The French colonization of the Americas began in the 16th century, and continued on into the following centuries as France established a colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere. France founded colonies in much of eastern North America, on a number of Caribbean islands, and in South America. Most colonies were developed to export products such as fish, sugar, and furs. As they colonized the New World, the French established forts and settlements that would become such cities as Quebec and Montreal in Canada; Detroit, Green Bay, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Mobile, Biloxi, Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the United States; and Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haïtien (founded as Cap-Français) in Haiti, Cayenne in French Guiana and São Luís (founded as Saint Louis) in Brazil.
The French first came to the New World as explorers, seeking a route to the Pacific Ocean and wealth. Major French exploration of North America began under the rule of Francis I, King of France. In 1524, Francis sent Italian-born Giovanni da Verrazano to explore the region between Florida and Newfoundland for a route to the Pacific Ocean. Verrazzano gave the names Francesca and Nova Gallia to that land between New Spain and English Newfoundland, thus promoting French interests.
In 1534, Francis I of France sent Jacques Cartier on the first of three voyages to explore the coast of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River. He founded New France by planting a cross on the shore of the Gaspé Peninsula. The French subsequently tried to establish several colonies throughout North America that failed, due to weather, disease, or conflict with other European powers. Cartier attempted to create the first permanent European settlement in North America at Cap-Rouge (Quebec City) in 1541 with 400 settlers but the settlement was abandoned the next year after bad weather and first nations attacks. A small group of French troops were left on Parris Island, South Carolina in 1562 to build Charlesfort, but left after a year when they were not resupplied by France. Fort Caroline established in present-day Jacksonville, Florida in 1564, lasted only a year before being destroyed by the Spanish from St. Augustine. An attempt to settle convicts on Sable Island off Nova Scotia in 1598 failed after a short time. In 1599, a sixteen-person trading post was established in Tadoussac (in present-day Quebec), of which only five men survived the first winter. In 1604, Saint Croix Island in Acadia was the site of a short-lived French colony, much plagued by illness, perhaps scurvy. The following year the settlement was moved to Port Royal. Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec (1608) and Montreal (1611) and explored the Great Lakes. In 1634, Jean Nicolet founded La Baye des Puants (present-day Green Bay), which is one of the oldest permanent European settlements in America. Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette founded Sault Ste. Marie (1668) and St. Ignace (1671) and explored the Mississippi River. At the end of the 17th century, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle established a network of forts going from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River. Fort Saint Louis was established in Texas in 1685, but was gone by 1688. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701 and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718. Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville founded Baton Rouge in 1719.
The French were eager to explore North America but New France remained largely unpopulated. Due to the lack of women, intermarriages between French and Indians were frequent, giving rise to the Métis people and to a usually peaceful existence between both groups. To boost the French population, Cardinal Richelieu issued an act declaring that Indians converted to Catholicism were considered as "natural Frenchmen" by the Ordonnance of 1627:
"The descendants of the French who are accustomed to this country [New France], together with all the Indians who will be brought to the knowledge of the faith and will profess it, shall be deemed and renowned natural Frenchmen, and as such may come to live in France when they want, and acquire, donate, and succeed and accept donations and legacies, just as true French subjects, without being required to take no letters of declaration of naturalization."
Louis XIV also tried to increased the population by sending approximately 800 young women nicknamed the "King's Daughters". However, the low density of population in New France remained a very persistent problem. At the beginning of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the British population in North America outnumbered the French 20 to 1. France fought a total of six colonial wars in North America (see the four French and Indian Wars as well as Father Rale's War and Father Le Loutre's War).
The last French and Indian War resulted in the dissolution of New France with Canada going to Britain and Lousiana going to Spain. Only the islands of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon remained in French hands until today. In 1802 Spain returned Louisiana to France, but Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1804.