The View from Champlain's Gardens
In the fall of 1608, Samuel de Champlain began to cultivate a New France at Québec. "On the first of October I had some wheat sown and on the fifteenth some rye," he wrote, before continuing and explaining that "on the third of the month there was a white frost and on the fifteenth the leaves of the trees began to fall. On the twenty-fourth of the month I had some native vines planted and they prospered extremely well." That he focused his account on his efforts to sow grains and transplant vines is not surprising; these were symbolically laden plants that occupied a central place in France's sense of its own past and its colonial future. With roots in both biblical history and the classical colonialism of Rome, the presence of these plants provided both evidence of France's moral authority to claim indigenous lands and an augur for the ultimate success of colonialism on a continent that had thus far proven resistant to French ambitions. As the horticulturalist Olivier de Serres had recently written in his innovative and influential Théâtre d'agriculture et mesnage des champs, "After bread comes wine, second food given by the creator for the maintenance of life, & the first celebrated for its excellence." Although unified in symbolism, the act of planting grains and grapes was also the staging of an encounter between introduced European seeds and indigenous American vines that Champlain had had transplanted in the colony's gardens. Orchestrating this encounter and celebrating this proximity became a founding act that set French roots into a new continent.
In the preceding five years, Champlain (and French colonial efforts more generally) had focused on settlements in Acadia. At St. Croix Island (1604) and Port Royal (1605) in what are now, respectively, Maine and Nova Scotia, Champlain had similarly laid out gardens as he studied landscapes and prepared for shelter and defense. When the settlement that he called the habitation was established at Québec on July 3, Champlain continued these practices. He began to cultivate his new settlement during a challenging summer and fall. He had only recently survived an attempted mutiny, and bitter experience in recent winters had impressed the urgent need to prepare supplies and support for harsh winters. It is likely, as well, that more than concerns about survival weighed on Champlain as Québec took shape in front of him. Only the year before, he had returned to France with the settlers of Port Royal as the crown withdrew its support for the Acadian colony and demanded that its leaders justify further investments in the settlement of French colonies in the region. For both Champlain and the broader colonial effort in which he was an integral part, the stakes were high as the first frost fell and winter threatened its arrival.
Gardens were an essential element of the expanding footprint of French colonialism in northeastern North America. "While the carpenters, sawyers and other laborers worked at our lodgings," Champlain wrote, "I put all the rest to clearing around the habitation, so as to make gardens in which to sow seeds to see how they would all succeed, for the soil appeared quite good." The grape-bearing vines that the explorer had transplanted into colonial gardens took pride of place in the written account of these first months at Québec. When, the following year, he returned to France to inform his superiors of his progress, the vines were neglected and he complained bitterly about their loss. He explained that "after I had left the habitation to return to France, they were ruined for lack of care, which distressed me very much at my return." Champlain was upset again when the same thing happened in 1610-11. Those who had been left in charge of the gardens "took no action to conserve them . . . [and] at my return, I found them all broken, which brought me a great displeasure, for the little care that they had had for the conservation of such a good and beautiful plot, from which I had promised myself something good would come."
Other colonists also cultivated gardens as France's colonial presence pushed out from the habitation. Rather than the closed garden familiar to medieval Europe (the hortus conclusus), these too were created as ambitious projects that aimed to engage with and reshape American environments. The lawyer, colonist, and author Marc Lescarbot had earlier drawn Renaissance-inspired gardens in the landscape of early Acadia. When the Récollet missionary Gabriel Sagard traveled to the region that he called Canada in 1625, he described the gardens of his order as "very beautiful, and of a good base of soil; for all of our herbs and roots do well there, and better than many gardens that we have in France." Like Champlain's habitation, these landscapes blurred the transition across a trench that surrounded the residence and fields of "flowers, particularly those that we call Cardinales and Martagons," and raspberry bushes that soon became part of the colonial diet. The effect was that his order's residence resembled "a little house of the rural nobility, rather than a monastery of the Franciscan friars." Nearby on the plateau, Sagard reported seeing the cultivated lands of the apothecary and colonist Louis Hébert, and in particular "a young apple tree that was brought from Normandy and young vines which were very beautiful." These would soon be joined by the gardens of the Society of Jesus after missionaries from this order came to join the Récollets in New France, as well as those areas of cultivation that continued to expand from the original site of settlement at Québec.
