Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.
Under the leadership of the courageous Samuel de Champlain, French objectives were the rich fur trade and the conversion of the Indians. Champlain made the hazardous passage across the Atlantic no less than twenty times between 1603 and 1633. He founded Quebec City in 1608. From this outpost, trappers and traders—known as coureurs de bois (forest runners)—ranged deep into the interior of the continent. These adventurous French Canadians traveled as far as the Dakotas before the English had advanced to the crest of the Appalachians.
Far ahead of his time, Champlain saw Canada as an ideal location for New France, for the building up of a distinct society in the New World. But the royal government at Versailles was unwilling to send political or religious dissidents, or even criminals, to populate New France. Thus, French colonization never achieved the impact that massive English emigration did in the Atlantic colonies. This fact also contributed to the generally more favorable relations the French enjoyed with the Indian tribes. Their settlements, largely trading posts, intruded less on the Indian way of life. Unlike the English, where the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was an exception, the French coureurs were more likely to take Indian wives.
French missionary efforts saw notable success among the Huron Indians but met the hostility of the Iroquois Confederation. Young, zealous Catholic priests of the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—were especially active among the tribes. Father Isaac Jogues ventured from Quebec City in 1636. He preached the gospel a thousand miles in the interior, as the historian George Bancroft noted, “five years before [Protestant missionary] John Eliot addressed the Indians six miles from Boston Harbour.” He proposed to convert the Indians of Lake Superior and even to send missionaries to the Sioux in the distant Dakotas.