Introduction  continued

Slavery was formally abolished in 1834 throughout the British Empire, yet it is hard to say exactly when it disappeared in Lower Canada: all we can say is that no further documented trace of slaves can be found starting in the years 1810-1820. But when did slavery begin here? The first slaves were few and far between, and the practice of slave-holding only became a common practice starting in the 1680s. A few individual slaves appeared first of all. Gradually servitude became a recognized institution in the society of New France, and it remained so up to the first quarter of the nineteenth century.


The first slave we can positively identify in New France was a Negro boy brought here by David Kirke in 1629 during the English occupation of the St. Lawrence Valley. According to one account he was from Madagascar, according to another from Guinea: whatever his place of origin,,there can be no doubt he was a slave. This Negro boy belonged to one of the three Kirke brothers, and was sold for the sum of fifty ecus to Le Baillif, a French trader who had gone over to the English (fifty ecus, or 150 livres, was the equivalent of six months wages for a skilled person). When the English left Quebec in July 1632, Le Bailiff gave the young black slave to Guillaume Couillart.

The slave's new master sent him to a school run by Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary, who wrote in 1632: "I have become a regent in Canada. The other day I had a little Savage on one side and a little Negro or Moor on the other, whom I taught to read and write. After so many years of regency, I have finally come back to teaching ABCs, but with such contentment and satisfaction that I wouldn't give up these two pupils for even the most prestigious audience in France."

Father Le Jeune was the first Jesuit educator in the St. Lawrence Valley, and his first pupils were an Amer-indian and a Negro boy.

Le Jeune found this little black boy's naive attitude amusing:

"We took him in to instruct and baptize him, but he does not yet understand conversation very well, so we will have to wait a while longer. When he spoke of baptism he made us laugh: when his mistress [Guillemette Hebert, Guillaume Couillart's wife] asked him if he wanted to become a Christian, and be baptized, so he could be like us, he said yes: but he also asked whether we would flay him during the baptismal ceremony: he must have been truly afraid, because he had seen poor Savages flayed. And when he saw us laughing over his question, he replied in his gibbering patois. [...] 'You say that through baptismal I will become like you: I am black and you are white, so you will have to flay my skin so I become like you, whereupon we began to laugh even more, and seeing he had been mistaken, he laughed along with us."

Then, in 1633 this Negro boy was baptized, just like a white man, although no flaying of his skin was involved: he was given the name Olivier, in honour of the general clerk Olivier Tardif, and it may have been from this moment onwards that he took the surname Le Jeune, after his spiritual father, the Jesuit Le Jeune.

This black boy does not seem to have learned much more than the rudiments of the Catechism. He had to testify in court in 1638, and only managed to sign with an X, which does not seem so bad considering that his master Guillaume Couillart's signature consisted of a drawing of a man lying on his back. Why did Couillart's Negro have to appear in court? He had been placed under arrest, after claiming that sailors arriving from Tadoussac had informed him the interpreter Nicolas Marsolet had received a letter from the traitor Le Bailiff. Marsolet had already got into enough trouble for having collaborated with the English, and had no desire to compromise himself further: he took the black boy to court. An investigation took place, and witnesses maintained that no one had seen Le Baillif's ship. The slave was forced to admit before Guillaume Couillart and Guillaume Hebert that he could not substantiate his claim. The court ordered him to seek Marsolet's forgiveness, and to spend "twenty-four hours in chains." So here was the first black boy in Canada, already clapped in irons!

This slave only turns up in official records one more time, when he was buried in Quebec City on May 10, 1654. The priest recorded his name as Olivier Le Jeune, and noted him simply as Guillaume Couillart's servant, without mentioning his age, although he must have been in his thirties by then.

