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Champlain's Early Years

Were there a 'Who's Who in History' its chronicle of Champlain's life and deeds would run as follows:

Champlain, Samuel de. Explorer, geographer, and colonizer. Born in 1567 at Brouage, a village on the Bay of Biscay. Belonged by parentage to the lesser gentry of Saintonge. In boyhood became imbued with a love of the sea, but also served as a soldier in the Wars of the League. Though an enthusiastic Catholic, was loyal to Henry of Navarre. On the Peace of Vervins (1598) returned to the sea, visiting the Spanish West Indies and Mexico. Between 1601 and 1603 wrote his first book--the Bref Discours. In 1603 made his first voyage to the St Lawrence, which he ascended as far as the Lachine Rapids. From 1604 to 1607 was actively engaged in the attempt of De Monts to establish a French colony in Acadia, at the same time exploring the seaboard from Cape Breton to Martha's Vineyard. Returned to the St Lawrence in 1608 and founded Quebec. In 1609 discovered Lake Champlain, and fought his first battle with the Iroquois. In 1613 ascended the Ottawa to a point above Lac Coulange. In 1615 reached Georgian Bay and was induced to accompany the Huron, with their allies, on an unsuccessful expedition into the country of the Iroquois. From 1617 to 1629 occupied chiefly in efforts to strengthen the colony at Quebec and promote trade on the lower St Lawrence. Taken a captive to London by Kirke in 1629 upon the surrender of Quebec, but after its recession to France returned (1633) and remained in Canada until his death, on Christmas Day 1635. Published several important narratives describing his explorations and adventures. An intrepid pioneer and the revered founder of New France.

Into some such terms as these would the writer of a biographical dictionary crowd his notice of Champlain's career, so replete with danger and daring, with the excitement of sailing among the uncharted islands of Penobscot Bay, of watching the sun descend below the waves of Lake Huron, of attacking the Iroquois in their palisaded stronghold, of seeing English cannon leveled upon the houses of Quebec. It is not from a biographical dictionary that one can gain true knowledge of Champlain, into whose experience were crowded so many novel sights and whose soul was tested, year after year, by the ever-varying perils of the wilderness. No life, it is true, can be fitly sketched in a chronological abridgment, but history abounds with lives which, while important, do not exact from a biographer the kind of detail that for the actions of Champlain becomes priceless. Kant and Hegel were both great forces in human thought, yet throughout eighty years Kant was tethered to the little town of Konigsberg, and Hegel did not know what the French were doing in Jena the day after there had been fought just outside a battle which smote Prussia to her knees. The deeds of such men are their thoughts, their books, and these do not make a story. The life of Champlain is all story. The part of it which belongs to the Wars of the League is lost to us from want of records. But fortunately we possess in his Voyages the plain, direct narrative of his exploits in America--a source from which all must draw who would know him well.

The method to be pursued in this book is not that of the critical essay. Nor will these pages give an account of Champlain's times with reference to ordinances regulating the fur trade, or to the policy of French kings and their ministers towards emigration. Such subjects must be touched on, but here it will be only incidentally. What may be taken to concern us is the spirited action of Champlain's middle life--the period which lies between his first voyage to the St Lawrence and his return from the land of the Onondagas. Not that he had ended his work in 1616. The unflagging efforts which he continued to put forth on behalf of the starving colony at Quebec demand all praise. But the years during which he was incessantly engaged in exploration show him at the height of his powers, with health still unimpaired by exposure and with a soul that courted the unknown. Moreover, this is the period for which we have his own narrative in fullest detail.

