Growing up in Potsdam, I was somewhat aware of the impact French settlement had had on the region. At school, my classes were full of kids with French names: LaShomb, LaBrake, LaValley, Tyo, Gilbo, Faubert. A section of town from Market St. to the Raquette River was known as “French Village.” And school trips to Montreal gave me my first exposure to a city where English was not the first language of the culture.
But this week I finally traveled to Quebec City for the first time, arguably the ancient heart of French culture in North America. It’s a city of great beauty and charm, the only intact walled city on the continent north of Mexico. I had come with my wife to attend an outdoor concert by Paul McCartney on the Plains of Abraham, site of the battle in 1759 that in many ways determined the shape of America-to-be.
From the ramparts of the fortress above the old city, it was easy to see why. I was standing on the air hose of the continent. Here–600 kilometers from the ocean, the St. Lawrence first narrows to a defensible width. Nothing could pass on toward the Great Lakes and the interior of the continent without falling under the guns of the French city.
The English colonies that would become the U.S. were locked between the Appalachians and the Atlantic. The English had cast covetous eyes on Quebec’s location since Puritan times. English privateers occupied the city in 1629 during The Thirty Years War, and England tried and failed to take the city again in 1690. Another attempt, in 1711, failed when the expedition’s ships foundered in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Their final success in 1759 spelled the end of Nouvelle France, the birth of British Canada, and the diaspora that swelled the ranks of French settlers in this region, in northern New England, and those who made the long trek to Louisiana.
Under British rule, Quebec became a target for the Continental Army. In 1775 troops under General Richard Montgomery, having taken Montreal, were joined by forces under Benedict Arnold in a failed attempt to take Quebec. They were aided in their effort by many French settlers, chafing still under British rule.
The American Revolution itself might well have foundered, had not the French crown, stung by the loss of Nouvelle France, been persuaded to provide ships and troops to the American colonies. Nor would Napoleon have been so willing to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the new United States, if they had still retained control of the north of the continent.
So America–made in Quebec. Ironic then, that the fortress inspiring these thoughts was not built to guard against the British, but was constructed beginning in 1820, as a bulwark against invasion by the United States.