1492 – 1734 Early Encounters French Colonies

Key Ideas

1. French women were vastly outnumbered by French men in New France, which meant women of all races and classes were afforded legal and social privileges they would not have had in traditional French society.

2. The labor and collaboration of Native women was critical to the survival of New France.

3. The Catholic Church played a significant role in the colonization of the Native people who inhabited the territory claimed as New France.

4. The legal status of enslaved black women evolved over the course of the early colonial period.


Carte de la Nouvelle France, 1700. Musée de la civilisation, fonds d’archives du Séminaire de Québec.

Women in the French Colonies, 1624-1715

The French colonies of North America were considerably less sophisticated than those of the English, Spanish, and Dutch in the 1500s and 1600s.

The kings of France wanted a colonial presence in North America to keep up with their European rivals, but they devoted fewer resources to developing and populating their holdings there, devoting their attention to the more profitable sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The French government limited the number of citizens who were allowed to migrate to the colonies, and most of those who immigrated went to the Caribbean, with the result that the vast territory of New France, which began as small settlements along the St. Lawrence River before expanding south along the Mississippi River and west along the Great Lakes, was always sparsely populated, and the survival of the colony depended on close cooperation with the Native communities who already inhabited the land.

Section Essential Questions

1. What were the rights and responsibilities of women in colonial French society?

2. How did race, class, and social differences affect the lives of the women in New France?

3. How did women contribute to the establishment of new societies in the New World?

4. What gender specific challenges did women face in the French colonies?


This painting depicts the women who moved to New France to marry eligible colonists in exchange for free passage and a small dowry.
reasons for immigration, society in New France, status of women in New France, daily life, marriage
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This document reveals how Ursuline nuns approached the task of educating French and Native girls in New France.
colonial childhood, education, Native history, Catholic missions in New France, interaction between Native people and colonists
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The digging stick pictured in this resource illustrates Native women’s role in the development of North American crops and agricultural practices.
agriculture, the Nlaka’pamux people, women in Native American culture, Native women in New France, women’s labor
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Life Stories

The life story of a woman born in Quebec who became a successful businesswoman and was labeled a “dangerous woman.”
trade, women and business, seigneurial system, marriage in New France, colonial Quebec
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This is the story of the woman who became the first Native American person canonized as a Catholic saint.
Native responses to colonization, the Mohawk, Native women in New France, Catholicism and Jesuit missions in New France, Kahnawake
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This is the story of an enslaved woman who was accused of burning down forty-five homes and businesses in Montreal in 1734.
slavery in New France, slave rebellions, experiences of enslaved women, colonial Montreal, the Montreal fire of 1734
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