Even were we seeking to set down every known fact regarding Champlain's early life the task would not be long. Parkman, in referring to his origin, styles him 'a Catholic gentleman,' with not even a footnote regarding his parentage. [Footnote: It is hard to define Champlain's social status in a single word. Parkman, besides styling him 'a Catholic gentleman,' speaks of him elsewhere as being 'within the pale of the noblesse.' On the other hand, the Biographie Saintongeoise says that he came from a family of fishermen. The most important facts would seem to be these. In Champlain's own marriage contract his father is styled 'Antoine de Champlain, Capitaine de la Marine.' The same document styles Champlain himself 'Samuel de Champlain.' A petition in which he asks for a continuation of his pension (circ. 1630) styles him in its opening words 'Le Sieur de Champlain' and afterwards 'le dit sieur Champlain' in two places, while in six places it styles him 'le dit sieur de Champlain.' Le Jeune calls him 'Monsieur de Champlain.' It is clear that he was not a noble. It is also clear that he possessed sufficient social standing to warrant the use of de. On the title-page of all his books after 1604 he is styled the 'Sieur de Champlain.'] Dionne, in a biography of nearly three hundred pages, does indeed mention the names of his father and mother, but dismisses his first twenty years in twenty lines, which say little more than that he learned letters and religion from the parish priest and a love of the sea from his father. Nor is it easy to enlarge these statements unless one chooses to make guesses as to whether or not Champlain's parents were Huguenots because he was called Samuel, a favorite name with French Protestants. And this question is not worth discussion, since no one has, or can, cast a doubt upon the sincerity of his own devotion to the Catholic faith.

In short, Champlain by birth was neither a peasant nor a noble, but issued from a middle-class family; and his eyes turned towards the sea because his father was a mariner dwelling in the small seaport of Brouage.

Thus when a boy Champlain doubtless had lessons in navigation, but he did not become a sailor in the larger sense until he had first been a soldier. His youth fell in the midst of the Catholic Revival, when the Church of Rome, having for fifty years been sore beset by Lutherans and Calvinists, began to display a reserve strength which enabled her to reclaim from them a large part of the ground she had lost. But this result was not gained without the bitterest and most envenomed struggle. If doctrinal divergence had quickened human hatreds before the Council of Trent, it drove them to fury during the thirty years that followed. At the time of the Massacre of St Bartholomew Champlain was five years old. He was seventeen when William the Silent was assassinated; twenty when Mary Stuart was executed at Fotheringay; twenty-one when the Spanish Armada sailed against England and when the Guises were murdered at Blois by order of Henry III; twenty-two when Henry III himself fell under the dagger of Jacques Clement. The bare enumeration of these events shows that Champlain was nurtured in an age of blood and iron rather than amid those humanitarian sentiments which prevail in an age of religious toleration.

Finding his country a camp, or rather two camps, he became a soldier, and fought for ten years in the wretched strife to which both Leaguers and Huguenots so often sacrificed their love of country. With Henry of Valois, Henry of Navarre, and Henry of Guise as personal foes and political rivals, it was hard to know where the right line of faith and loyalty lay; but Champlain was both a Catholic and a king's man, for whom all things issued well when Henry of Navarre ceased to be a heretic, giving France peace and a throne. It is unfortunate that the details of these adventurous years in Champlain's early manhood should be lost. Unassisted by wealth or rank, he served so well as to win recognition from the king himself, but beyond the names of his commanders (D'Aumont, St Luc, and Brissac) there is little to show the nature of his exploits. [Footnote: He served chiefly in Brittany against the Spanish allies of the League, and reached the rank of quartermaster.] In any case, these ten years of campaigning were a good school for one who afterwards was to look death in the face a thousand times amidst the icebergs of the North Atlantic, and off the rocky coast of Acadia, and in the forests of the Iroquois.

With such parentage and early experiences as have been indicated Champlain entered upon his career in the New World. It is characteristic that he did not leave the army until his services were no longer needed. At the age of thirty-one he was fortunate enough to be freed from fighting against his own countrymen. In 1598 was signed the Peace of Vervins by which the enemies of Henry IV, both Leaguers and Spaniards, acknowledged their defeat. To France the close of fratricidal strife came as a happy release. To Champlain it meant also the dawn of a career. Hastening to the coast, he began the long series of voyages which was to occupy the remainder of his life. Indeed, the sea and what lay beyond it were henceforth to be his life.

The sea, however, did not at once lead Champlain to New France. Provencal, his uncle, held high employment in the Spanish fleet, and through his assistance Champlain embarked at Blavet in Brittany for Cadiz, convoying Spanish soldiers who had served with the League in France. After three months at Seville he secured a Spanish commission as captain of a ship sailing for the West Indies. Under this appointment it was his duty to attend Don Francisco Colombo, who with an armada of twenty galleons sailed in January 1599 to protect Porto Rico from the English. In the maritime strife of Spain and England this expedition has no part that remains memorable. For Champlain it meant a first command at sea and a first glimpse of America.