This was the first recorded death of a black person in the St. Lawrence Valley. He lived with the Couillart family, but we cannot say for sure in what capacity. In the seventeenth century, any black person was considered a slave wherever he might be found in Canada, unless he had been formally emancipated. We found no evidence of Olivier Le Jeune's emancipation. It is conceivable that he had been freed, although this is not indicated in surviving records. Moreover, the fact he was described in burial records as a servant did not alter the fact of his bondage: the records tell us of many servants who were actually slaves, in fact and in law. We should recall that in the seventeenth century servants were considered to form part of their master's household. However, we are inclined to think that Rirke and Le Baillif's former slave was no longer a slave by the time he reached Couillart's household. Perhaps this was simply a case of adoption. The fact remains that for twenty years, a young representative of an enslaved race lived among the earliest French inhabitants of Canada, And it is impossible to imagine Couillart's household from 1632 to 1654 without the presence of Olivier Le Jeune, this living memory of the English occupation.

Were Amer-indians Treated like Ebony Slaves?

When the Negro Olivier Le Jeune died in 1654, we believe he was the only one of his kind in Canada, and the next black slave only turned up a quarter of a century later. Elsewhere in the Americas, however, slave traders preyed on native Amer-indians. In 1493, Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to propose enslaving Amer-indians to his fellow Europeans. Addressing the Spanish monarchs, he wrote: "I can provide as much aloes and [Amer-indian] slaves for the navy, as their Highnesses require"; writing further about slaves, he noted he would send as many as were desired. Europeans must have found it tempting to treat the indigenous population of the New World the same way they had treated Africans since at least 1444.

The temptation was all the greater because Amer-indians were slaveholders themselves. Alluding to islanders he had just met, Columbus wrote on October 11, 1492: "I thought, and I still think that [Amer-indians] come here from the mainland to take them and enslave them." On settling in Acadia, the French also found that native people traded in slaves; when Lescarbot pitied the prisoners who had long been subjected to all kinds of exactions, he suggested that we simply "make them our slaves the way the Savages do, or hold them to ransom." Lafitau described in great detail the treatment of prisoners captured by native Amer-indians: when the captives were not tortured to death, they were subjected to such awful living conditions that death by torture almost seemed preferable. The enslavement of prisoners was so common among Amer-indians, Lahontan noted, that the two terms were practically synonymous.

Even when resident Amer-indians settled in villages along the St. Lawrence Valley, they held other Amer-indians in bondage. The Jesuit Nau wrote of the Iroquois mission of Sault-St-Louis: "Most of the adults we teach in the village are slaves taken in wartime." There were slaves in other villages too: Quicinsik, chief of the Algonquins of the Lake of Two Mountains, had a "savage" slave about thirty-five years old who was buried in Montreal on May 4, 1750; on August 15, 1762, at MicMimackinac, the old Amer-indian Angelique baptized her "savage" slave Antoine, who was about eighteen years old.

Gradually, slaveholders got into the habit of acquiring Amer-indian slaves in order to sell them to the French, which profited both parties to the transaction. One incident illustrates how easily Amer-indians could sell their fellow natives. An Amer-indian hunter accompanying Bossu on his 1752 expedition in Illinois liked to get drunk, so to cure him of the habit, his wife got Bossu to say he had a lot of spirits but was reluctant to dish them out; the hunter offered Bossu a trade - his wife for an entire month of alcohol. "I remonstrated," Bossu wrote, "that the Chiefs of white warriors do not come among the red men to enjoy their wives, but as for his son, I would gladly accept him as my slave if the hunter wanted to sell him to me, and I would give him a barrel of spirits; we concluded the contract in the presence of witnesses, and he gave me his son." The Amer-indian got comfortably drunk, and when he had recovered his wits, his family accused him of unnatural behaviour; he apologized, saying that Bossu would be good enough to hand his son back, "and he knew that the great Chief of the French and the Father of the Indians had no child slaves in his empire. I replied that this was the case, but I had adopted the boy as my son and as such would take him to France to become a Christian, so all the fur of his nation would not be enough to redeem him." The Amer-indian was then advised to go see the missionary, and it was agreed that Bossu would hand the son back once he had been baptized and the father "had sworn off that drunkenness which had proven so disastrous for him"; the father agreed, and stayed sober. In 1752, a member of the Illinois nation was veiling to sell his son into slavery for drink, and this fact suggests that the practice of selling one's own kind into slavery had become something of a reflex.

