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Montreal history and timeline

Named after nearby Mount Royal and built across a collection of islands, Montreal is Canada's second-largest city. Throughout its rich history, Montreal has been shaped by both French and English influences, creating a cultural melting pot.

Let's delve into the interesting history of Montreal:

Pre-European Montreal and First Contact

According to archaeological evidence, the area around modern Montreal has been occupied by humans for at least 4,000 years. Montreal was an attractive site for settlers because of its islands and the availability of natural resources in the area.

Before European settlers arrived, the Saint Lawrence Iroquois were the most prominent First Nation around Montreal. This group occupied the valley of the St. Lawrence river and established the settlement of Hochelaga at the base of Mount Royal.

At its height in the 1500s, Hochelaga was a well-fortified settlement of about 50 longhouses. The settlement was home to approximately 1,500 inhabitants. It was also the site of first contact between the natives and European explorers.

In 1535, a French explorer named Jacques Cartier was searching for a route to China. Cartier's expedition was stopped by the powerful rapids around the islands of Montreal. Exasperated, Cartier named the rapids “La Chine”. Cartier then encountered the inhabitants of Hochelaga and visited the settlement before resuming his expedition.

European Settlement and the Founding of Ville-Marie

It would be nearly 70 years before another European explorer set foot on the lands around Montreal. In 1603, Samuel de Champlain, another Frenchman, reached the St. Lawrence valley. According to Champlain, there was no trace of the Saint Lawrence Iroquois, who may have migrated due to disease or tribal conflict.

Like Cartier before him, Champlain was trying to find a route to China. He was also eager to muscle in on North America's fast-growing fur trade. In 1611, he founded a trading post named La Place Royale on the Island of Montreal.

But Montreal had more potential than just a trading post. In 1642, a group of colonists led by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve established the settlement of Ville-Marie on the island's southern shore. The colonists were driven by a mission to establish a French colony and convert the natives to Christianity. The settlers also built a fort to defend the town, which was quickly called into action.

Montreal and the Beaver Wars

The French exploration of Canada took place during the Beaver Wars, also known as the Iroquois Wars. Beginning in 1609, a series of conflicts broke out between French colonists and the Iroquois tribes led by the Mohawks.

In 1643, Ville-Marie was repeatedly attacked by the Iroquois. The raids continued for years, leaving the fledgling settlement fighting for survival. In desperation, Maisonneuve sailed to France in 1649 to request assistance. In 1653, 100 armed colonists arrived to bolster the 50 remaining inhabitants of Ville-Marie.

After repelling the Iroquois raids, Ville-Marie quickly grew into a prominent fur trading hub. By 1685, the settlement was home to 600 people. However, the settlements of Montreal were never far from the shadow of the Beaver Wars.

Although the main conflict was fought between the French and the Iroquois, the war quickly became a proxy conflict between France and other European powers. Initially supported by the Dutch, the Iroquois began forming alliances with the British in the 1680s.

In 1689, over 1,500 Mohawk warriors attacked the settlement of Lachine, another French settlement on the Island of Montreal. The Mohawks were backed by the English, who had encouraged them to attack French colonies. Approximately 240 settlers were brutally killed.

The Beaver Wars continued until 1701, when France signed a peace treaty with 39 First Nations, including the Iroquois and the Mohawks. The treaty was called the Great Peace of Montreal. From 1705, Ville-Marie officially began to be called Montreal.

Montreal Changes Hands Three Times

In 1754, the American colonies of France and Britain clashed directly, each supported by their native allies. The conflict became known as the French and Indian War and was part of a series of international conflicts known as the Seven Years War.

France had the upper hand early on, but the British soon began turning the tide. In 1760, the British launched the Montreal campaign and attacked the settlement from three sides. Outnumbered and running low on supplies, the French surrendered unconditionally. As part of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France formally surrendered control of Canada to Britain.

In 1775, the American War of Independence broke out as the Thirteen Colonies declared a revolution against the British crown. In June, a division of the Continental Army invaded the Province of Quebec.

