Philip Marchand
Books & Reviews
Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America


Faced with the North American woodlands, a European had two choices. He could look at it as a howling wasteland, full of very dangerous humans, the sooner cleared the better - the New England way. Or he could look at it as a realm of beautiful, hard, unforgiving freedom, which was La Salle's way. So La Salle learned to paddle a birch bark canoe. "Do not begin to paddle unless you are inclined to continue paddling," advised the Jesuit Brebeuf, and in that little sentence lay the heart of wilderness wisdom. Once you put that paddle in the water, you had better be prepared for blisters and aching muscles. In the same way, La Salle learned to walk under loads fit for a horse, through snow and tangled underbrush. He developed a stamina to match that of the Indians. He learned to cover his body with grease to repel insects, he learned the art of starting fires in damp or frozen woods, he learned the art of finding direction. He learned, during the hungry time of winter, to look for the tree where a woodpecker was at work, because underneath the bark would be hordes of carpenter ants, which La Salle then scooped and ate. He learned a hundred other things, including the language of the Iroquois, a fantastically difficult and complex tongue for a European to master.

He wanted to find the fabled passage to Asia, and his ambition became so fierce it turned into a joke, which was why his neighbours called his seigneury "Lachine." But La Salle meant it, and so he turned his attention to the fur trade, which was the only way a man in his circumstances could finance a career of exploration.

What gold and silver was to the Spaniards in Peru, fur was to the French in Canada. It was a tremendously valuable commodity in Europe, where the wealthy wore hats made of long-haired felt. Enterprising men in Canada could make a lot of money trading European goods - notably brandy - for beaver pelts from the lands north of the Great Lakes. That's where the thickest, richest pelts came from. And that's why the French and the Iroquois ended up as enemies. If the French wanted those prime northern furs, they had no choice but to ally themselves with the northern Indians who were at odds with the Iroquois.

The fur trade also has been blamed for the failure of the French, despite the best efforts of Louis XIV and Colbert, to concentrate on settlement of the New World, in the manner of the English colonies. This lucrative commerce, it has been said, diverted resources and turned attention away from agricultural activity. That now seems a questionable thesis. Other things enter the picture. Good farmland in Quebec, where the land is under snow and frost half the year, is not quite so abundant as it is in Connecticut or South Carolina. But it is true that fur trading, as an economic staple of New France, shaped the French empire in North America in ways very different from the English. For one thing, it meant that the French needed the Indians. They had no interest in clearing them out of the lands they already occupied. Especially as time went on, they also relied on the Indians militarily. The French were a fraction of the population of the English and could not hope to pin the English down east of the Appalachians without alliances with various Indian nations.

This explains why the French, of all the colonizing people in North America, had the cleanest hands when it came to dealing with Indians. But there was a worm in the apple of the fur trade, and that was brandy. It was a trade good that never lost its appeal, and the mark-up was terrific. Unfortunately, it was also pure poison for the Indians, which is why the Jesuits, and especially Bishop Laval, were dead set against its sale. The Jesuits knew its violent effects at first hand. Famous for their courage, the black robes nevertheless made themselves scarce whenever Indians came back to their village with kegs of the stuff. Other missionaries, like the Sulpician Dollier De Casson, could bear similar witness. "In the twenty-six years that I have been in this country I have seen our flourishing and numerous Algonquin missions wholly destroyed by drunkenness," wrote this priest in 1691.

As the decades wore on, and the Jesuits began to make real progress converting the Indians, especially in the north, they started to imagine establishing an independent Indian nation, not unlike Paraguay, where they could exercise a benign paternal care and shield the natives from the worst aspects of European civilization. In this dream, they would carefully limit the fur trade and make sure no brandy was sold. This is one of the reasons why the Jesuits later took a dim view of La Salle's explorations, even though La Salle had been one of their students. They saw his voyages around the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi as an end-run around their own Indian protectorate and an expansion of the fur trade that would wholly undermine them.

Events shattered their dream in any case, and today the Jesuits suffer a bad press even for the work they did accomplish. Parkman, a deep-dyed New England anti-Papist, always viewed them with a cold eye, and twenty-first century historians, determined not to give the faintest benefit of the doubt to the colonizers, are even less generous. The record of the Jesuits is remarkable, nonetheless. Of all the Christian missionaries in colonial America, they were the only ones who realized that, in order to teach the Indians, they had to learn from them. They had to live among them, become familiar with their language, habits, way of life, outlook. "You must have sincere affection for the savages (faut aimer de coeur les Sauvages).as our brethren with whom we are to pass the rest of our lives," wrote Jean de Brebeuf to his Jesuit colleagues in his Instructions for the Fathers of Our Society Who Shall Be Sent to the Hurons. Among Brebeuf's pieces of advice for dealing with the Hurons: Never keep them waiting; Never drag wet sand into their canoes with your cassocks; Never bother them while they're paddling by asking too many questions or trying to improve your command of the language; Always give them a light from your tinderbox for their pipes. ("These little services win their hearts.")

The Jesuits tried very hard to find some sort of common ground with the Indians, and to change only those practices clearly at odds with the gospel of Christ; that is to say, sorcery, sacrifice to spirits, torture, revenge, excessive mourning for the dead, pre- and extra-marital sex, and a few other items. In the end, as we shall see, this policy had its own pitfalls but on the surface anyway it was a more enlightened approach than that attempted by the English Protestant missionaries, which was "civilize" the Indians before Christianizing them. The firm belief of these missionaries seemed to be that an Indian had to wear shoes, live in a house - even though wigwams were cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter - get a haircut, and sport a first name like Habbakuk before he could be considered a good Christian. In his "praying" towns, the Reverend John Eliot of Massachusetts carefully regulated the behavior of his native converts with a series of thou shalt nots. On pain of fines or a beating, for example, they were not to "kill their lice between their teeth." Needless to say, people like Eliot could get away with this because their potential converts had already lost their lands, their way of life, and the last vestiges of their pride and independence. These missionaries preached effectively when they preached to a captive audience, almost literally. The Jesuits in this regard may be said to have made a virtue of necessity, since the Indians they preached to were independent, and aimed to stay that way, but nevertheless it's a tribute to their intelligence that they realized so quickly they couldn't make Frenchmen out of Hurons or Iroquois. Even someone as skilled in Indian diplomacy as Count Frontenac, governor of New France in the late seventeenth century, urged the missionaries to bring their converts to Quebec and Frenchify them. A Jesuit named Pierre de Charlevoix responded acidly that the experience of the Jesuits "has taught us that the worst system of governing these people and maintaining them in our interest is to bring them in contact with the French, whom they would have esteemed more, had they seen them less closely." There was something about the mingling of whites and Indians that brought out the worst in both groups.

How to order Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America

The new U.S. hard cover edition can be purchased directly from its publisher, Praeger. Log on to The Canadian trade paperback edition of Ghost Empire — not available in the United States — is now on sale in bookstores in Canada.

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