The 1st and 2nd French Forts St. Louis

The French Named That City
"Québec" and Champlain Built
the First Two Forts St. Louis

(1534 to 1635)

With the arrival of the first Europeans in 1534, the Amerindian nations and tribes in what is today the Province of Québec had to adapt to a whole new reality regarding what used to be their exclusive territory. Alliances developed between many of the "First Nations" and the French, but the Iroquois in particular remained formidable and highly feared enemies of the French throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. Eventually, the Iroquois even allied with the English (before 1603)/then British (after 1603) against the French and their Amerindian allies. The English (before 1603)/then British (after 1603) were increasingly interested in the St. Lawrence Valley's resources. Moreover, the French also dreaded competition from other fur-trading companies. So, the stage was set for the birth of the Fortified Wall as an essential part of a major defensive system aiming to protect the Québec City area.

1534 — French navigator and explorer Jacques Cartier discovered and formally took possession of the country he called "Canada". He did this on July 24, 1534, in the name of the King of France, Francis I ("François Ier " in French). The name "Canada" was borrowed by Cartier from the Amerindian word "Kanata", which meant "village". In this particular case, Canada certainly became a very big "village". Also, Cartier's first voyage to Canada was mainly to Gaspé, in the eastern part of what is today the Province of Québec.

1535 — Jacques Cartier sailed from Saint-Malo in France on May 19, 1535, for his second voyage to Canada. This time, he focused on exploring the St. Lawrence River. Amerindians told him that this river was "so long that no one had ever been to its other end". Then, he must have thought that such a very long river was perhaps the great western passage to Japan and China, to the Asian continent, for which many European explorers were searching during the Age of Discovery. But it was not that long, as impressive as it was.

This painting represents the meeting in 1535 between French explorer Jacques Cartier and a group of Iroquois near the village of Stadacona, which was located where Québec City stands today. This crucial historical encounter took place during Cartier's second voyage to the Canada he had founded in 1534 during his first voyage. It was during that second voyage that Cartier and his 110 seamen aboard three ships explored the St. Lawrence River, all the way up to the Amerindian village of Hochelaga (present-day Montréal).
Image Credit: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec / Access number 1934.12 / From an original painting named "Jacques Cartier rencontre les Indiens à Stadaconé, 1535" by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, 1907 / Permanent collection / MNBAQ, salle 7 / Reproduced with the permission of Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.
Image Source: Service des communications, Ville de Québec / Book in French about the 400th anniversary of Québec City, entitled "Québec, ma ville, mon 400e", 2009, page 12 / Reproduced with the permission of Archives de la Ville de Québec.

1541 — During his third and last voyage to Canada, Jacques Cartier had orders from King Francis I to launch a colonization project. So, he tried to establish a permanent French settlement in present-day Cap-Rouge, a few miles (or kilometers) upstream of what is now Québec City. There, a fortified settlement was established and named "Charlesbourg-Royal". Two wooden forts were built for its protection. They did not last long, but they can also be considered indirect "ancestors" of Old Québec's Fortified Wall.

1603 — It is at this time that England morphed into "Great Britain" (uniting England, Wales and Scotland), which resolutely decided to expand its "British Empire" with the colonization of North America as well as other parts of the world. In the particular case of Canada, it would mean that the "British Empire" would confront the "French Empire" for its control and the exploitation of its resources.

1608 — French navigator and explorer Samuel de Champlain succeeded in establishing the first permanent French settlement in New France. First and foremost, he was looking for a fur-trading post. But he quickly realized that he had to protect it against potential enemies, so he thought of it as a "fortified" fur-trading post. On July 3, 1608, he founded a city that he first called "Quebecq" (after the Amerindian word "Kebec", meaning "Where the river narrows"). That was the birth of "Québec City".

On July 3, 1608, Samuel de Champlain arrived at that unique location on the St. Lawrence River "where the river narrows", with high cliffs on both sides of that river. He had previously noticed this strategic location, back in 1603. He then laid plans to build the first permanent European settlement in Canada at this exact location, which he did five years later. He founded the city of "Quebecq", better known afterward and today as "Québec City".
© 2009 Service des communications, Ville de Québec / Book in French about the 400th anniversary of Québec City, entitled "Québec, ma ville, mon 400e", page 15 / From an original poster named "Samuel de Champlain traçant les plans de la Ville de Québec", 1908, in "Collection Yves Beauregard" / Archives de la Ville de Québec / Image reproduced with the permission of Archives de la Ville de Québec.

