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Quebec City, Canada


History of Quebec City, Canada


Quebec City was founded by the French explorer and navigator Samuel de Champlain in 1608, commencing a string of French colonies along the St. Lawrence River, creating a region named “le Canada”. Prior to the arrival of the French, the location that would become Quebec City was the home of a small Iroquois village called “Stadacona”. Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, was the first European to ascend the St. Lawrence Gulf, claiming “le Canada” for France (and the coming addition of a newly founded “l’Acadi” – known today as the Province of Nova Scotia) to create a dominion known as “New France”. Jacques Cartier and his crew spent a harsh winter near Stadacona during his second voyage in 1535. The word “Kebec” is an Algonquin word meaning “where the river narrows.” By the time Champlain came to this site, the Iroquois population had disappeared and been replaced by Innu and Algonquins. Champlain and his crew built a wooden fort which they called “l’habitation” within only a few days of their arrival. This early fort and trading post exists today as a historic site in Old Quebec. Quebec City’s maritime position and the presence of cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River made it an important location for economic exchanges between the Amerindians and the French. In 1620, Champlain built Fort Saint-Louis on the top of Cape Diamond, near the present location of the Chateau Frontenac in the Upper Town.

Samuel de Champlain built “l’Habitation” to house 28 people. However, the first winter proved formidable, and 20 of 28 men died. By 1615, the first four missionaries arrived in Quebec. Among the first successful French settlers were Marie Rollet and her husband, Louis Hebert, credited as “les premier agriculteurs du Canada” by 1617. The first French child born in Quebec was Helene Desportes, in 1620, to Pierre Desportes and Francoise Langlois, whose father was a member of the Hundred Associates.

The population of Quebec City reached 100 in 1627, less than a dozen of whom were women. However, with the invasion of Quebec by David Kirke and his brothers in 1628, Champlain returned to France with approximately 60 out of 80 settlers.

The French returned to Quebec in 1632,and it remained an outpost until well into the 1650s. As in other locations throughout New France, the population could be split into the colonial elites, including clergy and government officials, the craftsmen and artisans, and the engagés (indentured servants). Quebec was designed so that the inhabitants of better quality lived in the upper city, closer to the centers of power such as the government and Jesuit college, whereas the lower town was primarily populated by merchants, sailors and artisans. The city contained only about thirty homes in 1650, and one hundred by 1663, for a population of over 500.

Population continually increased, with the city boasting 1300 inhabitants by 1681.

The city quickly experienced overcrowding, especially in the lower town, which contained two-thirds of the population of the city by 1700.

During the Seven Years’ War, in 1759, the British, under the command of General James Wolfe, besieged Quebec City for three months. The city was defended by French general the Marquis de Montcalm. The very short battle of the Plains of Abraham lasted approximately 15 minutes and culminated in a British victory and the surrender of Quebec.

As a whole, approximately 27,000 immigrants came to New France during the French regime, only 31.6% of whom remained. Despite this, by the time of British occupation in 1759, New France had evolved to a colony of over 60,000 with Quebec as the principal city.

The Catholic faith played a significant role in the settling and development of Quebec City. With the first missionaries arriving in 1615, Quebec was, almost from its founding, a Catholic city. Although those of other faiths were permitted to practice their faith in private, the city embraced Catholicism as an integral part of daily life.

After the English invasion of Quebec, the residents were permitted to continue practicing Catholicism under the Act of Quebec in 1774.

The British and French had co-existed in North America, but the threat of French expansion into the Ohio Valley caused the British to attempt to eradicate New France from the map completely. In the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759), the city was permanently lost by the French. In 1763, France formally ceded its claims to le Canada, and Quebec City’s French-speaking Catholic population came under the rule of Protestant Britain.

The Quebec Act, passed in 1774, allowed ‘les Canadiens’ (today, also referred to as the Québécois) to have religious and linguistic freedoms, to openly practice their Catholicism and use their French. The Canadiens were therefore not unhappy enough with British rule to choose to participate in the American Revolution. Without Canadian cooperation against the British, the 13 colonies instead attempted to invade Canada. The city was therefore once again under siege when the Battle of Quebec occurred in 1775. The initial attack was a failure due to American inexperience with the extreme cold temperatures of the city in December. Benedict Arnold refused to accept the defeat in the Battle of Quebec and a siege against the city continued until May 6, 1776, when the American army finally retreated.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Canada into an “Upper”, English-speaking colony, and a “Lower”, French-speaking colony. Quebec City was made the capital of Lower Canada and enjoyed more self-rule following the passage of this act. The city’s industry began to grow, and by the early 19th century it was the third largest port city in North America. Lumber was the largest export of the city at this time. The business boom continued for most of the century and Quebec City began welcoming thousands of immigrants.

Quebec City’s 400th anniversary was celebrated in 2008 and it is the oldest city in North America that has a French-speaking community.

Next time you’re walking around Quebec City, Canada, take a tour with the Historic Walking Tour app!