La Rochelle and French North America

par Poton, Didier

View of the port of La Rochelle, ca. 1830.

La Rochelle’s history is the history of its various ports, which manifest La Rochellers’ ability to embrace the changing dynamics of the Atlantic seaway in the 12th through the 18th centuries. La Rochelle’s early involvement in the great discoveries and its commerce with the Americas and the rest of the world—determined by the whims of colonial shipping companies and economic opportunities—established this port town as one of the major seaboard towns of the Atlantic realm. La Rochelle’s story goes way back! It is not surprising to find, in La Rochelle and the surrounding territory (greater La Rochelle today boasts a population of nearly 150,000) and in the urban landscape of the old town, the traces of the French adventure in North America—an adventure of Franco-Quebecois cooperation that continues to this day in many forms.



Article disponible en français : La Rochelle et l’Amérique française

A Town that Bears the Imprint of the Americas 

The facade of the chapel at Saint-Louis hospital, La Rochelle, 2002.

The signs of the interaction between La Rochelle and French North America do not come to us solely through accounts of the lives of heroes such as Jacques Cartier at Saint-Malo or Samuel de Champlain at Brouage. Rather, they have grown out of a collective adventure that involved thousands of men, women, and children whose work made development of a large port city possible: sailors, ship owners, bankers, merchants, traders, notaries public, Admiralty judges, shipwrights, carpenters, sailmakers, ropemakers, innkeepers, carters, mule-drivers, widows involved in business, servants, prostitutes... and the list goes on. In La Rochelle the manifestations of the North American adventure lay in plain facades fronting consultancy firms, small businesses, shops, workshops, and inns, alongside the more imposing facades of town houses in which business transactions with New France were carried out. And let us not forget the Chamber of Commerce, which still dominates one of the oldest streets in town, reminding us that its membership voiced the sole objections to the abandonment of New France to England following the 1763Treaty of Paris.


La Rochelle: From Modest Village to Bustling Port Complex 

In the year 1000, La Rochelle, the ville belle et rebelle (beautiful maverick city) of the Atlantic coast, was no more than a modest village of fishermen and salt merchants established on a rocky peninsula surrounded by marshland. Its location (halfway up the Bay of Biscay), its geographical setting (a natural harbour sheltered by islands—Île de Ré, Île d’Oléron, Île Madame and Île d’Aix), and a bit of geological good fortune (in the form of a current that flows out with the tide, thus keeping the the floor of the bay naturally free of silt) prompted merchants and public authorities of the 12th century to choose this location to develop a port capable of handling all types of ships—in particular the new round ships from northern Europe. And so a port complex was born. Now the eighth-largest port in France, the complex actually comprises five ports: the Vieux Port (Old Port), the Bassin des Chalutiers (Trawlers’ Basin; 1855–1862); the port of La Pallice, for high tonnage ships (1890), expanded with a mooring pier (1940) where today the world’s most prestigious cruise ships and liners berth; Les Minimes, a marina for pleasure craft (1970), and the port of Chef-de-Baie (1994), one of Europe’s most modern fishing ports.

La Rochelle’s three towers, 2005.



The Cosmopolitan Merchant Communities of La Rochelle

Map of La Rochelle in 1685 (copy by Jourdan based on the work of Claude Masse).

Beginning in the 12th century, the city experienced strong demographic growth, due not to natural population growth but rather to an influx of new arrivals from Brittany, Normandy, Flanders, England and Ireland. This cosmopolitanism marked La Rochelle’s entry into the group of port cities that were developing along Europe’s Atlantic frontier to meet the demands of a growing maritime trade. This development would expand even further in the following century, as occasions for trade between southern and northern Europe multiplied. The establishment of sustainable communities of foreign merchants was helped along by attractive fiscal policies in the form of tax privileges granted to the Town of La Rochelle by the kings of England and France, by investments in development of a safe harbour, and by the integration of domestically-produced goods into the flow of international trade. La Rochelle, no longer simply a harbour, was making a name for itself as an important trade destination.


The Emergence of a Powerful Port City on the Central Atlantic Coast 

But merchants would soon perceive the dangers of one-track agricultural and commercial activity. They would have to diversify. Two new advantages would help to get this redeployment moving. These were the emergence of a local market for consumption of goods and the ties that were being established between the inhabitants of La Rochelle and the various actors in the Atlantic economy. The town became a regional centre for redistribution of goods from all over—broadcloth and fabric from Flanders; wool from Spain and Normandy; leather from Ireland; spices from the Orient, and the list goes on—as well as a centre for exporting locally produced goods, such as salt, grains and cloth. In the 16th century, La Rochelle emerged as a financial marketplace, in addition to its role as a warehouse of goods in transit. Every sort of financing was available in the form of multiple agreements for “great adventure” loans and insurance. Ships’ captains also found sailors, skilled craftsmen, and all that was necessary to victual a ship. 

