Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570-1635) was a French geographer and explorer whose mission was to establish a joint French and Native American agricultural and fur-trading colony. In 21 voyages to New France he laid the foundations for modern Canada.

Samuel de Champlain was born at Brouage, a small Huguenot seaport town in Saintonge. He was probably born a Protestant, but sometime before 1603 he embraced the Roman Catholic faith. He had served against the Catholic League in the army of Henry IV until 1598. By 1601 he was indulging his love of travel and the sea and extending his expertise in navigation.

Early Travels

Champlain spent time during 1601-1603 on voyages as far as the West Indies, working out of Spain. In 1603 he went, probably as an observer, with François Gravédu Pont, whom Aymar de Chaste, holder of the trade monopoly for New France from King Henry IV, was sending on an expedition to the St. Lawrence.

Gravé du Pont's ships arrived at Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River on the St. Lawrence, some 120 miles below Quebec, on May 26, 1603. Champlain and Gravé du Pont reached Montreal that summer; by questioning natives through an interpreter, Champlain made astonishingly accurate guesses about the network of the Great Lakes, including Niagara Falls. Both men were back in France by the end of September.

Champlain, however, had acquired some interest and curiosity about Acadia (the area of Newfoundland and around the St. Lawrence), where he hoped to find mines and perhaps a more effective route into the interior. De Chaste died and was succeeded in the monopoly by Pierre du Gua de Monts. De Monts was interested in finding a site with a warmer climate and invited Champlain to accompany a new expedition as geographer. Early in May 1604 the expedition made landfall at Port Mouton on what is now the southeast coast of Nova Scotia, some 100 miles southwest of Halifax. Champlain was asked to choose a temporary base for settlement, and he explored the south coast of Nova Scotia; the Bay of Fundy, including the Annapolis Basin; and the St. John River. De Monts, however, chose an island in the estuary of the St. Croix, now called Dochet Island.

The winter of 1604/1605 was a bad one, the cold being exceptionally severe, and the island became surrounded by treacherous half-broken ice floes, making it more a prison than a place of safety. Scurvy was prevalent, but Champlain, as was to be usual with him, seems to have been hardy enough to have escaped it.

In the summer of 1605 De Monts and Champlain explored the American coast as far south as Cape Cod. Although one or two English explorers had preceded Champlain on this coast, he made such precise and excellent charts of it that he really deserves the title of the first cartographer of the New England coast. The winter of 1605/1606 was spent comparatively easily in the Annapolis Basin, in a fort protected from the savagely cold northwest winds by the long high ridge that lies between the basin and the Bay of Fundy. In 1606 new arrivals turned up, with whom Champlain again explored southward along the American coast, this time as far as Martha's Vineyard.

The winter of 1606/1607 was mild and easy, for the new arrivals, Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt, Marc Lescarbot, and others, had brought supplies and wine. In May 1607 the whole colony returned to France, stopping en route to explore the area of Canso at the eastern end of Nova Scotia.

In 1608 Champlain received his first official position. Up to now all his work had been as observer or geographer on an informal basis. Now he was made lieutenant to De Monts. This new expedition went once more to the St. Lawrence. Arriving in the St. Lawrence in June 1608, they began the construction of a fort at the site of what is now the Lower Town of Quebec City. In the summer of 1609 Champlain cemented the fateful alliance between the French and the Hurons by an expedition against the Iroquois, up the Richelieu River toward Lake Champlain. This alliance dated from about 1603; if the French wanted furs, they had to support the Native Americans who supplied the furs, or at least controlled access to them. Thus they were compelled to support the Hurons and Algonquins against their enemies.

Champlain was back in France over the winter 1609/1610, making a report to De Monts and the king. The story of Champlain's relations with a number of French backers is long and complicated. There were a variety of them and a good deal of quarreling between various groups seeking to get control of the fur trade. Champlain had less interest in money than in exploration and in the development of a colony. With immense patience and seemingly unwearying persistence, he traveled back and forth across the Atlantic for the next 2 decades. In all he made some 21 voyages across the Atlantic.


Travel to the Interior

In 1615 Champlain made his boldest and most spectacular venture into the interior of Canada. Bound, as he believed himself to be, by promises to the Hurons to help them against the Iroquois and driven by his own considerable curiosity, he began his epic voyage to the Huron country with two Frenchmen and Native American canoeists. He left Montreal in July 1615. Traveling up the Ottawa River and a tributary, he reached Lake Nipissing, continuing down the French River to the northeastern corner of Lake Huron. He was probably the first white man to see it. By August 1 he was in Huronia, a fertile, well-watered country, populated by Huron villages, between the foot of Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, some 40 miles southeast.

They met with the Huron raiding party at the main village of Cahiagué, on the north side of Lake Simcoe. On September 1 they canoed down the Trent River system to Lake Ontario, and then via the Oswego River to the Iroquois village at the eastern end of Lake Onondaga, not far from present-day Syracuse. Huron impatience and lack of discipline made a coherent assault on the Iroquois fort impossible. Champlain was wounded in the knee by an Iroquois arrow, and with support failing to come from the Susquehannas, the Huron allies, the raiders had to return home. Champlain, unable to walk, was at times carried like a baby on the back of a Huron.

Champlain was obliged to winter in the disagreeable habitat of a Huron village but continued his inveterate habit of travel and exploration, visiting other tribes that were neighbors of the Hurons. In addition, and perhaps more important, he provided a detailed and informed account of the Native American ways of living, one of the earliest and best available. He returned to France in 1616.

In 1619 enforced leisure owing to legal complications gave him opportunity to write accounts of his voyages, which he illustrated with sketches and maps. In 1620, as lieutenant to the viceroy of New France, the Duc de Montmorency, Champlain set out again for Canada, this time with his wife, some 30 years younger than he. In 1627 Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's chief minister, established the Company of One Hundred Associates, chartered to run the fur trade and organize settlement. Champlain was a member and became, in fact, the commander of the colony under Cardinal Richelieu.

All would have gone well but for the outbreak of war between England and France in 1627. A London company formed to get at the St. Lawrence trade financed, and Charles I of England commissioned, an expedition under David Kirke and his brothers to displace the French from Canada. They took four critically important French supply ships off Gaspé and thus almost stopped the life of the colony. By the summer of 1629, with no relief in sight, Champlain was compelled to surrender to the English and leave.

Not until 1632, with the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, did England agree to restore Quebec (and Port Royal in Acadia) to France. In 1633 Champlain returned to New France, again under the aegis of a revived Company of One Hundred Associates. He died at Quebec, the town he founded, on Christmas Day, 1635.

Champlain was physically a resilient, tough, capable man. He also had the moral essentials for his role, courage and indomitableness. He was good-natured and kind and a man of his word, which explains his considerable success with Native Americans. But he also could be ruthless. When, in 1608, there was a plot against his life by the locksmith Duval, Champlain formed a council that tried Duval and his accomplices. Duval was executed on the spot and his head stuck on a pike at the fort at Quebec.

Champlain was a man of large ideas; his aim was to establish a joint French and Native American agricultural and furtrading colony. He contemplated the Christianizing of Native Americans and their intermarriage with the French. He is, of all the explorers, the real founder of Canada, and he himself would have been pleased to be thought so. It was certainly what he set out to do.


Further Reading on Samuel de Champlain

H. P. Biggar edited Champlain's writings: The Works of Samuel de Champlain (6 vols., 1922-1936). Two lively and well-written biographies are Samuel Eliot Morison, Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France (1972), and Morris Bishop, Champlain: The Life of Fortitude (1948).