Map of a small island mostly filled with fortified structures. Above and below the island are keys in French describing its features.

The French Colonial Empire, 1500-1800

Why did France’s empire expand to so many parts of the world in the early modern period? How did its expansion shape the history of the United States, Canada, Haiti, and other modern-day countries?
Translations of French documents coming soon!


At its height in the middle of the eighteenth century, the French empire stretched from Illinois to the coast of Africa. Iconic American cities such as New Orleans, Saint Louis, and Chicago grew out of its networks of trade and communication, along with Montreal, Quebec, and Port-au-Prince. Its missionaries, colonists, merchants, and soldiers explored the Mississippi, traded across the Atlantic, and made alliances with American Indian and African powers. They also wiped out entire communities and kept millions of people in slavery. The following collection of documents survey the many parts of the world swept up in French imperialism during the early modern period (1500–1800), and the many ways the French empire influenced their histories.

Essential Questions:

  • What were the motivations behind France’s presence in different parts of the world? How did French motives change from place to place, and over time?
  • How did French colonists see native peoples in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa? How did these peoples interact with the French?
  • How did the pieces of France’s empire fit together? Were they a single, coherent system?

Furs and a Fortress in New France

In 1534, following the lead of Christopher Columbus and other explorers, the French voyager Jacques Cartier landed on what is now the eastern coast of Canada and claimed it as French territory, calling it “New France.” Over the next 230 years, New France would expand westward from the coast, through the modern Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as southward into what are now the states of the American Midwest. After the port of New Orleans was founded in 1718, French colonists also travelled northward, up the Mississippi, planting settlements in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri. The Chicago River, which connected the Great Lakes region to the Mississippi River, was at the center of the enormous crescent of French territory stretching from the eastern shore of Canada to the Louisiana Delta.

The city of Chicago was not directly founded by the French government, but it could never have existed without the trade connections that French settlers developed in the region. In 1779 Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the son of a French father and an enslaved African woman, arrived in what is now Chicago after travelling north from New Orleans along the Mississippi and then overland through the town of Peoria, Illinois (founded by French explorers in 1680). Moving northeast from there, Du Sable built a house and trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River. For over 100 years, French traders had come to this place from Montreal and Quebec in Canada. They would meet there with fur trappers who hunted all over the Great Lakes region. Even before Du Sable built his full-time trading post, these meetings were big operations.

Fur Trade Contract François Francoeur and Four Voyageurs for Transport of Goods and Purchase of Beaver Pelts in Michilimackinac and Chicago: Ville-Marie, Before the Clerk Claude Maugue (September 15, 1692)
  • Page of handwritten text in French with notes in the margins
  • Page of handwritten text in French with signatures at the bottom

A contract from 1692 gives a sense of their scale. In Montreal, the business center of French Canada, Magdeleine Saint Jean (on behalf of her husband François Francoeur) made a deal with Simon Guillory and Jean-Baptiste Taury, who agreed to travel to the mouth of the Chicago River. Magdeleine loaned them the money and goods that they would need to purchase furs there. In return, she expected a hefty 500 pounds of beaver fur when they returned.

Unlike the British colonies that eventually became the United States, New France never received many settlers from Europe. Its borders did not expand so quickly because of a rising number of colonists, but because of a declining number of fur-bearing animals. Trappers started hunting along the coast of Canada in the early sixteenth century, but soon had killed too many of the large animals in that area. They had to travel further and further away from the eastern seaboard, founding new settlements along the way. By the late seventeenth century, 150 years after Cartier’s arrival, they already needed to go as far as Illinois.

French officials wondered if the fur trade was sustainable in the long term. What would happen to the economy of New France if trappers could no longer find beaver and other fur-bearing animals? Officials also worried that the settlements founded to support the fur trade were too far apart and had too few people to defend themselves from an attack by Great Britain. France and Britain went to war almost every decade from 1660 to 1815, and Britain tended to have the upper hand in these conflicts. France’s colonies in North America were especially vulnerable to British attack. In 1710 Britain conquered some of France’s territory on the Canadian coast (what is now the province of Nova Scotia), and it seemed like the rest of New France might be next.

