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The History of Montréal: The Story of a Great North American City

The History of Montréal: The Story of a Great North American City

by Paul-André Linteau, Peter McCambridge

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Professor Paul-André Linteau tells the fascinating story of Montreal from prehistoric times to the twenty-first century, from the Iroquoian community of Hochelaga to the bustling economic metropolis that Montreal has become. He delves into the social, economic, political, and cultural forces and trends that have driven Montreal’s development as well as the


Professor Paul-André Linteau tells the fascinating story of Montreal from prehistoric times to the twenty-first century, from the Iroquoian community of Hochelaga to the bustling economic metropolis that Montreal has become. He delves into the social, economic, political, and cultural forces and trends that have driven Montreal’s development as well as the difficult periods it has lived through. Outlining the diverse ethnic and cultural origins of the city and its strategic geographical position, he shows how a small missionary colony founded in 1642 developed into a leading economic city and cultural center, the thriving cosmopolitan hub of French-speaking North America.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Montreal was established in 1642 as a missionary settlement and grew as first the fur trade, then the fashion and banking industries developed. Then it lost much of its economic power later in the 20th century. Linteau (history, Univ. of Quebec-Montreal) seeks to capture almost 400 years in his comprehensive, if brief, overview. His writing is clear and concise, making this 1992 title—now available in English for the first time—accessible to those without extensive knowledge of the city or region. Readers will find out what happened throughout Montreal's history, albeit with less focus why; the significance of major issues such as the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s is glossed over in exchange for details about new construction, public works, and elections. Numerous maps demonstrate the city's growth into what it is today, and updates for this edition, referring to events as recent as early 2013, make the book current. VERDICT This is a good choice for those looking for an accessible history of this major North American city.—Elizabeth Goldman, Perth & District Union P.L., Ont.

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History of Montreal

The Story of a Great North American City

By Paul-André Linteau, Peter McCambridge

Baraka Books

Copyright © 2007 Les éditions du Boréal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-926824-81-9



Montreal was born in 1642, but the area's history obviously dates back much further. And yet knowledge of this part of the city's past remains, even today, far from complete. We know that the island was frequented — and even inhabited — by Iroquoian people before the French arrived, but experts do not agree on what happened to these first populations.

An enviable location

To understand the reasons that led to groups settling, temporarily or permanently, on the island of Montreal, first we need to take a closer look at the island. Thousands of years ago, only the summit of Mount Royal peeked out above the waters of the Champlain Sea. As the waters retreated, the mountain acted as an anchor for the land that formed the island of Montreal, and remains a focal point of the cityscape today.

The St. Lawrence River played an even greater role in shaping Montreal's history. All around the world, mighty rivers have cradled civilizations, favouring the emergence of great cities, especially for centuries when water was the main means of transporting people and goods over long distances. The St. Lawrence was no exception. But why did Montreal and not Sorel or Trois-Rivières become the biggest city along the river? As we will see later, this can partly be explained by the city's history as a whole, as well as the constraints of geography.

Coming from the Atlantic, travellers along the St. Lawrence hit a major obstacle at Montreal: the Lachine rapids. Goods had to be unloaded and portaged all the way to Lachine, with things being no better for those heading the other way. This obligation to unload and reload boats would make Montreal's fortune over the years.

Prehistoric Montreal was likely a temporary camp for groups passing through the St. Lawrence Valley. With game, fish, and berries in abundance, it even offered ready access to food. Yet there is scant archaeological evidence of human activity on the prehistoric island of Montreal. We know that occupation of the St. Lawrence Valley began some 6,000 years ago, but artifacts uncovered beneath the city seem to date back no further than a handful of centuries before the Europeans arrived. It is plausible that the island was frequented long before, but this has never been proven. Nor do we know exactly when Aboriginal peoples permanently settled on the island of Montreal. What we do know is that in 1535, when French explorer Jacques Cartier travelled across the island, he found a sedentary population living in a large village: Hochelaga.

