The Historic Period

The Historic Period, covering about six centuries and marked by major upheavals, began with the arrival of the Europeans, whose settlement gradually spread throughout the land.

In the 16th century, the various Amerindian groups and the Inuit, who had been living in North America for thousands of years, occupied the lands of present-day Québec as shown on the following map.

  • The Inuit lived north of the 55th parallel, in the tundra region;
  • Amerindians belonging to the Algonquian family, including the Crees, Montagnais (Innus), Naskapis and Mi’gmaqs occupied the area between the 49th and 55th parallels, in the boreal forest and taiga regions. Certain Algonquian groups, like the Attikameks, the Abenakis and the Algonquins, also occupied land south of the 49th parallel;
  • Amerindians belonging to the Iroquoian family, that is the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, lived south of the 49th parallel, in the St. Lawrence Valley.

When Europeans began to establish settlements along the St. Lawrence, the Amerindians were cut off from the river. This resulted in new migrations and major changes in their trade networks, followed eventually by a reversal of their demographic development.

The Aboriginal population of Québec and Labrador is estimated to have been about 40 000 in the year 1600; in 1900, this figure had dropped to 15 000, representing a decrease rate of 62%.

The first Europeans in Canada: the Vikings

The Vikings, renowned for their navigational skills, were the first Europeans to attempt settlement in the New World.

Around the year 1000, they reached the shores of Newfoundland and occupied a colony for a certain time. Evidence of this establishment has been found on an archaeological site which has become L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site.

The Vikings also ventured further afield, according to their written accounts, exploring regions like Labrador and Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. But so far, there is no undeniable archaeological proof of any settlement in these areas. Is it possible that they travelled as far as the Gulf of St. Lawrence? Perhaps archaeology will someday provide an answer.

Cod fishermen and whalers

Contrary to popular belief, Jacques Cartier was not the first European to set foot on Québec soil.

Previous to his arrival, there were people from England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Basque Country who crossed the Atlantic to fish cod off the coast of Newfoundland and along the north shore of the St. Lawrence, from the Strait of Belle-Isle to the Saguenay River. Cod was abundant and, once salted or dried, it could be kept for several months and transported over long distances. The fishing vessels arrived in the spring and left in early fall.

In around 1525, Europeans, especially the Basques, began to hunt whales in the Strait of Belle-Isle. For over a century, the Basques controlled fishing along the entire northeast coast of Canada.

The Basque influence

Every spring, until about 1626, the Basques returned to their fishing stations in the New World. They built drying racks called flakes to dry cod and used huge stone hearths known as tryworks to render blubber into whale oil, a product that was much sought-after in Europe as a lamp fuel and an ingredient for soaps and cosmetics.

The Basques left numerous traces of their presence on Québec’s shores. The archaeological site of Basques-de-l’Anse-à-la-Cave on the Upper North Shore has revealed the remains of two tryworks and a temporary shelter once used to extract whale oil; this place has been designated as a heritage site by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications.

More than 100 place names in Québec reflect the passage of the Basques; for example, Mingan, on the North Shore and Île-aux-Basques, near Trois-Pistoles, in the Lower St. Lawrence.

Red Bay National Historic Site, in Labrador, testifies to the existence of large Basque installations in the 16th century. Archaeological research conducted by Parks Canada for over 15 years brought to light some 20 whaling stations. Underwater archaeology at the site led to the discovery of the wrecks of several Basque vessels and three galleons, the oldest of which, the San Juan, dates to 1565.

France makes a first attempt to colonize North America: Fort Cartier-Roberval

An extraordinary archaeological discovery was made in 2005 in the course of preparatory work for building scenic lookouts in Parc Cartier-Roberval, at Cap-Rouge, near Québec City.

At last, here was evidence of the site occupied by Jacques Cartier in 1541-1542 and by Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval in 1542-1543. Archival documents mention that these explorers constructed a fort that could accommodate 400 people, but no trace of it had been found until then!

Starting in 2006, an archaeological excavation project was undertaken under the joint auspices of the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications and the Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec. Although the establishment was probably constructed by Cartier, the description of the place is more complete in Roberval’s account. He mentions two lodgings, gristmills, a stove for keeping people warm, a well, a fountain and two towers, one of which rose 40 or 50 feet and comprised various rooms.

The results of three years of excavation revealed that the establishment had been destroyed by fire. Since charring helps to preserve ancient remains, archaeologists were able to unearth a number of structural elements and artifacts that archaeologists believe belong to this early settlement. The artifact collections include Italian faience, fine glassware, rings, stained glass and Amerindian articles.

A resource-rich colony

French fishing establishments

France’s first colonization attempt ending in failure. Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval was recalled home in 1543 to take up his military functions in a war with Spain. Between that time and Champlain’s arrival at Québec in 1603, religious wars raged throughout France and there was little interest in the idea of colonizing North America.

