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The French Policy

 Native American Nations | Indian Land Cessions in the United States                   

A somewhat thorough examination of the documents and histories relating to French dominion in Canada and Louisiana fails to reveal any settled or regularly defined policy in regard to the extinguishment of the Indian title to land. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that there was some policy in their proceedings in this respect, but it does not appear to have been set forth by legal enactments or clearly made known by ordinances. ' It seems, in truth, to have been a question kept in the background in their dealings with Indians, and brought to the front only in their contests with other powers in regard to territory. It would seem, although riot clearly announced as a theory or policy, that it was assumed, when a nation or tribe agreed to come under French dominion, that this agreement carried with it the title to their lands.

In the letters patent given by Louis XV to the "Western Company" in August 1717, the following rights and privileges are granted:1

SEC. V. With a view to give the said Western Company the means of forming a firm establishment, and enable her to execute all the speculations she may under take, we have given, granted, and conceded, do give, grant, and concede to her, these present letters and forever, all the lands, coasts,. ports, havens, and islands which compose our province of Louisiana, in the same way and extent as we have granted them to M. Crozat by our letters patent of 14th September 1712, to enjoy the same in full property, seigniory, and jurisdiction, keeping to ourselves no other rights or duties than the fealty and liege homage the said company shall be bound, to pay us and to the kings our successors at every new reign, with a golden crown of the weight of thirty marks.

SEC. VI. The said company shall be free, in the said granted lands, to negotiate and make alliance in our name with all the nations of the land, except those which are dependent on the other powers of Europe; she may agree with them on such conditions as she may think fit, to settle among them, and trade freely with them, and in case they insult her she may declare war against them, attack them or defend herself y means of arms, and negotiate with them for peace or for a truce.

By section 8 authority is given to .the company "to sell and give away the lands granted to her for whatever quit or ground rent she may think fit, and even to grant them in freehold, without jurisdiction or seigniory."

In section 53 it is declared:

Whereas in the settlement of the lands granted to the said company y these present letters we have chiefly in view the glory of God by procuring the salvation of the Indian savage and Negro inhabitants whom we wish to be instructed in the true religion, the said company shall be bound to build churches at her expense in the places of her settlements, as likewise to maintain there as many approved clergymen as may be necessary.

Substantially the same privileges, powers, and requirements were provided for in the grant made ninety years before (April, 1627), through Cardinal Richelieu's influence, to the Company of One Hundred Associates, while France was struggling, through the leadership of Champlain, to obtain a permanent settlement on the St Lawrence.2

Although these are the strongest passages having any bearing on the point indicated which have been found in the early grants, it must be admitted that reference to the Indian title is only to be inferred. The policy both in Louisiana and Canada seems to have been to take possession, at first, of those points at which they desired to make settlements by peaceable measures if possible, though without any pretense of purchase, thus obtaining a foothold. Either preceding or following such settlement, a treaty was made with the tribe, obtaining their consent to come under the dominion of the King of France and acknowledging him as the only rightful ruler over themselves and their territory.

As an illustration of this statement, attention is called to the following paragraph:3

What is more authentic in this matter is the entry into possession of all those Countries made y Mr. Talon, Intendant of New France, who in 1671, sent Sieur de St. Lusson, his Subdelegate, into the country of the Stauas, who invited the Deputies of all the tribes within a circumference of more than a hundred leagues to meet at St. Mary of the Sault. On the 4t5 of June, of the same year, fourteen tribes by their ambassadors repaired thither, and in their presence and that of a number of Frenchmen, Sieur de St. Lusson erected there a post to which he affixed the King's arms, and declared to all those people that he bad convoked them in order to receive them into the King's protection, and in his name to take possession of all their lands, so that henceforth ours and theirs should be but one; which all those tribes very readily accepted. The commission of said Subdelegate contained these very words, viz, That he was sent to take possession of the countries lying between the East and West, from Montreal to the South Sea, as much and as far as was in his power. This entry into possession was made with all those formalities, as is to be seen in the Relation of 1671, and more expressly in the record of the entry into possession, drawn up by the said Subdelegate.

Although this is used by Denonville in this place as an evidence of the title of France as against that of England, yet it shows the French custom of taking possession of new countries. Although not differing materially from the method adopted in similar cases by other governments, yet it would seem from their dealings with the Indians that the French considered this ceremony, where the Indians were persuaded to join in it, as absolutely passing to the Crown their possessory right.

The commission to Marquis de Tracy (November 19, 1663), bestowing on him the government of Canada, contains the following passage,4 which indicates reliance on the power of arms rather than in peaceful measures:

