’Armes where the parish church stood and the Place Royale, where the market was held. A number of monastic buildings can also be seen, surrounded by gardens, as well as a number of private residences. But these almost idyllic depictions concealed the reality on the ground: a filthy town, without sewers, where humans and animals rubbed shoulders and where the child mortality rate was the highest in the Canadian colony. Not to mention the large fires, which quickly spread thanks to the wooden buildings. For example, one fire in 1734 destroyed 46 houses and forced several hundred people into the street, in a town that had barely 5,000 residents.

A diverse population

The population of Montreal reflected the town’s various functions. It hence included many monks and nuns, merchants, and nobles, many of whom were army officers. Lower down the Ancien Régime’s social ladder were a number of craftsmen who worked both for the urban and rural populations, a large number of servants, day labourers, as well as enslaved people, most of whom were Indigenous, though some were of African origin. It’s important to note that the army was also an unavoidable feature of town life, with the town counting one soldier for every 6 or 7 residents in 1740. Mention must also be given to the constant presence of Indigenous visitors, who often came from the neighbouring mission communities. While they were certainly proportionally less numerous in the 18th century than they had been in the 17th, these Indigenous visitors were still part of the crowd that filled the urban space, bordered by its fortifications with a circumference of 3,500 metres. Even by the 18th century, when looking down from the top of Mont-Royal, Montreal still appeared as a big village.

It was here, the final bastion of Canadian colony's resistance against the British forces, that the military capitulation was signed on September 8, 1760.


Published in may 2021

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