As the era of European explorations began, the French and the English, alongside many other European powers, were quick to engage in the colonization of the New World. For most of their colonial history in North America, the French and the English were rivals and thus several wars broke out between the two powers. This led the French and the British to fortify the outskirts of their American possessions by building chains of forts with garrisons of soldiers inside. Even though heavily outnumbered, at a ratio of 21 to 1, the French were able to hold on to most of their territories for more than 150 years, due mostly to the huge network of alliances they built with most of the local native tribes. This eventually came to an end during the Seven Year’s War when the British were finally able to take and hold New France’s capital city, Quebec and make Montreal surrender soon after. Even if this era is now long gone, many of New France’s legacies are still visible today in what is now the New England region!
Acadia in New England
During most of New France’s history, most of what is now the state of Maine was under French jurisdiction as the French considered the Kennebec River represented the westernmost limit of their colony of Acadia. Only after the fall of New France in 1763 were the colonists of the state of Massachusetts able to start settling the area east of the Kennebec River.
The coast between Cape Cod and the Bay of Fundy was first extensively explored and mapped by Samuel Champlain, who would eventually found Quebec City a few years later. In 1604, the French decided to build their first permanent settlement at Ste-Croix Island in what they called Acadia. Unfortunately, after losing more than half their men due to the harsh climate during the first winter, the French moved the settlement to the other side of the Bay of Fundy to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.
A few years after the failure of the settlement of Ste. Croix Island, the French settled more of the area of modern day Maine. They founded Castine at the mouth of the Penobscot River in 1613, making this settlement the oldest in New England, predating the founding of Plymouth by seven years. Understanding the importance of the strategic location of this settlement, the French decided in 1625 to grant it a defense system of its own by building Fort Pentagouët. The settlement of Castine, with its tumultuous history and its location at the outskirts of the French colony of Acadia, was sometimes called “the battle line of four nations”. It was, in fact, attacked, raided and occupied many times by the British, the Dutch and later the Americans, while always eventually being retroceded to the French until the fall of New France. Castine is the site of one of the major American defeats during the American War of Independence. The American’s Penobscot Expedition attempted to retake the mid-coast of Maine in 1779. It resulted in one of the biggest British naval and land victories of the war. For a brief period of time, between 1670 and 1674, Castine even became the capital city of Acadia.
The Lake Champlain Area
The area between the Lake Champlain valley and the Hudson River valley was, for over 150 years, the limit and the frontline between different European empires. First, it had been the frontier between the Dutch and the French possessions, but it became the frontier between the English and the French after the Dutch handed over their possessions in North America to the British in 1667. The heated and tumultuous relations that the French and English had in North America forced the two colonial powers to fortify the outskirts of their American possessions. Along the Lake Champlain waterways, the French built various forts such as Fort Carillon, Fort St-Frédéric, Fort de l’Île-aux-Noix, Fort St-Jean and Fort Chambly. On the Lake Champlain watershed, the British had built Fort William Henry, strengthening their hold on the Hudson River waterway where Fort Edward and the post of Albany stood.
During the French and Indian War, the situation quickly became unbearable. Conflict started when, in 1754, people from the thirteen colonies started to settle, trade and build forts on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains and in the Ohio Valley in what was considered part of New France. During the years between 1754 and 1758, the French were not only able to defend themselves successfully against the many assaults launched by the British, but they even launched successful counterattacks and captured Fort Necessity, Fort William Henry and Fort Oswego.
The three main routes that the British tried to gain control of were: the Ohio Valley, Acadia and the Champlain Valley. Dominance of the Ohio Valley would allow the British to interrupt the French resupply routes between Canada and Louisiana. Control of Acadia and the Champlain Valley would give direct access to the heart of New France, the Saint Lawrence Valley.
The Lake Champlain area was one of those strategic links that the British aimed to conquer. In 1757, knowing that the British were preparing other invasions, the French decided to take the lead and march on Fort William Henry, the only British fort on Lake Champlain. General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the same French general who would lose against the British at Québec City two years later, successfully besieged and captured the fort. After destroying the fort, Montcalm considered marching to Fort Edward, about 15 miles (24km) south, but this plan was finally abandoned because of the risk of keeping the militiamen away from their farms for the harvesting season in one of the worst years for crop production in New France. The Fort William Henry battle is also famous for the massacre that took place there after the French victory. This massacre occurred when the native people allied with the French decided to kill and loot between 70 and 180 of the retreating British soldiers. Even if Montcalm tried to prevent it, this event had great repercussions in the thirteen colonies and fostered the anti-French sentiment and encouraged colonists to support the war against the French.
Also in 1758, the wind started to change for the British who were able to take Fort Frontenac in the Great Lakes and the really important Fortress of Louisbourg, one of the key elements to controlling access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The success at Louisbourg set the tone for the following year, as the British were able to win almost everywhere. They won at Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley, at Fort Niagara in the Great Lakes, at Carillon on Lake Champlain and at Quebec City, the capital city of New France, with the famous battle of the Plains of Abraham. These victories encircled what remained of the French territories along the Saint Lawrence River and at Montreal. Even though the French had a final victory near Quebec City at Sainte-Foy in the spring of 1760, they lacked the gunpowder and the adequate artillery to be able to besiege Quebec City properly and retake it from British hands. The French, confident that reinforcements were on the way from France, decided to keep their position on a hill in front of Quebec City while waiting for supplies needed for the success of their siege. The situation became hopeless for the French when British supply ships with fresh men and ammunition started to arrive in the bay of Quebec City while no French ships were able to make it. Confronted with this situation, the French troops withdrew to Montreal where they were eventually forced to surrender as the British troops coming from the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain regrouped with the British forces coming from Quebec City and the fresh troops coming from the British Isles. It is safe to say that a French victory in Lake Champlain or in the Great Lakes would have made it more unlikely that the British would win without a fight at Montreal.
Following the conquest of Quebec City in 1759 and the surrender of Montral in 1760, and due to their losses in Europe and in other parts of the world, the French decided, in 1763, to cede all of their former territories in North America on the east side of the Mississippi River to the British (with the exception of the small islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon). The ones west of the Mississippi River were given to Spain in the hope of getting them back someday, which happened when Napoléon Bonaparte ruled France.