History of Québec City

Québec City was established in 1608 by French adventurer Samuel de Champlain. With its dramatic cliff-top location overlooking the St. Lawrence River, fortification walls, winding streets, and abundance of historic structures dating back more than four centuries, Québec City is unlike any other city in North America. Five times under siege throughout its existence, Québec City was finally taken by the British in 1759. It is now the centre of French culture on this continent. Originally the capital of New France, it later served as the capital of British North America.

What is the history of this distinctive and intriguing city? How has such a unique location endured and thrived for so many years? We must imagine a time before the current borders of Canada and the United States were established in order to begin to understand the history of French Canadians and the significant role that Québec City has played in the fate of North America. Here is a summary of Québec City’s lengthy history.

Canada’s “Discovery”

The discovery of Canada is frequently credited to the French adventurer Jacques Cartier, who made his first foray into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534. The following year, he travelled upriver to Stadacona, an Iroquoian village that had stood where Québec City is now. Cartier’s expeditions were a “discovery” from his perspective, although he found Indigenous people who had been residing in the region that is now known as Canada for many thousands of years.

In any case, Jacques Cartier was not the first European to arrive in this region; his expeditions had been ordered by the King of France. There had undoubtedly been other, less formal guests before his. Cartier in fact passed boats carrying Basque fisherman who had been using those waters for decades when he first entered the Gulf. Furthermore, it has been confirmed by archaeological evidence that European Vikings arrived in the region that is now known as Canada even earlier, when they founded a transient settlement in Newfoundland around 1000 years ago.

The Name Canada’s Origin

Nevertheless, Jacques Cartier, who travelled inland down the St. Lawrence River to the present-day locations of Québec City and Montreal, was the first European to create precise maps of the regions he discovered. A word he borrowed from the Huron-Iroquois “Kanata,” which means village or settlement, he was also the first European to give the areas he came across the name Canada.

Canada was originally solely used to refer to the region surrounding the Iroquoian village of Stadacona. But throughout time, it would be employed to categories ever-larger regions, and as a result, Canada is now known as the second-largest nation in the world.

An Important Location

The word “where the river narrows” from the Algonquian language is the source of the name Québec. Cannons could fire across the river from Québec’s cliffs, hopefully discouraging enemy ships from advancing further west. The site is a natural fortification because to Québec’s massive cliff, which towers above the St. Lawrence from a height of more than 100 metres. The French, British, and later Americans have all struggled for control of this extremely important region throughout history.

The Establishment of Quebec City

Following Jacques Cartier, the French left for a very long time. Religious wars and other issues caused troubles in Europe. Who established Quebec? Samuel de Champlain, a French adventurer, didn’t start a trade post in Québec until 1608. The thinly populated area was first governed by private fur trading businesses with headquarters in France. However, the trading post had transformed into a small village by 1645, when local merchants gained control. Québec was selected in 1663 by Louis XIV, sometimes known as “the Sun King,” to serve as the capital of New France, a royal province that was directly under his control.

Capital of the New France Colony

The extensive network of navigable rivers and lakes that would eventually become the lifeblood of the French empire in North America would be controlled by this fortified city and inland harbour, hundreds of kilometers from the Atlantic. The development of the French empire along the St. Lawrence, to the Ottawa River and the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, has been compared to the growth of a tree’s branches.

In order to gain access further and further into the hinterland, forts and trading posts were built along the major rivers and then their major tributaries. Many of the English-speaking cities in North America were formerly French forts and trading posts: 

Le Fort Toronto, Le Fort Frontenac, Détroit, and La Nouvelle Orléans have been replaced by Toronto, Ontario, Kingston, Michigan, and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively.

Historical French Influence in Quebec

Only 80 years after it was founded as a modest trade port, a painting of Québec from 1688 depicts the majestic French metropolis that was already dominated by significant organisations. There were two significant portions of the town that remain today.

The merchants congregated in the lower town, which was close to the sole means of transportation available at the time—the St. Lawrence River and other waterways. The governor’s mansion, the Chateau St. Louis, was situated in the upper town, shielded by high cliffs, almost exactly where the renowned Château Frontenac is now.

The Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral, the Ursuline Convent, the Jesuit College, founded in 1635 one year before Harvard University, the Jesuit Seminary of Québec, founded in 1663, and these religious institutions, from left to right, dominate the view of the upper town. The fact that all of these religious institutions, with the exception of the Jesuit College, are still standing as they did in the 1680s when the image was taken, is one of the most amazing things about this city.

For a Continent, Fight

In the 1740s, the French were able to construct outposts across the western plains, all the way to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, as part of their strategy to forge military and commercial partnerships with Indigenous peoples.

The Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean surrounded the English colonies, which were still confined to a considerably smaller territory. The English, who had a considerably greater population than the French, desired to colonise the west but were prevented from doing so by the French and their Native American allies. It was therefore inevitable that the French and English would clash as they fought for control of this continent.

