Daily Life in New France

The Militia

Militia Captains

Militia captains played a very important role in the life of the colony. They were not only military leaders in times of emergency and of calls to arms, but on numerous occasions acted as a link between the people and the central administration. For example, militia captains ensured that municipal regulations were enforced and kept an eye on public works projects, to name only these two modern equivalents of their main duties. Their commissions as captains were signed by the governor general, after consultations with local authorities and the officers of the district general staff. Militia captains were usually quite popular men of acknowledged bravery, because it was well known that the proud Canadians would only obey people whom they respected. Militia captains were leading figures in their communities, who knew how to read and write. They had to be fairly well off, because the position was not paid.

People wanted to become militia captains for the honour of the position and the considerable influence they could have over community affairs. At a time when people took public ceremony and individual prestige very seriously, the militia captain's place in church was right behind the seigneur. He received the consecrated bread immediately after the seigneur and before all other parishioners. Although only soldiers and gentlemen were allowed to wear swords in France and the colonies, this privilege was extended to militia captains, as well as the right to wear a gilt gorget. These were not frivolous details or objects of jest at the time. In 1752, Governor General Duquesne recognized only officers wearing swords and gorgets. In towns, some militia captains also carried spontoons, which were the half-pikes of officers. Like seigneurs and churchmen, militia captains did not have to pay royal taxes or billet soldiers in their homes. They were also relieved of the corvée, or statute labour by which inhabitants could be called upon for public works, although they were responsible for seeing that it was done.

These little privileges sometimes led to quarrels over the proper etiquette between the seigneur of an area, who was usually an officer of the Compagnies franches as well, and his distinguished local subject, who sometimes became all too important. However, this had few serious consequences. In some cases, militia captains served as intermediaries between the local people and their seigneurs, unless the militia captain and the seigneur were the same person, as happened more than two-thirds of the time, especially under Louis XIV. This proportion declined substantially in the early eighteenth century, when seigneurs increasingly became officers in the Compagnies franches de la Marine, freeing up militia captain positions. Whatever their civil status, the governor general and intendant expected them to be effective agents of the central authority.