Opening page of a letter from Quebec City sent by François Havy on 5 July 1749 to Joseph Aliés, a La Rochelle merchant involved in maritime trade with New France.

Thanks to these natural advantages, La Rochelle was able to an active role from the earliest stages of the North American adventure, fitting out ships bound for Florida, the Caribbean, Brazil, or the fishing shoals of Newfoundland. The economic activities that drove this ocean-going adventure were fishing, trading, privateering, and smuggling. The city’s position in the protestant camp in the 1560s disrupted its economy, but La Rochellers waged a privateering war on the ships of the Catholic powers—namely, the seagoing forces of the Iberian peninsula—and the spoils of these enterprises provided a source of revenue to finance the Huguenot army of Henry of Navarre (who would become Henry IV), while filling the coffers of merchants, bankers and financiers. In a context of peace at home (Edict of Nantes) and abroad (Treaty of Vervins with Spain), the accumulation of capital gave La Rochelle the means to invest in developing the town, draining the Marais Poitevin, expanding the salt marshes and increasing seagoing ventures, in particular to Acadia and Canada, exponentially. However, with the protestant from Saintonge (Pierre Dugua de Mons) having been sent off to America, La Rochelle was gradually shut out of the group of the inner circle of companies that were granted monopolies to handle the Canadian fur trade—for reasons of religious affiliation (a mere pretext?) and through the vigorous competition of Norman ports close to the royal power structure established in Paris. It was through intense smuggling activity that La Rochelle managed to maintain a presence in the Saint Lawrence Seaway—to the great displeasure of Samuel de Champlain!


La Rochelle, “Canadian Port” of the Kingdom of France 

Close-up view of an information panel in a historical walk geared towards young audiences, part of an exhibition at the Tour de la Chaîne.

La Rochellers would have to wait for Champlain’s demise (1635) and the decline of his system to gradually assert their presence in Quebec City in a context of economic recovery following the tragic siege of La Rochelle that ended in 1628. In the years from 1650 through 1680, Catholic and Protestant merchants from La Rochelle controlled a growing share of the trade between the continent and New France. By transporting passengers in their ships, they played an important role in bringing settlers to New France. On the eve of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (in 1685), the French monarchy held to its policy of tolerance towards Huguenots in New France, for the colony would have been hard-pressed to do without them. 

The bi-denominational character of Canadian trade in La Rochelle continued throughout the following decades in a context of repeated prohibitions of Protestant practices. But beginning in the 1750s, mercantile establishments run by Protestants regained decision-making autonomy and returned to doing a brisk business in the ocean-going economy. During the Seven Years’ (or French and Indian) War, the monarchy turned to La Rochelle ship owners, notably Protestants, to bring fresh supplies and reinforcements to the colony. The Treaty of Paris (1763) was quite unpopular in La Rochelle, as in Bordeaux, which in the 18th century became a preeminent port for trade with ports on the Saint Lawrence. Plans in the 1780s to revive Canadian fur traffic through Albany and New York City did not pan out, due to revolutionary turmoil starting in 1789. 

In the 19th century, attempts to renew ties with Canada—in particular French-speaking Lower Canada—ran aground, with La Rochelle failing to regain a significant position in seagoing trade with North America. But La Rochelle merchants, convinced that French-speaking Canada ought to be a promising market for French exports, were participants in a “mercantile nostalgia” movement developed in the business sector beginning in the 1850s. Their disappointment was on par with the hopes founded on the discourse of the movement’s adherents—a discourse that, despite its ultimate lack of prescience, nonetheless served to recall the privileged relationship that connected La Rochellers and, more broadly, people from the central western region of France, to French-speakers in Canada.


A Legacy Revived by Celebrations of Shared Memories and Scientific Undertakings 

The port of Rochelle, seen from Quai Valin (ca. 1921).

In 1893, Emile Garnault, secretary-archivist for the Chamber of Commerce, published his fascicle, Les Rochelais et le Canada. The date corresponded with commemoration of the 285th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City by Samuel de Champlain. La Rochelle took notice of the event by making a financial contribution towards organization of celebrations and towards erection of a monument to Champlain in Quebec City, to be completed in 1898. The celebrations provided an opportunity to invite Canada’s Commissioner General, Hector Fabre, to Paris. During the speech that he gave for the occasion, Mr. Fabre stated, “La Rochelle has long been France’s most Canadian city.” In the years that followed, street names in La Rochelle evoked these renewed ties with streets named after Québec, Montréal, Champlain, Montcalm…and even St.-Malo native Jacques Cartier! But it was the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Canada by Jacques Cartier that led La Rochelle’s mayor, Léonce Vieljeux, to join a French delegation that descended in force upon Canada in 1934. The seed of the movement had been planted and would take root through songs sung in schools, through theatre productions, through visits by Canadian prelates, and through actions of the goodwill association La Société des Amitiés canadiennes de La Rochelle et du Centre-Ouest (The Association to Promote Friendship Between Canada and La Rochelle and Central Western France).  

