The Military Empire

Towards The Great Lakes

The Military Shift Westwards

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (1680-1767)

Caption: Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (1680-1767)

Frontenac wrote to Colbert in 1672 that the town of Quebec "could not be better located to become one day the capital of a great empire." 134 However, if Quebec managed to remain the administrative capital of Canada in the second half of the seventeenth century, it was Montreal that became the strategic hub due to its location near the junctions of a number of waterways radiating in all directions. It became the centre from which French troops were dispatched to the heart of the continent, and as a result, the headquarters of most of the Compagnies franches de la Marine. Of the 28 units in Canada, 19 were stationed in Montreal in comparison with only seven in Quebec and two in Trois-Rivières. Montreal therefore outstripped Quebec as the leading military bastion in the colony even though it lacked equivalent natural or even man-made defences, since its modest fortifications (wooden until 1720 and stone thereafter) were intended only to provide protection against marauders and not to withstand a regular siege. Montreal accordingly became the great base from which attacks were launched against all those opposing French dreams of expansion to the south and west.

In 1673, at the same time that he was encouraging the great voyages of discovery to the south, the far-sighted Frontenac took the first concrete step toward the establishment of a huge French empire in North America by building Fort Frontenac at the entrance to the Great Lakes, where Kingston, Ontario now stands. At first, a few soldiers detached from the small garrisons in Montreal and Quebec were stationed there, but after 1675, the companies engaged in the fur trade in this area provided their own soldiers. In 1684, these soldiers were replaced in turn by others from the Compagnies franches de la Marine, who thereby became the first royal garrison on the Great Lakes. A second garrison was established three years later at Niagara. Small detachments of soldiers were sent to Michilimackinac and even to the Illinois, although they were withdrawn in 1698 because they were too weak to face the Iroquois and other hostile tribes that could attack in force. Thus began the construction of a vast defensive system around the Great Lakes.

The main impediments to further westward expansion were eliminated by the "Great Peace" 135 ceremoniously concluded in Montreal, after long and tortuous negotiations between France, the Iroquois Confederacy, and other Amerindian nations on the Great Lakes. Without even awaiting the end of the negotiations, a contingent of 90 soldiers under the leadership of Antoine de La Mothe-Cadillac set out in 25 large canoes, reaching the banks of Lake Erie on July 24, 1701, where they founded Detroit. This was another case of military colonization, because most of the soldiers intended to settle there. Detroit flourished, being well situated for both the fur trade and lines of communication between Canada, the Illinois, and French settlements on the Mississippi.

Additional Images

Sergeant, drummer and soldier of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, 1685-1700