First European Settlement in North America

Saint Croix Island was the site of the first European community established in North America, on the boundary of what is now Maine and New Brunswick.

Summary of Event

In 1603, Pierre du Guast, sieur de Monts, Monts, sieur de a Protestant merchant and representative of the French king Henry IV Henry IV (king of France) , proposed creating a colony to the south of the Saint Lawrence River in North America. The following year, on March 7, 1604, Monts, with a royally granted monopoly on the fur trade firmly in hand, set sail with geographer and cartographer Samuel de Champlain Champlain, Samuel de . The expedition departed from Havre-de-Grâce, France, aboard the Bonne Renommée with a crew of approximately one hundred male artisans, including blacksmiths, stonemasons, brick makers, and carpenters, as well as a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and prisoners recruited from French prisons. Another captain, François Gravé du Pont, du Pont, François Gravé and shipowner Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt, also made up part of the expedition. [kw]First European Settlement in North America (Spring, 1604)
[kw]America, First European Settlement in North (Spring, 1604)
[kw]European Settlement in North America, First (Spring, 1604)
Colonization;Spring, 1604: First European Settlement in North America[0350]
Expansion and land acquisition;Spring, 1604: First European Settlement in North America[0350]
Trade and commerce;Spring, 1604: First European Settlement in North America[0350]
American Colonies;Spring, 1604: First European Settlement in North America[0350]
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Saint Croix Island
Colonization;France of North America
North America;French colonization of

A second ship left on March 10, 1604. Four years earlier, in 1600, Monts had explored Canadian New France with Pierre de Chauvin Chauvin, Pierre de to ascertain the prospects for colonization. The ostensible goal of this colonization effort was to convert the native population to Christianity, but they also intended to search for silver and gold such as the Spanish had found in Mexico and South America and to initiate a viable fur trade.

In May, 1604, the colonists reached Nova Scotia, and although they first entertained a site they called Port Royal in the Annapolis Basin, they were not altogether satisfied and shortly set off again to look for a site in the Bay of Fundy, which they named la Baie Française. Ultimately, they set sail south once more to Passamaquoddy Bay, where they chose a seven-acre (three-hectare) island in the Saint Croix River that they named Saint Croix Island Saint Croix Island . The island today forms the Canada-United States border between New Brunswick and Maine. The area had an abundance of hunting and fishing, its soil was fertile and supported brick making, and its secluded location protected the colony from invasion by the British. Before long, the new settlers became friendly with the region’s indigenous people, the Etchemin Etchemins . Significantly, this colonial enterprise occurred three years before the 1607 Jamestown Settlement in Virginia and sixteen years before the Pilgrims arrived from England at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.

Although the majority of the settlers stayed on at Saint Croix, Champlain continued to explore the coast of Maine and the Penobscot River, mapping the New England coast as far south as Cape Cod. This was Champlain’s third expedition to the New World: He had first voyaged to the West Indies in 1599 and had explored the Saint Lawrence River in 1603. The detailed maps he produced as geographer and cartographer as part of the Saint Croix expedition were used by North American navigators throughout the seventeenth century. New England;French exploration of

Some buildings within the Saint Croix settlement were joined by protective palisades that placed a screen between the settlers and local wildlife (or, for that matter, British invaders). The settlement’s two streets crossed a square providing access to the storehouse, carpenter’, and blacksmith’s shops, as well as the bakery, cookhouse, chapel, and captain’s quarters. The entire colony featured twenty wooden buildings with stone and clay foundations, in addition to the gardens. In the fall of 1604, seventy-nine settlers remained at the Saint Croix Island colony.

The burgeoning colony in New France New France almost failed to make it through the exceptionally bitter winter of 1604-1605, for which it was utterly unprepared. Because New France was located on the same latitude as France itself, the French settlers simply assumed that the region’s weather would be similar to the mild climate of their homeland. They were shocked to see snow fall in October as a result of the glacial air stream. It was so cold that the drinking water froze. The colonists had barely enough food and ran short of firewood and fresh water. Almost half the colony died, primarily of scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C. Thanks to the Etchemin, though, some colonists did manage to stay alive by trading bread for meat.

