Exploration and Settlement

Colonial America

What were the French holdings in the New World?

The French possessions in North America, called New France, consisted of the colonies of Canada, Acadia, and Louisiana. The first land claims were made in 1534 by French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) as he sailed the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada. In 1604 Sieur de Monts (Pierre du Gua; c. 1568–c. 1630) established a settlement at Acadia (in present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), and French claims later extended the region to include what are today the province of New Brunswick and the eastern part of the state of Maine. After founding Quebec in 1608, explorer Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567–1635) penetrated the interior (present-day Ontario) as far as Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, extending French land claims westward. In 1672 French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet (1645–1700) and French missionary Jacques Marquette (1637–1675) became the first Europeans to discover the upper part of the Mississippi River. Ten years later, French explorer Sieur de La Salle (1643–1687) followed the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming the river valley for France and naming it Louisiana. While the French expanded their North American claims, the majority of French settlers lived in Canada. France lost Canada to Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Louisiana changed hands numerous times before it was finally sold to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase; it was France’s last claim on the North American mainland. French culture and influence in these areas remains prevalent today.

In 1635 the French also claimed the West Indies islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (and its small surrounding islands, including Saint Barthélemy). In 1946 the French government changed the status of these islands from colonies to “overseas departments.”


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