In 1690, when a force of warships sailed from Boston to lay siege to Québec, the English mounted a significant assault. Governor Frontenac and the city’s French forces drove the assailants away. In 1711, the English made another attempt.

This time, a bigger armada left Boston without ever making it to the French capital. Over a thousand men drowned when English ships caught in a dense fog on the Saint Lawrence hit reefs and sank. The fleet that was still standing turned around and returned to Boston.

A War-Torn World

It all started with rivalry for the territories west of the Appalachian Mountains, which escalated into what Winston Churchill would later characterise to as the “first true World War.” A skirmish took place close to the current location of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to spark the conflict in 1754.

The “French and Indian War” in North America had turned into the Seven Years War by the year 1756 and had expanded to Africa, Europe, and India.

The advent of a sizable British fleet in 1759, which included more than 200 sailing ships, 13,500 sailors, and 8,500 troops, signalled the end of New France for Québec. Although the British had a hard time capturing Québec, they had no trouble levelling the majority of the city. They placed guns on the cliffs across the river from the start of the siege. They launched tens of thousands of incendiary bombs into the town from there. In modern wars, Québec suffered damage comparable to practically any other city.

The Battle of Abraham’s Plains

4500 British soldiers in small landing craft started to drift down with the tide on September 13 in the early morning hours while it was still quite dark. They descended the cliffs and arrived at the Plains of Abraham, a vast expanse west of the city. The British emerged victors from the brief fight at the Plains of Abraham, forcing the French back behind the town’s walls. Both the French commander Marquis de Montcalm and the British general James Wolfe suffered fatal injuries.

The following day, Montcalm passed away inside the city walls while Wolfe passed away on the battlefield. Five days later, Québec gave up to the British.

The British were decisively defeated by a huge French army in the Battle of Ste-Foy the following spring, but they were unable to recover the city. New France’s demise was assured with Montreal’s British surrender in September 1760, but the war in Europe and elsewhere—even as far away as the Philippines—raged on for another four years before a peace treaty was eventually reached in 1763.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris

The French lost sovereignty of most of mainland North America with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, keeping only the sugar-rich Caribbean islands and the fishing islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Province of Québec, a new British colony, now has its main town in Québec, the former capital of New France. This colony was substantially smaller than the current Canadian province of Québec, and it existed from 1763 until 1791. The new province’s borders did not go very far beyond the heavily populated regions around the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries, where the majority of the French people was located, in contrast to the extensive territory that had previously been claimed by France.

Expanding West Resulted in More Conflict

The Anglo-American colonists were now prepared to travel west because their French adversaries were no longer a danger.

But as more settlers arrived, tensions with the local inhabitants quickly arose, leading to a significant revolt under the leadership of the Odawa ruler Pontiac.

Following the end of the warfare, the British made the decision to establish a sizable “Indian Reserve” that stretched from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River in the west to Florida in the south. The people of the thirteen colonies, who were now confined to the eastern seaboard, were highly opposed to the British government’s decision.

The Québec Act of 1774 and the American Revolution

Then, in 1774, the British Parliament passed the Québec Act, which favoured the Province of Québec’s French-speaking populace but quickly raised tensions with the American thirteen colonies.

The Act respected both Catholicism and French civil law. Additionally, it enlarged the limits of the Province of Québec into areas that American colonists had long sought, extending them southward all the way to the Ohio River. American aspirations to expand westward were again dashed. This was an outrageous conduct from the American perspective, one of several that would lead to the American Revolution.

Two American armies invaded Canada in the year 1775. They surrounded Québec but were unable to conquer the city. After spending the winter controlling Montreal, the rebels were forced to leave when British troops arrived in the spring of 1776.

The Americans did, of course, go on to win their War of Independence despite the fact that their invasion of Canada was unsuccessful. As a result, British power centres like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia could no longer function. Ironically, British North America’s capital was Québec, the old seat of government for New France.

One of the Nation’s Most Important Ports

During the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, Québec City had its greatest economic growth.

Following France’s 1806 restriction of Great Britain’s access to its sources of wood supply in the Baltic region, Québec City consequently rose to prominence as one of the major centers for the export of wood within the British Empire.

During the first decades of the 19th century, wealth was created as Britain’s demand for wood and wooden ships led to the transformation of this small colonial town into one of North America’s most important ports. Along the St. Charles River and on both sides of the St. Lawrence, the shoreline was completely altered as shipbuilders launched more than 1600 square-rigged sailing vessels and filled every cove with wood.

Hard times and a declining economy

However, Québec City’s growth would significantly slow down in the second half of the 19th century. Once more, events that occurred distant from Québec City were the catalyst for these developments. In order to promote free trade, Great Britain decided to eliminate the protective tariffs that had fueled the Canadian lumber industry. Making matters worse, Québec City’s wooden ships were no longer required because the British were already producing metal ships at home.

