The French in the New World

The Spanish were the only Europeans in the Americas for a brief time. Then, in 1500, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral discovered Brazil. By the 1530’s, the Portuguese had started settlements. The French and the English were not far behind in claiming parts of the Americas. Their efforts were, however, weak at first.

The Beginnings of New France

The French king Francis I sponsored a voyage by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 to look for a route through the Americas to the Pacific and Asia. Verrazano explored the coast of North America from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia, visiting Manhattan Island (the future site of New York City) along the way. He called the lands he visited New France and claimed them all for France.

Francis I also sent the explorer Jacques Cartier to North America. Cartier was to look for a passage to Asia and to find new lands for France. In 1535, Cartier sailed up the river he named the St. Lawrence. He went as far as today’s city of Montreal. His voyage was very important. It was the basis for France’s claim to the St. Lawrence River and the land along it, which provided a route to the Great Lakes.

Like Verrazano, Cartier never found a route to Asia. During the 1540’s the French tried to start a settlement in the land Cartier discovered. The settlement failed. Through the rest of the 1500’s, the French more or less ignored North America. They did not, however, give up their claims to New France.

Reasons for Delay

Why did France ignore the Americas? Because through most of the late 1500’s the French were too busy fighting wars in Europe. Also Cartier’s description of the St. Lawrence River Valley, with its long and cold winters, was not very appealing. He brought home no gold and silver. He found no trade routes to Asia. Therefore, French explorers lost interest in North America.

So, for many years, the French claims in North America were left to French fishermen. With other fishermen from England, Spain, and Portugal, they came to fish the waters off Newfoundland. They lived in shacks for the summer. When winter came, they sailed home.

The Growth of the Fur Trade

While on shore, the French fishermen traded with nearby Indians. As a result of that trade, they found something more valuable than fish to take home – furs. Fur coats had always been prized in Europe, but the fur trade really boomed when hats made from beaver skins became popular.

King Henry IV decided that France needed to secure its control of the fur trade. So he brought together a group of merchants who agreed to start a colony in New France. In return, they were given the right to all the trade in furs between their American lands and France.


Those merchants sent Samuel de Champlain to build their colony. He became known as the Father of New France. In 1608, he built a trading post at Quebec. It became the first permanent settlement in New France. Other settlements, such as Montreal, followed. But for many years those settlements were only bleak trading posts for the fur trade.

Altogether Champlain made 11 exploring and trading trips to New France. In 1609, he ventured as far as Lake Champlain. It is, of course, now named for him. Later he went as far west as Lake Huron.

In the course of his exploring, Champlain became friendly with the Huron Indians, for who the lake is named. In fact, he helped the Huron in a battle with their traditional enemies, the Iroquois. While he won the friendship of the Huron for the French, Champlain made enemies of the Iroquois.