Samuel de Champlain
by Théophile Hamel (1870)
Samuel de Champlain (1567 – 1635) was a French geographer, draftsman, explorer and founder of Quebec City.
Born in Brouage, France, much of Champlain's early life is unknown. His first trip to North America was on March 15th, 1603 as part of a fur trading expedition. Although he had no official assignment on the voyage, he created a map of the St. Lawrence River and, on his return to France on September 20th, wrote an account of his travels called Des sauvages (The Savages).
Instructed by Henry IV to make a report on his discoveries, Champlain joined another expedition to New France in the spring of 1604 led by Pierre Dugua Sieur de Monts. He helped found the Saint Croix Island settlement which was abandoned the following spring 1605 when the settlers moved across the Bay of Fundy to found the Habitation at Port-Royal (which had been located with Champlain's assistance).
Champlain lived at Port Royal during the following years while exploring the Atlantic coast. He explored and mapped the entire Atlantic coastline from Cape Breton to the south of Cap Blanc. In May of 1607 Port Royal was abandoned when de Monts's trading privileges were revoked and the expedition returned to France.
Champlain wasn't to stay in France for long. On April 18th, 1608 he once again returned to New France with de Monts, this time as a lieutenant, with the intention of building a permanent settlement somewhere along the St. Lawrence River.
On July 3rd Champlain landed at the "point of Quebec" and set about building three main buildings, two stories tall, surrounded by a moat 15 feet wide and a stockade of stakes. This was to become the city of Quebec. However, trouble came quickly in the form a plot by Jean Duval and four other accomplices to kill Champlain. When discovered, Duval was immediately executed, his head cut off and placed on a pike in public view as a warning to others.
The first winter was difficult for the colonists. Of the twenty-five people who stayed for the winter only 8 survived, most having died of scurvy .
That summer Champlain attempted to form better relations with the local Indians. He made alliances with the Huron and Algonquins (who lived to the north of the St. Lawrence River) promising to help them in the war against the Iroquois (who lived to the south). Champlain set off with 9 French soldiers and 300 Indians to exploring the Rivière des Iroquois (now Richelieu) and discovered Lake Champlain. Having had no encounters with the Iroquois at this point many of the men headed back, leaving Champlain with only 2 Frenchmen and 60 natives.
On July 29th, at Ticonderoga (now Crown Point, New York) Champlain and his party encountered a group of Iroquois. A battle began the next day. Two hundred Iroquois advanced on Champlain's position as a native guide pointed out the three Iroquois chiefs. Champlain fired his arquebus and killed two of them with one shot. The Iroquois turned and fled. This was to set the tone for French-Iroquois relations for the next one hundred years.
After his victory, he returned to France in an unsuccessful attempt, with de Monts, to renew their fur trade monopoly. They did, however, form a society with some Rouen merchants in which Quebec would become an exclusive warehouse for their fur trade and, in return, the Rouen merchants would support the settlement. Champlain returned to Quebec on April 8th, 1610.
On his return his Indian allies had him assist them in another battle against the Iroquois. During the battle at the mouth of the Richelieu River Champlain was wounded by an arrow which "split the tip of my ear and pierced my neck." The battle won, he returned to Quebec to find that the fur trade had been disastrous for the merchants supporting him and Henry IV had been assassinated. He therefore returned to France, leaving 16 men at Quebec.
During Champlain's stay in France he married Hélène Boullé , a twelve year-old girl. Because of the girl's age the marriage contract would not come into effect for another two years but Champlain received 4,500 livres as a dowry, which was a significant contribution towards his efforts in Quebec.
He returned to Quebec on May 21st, 1611. During the summer he traveled to the area which is now Montreal where he cleared the land and built a wall "to see how it would last during the winter." Then, in order to increase his prestige among the natives, he shot the Lachine Rapids with them, a feat that had only been done once before by a European.
