Chronicles of America 

Daily Life in New France

In New France there were no privileged orders. This, indeed, was the most marked difference between the social organization of the home land and that of the colony. There were social distinctions in Canada, to be sure, but the boundaries between different elements of the population were not rigid; there were no privileges based upon the laws of the land, and no impenetrable barrier separated one class from another. Men could rise by their own efforts or come down through their own defaults; their places in the community were not determined for them by the accident of birth as was the case in the older land. Some of the most successful figures in the public and business affairs of New France, some of the social leaders, some of those who attained the highest rank in the "noblesse", came of relatively humble parentage.

In France of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the chief officials of state, the seigneurs, the higher ecclesiastics, even the officers of the army and the marine, were always drawn from the nobility. In the colony this was very far from being the case. Some colonial officials and a few of the seigneurs were among the numerous "noblesse" of France before they came, and they of course retained their social rank in the new environment. Others were raised to this rank by the King, usually for distinguished services in the colony and on the recommendation of the governor or the intendant. But, even if taken all together, these men constituted a very small proportion of the people in New France. Even among the seigneurs the great majority of these landed gentlemen came from the ranks of the people, and not one in ten was a member of the "noblesse". There was, therefore, a social solidarity, a spirit of fraternity, and a feeling of universal comradeship among them which was altogether lacking at home.

The pivot of social life in New France was the settlement at Quebec. This was the colonial capital, the seat of the governor and of the council, the only town in the colony large enough to have all the trappings and tinsel of a well-rounded social set. Here, too, came some of the seigneurs to spend the winter months. The royal officials, the officers of the garrison, the leading merchants, the judges, the notaries and a few other professional men--these with their families made up an elite which managed to echo, even if somewhat faintly, the pomp and glamor of Versailles. Quebec, from all accounts, was lively in the long winters. Its people, who were shut off from all intercourse with Europe for many months at a time, soon learned the art of providing for their own recreation and amusement. The knight-errant La Hontan speaks enthusiastically of the events in the life of this miniature society, of the dinners and dances, the salons and receptions, the intrigues, rivalries, and flirtations, all of which were well suited to his Bohemian tastes. But the clergy frowned upon this levity, of which they believed there was far too much. On one or two occasions they even laid a rigorous and restraining hand upon activities of which they disapproved, notably when the young officers of the Quebec garrison undertook an amateur performance of Moliere's "Tartuffe" in 1694. At Montreal and Three Rivers, the two smaller towns of the colony, the social circle was more contracted and correspondingly less brilliant. The capital, indeed, had no rival.

Only a small part of the population, however, lived in the towns. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the census (1706) showed a total of 16,417, of whom less than 3000 were in the three chief settlements. The others were scattered along both banks of the St. Lawrence, but chiefly on the northern shore, with the houses grouped into "cotes" or little villages which almost touched elbows along the banks of the stream. In each of these hamlets the manor-house or home of the seigneur, although not a mansion by any means, was the focus of social life. Sometimes built of timber but more often of stone, with dimensions rarely exceeding twenty feet by forty, it was not much more pretentious than the homes of the more prosperous and thrifty among the seigneur's dependents. Its three or four spacious rooms were, however, more comfortably equipped with furniture which in many cases had been brought from France. Socially, the seigneur and his family did not stand apart from his neighbors. All went to the same church, took part in the same amusements upon days of festival, and not infrequently worked together at the common task of clearing the lands. Sons and daughters of the seigneurs often intermarried with those of habitants in the seigneury or of traders in the towns. There was no social "impasse" such as existed in France among the various elements in a community.

As for the habitants, the people who cleared and cultivated the lands of the seigneuries, they worked and lived and dressed as pioneers are wont to do. Their homes were commonly built of felled timber or of rough-hewn stone, solid, low, stocky buildings, usually about twenty by forty feet or thereabouts in size, with a single doorway and very few windows. The roofs were steep-pitched, with a dormer window or two thrust out on either side, the eaves projecting well over the walls in such manner as to give the structures a half-bungalow appearance. With almost religious punctuality the habitants whitewashed the outside of their walls every spring, so that from the river the country houses looked trim and neat at all seasons. Between the river and the uplands ran the roadway, close to which the habitants set their conspicuous dwellings with only in rare cases a grass plot or shade tree at the door. In winter they bore the full blast of the winds that drove across the expanse of frozen stream in front of them; in summer the hot sun blazed relentlessly upon the low roofs. As each house stood but a few rods from its neighbor on either side, the colony thus took on the appearance of one long, straggling, village street. The habitant liked to be near his fellows, partly for his own safety against marauding redskins, but chiefly because the colony was at best a lonely place in the long cold season when there was little for any one to do.

