Guest Post: Anguille Sous Roche: The Slippery History of the Eel in New France (Part 2)

The Historical Cooking Project is proud to publish a three part guest series about the significance of the eel to the history of New France. This is part 2.

Attempting Growth
As the seventeenth century unfolded, the eel was everywhere in New France – and nowhere in its historiography. While some historians, anthropologists, and biologists had learnt about the significance of the eel to indigenous populations from the Jesuit Relations and other well-read documents, their narratives had hardly ever gone beyond the ethnographically anecdotal. However, the persistence of the eel through time, and its pervasiveness in the more established settler society of New France, hasn’t yet been sniggled out of its hiding hole.
“There's nothing that the Council of Quebec desires more, than that this Fishery should be equally plentiful in all years,” claimed a young Baron de Lahontan in 1684.[i] By the late 17th century, the eel was no longer simply a winter survival food for most inhabitants of New France. Markets had grown and crashed, but through it all, the eel had remained plentiful. It did not take long for the colonists to learn how to take advantage of this abundance around Québec. In 1660, the Jesuit Fathers wrote that “often one has fishing in plenty, before his own door, chiefly of eels, which are very excellent in this country. […] This eel fishing is so productive that many a man will catch for his portion forty, fifty, sixty, and seventy thousand. And the great advantage is that we have found means of salting them conveniently, and thus preserving them untainted.”[ii] As the colony developed along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, eel fishing was at the center of the settlers’ preoccupations, for seasoned veterans and off the boat émigrés alike. Eel fishing allowed various colonists to persevere on lands that had not been fully cleared yet, and its abundance, ease of access, and ease of preservation made it an “excellent food for working people,” as Pierre Boucher enthused.[iii]
Colonial elites were not ready to see all these potential profits be smoked and salted away, however. As the Company of New France started slowly granting new plots of land to enterprising settlers and would-be seigneurs, it also enforced an annual rent of a tenth of the fisheries’ catch. The late nineteenth century historian Joseph-Edmond Roy, in his detailed history of the Seigneurie de Lauzon, recounts how this process took place on Québec’s Côte-du-Sud. New settlers, wishing to exploit their newly granted land on the seigneurie, had to forcefully expel eel fishermen from the city who had made use of the shores for over forty years. Following “a big trial,” according to Roy, it was decided that the eel fishermen would have to cede their fisheries to the grantees who would clear the land.[iv] Like virtually everyone else’s titles in Lauzon, the Jesuits’ concession also included an eel-fishery, on top of 44 arpents of farmlands cultivated by some Hurons.[v] Of course, the various succeeding seigneurs in Lauzon were more than happy to maintain their “fishing rights” on a tenth of the entire catch of their censitaires. For a long time, in fact, this fishing right constituted one of the very few sources of revenue for the colonial elite. So much so that in 1658 Governor D’Argenson protested: “The costs of living here are horrible.”[vi] A significant part of his scanty income was provided from an eel fishery, but various people had started to encroach on it, much to his dismay.[vii] A few years later, D’Argenson had left the colony for good.
Court records and other documents from the period give us a relatively clear idea of the extent of the eel fisheries across the seigneuries, of the various ways in which settlers sought to profit from them, and of the conflicts that arose over the resource. Following the demise of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France in 1663, the Conseil Souverain, appointed by Louis XIV, became the highest political institution of the colony. It also served as the colony’s highest court. Over the next few years, the Conseil heard several cases involving the eel fisheries. More often than not, these cases had to do with debt repayment, or failure thereof. While payments of fishing rights (whether to the seigneur or to a fellow sub-renting censitaire) dominate, we can also see that fishing equipment such as weirs, nets, or barques was also rented out among settlers.[viii] Failure to repay debts led to sentences and fines such as a certain amount of barrels of salted eels. Other times, offenders such as thieves were also forced to pay their fines in eels.[ix] Eels are also especially frequently found in notary records and wills, constituting well over half of the fish mentions.[x] Eel barrels seem to have become a kind of currency in areas where eel fishing was especially intensive. In Kamouraska in the early 18th century, for example, there is extensive evidence that eels were used as money to pay tithing, show generosity to the poor in the parish, or pay salaries to workers.[xi]
