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The Seigneural System & The Habitants

Habitants 1852
by Cornelius Krieghoff (1815 - 1872)
National Archives of Canada - Copyright Expired

Seigneurs were the most important colonists, as they were usually in the military or aristocracy prior to being a settler. These seigneurs then were charged with the task of subdividing large parcels of land into five by 15 kilometer concessions, then renting this land to a habitant. Under regulations set up by the French government in France, the seigneur could also set up a court of law, set up a mill on his land and organize a commune.

The seigneurial system was modeled after the feudal system in Europe and included a system of rights and duties between seigneurs and censitaires (habitants).

The Seigneurial System

The seigneurial system was the basic means of organizing the French population along the St. Lawrence. A seigneur was the owner of a large piece of land known as a seigneurie. A seigneur had to promise to be loyal to the king. A seigneur had to bring settlers from France to New France to work on his seigneurie.

Seigneuries were long, narrow rectangles facing the waters of a major river or lake. A habitant usually had a very narrow strip of land, perhaps half a kilometre wide and three or more kilometres back from the river. This shape of land gave each habitant access to water, good soil in the river bottom, and timber further from the river. The seigneur had to build a mill for his habitants. The mill could be used for defence in case of attack. Forts were built on seigneuries near Iroquois territory.

The seigneurs used agents in France to recruit settlers. A legal document was drawn up in France in front of a notary, a kind of lawyer, showing what the habitant and his seigneur had to do for each other. The habitant owed his seigneur three or four days free labour each year. This was considerably less than peasants in France owed their lords. The habitant was responsible for keeping the section of road which crossed his land in good condition. The habitant gave one bag out of fourteen to his lord in payment for the use of the seigneur's mill. The habitant paid his rent in money, if it was available, but more often in the form of farm produce. The habitant also paid a tithe for the upkeep of a church and its priest. Cash was hard to get. It could be obtained in the markets which grew up. The habitants took their guns in case of attack, particularly by the Mohawks. The habitant had to give some of his fish to the seigneur. The poor were helped with gifts at Christmas, and by charity administered by the church.

  • Seigneurs
  • In New France, the seigneurs were the people to whom the authorities gave or sold large tracts of land, provided that they cleared it, built houses and populated the seigneurie. In order to do this, seigneurs recruited hired men who did this work under contract. At the end of the contract, most hired men accepted to settle on the seigneurie where they had worked so far. The seigneur sold them a parcel of land and guaranteed their security and well-being. The new colonists had some obligations towards the seigneur, such as giving him a small portion of their annual harvest.

  • Purpose
  • Its aim was to encourage the settlement of New France and to promote the distribution of land.

  • Characteristics
  • * A seigneurie was granted to a seigneur.

    * The seigneur was obliged to rent long lots (concessions) on his seigneurie to tenant-farmers called censitaires (habitants).

    * The lots were narrow rectangular tracts of land found perpendicular to a river allowing more settlers access to the river.

    * The seigneur also built roads, a mill, an oven, and held a court to settle disputes.

    * In return, the censitaires cleared their lots, paid rent as a portion of their income and in the form of food and produce (cens et rentes), worked 3 days a year without pay (corvée), and paid a tax (lods et ventes) if they sold their lots.

    The Habitants

    The Habitant Farm, 1856
    National Gallery of Canada
    Copyright Expired
    This class of people was usually comprised of farmers or labourers who were initially brought over from France to live on this land. They had to pay rent and taxes to the seigneur, though they co-owned the land with the seigneur, and even had to work entirely for the benefit of the seigneur a few days each year.

    The habitant in New France represented 90 per cent of the adult lay population.

    Some habitants are given the concession of seigneuries, or they purchase seigneuries thanks to income from the fur-trade or other sources. They are called seigneurs habitants. Some hold civil responsibilities such as church wardens or militia captains, which places them a cut above the other habitants and a rual "elite" would grow out of this.

    The New France habitant lived comfortably and likely perhaps better than the French peasant (in France) according to records relating the lives of the habitants of New France.

    © Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
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