It would take volumes to recount the slave trade between North American Amer-indians and the French and English. In this work, we will only be dealing with that part of the slave trade involving the inhabitants of New France and the subsequent British regime. A separate study should be made of the slave trade that operated between native people and the English colonies. In 1492, Columbus noted that Amer-indians took and traded slaves; this practice would continue until the late eighteenth century. Just as some black Africans served as intermediaries for slave traders, some native Amer-indians bore a lot of responsibility for enslaving their fellow natives.

The French waited a long time, however, before trading in Amer-indian slaves or in reducing prisoners to slavery. When Jacques Cartier took two natives from Honguedo back to France in 1534, and then Chief Donnacona in 1536, it was by no means with the intent to enslave them: in the first case, he wanted the natives to learn French so they could serve as guides and interpreters, and in the second, Cartier wanted to remove from Stadacona a native leader who could endanger the French-Amer-indian alliance. It has sometimes been claimed the French of Acadia took or wanted to take Amer-indian slaves starting in 1607, in order to operate a flour mill, but we believe this to have been a misinterpretation of a document by Lescarbot.

Nor can we speak of slavery in the case of three young Amer-indian girls (Foi, Esperance and Charite, or Faith, Hope and Charity) given by the Montagnais to Champlain in 1628: they said he had expressed the wish "to take our girls back to France, and educate them there in matters of faith and morality"; Champlain "took such care that he had them rigorously instructed not just in matters of faith but also in little exercises for girls and in weaving tapestries which he traced himself." But in 1629, Kirke refused to allow Champlain to take two remaining native girls back to France.

The same kind of adoption was involved when Chomedey de Maisonneuve received a little girl from an Amer-indian mother: the nine-month-old girl was baptized in Montreal on August 4, 1658. According to Doilier de Casson, the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame also adopted young native girls, the first of whom may have been the one given to Chomedey de Maisonneuve:

On 11 August [1663] a most promising little Indian girl named Marie des Neiges died at the Congregation. Sister Bourgeois had looked after her from the age of ten months, taking a great deal of pains and trouble with her, and was repaid by the pleasure the child gave her. By reason of the affection felt for the child, her name was kept alive by being passed on to another little Indian girl that we had here who was baptized with the same name. When this second child likewise died, they took a third little girl and in the same way gave her this name [according to the baptismal register of Montreal].

The French had not yet begun to reduce Amer-indians to slavery, and we believe this was still the case in 1668 when two slaves escaped from the Iroquois country and found refuge with the French. On October 2, 1666, when Dollier de Casson and Gallinee left Lachine enroute for the Quinte mission, in a bay of Lake St. Francis, they met "two poor savage women, quite emaciated, who were going down to the French settlements to escape the bondage in which they had been held for some years. They had set out forty days before from the village of Oneida, in which they were slaves, and for the whole of this time they had lived on nothing but squirrels which a child of ten or twelve years killed with arrows made for him by those unfortunates." After many difficulties, the Sulpicians got their Iroquois guides to let one of these women continue on to Montreal with her little boy, while the other woman was entrusted to the Hurons who would be trading in Montreal. Finally, the two fugitive slaves reached Montreal, which Dollier Casson described as "the old asylum for such miserable fugitives."

The First Amer-indian Slaves   

So far, we have seen French colonists adopting Amer-indians with Ville-Marie serving as a refuge for fugitive slaves. But starting in 1671, the French settlers of Canadabegan to acquire Amer-indian slaves. It is true that once the French acquired these Amer-indians, they do not always seem to have formally regarded them as slaves. What matters is that these slaves were given to the French as slaves, and that the French accepted them as such, at least for a time.

