Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635), French explorer, known as the father of New France, the French colonial empire in North America. He established a trading post, which eventually became the city of Québec, in 1608 at the first narrows of the St. Lawrence River and governed it until his death.
Champlain was born in Brouage, France, but little is known of his early years. His parents may have been members of the lower nobility. Like his father before him, he served as a naval captain. He thus acquired the training that made him a very competent navigator and geographer, and an excellent cartographer.
|III||FIRST VISIT TO NORTH AMERICA|
In 1603 Champlain made his first visit to North America as a royal geographer on a fur trading expedition. The expedition sailed to Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River, which had long been a trading center for the indigenous peoples living along the St. Lawrence. Here the French were accustomed to meeting the Montagnais people bringing furs to trade for French cloth and metal wares.
Champlain made good use of his time there. He ventured far up the Saguenay, up the St. Lawrence River to Montréal Island, and up the river that would be named the Richelieu. He gathered information from the Montagnais on the geography of the northeastern section of the continent. He used this information to draw a remarkably accurate map showing a large bay to the north (Hudson Bay) and water to the west, which he later discovered was the Great Lakes. This western body of water was so large that he believed it must connect with the Pacific Ocean, thus forming the fabled Northwest Passage through the continent. Many 17th-century explorers were searching for that passage, believing it would provide an easy water route to the wealth of China.
During Champlain’s first visit to North America, he had learned about a pleasant land to the south, with a mild winter climate. He had also been shown a metal, which he thought might be silver. This southern area became Champlain’s destination on his second trip, in 1604, which was undertaken to establish a settlement in this region. The French named the area Acadie (in English, Acadia). A permanent settlement was required in exchange for a commission to govern Acadia that French explorer Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Monts had obtained.
Champlain explored the Atlantic Coast on the north side of the Bay of Fundy, sighting a river flowing from the north that he named the Saint-Jean (now the Saint John River). He learned from the area’s inhabitants, the Maliseet, that the river was their route to the St. Lawrence. Traveling west along the coast, Champlain chose a site on the Saint Croix River for the permanent settlement, but 35 of the 79 men who stayed there during the winter of 1604 to 1605 died of scurvy. The base was then moved, in the spring of 1605, to the south side of the Bay of Fundy and named Port Royal. Champlain remained there for three years, during which he charted the coast as far south as Cape Cod.
In 1607 De Monts lost his commission to govern Acadia. The following year he decided to establish a trading post far up the St. Lawrence, at a point where it narrows to less than a mile wide. There his traders could greet indigenous people bringing furs from the west and take away business that would otherwise go to Tadoussac. This trading post, established by Champlain on July 3, 1608, became Québec. Scurvy again took its toll, claiming 16 of the 25 men; but they were replaced, and Québec survived. This was the first permanent white settlement in the region called Canada, and today it is the oldest city in the western hemisphere north of Saint Augustine, Florida. (Port Royal remained a small town.)
Champlain was given the title of lieutenant of the viceroy of New France in 1612. From this point on, Champlain’s aims in life were to explore and map the continent, to find a water route to the Pacific, and to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity. Such aims were costly, and the money could come only from the fur trade. He therefore made a commercial alliance with the northern and western nations, the Montagnais, Algonquin, and Huron.
The alliance included military aid. In June 1609 Champlain and two of his men joined these nations when they invaded the hunting grounds of a longtime enemy, the Iroquois confederacy. They met 200 Iroquois by the lake now known as Lake Champlain. This marked the beginning of warfare between the French and the Iroquois that lasted off and on for 90 years and almost destroyed the colony.
|VI||FURTHER TRAVELS AND EXPLORATIONS|
For most of the remainder of Champlain’s life, he would spend a few months of the year at Québec, then go to France to secure support. He spent far more time in France, and crossing the ocean, than he did in Québec. When he returned to Québec, he spent most of his time prodding lazy workers to do building and repairing they had neglected. He also renewed alliances with his indigenous allies, resolving their complaints.
In 1613 Champlain explored the Ottawa, the river that would become the main highway to the west, as far as Allumette Island. He then returned to France and persuaded the Récollet order of Roman Catholic priests to send four missionaries to Canada. Two years went by before he returned with the Récollets. He then set out on a major voyage of discovery to the country of the Huron, the territory between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario.
On this journey Champlain and his party explored Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario. He spent the winter of 1615 in the Huron country, where he learned much about the land and its inhabitants. He was particularly interested in knowledge of the area farther west, beyond Lake Huron. He learned that this area contained other vast lakes, but the Huron would not allow him to go there. They were at war with the nations to the west and were afraid that the French might establish relations with their enemies. Thus Champlain had to rely on scanty information for the map that he eventually produced of the region. As a result, the map was flawed, but his account of his stay with the Huron is a mine of information about these people, their customs and religion, and the geography of the country.
|VII||THE STRUGGLE FOR FINANCING|
In 1610, while in France, Champlain was married to Hélène Boullé. It appears to have been a marriage of convenience: he was then in his forties, and she was 12 years old. She brought a handsome dowry of 6000 livres, money that he urgently needed to keep the Québec post in operation. Hélène accompanied Champlain to Québec in 1620 and stayed there with him for four years. She then went back to France with him and never returned.
From 1616 to 1620 Champlain spent most of each year in France, with brief summer visits to Québec. In France he had to struggle to keep the Canadian enterprise alive, raise capital, and enlist workers. He also had to fight to keep his command over Québec. In 1618 he presented reports on the future of the French colonies in America to the king and to the French Chamber of Commerce.
In these reports he proposed that 300 settler families and 15 Récollets be established at Québec, with 300 soldiers to protect them. He claimed that this would give France the ability to control the interior of the continent and to convert the pagans to Christianity. Wealth would pour into France from the land’s resources of fish, timber, copper, iron, silver, and precious stones. However, he believed that the major benefit would be the revenue from the short water route to the western ocean and China, once this route was discovered. Then all the maritime nations of Europe would have to use it and pay whatever tolls France chose to levy.
Champlain’s struggles to maintain the infant colony took a turn for the better in 1627 when the king’s first minister, Cardinal Richelieu, took charge of the overseas colonies. He founded the Company of One Hundred Associates and required each associate to invest a large sum of money. Champlain became one of the associates and remained in charge of New France.
But two years later disaster struck. Anglo-Scots privateers, the Kirke brothers, drew up their ships at Québec in 1629 and demanded its surrender. Champlain had to comply because he did not have the manpower to resist: in all of New France—Canada and Acadia together—there were only 107 settlers at that time. The Kirkes also seized the company’s convoy of ships bringing reinforcements and supplies up the St. Lawrence. That loss exhausted the company’s capital, and it never recovered. Champlain was taken prisoner and held in England until 1632. In 1633 he returned to New France and tried to repair the damage done by the Kirkes and reestablish good relations with his old allies. However, his health began to fail, and he died at Québec on December 25, 1635. Toward the end, his mind bewildered, he dictated a new will leaving all his possessions to the Virgin Mary. Two years later his wife succeeded in having the will annulled.
Champlain accomplished much during his relatively long life. He produced the first accurate chart of the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Cape Cod and maps of the St. Lawrence Valley and Great Lakes Basin. Many of his observations were published in the large body of writing he left behind, which eventually was printed in six volumes. Champlain’s accounts of the habits and characteristics of indigenous peoples, although flawed by his lack of understanding of their cultures, have been of great value to historians.
Champlain established the commercial and military alliances that endured to the end of the French regime in Canada. He created and maintained a base for the future French empire in North America in the face of great difficulties.