The first French contacts with Native populations in North America date back to the sixteenth century, when whalers, mariners and merchants made periodic forays into these territories by sea or overland, from Newfoundland in today’s Canada, to the Mississippi Delta in today’s Gulf of Mexico. Some rare accounts and descriptions of the barter and trade between these indirect agents of the French Crown and a variety of Native inhabitants have come down to us.
In the 17th century, objects arriving in Europe from these distant lands supplemented the earlier written testimonies. The objects are called "ethnographic" because they illustrate the ways of life and social practices of the communities that produced them. Many were diplomatic gifts offered by Native Americans to the King's representatives. Their considerable artistic and symbolic value testify to the colonial power of France in this territory, which was soon to be called "New France".
Initially a colonial trading post, administered by the companies involved in colonial trade, especially the fur trade, this vast territory twenty times the size of France became a permanent colony in 1663, governed by the Sovereign Council of New France created by Louis XIV. This arrangement persisted until Canada was conquered by Great Britain in 1760, bringing to an end the first French colonial Empire in North America. France's long colonial history in the region explains why no other country in the world has such ancient and diverse collections of objects from Native North America in its museums.
Birch bark boxes and snowshoes, "tourist" souvenirs from Quebec, a variety of weapons, moccasins, bags, clothes, and ornaments from indigenous North America, the East, the Great Plains and the Prairies of the United States and Canada (today preserved in the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, and in other French institutions). These objects recall France's bonds with its former allies, the Innu (Montagnais), Wendat (Huron), Illinois, and Choctaw peoples, as well as other groups such as the Apache and the Comanche. These unique expressions of life paths entered the natural history collections of the French Crown, aristocratic families, and ecclesiastic communities, a social microcosm which continued to collect specimens of exotic objects from newly explored continents.
The idea of creating a useful garden – the Jardin du Roi, or King's Garden - where botanical specimens with medicinal properties would be planted was not new, but it only came to fruition in 1626, under Louis XIII. In it were plants from all over the world, to enrich botanical knowledge, and to encourage cultivation, for example of the varieties of wood particularly useful in ship-building.
The King's Garden soon became a hub of research and innovation, to which specimens of flora, fauna and minerals (creations of nature or naturalia), flowed in from every region of the world. Naturalia were displayed in cabinets beside certain ethnographic objects categorized as artificialia (created by human hand using natural materials from distant countries).
During the Enlightenment period, natural history specimens and curiosities of all sorts were collected, inspired by the same type of systematic project as Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie. The abundant variety of the natural world was to be recorded, documented and collected, to be preserved in the King's Garden. The site of the Jardin des Plantes was enlarged in the mid-eighteenth century, to accommodate these archives of nature and the collections of curiosities.
The French Royal Academy of Sciences, founded in 1666, was another highly prestigious institution, closely linked to the King's Jardin des Plantes. It had several academic areas, such as mathematics (for astronomers, mathematicians and physicists), and medicine (for anatomists, botanists, zoologists, and chemists). Most of the scientists attached to the Jardin des Plantes were members. It advised the King on the sciences and their development, and it also trained young researchers, using the teaching collections it had assembled, which included ethnographic material received as donations from its members. For instance, the collections of mechanics, hydraulics, clock-making, and others, were assembled and donated by Louis-Léon Pajot, the Count of Ons-en-Bray, and Director General of the Postes et Relais de France, who was an Honorary Member of the Academy from 1716 to 1754, and whose collections contained some of the oldest ethnographic objects documented.
Native North American objects procured during the First French Colonial Empire also entered French cabinets of curiosities. These were added to the collections of physics, chemistry, natural history and a library, which had long been staple teaching aids in the curriculum of young princes from royal families and the aristocracy. Such educational collections could also be found in religious congregations, for instance the famous cabinet of curiosities assembled by Claude du Molinet, a regular canon and librarian of the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève from 1675 to 1687.