Settling a New France


Thomas Davies, A View of the Bridge on the River La Puce near Quebec, 1790, National Gallery of Canada, no. 6278 (Wikimedia Commons)

The system of property transplanted from France to New France was known as the seigneurial system. Under this system, the crown granted land to a seigneur, or lord, who then sub-granted land to tenant farmers known as censitaires or habitants (the terms are used interchangeably).

The seigneurial system comprised of a series of rights an obligations between the crown, the seigneur and censitaire. In exchange for the right of occupation for example, the censitaire was obliged to pay the cens (an annual tax symbolically representing their relationship to the seigneur), rentes (compensation for the use of land and other services provided by the seigneur), a banalite (a tax paid for using the seigneurial mill), and the corvee (time spend fixing roads and other common resources in the seigneury). The seigneur was also paid 1/12 the purchase price, every time the land was sold (this was known as lods et ventes). The seigneur in return was required by the crown to live upon the land, build a grist mill for the farmers, settle civil disputes and grant timber, hunting and fishing rights.

The relationship between the lord and tenant, though hierarchical, was not at all like landlord-tenant relationships today. Once granted land, censitaires could not be evicted and, upon their death, French civil law allowed them to divide it equally among their descendants, both male and female. These provisions meant that the terms governing the relationship between seigneur and censitaire were relatively difficult to read once land had been granted.

In addition to seigneuries, French spaces were also carved up into Catholic parishes. Alongside their seigneurial dues, censitaires were required to pay the church 1/26th of their harvest as a tithe to the church.

Despite all of these rules and customs, the seigneurial system varied over time and space. In this chapter you will be challenged to think about how French settlers sought to replicate the world from which they came. The set of documents we have compiled require that you think comparatively about spatial practices in France, Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Historical Documents

  1. A. Guiljelmum and I. Blaeu, “Loudunais et Mirebalais,” 1635. Serie FI L 192, Archives Departementales de la Vienne, Poitiers (AV D).
  2. Carte du gouvernement de Québec levée en l’année 1709 par les ordres de Monseigneur le Comte de Ponchartrain commandeur des ordres du Roy ministre et secrétaire d’estat / par le Sr. Catalogne lieutenant des troupes ; et dressée par Jean Bte Decoüagn, 1709.
  3. A general plan of Annapolis Royal survey’d by Capt. John Hamilton in the year 1753. Library and Archives Canada, NMC 18312, MIKAN 4128803.
  4. Pehr Kalm, Travels into North America, vol. 3, (London, Lowndes, 1771), 291-294.


  1. Gregory Kennedy, “Marshland Colonization in Acadia and Poitou during the 17th Century,” Acadiensis, vol. XLII, no. 1, (winter/spring 2013), 37-66.
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