As much as some settlers seemed to be able to profit a little bit from the hierarchical structures of the eel fisheries, it is nonetheless somewhat unclear what happened to the fish itself once it was caught, salted, and barrelled. While it is obvious that a certain quantity of eels caught, if not the majority of it, was destined for personal consumption, eels were certainly also sold in towns and cities too. In New France, markets were tightly regulated and policed, with one exception: the eel commerce.[xii] Eels alone could be sold directly on the shoreline. The reason is unclear however. Furthermore, several documents attest to eels being recurrently shipped and delivered to urban centers like Montréal and Québec. At various points, these shipments could fail either given the unacceptable laziness of one’s employee or from Iroquois attacks.[xiii]
Several contemporaneous sources attest to the eel’s delicious taste. Simon Denys, in 1651, wrote the following: “This fish [the eel], in this country, takes the place of beef and we eat it yearlong without repugnance. It is excellent, fresh or salted. It needs no butter and gives abundant fat useful in preparing delicious sauces of which we do not tire. Several people prefer the eel over the bird meat that we kill in great numbers around here.”[xiv] Lahontan echoed the same saucy sentiments: “and indeed they give an admirable relish in all sauces.”[xv] Louis Nicolas wanted to inspire “curious people” to travel to the gates of Quebec, “where for three months they [would] be able to feast on eels prepared in a hundred ways.”[xvi] Pierre Boucher and the Jesuit Fathers even go so far as to argue that they taste better than the ones in France, perhaps owing to the “vast waters of our River St. Lawrence” over the muddy rivers of France.[xvii] Jesuit Father Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix is more cautious, saying that they have a “wild taste, to which we don’t get used easily.” “But”, he claims, “it might be the fault of our cooks.”[xviii] Only the Chevalier de Baugy is outright disdainful: “For fish, we won’t run out – but except the species we don’t eat in France, it is not good. There is here such a great quantity of eels that we feed them to the pigs; it smells a lot like oil and it is in no way worth the eel of France.”[xix]
Eels, and fish more generally, played an important role in the Catholic culture of New France. With one or two weekly Fast Days where meat was forbidden, and with Lent coming around the end of the winter, settlers needed to make sure they had plenty of fish in store. The eel’s high fat content came in especially handy. As Charlevoix says, “we would be much embarrassed during Lent were it not for cod and eels. Butter and fresh eggs are out of the question.”[xx] Lent was also a source of concern for the proselytizing Jesuits. Fathers had expressed concerns as to whether it would be wise for seemingly underfed Natives to observe Lent, discard what little meat they had, and eat only eels.[xxi] Furthermore, eels were heavily on the menu for sick people in hospitals, representing the cheapest food item/100 calories to survive on in the cold climate of New France.[xxii]  
Jesuit missions and other religious institutions also seem to have been heavily involved in the commercialization of eels. In 1646, at the mission of Sillery, the Jesuits Journals report that “they caught, this year, forty thousand eels, most of which were sold at half an écu the hundred.”[xxiii] And when a few years later their neighbours at Sillery, including among them Governor D’Ailleboust, violently encroached on their and the Innu’s eel fisheries, the Jesuits did not hesitate to go over the Governor’s head and plead to the Company and the Regent.[xxiv] In discourse, the goal was to protect the Innu right to ancestral territories, and while we do not have to necessarily doubt the Jesuits’ sincerity, the most direct result was that the Jesuits managed to keep exploiting the valuable eel fishery at Sillery.[xxv] By 1701, while there were no more Innu at Sillery, the Jesuits could still make a modest 250 livres from the Sillery seigneurie, which included its eel fisheries.[xxvi] According to Yvon Desloges, the archives of several other religious institutions, such as various Seminaries and Hospitals, also prove that many religious congregations across New France were involved in the eel trade to some degree.[xxvii]
All these factors seem to have conspired to make the eel an essential staple of New France’s diet and internal trade economy. And yet, traces of it are hard to find in modern historiography. Was the eel a victim of its own abundance? My hypothesis is that, given the fish’s obvious abundance and easy accessibility to everyone on the St. Lawrence, its commerce inside the colony never really took off, and remained mere supplement revenue. Given its cheap price, the eel was confined to being a poor person’s food. In 1706, the noble Denis-Joseph Ruette d’Auteuil argued that eels were a “vulgar food,” and that “those who eat like this do so in order to avoid going into debt.”[xxviii]
