Lost, Forgotten and Suppressed History – The Huguenot origins of Québec

The first explorers and settlers of New France were Protestants.   This is not something I learned in school; I don’t think it’s being taught even today, the Catholic church having almost succeeded in expunging all mention of Protestants from the collective memory of the Québecois people.

The Reformed Church in France seems to have begun when remnants of the Waldenses and Albigenses converted to Calvinism.  John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was himself a Frenchman who became the leader of the Reform in Geneva.  Adherents of this faith were known as Huguenots, a name whose origin is still uncertain.  At one point, Huguenots accounted for 15 to 20% of the population of France.  There ensued almost two centuries of conflict, massacres and wars, as the Catholic church tried to eliminate Protestantism in France and the Huguenots fought back.

French Huguenots fleeing persecution dispersed throughout the world.  Breton fishermen had fished on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for generations and some Huguenots began dreaming of a new homeland across the ocean.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier of St. Malo began the exploration of New France.  It is claimed that Cartier was Catholic, though he came from a Huguenot family and his expedition was financed by Philippe de Chabot, a Huguenot.  The first Huguenot colony was established in 1540 at Cap-Rouge, near present day Québec City, by Jean-François de la Roque, Sieur de Roberval, a Huguenot.  This settlement was abandoned in 1543.

Another short-lived colony was begun on Sable Island in 1598 and another at Tadoussac in 1600.  The first permanent colony was at Port Royal, Nova Scotia in 1604, led by Samuel de Champlain.  His religious affiliation is uncertain, but he later married Hélène Boulé, a Huguenot, his expedition was financed by Pierre de Gua, Sieur des Monts, a Huguenot, and the only clergy on this expedition were Huguenots.

In 1610, Champlain established a second settlement at Québec, again financed by le Sieur des Monts.  One of the settlers, Marc Lescarbot, a Huguenot, is called the first farmer in Canada. Brothers Guillaume and Émery de Caën, Huguenots in France, held a monopoly on the fur trade in New France until 1627.

The Catholic forces of repression in France eventually had their effect in New France.  The fur trade monopoly was transferred to the Company of a Hundred Associates, all Catholics.  Further Huguenot emigration from France was forbidden, Jesuits were sent to New France and life became increasingly difficult for Huguenots in New France.

Some men began to seek the freedom of the woods and rivers, pushing exploration and the fur trade into new frontiers.  They were called coureurs-du-bois and voyageurs.  Many of their names are unknown to us, but two are named in every Canadian history book: Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart de Groseillières.  Their travels took them into what is now Western Canada and they discovered that a huge area of what is now Canada drains into Hudson Bay.

They returned to France to try to claim this area for France and establish a fur trade monopoly over the whole area.  They met with refusal in France, quite possibly because they were Huguenots and then turned to England.  In 1670 the Hudson Bay Company was formed and given ownership of all the land draining into Hudson Bay.

It appears that some remnant of Protestantism remained right up to the English conquest in 1759.  In 1741 the Catholic clergy complained three times that the local authorities were still allowing Huguenot refugees to enter the colony.

After the conquest, the Catholic church continued to tighten its control over the French-speaking population.  The church ran all the schools, so when a family converted to Protestantism, their children could no longer attend school.  If the father was a labourer, he would probably lose his job.  If he was a businessman, he would lose his clientele.  Thus, most who did convert to Protestantism were forced to leave the province or assimilate to an English-speaking community in the province.  This allowed the Catholic church to claim that it was the sole defender of French language and culture.

Protestant mission work in Québec by missionaries from France and Switzerland began in the 1830’s.  It was a slow and difficult work, but they established a number of new Francophone congregations.  The Quiet Revolution of 1960 opened the door for a rapid growth of Francophone churches.

12 thoughts on “Lost, Forgotten and Suppressed History – The Huguenot origins of Québec

  1. Now that is real history! Thanks for the info as both my wife and I are descendants of huegenots. She is French from Quebec and I English from Ontario.

