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Montreal Founded by the French 1642

In 1642, a hardy group of French pioneers led by Governor Maisonneuve founded a colony on the island of Montreal. The project was the dream of the French layman Jérôme de la Dauversière who, after seeing a vision, decided to lead a group of pioneers from France into the New World. He worked with the nobleman Baron de Fancamp and the priest Abbe Olier to make the vision come true. After several challenges, his dream was finally realized in 1641 when the first Montreal-bound colonists sailed from France.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during that time.

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Canada: The Early Years

In 1535, the French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew arrived in the St. Lawrence River area. He left two of his ships docked near Stadacona (modern Quebec) and sailed with his men to the southern portion of the river. Cartier and his men came across a large village named Hochelaga which was then inhabited by the St. Lawrence Iroquois.

Cartier spent some time in the village, and named the nearby mountain “Mount Royal.” He returned to France in 1541 and many years would pass before the French visited the area again. It was not until 1603 that the French navigator Samuel de Champlain explored the St. Lawrence River area. The village of Hochelaga had long been abandoned, and there were no permanent settlements on the island of Montreal.

The French merchants established a monopoly on the fur trade with the natives who lived nearby. Champlain was then appointed as the governor of the territory, and he established Quebec as the colony’s headquarters. The French government encouraged their people to emigrate, but few people seized the opportunity. The few French pioneers who dared settle in the territory were also left to fend for themselves when the Thirty Years’ War started in 1618. They were forced to establish an alliance with the Wyandot people (Hurons) both for protection and for trade.

However, it seemed that they were not totally forgotten. Jesuit priests arrived in the colony named New France in 1625 and soon sent missionaries to convert the natives. In 1627, the French government created the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France (Company of One Hundred Associates) and granted it the right to govern the colony. It was also given the monopoly on the fur trade and fishing rights to the nearby waters. Despite having administrators, the conditions in the colony continued to worsen, and many of its residents died of starvation.

In 1629, the French government tried to send some reinforcements and supplies to its beleaguered colony, but the ship was intercepted by the English fleet led by Admiral David Kirke. The English fleet then sailed to Quebec where the admiral demanded Champlain’s surrender. The French governor had no choice but to surrender the colony. Kirke had him imprisoned and sent the fur bought by the French back to England. It was not until 1632 that the territory was restored to France and Champlain was reinstated as its governor. Champlain died three years later and was buried in his adopted hometown.

The Foundation of Montreal

A statue of the first governor of Montreal, Paul de Chomedey (Sieur de Maisonneuve)

Back in France, a tax collector and layman named Jérôme le Royer de la Dauversière had a vision while attending mass in the town of La Fleche in Anjou. In his vision, a being commanded him to establish a city on an island. He was also charged to establish a hospital on the same island, as well as a religious order of nursing sisters. He confided this vision to a local priest who then directed him to Pierre Chevrier, the wealthy Baron de Fancamp.

The two men then traveled to Paris in 1639 where they met Abbe Jean-Jacques Olier. The three talked about the far-off island of Montreal (Mount Royal) and agreed to establish a colony there. Thanks to the well-connected Abbe Olier, they were soon able to secure the patronage they needed from the French court. They were able to create the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal and were soon joined by three additional partners. Other people joined the venture and contributed their money, but the funds were still insufficient. Despite the odds, the members of the Société persisted in raising funds for a couple more years until they finally accumulated the amount that they needed.

In 1636, a member of the Compagnie named Jean de Lauzon acquired the island of Montreal and some lands on the southern portion of the St. Lawrence. He returned to France after staying in Quebec for some time and soon met with the leaders of the Société. They offered to buy the island of Montreal from him, but he initially refused. The negotiations continued, and he was forced to accept after the Jesuits appealed to him. He set the price at 150,000 livres, but the Société found it too steep. The negotiations with de Lauzon continued for months until they finally had an agreement.

After securing the title for the land, the Société then informed the Compagnie of their intention. The leaders of the Compagnie thought that Société’s single goal was to convert the natives, so they easily agreed to let them establish a colony in New France. Members of the Société were allowed to choose their own governor, build their own garrisons, and establish their own courts. The only condition was that the Compagnie retained the ownership of the northern shore, as well as any forts that would be built on it.

Jérôme de la Dauversière then looked for a suitable governor for the new colony. He had heard of a former soldier and nobleman named Paul de Chomedey (Sieur de Maisonneuve) who seemed to be the right man for the job. Dauversière arranged to see him, and he was impressed with Maisonneuve when they finally met. Not only was Maisonneuve wealthy, but he was also popular for his piety which sometimes bordered on puritanical. He was also tireless, disciplined, and generous which made him the right man for the job for Dauversière. Maisonneuve accepted the position of governor of Montreal and prepared for the journey ahead.

The search for volunteer colonists also started while negotiations with Maisonneuve was ongoing.  Skilled artisans and able-bodied single men who could handle muskets were prioritized as colonists. The Jesuit priest Charles Lallemant also recruited the hardy and pious Jeanne Mance to serve as a nurse for the group of Montreal-bound colonists. Though frail, Mance had earned her stripes after her service as a nurse during France’s civil war which made her the perfect candidate for the job.

The Compagnie was able to secure three ships which would bring the colonists to the New World. In June 1641, the ships finally left France and sailed for Montreal. They were beset with bad weather, but all ships arrived in New France safely. The ship that bore Jeanne Mance’s group was the first to arrive in Quebec. It was followed three weeks later by the ships that bore Maisonneuve and the rest of the colonists. The group’s initial reception in Quebec was frosty. They were even discouraged by Governor de Montagny to continue their journey because of the threat of the marauding Iroquois bands.

Maisonneuve refused to be daunted. He invited Montagny and a priest to travel with him to check the island and look for a possible site to settle. Unfortunately, the harsh winter and the frozen St. Lawrence River forced the Montrealers to spend the winter in Quebec. The men used the time to prepare for the journey. Jeanne Mance, meanwhile, volunteered at a hospital in Quebec to improve her skills.

Finally, on the 8th of May 1642, 45 colonists sailed from Quebec to the island of Montreal. Maisonneuve and Mance were among the first group to leave, and they were accompanied by Governor de Montagny to their new home. They arrived on the island on the 17th of May and celebrated the first mass in Montreal on the same day. They immediately cleared the land to build an outpost and spent the summer planting crops and building houses for themselves. The number of settlers soon swelled to 70 when additional colonists joined them from Quebec.

The colonists were able to celebrate mass when they finished the new chapel in August of 1642. Maisonneuve then named the settlement Ville-Marie in honor of the Virgin Mary, and it became the first French settlement on the island of Montreal.


Picture by: Ŝculpture: Louis-Philippe Hébert / Photo: Jeangagnon – J’ai pris moi-même ce cliché, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Atherton, W. H. Montreal, 1535-1914. Montreal: S.J. Clarke, 1914.

Jenkins, Kathleen. Montreal: Island City of the St. Lawrence. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Rich, E.E. The New Cambridge Modern History: The Decline of Spain and the Thirty Years War 1609-48/59. Edited by J.P. Cooper. Vol. 4. London: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

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