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Franco-American History: Earthquake Hits New France- February 1663

On Monday, the 5th of February, 1663[1], at about five o’clock in the evening, an earthquake[2] that reportedly lasted for as long as a half hour shook New France.

In Québec, Marie de l’Incarnation wrote about hearing a loud noise and a “terrible buzzing sound” coming from far away. She described it as the sound of many coaches rushing recklessly over cobblestones. Almost as soon as the people of Québec heard the sound in the air, they heard it coming from the ground as well. Then, the earth began to move. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon.

Rafters snapped and houses collapsed. Fires ensued. Church bells rang and rang in what seemed an eerily spontaneous response as the earth rose and then collapsed upon itself. Some habitants[3] knelt in the snow crying for mercy while others passed the rest of the night in prayer. After the quake, the few churches in the colony were filled with the faithful seeking consolation—and absolution. It was said afterwards that many colonists throughout New France abjured evil and sought to live holier lives. Many believed that God was punishing them for their contraband sale of alcohol to the Indians, and the Jesuits appeared to be vindicated for their condemnation of this practice.

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“God is seeming to want to get even for the slights against him,” the Jesuit Relations reported.

At Trois-Rivières, trees slid into the Saint-Maurice, and entire banks disappeared, flowing into the Saint-Laurent where they were said to have interfered with the current of the great fleuve for as long as three months.

In Montréal, the earthquake was less violent than it had been down river. But even there, spectators wrote that it shook houses “as a wind shakes a tree branch.” People fled their houses, leaving fires unattended in open hearths, creating a great risk of a conflagration. Even the sick fled the Hotel-Dieu. Madame D’Ailleboust, wife of the ex-governor[4] and a woman known for her piety[5], was thrown out of her bed, half-clothed. Hurriedly followed by her woman servant carrying Madame’s skirt, she rushed through the cold night to the Abbé Souart, pastor of Montréal, shouting, “Confession, mon père. Confession.”

The earthquake was also frightening to the Indians who lived in winter long houses on the outskirts of the French settlements. Converts crowded into the French churches while those who held to traditional beliefs professed the ancestors were speaking angrily because the land was being lost to the French. The old people, they said, were demanding their territory back. Frightened, some traditionalists shot bullets into the air to ward off evil spirits.

There were many subsequent earthquakes that year. While less severe and frequent than the Februrary 5 quake, they continued to alarm the colonists, and it was not until August that they stopped.

[1] The information about the erthquake derives largely from Gustave Lanctot in Historie du Canada/Des Origines au régime royal

[2] Later estimated as between 7.5 and 8 on the Richter Scale. The epicenter was at La Malbaie, about 100 miles down the Saint-Lawrent from Québec. Much of the information in this section is from the journals and letters of Marie de l’Incarnation. The earthquake was felt strongly as far away as New England where, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the tops of chimneys were broken on houses and dishes were thrown from shelves.

[3] Settlers.

[4] D’Ailleboust had served both as interim governor of Montréal on several occasions when Maisonneuve had had to absent himself.

[5] It was said that she and her husband had taken a vow of celibacy on their wedding day.

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