Behind each house was a small addition used as a storeroom. Not far away were the barn and the stable, built always of untrimmed logs, the intervening chinks securely filled with clay or mortar. There was also a root-house, half-sunk in the ground or burrowed into the slope of a hill, where the habitant kept his potatoes and vegetables secure from the frost through the winter. Most of the habitants likewise had their own bake-ovens, set a convenient distance behind the house and rising four or five feet from the ground. These they built roughly of boulders and plastered with clay. With an abundance of wood from the virgin forests they would build a roaring fire in these ovens and finish the whole week's baking at one time. The habitant would often enclose a small plot of ground surrounding the house and outbuildings with a fence of piled stones or split rails, and in one corner he would plant his kitchen-garden.

Within the dwelling-house there were usually two, and never more than three, rooms on the ground floor. The doorway opened into the great room of the house, parlor, dining-room, and kitchen combined. A "living" room it surely was! In the better houses, however, this room was divided, with the kitchen partitioned off from the rest. Most of the furnishings were the products of the colony and chiefly of the family's own workmanship. The floor was of hewn timber, rubbed and scrubbed to smoothness. A woolen rug or several of them, always of vivid hues, covered the greater part of it. There were the family dinner-table of hewn pine, chairs made of pine saplings with, seats of rushes or woven underbark, and often in the corner a couch that would serve as an extra bed at night. Pictures of saints hung on the walls, sharing the space with a crucifix, but often having for ominous company the habitant's flint-lock and his powder-horn hanging from the beams. At one end of the room was the fireplace and hearth, the sole means of heating the place, and usually the only means of cooking as well. Around it hung the array of pots and pans, almost the only things in the house which the habitant and his family were not able to make for themselves. The lack of colonial industries had the advantage of throwing each home upon its own resources, and the people developed great versatility in the cruder arts of craftsmanship.

Upstairs, and reached by a ladder, was a loft or attic running the full area of the house, but so low that one could touch, the rafters everywhere. Here the children, often a dozen or more of them, were stowed away at night on mattresses of straw or feathers laid along the floor. As the windows were securely fastened, even in the coldest weather this attic was warm, if not altogether hygienic. The love of fresh air in his dwelling was not among the habitant's virtues. Every one went to bed shortly after darkness fell upon the land, and all rose with the sun. Even visits and festivities were not at that time prolonged into the night as they are nowadays. Therein, however, New France did not differ from other lands. In the seventeenth century most of the world went to bed at nightfall because there was nothing else to do, and no easy or inexpensive artificial light. Candles were in use, to be sure, but a great many more of them were burned on the altars of the churches than in the homes of the people. For his reading, the habitant depended upon the priest, and for his writing, upon the notary.

Clothing was almost wholly made at home. It was warm and durable, as well as somewhat distinctive and picturesque. Every parish had spinning wheels and handlooms in some of its homes on which the women turned out the heavy druggets or "etoffes du pays" from which most of the men's clothing was made. A great fabric it was, this homespun, with nothing but wool in it, not attractive in pattern but able to stand no end of wear. It was fashioned for the habitant's use into roomy trousers and a long frock coat reaching to the knees which he tied around his waist with a belt of leather or of knitted yarn. The women also used this "etoffe" for skirts, but their waists and summer dresses were of calico, homemade as well. As for the children, most of them ran about in the summer months wearing next to nothing at all. A single garment without sleeves and reaching to the knees was all that covered their nakedness. For all ages and for both sexes there were furs in plenty for winter use. Beaver skins were cheap, in some years about as cheap as cloth. When properly treated they were soft and pliable, and easily made into clothes, caps, and mittens.

Most of the footwear was made at home, usually from deerhides. In winter every one wore the "bottes sauvages", or oiled moccasins laced up halfway or more to the knees. They were proof against cold and were serviceable for use with snowshoes. Between them and his feet the habitant wore two or more pairs of heavy woolen socks made from coarse homespun yarn. In summer the women and children of the rural communities usually went barefoot so that the soles of their feet grew as tough as pigskin; the men sometimes did likewise, but more frequently they wore, in the fields or in the forest, clogs made of cowhide.

On the week-days of summer every one wore a straw hat which the women of the household spent part of each winter in plaiting. In cold weather the knitted "tuque" made in vivid colors was the great favorite. It was warm and picturesque. Each section of the colony had its own color; the habitants in the vicinity of Quebec wore blue "tuques", while those around Montreal preferred red. The apparel of the people was thus in general adapted to the country, and it had a distinctiveness that has not yet altogether passed away.