Detail of map depicting a proposed fort at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia.
Antoine-Denis Raubot, Mémoire pour jetter les premiers fondements de l’établissement proposé dans l’isle de Cap Breton [Memorandum for Setting the First Foundations of the Proposed Establishment on the Island of Cape Breton] (1716)

Thinking that he could kill two birds with one stone, colonial officer Antoine-Denis Raudot proposed several times throughout the 1700s and 1710s that the French government build an enormous fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton island. He claimed that an island fortress would protect Canada from another British invasion, and also promote the fishing industry, which would make the economy of New France less dependent on the fur trade. In 1716, hoping to make his case more convincing, he commissioned the following map of what the fortress might look like. The French government accepted Raudot’s proposal and spent 20 years (1720–1740) building a huge, expensive base at Louisbourg. The investment did not pay off. Louisbourg was captured in 1745, returned in 1748, and then captured again (this time for good) in 1758, during the Seven Year’s War (1756–1763). By the end of the war, the British had conquered all of New France, from Canada to New Orleans, leaving the French in control of only a few small islands in the Caribbean. But those colonies, one hundredth the size of New France, were the most valuable parts of France’s transatlantic empire, far more profitable than the vast North American territories.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What was the role of the fur trade in the history of New France? Of Chicago?
  2. What were the weaknesses of the French model of colonization?
  3. What does this contract tell us about the role of women in New France’s economy and society?
  4. What information does this map convey? How does it make building a fortress at Louisbourg seem like a good idea?

[Key to Louisbourg Map: A-D Gun batteries; E Magazines; F Place to disembark on the island; G Bridge; H-I Rocks and pieces of land that appear at low tide]

Soldiers and Priests in North America

Britain was not the only country the French needed to worry about. During its 250 years of history, the French empire in North America had complicated relationships with a number of American Indian communities. Sometimes these were allies of the French, like the Huron Confederacy in present-day Quebec, which signed an official treaty with the French government in 1614. But others, such as the Iroquois of what is now upstate New York, and the Natchez of what is now Mississippi, could be bitter enemies. Lieutenant Dumont de Montigny recorded France’s many battles with the Natchez in a manuscript he wrote after his retirement in 1747. In the introduction to this manuscript, de Montigny says that he had originally written his story in an epic poem, full of battles and adventures. After thinking it over, however, he decided that it would be better just to tell what happened in a straightforward way. His revised manuscript in prose was translated into English in 2007 as A French Soldier in Louisiana: The Memoir of Dumont de Montigny.

Dumont de Montgomery, Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present] (1747)
  • Half-page of handwritten French. Above this is a hand-drawn coat of arms topped with a crown. Behind the coat of arms are rows of flags and at its base are cannons and stacks of cannonballs.
  • Watercolor painting of a snake curled along the ground.
  • Watercolor painting of a crocodile (which looks more like a lizard) walking along the ground toward a patch of eggs (which look like a bundle of grapes)
  • Watercolor map of the Gulf of Mexico with the Yucatan Peninsula, Florida, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

One of the most important features of French relations with American Indians was the influence of Catholic missionaries, who left France to convert different groups in Canada and elsewhere. The most famous of these missionaries is Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest who travelled down the Mississippi with fur-trader Louis Jolliet in 1673. Jean-Claude Mathevet is less well known today, but he was also a kind of pioneer. He lived for many years among the Nipissing, a small community living around Lake Nipissing in present-day Ontario, hundreds of miles from the main French settlements of Montreal and Quebec. Mathevet tried to learn their language so that he and other priests would be able to preach to them in the future. But the notes he took suggest that he was having a good deal of trouble. He wrote down phrases he would need to remember, including “I’m tired of talking” (je suis las de parler) and “let’s speak French” (parlons français)! Nevertheless, his persistence eventually paid off, and Mathevet was able to write the Gospels, the lives of saints, and the Catholic liturgy in Nipissing. Today his writings provide valuable data for historians and linguists and can offer hope to anyone who has ever struggled with a foreign language.

Handwritten pages of notes in French and Nipissing
Jean-Claude Mathevet, Sentences in French and Nipissing (1750)

The middle column of the top of the first page of Mathevet’s notes reveals some of the words he felt he would need most often: passion, resurrection, divers moyens pour se bien comporter, regrets d’un incroyant à la veille de son départ, enfer, patience [passion, resurrection, various ways of behaving well, the regrets of an unbeliever on the verge of his departure, Hell, patience].