The Iroquoians

These people were part of a group known as the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians belonged to the broad linguistic family of the Iroquoians, along with other nations like the Hurons and the Iroquois, but were a distinct people. Little is known about their origins. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians are thought to have formed a specific cultural group around 1300, and are believed to have emerged from groups previously established in the area. Specialists have observed differences within this people, particularly between the groups that settled around Quebec and Montreal.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians, like the Hurons and the Iroquois, were sedentary and lived mainly from agriculture. They mostly grew corn, but also beans, squash, and tobacco. They fished and hunted to complete their diet, and traded with Algonquin hunter-gatherers, exchanging corn for fur pelts and meat.

Women had an important role to play in their society and were the heads of families and clans. They farmed the land and made pottery decorated with original motifs that illustrated the distinct culture of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

The Iroquoians lived in villages surrounded by wooden stockades, with some of the biggest villages boasting more than a thousand inhabitants. They built huge oblong-shaped houses, shared by families from the same clan. The houses were made from wood lattice covered with bark. Farmed fields surrounded their villages. After 10 to 20 years, when the fields had grown less fertile, the Iroquoians would move their villages, usually to somewhere nearby.

The village of Hochelaga described by Cartier broadly resembled this description. It was surrounded by a high stockade to which walkways were attached, enabling the village's defenders to throw projectiles at attackers. Access to the village was through a single gate. Inside, Cartier saw some 50 houses, 50 paces long and 12 to 15 paces wide. Each was divided into separate living areas for each family and had a central fireplace for cooking food. Cartier estimated the village to be home to one thousand souls, but judging by the number and dimensions of the houses, ethnologist Bruce Trigger believes 1,500 to be a likelier estimate. Here is how Cartier described Hochelaga:

And in the middle of these fields is situated and stands the village of Hochelaga, near and adjacent to a mountain, the slopes of which are fertile and are cultivated, and from the top of which one can see for a long distance. We named this mountain "Mount Royal." The village is circular and is completely enclosed by a wooden palisade in three tiers like a pyramid. The top one is built crosswise, the middle one perpendicular and the lowest one of strips of wood placed lengthwise. The whole is well joined and lashed after their manner, and is some two lances in height. There is only one gate and entrance to this village, and that can be barred up. Over this gate and in many places about the enclosure are species of galleries with ladders for mounting to them, which galleries are provided with rocks and stones for the defence and protection of the place. There are some fifty houses in this village, ( ... ) built completely of wood and covered in and bordered up with large pieces of the bark and rind of trees, as broad as a table, which are well and cunningly lashed after their manner. (From H.P. Biggar, The Voyages of Jacques Cartier: published from the originals with translations, notes, and appendices, Ottawa, 1924.)

So where was Hochelaga? It remains a mystery to this day. According to Cartier, it was close to the mountain. In the nineteenth century, remains of an Iroquoian village were discovered — the Dawson site — south of Sherbrooke, opposite McGill University. But it was much smaller than the site described by the French explorer and probably another village, perhaps a satellite of Hochelaga.

Everything hangs, obviously, on how we interpret Cartier's words. If, as most specialists believe, Cartier approached the island from the St. Lawrence side, then Hochelaga was probably somewhere between today's Sherbrooke street and the mountain. If, as Quebec architect and history buff Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne maintained, he came along Rivière des Prairies (sometimes called the Back river in English), then the village would be on the other side of the mountain. Which means that, unless new archaeological discoveries advance the debate, the question surrounding the village's location will remain unanswered. But one thing is for sure: there was no direct correlation between the location of Hochelaga and the town of Montreal to come, since the latter would be built on the shores of the St. Lawrence.