These and other considerations Us moving, We have constituted, ordained and established, and by these Presents signed by our hands, do constitute, ordain and establish the said Sieur de Prouville Tracy Our Lieutenant General in the entire extent of territory under Our obedience situate in South and North America, the continent and islands, rivers, ports, harbors and coasts discovered and to be discovered by Our subjects, for, and in the absence of, said Count D'Estrades, Viceroy, to have command over all the Governors, Lieutenant Generals by Us established, in all the said Islands, Continent of Canada, Acadie, Newfoundland, the, Antilles etc. likewise, over all the Officers and Sovereign Councils established in all the said Islands and over the French Vessels which will sail to the said Country, whether of War to Us belonging, or of Merchants, to tender a new oath of fidelity as well to the Governors and Sovereign Councils as to the three orders of the said Islands; enjoining said Governors, Officers and Sovereign Councils and others to recognize the said Sieur de Prouville Tray and to obey him in all that he shall order them; to assemble the commonalty when necessary; cause them to take up arms; to take cognizance of, settle and arrange all differences which have arisen or may arise in the said Country, either between Seigniors and their Superiors, or between private inhabitants; to besiege and capture places and castles according to the necessity of the case; to cause pieces of artillery to be dispatched and discharged against them; to establish garrisons where the importance of the place shall demand them; to conclude peace or truces according to circumstances either with other Nations of Europe established in said Country, or with the barbarians; to invade either the continent or the Islands for the purpose of seizing New Countries or establishing New Colonies, and for this purpose to give battle and make use of other means he shall deem proper for such undertaking; to command the people of said Country as well as all our other Subjects, Ecclesiastics, Nobles, Military and others of what condition soever there residing; to cause our boundaries and our name to be extended as far as he can, with full power to establish our authority there, to subdue, subject and exact obedience from all the people of said Countries, inviting them y all the most lenient means possible to the knowledge of God, and the light of the Faith and of the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Religion, and to establish its exercise to the exclusion of all others; to defend the said Countries with all his power; to maintain and preserve the said people in peace, repose and tranquility, and to command both on sea and land; to order and cause to be executed all that he, or those he will appoint, shall judge fit and proper to be done, to extend and preserve said places under Our authority and obedience.

It will be seen from this that the King's reliance in accomplishing the end he had in view was on force rather than on fair dealing with the natives. Nowhere in this commission or in any of the grants is there ally direct recognition of the Indians' possessory title, or an expressed desire that they be secured in possession of the Iands they occupy, or that are necessary for their use. It is well known to all who are familiar with the history of French dominion in Louisiana and Canada, that resort was often made to the policy of secretly fomenting quarrels between Indian tribes, and thus, by wars between themselves, so weaken them as to render it less difficult to bring them under control.

That no idea of purchasing or pretending to purchase the possessory right of the natives had been entertained by the French up to 1686, is evident from a passage in the letter of M. de Denonville to M. de Seignelay, May 8, 1686,1 where he states: "The mode observed by the English with the Iroquois, when desirous to form an establishment in their neighborhood, has been, to make them presents for the purchase of the fee and property of the land they would occupy. What I consider most certain is, that whether we do so, or have war or peace with them, they will not suffer, except most unwillingly, the construction of a fort at Niagara." That the war policy was the course adopted is a matter of history.

How, then, are we to account for the fact that the relations of the French with the Indians under their control were, as a general rule, more intimate and satisfactory to both parties than those of other nations? Parkman has remarked that The power of the priest established, that of the temporal ruler was secure. Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned. and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him." Although this can not be accepted as strictly correct in every respect, yet it is true that intimate, friendly relations existed between the French and their Indian subjects, which did not exist between the Spanish or English and the native population. However, this can not be attributed to the legal enactments or defined policy of the French, but rather to their practical methods.

Instead of holding the natives at arm's length and treating them only as distinct and inferior people and quasi independent nations, the French policy was to make them one with their own people, at least in Canada. This is expressly declared in the following extracts:

Colbert, writing to Talon, April 6, 1666, says:

In order to strengthen the Colony in the manner you propose, by bringing the isolated settlements into parishes, it appears to me, without waiting to depend on the new colonists who may be sent from France, nothing would contribute more to it than to endeavor to civilize the Algonquins, the Huron and other Indians who have embraced Christianity, and to induce them to come and settle in common with the French, to live with them and raise their children according to our manners and customs.

In his reply, some seven months later, M. Talon informs Colbert that he has endeavored to put his suggestions into practical operation under police regulations.

In another letter, dated April 6, 1667, Colbert writes to Talon5 as follows:

Recommendation to mould the Indians, settled near us, after our manners and language.

I confess that I agreed with you that very little regard has been paid, up to the present time, in New France, to the police and civilization of the Algonquins and Huron (who were a long time ago subjected to the King's domination,) through our neglect to detach them from their savage customs and to oblige them to adopt ours, especially to become acquainted with our language. On the contrary, to carry on some traffic with them, our French have been necessitated to attract those people, especially such as have embraced Christianity, to the vicinity of our settlements, if possible to mingle there with them, in order that through course of time, having only but one law and one master, they might like wise constitute only one people and one race.

That this was the policy favored by the King is expressly stated by Du Chesneau in his letter to M. de Seignelay, November 10, 1679. "I communicated," he says, "to the Religious communities, both male and female, and even to private persons, the King's and your intentions regarding the Frenchification of the Indians, They all promised me to use their best efforts to execute them, and I hope to let you have some news thereof next year. I shall begin by setting the example, and will take some young Indians to have them instructed."6

In another letter to the same person, dated November 13, 1681, he says: "Amidst all the plans presented to me to attract the Indians among us and to accustom them to our manners, that from which most success may be anticipated, without fearing the inconveniences common to all the others, is to establish Villages of those people in our midst."7

That the same policy was in vogue as late as 1704 is shown by the fact that at this time the Abnaki were taken under French protection and placed, as the records say, "In the center of the colony."


1 B. F. French, Historical Collection of Louisiana, pt. 3, 1851, pp. 50-51
2 J. G. Shea, Charlevoix's Hist. New France, vol. II, p. 39. .
3 Denonville, Memoir on the French Limits in North America, New York Colonial Documents, vol.
Ix, p. 383.
4 New York Colonial Documents, vol. Ix, p. 43. 3 Ibid., p.136.
5 New York Colonial Documents, vol. Ix, p. 43.
6 Ibid., p. 59. 4 Ibid., p. 150.
7 Ibid., p.136.


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First annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1879-80

Indian Land Cessions in the United States

 

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