On Sundays and on the numerous days of festival, however, the habitant and his family brought out their best. To Mass the men wore clothes of better texture and high, beaver hats, the women appeared in their brighter plumage of dresses with ribbons and laces imported from France. Such finery was brought over in so large a quantity that more than one "memoire" to the home government censured the "spirit of extravagance" of which this was one outward manifestation. In the towns the officials and the well-to-do merchants dressed elaborately on all occasions of ceremony, with scarlet cloaks and perukes, buckled slippers and silk stockings. In early Canada there was no austerity of garb such as we find in Puritan New England. New France on a "jour de fete" was a blaze of color.

As for his daily fare, the habitant was never badly off even in the years when harvests were poor. He had food that was more nourishing and more abundant than the French peasant had at home. Bread was made from both wheat and rye flour, the product of the seigneurial mills. Corn cakes were baked in Indian fashion from ground maize. Fat salted pork was a staple during the winter, and nearly every habitant laid away each autumn a smoked supply of eels from the river. Game of all sorts he could get with little trouble at any time, wild ducks and geese, partridges, for there were in those days no game laws to protect them. In the early winter, likewise, it was indeed a luckless habitant who could not also get a caribou or two for his larder. Following the Indian custom, the venison was smoked and hung on the kitchen beams, where it kept for months until needed. Salted or smoked fish had also to be provided for family use, since the usages of the Church required that meat should not be used upon numerous fast-days.

Vegetables of many varieties were grown in New France, where the warm, sandy, virgin soil of the St. Lawrence region was splendidly suited for this branch of husbandry. Peas were the great stand-by, and in the old days whole families were reared upon "soupe aux pois", which was, and may even still be said to be, the national dish of the French Canadians. Beans, cucumbers, melons, and a dozen other products were also grown in the family gardens. There were potatoes, which the habitant called "palates" and not "pommes de terre", but they were almost a rarity until the closing days of the Old Regime. Wild fruits, chiefly raspberries, blueberries, and wild grapes, grew in abundance among the foothills and were gathered in great quantities every summer. There was not much orchard fruit, although some seedling trees were brought from France and had managed to become acclimated.

On the whole, even in the humbler homes there was no need for any one to go hungry. The daily fare of the people was not of great variety, but it was nourishing, and there was plenty of it save in rare instances. More than one visitor to the colony was impressed by the rude comfort in which the people lived, even though they made no pretense of being well-to-do. "In New France," wrote Charlevoix, "poverty is hidden behind an air of comfort," while the gossipy La Hontan was of the opinion that "the boors of these seigneuries live with, greater comfort than an infinity of the gentlemen in France." Occasionally, when the men were taken from the fields to serve in the defense of the colony against the English attacks, the harvests were small and the people had to spend the ensuing winter on short rations. Yet, as the authorities assured the King, they were "robust, vigorous, and able in time of need to live on little."

As for beverages, the habitant was inordinately fond of sour milk. Tea was scarce and costly. Brandy was imported in huge quantities, and not all this "eau-de-vie", as some writers imagine, went into the Indian trade. The people themselves consumed most of it. Every parish in the colony had its grog-shop; in 1725 the King ordered that no parish should have more than two. Quebec had a dozen or more, and complaint was made that the people flocked to these resorts early in the morning, thus rendering themselves unfit for work during most of the day, and soon ruining their health into the bargain. There is no doubt that the people of New France were fond of the flagon, for not only the priests but the civil authorities complained of this failing. Idleness due to the numerous holidays and to the long winters combined with the tradition of hospitality to encourage this taste. The habitants were fond of visiting one another, and hospitality demanded on every such occasion the proffer of something to drink. On the other hand, the scenes of debauchery which a few chroniclers have described were not typical of the colony the year round. When the ships came in with their cargoes, there was a great indulgence in feasting and drink, and the excesses at this time were sure to impress the casual visitor. But when the fleet had weighed anchor and departed for France, there was a quick return to the former quietness and to a reasonable measure of sobriety.

Tobacco was used freely. "Every farmer," wrote Kalm, "plants a quantity of tobacco near his house because it is universally smoked. Boys of twelve years of age often run about with the pipe in their mouths." The women were smokers, too, but more commonly they used tobacco in the form of snuff. In those days, as in our own, this French-Canadian tobacco was strong stuff, cured in the sun till the leaves were black, and when smoked emitting an odor that scented the whole parish. The art of smoking a pipe was one of several profitless habits which, the Frenchman lost little time in acquiring from his Indian friends.