With a struggling internal market for eels, some individuals began to look at the possibilities for export. The King appointed Jean Talon as the first intendant of the colony in 1665 with the explicit mission of improving agriculture and trade through population growth. Two years later, Talon submitted a plan to France that would improve the economy. As part of the plan, Talon would send eels to islands in the Antilles.[xxix] His superior, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, confidently agreed with Talon, claiming that eels, cod, and salmon are extremely valuable commodities on those islands, but nonetheless warning that the New French settlers would need to build ships in order to capitalize on that market.[xxx] Talon seems to have made his intentions clear to his inhabitants: the Jesuit Relation of 1666-1667 indeed shows that Talon shipped eels to the Antilles.[xxxi] Again, in 1670, during his second tenure, Talon described having sent two ships with an eel cargo to some rarely visited islands of the Caribbeans[xxxii]. Finally, after his career in New France had ended, Talon boasted that “the opening of the commerce of Canada with the Antilles is no longer seen as a difficult thing.” “It was done by me,” he then declared.[xxxiii] As he points out yet again, eels were an important part of that commerce. Later, in 1709, but on the same note still, co-intendants Raudot asserted to their superior, Pontchartrain, that in order to “look towards the future” and move beyond the fur trade as the principal economic staple, New France should look into exporting eels, among other primary resources.[xxxiv]
As a commodity for export, eels required one thing: cheap salt. In 1672, Governor Frontenac wrote to the Minister Colbert in part to request that more salt be sent to New France.[xxxv] To Frontenac, it was essential to the colony that it constantly had enough salt for at least a year given the eel and cod fisheries. Twenty years later, Frontenac admitted that he was doing everything in his power to incite people to go fish for cod, which was the most profitable. Nevertheless, according to Frontenac, eels remained “the manna of the all the inhabitants,” and therefore salt should still be sent in quantities as high as possible in order to keep prices low.[xxxvi] For example, in 1705, the Sieurs Vaudreuil, Raudot, and Beauharnois “could not exaggerate the need that people have for salt in this country.”[xxxvii] The year prior, the entire eel fishery had been lost due to the lack of salt. Poor people, as they claim in a different document, “lived only off of salted pork and salted eels.”[xxxviii] The Codex Canadensis even tells of fishermen reluctantly throwing away eels for lack of it.[xxxix] To commercialize the eel through foreign trade, New France would indeed need salt.
Later in the 18th century, travelers Louis Franquet and Bacqueville de la Potherie both claimed that eels were being sent to the Antilles, to Europe, and to Louisbourg.[xl] Further evidence of successful export commerce is otherwise thin over the next decades. The fisheries themselves don’t slow down for the local inhabitants, but the resource doesn’t seem to have ever developed into a full-fledged export commodity, regardless of individuals’ efforts to that end. One can speculate why that is the case. Compared to cod, the eel fisheries never found a regular place inside the Atlantic triangular trade. Cod, for example, managed to garner significant demand from European customers and from slave owners in the Antilles.[xli] The eel, it seems, did not. As an eminently fatty food, eels have a tendency to quite literally put people to sleep – not the most desirable trait for slave diets. Did the Antillean slave owners realize that?
Perhaps, instead, the eel fisheries could never quite organize as an export commodity for a different reason. Given the resource’s easy exploitation, no large amounts of capital were ever needed to manage it. While this fact could initially suggest an easier export process and a wider profit margin, it might have in fact hindered the industry in the long run. To export any given product, a colony needs a high level of centralized control for coordinated shipments. Talon knew this – and attempted to accomplish it. Had the eel been slightly harder to catch, or slightly further away – “out of our reach” as Lejeune had said of the cod back in 1636 – might its fate have been a little different?[xlii]

Samuel Mongeau is a Master's student in the Department of History at McGill University. His research interests meet at the intersection of Early (North) American History, Environmental History, and Indigenous History. He spends his spare time pulling hooks out of his thumb at the river's edge or twisting his ankle in the trailhead parking lot.


[i] Baron de Lahontan, New Voyages to North America. 2 volumes (London: H. Bonwicke, 1703), 17-18.
[ii] “Relation of 1659-1660,” in JR 45: 191.
[iii] Boucher, Histoire Véritable, 16.
[iv] Roy, Seigneurie de Lauzon, 1:177.
[v] “Declaration of The Lands Which The Jesuit Fathers possess in the country of New France, 1663” in JR 47: 259; “Inventaire des documents concernant l’Église du Canada,” in Rapport de l’Archiviste de la Province de Québec. Québec: Imprimeur de sa Majesté le Roi, 1920-1975 [Hereafter RAPQ], 1939-1940: 161.
[vi] Francis Parkman, The Old Regime in Canada, 2 volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1906), 1:177.
[vii] Parkman, The Old Regime in Canada, 1: 177.
[viii] Jugements Et Délibérations Du Conseil Souverain De La Nouvelle-France, 6 volumes (Québec: Imprimerie A. Coté, 1885), 1: 15, 22, 26, 46, 48, 49, 88, 91, 163, 165, 226, 255, 263, 286, 416, 725, 1013; 2: 350, 734, 1000; 3: 184, 199, 210, 276, 400, 416, 565, 756; 4: 130, 145, 324; 5: 485.