Cultivated spaces were well represented in images of Champlain's settlement of Québec that show gardens touching up against the margins (Figure 1). They echo similar features in representations of earlier settlements at St. Croix Island and Port Royal also included in Champlain's 1613 Voyages (Figure 2). In each case, the prominence and location of these intricately designed landscapes amplified Champlain's focus on the cultivated spaces in his written text and changed the tone of images that might otherwise be read as defensive or even hostile to local environments. At both Québec and Port Royal, the habitations' firing cannons could have spoken to a desire to cut off contact with the outside world to which the French had come. Yet as the expansive gardens in the image pushed at the borders of the image, they effectively blurred the division between the fortress-like habitation that occupied the center of the composition and the natural world around it. No matter how far the smoke of the cannons could drift from the habitation, Champlain's intricately laid-out parterres extended beyond them.
In images such as these, tilled fields and cultivated gardens became recognizable as sites of encounter in New France. One of the foundational acts of Champlain's settlement, after all, was the introduction of local flora—grains and vines included—into French colonial environments. Québec's gardens were experiments as much as they were a source of sustenance, and they welcomed a wide range of American and European plants including "kitchen herbs of all sorts with very beautiful corn, wheat, rye, and barley that were sown and some vines that I had planted during the wintering." Some grew from seeds that had been brought across the Atlantic, but others had homes in the forest and fields that Champlain so passionately described as he ascended the Saint Lawrence River. Near Québec, he described seeing "all of the types of trees that we have in our forests on this side of the ocean, and a number of fruits, even though they are sauvage for lack of cultivation: such as butternut, cherries, plums, vines, raspberries, strawberries, and green and red currants." Elsewhere he noted "vine that produces reasonably good raisins, even though it is sauvage, which once transplanted & labored, will produce fruits in abundance." It was these plants—roughly similar as recognizable sauvage (wild) versions of plants that grew in Europe—that Champlain brought into his gardens. They were, or perhaps could become, "like those we have in France." These were spaces that visually represented a managed abundance that naturalized French colonialism as a well-governed and desirable hybridity.
When Champlain called the grapevines and American plants at Québec sauvage he marked them as a site of tension between the familiar and the foreign. Sauvage has more often been studied when it was used as a noun within French colonial discourse to refer to indigenous peoples, but the term itself blurred distinctions between the human and non-human world. The word pointed less toward a neat ontological distinction than, as historian Sophie White has recently written, a "protean" marker of identity defined by its "flexibility." It marked out a spatial and cultural liminality. The Thresor de la langue francoyse, written by Jean Nicot in 1606, provided synonyms including "semiferus," "sylvestris," and "erratico." If "semiferus" suggested a partial ferality, "sylvestris" and "erratico" instead connected the term to the forest or an errant path and from there to conceptual and spatial borderlands. The entry further suggested that it was possible to "become sauvage" or "make or render all sauvage," highlighting that the state identified as sauvage was neither fixed nor completely conquerable. Where generations of historians translated the term simply as "savage," scholars now often prefer to interpret it as "wild" or leave it untranslated altogether, as I do here.
When Champlain wrote that local flora was "sauvage for lack of cultivation," he signaled that the manifest differences of American environments were remediable defects and hinted at the ecological ambitions of France's colonial project. As a metaphor, the discourse of cultivation evoked by sauvage related the process of conversion to the domestication of wild plants and animals. In the colonial context of northeastern North America, the domestication of place and peoples became explicitly linked by colonists who cast themselves as cultivators and framed empire itself as an act of rehabilitation. The discourse of the sauvage was in this way overtly ecological and blurred ethnographic and environmental knowledge. It is worth remembering that "culture," in the period discussed here, was still largely an agricultural term, familiar most often in the context of the "culture of the earth." It was at this time gradually being displaced toward its modern anthropocentricity by authors who perceived, in the term's evocation of domestication, elevation, and refinement, a resonance with a new optimism in human progression and cultural evolution. As a colonizing ideology, a focus on culture and prescriptions for cultivation therefore inspired practice and encouraged active engagement with indigenous places and peoples in a bid to understand and ultimately assimilate them both. In this, it had much in common with the equally generative English term "improvement." From the founding moments of New France and Champlain's first efforts to turn over the soils of Québec, an emergent colonial political ecology privileged cultivation as a way of both knowing and creating a New France in North America. As the Jesuit Pierre Biard explained from his mission in Acadia, northeastern North America could be remade in the image of Europe; it was, he wrote, "another France . . . to be cultivated."
