Portrait of Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, Marquis de Vaudreuil, last Governor of New France, 1753-1755. CA ANC C-14536

Marquis de Vaudreuil
CA ANC C-147536

From Francis I to Henry IV, the feudal system of delegation allowed the King to save money by assigning to a private individual the responsibility—at his own expense—of governing, organizing and defending the conquered territories. This person, initially appointed as Lieutenant-General to the King, was after 1578 given the title of "viceroy", following the Spanish and Portuguese example. In exchange for trade privileges, private companies subsequently undertook to populate the colony and, in collaboration with the King's representatives, to administer it and enforce justice. In 1663, Louis XIV took back control of France's activities in North America by making New France a province in its own right, modelled on those of the home country, complete with a Governor, Intendant and Sovereign Council. The Governor and Intendant, who essentially controlled the colony, administered but did not govern: they received regular and detailed instructions from Versailles. There were two particular governors in Montréal and Trois-Rivières, and three law courts, which had the seigneurial courts under their jurisdiction, as well as a chief road officer. In principle, the Governor of Acadia was subordinate to the Governor of Québec; in fact, he was independent and answered directly to the home country. Over the years, various administrative offices and positions came into being: admiralty courts, a comptroller's office answerable to the Secretary of State for the Marine, an office of agents for the treasurers-general under the general control of finance, an administrator of the royal domain, a director of shipbuilding, an inspector of fortifications, and a captain of the port of Québec. Attached to these various offices were all the necessary support staff, including writers, registrars, clerks and quartermasters.


Organizational Chart

New France administration organizational chart

[Text version]

Trading Companies

Like several other European countries, France relied on private companies to colonize new territories. In exchange for commercial privileges, these companies assumed certain obligations. In 1627, after several unsuccessful ventures, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, founded a royal company, the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France, also known as the Compagnie des Cent-Associés. Holder of seigneurial rights over a vast territory that included the St. Lawrence Valley and Acadia, the company was granted various trade monopolies. In exchange, it was expected to administer the colony and its justice system, under the King's authority, and also to augment the population with 4,000 new settlers over a period of 15 years.

Edict from the King concerning the founding of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France
Registration from the records of the admiralty of Guyenne

  Trading Companies Document 1PDF Version 4.88 Mb

  Trading Companies Document 2PDF Version 2.51 Mb

The Regulation of 1647

Regulation to remedy certain abuses committed in Canada and establishing a Council composed of the Governor General, the Governor of Montréal and the Superior of the Jesuits, March 27, 1647, CA ANC MG18-H65

Règlement pour remédier à certains abus qui sont commis au Canada

The population of Canada contested the administration of the Communauté des Habitants, a company controlled by Canadian interests, which in 1645 had inherited the fur trade monopoly of the Compagnie des Cent-Associés. The main points of dispute concerned the company's financial management and its operation of the fur trade. In 1647, to correct the situation, the Crown ordered the establishment of the Council of Québec, whose mandate was to examine the accounts of the Communauté and to adopt fur trade regulations, and any other regulations necessary for the good of the country. In a major innovation, representatives elected by the colony's inhabitants attended council meetings (in an advisory role only) whnever it discussed matters relating to the Communauté des Habitants.

  The Regulation of 1647 Document 1PDF Version 0.64 Mb

The Declaration of the King

Declaration from the King, reassuming possession of New France, March 1663, FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 5-7

Declaration from the King
FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 5-7

Regardless of their social status, the lives of the inhabitants of New France were recorded in the many official papers produced at key moments in their existence—birth, marriage and death, entry into a religious community, old age, the separation of a couple. These documents enable a reconstruction of the diverse destinies of individual men and women, and give a glimpse of their extended family and the ties they maintained with France. They also contain references to the objects used in their daily lives and to their financial situations. Visual images of the inhabitants of Canada and their lifestyles are, however, extremely rare.

  The Declaration of the King Document 1PDF Version 1.62 Mb

The Governor General

The Governor General of New France was appointed by the King by means of temporary letters of provision (rescindable at any time) and was under detailed instruction from the monarch. He resided in the Château Saint-Louis, in Québec. Solely responsible for military matters (army, militia, forts) in New France, he was invariably a member of the old nobility. As the King's personal representative, he could establish treaties and alliances with England's North American colonies and the various Aboriginal nations. Although in the legal realm he had far fewer responsibilities than the Intendant, he could impose a sovereign decision in times of crisis. In the financial domain, his authority was limited to establishing military expenditures and participating in the drawing up of the annual budget. He and the Intendant shared responsibility for the police, aid and religion. The governments of Trois-Rivières and Montréal had particular governors. Each of the three governors was assisted by a king's lieutenant and Staff. 