Questions to Consider:

  1. What expressions did Mathevet think were most important? What does this tell us about him and his mission?
  2. Identify the elements that are included in the coat of arms De Montigny drew. Why do you think he chose these elements?

Genocide and the “Noble Savage” in the Caribbean

France’s defeat in the Seven Year’s War meant the loss of an enormous territory. But French officials and merchants were much less upset about the loss of New France than they were relieved that France could still keep its Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). These sugar-producing islands were much smaller than New France, but had a larger population (well over half a million by the end of the eighteenth century, compared to the 50,000 in New France), and made far more money for the business community back in France. Christopher Columbus had claimed all these places for Spain in 1492, but the Spanish government never colonized the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. It did briefly colonize Saint-Domingue, which lies on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, but Spain soon abandoned that area to concentrate settlement on the eastern side (now the Dominican Republic). Pirates took over the western coast, before being driven out by the French government in the late seventeenth century.

When French settlers came to Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635, the islands were still inhabited by the Carib people who had lived there for centuries. Some people in France hoped to convert them to Catholicism. But Jacques Bouton, a member of the Jesuit order of missionaries, felt that this would not be possible. In his 1640 Relation of the Establishment of the French since 1635 in the Island of Martinique, Bouton claimed that the Caribs were too wicked and ignorant to ever become Christians. Responding in part to such ideas, French settlers massacred almost all of the Caribs by the end of the seventeenth century. This act of genocide allowed the French to transform their Caribbean colonies into plantation societies, where the heavy work of growing sugar cane and transforming it into refined sugar done by hundreds of thousands of slaves taken from Africa.

Two-page spread of printed text in French.
Jacques Bouton, Relation de l’establissement des françois depuis l’an 1635, en l’isle de la Martinique [Account of the Establishment of the French in the Island of Martinique, Since the Year 1635], 134-135 (1640)

By the time that the Marquis de Lambertye wrote a far more positive description of the Caribs in his 1760 travel memoirs, there were only a few surviving members of the original inhabitants of the Martinique and Guadeloupe. Lambertye’s History of the Caribs is a classic example of the idea of the “noble savage” popular in eighteenth-century France. Native peoples under French rule were now presented as innocent, naïve, and good, instead of as evil and ignorant. But this change in French thinking did not make much difference to the Caribs.

Two-page spread of handwritten French.
Marquis de Lambertye, Histoire des Caraïbes: nation sauvage qui habite les Isles du Vent en Amérique et partie de la terre ferme ou continent. [History of the Caribs: A Savage Nation Inhabiting the Windward Isles in America, and Part of the Terra Firma or Continent], 2-3 (1760)

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why might French relations with the Caribs have differed from France’s treatment of North American peoples? What role could economic factors have played?
  2. On what points do the two descriptions of the Caribs agree? How might this be significant?

The Slave Trade

African slaves were brought to France’s Caribbean colonies (and, in some cases, to Canada and the Midwest), through the routes of what historians today call the Triangular Trade. The three sides of this triangle were ports in Western Europe, trading posts on the coast of West Africa (then known generally as Guinea), and European colonies in the New World. European products like guns and textiles were given to African merchants in exchange for slaves, who were then transported across the Atlantic in crowded ships. Many did not survive the journey. Most of the survivors were sold to sugar-producing plantations in the Caribbean, where working conditions were worse than almost anywhere else in the Americas. Theoretically, the French king Louis XIV gave basic protections for slaves in his 1685 Black Node (Code Noir). This law required masters to provide slaves with enough food, clothing, and shelter. But it was rarely enforced. Slaves on the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) were usually worked to death within five to ten years of their arrival.

The French, by and large, treated African slaves in their Caribbean colonies brutally. Their relationships with the African traders and political leaders who were their partners in the slave trade, however, were very different. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the French government was in no position to force African countries to do what it wanted. Instead, the French set up small coastal forts and trading posts, and then tried to find strong African allies who could supply them with slaves. But first they had to convince African rulers that it was worth siding with them.

