Slavery in New France
Ages 11-14

MysteryQuest 6
Support Materials 2 (Briefing Sheet)

Life of Commoners in New France

Following Jacques Cartier’s discovery of what became New France, people from Europe eagerly came to this new territory. First fur traders came; then settlers from Europe were encouraged to settle the land. Coming from different regions of France, settlers were divided in three social classes: nobility, middle class, and commoners. In fact, almost all were commoners. When arriving in New France, settlers worked in seigneuries (large estates owned by the church or wealthy people). The settlers worked in the seigneuries until they were able to rent or buy their own piece of land.

To read more about the seigneurial system, follow the link below:
Seigneurial system

Farmers made up 80% of the population; the remaining 20% were active as administrators, merchants, militia (military), and members of the clergy. Officers in the militia and members of the clergy enjoyed a higher social status. Of course, this slightly better status did not provide them with all the prestige and advantages enjoyed by the members of the nobility.

Social advancement was not limited to members of the clergy and the militia. Fur traders were sometimes given the concession of a seigneurie. Some historians suggest that the life of a farmer in New France, even with its difficulties, was easier than the one of a French peasant. Seigneurs were not wealthy, however. It took up to fifty tenant farmers living on the seigneurie before it would show a profit. Seigneurs added to their income by fur trading and serving in the militia.

Farmers who rented land from the seigneur had to live on their land and use it for agricultural purposes. They were required to clear their land at the rate of 2 acres per year and build a house. Three years after an immigrant arrived to work for the seigneur, he was granted the land. He moved up in rank from an immigrant to a habitant (free farmer) and could then get married. He hoped to have many strong sons to help with the farm. Apart from his own responsibilities, if the habitant wanted to keep his farm, he was required to pay the land rent. He also had to pay different fees; for example, a tenant had to pay the seigneur a fishing fee, which was a certain percentage of the catch. He was also expected to do some work for the seigneur without receiving pay. These jobs could be anything from repairing a fence to any task that would help the seigneurie. As well, if a parish was established on the seigneurie, tenants were obliged to contribute to maintenance of the Church and the priest. By the eighteenth century, tenants gave 1/26 of their annual crop to support their parish.