What were the most important differences between the way the French and Spanish interacted with the indigenous populations living in New France and New Spain?  

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The French and Spanish contrasted significantly in their interactions with the indigenous populations of the Americas. The Spanish focused far more on conquest and settlement; they also imposed the encomienda system on indigenous populations to systematically extract labor from them. The French, on the other hand, were primarily interested in trade and tended to employ indigenous people as allies and trading partners.

One of the critical differences between the Spanish and French pictures of colonization was the scale of settlement and manpower involved. The Spanish (who conquered previously existing indigenous empires) controlled heavily urbanized and populated regions. To give an idea of the scale involved in Spanish colonization: as of 1692, Mexico City alone had an approximate population of 100,000 people; by contrast, New York City's population was only 4500 and Boston 6000 at the same time (see Elliott, p. 181). Under the encomienda system, indigenous people were used as a source of labor. Heavily exploited and subjected to the debilitating impact of disease, the death toll on these populations was immense.

Meanwhile, the French employed a vastly different colonization method and focused on trade rather than settlement. In fact, according to the Museum of New France, the French monarchy actively discouraged large-scale settlement, fearing that such a policy would weaken France and leave it vulnerable. Even as late as 1750, the French colonies in the Americas remained very sparsely populated:

in 1750 there were only 55,000 (do we mean European inhabitants??) inhabitants in Canada and not quite 9,000 in Louisiana. The city of Québec was home to only 8,000 people, Montréal to 5,000 and New Orleans to 3,200. (see external link to the Museum of New France: subsection titled "Conclusion").

The focus for the French, in sharp contrast to that of the Spanish, was largely oriented around trade. Thus, the French did not seek to subjugate the indigenous peoples, but rather to create military and trading alliances which adhered to indigenous traditions and understandings. That said, it should not be forgotten that the French also had enemies among indigenous peoples (for example, the Iroquois), and actively fought against them (See reference link to Museum of New France).

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