Established Spanish bases had thwarted early French efforts to colonize the more attractive southern part of the continent, and the magnificent fisheries off the Gulf of St. Lawrence, already well known to seamen of the western ports, drew the French northward. But establishing a continental base at the natural strong point of Quebec in the early seventeenth century meant securing the constricted St. Lawrence valley above Quebec, and this strategic valley proved to be the "dark and bloody ground" of Canadian history. If fish drew the French to the St. Lawrence valley, fur kept them there; but the same fur trade, pouring down from the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay, was also a major factor in stunting and mili- tarizing New France. 12
When the French and English arrived in the early seventeenth century, the native population of eastern North America, more primitive and far less numer- ous than the native peoples of Mexico, had felt the devastating effects of epi- demic disease sweeping up from the southward. Decimated, they could resist European invasion, but not effectively. Their weakness at just the time of French and English colonization also made them susceptible to domination by the strongest Indian tribal grouping in the region, the Iroquois Confederation stretch- ing from the Hudson valley to Niagara. In a primitive version of Aztec imperial- ism, the Iroquois used warfare and terror to assert hegemony over a vast tract of eastern North America, far into the best northern fur-bearing area, and into the St. Lawrence valley itself. By establishing themselves when they did in the St. Lawrence valley, the French became -- as had the Spanish a century earlier -- the natural allies of those Indians resisting a ruthless, aggressive native American power. But unlike the Spanish, the French found themselves on the losing side. They could not protect their chief allies, the Hurons, from destruction by the Iroquois, and they barely could save themselves.
The military history of New France is grim but impressive. Not until the 1660's, when Colbert began to pour settlers, money, and troops into the St. Law- rence, was it clear that New France would survive. Survival meant that in 1665 more than a quarter of the population, and even later as much as a tenth, were professional soldiers.13 The rest of the population was organized into militia companies, and the captains of militia were the chief officers of local administra- tion.14 After Colbert, through heavily subsidized immigration, had brought the population up to the level needed for survival, it was left to grow naturally; the Spartan conditions of New France, described by priests and travellers and embel- lished with tales of Indian atrocities, did not attract settlers from Europe. The colony was essentially a huge garrison, with all the strange mixture of rowdiness and order, authority and equality, that is part of a well-run regiment. Both eco- nomics and weakness gave New France an exceptional sensitivity to relations with native Americans, and their influence with the western Indian tribes - - all of them fearful of the Iroquois - - brought Frenchmen and French outposts into the heart of the continent. And yet this military structure of New France set a fatal limit on its value to Old France.