Presumed portrait of Charles de Beauharnois de la Boische
Instruction that the King wishes to be placed in the hands of Sieur de la Barre
Instruction that the King has ordered to be given to Sieur de Menneval
Report from the King to serve as Instruction to Sieur de Vaudreuil de Cavagnal

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The Intendant

The Intendant, who was usually chosen from among the noblesse de robe (hereditary nobles who acquired their rank through holding a high state office), or from the upper bourgeoisie, was appointed by the comptroller general of finance. Although the Intendant was lower in rank than the Governor General, his powers were more sweeping. He had exclusive and supreme authority in the realm of justice: he supervised the judges and the courts, was fully acquainted with cases related to state security, to the levying of taxes (25 percent on beaver, 10 percent on moose, the revenues from the Tadoussac trading post, 10 percent on merchandise imported from France, and later only on wine and spirits) and to disputes between seigneurs and tenants. He also served as president of the Sovereign Council. He was solely responsible for financial matters, including the supervision of assets, provisions, munitions and public works, and the issuing of card money. Since there were no municipal authorities, he was also in charge of administering the towns and cities. He shared with the Governor, however, the tasks of overseeing public morals, maintaining law and order, the upkeep of roads, and support of trade and industry. The first Intendant of New France, Jean Talon arrived in Québec in 1665. There was a regular exchange of instructions, letters and reports between Québec and the French court.

A View of the Intendants Palace, by Richard Short, 1761
Commission from the King naming Jean Talon Intendant of justice, police and finance
Letter from the Intendant Jean Talon to the comptroller general of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Letter from the comptroller general of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert to Jean Talon
Reply from Jean Talon to the comptroller general of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert

  The Intendant Document 1PDF Version 1.22 Mb

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The Sovereign Council

The Sovereign Council was a judicial body similar to those that were established in the French provinces from the end of the Middle Ages. Established by an edict dated April 30, 1663, the Council acted essentially as a court of appeal, but it also had the power to register and examine (right of remonstrance) regulatory documents issued by the monarchy, ordinances, letters patent, and edicts, before putting them into effect throughout New France. In fact, the Council's involvement in various matters was determined by the Intendant and the Governor. Like the other sovereign councils established in France to oversee Louis XIV's territorial conquests (Alsace, Artois, Roussillon, etc.), it operated according to the rules of the Coutume de Paris, although it was not possible to purchase a position as councillor and there were no lawyers. The Council consisted of, in order of precedence: the Governor; the Bishop; the Intendant; the councillors, initially appointed jointly by the Governor and the Bishop, but after 1675 by the King alone; an attorney general; and a registrar. Although ranked only third in the hierarchy, the Intendant, as president of the council, was responsible for sounding opinion, gathering votes and announcing decisions.

Seal of the Sovereign Council, January 30, 1742
Edict from the King establishing a Sovereign Council in Québec
Appointment of René-Louis Chartier de Lotbinière, as a councillor on the Sovereign Council
General conduct regulations issued by the Sovereign Council
Commission as guardian of the seals of the Superior Council of Québec

  The Sovereign Council Document 1PDF Version 1.56 Mb

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The Administration of Justice

After 1664, the only legal code employed in the colony was the Coutume de Paris. Each of Canada's three governments, Québec, Trois-Rivières and Montréal, had its own royal court. The principal law officers of these lower courts were the civil and criminal lieutenant general (royal judge), the special lieutenant (assistant royal judge) and the King's prosecutor. In Québec there was also the Amirauté, a court for judging maritime issues; and the Officialité, the Bishop's court, which heard civil and criminal cases involving members of the Church. Appeals relating to all these courts were heard by the Sovereign Council, the highest court in the colony. Some seigneuries had courts that delivered verdicts on minor cases, and their judgements could be appealed to the royal court of the government under whose jurisdiction they came. After 1713, France began sending new settlers to Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), and the King established lower courts there; appeals to judgements made by these courts were heard by the Superior Council in Louisbourg.