The record of this voyage was an incident of no less importance in Champlain's fortunes than the voyage itself. His cruisings in the Spanish Main gave him material for a little book, the Bref Discours; and the Bref Discours in turn advanced his career. Apart from any effect which it may have had in securing for him the title of Geographer to the King, it shows his own aspiration to be a geographer. Navigation can be regarded either as a science or a trade. For Champlain it was plainly a science, demanding care in observation and faithfulness of narrative. The Bref Discours was written immediately upon his return from the West Indies, while the events it describes were still fresh in mind. Appearing at a time when colonial secrets were carefully guarded, it gave France a glimpse of Spanish America from French eyes. For us it preserves Champlain's impressions of Mexico, Panama, and the Antilles. For Champlain himself it was a profession of faith, a statement that he had entered upon the honorable occupation of navigator; in other words, that he was to be classed neither with ship-captains nor with traders, but with explorers and authors.

It was in March 1601 that Champlain reached France on his return from the West Indies. The next two years he spent at home, occupied partly with the composition of his Bref Discours and partly with the quest of suitable employment. His avowed preference for the sea and the reputation which he had already gained as a navigator left no doubt as to the sphere of his future activities, but though eager to explore some portion of America on behalf of the French crown, the question of ways and means presented many difficulties. Chief among these was the fickleness of the king. Henry IV had great political intelligence, and moreover desired, in general, to befriend those who had proved loyal during his doubtful days. His political sagacity should have led him to see the value of colonial expansion, and his willingness to advance faithful followers should have brought Champlain something better than his pension and the title of Geographer. But the problems of France were intricate, and what most appealed to the judgment of Henry was the need of domestic reorganization after a generation of slaughter which had left the land desolate. Hence, despite momentary impulses to vie with Spain and England in oversea expansion, he kept to the path of caution, avoiding any expenditure for colonies which could be made a drain upon the treasury, and leaving individual pioneers to bear the cost of planting his flag in new lands. In friendship likewise his good impulses were subject to the vagaries of a mercurial temperament and a marked willingness to follow the line of least resistance. In the circumstances it is not strange that Champlain remained two years ashore.

The man to whom he owed most at this juncture was Aymar de Chastes. Though Champlain had served the king faithfully, his youth and birth prevented him from doing more than belongs to the duty of a subaltern. But De Chastes, as governor of Dieppe, at a time when the League seemed everywhere triumphant, gave Henry aid which proved to be the means of raising him from the dust. It was a critical event for Champlain that early in 1603 De Chastes had determined to fit out an expedition to Canada. Piety and patriotism seem to have been his dominant motives, but an opening for profit was also offered by a monopoly of the Laurentian fur trade. During the civil wars Champlain's strength of character had become known at first hand to De Chastes, who both liked and admired him. Then, just at the right moment, he reached Fontainebleau, with his good record as a soldier and the added prestige which had come to him from his successful voyage to the West Indies. He and De Chastes concluded an agreement, the king's assent was specially given, and in the early spring of 1603 the founder of New France began his first voyage to the St Lawrence.

Champlain was now definitely committed to the task of gaining for France a foothold in North America. This was to be his steady purpose, whether fortune frowned or smiled. At times circumstances seemed favorable; at other times they were most disheartening. Hence, if we are to understand his life and character, we must consider, however briefly, the conditions under which he worked.

It cannot be said that Champlain was born out of his right time. His active years coincide with the most important, most exciting period in the colonial movement. At the outset Spain had gone beyond all rivals in the race for the spoils of America. The first stage was marked by unexampled and spectacular profits. The bullion which flowed from Mexico and Peru was won by brutal cruelty to native races, but Europe accepted it as wealth poured forth in profusion from the mines. Thus the first conception of a colony was that of a marvelous treasure-house where gold and silver lay piled up awaiting the arrival of a Cortez or a Pizarro.

Unhappily disillusion followed. Within two generations from the time of Columbus it became clear that America did not yield bonanza to every adventurer. Yet throughout the sixteenth century there survived the dream of riches to be quickly gained. Wherever the European landed in America he looked first of all for mines, as Frobisher did on the unpromising shores of Labrador. The precious metals proving illusive, his next recourse was to trade. Hawkins sought his profit from slaves. The French bought furs from the Indians at Tadoussac. Gosnold brought back from Cape Cod a mixed cargo of sassafras and cedar.

