French Ontario in the 17th and 18th Centuries: War and Defense - Page Banner

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Much of the history of New France was marked by war or the threat of war with First Nations or the British. The need to prevent attacks by hostile First Nations and to check British expansion, combined with commercial interests, resulted in the building of forts throughout the interior.

By the mid-18th century, the entrances to New France were in British hands, but the French presence was still felt throughout the Great Lakes area, the Ohio Valley and along the Mississippi River.

A Colony at War -  Title Graphic

When Champlain originally founded Quebec, he became involved in wars between First Nations. In 1609, he joined the Algonquin and other nations in their alliance against the Iroquois. The battle illustrated below, which took place in 1609 at Lake Champlain, was the precursor to wars in which the Iroquois fought the French and their First Nations allies for most of the 17th century.

Drawing: Deffaite des Yroquois au lac Champlain. (Detail)

Click to see a larger image (718K)
Deffaite des Yroquois au lac Champlain. (Detail)
In Champlain, Samuel de. Œuvres de Champlain / 2nd edition.
Quebec : G.-É. Desbarats, 1870. vol. 3, facing page 196.
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.011 CHB

These wars caused the weakening or destruction of most First Nations of the Great Lakes and Upper Ohio areas. French settlers lived in fear of the next Iroquois attack.

French offensives against the Iroquois could be devastating as well, as shown in this account of a 1687 campaign:

“...we marched straight to the first villages, which are only half a league away [2 kilometres]. We found them abandoned and almost reduced to cinders, as the enemy had set them on fire before leaving. Since we found no one to fight, we began to destroy the Indian corn in the field and to burn the corn in the village and that stored in a fort made of large posts, build on a very well-placed hill, where the enemy had wanted to organize their defence . Then we moved on to other villages, 4 leagues [16 kilometres] beyond the first ones. We found them abandoned, but not reduced to cinders ... The destruction of the Indian corn will probably inconvenience the Iroquois greatly and it is possible that many will die of starvation …”

Letter from Reverend Father Bechefer (Quebec) to Monsieur Cabart de Villermont,
September 19, 1687,
in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents/ Ruben Gold Twaites,
ed. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, vol. 63, p. 274 and 276,
Archives of Ontario Library, 271.5 THW (translation).


The Great Peace of Montreal (1701) ended the French-Iroquois war. The expansion of French trade and alliances during the 18th century would result in wars with some First Nations west and south of the Great Lakes, but their impact would be mostly limited to the interior.

The British Conflict - Title Graphic

France’s other great enemy in North America was Great Britain and for most of the 18th century the two nations were at war either directly or indirectly through their allies.

Alliances with First Nations, conflicting economic interests, and European rivalry would contribute to the tension.

The Hudson Bay area, because of its importance as a route to the interior, was one of the first areas of direct conflict. In 1686, a French expedition sent overland from Montreal attacked British forts on Hudson and James Bays. One of the posts captured was Moose Factory, shown here as it appeared in the 19th century.

Photo: Old Factory House in the winter in Moose Factory, [ca. 1967]
Click to see a larger image (212K)
Old Factory House in the winter in
Moose Factory, [ca. 1867]
Photographer unknown, possibly Bernard Rogan
Ross or Charles George Horetzky
Captain Traill Smith photograph collection
Black and white photograph
Reference Code: F 2179-2-0-0-18
Archives of Ontario, I0005074

Print: Moose Factory, 1854
Click to see a larger image (208K)
Moose Factory, 1854
William Trask, artist
Ford and West, lithographers
Print
Archives of Ontario documentary art collection
Reference Code: C 281-0-0-0-31
Archives of Ontario, I0003085


The commander of the expedition, the Chevalier de Troyes, left a colourful account of it. Here is how he described the capture of Fort Rupert on July 3rd, 1686.

“I gave the order ... to march, and it was executed in the best possible order. We followed the edge of the water in total silence until, having arrived very close, I ordered the detachment to stop and ordered the canoes to go take the ship… My men kept firing and to add to the din, I wanted to add my two canons which with a loud boom, pierced through the gate of the redoubt towards which I had aimed them. On the other hand, the sapper was ready to give them a taste of his trade, when the English called for mercy.”

