As early as 1649, local militia were raised in various districts of Canada. The small unit of 40 men raised in Trois-Rivières in 1649 being the first of these units. Similar initiatives were undertaken by M. d'Ailleboust in Québec in 1651; and by the Sieur Chomedey de Maisonneuve in 1657 in Montréal.
However, it is in 1673 that Frontenac published an ordinance organising all valid men (between 16 and 60 years old) of the various parishes of Nouvelle-France into militia companies which would serve in wartime. Service thus became mandatory. The captain of each company was chosen by the settlers. Militia company assembled once a month for training.
It took a few years for the Canadiens to grasp the way of making war in these countries. It is around 1680 that the war à la sauvage (Indian style) was adopted by most combatants: soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine as well as militiamen. It was while fighting back the continual raids of the Iroquois Indians that they became accustomed to such a way of making war: planning ambushes and surprise attacks, fighting hand-to-hand, campaigning during winter, hiding behind trees...
Under the French Militia ordinances every man in the colony, the clergy and nobility excepted, was required to enroll himself in the militia. The military administrative organisation in each district, outside of Québec where the colonial administration was located, consisted of a governor, a lieutenant du Roi and a town major, all under salary. In every parish there was a captain of militia, responsible for the drill and good order of his men while the seigneurs were usually commissioned as colonels. The governors, in cases of emergency, decided what quotas were required from each seigniory and town and forwarded a requisition therefore to the town majors and seigneurs. These officials in turn decided upon the strength of the quotas of the various parishes, and requisitioned the captains of militia therefore, the captains raising the men by a draft, and marching them under escort into the nearest town where the town major furnished each militiaman with arms and clothing. Militia were also made responsible for the maintenance of roads and bridges, the service of legal writs, and the conveyance of letters and despatches.
In 1721, the division of the colony into parishes was revised by a jurist from France whose scheme did not give satisfaction owing to his lack of local knowledge. His successor, M. Le Voories, was appointed as Procureur-General and special commissioner. Before altering the boundaries of any parish, he assembled the habitants and heard their suggestions and objections. The number of parishes was increased to 110 and his decisions appear to have given general satisfaction.
A royal memorandum of May 15, 1725, addressed to the governor and intendant directed that all farmers, domestic servants and workmen should be enrolled in the militia. Bailiffs were also required to perform service therein excepting those who were court-criers. If the gentry declined to act as officers, they must be compelled to serve as privates.
The clothing supplied the militiaman can scarcely be described as a uniform. At the embodiment of the levies, the town major furnished each militiaman with a musket, a cap, a hooded coat (capot), a cotton shirt, breeches, mitasses (Indian style leggings), moccasins and a blanket.
On May 14, 1728, the president of the Navy Board wrote to the governor that it was observed that the general militia roll contained the names of 6,977 persons of whom 322 were without arms. They were to be induced to supply themselves at their own expense.
An ordinance published by the intendant, Hocquart, on June 5, 1730, required all captains and other officers of the militia to supervise the necessary labor of the inhabitants upon the roads and public bridges, and in case of refusal, the work was to be carried out at the expense of the delinquents.
In 1736, an official memoir attributed to Intendant Hocquart describes the Canadians as generally tall, well made and of an active temperament. There were few mechanics or tradesmen among them but necessity had made them industrious. The rural inhabitants of the country were generally expert in the use of the axe. They manufactured most of their tools and agricultural implements and built their own houses and barns. Some of them had learned to weave a coarse kind of cloth called "drugget" of which much of their clothing was made. They were fond of distinctions and compliments and were proud of their courage, keenly sensitive to ridicule and any kind of reproof. They drank much brandy and frequently became intoxicated. Although strongly attached to their religion they were not considered particularly truthful. They were fond of hunting, boating and travelling and had not the heavy and rustic appearance of the French peasants. Naturally impatient of discipline, the chief method recommended to enforce it, was the selection of officers of the militia from the best educated and most influential inhabitants, giving them all possible support from the government to maintain their authority.
A census taken in 1744 showed a total of 11,285 men fit for military service of whom 4,647 resided in the district of Montréal; 1,059 in that of Trois-Rivières and 5,579 in the district of Québec.
By 1752, the number of inhabitants liable for military duty was estimated at 13,000. Experience had proved, however, that not more than one-third of these could be withdrawn from their farms during seed time and harvest, without exposing the colony to great danger of famine.
At least from the year 1754 until the capitulation of Montréal, every parish was a garrison, commanded by a captain of militia whose authority was not only acknowledged but rigidly enforced. From 1754 to 1759 when Saunders' fleet appeared in the Saint-Laurent, the militia was frequently exercised.
In 1759, a census showed a total of 7,511 militiamen in the district of Québec, 1,313 in that of Trois-Rivières and 6,406 in that of Montréal for a total of 15,299 men.
As the country was not suitable for cavalry, the commanders depended largely upon the militia for the important duties of the scouting and intelligence service.
Several British and American contemporary writers tended to despise these militias while French and Canadian writers are often laudatory about them.
Here follow a few quotes who should give an idea of the fighting qualities of these militias.
A contemporary New Englander compared the inhabitants of Nouvelle France with those of New England:
- “Our men are only a people of farmers and planters, who know only how to handle the ax and the hoe. Theirs (Canadiens), since their childhood among the Indians, are used to the handling of weapons; and they have the reputation to worth in this part of the world the most toughened up troops, if they are not superior to them. They are soldiers who fight without receiving any pay, used to live in the woods without depending from anything, to march without baggage, to sustain themselves with a minimum of ammunition and provisions, while this represents for us a huge burden.”
A few years later, Louis Franquet an engineer of the King wrote:
- “In wartime, there are only the inhabitants who can be armed for the defence of the colony, and to molest and harass the English, because they are the only ones who can go in canoes in summer and in snowshoes in winter; feed themselves with some flour, lard and fat; make forced marches through woods during three to six months, resisting to the rigours of cold, and living at the point of their gun, in other words only with their hunting and fishing.”
The importance of the militia in Canada was such that, on the eve of the Seven Years' War, with its total strength of some 15,000 men, the militia represented the main military force of the colony.
The Chevalier de Troyes mentions:
- “These militiamen are already experienced in the difficulties of long sojourn in forests; the contact of their Indian allies taught them to transport heavy baggage, to skillfully handle their canoes on turbulent rivers, to make portage sometimes perilous, and to feed themselves scarcely. They even know how to dress their way. And it is thanks to them that they practiced Indian style attacks.”
Unfortunately, contemporary writers often described very succinctly the role of Canadian Militias and almost never give a detailed breakdown of the various militias involved in a campaign or a battle. It is thus quite difficult to follow these units throughout the Seven Years' War. Nevertheless, we created articles for the militias of each district of Canada where we record the sparse information available for each of them. These articles are:
- Corps de Cavalerie du Canada
- Milice du district de Montréal (5455 men in 1759)
- Milice du district de Québec (5640 men in 1759)
- Milice du district de Trois-Rivières (1300 men in 1759)
This article incorporates texts from the following book which is now in the public domain:
- Chambers, Ernest J.: The Canadian Militia : a history of the origin and development of the Force, Montréal: L. M. Fresco
- Historical Section of the General Staff: A history of the organization, development and services of the military and naval forces of Canada from the Peace of Paris in 1763, to the present time, Vol. 1 – The Local Forces of New France, p. 4-5, 20-26, 34
Hardy, Jean-Pierre: Chercher fortune en Nouvelle-France, Libre Expression, 2007
Luc Bertrand for the initial version of this article