French Colonial History Offers an Important Alternative to Columbus’s Legacy

Those aboard the French ship which left Port-Royal in 1607 must have felt pessimistic about the future.  Their charter to conduct the fur trade in the region of what is now Nova Scotia had been revoked by the French crown, and the company had been forced to abandon the settlement.  Many, perhaps, never expected to see the work of the past few years again.  Yet when the French returned to the area in 1610, they found the small settlement largely intact.  The local Mi’kmaq had faithfully preserved the French village, in anticipation of their return.  Such an incident is all-but unthinkable in the context of the relationship between other Europeans and First Nations people, and set the tone for a century and a half of largely-peaceful coexistence between the French and indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere in New France.

Since 1937, Columbus Day has been celebrated as a Federal holiday in the United States, partly to recognize the contribution of Italian-Americans to the country.  But for almost as long, the holiday has been criticized for honoring a man responsible for deliberate destruction of Native American communities, and who never even laid eyes on the North American mainland.  There continues to be a growing movement to recognize the date as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead.  The push back against celebrating Europeans’ arrival in the New World is understandable.  But the generally negative view of European colonization of the Americas overlooks the experience of the French settlers, explorers and missionaries, as well as their indigenous neighbors and allies.  In the French experience, we can see an alternative version of Euro-American history.

Nearly a century before the establishment of Port-Royal, Giovanni da Verrazano (like Columbus, an Italian), explored the coast of North America in the service of the French crown.  Verrazzano wrote extensively about the land he surveyed(which he named after the Greek paradise of Arcadia for its beauty) and the people he encountered.  Like Columbus, he wrote blithely of kidnapping Native Americans for display in France, and his crew conducted some trade with the people they met, from the Carolinas north to Newfoundland.  When Verrazano came to present-day Maine, however, his interactions with the local inhabitants changed.  At the mouth of the Sagadhoc River, the Europeans encountered men “quite different from all the others.”  And while Verrazano dismissed them as “full of crudity and vices, and…so barbarous that we could never make any communication with them, however many signs we made to them,” the Sagadahoc Abenaki appear to have been savvier than the explorer gave them credit – perhaps as a result of previous interactions with European fishermen.  Rebuffing the sailors’ attempts to offer ” trinkets, such as little bells, mirrors, and other trifles,” the Abenaki were interested in ” only knives, hooks for fishing, and sharp metal” – clearly items of greater practical value.  The Amerindians wisely kept their distance from the ship, and when the Europeans had nothing left to trade, they made clear their scorn, by making “all the signs of scorn and shame that any brute creature would make such as showing their buttocks and laughing.”

Those who followed Verazzano – Cartier, Champlain, and Dugua – were not perfect, and neither was the French presence in the Americas without negative consequences.  The early history of Canada is characterized by a bloody war with the Iroquois. French-Canadian fur traders trafficked in alcohol and its destructive effects on Amerindian communities.  But French-Canadian history is also marked by cooperation and coexistence.  The Great Peace of Montreal ended the Iroquois Wars in 1701, and brought an era of peace to French Canada.  Civil and ecclesiastical authorities made various attempts to limit the liquor trade. And French Jesuits, while seeking to evangelize the indigenous population, did so by living among them.  French missionaries produced the first written versions of many native languages.

As we continue to negotiate the complicated history of relations between European- and Native Americans, and we come to grips, as a country, with our troubled past, it’s worth remembering that the history is not black-and-white.  Just as the indigenous peoples of the Americas are not a monolithic entity, neither were “the Europeans.”  The lack of a French-speaking nation in North America has led to French colonial history being largely overlooked.  However, to continue to do so over-simplifies our collective past.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.