The impulse to cultivate a New France produced deep and lasting footprints in the human and natural histories of North America. Yet it is a different environmental history of northern North America than has often been told. The gardens of Québec might seem strange places from which to proceed, when the French colonized regions of the continent that many are more likely to associate with cold-weather animals such as cod and beaver than they are to associate them with delicate plants and verdant landscapes. In spite of the work of generations of historians who have dug down into the rich archives of agricultural settlement along the Saint Lawrence River and brought a colonial project that was firmly committed to agricultural development to light, we nonetheless remain more likely to think of the region as a wintry white rather than in shades of green and brown. We might ask what room there was for gardens in what one scholar has recently characterized as a "reluctant land." Yet if we notice how Sagard's narrative draws out as he described his order's garden or how some of the white space on Champlain's maps was filled in with his, we must appreciate the cultural and intellectual significance of these sorts of cultivated landscapes for French colonists. Inhabiting these sites and describing them for Atlantic audiences helped these authors conceptualize what colonialism could be in North America as well as their own place in its unfolding history.
Producing these cultivated spaces foregrounded environmental encounters in New France as a central way to know and claim colonial North America. Horticulture was a political act as well as a necessity for survival. The early architects of French colonial expansion in North America possessed a worldview that, anachronistically, we might call ecological. Cultivation offered early modern French colonists a capacious language with which to describe the interrelatedness of the human and natural environments discovered there—the culture of American peoples and the culture of American places—and to propose colonialism as a process that would transform them both. Frenchness was a quality that applied to both specific peoples and places and that could be brought out with diligent attention. In this, the French who came to North America possessed a worldview that strangely mirrors our own. We, in a time of ecological crisis, find ourselves confronted with phenomena such as global warming that we recognize as neither wholly natural nor entirely social and that, in effect, have forced us to come to terms with the entanglements of the non-human and human worlds and the limits of anthropocentric approaches to understanding and inhabiting the world in which we live. The character of French texts in which the weather, plants, and animals are agents in the history of colonial expansion and development can nonetheless be startling. For what strikes the reader of the accounts of early colonists, missionaries, and explorers is the extent to which these actors expected to encounter the agency of American environments and how they anticipated interaction with the world around them. In truth, we cannot say that the environment was simply acted upon by colonialism or the inverse. Colonialism and colonial experience in New France emerged through complex negotiations with place.
This is the horizon that cultivation opens for us here. The French colonists who came to northeastern North America to cultivate a New France mapped a distinction between cultivated and sauvage onto North American places and peoples. These were lands that had been shaped by millennia of indigenous cultivation and that continued to be shaped by peoples whose ecological practices had drawn out the richness of northern environments, but colonial texts effaced indigenous labor that had coaxed the expansion of temperate flora. Colonists read evolutionary and geological histories that had produced ecological affinities between the environments of New France and old in such a way as to justify the imposition of French colonialism. They anticipated the resistance of a wild animal bucking efforts at domestication, and they forgave themselves the violence of pruning, grafting, and transplanting in advance. The language of cultivation translated these activities into the establishment of a mutually beneficial patriarchal order and colonial dispossession into the fantasy of a well-managed agricultural estate. The sites in which these exchanges (and confrontations) took place were privileged in the texts that communicated New France to Europe as they became evidence of the extent to which French colonialism differed from the violent conquests of the Spanish in Central and South America. Cultivation became the self-legitimating practice of French settler colonialism, transferring sovereignty and authority to colonists and missionaries who adopted the role of cultivator and benevolent patriarch. The production of knowledge in material space and through material practice encourages us to see that it too had a footprint. Representing the New World changed it and all the people who claimed it for their own.
The colonists, missionaries, merchants, and administrators who came to New France were part of a broader Atlantic culture that increasingly valued empirical observation and numbered among those in the Americas who were becoming more confident in their ability to know extra-European environments. The French authors who positioned themselves as cultivators paid close attention to the question of where and how knowledge was produced, and they claimed an epistemological privilege by virtue of their geographical location. They were participants in a broader valorization of empirical study of the natural world then underway throughout the Atlantic world. If there is nothing in this statement that could not be (and has not been) written about colonists in other Atlantic empires, focusing on cultivation directs us to consider how intellectual revolutions in the Atlantic world produced local and regional histories in environmentally distinct regions of the Americas. As colonists such as Champlain claimed that the sauvage nature of American flora was neither natural nor necessary, they foregrounded experiences gathered through touch, taste, smell, and sight to promise that an essential familiarity lay behind apparent differences in American environments; this was the essential act of an agricultural alchemy that transmuted colonialism into cultivation.
French colonialism effaced indigenous labor and delegitimated indigenous knowledge as its architects suggested American environments remained unfinished and even unnatural. Throughout the wider Atlantic world, the boundaries that divided nature from artifice or from the preternatural or unnatural were contested and defined in practice. The question of the natural was particularly problematic in a colonial context where French authors (and authorities) looked to representations of indigenous culture and environments to justify settlement and colonialism. Producing and policing a firm distinction between the sauvage and the natural was, then, the central function of French colonial political ecology in this period. Cultivation provided both a method of study and a means of intervention.
