What were some similarities and differences between the French and the Spanish colonies in the Americas?

French colonies in the Americas tended to be much smaller than the Spanish colonies. The Spanish were concerned with setting up feudalistic holdings in their colonies and completely exploiting Indigenous labor. The French generally took a lighter approach. They sent far fewer colonists across the Atlantic and were more concerned with establishing and maintaining commercial ties with Indigenous peoples. Both empires were concerned with spreading the Catholic faith in the Americas, but they also went about this differently.

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Starting in the sixteenth century, but really picking up steam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Spanish and the French greatly expanded their overseas colonies in the Americas. While there were some aspects of imperialism that they shared, the differences were more pronounced.

Both the Spanish and the French were Catholic empires. As such, there was a large missionary element to their colonial efforts. Spanish and French missionaries were established throughout their colonies with the goal of converting the Indigenous populations. For the Spanish, this was often done through coercive means, and whole communities were sometimes forcibly brought into the faith. The French, on the other hand, tended to be less forceful about finding converts. French missionaries would seek out Indigenous communities that were responsive to their message and set up missions within those communities.

Overall, when the Spanish arrived in a new territory, they quickly set about implementing their strategy of total conquest. Whole populations were enslaved or forced into the encomienda system. They labored to extract the resources of the New World to be sent to Spain to enrich the Crown. To achieve this, European-style feudal estates were set up and many new cities and towns were founded to resemble those in Europe.

For their part, the French were less interested in establishing large urban centers and landholdings. While they did create some larger cities modeled after ones in Europe, such as Quebec and New Orleans, they were more interested in setting up beneficial commercial and trading relationships with the Indigenous populations. The French were particularly interested in the fur trade and maintained trading alliances with various tribes to exploit this.

As you might imagine, the more total conquest by the Spanish required many more European settlers than the French model did. It is estimated that 1.86 million Spaniards settled in the American colonies during the colonial period. The French, however, kept a comparatively small population of colonists in North America. For instance, at its height, French Quebec only had about 70,000 French settlers. An exception to this lighter approach to imperialism was in the Caribbean. There, the French completely colonized several islands and established large plantations reliant on slave labor. In this region, French colonization more closely resembled the Spanish model.

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I respectfully disagree that the Spanish colonies were more "civilized" than the French. Quite the contrary was true. The Spanish forced Indians to work as slaves in gold and silver mines and also on sugar plantations. The Spanish government in fact created a settlement system known as the encomienda in which large grants of land were disseminated together with the right to enslave and work the Indians within the territory. Spanish priests made half hearted attempts to convert Indians to Christianity, but were more interested in destroying Indian religious artifacts as "pagan," the end result of which meant that much of Indian culture was lost forever.  The Spanish were much more concerned with hauling away gold and silver than with establishing permanent settlements; as a result they never attempted to set up permanent colonies with the possible exception of St. Augustine.

Spanish settlements in North America had one purpose only: to protect their shipments of gold and silver from competing European powers. The first successful settlement in North America, St. Augustine, Florida was built to protect Spanish fleets from attack by privateers. The statement above that the Spanish had "big cities. large farms" is patently incorrect.

It should be noted that the first successful rebellion in America; Pope's rebellion, also known as the Pueblo revolt, was the result of numerous failed promises on the part of the Spanish. Four hundred Spaniards were killed in the revolt and the Spanish lost control of New Mexico.

The French did attempt permanent settlements based on trade with the Indians. The French realized early on that peaceful relations with the Indians was more productive than the confrontation that had marked the Spanish policy. The French adopted Indian customs, wore Indian clothes, often married Indian wives, and overall treated the Indians with fairness and respect. The French often allied with Indians in wars with other Indian tribes. French interference in a dispute between the Huron and Iroquois Indians led the Iroquois to side with the British in the French and Indian war whereas the Huron sided with the French. French settlements were NOT sparsely settled; in fact Quebec was a major French settlement and Detroit a major French fort. Had the French territories been sparsely settled, there would have been a "Spanish and Indian War" which obviously there was not.

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The major similarity between French and Spanish colonies in the Americas is that both were what one textbook I teach from calls "frontiers of inclusion."  In both of these countries' colonies, Native Americans were made an integral part of society.  This is very much in contrast to the British colonies, in which Indians were pushed out and not made part of the society.  In both French and Spanish colonies, many whites intermarried with Indians and Indians came to form the backbones of the colonies.

One major difference between the two is that the Spanish colonies were much more intensively settled and a much more developed economy was created there than in French colonies.  French colonies were sparsely settled and were used mainly as ways to trade with the Indians for furs.  By contrast, Spanish colonies had big cities, large farms, mines, and other such things.

In both countries' colonies, then, Native Americans were very important.  The difference is that the Spanish colonies were much more densely populated and much more "civilized" than the French colonies.

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