In November 1775, the Americans captured Fort St. Johns, a defensive bastion south of Montreal. Severely outnumbered, the British General and Governor of Quebec, Guy Carleton, abandoned Montreal and fled to Quebec. The Americans, under General Richard Montgomery, occupied the settlement for about a year.

The Americans advanced on Quebec and besieged the city, but were driven back by Carleton. In Montreal, the occupying American troops quickly fell out of favor with the locals after punishing those who remained loyal to the British. When Carleton returned to Montreal as part of a counter-offensive in June 1776, the Americans retreated.

Although the American colonies were lost, the British remained in control of Canada. The territory received a huge influx of settlers when thousands of Loyalists fled the American colonies and moved into Canada.

Montreal and the Fur Trade: 1775 to 1831

By 1782, Montreal's population had grown to 6,000 people. Montreal's population and economy grew rapidly thanks to the lucrative fur trade. Although much of the market was cornered by the English-based Hudson's Bay Company, some of Montreal's inhabitants had other ideas.

In 1779, a group of local businessmen founded the North West Company. Despite tension and conflict with the Hudson's Bay Company and the loss of some of its trading posts during the War of 1812, the North West Company prospered.

However, the British government demanded an end to the conflict between the two companies and forced them to merge in 1821. After operating for 40 years, the North West Company was absorbed into its former rival.

The City of Montreal Industrializes: 1832 to 1945

In 1832, Montreal was officially incorporated as a city. In the same year, the Lachine Canal was completed. For over a century since Jacques Cartier's failed expedition, Montreal's inhabitants had been searching for a way to tame the rapids around the island. Now, they had succeeded.

Powered by immigrants from England and Ireland, Montreal's population continued to grow. By 1825, the city was home to over 22,000 people. The city industrialized rapidly thanks to new railways. The rail network continued gathering steam in 1859 after the completion of the Victoria Bridge, which linked Montreal to Quebec.

Throughout the late 1830s, tensions had risen between the English and French-speaking sections of Canada's population. A series of armed rebellions broke out in Upper and Lower Canada, causing severe property damage. After the rebellions, the two provinces were unified to create the Province of Canada. From 1844 to 1849, Montreal was the capital of the new province.

In many areas after the rebellions, English-speaking citizens were compensated for the damage. However, when the Parliament of Montreal attempted to do the same for French-speaking citizens, the English citizens protested.

After the law was passed in 1849, an angry mob set fire to the Parliament buildings in Montreal, burning them to the ground. As a result, Montreal lost its status as the provincial capital to Toronto.

Montreal continued to grow as an industrial powerhouse throughout the decades leading up to World War One. By 1921, the city's population reached nearly 620,000. After the war, Montreal, like other cities, was hit hard by the Great Depression. As many as 62,000 people were unemployed.

During World War Two, Montreal was home to several exiled visitors. The royal family of Luxembourg took refuge in the city, along with the British Crown Jewels. After the war, Montreal experienced an economic and industrial boom, bringing the city out of the darkness of the Great Depression.

Modern Montreal: 1950 to the Present Day

In the early 1950s, Montreal's population reached one million. During the 1960s, Montreal was influenced by the “Quiet Revolution” that developed in neighboring Quebec. Quebec's new Liberal government took more control over many of the city's institutions. This period also saw the resurgence of French-speaking Quebecois culture in Quebec and Montreal.

Montreal also gained more acclaim and recognition on the world stage. In 1967, the city hosted the World's Fair, also known as Expo67. The event set a World's Fair record for the most visitors in a single day with 565,000. Montreal then hosted the Summer Olympics in 1976.

Modern Montreal is one of Canada's most iconic and historic cities, attracting millions of tourists every year. Although it may not be an economic and financial powerhouse compared to Toronto or a political capital like Ottawa, Montreal deserves its place as one of Canada's best destinations.

Famous Landmarks

  • Maison Saint-Gabriel – Founded in 1658, turned into a museum in 1966
  • Chateau Ramezay – Built in 1705
  • Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel – Built in 1771
  • Lachine Canal – Completed in 1824
  • Chateau Dufresne – Completed in 1918
  • Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History – Founded in 1992


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