1608 — During that same summer of 1608, Champlain had his first "Fortified Habitation" built in the Lower Town of what is today Old Québec, not far from the St. Lawrence River. He called it "l'Abitation de Quebecq" (in French, for "the Habitation of Québec City"). Much of the work was done by skilled carpenters from Honfleur, France. Champlain's ship had previously carried most of what was needed to build his first "Fortified Habitation", including: window casings, tools and other materials.

This model of Champlain's first "Fortified Habitation", located in the Lower Town, allows us to see that it served as a residence, a fur-trading post and what can be considered the very first "defensive system" in Québec City. It was a direct "ancestor" of Old Québec's Fortified Wall. Its vertical walls and protective ditch helped restrict access, while its special platforms enabled the firing of cannons. It was made of wood.
© 2009 Service des communications, Ville de Québec / Book in French about the 400th anniversary of Québec City, entitled "Québec, ma ville, mon 400e", page 16 / From "The first house erected in Québec", 1880 / Archives de la Ville de Québec / Image reproduced with the permission of Archives de la Ville de Québec.

1609 — Champlain wanted to keep exploring to the west, but his Amerindian allies were reluctant to help him or even let him do that. So, they reached a compromise. Champlain and his French soldiers would help them against their archenemies, the Iroquois, and in return they would help him explore farther to the west. They fought together in a war against the Iroquois during this year and in 1610. Champlain was then able to continue his explorations.

1616 — The first "Fortified Habitation" was expanded by Champlain, to reinforce its defensive function.

1620 — The construction of the first Fort St. Louis by Champlain, in the Upper Town and on top of the high cliffs facing the St. Lawrence River, marked the true beginning of Old Québec's Fortified Wall. Its location in one of the city's high points was perfect for protecting it and providing refuge for its inhabitants in case of an attack. However, it was small and still a wooden fort. A footpath that eventually became "Côte de la Montagne" in Québec City allowed Champlain to walk between his "Fortified Habitation" in the Lower Town and Fort St. Louis in the Upper Town.

1623 — A second "Fortified Habitation" was built by Champlain in the Lower Town, because a simple expansion of the first "Fortified Habitation", as was done in 1616, would not have been enough to face the increasing residential, commercial and defensive needs of Champlain's "Fortified Habitation".

This model of Champlain's second "Fortified Habitation" in 1635 allows us to see the difference between his first "Fortified Habitation" and second "Fortified Habitation", mainly that all functions of his "Fortified Habitation" were increased, to the point where a complete reconstruction seemed more adequate than a new expansion of the first one. It also shows Québec City's Lower Town (where the first and second "Fortified Habitations" were located) and Upper Town (on top of the high cliffs) at that time. Note the presence of the second Fort St. Louis in the Upper Town (at the top-left of the image), which was built in 1626.
© 2009 Photo by Jean-Pierre Lavoie of a model created by Michel Bergeron, Vianney Guindon and Claude Paulette in 1987 / Musée de la civilisation, Québec.

1626 — Champlain had a second Fort St. Louis built in the Upper Town, to replace the first one constructed only six years earlier. He felt the need for a larger fort made of wood and earth. The pressure coming from the British was mounting and Champlain became convinced that there was no time to waste in improving Québec City's Fort St. Louis in the Upper Town. One big improvement was that stone housing was built inside the inner walls of that second Fort St. Louis.

1629 — Champlain's fears were well founded. The Fortified Wall went through its first big test, the surrender of Québec City. In the pay of British merchants, the Kirke brothers (Lewis and Thomas) skirted the Island of Orléans ("l'Île d'Orléans" in French, located on the St. Lawrence River, just northeast of Québec City) and came to Québec in 1628. But they were unable to storm the second Fort St. Louis, primarily because of its strategic situation. So, the following year, they tried a different approach … and it worked. They succeeded in gaining control of the fur-trading post and second Fort St. Louis by intercepting French supply ships on the St. Lawrence River. It had the effect of starving out Champlain and his troops, which forced Champlain to surrender on July 19, 1629. The British were then in control of Québec City as well as its second Fort St. Louis in the Upper Town.

1632 — With the signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in Europe, Champlain was able to regain control of Québec City. It was returned by Great Britain to France, along with the rest of Canada.

1633 — Champlain was made Governor of New France by the Company of New France on March 23, 1633. For the next 126 years, Québec City and its Fortified Wall would remain under French control.

1635 — Samuel de Champlain, founder of Québec City and first Governor of New France, passed away on Christmas Day. There is no doubt that he was the most important person in the history of New France as well as the true initiator of Old Québec's Fortified Wall. His two "Fortified Habitations" in the Lower Town (in 1608 and 1623) as well as the first two Forts St. Louis in the Upper Town (in 1620 and 1626) set the trend for the numerous and profound metamorphoses of Québec City's Fortified Wall during the centuries that followed.