Journal de l’expédition du Chevalier de Troyes à la Baie d’Hudson en 1686/édité
et annoté par Ivanhoé Caron. Beauceville, Quebec, L’Éclaireur, 1918, p. 75-76,
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.03 TRO (translation)

Hudson Bay forts would change hands a number of times during the wars of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697) and Spanish Succession (1701-1713). The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) awarded them, along with Acadia (current day Nova Scotia) and Newfoundland, to Great Britain. French and British would fight two other wars, the War of Austrian Succession (1741-1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the latter resulting in France’s loss of its North American colonies.

Forts and Trading Posts - Title Graphic

Commercial and strategic imperatives led the French to build a network of forts and trading posts throughout the interior. The aims were to control the fur trade, assist allied First Nations and threaten hostile ones, provide support to explorers and missionaries, and prevent English trade and influence.

The first forts, built between the 1660’s and the end of the century, were for the most part abandoned as a result of the Iroquois wars and French attempts to redirect trade towards Montreal. After the Treaty of Utrecht, the need for expansion to counter the growing British presence in the interior led to more forts and posts being built or re-built.

Photograph: Midland - Ste. Marie Among the Hurons - remain of old canon.
Click to see a larger image (45K)
Midland - Ste. Marie Among the Hurons -
remain of old canon.
Black and white negative
Tourism promotion photographs
Reference Code: RG 65-35-1, 29-I-2568
Archives of Ontario

By 1755, there were French forts and trading posts as far west as today’s Saskatchewan and Kansas. On the Great Lakes, Forts Frontenac (now Kingston), Niagara, Michilimakinac, Detroit and, to a lesser degree, Rouillé (Toronto), were important transit points for merchants, soldiers and administrators. The lower Great Lakes and Ohio Valley were a strategic area, linking New France and Louisiana, and which could block British expansion.

Map: Mid 18th Century French, British and Spanish Forts and Settlement

Note: The map legend refers to the settlements as the existed in the mid-1750s. Click on the map to learn more about the forts and settlements.


French forts and settlements

  1 - Louisbourg
  2 - Quebec
  3 - Trois-Rivières
  4 - Montreal
  5 - Fort Chambly
  6 - Fort Carillon
  7 - Fort Frontenac
  8 - Fort Rouillé
  9 - Sainte-Marie Among
      the Hurons (1639-1648)
10 - Fort Niagara
11 - Détroit
12 - Michilimakinac
13 - Sault Ste. Marie
14 - Fort Kaministiquia
15 - Fort Duquesne
16 - Fort Miami
17 - Fort Vincennes
18 - Kaskaskia
19 - Mobile
20 - New Orleans

French Flag

British forts and settlements

A - Halifax
B - Annapolis
C - Boston
D - Fort William-Henry
E - Albany
F - New York
G - Oswego
H - Philadelphia
I  - Fort Cumberland
J - Jamestown
K - Williamsburg
L - Charleston
M - Savannah
N - Pickawillany
O -Moose Factory

Spanish settlement

SA - St. Augustine

Union Jack Spanish Flag


To see an animated map that details the territorial evolution of North America though the 17th and 18th centuries, click here.

Map: Territorial Evolution of North America in the 17th and 18th Centuries


Fort Frontenac, first built in 1673 and re-built in 1693, was originally a trading post, military outpost against the Iroquois and exploration base. Its location at the entrance of the St. Lawrence made it a key transit point between Montreal, Detroit and the Ohio Valley. This 1784 plan shows the site of the fort, still in use by the British after the Conquest.

Plan of Old Fort Frontenac and Town Plot of Kingston, October 15, 1784
Plan of Old Fort Frontenac and Town Plot of Kingston, October 15, 1784
Surveyed by John Frederick Holland
Town and city plan collection
Reference Code: C 295-1-75-0-1, AO 1380
Archives of Ontario


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