Cartier returned to Montreal in 1541. His notes from the voyage mention two Iroquoian villages along the St. Lawrence. They were probably temporary fishing camps, one close to Sainte-Marie Current (near what is now the Jacques-Cartier Bridge), the other close to the Lachine rapids. This time there was no mention of Hochelaga, but the town of Tutonaguy, which Cartier did not visit. Might it have been another name for Hochelaga (or perhaps even the village's real name, with Hochelaga the name for the area as a whole?) or a village that replaced Hochelaga? The question has never been answered to anyone's complete satisfaction.

What should we take away from all of this? In the sixteenth century, and perhaps before, the island of Montreal was home to at least one major permanent settlement inhabited by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. By 1603, when Champlain explored the St. Lawrence, the Iroquoians no longer lived in Montreal or anywhere else in the St. Lawrence Valley. Many have tried to explain their disappearance. A series of poor harvests caused by bad weather could have forced them to move. Illnesses introduced by the French, against which they were defenceless, might have thinned their ranks. Most of all it is highly probable that they were attacked by their traditional enemies the Hurons, the Algonquins, or the Iroquois. Keen to join the burgeoning fur trade with the French at the end of the sixteenth century, these rivals might have cast aside the St. Lawrence Iroquoians who controlled the river, the main means of travel. A combination of these factors might have led to the dispersal of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. And it is possible that some of the survivors were integrated into other Aboriginal groups. The end result was that at the start of the seventeenth century, Montreal no longer had a permanent settlement, even though the island remained a hub that hunting groups, war parties, and trading expeditions would pass through.

A visit from the French

The sudden arrival of the French clearly upset the environmental, economic, and political balance of the St. Lawrence Valley. And yet it had taken over a century for them to settle permanently on the island of Montreal. What had they been up to before 1642?

Jacques Cartier was the first Frenchman and the first European to set foot on the island's shores. He arrived in October 1535 and spent no more than a day in Montreal. He had no interpreter with him, meaning that he was unable to use the information the inhabitants shared with him. One of Cartier's biggest contributions to history was the account he wrote of his visit to the village of Hochelaga. He also wrote an initial description of the area, even though he did not realize it was an island. And he made a lasting contribution to the island's toponymy, christening the mountain "Mont Royal," a name that would be extended to the whole of the island since Montreal is simply another way of writing Mont Royal, réal being synonymous with royal. He also made the name Hochelaga more widely known, a familiar sight in place names around the city to this day.

During his second and final trip to the island in September 1541 (which was just as brief as the first), Cartier did not add much to his knowledge of Montreal, although this time he went right up to the foot of the Lachine rapids. In 1543, Roberval also travelled as far as Montreal, but nothing is known of his voyage, other than the fact that he too probably went to the Lachine rapids. Around 1585, a nephew of Cartier's, Jacques Noël, retraced his uncle's steps and scaled Mount Royal, without unearthing any new information.

It was not until Samuel de Champlain that the French were again in contact with Montreal. In 1603, it was Champlain's turn to travel up the St. Lawrence to the Lachine rapids. His local guides provided him with detailed information on the land upstream from Montreal, particularly the course of the St. Lawrence as far as Lake Huron and the role the Ottawa River played in transporting goods inland. This gave him a much better idea than his predecessors of Montreal's enviable position at the confluence of both commercial axes.

It took until 1611, three years after he founded Quebec, for Champlain to grow more interested in the island's potential. He spent several weeks there trading furs and used the occasion to explore the surrounding area. He could see the benefits of setting up a trading post on the island and chose the very same site — today known as Pointe-ã -Callière — chosen by Maisonneuve and his group 31 years later. Champlain cleared a space, which he named Place Royale, then had a wall built and prepared and seeded two gardens. On a map that he published in 1613, he referred to the island by the name of Montreal for the very first time.

Over the next few years, Montreal became a meeting place for Aboriginals and French traders. The Aboriginals arrived in groups over the summer, canoes laden with furs from the Pays d'en haut (the upper country encompassing the entire Great Lakes), which they exchanged for European products. Champlain's goal of setting up a permanent trading post there never came to fruition, however. There were simply not enough Frenchmen to maintain two separate settlements, one at Quebec, the other at Montreal. They had to make do with a presence on the island for only part of the year.