After barely surviving the horrendous winter, Monts sailed down the coast of Maine in search of a more hospitable site for a permanent colony. As they traveled south, the crew noticed larger native dwellings and more advanced agricultural sites. After rounding Cape Cod, they stopped at Nauset Harbor, which they called Mallebarre, or “Bad Bar,” and which was populated by the Armouchiquois Armouchiquois . However, they did not remain long and returned to Saint Croix after only five weeks. In reality, the settlement had already effectively failed, since more than half the settlers had died during the winter of 1604-1605. However, their determination laid the basis for later settlements in Nova Scotia (1605) and Quebec (1608).

In time, Monts decided to relocate the settlement to Port Royal Port Royal (American colony) , on the north side of the Annapolis Basin, where indeed the colony prospered. King Henry IV had earlier called the area—the lands between the 40th and 46th parallels—“La Cadie,” named for the mythical Arcadia, and soon it came to be called Acadia Acadia . The king named Monts lieutenant-general and presented him with a ten-year exclusive right to found additional settlements, along with a monopoly in the fur trade. In return, Monts promised to bring sixty new colonists each year to settle in Acadia.

Today, this territory includes the Canadian Maritime Provinces and sections of New England and the mid-Atlantic coast as far south as Philadelphia. In time, it was taken by the British and later divided into American states and Canadian provinces. Saint Croix Island became known as Bone Island in the eighteenth century after erosion exposed the settlers’ graves. In 1797, after a boundary dispute between England and the United States, Saint Croix Island was deemed to be a part of the United States when the results of a scientific survey demonstrated that the island was on the western side of the Saint Croix River Channel. In 1812, the island was named the Neutral Island, since it remained a place where United States citizens could trade with the British in peace.


Often, it is the British who are thought of as founding the first European colony in North America. However, the French colony on Saint Croix Island predates the 1620 landing of the English Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock by seventeen years. Indeed, before the Pilgrims founded the first New England colony and even before the Virginia Company established an English colony in Jamestown, the French had mapped the northeast coast from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Cod, and their efforts mark the establishment of the first permanent European presence north of Florida.

By the early 1600’, a tremendous fur trade, Trade;furs especially in beaver pelts, emerged in the region, setting off the era’s ubiquitous fashion for beaver hats across the European continent. In addition, America’s rich fishing grounds enticed fleets of ships from Europe every fishing season. The French king’s coffers filled rapidly. However, unlike the English colonists, who were intent on escaping religious persecution by founding permanent colonies in, for instance, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, the French government found itself entrenched with wars against Spain and hardly heeded the idea of permanent colonies in New France.

Named by some in the intervening years Dochet Island, the site of the first colony of New France is today the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, so designated by the United States Congress in 1984. The site stands as a lasting reminder that the United States and Canada share a common French heritage. In a manner of speaking, Saint Croix Island represents the Canadian Plymouth Rock.

Further Reading

  • Bumsted, J. M. A History of the Canadian Peoples. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Provides a comprehensive overview of Canadian history, beginning with the first settlement at Saint Croix Island.
  • Ganong, William Francis. Champlain’s Island: Ste-Croix Dochet Island. Fredericton, N.B., Canada: Goose Lane Editions, 2004. Good overview of the Saint-Croix Island’s history and development.
  • Mancall, Peter. American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850. New York: Routledge, 1999. Although it does not supply abundant coverage of Canada, the book provides chapters regarding encounters with natives, intermarriage, religion, trading, disease, and experiences the Saint Croix settlement might have encountered.
  • Nester, William R. The Great Frontier War: Britain, France, and the Imperial Struggle for North America, 1607-1755. New York: Praeger, 2000. Historical account of what happened between Britain and France after the Saint Croix Island settlement as both struggled to dominate the region.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Samuel de Champlain; Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville; Saint Isaac Jogues; Louis Jolliet; Jacques Marquette. Saint Croix Island
Colonization;France of North America
North America;French colonization of