However, at the beginning of the 17th century, France adopted a policy of expansion and undertook new explorations in search of raw materials and exotic products. In North America, this led to the establishment of permanent coastal fishing stations, run by French merchants under monopolies obtained by French officials.

Several archaeological sites testify to this period: the Parc du Bourg de Pabos, in the Gaspésie; Banc de Pêche de Paspébiac National Historic Site; and the Fort Pontchartain site at Brador, on the Lower North Shore.

The fur trade

Fishing entailed minimal occupation of the land, but when the French began to trade with Amerindians for furs, which were easy to obtain in the New World and much prized in the Old, there was increased motivation to establish a real colony.

Permanent trading posts, also used as bases for missionary work, were set up at Tadoussac, Sept-Îles and Chicoutimi. These posts, which were hives of fur trading activity, have been the object of archaeological research. They were built in strategic locations, where Amerindians had been coming on a regular basis for thousands of years.

As part of this new colonizing movement, Samuel de Champlain constructed his “Abitation” in Québec City in 1608. This building and the one that replaced it, the “Second Abitation,” have also undergone archaeological excavation in Québec City’s Lower Town. This work has revealed that the first “Abitation” was used not only as a trading post and warehouse for furs, provisions, arms and ammunition, but also as residence for the first colonists.

The early days of the colony

The founding of Québec City in 1608 was followed by that of Trois-Rivères in 1643 and of Ville-Marie (Montréal) in 1642.

These towns corresponded to centres of trade and missionary activities, but they also served administrative and military purposes. All three still bear traces of the first French structures.

Archaeological research carried out in these places over the past 30 years or so paints a clearer picture of the way French colonists learned to live with the harsh climatic conditions of New France and discovered how to use local resources.

Archaeology also shows how people in these settlements adapted their traditions to an unfamiliar environment and created original urban kernels that developed into permanent towns. The colonists also built forts to protect themselves from Iroquois raids. Archaeological excavations at Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, where Montréal was founded, have uncovered evidence of not only the first fort built by Sieur de Maisonneuve in 1642 soon after his arrival, but even older structures as well.

A need for security

The late-17th and 18th centuries saw the development of a strong defence policy for the colonies. Québec City and Montréal were enclosed at first by wooden palisades and later by masonry fortification walls. While the signing of the Great Peace had brought a degree of security, wars in Europe produced serious repercussions in the colonies.

Archaeological evidence of these conflicts abounds. For example, off Baie-Trinité on the North Shore, underwater archaeologists have excavated the remarkably well-conserved wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, part of a fleet sent from England’s American colonies under Sir William Phips in an attempt to invade Québec in 1690.

The following century, in 1760, the British Navy defeated a French flotilla, which sank in the Bay of Restigouche. This event is commemorated at the Battle of the Restigouche National Historic Site, in the Gaspé Peninsula. The site’s interpretation centre exhibits a large number of artifacts recovered from the frigate Machault through underwater archaeological work.

Land sites also provide archaeological evidence of tensions in this period. Archaeological campaigns at Fort Chambly, Fort Côteau-du-Lac, Artillery Park in Québec City and fortifications at Trois-Rivières, Odanak, Québec City and Montréal have yielded a great deal of information on subjects like the adaptation of European military to conditions in New France, the affects of fortified environments on people’s way of life, contacts with Amerindian populations, the evolution of the art of war and the socio-economic effects of an army’s constant presence.

Town and country

In the 18th century, Québec underwent considerable development. The large number of archaeological sites dating from this period reflects a more intensive occupation of the land. Farms were established, villages were born and towns expanded. Québec City became a port that linked Canada with the North Atlantic. Montréal was a point of departure for fur trade expeditions by canoe into the hinterland, known as the Pays d’En Haut. Montréal merchants prospered through trade in cereal, fur and goods from France during the French Regime and from England after 1760.

In the countryside, people built barns, farmhouses and mills. Many of the 19th century sites are related to craft production, business and a budding industry. Archaeologists have dug potteries, brickyards, glassworks, charcoal making sites, smithies and tanneries, as well as windmills and watermills. The Chemin du Roy (King’s Highway), linking Québec and Montréal, was opened in 1737. By the end of the French Regime, in 1760, the St. Lawrence Valley was home to about 70 000 people of European origin and fewer than 4 000 Amerindians.

Activity in the north

Every year more archaeological sites dating from the historic period are discovered in the north of Québec. These include European trading posts, portage sites, Amerindian rock painting sites and encampments where people fished, hunted and trapped. Found in the course of major hydroelectric projects or through research programs, hundreds of such sites have been recorded in the James Bay region, in the Centre du Québec and on the North Shore.

The industrial period

The era known as the industrial period began to take shape in the first third of the 19th century. In Québec, several hundred sites from this more recent past have been the object of archaeological work and some of them are presented to the public.