Public notice from the bailiff Clesse
Edict concerning the establishment of three bailiwicks and a Superior Council in Louisbourg
Summary of the essential procedures used in Canada for the administration of justice
List of the Law Officers employed in the different Courts

  The Administration of Justice Document 1PDF Version 1.49 Mb

  The Administration of Justice Document 2PDF Version 4.57 Mb

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Crimes and Criminals

In Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries, as in France, people accused of crimes were presumed guilty, and judges used interrogation and, in the case of serious crimes, torture to obtain confessions. The situation was different in England and its North American colonies, where the accused was considered innocent until proven guilty. Furthermore, Canadians accused of crimes did not have access to lawyers to defend them, because the King prohibited lawyers from practising in order to avoid "squabbles." About half of the criminals in Canada were accused of crimes against persons: verbal violence, such as abuse or slander; or physical violence, including assault and battery, infanticide, duelling and murder. The justice meted out was harsh, but the number of criminal trials was relatively low, possibly because there was less social tension than in France and society was more tolerant, or because living conditions were somewhat easier.

Case of Marie-Anne Gendron
Case of Jean d'Ailleboust d'Argenteuil
Case of Jean Gaboureau

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The Chief Road Officer

Commission of chief road officer, granted by the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales to René Robineau de Bécancour, first chief road officer of New France, March 29, 1667, FR CAOM COL F3 3 fol. 342-343

Commission of chief road officer
FR CAOM COL F3 3 fol. 342-343

The chief road officer was responsible for the construction and upkeep of the streets, roads and bridges, and for establishing building lines in the towns. In the early decades of the colony, the St. Lawrence and its tributaries were the principal means of communication. After completion of the chemin du roi [the King's road] in 1737, the Québec-Montréal trip could be made in four days.

  The Chief Road Officer Document 1PDF Version 0.78 Mb


The Captain of the Militia

Commission of captain of the 12th Company of the Montréal Militia, granted to Pierre Guy, by Charles de Beauharnois de la Boische, Governor of New France, July 30, 1743, CA ANC MG23-GIII28

Commission of captain of the 12th Company of the Montréal Militia

Officially established in 1669, the militia was composed of every man between the ages of 16 to 60 years able to bear arms. The militia companies were divided by parish in the country, and by neighbourhood in the towns. Every company was headed by a captain appointed by the Governor General of the colony. It was the captain's responsibility to communicate orders and put them into effect throughout his territory, whether they were issued by the military or civil administrations. In this way, he was the local representative of the Governor and the Intendant. Although militia captains were not paid, they enjoyed considerable prestige and benefited from a number of privileges attached to the position.

  The Captain of the Militia Document 1PDF Version 0.23 Mb


Petitions to the Secretary of State for the Marine

In France, from 1669 on, responsibility for the colonies fell to the Secretary of State for the Marine. He settled affairs related to New France on behalf of the King, and it was to him that individuals and institutions (including religious communities) addressed written requests known as placets [petitions]. The majority of these documents concern requests for pensions, increases in the salaries attached to official appointments, bonuses or letters of naturalization, together with appeals for intervention on legal matters.

Petition from Marie-Charlotte Legardeur
Petition from Charles de Monseignat

Canada’s Expenditures

[Statement of the payments that the King wishes and orders to be made by Mr. Jean Baptiste Jacques Boucher, Treasurer of the Colonies, for the Expenses listed below, incurred and to be incurred in the Service of His Majesty in Canada for the Year 1751], June 1751, FR CAOM COL C11A 119 fol. 431-444vo

Statement of the payments that the King wishes and orders to be made
FR CAOM COL C11A 119 fol. 431-444vo

Canada's expenses were paid from two sources. The royal funds allotted to the colonies covered the largest share of the costs. The other source was domestic revenues derived from the royal domain, such as customs duties on imports and exports. Costs were high, because they included upkeep of the forts and other public buildings; salaries of the administrators, officers and soldiers; and contributions to the various religious communities to help maintain the hospitals and educational establishments. In fact, Canada's expenditures were higher than its revenues. This was especially true in the final years of the regime, when military spending was very high.

  Canada’s Expenditures Document 1PDF Version 5.61 Mb


The Capitation Plan

Plan to introduce capitation in Canada, 1754, FR CAOM COL C11A 99 fol. 529-533vo

Plan to introduce capitation in Canada
FR CAOM COL C11A 119 fol. 431-444vo

In France, an additional tax called capitation was imposed in 1695 and remained in effect until the Revolution. Taxpayers were divided into 22 classes based on their income and were required to pay taxes ranging from 1 to 2000 livres. The inhabitants of New France did not have to pay income tax, except on occasion for specific purposes, such as the building of Montréal's ramparts. A plan to impose capitation in Canada was drawn up in 1754, but it was never implemented.

  The Capitation Plan Document 1PDF Version 2.06 Mb

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