  2. When I was 5 (1964) I was staying in Bedford PQ with my Grandfather. To his English he was Millard Carter, and to his French friends he was Medard Cartier. Some PQists were crossing the bridge by his house with flags, drums and bugles. So my Grandad heads on out and tells them something in French, at which they all turn around and head the other way. Sometime afterwards I came out with something or other vile and racist about “@#$ French Separatists…” (I’m from Alberta), to which my Grandfather took some offence. He sat me down and explained that we were in large part French Huguenots and that we’d been chased back and forth across the border of Vermont a _number_ of times since arriving in 1610 or 12.

    Somehow related to this is that both Jesuits and Oblates used to regularly show up at his door where they’d all wave their arms and argue in French.

  3. One of my ancestors was Isaac Paquit dit Lavallee from France who was a soldier sent to what is now Quebec. Does anyone know if he was a Huguenot? I try to find out if any of my French Canadian side were Huguenots but all I got when I asked a Huguenot Society club is they have to be on their list or related to someone on their list. It seems like nobody that was a Huguenot back then would have had it on their records if they were or weren’t Huguenot. I also had a Marie Madeleine Coulon on my ancestory and saw the name Marie Coulon on a list of Huguenots in England but not sure if it was her since my ancestors was in Canada.

    • My family has the surname Lavis which is Huguenot and spelled several ways even within the family. Dit is from the military. Lavalee, lavers, levis, Lavis, Lavor are a few of the spellings I have encountered. There is an obit in Capetown, South Africa 1925 for Emily Lavis, Father George, and a deacon S. Lavis which states they are an old Huguenot family.

  4. Very interesting indeed. It explains why Champlain never received any big honours from France for the several fine pieces of work he produced. At least some of my Huguenot ancestors were the family Strang. They emigrated to England and eventually New York state where they remained loyal to Britain through the American Revolution. Although there were several descending Daniel Strangs,, one senior Daniel appears to have been a recruiter and courier for the British and worked with Col Robert Rogers and his Rangers, purportedly the first to use very strategic tactics in warfare. This Daniel was captured by the revolutionaries, was found to have a list of potential recruits for the British side, and after a very quick trial (now available on the net) was hung from an oak tree (in more recent years destroyed by lightening and replaced with a plaque) in Peekskills, NY. His son Daniel and his wife were stripped of belongings and with other ‘Loyalists’ were shipped out to Shelbourne NS from New York in Dec 1789. From there they settled in PEI and next generations arrived in New Brunswick. Anyone interested in the Huguenot history should check out the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, the Edict of Fontainbleu and other Edicts over a multiple decade period in France. Most all of us have persecutions in our ancestry.

    • Leslie….My cousins met a Mr Strang in Milford. CT years ago..He had a copy of a slave purchase made by our 4th great grandfather , John Renoud ( changed early on from Arnaud) of New Rochelle., which he made a copy that I still have…dated 1769..Yes, I am a descendant of Andre Arnaud , Huguenot from La Tremblade..I recently found records from 1616 , whereby , my Andre Arnaud’s grandfather, Andre Arnaud was one sixth owner in a fishing vessel that was also authorized to seize Spanish ships coming from South America to Spain…Le 1″ mars 1615, ces mêmes négociants, pro priétaires des cinq sixièmes du navire le Sauvage , 70 tonneaux , et André Arnaud , de la Tremblade, capitaine dudit navire, propriétaire de l’autre sixième, l’arment pour Terre-Neuve, où il doit faire la pêche de conserve avec le Charles, de Marennes , dans lequel les armateurs du Sauvage, sont intéressés comme « avictuailleurs. » ‘