This convivial temperament of the inhabitants of New France has been noted by more than one contemporary. The people did not spend all their energies and time at hard labor. From October, when the crops were in, until May, when the season of seedtime came again, there was, indeed, little hard work for them to do. Aside from the cutting of firewood and the few household chores the day was free, and the habitants therefore spent it in driving about and visiting neighbors, drinking and smoking, dancing and playing cards. Winter, accordingly, was the great social season in the country as well as in the town.

The chief festivities occurred at Michaelmas, Christmas, Easter, and May Day. Of these, the first and the last were closely connected with the seigneurial system. On Michaelmas the habitant came to pay the annual rental for his lands; on May Day he rendered the Maypole homage which, has been already described. Christmas and Easter were the great festivals of the Church and as such were celebrated with religious fervor and solemnity. In addition, minor festivals, chiefly religious in character, were numerous, so much so that their frequency even in the months of cultivation was the subject of complaint by the civil authorities, who felt that these holidays took altogether too much time from labor. Sunday was a day not only of worship but of recreation. Clad in his best raiment, every one went to Mass, whatever the distance or the weather. The parish church indeed was the emblem of village solidarity, for it gathered within its walls each Sunday morning all sexes and ages and ranks. The habitant did not separate his religion from his work or his amusements; the outward manifestations of his faith were not to his mind things of another world; the church and its priests were the center and soul of his little community. The whole countryside gathered about the church doors after the service while the "capitaine de la cote", the local representative of the intendant, read the decrees that had been sent to him from the seals of the mighty at the Chateau de St. Louis. That duty over, there was a garrulous interchange of local gossip with a retailing of such news as had dribbled through from France. The crowd then melted away in groups to spend the rest of the day in games or dancing or in friendly visits of one family with another.

Especially popular among the young people of each parish were the "corvees recreatives", or "bees" as we call them nowadays in our rural communities. There were the "epuchlette" or corn-husking, the "brayage" or flax-beating, and others of the same sort. The harvest-home or "grosse-gerbe", celebrated when the last load had been brought in from the fields, and the "Ignolee" or welcoming of the New Year, were also occasions of goodwill, noise, and revelry. Dancing was by all odds the most popular pastime, and every parish had its fiddler, who was quite as indispensable a factor in the life of the village as either the smith or the notary. Every wedding was the occasion for terpsichorean festivities which lasted all day long.

The habitant liked to sing, especially when working with others in the woods or when on the march. The voyageurs relieved the tedium of their long journeys by breaking into song at intervals. But the popular repertoire was limited to a few folksongs, most of them songs of Old France. They were easy to learn, simple to sing, but sprightly and melodious. Some of them have remained on the lips and in the hearts of the French-Canadian race for over two hundred years. Those who do not know the "Claire fontaine" and "Ma boule roulant" have never known French Canada. The "foretier" of today still goes to the woods chanting the "Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre" which his ancestors caroled in the days of Blenheim and Malplaquet. When the habitant sang, moreover, it was in no pianissimo tones; he was lusty and cheerful about giving vent to his buoyant spirits. And his descendant of today has not lost that propensity.

The folklore of the old dominion, unlike the folk music, was extensive. Some of it came with the colonists from their Norman firesides, but more, perhaps, was the outcome of a superstitious popular imagination working in the new and strange environment of the wilderness. The habitant had a profound belief in the supernatural, and was prone to associate miraculous handiwork with every unusual event. He peopled the earth and the air, the woods and the rivulets, with spirits of diverse forms and varied motives. The red man's abounding superstition, likewise, had some influence upon the habitant's highstrung temperament. At any rate, New France was full of legends and weird tales. Every island, every cove in the river, had one or more associated with it. Most of these legends had some moral lessons attached to them: they were tales of disaster which came from disobeying the teachings of the Church or of miraculous escape from death or perdition due to the supernatural rewarding of righteousness. Taken together, they make up a wholesome and vigorous body of folklore, reflecting both the mystic temper of the colony and the religious fervor of its common life. A distinguished son of French Canada has with great industry gathered these legends together, a service for which posterity will be grateful.(Sir J.M. Lemoine, Legends of the St. Lawrence (Quebec, 1878).)

