The First Soldiers of New France

The Soldiers Of Trading Companies

The few French soldiers who landed in Canada from 1604 on were usually veterans of the incessant conflicts raging across Europe. They were recruited and hired by trading companies that obtained monopolies in New France, or exclusive rights to exploit resources and trade them. In exchange for this privilege, the companies agreed to several obligations to the king, namely to colonize New France, Christianize the Amerindians, govern, and defend the interests of His Majesty. These activities required a certain amount of armed protection, which the companies also undertook to provide. Since the companies owed absolute loyalty and obeisance to the king, the men-at-arms whom they paid were, to some extent, just as much soldiers as their colleagues who were paid out of the royal treasury. Both types of soldiers were bound to fight the enemies of the realm, regardless of who or where they were.

Few soldiers were sent to Canada in the first decades of the French Regime for the simple reason that they were expensive. Often on the verge of bankruptcy, trading companies hired as few soldiers as possible. Another possible explanation is that members of the expeditions were rarely clearly identified as soldiers in the records of the times. Military men, of course, did not only engage in soldiery; they had other occupations as well, which may obscure our view of them. The records often mention people described only as the "companion" to someone, Champlain for instance, taking action in battles. Flexibility of roles was necessary in a nascent colony, but did not prevent military duties from occupying an important place alongside the other occupations of soldiers and "companions."

At the time of the trading companies, rank and authority in New France were entirely military in nature. The colony's governor was also the supreme commander. In the absence of any councils to provide opposition, his authority was absolute. This form of autocratic government remained essentially unchanged throughout the French Regime.