      l’arment pour Terre-Neuve, où il doit faire la pêche de conserve avec le Charles, de Marennes , dans lequel les armateurs du Sauvage, sont intéressés comme ” avictuailleurs. ” ‘ Les opérations commerciales et maritimes de Guiton continuent jusqu’en août 1620, avec Jehan Torterue et autres , tantôt pour la pêche de la morue au cap des Bretons, en 1617 , par le Turbot , capitaine Arnaud ; par la Fortune, 45 hommes , 200 tonneaux, et par le Lion-couronné , 300 tonneaux, 55 hommes; en 1618 et 1619 , par la Fortune, capitaine Canados, de Biariz , etc. ‘ ; tantôt pour des expéditions de fer , blé, ‘mérain, feuillards, draps , tuiles , papier, toiles, etc. ; en 1615 , pour Madère , à l’adresse d’Antoine Maquin, par la Petite-Ainzée, capitaine Lardeau; par la Mathurine, et par un troisième navire dont le nom est resté en blanc’; en 1619, pour les Canaries, par le Don-de-Dieu, opération que doit diriger l’un des associés, Pierre Bodier, qui 1618, ; 1620. s’embarque sur le navire; en 1620, pour les Açores, par le Tonneau, sur lequel part également l’un des intéressés, Jacob Deslandes; pour .Terceire, par la Petite-Aune ,- pour Saint-Lucar et Mahon ,. par l’Étoile , etc. , etc. ‘ En 1616 et 1619, Guiton charge et expédie , pour des destinations masquées, deux navires, dont il est co-propriétaire , le Lion-vert, 80 tonneaux , et le Saint-Jean, 130, opérations con?ées aux soins de Samuel Maquin et de Jean Bernard, qui sembarquent chacun sur l’un de ces naÿires, etc. ’

      Translation: Jean Guiton, last mayor of the old town of La Rochelle, 1628 …

      On the 1st of March, 1615, these same merchants, proprietors of five-sixths of the ship Le Sauvage, 70 tons, and Andre Arnaud de la Tremblade, captain of the said vessel, proprietor of the other sixth, the armament for Newfoundland, where he has to go fishing with the Charles de Marennes, in which the owners of the Sauvage, are interested as “avictuailleurs…..( in other words) …..Pirates?”

      The armament for Newfoundland, where he has to make the preserve fishery with the Charles de Marennes, in which the owners of the Sauvage, are interested as “avictuailleurs….meaning Pirates?” ‘The commercial and maritime operations of Guiton continue until August 1620, with Jehan Torterue and others, sometimes for the cod fishery at Cap des Bretons, in 1617, by the Turbot, Captain Arnaud; by Fortune, 45 men, 200 barrels, and by the crowned lion, 300 barrels, 55 men; in 1618 and 1619, by Fortune, Captain Canados, of Biariz, etc. ‘; sometimes for expeditions of iron, corn, corn, stripes, sheets, tiles, paper, canvases, & c. ; in 1615, for Madeira, at the address of Antoine Maquin, by Petite-Ainzée, Captain Lardeau; by the Mathurine, and by a third ship whose name is left blank; in 1619, for the Canaries, by the Don-de-Dieu, an operation to be directed by one of the associates, Pierre Bodier, who 1618,; 1620. embarks on the ship; in 1620, for the Azores, by the Tonneau, on which also one of the interested parties, Jacob Deslandes; to carry on, by the Little Aune, – for St. Lucar and Mahon,. by the Star, etc. etc. In 1616 and 1619, Guiton charged and shipped, for masked destinations, two ships, of which he co-owned, the Green Lion, 80 barrels, and the Saint John, 130, operations confined to the care of Samuel Maquin and Jean Bernard, each embarking on one of these na’ires, etc. ‘

  5. Thank you for adding valuable historical information on French Protestant immigration. In my line is Pierre Nicolas Migneret who first appeared in Fort Chartes, Illinois. However, a Migneret was also found with Champlain. Both Gilles Migneret and Pierre Migneret were mentioned and may have been the same person. I and other genealogical researchers have found the origin of the Migneret group to be a brick wall. I have suspected he may have been a Protestant. Your information adds credence to my hypothesis.

  6. Thanks for that comment. I am having trouble tracing my Bigarel/Bigarré ancestors. Ancestry.com is no help at all; they seem to ignore France completely. In fact, they tell me I have no French ancestry. Yet the grandfather of my grandmother came from Lorraine, spoke French, was a French citizen. Ancestry.com classifies the people of Lorraine as being of Germanic ethnic origin. That may be true, at least in part, yet I find it insulting.

  7. Thanks Bob! I’m looking to deepen my knowledge of the Huguenot spiritual heritage in Québec as I hope to start a new bilingual Anglican church (following its Reformed roots) there. This was a helpful start.

I'd love to hear what you think about this. Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.