Little is known about Pierre Dugua’s earlier years. The French Huguenot (c.1560–1628) distinguished himself fighting in the cause of King Henri IV during the religious wars in France. With that reputation, he developed good connections at court and was able to secure a monopoly to the fur trade in the Acadia territory, a huge area from the 40th to the 46th parallels. The fur trade was lucrative because fur, especially beaver for beaver felt hats in Europe, was in great demand. In 1604, Dugua formed a company of merchants and led a group of French settlers, including Samuel Champlain, to North America. They settled on Saint Croix Island with the intention of claiming the area for France, locating the illusive trade route to China, searching for mineral wealth like copper, and profiting from trade in the area. They were also charged with converting the First Peoples to Christianity.
Saint Croix Island, in the Saint Croix River on the present boundary between the United States and Canada, seemed like the perfect location to set up a trading settlement. Its location near the confluence of two rivers and a bay made for easy trade with the First Peoples and also made it easy to defend against attacks from competing European powers. The possibilities were great. However, the isolated island proved to be an unfortunate choice. Since Saint Croix Island and France are on about the same latitude, they assumed the weather would be comparable. The winter of 1604–1605, however, was one of the coldest on record, and the settlers were unprepared for its brutality. Dangerous ice floes prevented the men from reaching the mainland where fresh water and game were available. Thirty-five of the 79 settlers died, many from scurvy as well as malnutrition and exposure. In the summer of 1605 the colony was moved across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia).
There were high hopes for the new colony as a trading post and center of settlement along the coast, but the desire of individual Europeans to trade for furs was great. Thus, support in France for Dugua’s monopoly was dwindling. In addition, the rugged, forested inlets of the Nova Scotia peninsula, the heavy forests of the St. John River, and the many bays and beaches of Cape Breton and Prince Edward islands made it impossible to enforce the monopoly on the fur trade already entrenched in these locations.
As soon as work was underway on the new settlement at Port Royal, Dugua—not giving up on his desire for colonization and exploration in New France—sailed back to France to seek ways to defend his monopoly and report his successes to the king. Samuel Champlain remained at Port Royal to do further exploration. For a short period (1607–1608), Dugua’s monopoly was restored, allowing further development of the trading post in Tadoussac and the settlement of Quebec, which would serve as Champlain’s trading post and base for further exploration toward the west. Pierre Dugua’s commitment and willingness to sacrifice personal gain allowed continued exploration and settlement in New France. His energetic direction, support, and encouragement of exploration subsequently reported in the writings of Champlain and Marc Lescarbot represent large contributions on his part.
Saint Croix Island International Historic Site in Calais, Maine, commemorates the original 1604 French settlement. Although short-lived, the Saint Croix settlement predated the British colony of Jamestown by three years. Both the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada each administer a site of that same name along the Saint Croix River and work together to interpret the first French settlement in northern North America—and the first in the French region known then as Acadie.