Montreal : a Town in colonial America
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.
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 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
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