The Indians called it kebec—(“the narrow place”). There a mighty river, compressed to a width of less than a mile, broke through the mountain barrier, added the weight of another stream flowing from the north, and, spreading out in its great bed, began a four-hundred-mile sweep to the sea. The French adopted the name.
The meeting of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers created a high, triangular promontory whose flat summit would one day be covered by a splendid city. A natural fortress on two sides, the bluff soared steeply upward to a height of 333 feet above the St. Lawrence and extended for miles along the river with few passages to the top. Along the St. Charles the grade was gentler but guarded at the bottom by open mud flats at low water.
Between the St. Lawrence and the cliff a narrow strip of flatland covered with walnut trees provided a landing at the point. From there a rough gully offered a steep—and sole—passageway to the top. Only from the west was the summit accessible once a way had been found to cross the river and scale the heights.
In July 1608 a French ship anchored below the cliff and sent an exploring party ashore. The leader was a forty-one-year-old Frenchman named Samuel de Champlain, taking his first steps along a path that would lead to much disappointment but also a place in history as the father of Canada.
By the 1620s Champlain had erected atop the cliffs a fort and, within its walls, a stone building that served both as quarters for the governor and as an administrative center of New France. The stockade was named Fort St. Louis but over many years came to be known simply as the “chateau” and la citadelle.
When the major European powers became embroiled in the complex struggle known as the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1948), Quebec fell to an English privateering squadron under Sir David Kirke, but was given back to France three years later.
Thereafter, for nearly sixty years, the colony enjoyed relative security while armies marched and countermarched across Europe and England was convulsed in civil war, revolution, and counterrevolution. The most noteworthy event in the history of New France was the arrival in 1672 of the greatest governor the colony ever had: Louis de Buade, the comte de Frontenac. Under Frontenac’s ironfisted leadership the settlement expanded, and France extended its control of the St. Lawrence Valley, the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi Valley.
Resumption of hostilities between France and England in 1689 caught Quebec’s defenses in poor shape. The town major hastily threw up earthworks and palisades while wily old Count Frontenac bluffed a colonial force under Sir William Phips long enough for reinforcements to arrive. After the failure of one assault, Phips gave up. Frontenac then built two powerful batteries to protect the Lower Town and replaced part of the temporary entrenchments west of the city with palisades and some stonework.
Not until the War of the Spanish Succession was work resumed on permanent fortifications. Peace having been declared in 1713, construction of a stone-revetted earth wall across the west end of the town was ordered stopped. From then on France put all its colonial eggs in the Louisbourg basket.
The fall of Louisbourg in 1745 threw a scare into Quebec, and feverish preparations began. The west wall, extending forty-eight hundred feet across the crest of the hill, about twenty-eight hundred feet from the point, was completed from Cape Diamond on the St. Lawrence to the Cöte du Palais above the St. Charles. When the long-expected attack finally came, more than a hundred cannons girded the town.
Near the end of June 1759 a British army under now Major General Wolfe, backed by a powerful naval squadron, laid siege to Quebec. After frustrating weeks Wolfe finally found a path to the top. During the night of September 12-13 he put his army ashore. The French commander, the marquis de Montcalm, came out to meet him. On September 13, 1759, the fate of New France was decided on an open meadow called the Plains of Abraham because it had once belonged to a man named Abraham Martin.
Since neither side had any artillery, the battle was short, sharp, and decisive, an infantry fire fight lasting only a few minutes. British musketry and discipline prevailed as the French were driven back into the city. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded. On September 18 Quebec surrendered.
The following spring a French force from Montreal besieged the British garrison in turn. Both sides marked time, waiting for relief from Europe. The British won the race, Quebec was relieved, and the French retreated. When Montreal fell in September, the Union Jack replaced the Fleur-de-Lis after a century and a half.
Quebec had still one more threat to withstand. In 1775 an American force under Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold arrived from the west. A poorly coordinated attack in a driving snowstorm on December 31 was decisively repulsed with Montgomery killed and Arnold wounded.
Quebec, today a city of nearly six hundred thousand that long ago spilled over its ramparts, prides itself on being the only walled city in Canada. Its walls, however, are of fairly recent origin; in the 1820s the British rebuilt most of the fortifications, including the present elaborate Citadel on Cape Diamond. Of the original Fort St. Louis nothing remains except a single stone bearing a Maltese cross and the date 1647. The rest of the old citadel is buried under the foundations of Quebec’s world famous landmark, the Hôtel Château-Frontenac.