Daily Life in New France


Recruiting Sergeants

Soldier of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, around 1740

Caption: Soldier of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, around 1740

Skillful recruiting sergeants generally lingered in taverns, dressed in fine uniforms, lying in wait for young men with a yen for money and excitement. Despite any suspicions the young men had, what a temptation it must have been to seek adventure in the service of the king, to shower themselves with gold and silver in the colonies, to return as wealthy men to their villages, and to recount all their exotic adventures! The recruiter himself had evidently done all this and was comfortably off, enjoying himself, and able to buy generous quantities of drink. And then of course there were native girls, who were so accommodating, and rich Creoles who just loved handsome young soldiers! Fortunes could be made in Canada, trading trinkets for furs, with no need to fear the deadly fevers of the tropics. There were the Iroquois, of course, but they fled at the mere sight of approaching royal soldiers, leaving their cabins to be burned down at leisure. As for the English, they just sat around in their towns drinking beer. Good wine and frequently pâté were the fare of royal soldiers. Leave was easily obtained upon request. Then, of course, there were recruitment bonuses, payable immediately. After a few drinks, and by now a little tipsy, the young men would be induced to sign enlistment contracts (or scrawl their X's). They received their bonuses on the spot, and then might buy a round of drinks to celebrate their good fortune.

This type of scene, worthy of Voltaire's Candide, was nevertheless the classic way that recruiting sergeants operated. Recruiting posters of the time made all sorts of appealing promises. One poster informed potential recruits for Grassin's Volunteers that "while waiting to become officers, they [would] serve under pleasing conditions," adding that they would enjoy the same weapons and dance instructors as the officer cadets. If, by some mischance, military service did not appeal to the new recruits, the colonel would take "real pleasure in finding them employment elsewhere." According to another poster, nothing was more agreeable than life in the artillery. "There are dances three times a week . . . ," it read, "and the rest of the time is spent bowling, playing prisoners' base and fencing. Pleasure reigns. . . ." 77 Young men were even recruited for fictitious regiments with prestigious names. While some naive young people may have been duped by all these promises, most suspected that the life was not quite as rosy as portrayed. Nevertheless, it was hard to resist all that adventure. As one poster for the Navy troops stated, recruits would "see a lot of country." 78

Not all of the king's soldiers signed up in inns. Some were young men from good families, whose parents wanted them to vanish because of some indiscretion or misdeed. They were not necessarily all that depraved, according to a certain Sieur Le Beau who, in 1729, was surprised to discover a former school chum among a contingent being shipped to Canada. During the 1730s, some habitual criminals were exiled in this way, but the authorities in New France complained about this practice, and it was abandoned. During wartime, some rather unscrupulous recruiting sergeants resorted to force, and their recruits did not always meet the basic requirements. According to contemporary reports, contingents occasionally included children, old men and disabled people. Some professional recruiters were not in the military themselves and were simply employed on commission. In 1751, the Navy hired a certain Sieur de Gignoux for this purpose instead of employing the usual sergeant or officer. Although recruiters certainly went too far on occasion, some new soldiers simply saw military service as their only means of subsistence. This was true, for instance, of a young orphan in the army in Louisbourg, who refused to be discharged for ill health and "began to weep, saying that if he was discharged he would not know what to do for a living." 79

Additional Images

A recruiting party, circa 1700