In order to appease the wrath of Governor Remy de Courcelle in 1671, the Iroquois brought him two Potawatami slaves, and the governor accepted both slaves and his anger subsided. Who were these two slaves, the first native Amer-indians to come to Quebec officially as slaves? The governor placed them with the Sisters of the Congregation:  


"These two girls are with the Sisters of the Congregation [Dollier de Casson wrote], where they learned the French tongue and have been brought up in European fashion, so that the bigger, who was the later baptized, is ready to marry a Frenchman. But one wishes there were some small means of providing her with a dowry, so that once she was established, it would serve as an example to others and fill them with the desire to be brought up in the French manner. The smaller of the two girls of whom we speak, after being at the Congregation for some time, was carried off by her mother who had given her up, conjointly with the Iroquois. A daughter of the Congregation ran after her to get her back and the child left her mother, who held her by the arm, throwing herself into the hands of the daughters of the Congregation."

Female benefactors in France provided about 1200 livres for the education of these two girls. Remy de Courcelle had received them from the Iroquois as slaves, and accepted them as such, but they were soon treated more or less as persons of a free condition: one of the girls later married a French settler, and it was hoped other Amer-indians would follow her example.

So Amer-indians began giving Amer-indian slaves to the French. The explorer Louis Jolliet received the same favour as Governor Remy de Courcelle. During his Mississippi expedition, Jolliet brought back a young slave he had received from native Amer-indians, but in 1674, within sight of Montreal, the canoe capsized and Jolliet lost the young slave, two men and his personal papers. He wrote to Bishop Laval: 

"I really miss a slave boy of ten who had been given to me. He had a lot of spunk, was witty, diligent and obedient, he, could express himself in French, he had began to read and write." Buade de Frontenac mentioned this young slave, adding something Jolliet had left out: the Amer-indian boy had been intended for Frontenac. The governor wrote to Colbert: Jolliet "lost all his papers and a young Savage from those lands, whose death fills me with sadness." To our knowledge, this was the first slave to come to Canada from as far afield as the Mississippi and there would be many more.

In 1678, the explorer Daniel Greysolon Dulhut found himself in the same situation as Jolliet: he was about to leave on a large expedition to Lake Superior when Amer-indians gave him three slaves in Montreal. According to the documents we have consulted, the first Amer-indian specifically referred to as a slave was an unnamed girl belonging to Buade de Frontenac, whom the Ursulines of Quebec signed up as a boarder for schooling on July 23, 1679, and who left the convent on October 7, 1680. It is impossible to say what became of her.

Several years went by, and historical documents do not provide us with any substantial leads. In February 1681, according to the registry of civil status, Marie, a twenty-eight-year-old native of the "Loup" or Wolf nation, was buried in Lachine: she was from a tribe associated with the Iroquois, she was certainly a prisoner of war and her presence in Lachine suggests she was in bondage. In 1685, an Amer-indian woman named Agnes, daughter of Mafhieu Houlacous, died at the home of Nicolas Juchereau de Saint-Denys, seigneur of Beaupprt; communion was administered and she died after "having led a worthy life." Accordingto the registry of civil status, Joseph Giffard and Nicolas Juchereau de Saint-Denys attended her burial. Since the French did not use resident Amer-indians (Hurons, Algonquins, Abenakis and others) as servants, we are inclined to include Agnes, in service at the Beauport manor, among the slave population.