A poster advertising the permanent exhibition La Rochelle-Québec, Embarquez vers la Nouvelle-France (La Rochelle–Quebec: Set Sail for New France!) presented at the Tour de la Chaîne.

After the hiatus brought about by World War II, a visit by Canada’s ambassador and especially the great Franco-Canadian celebrations of 1955 (NOTE 1) helped lead the way to a return of more regular and ongoing transatlantic exchange. During the 1960s, La Rochelle participated in establishing robust relations between France and Quebec, in accordance with Charles de Gaulle’s expressed wishes. The list of exchange programs, state visits, cultural events, and so on, is too long to be presented in detail here. Suffice it to mention that the first joint conference of the associations France-Québec and Québec-France was held in La Rochelle in 1979. And the following year, nearly 5,000 people attended the Quinzaine québécoise du cinéma et de l’audiovisuel (Quebec’s two-week festival of cinema and audiovisual arts) organized by the Maison de la Culture community arts centre as part of Québec 80 celebrations. But the landmark event of the 1980s was the inauguration of the Musée du Nouveau Monde in the stately Hôtel Fleuriau, a jewel of La Rochelle’s 18th-century architecture. Finally, in an entirely different vein, the Francofolies music festival in La Rochelle and the Festival d’été international de Québec (Quebec City International Summer Festival) developed ties based on their common vision to preserve and promote francophone music. 

It is nonetheless important to note that in the great movement to create sister-city agreements and friendship pacts, La Rochelle bears the singular distinction in Charente-Maritime of enjoying a special relationship with its American namesake, New Rochelle. Located some 35 kilometres north of New York City, the town of New Rochelle, NY was founded by La Rochelle Protestants fleeing the France of Louis XIV. The sister-city relationship, initiated in the early 20th century, was renewed in 1947–1948 by the inhabitants of New Rochelle at a time when thousands of American GIs were visiting La Rochelle. Reciprocal visits, travel grants, and educational exchange programs consolidate these ties, which enjoy prolonged longevity through frequent revivals. 

The establishment of the l’Université de La Rochelle proved to be an event of fundamental importance in regard to the ties that bind La Rochelle to French-speaking North America. This university considers North America as a favoured partner pour cooperative ventures, exchange programs, and common research projects, and these programs receive the support of greater La Rochelle and of the government entities representing the department of Charente-Maritime and, more broadly the region of Poitou-Charentes (namely, Le Conseil Général de la Charente-Maritime and La Région Poitou-Charentes). In the humanities and the social sciences, opportunities abound for symposia; educational programs; student, teacher and researcher exchanges; and internships in cultural institutions, such as museums. Following are a few of the programs that have been initiated in this framework. In 1998, the first summer school program offered by l’Université d’été Poitou-Charentes/Québec was launched. This led to creation in 2002 of an inter-university degree program, which is still thriving. The first symposium of the Commission Franco-Québécoise sur les Lieux de Mémoire Communs (The Franco-Quebecois Commission on Common Heritage Sites—CFQLMC) was held in 2001. An inventory was taken of common heritage sites connecting the Poitou-Charentes region and the province of Quebec. The “American collection” (fonds américain) was established at at Michel Crépeau media centre. A symposium Le Nouveau Monde et Champlain (Samuel de Champlain and the New World) was held in 2004. And finally, La Rochelle took part in celebrations held in 2008 in honour of the 400-year anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, where a skirmish (this time quite pacific in nature) erupted, pitting the fleur-de-lys against the maple leaf to determine which flag would fly over the port during the festivities.


A Rich Architectural and Material Legacy 

As Aline Carpentier-Le Corre quite rightly by points out in her contribution to the guidebook for the exhibition Embarquez pour la Nouvelle-France, statements tying the city of La Rochelle to the history of New France are too often limited to discussions of the port and its commercial activity. In fact, visitors must push past the port and go into the town to find the heritage treasures linked to the activities of those who, through their enterprise and adventure—sometimes against their will, as was often the case for the destitute or for the King’s Daughters (Les Filles du Roy)—actually lived and made the history of French North America. As for the heritage of the merchants, visitors must circumambulate in the streets of l’Escale and Réaumur, where here and there facades remain that were refashioned during the 19th century. Some of these recall some of the great names associated with trade with New France, such as Garesché, Pascaud, Bonfils, Rodrigue, and Gaigneur. 