Various chroniclers have left us pen portraitures of the habitant as they saw him in the olden days. Charlevoix, La Hontan, Hocquart, and Peter Kalm, men of widely different tastes and aptitudes, all bear testimony to his vigor, stamina, and native-born vivacity. He was courteous and polite always, yet there was no flavor of servility in this most benign trait of character. It was bred in his bone and was fostered by the teachings of his church. Along with this went a "bonhomie" and a lightheartedness, a touch of personal vanity, with a liking for display and ostentation, which unhappily did not make for thrift. The habitant "enjoys what he has got," writes Charlevoix, "and often makes a display of what he has not got." He was also fond of honors, even minor ones, and plumed himself on the slightest recognition from official circles. Habitants who by years of hard labor had saved enough to buy some uncleared seigneury strutted about with the airs of genuine aristocrats while their wives, in the words of Governor Denonville, "essayed to play the fine lady." More than one intendant was amused by this broad streak of vanity in the colonial character. "Every one here," wrote Meulles, "begins by calling himself an esquire and ends by thinking himself a nobleman."

Yet despite this attempt to keep up appearances, the people were poor. Clearing the land was a slow process, and the cultivable area available for the support of each household was small. Early marriages were the rule, and families of a dozen or more children had to be supported from the produce of a few "arpents". To maintain such a family as this every one had to work hard in the growing season, and even the women went to the fields in the harvest-time. One serious shortcoming of the habitant was his lack of steadfastness in labor. There was a roving strain in his Norman blood. He could not stay long at any one job; there was a restlessness in his temperament which would not down. He would leave his fields unploughed in order to go hunting or to turn a few "sous" in some small trading adventure. Unstable as water, he did not excel in tasks that required patience. But he could do a great many things after a fashion, and some that could be done quickly he did surprisingly well.

One racial characteristic which drew comment from observers of the day was the litigious disposition of the people. The habitant would have made lawsuits his chief diversion had he been permitted to do so. "If this propensity be not curbed," wrote the intendant Raudot, "there will soon be more lawsuits in this country than there are persons." The people were not quarrelsome in the ordinary sense, but they were very jealous each one of his private rights, and the opportunities for litigation over such matters seemed to provide themselves without end. Lands were given to settlers without accurate description of their boundaries; farms were unfenced and cattle wandered into neighboring fields; the notaries themselves were almost illiterate, and as a result scarcely a legal document in the colony was properly drawn. Nobody lacked pretexts for controversy. Idleness during the winter was also a contributing factor. But the Church and the civil authorities frowned upon this habit of rushing to court with every trivial complaint. "Cures" and seigneurs did what they could to have such difficulties settled amicably at home, and in a considerable measure they succeeded.

New France was born and nurtured in an atmosphere of religious devotion. To the habitant the Church was everything--his school, his counselor, his almsgiver, his newspaper, his philosopher of things present and of things to come. To him it was the source of all knowledge, experience, and inspiration, and to it he never faltered in ungrudging loyalty. The Church made the colony a spiritual unit and kept it so; undefiled by any taint of heresy. It furnished the one strong, well-disciplined organization that New France possessed, and its missionaries blazed the way for both yeoman and trader wherever they went.

Many traits of the race have been carried on to the present day without substantial change. The habitant of the old dominion was a voluble talker, a teller of great stories about his own feats of skill and endurance, his hair-raising escapes, or his astounding prowess with musket and fishing-line. Stories grew in terms of prodigious achievement as they passed from tongue to tongue, and the scant regard for anything approaching the truth in these matters became a national eccentricity. The habitant was boastful in all that concerned himself or his race; never did a people feel more firmly assured that it was the salt of the earth. He was proud of his ancestry, and proud of his allegiance; and so are his descendants of today even though their allegiance has changed.

To speak of the habitants of New France as downtrodden or oppressed, dispirited or despairing, like the peasantry of the old land in the days before the great Revolution, as some historians have done, is to speak untruthfully. These people were neither serfs nor peons. The habitant, as Charlevoix puts it, "breathed from his birth the air of liberty"; he had his rights and he maintained them. Shut off from the rest of the world, knowing only what the Church and civil government allowed him to know, he became provincial in his horizon and conservative in his habits of mind. The paternal policy of the authorities sapped his initiative and left him little scope for personal enterprise, so that he passed for being a dull fellow. Yet the annals of forest trade and Indian diplomacy prove that the New World possessed no sharper wits than his. Beneath a somewhat ungainly exterior the yeoman and the trader of New France concealed qualities of cunning, tact, and quick judgment to a surprising degree.

These various types in the population of New France, officials, missionaries, seigneurs, voyageurs, habitants, were all the scions of a proud race, admirably fitted to form the rank and file in a great crusade. It was not their fault that France failed to dominate the Western Hemisphere.

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