But wealth from the mines and profits from a coasting trade were only a lure to the cupidity of Europe. Real colonies, containing the germ of a nation, could not be based on such foundations. Coligny saw this, and conceived of America as a new home for the French race. Raleigh, the most versatile of the Elizabethans, lavished his wealth on the patriotic endeavor to make Virginia a strong and self-supporting community. 'I shall yet live to see it an English nation,' he wrote--at the very moment when Champlain was first dreaming of the St Lawrence. Coligny and Raleigh were both constructive statesmen. The one was murdered before he could found such a colony as his thought presaged: the other perished on the scaffold, though not before he had sowed the seed of an American empire. For Raleigh was the first to teach that agriculture, not mines, is the true basis of a colony. In itself his colony on Roanoke Island was a failure, but the idea of Roanoke was Raleigh's greatest legacy to the English race.

With the dawn of the seventeenth century events came thick and fast. It was a time when the maritime states of Western Europe were all keenly interested in America, without having any clear idea of the problem. Raleigh, the one man who had a grasp of the situation, entered upon his tragic imprisonment in the same year that Champlain made his first voyage to the St Lawrence. But while thought was confused and policy unsettled, action could no longer be postponed. The one fact which England, France, and Holland could not neglect was that to the north of Florida no European colony existed on the American coast. Urging each of these states to establish settlements in a tract so vast and untenanted was the double desire to possess and to prevent one's neighbor from possessing. On the other hand, caution raised doubts as to the balance of cost and gain. The governments were ready to accept the glory and advantage, if private persons were prepared to take the risk. Individual speculators, very conscious of the risk, demanded a monopoly of trade before agreeing to plant a colony. But this caused new difficulty. The moment a monopoly was granted, unlicensed traders raised an outcry and upbraided the government for injustice.

Such were the problems upon the successful or unsuccessful solution of which depended enormous national interests, and each country faced them according to its institutions, rulers, and racial genius. It only needs a table of events to show how fully the English, the French, and the Dutch realized that something must be done. In 1600 Pierre Chauvin landed sixteen French colonists at Tadoussac. On his return in 1601 he found that they had taken refuge with the Indians. In 1602 Gosnold, sailing from Falmouth, skirted the coast of Norumbega from Casco Bay to Cuttyhunk. In 1603 the ships of De Chastes, with Champlain aboard, spent the summer in the St Lawrence; while during the same season Martin Pring took a cargo of sassafras in Massachusetts Bay. From 1604. to 1607 the French under De Monts, Poutrincourt, and Champlain were actively engaged in the attempt to colonize Acadia. But they were not alone in setting up claims to this region. In 1605 Waymouth, sailing from Dartmouth, explored the mouth of the Kennebec and carried away five natives. In 1606 James I granted patents to the London Company and the Plymouth Company which, by their terms, ran athwart the grant of Henry IV to De Monts. In the same year Sir Ferdinando Gorges sent Pring once more to Norumbega. In 1607 Raleigh, Gilbert, and George Popham made a small settlement at the mouth of the Sagadhoc, where Popham died during the winter. As a result of his death this colony on the coast of Maine was abandoned, but 1607 also saw the memorable founding of Jamestown in Virginia. Equally celebrated is Champlain's founding of Quebec in 1608. In 1609 the Dutch under an English captain, Henry Hudson, had their first glimpse of Manhattan.

This catalogue of voyages shows that an impulse existed which governments could not ignore. The colonial movement was far from being a dominant interest with Henry IV or James I, but when their subjects saw fit to embark upon it privately, the crown was compelled to take cognizance of their acts and frame regulations. 'Go, and let whatever good may, come of it!' exclaimed Robert de Baudricourt as Joan of Arc rode forth from Vaucouleurs to liberate France. In much the same spirit Henry IV saw De Monts set sail for Acadia. The king would contribute nothing from the public purse or from his own. Sully, his prime minister, vigorously opposed colonizing because he wished to concentrate effort upon domestic improvements. He believed, in the second place, that there was no hope of creating a successful colony north of the fortieth parallel. Thirdly, he was in the pay of the Dutch.

