Daily Life in New France


To the Sound of the Drummer's Beat

Drummer of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, around 1740

Caption: Drummer of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, around 1740

Military music now survives largely as entertainment, and we have completely forgotten that the life of garrison towns used to be regulated by the drummer's beat from morning till night. Rattling drums, set off by the high-pitched sound of the fife, formed the familiar backdrop of daily life, somewhat like pealing church bells in another era.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, the garrison regulations for European fortresses were adopted in the colonies. Montreal, Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Louisbourg were fortified towns governed by general staffs. The Relations des Jésuites of 1636 reported that Quebec City operated much like a fortress in France. "La Diane awakens us every morning," it said. This was the name given to the first drum roll of the day, (called the "reveille" in English) when the drummer on duty with the guard played from the ramparts for about 15 minutes just as the day dawned. The reasons why this drum roll was called La Diane in French are not known. It summoned the garrison and the general population to arise and begin the day's activities. Similarly, La Retraite (the "tattoo" in English) was sounded as the sun set to warn the local people that the city gates were about to close for the night. The drummer then sounded L'Ordre to announce that they had been closed.

The day was punctuated with numerous other drum rolls as well. L'Assemblée was one of those often heard within the town walls, summoning soldiers to join their corps for exercises or inspections on the parade grounds.

La Garde meant that enemy forces had been sighted. Less alarming but still very useful was Le Ban, announcing to the public the reading of rules and regulations or perhaps even an auction sale after a death. Drummers also accompanied celebrations. For instance, drums were heard during the festivities organized in Quebec City on October 29, 1690 when captured English flags were carried to the church.

Although drums were the official instrument of the army, all this should not make us forget that other instruments were played as well. Records after 1660 mention soldiers playing drums and flutes on the day of Epiphany. Like their counterparts in the motherland, soldiers in New France played the fife and occasionally the oboe as well.

Additional Images

Drummer of the Compagnies franches de la Marine of Canada, between 1701 and 1716