The Arrival of Amerindian Slaves

Trafficking of Amer-indian slaves, truly began in earnest in 1687: it was on a modest scale at first, but then became more generalized and continued until the early nineteenth century. In 1687 the first two Panis to reach the St. Lawrence Valley were brought all the way from outlying tributaries of the Missouri basin: Pierre, aged about ten, was buried in Montreal on October 15, while Jacques, aged nine, was buried there on December 19. In 1688, another Panis, Louis, was confirmed a Catholic by the bishop in Lachine. In 1689, an anonymous Panis (who may have been the one just confirmed) died in the Lachine Massacre along with Rene Chartier, whose slave he was. How long had these slaves been living among the French? It is impossible to say. It is clear however that they only appeared in the civil registry after arriving in the colony. The Panis Louis, for example, must have been living in French society for a fairly long time because he could not be confirmed before learning adequate French as well as the catechism.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Amer-indian slaves turn up almost each year in historical records. After Rene Chartier's Panis slave died in the Lachine massacre, Philippe, an Amer-indian slave belonging to one Lalemant, was discharged from the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec on December 28, 1689. In 1690, three Amer-indians lived at the same hospital: a Panis said to be from Illinois and belonging to an officer named Tonty died there on May 22; a certain Bernard, listed as a dependent of Bishop St-Vallier, stayed there in July and returned in August before dying on September 11, just eight years old; Pierre of the Illinois nation was treated by the Jesuits in August and stayed with them again from November 1691 to February 1692, at which time he was considered their servant. The Illinois came to the St. Lawrence Valley as slaves, yet we cannot say whether the Jesuits still held this particular Illinois as their slave. The same year, in November, an unnamed Amer-indian owned by the officer Paul Lemoyne de Mari-court, was treated in hospital. In 1671, the Hotel-Dieu patient registry mentioned the Panis Nicolas, aged between thirteen and fifteen, belonging to one Doyon: he stayed there in April and November; this Panis married a Canadian in 1710, adopting Doyon as his surname. In the registry, we also find an unnamed Amer-indian belonging to Pierre Moreau de Lataupine: he was ill in July, and died the following month. On May 24, 1692, an Amer-indian named Francois, about eight years old and belonging to Jean Mailhiot, was baptized in Montreal: the baptismal certificate states that he had come from about 300 leagues (900 miles or 1440 kilometres) beyond Illinois. This child had been obtained through tribal slavery. He was not held in bondage for long, since he died the following July. In February the twenty-three-year-old Amer-indian Francois, belonging to Lamontagne, stayed at the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec. The Panis Ignace died in the same hospital on April 24. In November 1695, Jeanne Wannanemim of the Mohican nation, who had been captured near Deerfield by the Iroquois of Sault Saint-Louis, was brought to Montreal: as a prisoner of Amer-indians she was held in bondage; she was baptized on May 1, 1698 at about fifty years of age. On June 9, the officer Louis Dailleboust de Coulonge baptized Philippe-Marie-Louise, a fourteen or fifteen-year-old Panis girl he owned. On September 27 that year, five-year-old Louis, an Arkansas boy, was baptized at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade: the owner was not specified, but this little Arkansas boy from the Mississippi Valley was certainly a slave, just like other Amer-indians imported from the Midwest. In 1698, another Arkansas boy - Jean, aged ten - was baptized in Montreal: he belonged to Jacques Picard, who had brought him to New France the year before; in December, Jean-Amador Godefroy de St-Paul's Panis Jean-Baptiste died in Trois-Pdvieres. Finally, we learn of a third Arkansas in 1699, nine-year-old Jean-Baptiste, belonging to the fur trader Pierre Trutaut; this Arkansas boy was baptized in Montreal on April 21, and was later buried there on February 18, 1709. Another Panis, thirty-six-year-old Jacques, was admitted to the Hotel-Dieu on May 22, dying there on June 2; given his age, this Panis must have been in Quebec for some time.

These are the native Amer-indians identified as slaves in historical records, but it would also be worth knowing which slaves were held by officers at the trading posts of the pays d'en haut (the Great Lakes region); since these officers were geographically closer to the slave market, they must have owned slaves during the seventeenth century just as they later would in the eighteenth; it had always been customary before any trading ceremony for Amer-indian hunters to exchange gifts with French merchants, and slaves were often presented as gifts to these merchants. In the eighteenth century, there was trading in both furs and slaves.