Detail of a stained-glass window at Notre-Dame de Mortagne-au-Perche church: La Rochelle setting out, bound for New France, in 1662.

Folk wisdom, moreover, ties Rue de l’Escale to the history of New France, purveying the notion that the stones that pave the road came over from Canada as ballast stones in the holds of returning ships. Science has shown this belief to be erroneous by demonstrating that many of these stones in fact came from Scandinavia. But some facades in other streets still bear the marks of commercial success—or misfortune. This is the case, for example, of François Peron, rue Saint-Yon; Gabriel Bernon, rue des Merciers, and the shop sign “Aux plombs du Canada, 1756.” But the power of trade is also evident in the Chamber of Commerce, located on rue du Palais. Built in 1760, this imposing building also bears witness to the quietly authorized restoration of Protestants’ rights among elite merchants of the town during the 1750s. These merchants would play an important role in financing and organizing shipments of supplies to the colony following the Seven Years’ War. 

Alongside these architectural markers linked to economic activity, other buildings have characteristics that show their connection to this Canadian history. The most obvious are of a religious nature, as is the case of the cathedral, built in the 18th century upon the ruins of the protestant church, (Le Grand Temple), where the devoutness of the sailors is evidenced by a series of commemorative plaques thanking God, the Virgin Mary, or the saints, for protecting them through perilous transatlantic voyages. But it wouldn’t do to forget the chapel of the Oratoire or those of the religious congregations (La Providence, Les Ursulines, etc.), the Jesuit college, and Saint-Louis hospital—all representing important stages of the migratory paths of the men and women who were waiting to set sail. Last but not least, there is the town hall, with its sculpted busts on the rear facade depicting “Hurons” and “Savages.” In this same town hall, in the 17th century, one could observe a canoe filled with “savages,” as described by Justus Zinzerling in his travel account Itinerarium Galliae et Finitimarum Regionum, published in Lyon in 1616: “In the town hall, in addition to a portrait of Henry IV, you will find a watercraft fashioned from the bark of a tree, a means of conveyance, we are told, used by the wild Indians.”  

In 2008, another monument was added to the landscape of La Rochelle’s heritage treasures: La Tour de la Chaîne. The choice of a 14th-century tower as the location of a permanent exhibition on migrants setting sail for New France shifts the focus of observers’ view of La Rochelle’s Canadian heritage. The legitimacy of this choice is not in the edifice itself, but in the “spirit of the place”—the spirit of setting sail, with the dreams, fears, and apprehension of migrants preparing to embark and their dread before the vastness of the ocean. The Tour de la Chaîne would be the last image of the French kingdom that would remain in their mind’s eye as they set off on this journey. From high atop the tower, visitors are, in turn, immersed in the evocation of a twofold landscape—the natural and anthropic landscape of an inhabited coast in opposition to the inner landscape of the migrant about to set sail for America. It is a marvellous way to breathe new life into this rich common heritage shared by France and French North America.


Didier Poton

Professor emeritus
Université de La Rochelle
CFQLMC Administrator




1. Commemoration of the voyage of La Capricieuse, the first ship of the French Navy to sail up the Saint Lawrence, in 1855; the deportation of Acadians, 1755.



Augeron, Mickaël, et Christophe Gauriaud, La Rochelle, entre tours et détours, La Crèche (France), Geste Éditions, 2006.

Augeron, Mickaël, et Dominique Guillemet (dir.), Champlain ou Les portes du Nouveau Monde : cinq siècles d’échanges entre le Centre-Ouest français et l’Amérique du Nord, XVIe-XXe siècles, La Crèche (France), Geste Éditions, 2004.

Bergeron, Yves, et Didier Poton (dir.), La Rochelle-Québec : embarquement pour la Nouvelle-France, Paris, Éditions du Patrimoine; Versailles, Artlys, 2008.

Joutard, Philippe, et Thomas Wien (dir.), avec la collab. de Didier Poton, Mémoires de Nouvelle-France : de France en Nouvelle-France, Rennes, Presses de l'Université de Rennes, 2005. 

La Rochelle, capitale atlantique, capitale huguenote, Paris, Éditions du Patrimoine, 1998.

Martinière, Guy, et Didier Poton (dir.), Le Nouveau Monde et Champlain, Paris, Les Indes savantes, 2008.

Poitou-Charentes, Service régional de l'Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel, Sur les traces de la Nouvelle-France en Poitou-Charentes et au Québec, La Crèche (France), Geste Éditions, 2008. Publié également à Québec par les Presses de l'Université Laval sous le titre Les traces de la Nouvelle-France au Québec et en Poitou-Charentes.


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Encylcopedia of French Cultural
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