The French in North America

In the early seventeenth century, the French established a colony in what would become Canada. Also during that century, they explored vast areas of North America. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the French claimed as their own territory the entire St. Lawrence River and tributaries, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, and the greater Ohio River valley. Yet in 1750 the total number of French living in North America was just a bit larger than 100,000. Furthermore, the vast majority of French Canadians lived along the banks of the St. Lawrence River and in the Maritime Provinces. But some few French settlers could also be found around places such as Detroit, Kaskaskia, Natchez, and New Orleans. Canada's economy was based on the export of forest products and furs acquired in usually friendly trade with Indians. Foodstuffs were shipped to the French West Indies, yet there was never enough to meet the demand there. In fact New France was not self sufficient, but depended on subsidies from the mother country. By 1750 France began to see the British colonies in North America as a serious threat. Acting on that belief, France began to strengthen its military presence in the Ohio country to counter Virginia's growing interest in that region.

The most populous French colonies lay in the West Indies: St. Domingue (later Haiti, the western third of the island of Hispaniola), Martinique, and Guadeloupe. Between 1700 and 1740 France increased its share of regional population relative to the British. In 1750 the two nations claimed territories of about equal geographic size, but the population of French-controlled areas exceeded that of British-controlled areas. Nearly 90 percent of both populations was enslaved blacks. St. Domingue was the largest consumer of slaves and the most populous of any West Indian colony.

France's hold on the remaining islands was more tenuous. British, Dutch, Latvians, and indigenous inhabitants all contested with the French for possession of the various smaller islands, some of which changed hands a dozen or more times. Carib Indians had prevented European occupation on St. Vincent until the early eighteenth century, and thereafter "black Caribs" (descendants of escaped African slaves and Caribs) on St. Vincent and Dominica continued to limit European exploitation of these two islands.

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