Many scholars have assumed that the self-evident novelty of North America posed a significant challenge to European intellectual traditions that, built on Aristotelian insights into the natural world, were unable to grapple with the diversity and difference of American nature. At the very least, according to this view, the experience of American difference severely challenged the validity of classical sources that had long defined the flora and fauna of the Old World. Yet while plants and animals both marvelous and monstrous may have posed a significant intellectual problem for Christopher Columbus and later explorers of Spanish territories in Central and South America, French colonists and missionaries had a fundamentally different experience of North American environments that appeared strangely familiar at first encounter. French settlers, traders, and missionaries discovered new places in the early seventeenth century that they considered novel in the way of the Terre neuve or Newfoundland located just to the northeast of New France. Yet novelty in the way that it would be later articulated by Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon—as a chronologically new continent, manifestly different from a more familiar, knowable, and reliable Old World—was a conceptual impossibility within a worldview that insisted on the mutability of American difference. It was only gradually that both colonial and metropolitan authors struggled with how to adequately capture (and contain) this American difference, opening up spaces where new forms of knowledge could be articulated and initiating a broader discussion of natural difference in French North America.
Moments of shock or marvel are rare in the accounts of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New France. Instead, we are presented with historical actors who seem to know exactly where they are and who, because of its obviousness, can remain frustratingly reticent in their descriptions of colonial environments or in reflections on their own ecological knowledge. Cultivating a New France follows the rise and subsequent fall of cultivation as an organizing ideology of French colonialism in northeastern North America as a means to bring an otherwise obscured political ecology to light. Cultivation as a discourse translated French colonialism into a recognizable horticultural act and shaped indigenous and colonial environments as a set of ecological and material practices. From seventeenth-century prominence to eighteenth-century obsolescence, the story of cultivation therefore weaves together a dizzying cast of historical actors and an equally diverse set of ecological and cultural contexts. If it is a story of local encounters between colonists and indigenous plants and peoples, cultivation's history nonetheless also remains entangled with global and local ecological and climatological oscillations, intellectual revolutions transforming the relationship with the natural and material world in Europe, and shifting political and cultural landscapes in colonial North America and the Atlantic world. Cultivating a New France therefore charts a course that blends insights from environmental history and the history of science to reconsider the history of European colonialism in North America, but it follows the path laid by historical actors who self-consciously considered their own place in its long history.
The first chapter of Cultivating a New France situates French exploration and settlement in northeastern North America within broader ecological and geological histories. It is these histories—told through archaeological remains of plant materials and the science of plate tectonics—that can help us understand why early explorers such as Champlain seemed so at home in what we know to be a new world for them. Shared genetic relationships between European and American flora meant that many parts of these environments were recognizable, and we can reread narratives of exploration and settlement to see how these familiar spaces were sought out and foregrounded in colonial accounts. These authors drew on contemporary natural science as they identified colonial flora as sauvage (wild) in accounts that both highlighted observable differences between European and American flora and implied that these were remediable defects.
The accounts in which the sauvage nature of New France was examined valorized personal experience and observation and communicated the certainty that French colonialism would redeem American environments in genres such as the travel narrative that celebrated empirical exploration. Chapter 2 examines how the texts through which New France was communicated to French audiences made cultivation a central mode for understanding the colony. The power of cultivation derived, in part, from a broader renaissance in horticultural practice and theory in contemporary France. As they reported their own experiences of colonial environments and took the measure of ecological continuities and differences, authors such as Champlain transformed discussions of colonial environments into opportunities to theorize what French colonialism could do in North America. Claims to know American flora and environments translated into privileged claims to articulate the prospect and purpose of this New France. In focusing on the opportunities to rehabilitate individual plants and whole landscapes, empire itself was recast as a recuperative project.
Chapter 3 follows missionaries who sought to intervene in the ecological lives of indigenous people in order to reform their spiritual lives. Looking to missionary experience in other parts of the Americas, Jesuits and Récollets organized their initial efforts into New France around a plan to sedentarize Algonquian peoples whom they understood to be errant and wild. At sites such as Sillery, missionaries who presumed that indigenous people lacked ecological knowledge instead came to understand its complexity and to appreciate the inability of their own practices to support communities in the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield. As they moved west into Wendat territories, Jesuit missionaries similarly discovered that mission strategies founded on the belief that indigenous peoples lacked a complete ecological knowledge excluded them—as unmarried men hostile to many of the traditional institutions of Iroquoian communities—from the sites of cultivation in these communities. An imperative to cultivate indigenous peoples therefore introduced missionaries to new perspectives on indigenous places and hinted at the limits of French ability to intervene in the lives of American places and peoples.