For the period before 1700, our research on the Great Lakes trading posts produced few results, apart from a Shawnee slave given in 1699 to Juchereau, commander at Michilimackinac, who immediately ordered the slave shot. Why? According to Lahontan, a group of Iroquois on a mission to the French had been captured by the Hurons, led by the famous Le Rat who had every interest in derailing Governor Denonville's peace initiatives. Among these prisoners was a Shawnee slave. Le Rat handed the slave as a gift to Juchereau, but according to Lahontan, Juchereau no sooner received the slave than "he amused himself having the slave shot." Le Rat fully expected this outcome, and immediately released an Iroquois prisoner so the latter could tell his people how the French treated embassies. If Lahontan was telling the truth, Juchereau must have had a peculiar way of enjoying gifts!

During his Mississippi expedition, Lahontan also received Amer-indian slaves from an Arikara chief, to serve as guides in their country; he was hoping to bring four of them back to Canada: "I thought I could return to Canada with more valuable booty. So I proposed to them that I would obtain their freedom from the Grand Chief, and I promised such a sweet and honourable condition, and benefits so great, that I would have been hard-pressed if they had taken me at my word." But love of their country prevailed, and the four slaves preferred to return home. And it was just as well, since Lahontan was not sure he could fulfil his promises.

If we bring together a list of the Amer-indian slaves who lived among the French population at the end of the seventeenth century, we find twenty-nine Amer-indian slaves over a twenty-nine-year period, three from Arkansas, ten identified as Panis (the Panis lived in the Upper Missouri), one from the Illinois Country, two from the southern shores of Lake Michigan, and two from the land of the Mohicans, south of the Iroquois. It is however impossible to say where the rest were from, although they must have come from far away, because the resident Amer-indians of the St Lawrence Valley were not enslaved.

The age of only fourteen of these slaves is known, and of these, ten were under fifteen years of age. Some were very young, like the five-year-old boy who came from the Arkansas country. And this is the point when a new characteristic of native Amer-indian slavery emerged in New France: slaves were young, and those slaves drawn from the, tribes farthest away were mostly children.

Historical records do not always indicate the owners of these first twenty-nine Amer-indian slaves, and when they do, it is not always possible to determine the profession of the owners. Two governors accepted Amer-indian slaves, and subsequent governors would follow their example. Bishop Saint-Vallier had a young Amer-indian slave, and was by no means the last bishop to be a slave owner, just as the Amer-indian belonging to the Jesuits was hardly the last slave owned by a religious community. The explorers Jolliet and Greysolon Dulhut held slaves, and so in turn would Gaultier de Laverendrye. Tonty, Lemoyne de Maricourt and Dailleboust de Coulonge were the first officers heading a list that would continue to grow during the following century. The same can be said for fur traders. Our list of seventeenth-century slave owners in Canada thus includes colonial officials, military officers, explorers and fur traders: indeed, these are the key groups that defined the heyday of slave-owning, and they were also the groups most intimately involved with native Amer-indian nations.

We are here talking about slaves. Aside from men, women and children explicitly identified as slaves or said to belong to an owner, it is not certain that the other Amer-indians who entered New France as slaves actually appear as such in historical documents. A colonist may have acquired an Amer-indian slave, but even when the Amer-indian remained attached to the colonist, he did not necessarily continue on as a slave. For our purposes, it is enough to count the native person as a slave once he or she entered the French population as such. Moreover, documents are not always explicit and sometimes require us to make inferences. For example, before 1709, when Intendant Raudot intervened to provide a legal basis for slavery, civil registries rarely used the word "slave"; in the fifteen civil acts of this period relating to slaves, only one directly used the word "slave"; in a Lachine document dated October 28, 1694, referring to the burial of victims of the 1689 massacre there, Rene Chartier's Panis is referred to as a slave. This was the first time prior to 1700 that civil registries used the word slave; up till then, those maintaining records had usually written "savage belonging to..." a specific free person.