The most that Henry IV would do for French pioneers in America was to give them a monopoly of trade in return for an undertaking to transport and establish colonists. In each case where a monopoly was granted the number of colonists was specified. As for their quality, convicts could be taken if more eligible candidates were not forthcoming. The sixty unfortunates landed by La Roche on Sable Island in 1598 were all convicts or sturdy vagrants. Five years later only eleven were left alive.

For the story of Champlain it is not necessary to touch upon the relations of the French government with traders at a date earlier than 1599. Immediately following the failure of La Roche's second expedition, Pierre Chauvin of Honfleur secured a monopoly which covered the Laurentian fur trade for ten years. The condition was that he should convey to Canada fifty colonists a year throughout the full period of his grant. So far from carrying out this agreement either in spirit or letter, he shirked it without compunction. After three years the monopoly was withdrawn, less on the ground that he had failed to fulfill his contract than from an outcry on the part of merchants who desired their share of the trade. To adjudicate between Chauvin and his rivals in St Malo and Rouen a commission was appointed at the close of 1602. Its members were De Chastes, governor of Dieppe, and the Sieur de la Cour, first president of the Parlement of Normandy. On their recommendation the terms of the monopoly were so modified as to admit to a share in the privilege certain leading merchants of Rouen and St Malo, who, however, must pay their due share in the expenses of colonizing. Before the ships sailed in 1603 Chauvin had died, and De Chastes at once took his place as the central figure in the group of those to whom a new monopoly had just been conceded.

[Footnote: The history of all the companies formed during these years for trade in New France is the same. First a monopoly is granted under circumstances ostensibly most favorable to the Government and to the privileged merchants; then follow the howls of the excluded traders, the lack of good voluntary colonists, the transportation to the colony of a few beggars, criminals, or unpromising laborers; a drain on the company's funds in maintaining these during the long winter; a steady decrease in the number taken out; at length no attempt to fulfill this condition of the monopoly; the anger of the Government when made aware of the facts; and finally the sudden repeal of the monopoly several years before its legal termination.--H. P. Biggar, 'Early Trading Companies of New France,' p. 49.]

We are now on the threshold of Champlain's career, but only on the threshold. The voyage of 1603, while full of prophecy and presenting features of much interest, lacks the arduous and constructive quality which was to mark his greater explorations. In 1603 the two boats equipped by De Chastes were under the command of Pontgrave [Footnote: Francois Grave, Sieur du Pont, whose name, strictly speaking, is Dupont-Grave, one of the most active French navigators of the seventeenth century. From 1600 to 1629 his voyages to the St Lawrence and Acadia were incessant.] and Prevert, both mariners from St Malo. Champlain sailed in Pontgrave's ship and was, in fact, a superior type of supercargo. De Chastes desired that his expedition should be self-supporting, and the purchase of furs was never left out of sight. At the same time, his purpose was undoubtedly wider than profit, and Champlain represented the extra-commercial motive. While Pontgrave was trading with the Indians, Champlain, as the geographer, was collecting information about their character, their customs, and their country. Their religious ideas interested him much, and also their statements regarding the interior of the continent. Such data as he could collect between the end of May and the middle of August he embodied in a book called Des Sauvages, which, true to its title, deals chiefly with Indian life and is a valuable record, although in many regards superseded by the more detailed writings of the Jesuits.

The voyage of 1603 added nothing material to what had been made known by Jacques Cartier and the fur traders about Canada. Champlain ascended the St Lawrence to the Sault St Louis1 and made two side excursions--one taking him rather less than forty miles up the Saguenay and the other up the Richelieu to the rapid at St Ours. He also visited Gaspe, passed the Isle Percee, had his first glimpse of the Baie des Chaleurs, and returned to Havre with a good cargo of furs. On the whole, it was a profitable and satisfactory voyage. Though it added little to geographical knowledge, it confirmed the belief that money could be made in the fur trade, and the word brought back concerning the Great Lakes of the interior was more distinct than had before been reported. The one misfortune of the expedition was that its author, De Chastes, did not live to see its success. He had died less than a month before his ships reached Havre.


1 Now called the Lachine Rapids. An extremely important point in the history of New France, since it marked the head of ship navigation on the St Lawrence. Constantly mentioned in the writings of Champlain's period.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Founder of New France, A Chronicle of Champlain, 1915

 

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