As cultivation encouraged empirical observation and the conscious assessment of experience, it therefore also created the conditions in which its limitations became evident. Chapter 4 examines how, after the optimistic belief that American plants were sauvage versions of those in France was met with a century of failed experiments, the imagined footprint of French colonialism began to retreat. French colonists relied more thoroughly on French crops and began to identify an essential foreignness in those that they encountered outside of colonial settlements. They also engaged in debates about where French colonialism could best take root that were far more pessimistic about the ability of colonialism to reshape ecosystems and climates. Was the Saint Lawrence Valley simply too cold, or could the region that was increasingly called Canada be scrubbed free of American resistance and made hospitable for French ecological regimes? On both sides of the Atlantic, proponents of colonialism sought to explain harsher-than-expected climates, failed introductions of European crops, and recalcitrant American flora that refused to become identical to its French counterparts. The result was a considerable debate that foregrounded studies of North American environments as a key site for the articulation and contestation of imperial ideologies.
By the eighteenth century, disputes between French colonists and newly confident and organized metropolitan scientists about how to know North American environments mapped closely onto broader currents in the Atlantic world that saw epistemological authority centralized in major European cities. Chapter 5 introduces an institution that had a major influence on how knowledge and plants circulated in the French Atlantic world in the eighteenth century: the Paris-based Académie Royale des Sciences. The Académie was instrumental in the effort by Louis XIV and his influential minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to centralize cultural production and authority in France, and its history is often examined as a facet of the transition to a bureaucratic state in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. The Académie became a global institution because of the ability of its American correspondents to translate the priorities—and the wages—of the Parisian institution to meet the expectations of the colonial and indigenous people who most often actually performed the act of collecting and guiding. The Académie was remarkably successful at mobilizing administrative and military networks to scientific ends, but it also drew on and manipulated a vibrant conversation between diverse colonial and indigenous populations that had begun with the first tentative efforts to establish a French colonial presence. The success of its science—a science of novelty—further marginalized the calls to cultivate a New France that had animated colonists, missionaries, and explorers in the preceding century.
The final chapter of this book examines an episode where colonial, metropolitan, and indigenous ways of studying American flora met and conflicted over the question of whether New France was essentially familiar or an entirely new and foreign continent: the multiple discoveries of American ginseng. When Joseph-François Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), claimed to have discovered ginseng south of Montréal, he also announced his reliance on indigenous peoples. In fact, he used his discovery to claim that the existence of an Asian plant in North America proved larger ecological and cultural continuities between the Old World and the New. His arguments were disputed by French naturalists, who dismissed his ethnographically inclined method and his larger claims of global cultural and ecological continuities; theirs was a science of difference and novelty. Ultimately, when Lafitau's larger arguments were eventually accepted, it was merchants who acted fastest and who organized large-scale trade with China in the 1730s and 1740s. The trade proved disastrous for indigenous ecologies in North America. Lafitau's pursuit of physical proof of the Old World origins of indigenous cultures almost drove the plant to extinction and threatened a real botanical relationship between Eurasia and the Americas.
I am ultimately less interested in studying the accuracy of French claims to know New France than in examining the long negotiation between French discourse and American matter through which this knowledge was produced. Whether in Québec or Paris, knowing New France meant engaging with a multicultural, epistemologically diverse Atlantic world. The obvious failure of efforts to weed out the features that made the environments of New France different from those that colonists had left behind also created new intellectual and cultural spaces in which indigenous knowledge was interrogated and integrated. Ultimately, French knowledge was always produced in dialogue with indigenous knowledge, whether colonial accounts explicitly praised or critiqued indigenous practice and even if they rendered aboriginal cultures invisible in celebrating the heroism of borderland scientists.
Decades before the Comte de Buffon and Thomas Jefferson took up the infamous "Dispute of the New World," authors on both sides of the French Atlantic world were engaged in a vigorous debate about Americanness. Colonist-authors, administrators, scientists, and missionaries studied and hypothesized the depth and cause of this increasingly undeniable difference. Was New France more new or more French? The simple repetition of the appellation "New France" in historical accounts and recent scholarship obscures the fact that it was the tension between these two terms that animated colonial and transatlantic debates about the nature of empire in the French North Atlantic during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Throughout the century and a half of French colonialism in North America, investigations of the environments of New France were integral to these broader considerations, providing a space for colonial and metropolitan methods to assay otherwise ineffable questions of cultural transfer from one continent to another, of the conversion of novel places and peoples, and, in effect, of France's ability to extend and replicate itself beyond its shores.