Archaeologists have studied places where lumbering and mining products were processed, such as the Pulperie de Chicoutimi, in Saguenay, and the Forges du Saint-Maurice, north of Trois-Rivières. The Forges were built in 1738, during the French Regime, and represent Canada’s oldest industrial village.

Another exceptional heritage site, in the Lac Saint-Jean area, is the historic company village of Val-Jalbert, established in 1901 around a pulp mill and abandoned in the early 1930s.

In the Abitibi region, an old mining village has been preserved as the Site patrimonial du Village-Minier-de-Bourlamaque, testifying to the gold rush in this area in the 1930s. Other industrial sites that have undergone archaeological research include foundries, potash factories, breweries and distilleries.

In Montréal, the Lachine Canal National Historic Site constitutes a monument to Canadian industry. Along with nearby lots, it is part of an immense, intricate archaeological mosaic in which archaeologists have set out to identify the remains of former locks, secondary canals, hydraulic installations and old industrial complexes, as well as other evidence of past activities. These remains, most of which lie buried underground are key elements in reconstructing the history of the Lachine Canal.

 Hundreds of hydroelectric plants, the earliest of which date back to the 19th century, are also a very important part of the industrial heritage investigated by archaeologists in Québec.




Around 1000

The Vikings (or Norsemen) explore the west coast of Greenland and the Atlantic shore all the way to Newfoundland.


Explorer John Cabot is probably the first European after the Vikings to set foot in North America. He returns to Europe with an impressive quantity of cod, and fishermen soon begin to cross the Atlantic to fish on the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland.

16th-18th c.

The Basques hunt for whales along the Atlantic shore and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They are likely the first to engage in trade with the Aboriginal people.

16th-19th c.

Fishermen from Normandy, Brittany, Portugal, Spain and Jersey come to fish along the Atlantic coast and establish posts on the North Shore and the Gaspé peninsula.


The French Regime. France controls the lands of present-day Québec.


Jacques Cartier spends a winter in a little fort at the confluence of the Lairet and Saint-Charles rivers, at Québec.


Cartier sets up an establishment near Cap-Rouge, 15 km upstream from Québec. He builds a fortified post and calls it Charlebourg-Royal. Roberval replaces Cartier the following year and builds a new fort called France-Roy near the first one.

Late 16th c.

Tadoussac becomes a centre for the fur trade between Amerindians and Europeans.

Early 17th c.

England and France authorize permanent settlements in North America.


Champlain establishes a trading post at Québec.


The Compagnie des Cent-Associés is founded and is granted a trade monopoly in New France and Acadia by the King of France.


A post is established at Trois-Rivières.


The Jesuits establish their Sillery mission, near Québec, to convert Amerindians.


Maisonneuve founds Ville-Marie, which later becomes Montréal.


Construction of Chemin Chambly, or Route 1, between Chambly and Longueuil, by troops from the Carignan-Sallières regiment, on the orders of the governor of New France. It is Canada’s first road for travel by wheeled vehicles.


Founding of the Saint-François-Xavier mission at La Prairie. The mission moves in 1716-1717 and becomes Kahnawake.


Charles II of England grants a charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which then establishes trading posts throughout much of Canada.


Colonial authorities establish Place Royale, in Québec City, at a spot where there is already a market.


More than 15 000 people of European heritage occupy settlements along the St. Lawrence River.


A network of roads links inhabited zones. In towns, street layouts are subject to regulations. In the country, road and bridge building is overseen by authorities. Most seigneuries are linked by roads with a regulatory width of 6 to 8 metres.


The Forges du Saint-Maurice are in operation. The iron industry develops mainly in the Mauricie region.


Opening of the Chemin du Roy linking Québec and Montréal.


The first trading post in Nunavik (Nouveau-Québec) is established at Lake Guillaume-Delisle. 


The French undertake construction of a star-shaped fort at Île-aux-Noix, on the Richelieu River.


The French Regime comes to an end.


Period of British rule, which continues until Canadian Confederation.


Construction of the first locked canal in North America, at Côteau-du-Lac, in the Montérégie region.


The first steamship provides service between Québec and Montréal.


Opening of the Lachine Canal in Montréal.


Inauguration of the first Canadian railroad, which links La Prairie and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.


Inauguration of the Chambly Canal, open to shipping on the Richelieu River.


Construction of the first Beauharnois Canal.


Inauguration of the Grand Trunk Railroad between Montréal and Portland, Maine, in the U.S.


Construction of Victoria Bridge in Montréal.


The Municipal Code of Québec is adopted.


The Cities and Towns Act is passed.


First railroad between Québec, Montréal and Ottawa.


First railroad between Québec and Lac Saint-Jean.


Opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.


The government of Québec announces its hydroelectric project in James Bay.