CHAPTER XI. HOW THE PEOPLE LIVED
Yet despite this attempt to keep up appearances, the people were poor. Clearing the land was a slow process, and the cultivable area available for the support of each household was small. Early marriages were the rule, and families of a dozen or more children had to be supported from the produce of a few arpents. To maintain such a family as this every one had to work hard in the growing season, and even the women went to the fields in the harvest-time. One serious shortcoming of the habitant was his lack of steadfastness in labor. There was a roving strain in his Norman blood. He could not stay long at any one job; there was a restlessness in his temperament which would not down. He would leave his fields unploughed in order to go hunting or to turn a few sous in some small trading adventure. Unstable as water, he did not excel in tasks that required patience. But he could do a great many things after a fashion, and some that could be done quickly he did surprisingly well.
One racial characteristic which drew comment from observers of the day was the litigious disposition of the people. The habitant would have made lawsuits his chief diversion had he been permitted to do so. "If this propensity be not curbed," wrote the intendant Raudot, "there will soon be more lawsuits in this country than there are persons." The people were not quarrelsome in the ordinary sense, but they were very jealous each one of his private rights, and the opportunities for litigation over such matters seemed to provide themselves without end. Lands were given to settlers without accurate description of their boundaries; farms were unfenced and cattle wandered into neighboring fields; the notaries themselves were almost illiterate, and as a result scarcely a legal document in the colony was properly drawn. Nobody lacked pretexts for controversy. Idleness during the winter was also a contributing factor. But the Church and the civil authorities frowned upon this habit of rushing to court with every trivial complaint. Curesand seigneurs did what they could to have such difficulties settled amicably at home, and in a considerable measure they succeeded.
New France was born and nurtured in an atmosphere of religious devotion. To the habitant the Church was everything - his school, his counselor, his almsgiver, his newspaper, his philosopher of things present and of things to come. To him it was the source of all knowledge, experience, and inspiration, and to it he never faltered in ungrudging loyalty. The Church made the colony a spiritual unit and kept it so; undefiled by any taint of heresy. It furnished the one strong, well-disciplined organization that New France possessed, and its missionaries blazed the way for both yeoman and trader wherever they went.
Many traits of the race have been carried on to the present day without substantial change. The habitant of the old dominion was a voluble talker, a teller of great stories about his own feats of skill and endurance, his hair-raising escapes, or his astounding prowess with musket and fishing-line. Stories grew in terms of prodigious achievement as they passed from tongue to tongue, and the scant regard for anything approaching the truth in these matters became a national eccentricity. The habitant was boastful in all that concerned himself or his race; never did a people feel more firmly assured that it was the salt of the earth. He was proud of his ancestry, and proud of his allegiance; and so are his descendants of today even though their allegiance has changed.
To speak of the habitants of New France as downtrodden or oppressed, dispirited or despairing, like the peasantry of the old land in the days before the great Revolution, as some historians have done, is to speak untruthfully. These people were neither serfs nor peons. The habitant, as Charlevoix puts it, "breathed from his birth the air of liberty"; he had his rights and he maintained them. Shut off from the rest of the world, knowing only what the Church and civil government allowed him to know, he became provincial in his horizon and conservative in his habits of mind. The paternal policy of the authorities sapped his initiative and left him little scope for personal enterprise, so that he passed for being a dull fellow. Yet the annals of forest trade and Indian diplomacy prove that the New World possessed no sharper wits than his. Beneath a somewhat ungainly exterior the yeoman and the trader of New France concealed qualities of cunning, tact, and quick judgment to a surprising degree.
These various types in the population of New France, officials, missionaries, seigneurs, voyageurs, habitants, were all the scions of a proud race, admirably fitted to form the rank and file in a great crusade. It was not their fault that France failed to dominate the Western Hemisphere.
On the earlier voyages of discovery to the northern coasts of the New World the most informing book is H.P. Biggar's Precursors of Jacques Cartier (Ottawa, 1911). Hakluyt's Voyages contain an English translation of Cartier's own writings which cover the whole of the first two expeditions and a portion of the third. Champlain's journals, which describe in detail his sea voyages and inland trips of exploration during the years 1604-1618 inclusive, were translated into English and published by the Prince Society of Boston during the years 1878-1882.