Europeans first came to the area now known as the island of Montreal in the 1500's, and the French settlement of Ville-Marie was founded in 1642. As with many other European colonies, the exploitation of local natural resources went hand-in-hand with both exploration and settlement. One of the most successful and iconic natural resources of New France was the beaver pelt, and eventually the beaver was hunted out in the areas of French settlement. Though the French traded with local Native groups, they wished to explore upriver, to travel themselves to the Pays d'en Haut (the Great Lakes area), to establish trading posts there to further the fur trade, and extend their network of Native allies. However, one of the major obstacles in penetrating the interior with both people and trade goods was the Lachine rapids.
Beginning in the borough of Verdun, the rapids extend westward along the island of Montreal's southern edge for approximately 15 kilometres until the river opens up at Lac-St.-Louis in Lachine. Shooting the rapids was not a viable option as they were too long and dangerous. Supplies had to be carried by horse and cart, or sleigh in the wintertime, along the "Chemin Lasalle" (present-day Lasalle Boulevard), around the rapids. Because of this, the area became home to a number of merchants and suppliers of the fur trade, as well as a provider of its labourers - the voyageurs.
It wasn't until 1825, with the successful opening of the Lachine canal, that the rapids could be bypassed by water traffic. But the roots had been sown - in part due to the city's advantageous geographic position at the head of the rapids - for Montreal to become, for a time, the industrial and financial capital of Canada. The Lachine canal was displaced, in turn, by the St. Lawrence Seaway, which can accommodate the freighters, also known as "lakers" that travel to and from the Great Lakes.
Reconstruction of Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, MI. Located at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron, this fort, built by the French, was the gateway for all trade through the upper Great Lakes and into the prairies.
Nowadays the Lachine rapids are a popular place for rafters and kayakers because of their easily accessible whitewater. And thousands of cyclists, skaters, and pedestrians enjoy them while using the bike path that runs along the shoreline, part of the Quebec's Route Verte, and the Trans-Canada Trail.
This posting offers only the briefest and most superficial introduction to early Canadian history. If you're interested in further exploration of some of the subjects discussed here, please consult the sources below:
Dechêne, Louise, Habitants et marchands de Montréal au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Plon, 1974. Available in English translation as, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth-Century Montreal.
Dickinson, John A. and Brian Young. A Short History of Quebec. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. also in French. Brève histoire socio-économique du Québec.
Francis, R. Douglas, et. al. Origins: Canadian History to Confederation. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, Limited.
Greer, Allan. Peasant, lord, and merchant : rural society in three Quebec parishes, 1740-1840. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Hardy, Jean-Pierre. La vie quotidienne dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent, 1790-1835. Sillery, QC: Les éditions du Septentrion, 2001.
Moogk, Peter N., Building a House in New France : An Account of the Perplexities of Client and Craftsmen in Early Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
Moogk, Peter N. La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada - A Cultural History. East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2000.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. 1993. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Some online resources:
Center for French Colonial Studies
French Colonial Historical Society
L'institut d'histoire de l'Amérique française
This Canadian Landmark was nominated by our Oh Canada Team member Molly of Little Bear’s Mom.
Copyright 2010 Oh Canada Team
Text and images by Little Bear’s Mom