Canadian business leaders are now focusing on expanding into the west and fortifying ties with the United States. Québec City began to lose its position as the nation’s most significant town as Montreal, which was more centrally positioned and surrounded by fertile agricultural area to aid in its expansion, started to overtake it.

Montreal became Canada’s financial and transportation powerhouse after the building of canals and railroads. In order to further enhance their condition, Montreal commercial interests paid to have a passage constructed in the St. Lawrence so that ocean-going ships could completely avoid Québec City.

Tradition and Modernity in One City

A pivotal period in Québec City’s history was the second half of the 19th century. In retrospect, we may claim that the town’s challenging economic time likely contributed to the preservation of Québec’s Old City. Compared to other more prosperous North American cities, there wasn’t as much pressure to tear down and rebuild.

Equally, if not more so, significant was the foresight of a few significant figures who understood the advantages of safeguarding Québec City’s unique architectural legacy.

But calls for modernization emerged as the city began to decay. The City of Québec requested authorization from the federal government to dismantle the fortifications after it was no longer in danger of a military assault. Beginning in the early 1870s, the city gates and the outer works were demolished. The fortress walls of Québec City might have been lost forever if Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada, had not stepped in.

Saved From Devastation: The Fortifications

Lord Dufferin spearheaded an effort to preserve the town’s walls after falling in love with Québec City’s romantic beauty. His plan required building new gates that were sufficiently wide to allow for easier traffic movement. This compromise demonstrated that significant features of the city’s legacy may be preserved while yet adjusting to the evolving transit requirements of a modern city. Even in modern times, landmarks like the St. Louis Gate and St. John Gate still have enough space for two tour buses to pass through simultaneously.

The new gates, designed by Irish architect William Lynn, were completely unlike the old, slender military gates that once protected Québec City. They were romantic buildings with towers and turrets that drew inspiration from the Middle Ages’ fortification architecture. At the end of the 19th century, other picturesque, castle-like buildings would be built, and their evocative architecture would serve as a model, helping to redefine the city’s image. For tourists from all over the world, structures like the Military Drill Hall and the iconic Château Frontenac have come to symbolize the drama and romance of Québec City’s past.

The fortifications preservation aided in designating the region inside the walls as a significant location where history was valued. However, the region was still not legally protected. Historic structures were still in danger, and many were destroyed. The Old City of Québec, including the upper and lower towns, was finally recognized as a historic district in 1963. The distinctive character of the region is now protected by laws, and large incentives are available to aid property owners in maintaining and restoring their structures.

The initiative led by Lord Dufferin, which preserved the city walls in the 1870s, served as a model for future generations as Québec City developed. Some of Québec City’s most notable architectural and urban planning initiatives, both in the present and in the past, have been built on a clever fusion of tradition and modernity. There is now widespread agreement that maintaining the city’s human scale and historic character is strongly related to Québec City’s great quality of life and economic development.

An UNESCO World Heritage Site

The historic district of Québec City was the first urban ensemble in North America to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The designation acknowledged the city’s significance as the cradle of French civilization in North America and as the last city (north of Mexico) still protected by fortress walls.

Québec City’s French and British influences

In many aspects, the city’s distinctiveness stems from the fusion of French and British architectural elements. These overlapping influences may be seen throughout Québec City and the surrounding area, in everything from the architecture of government buildings and educational institutions to businesses and homes.

For instance, the typical house from the middle of the 19th century in Old Québec is based on the tall, narrow, London row house in terms of general dimensions and interior layout, but it still has some practical elements from the regional French traditional architecture, such as steep roofs so that snow will slide off easily and fire walls rising above the roof line to help stop the spread of flames.

Nearly every part of our environment in Québec City is infused with a blend of French and British influences, which are so pervasive that most people don’t even recognize them. However, when French-speaking Québeckers visit Europe for the first time, they frequently find themselves more at home in London than in Paris, at least in some regards. Even if the language is unfamiliar, the city, the homes, the organisations, and the manner of life all seem curiously similar. The language is the same, yet some parts of the manner of life feel rather foreign in Paris, on the other hand.

The Major Historic Sites of Quebec Are Only a Short Walk Away

Visiting the Old City of Québec City is like travelling to Europe without having to cross the Atlantic. The courtyard of the Seminary is one example of Québec City’s must-see architecture; here, we can still imagine what the city would have been like in the 18th century. One feels abruptly transported to France by its bleak, whitewashed stone houses and towering rooflines.

There is so much to explore in Québec City, and the majority of the ancient attractions are grouped together within the fortress walls, only a short distance from one another. Everywhere you turn, there is history to be found, as well as numerous churches and other places of worship.

To fully appreciate the city’s rich heritage while you’re there, we highly advise taking a tour of Quebec City when you get there.

You can also schedule a visit to one of these 15 historic locations to experience some of Québec City’s most memorable moments.

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  1. Old Québec – Tour to USA

    […] you explore and absorb more than 400 years of history in the home of French North America, take in the European beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage […]

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