Another factor weighing against a permanent settlement on the island was the growing threat from the Iroquois. Champlain had allied with the Algonquins and Hurons and joined in a number of their war parties against the Iroquois. But the Iroquois, particularly the Mohawks, known as Agniers in French, were remarkable warriors, capable not only of keeping their enemies at bay, but of launching attacks of their own. They also became involved in the fur trade, not with the French, but with the Dutch merchants of Nieuw-Nederland (later the colony of New York). Their objective was clear: to control the flow of furs along the St. Lawrence by eliminating the competition.

The handful of French men and women living in New France were no match for the thousands of warriors the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy could muster. And the Iroquois soon had firearms, supplied by the Dutch, depriving the French of the upper hand they had once enjoyed when it came to technology. For the moment, the Iroquois were merely a nuisance, but it was enough to create a climate of insecurity and disrupt the supply of furs along the St. Lawrence. When at last, in 1634, Champlain was able to open a second permanent post, it was at Trois-Rivières.

The project of establishing a settlement in Montreal was postponed until the situation improved. In 1636, Jean de Lauson, manager of the Compagnie des Cent-Associés that controlled New France, used a frontman to get the company to grant him a seigneury that took in the entire island of Montreal. Under the seigneurial system, the seigneur was expected to grant lots to new settlers he would recruit, but Jean de Lauson had no intention of fulfilling those obligations and settling the island. It was sheer speculation: Lauson was well placed to see Montreal's potential.


Ville-Marie 1642 — 1665

Champlain had dreamed of setting up a trading post at Montreal, but in 1642 a missionary settlement got there first. And so, although the city was most often called Montréal, it also came to be known as Ville-Marie. The beginnings were difficult, but Montréalistes, as they were known, stuck it out and gradually put down roots.

A mission

To understand the context in which Montreal was founded, we need to go back to France in the 1630s. Religion was back in favour; a wave of exaltation and a desire to spread the Catholic faith had washed over part of France's elite, affecting both the nobility and bourgeoisie. It spawned a host of new works, from religious orders and charities to missions. A secret society, the Company of the Blessed Sacrament (Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement), channelled part of this energy and brought together many of the kingdom's most influential figures. This was also a time when French Catholics were learning about missions in Canada, thanks in particular to The Jesuit Relations, chronicles of their time in New France.

This was the world of the man behind the Montreal project, Jérôme Le Royer de La Dauversière, a tax collector from La Flèche in France. A fervent Catholic, he founded a number of religious and charitable organizations in his town and was also a member of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. Around 1635, he first had the idea of founding a missionary settlement in Montreal. His project began to take shape in 1639 when he met Father Jean-Jacques Olier in Paris, a French priest who would go on to found the Sulpicians, and who was already nursing a similar idea. Together they managed to rally the rich and influential around their project, including the superior of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, Gaston de Renty.


Excerpted from History of Montreal by Paul-André Linteau, Peter McCambridge. Copyright © 2007 Les éditions du Boréal. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paul-André Linteau is professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Specializing in economic, social and urban history, he has written many books on the history of Quebec and Canada, with an emphasis on Montreal. His many awards include the Prix Léon-Gérin, Quebec’s highest distinction in humanities, and the International Canadian Studies Award of Excellence. Paul-André Linteau is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Peter McCambridge is an award-winning professional translator based in Quebec City. He has an MA in Modern Languages from Cambridge University. He also translated for Baraka Books I Hate Hockey (François Barcelo), The Orphanage (Richard Bergeron), and The Adventures of Radisson 1, Hell Never Burns (Martin Fournier). Peter won the 2012 prestigious John Dryden Translation Prize awarded by the British Comparative Literature Association

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