Single page of printed text in French.
Jean-Babtiste Labat, Voyage to Guinea, Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais en Guinée, isles voisines, et à Cayenne, fait en 1725, 1726 & 1727. [Voyage of the Chevalier des Marchais to Guinea, the Neighboring Islands and to Cayenne, made in 1725, 1726, and 1727], 339 (1731)

During the seventeenth century, the French were especially interested in the West African kingdom of Allada (in what is today the country of Benin). The Chevalier des Guines, whose memoirs were ghost-written by author Jean-Baptiste Labat, went to buy slaves in Allada in 1725, just two years before the kingdom was conquered by an army from the neighboring country of Dahomey. While telling the story of the chevalier’s visit, Labat remarked that Allada had once been much more powerful, so powerful that in 1670, French officials asked the king of Allada for an alliance. The king had answered that before he could make up his mind he would need to send an ambassador to see if France was a strong enough country to be Allada’s ally. So he sent his interpreter, Matteo Lopes, to travel with a French ship (and the six hundred slaves it was carrying) first to the Caribbean, and then back to France to meet Louis XIV, which he did the following year.

Allada’s ambassador had learned fluent Portuguese, studied Christianity, and changed his name to Matteo so that he could deal more easily with Europeans. Labat was clearly fascinated and impressed by him. Neither Matteo nor his French counterparts seem to have been troubled by the fact that Allada’s ambassador to France was traveling on a ship filled with African slaves.

Matteo Lopes may have been treated “respectfully” on board The Concord, but for the twelve million slaves sent from Africa to the New World from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century, the voyage across the Atlantic was agonizing and often fatal. Their journey began in places like the island of Gorée, off the coast of the modern-day country of Senegal. In such fortified outposts, European traders would gather slaves purchased from African kingdoms like Allada. Gorée was first colonized the Portuguese in 1444, before coming under French control in 1677. It was not one of the major centers of the slave trade, sending “only” a few hundred slaves to the Americas each year. But Gorée is an important place in the history of slavery, because it is home to one of the first museums and memorials of the slave trade, founded in 1962. The map below shows a French plan from 1716 (the same year as the map of Louisbourg) for new construction on the island.

Map of a small island mostly filled with fortified structures. Above and below the island are keys in French describing its features.
Plan du fort de lisle de Goreé et ses projets [Map and plans for the Fort of the Island of Gorée] (1716)

A – Fort
B – Courtyard
C – Governor’s House
D – Guards
E – Kitchen
F – Magazine
G – Officer’s House
H-I – Captives’ Quarters

O-Q – Batteries
S-Y – Rocks that appear at low tide

Questions to Consider:

  1. How can we make sense of the fact that an African ambassador was apparently treated with dignity while travelling on a slave ship?
  2. Both Gorée and Louisbourg were fortified islands. Do the maps of the two forts show more differences or similarities between them? What do they show about the purpose of the fortifications?

Slavery in Saint-Domingue

The largest of France’s Caribbean colonies, and the main destination for slaves, was Saint-Domingue, today Haiti. By 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, over 500,000 African slaves lived on the island, along with a population of 100,000 whites and free people of color. In 1791, the slaves revolted, taking the opportunity provided by the revolution in France. They won their freedom in 1793, when the French government abolished slavery. But ten years later, it seemed like the French government was about to restore slavery to the island, and revolt broke out again in Saint-Domingue. This second rebellion soon turned into a war of independence, and the colony of Saint-Domingue became the free Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804.

Long before 1791, slaves on the island found ways to resist their masters, either by fleeing into the hills of the island (becoming so-called “maroons”) or by using more subtle methods. The following letter, written by an anonymous plantation-owner, describes an episode that took place in Saint-Domingue in 1758. It shows examples of both open and covert forms of resistance, and also reveals the extreme violence slaveholders used to punish resistance.

Anonymous, Relation d’une conspiration tramée par les negres : dans l’Isle de S. Domingue [Account of a Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes: In the Island of St Domingue], 1-5 (1759)
  • Single page of printed text in French
  • Two-page spread of printed text in French
  • Two-page spread of printed text in French

Questions to Consider:

  1. How did the white community try to use François Macandal’s execution to send a warning to slaves?
  2. How did the slaves interpret what was happening?

Selected Sources

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804. Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, 2004.

Dumont de Montigny. The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715-1747, ed. and trans. Gordon M Sayre and Carla Zecher. Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, 2012.

Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.