[ix] Jugements Et Délibérations Du Conseil Souverain De La Nouvelle-France, 1: 725.
[x] Bernard Audet, Se Nourrir au Quotidien en Nouvelle-France (Sainte-Foy: Les Éditions GID, 2001), 136.
[xi] Martin, L’Anguille, 35-37.
[xii] John Dickinson, “Réflexion sur la Police en Nouvelle-France” McGill Law Journal 32 (1987): 504.
[xiii] Journal of the Jesuit Fathers in the year 1650, JR 35: 57; Jugements Et Délibérations Du Conseil Souverain De La Nouvelle-France, 2: 734.
[xiv] Lucien Campeau, “Un témoignagne inédit de 1651 sur la Nouvelle-France” Revue d’Histoire de l’Amérique française 23 (1970): 605. Translation mine.
[xv] Lahontan, New Voyages, 1: 18.
[xvi] François-Marc Gagnon, ed., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2011), 375.
[xvii] Boucher, Histoire Véritable, 16; JR 40: 215; JR45: 191.
[xviii] Charlevoix, Histoire et Description Générale de la Nouvelle-France, 3: 171. Translation mine.
[xix] Louis Henri De Baugy, Journal d’une Expédition contre les Iroquois en 1687 (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1883), 145-146. Translation mine.
[xx] Charlevoix, Histoire et Description Générale de la Nouvelle-France, 3: 166. Translation mine.
[xxi] “Relation of 1639,” in JR 16: 77.
[xxii] François Rousseau, L’Oeuvre de Chère en Nouvelle-France: Le Régime des Malades à l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec (Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1983), 196-198.
[xxiii] “Journal of the Jesuit Fathers in the year 1646,” in JR 28: 237.
[xxiv] Lucien Campeau, ed., Monumenta Novae Franciae, 9 volumes (Vols.1-3, Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval. Vols. 4-9, Montréal: Bellarmin, 1967-2003), 7: 681-688.
[xxv] Allan Greer, Property and Dispossession, Unpublished draft.
[xxvi] “Revenues of the Jesuits in Canada, 1701,” in JR 65: 179.
[xxvii] Desloges, À Table, 79.
[xxviii] “Conclusions de M. D’Auteuil, Procureur Général de la Nouvelle-France, sur les remarques des sieurs Boullard et Dufournel au sujet des dimes (20 janvier 1706),” in RAPQ, 1922-1923: 27. Translation mine.
[xxix] “Lettre de Talon au Ministre Colbert (27 octobre 1667),” in RAPQ, 1930-1931: 82.
[xxx] “Lettre du Ministre Colbert à Talon (20 octobre 1668),” in RAPQ, 1930-1931: 96.
[xxxi] “Relation of 1666-1667,” in JR 50: 239.
[xxxii] “Mémoire de Talon sur le Canada au Ministre Colbert (10 novembre 1670),” in RAPQ, 1930-1931: 136.
[xxxiii] “Mémoire de Talon sur le Canada (1673),” in RAPQ, 1930-1931: 176. Translation mine.
[xxxiv] “M. Raudot fils, à M. le comte Jérôme de Pontchartrain (1 novembre 1709),” in RAPQ, 1940-1941: 420. Translation mine.
[xxxv] “Lettre du Gouverneur de Frontenac au Ministre (2 novembre 1672),” in RAPQ, 1926-1927: 16.
[xxxvi] “Lettre du Gouverneur de Frontenac et de l’Intendant Bochart Champigny au Ministre (15 septembre 1692),” RAPQ, 1927-1928: 111.
[xxxvii] “MM. de Vaudreuil, de Beauharnois et Raudot au Ministre (19 octobre 1705),” in RAPQ, 1938-1939: 81-82.
[xxxviii] “MM. de Vaudreuil et Raudot au Ministre (15 novembre 1707),” in RAPQ, 1939-1940: 403.
[xxxix] François-Marc Gagnon, ed., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas, 390.
[xl] Potherie, Histoire, 1: 283; Louis Franquet, Voyages et Mémoires sur le Canada (1752) (Québec: Imprimerie Générale A. Côté et Cie, 1889), 8-9.
[xli] Jean-François Brière, La Pêche Française en Amérique du Nord au XVIIIe Siècle (Montréal: Éditions Fides, 1990), 4-5.
[xlii] “Relation of 1636,” in JR 9: 169.