That fall he returned once again to France to secure a future for his venture in the New World. Having lost the support of the merchants, he wrote reports and created a map (which is the first that is still in existence today) and asked the new king, Louis XIII, to intervene. On October 8th, 1612, Louis XIII named Charles de Bourbon, comte de Soissons his lieutenant-general in New France. Charles died almost immediately, and was succeeded in the office by Henry II, Prince of Condé. Champlain was given the title of lieutenant and received the power to exercise command in the lieutenant-general's name, to appoint “such captains and lieutenants as shall be expedient,” to “commission officers for administration of justice and maintenance of police authority, regulations and ordinances,” to make treaties and carry out wars with the natives, and to restrain merchants who did not belong to the society. His duties included finding the easiest way to China and the East Indies, as well as to find and exploit mines of precious metals in the area.
At the start of the year he published an account of his life from 1604-1612 called "Voyages" and on March 29, 1613, he arrived back in New France and proclaimed his new commission. Many natives had become disgusted at the tactics of the non-authorized merchants and as a result the fur trade, once again, yielded little profit. Champlain set out on May 27th to continue his exploration of the Huron country and in hopes of finding the 'northern sea' he had heard about (probably Hudson Bay). He traveled the Ottawa River giving the first description of this area. It was in June that he met with Tessouat , the Algonkian chief of Allumette Island, and offered to build them a fort if they were to move from the area they occupied with its poor soil to the Lachine Rapids.
By August 26th Champlain was back in Saint-Malo. There he wrote an account of his journey the up the Ottawa river and published another map of New France. In 1614 he formed the "Compagnie des Marchands de Rouen et de Saint-Malo" and "Compagnie de Champlain", which bound the Rouen and Saint-Malo merchants for eleven years. He returned to New France spring of 1615, this time with four Recollects in order to further religious life in the new colony.
Champlain continued to work to improve relations with the natives promising to help them in their struggles against the Iroquois. With his native guides he explored further up the Ottawa river and reached Lake Nipissing. He then followed the French River until he reached the fresh-water sea he called Lac Attigouautau (now Lake Huron).
On September 1st, at Cahiagué (on Lake Simcoe), he started a military expedition. They passed Lake Ontario at its eastern tip where they hid their canoes and continued their journey by land. They followed the Oneida River until they found themselves at an Iroquois fort. Pressured by the Hurons to attack prematurely, the assault failed. Champlain was wounded twice in the leg by arrows, one in his knee. The attack lasted three hours until they were forced to flee.
Although he didn't want to, the Hurons insisted that Champlain spend the winter with them. During his stay he set off with them in their great deer hunt, during which he became lost and was forced to wander for three days living off game and sleeping under trees until he met up with a band of Indians by chance. He spent the rest of the winter learning "their country, their manners, customs, modes of life". On May 22nd, 1616 he left the Huron country and was back in Quebec on July 11th. He spent some time expanding the Habitation and set off back on France on July 20th.
In France Champlain learned that the Prince de Condé had been arrested. Maréchal de Thémines was granted the office of viceroy. Champlain, having lost his position of lieutenant, wrote reports to the King of France and the Chamber of Commerce in order drum up support for his endeavours in New France. He wrote that, by way of New France, one could easily reach "the Kingdom of China and the East Indies, whence great riches could be drawn" and the custom duties which could be collected from the resulting trade "would surpass in value at least ten times all those levied in France." He stated that France would control a country "nearly eighteen hundred leagues in length, watered by the fairest rivers in the world" and that countless numbers of souls could be converted to Christianity. To further these goals, Champlain suggested that "a town almost as large as St. Denis, which town shall be called, if it please God and the king, 'Ludovica.'" He asked that France should send 15 Recollets, 300 families of four people, and 300 soldiers. Regarding commerce, Champlain estimated the colony would produce an annual income of approximately 5,400,000 livres mostly from fishing, mining, furs and profits as a result of the "short route to China". The Chamber of Commerce was instantly convinced and Champlain regained his monopoly on the fur trade. The King instructed his partners to "carry on all work that he shall judge necessary for establishing the colonies that we wish to found in the said country".
Champlain returned to New France in the spring of 1618 only to return on August 28th. The states of Brittany had managed to obtain freedom of trade which Champlain managed to get revoked. Also his partners were refusing to ensure the population of the colony fearful that they would only be able to obtain furs from the colonists. Champlain was upset, writing "They thought . . . they were setting up a sort of republic there according to their own notions." He ensured his right to command Quebec making his partners sign a contract ensuring they would maintain 80 people in the Quebec city. His planned return trip to New France was canceled when the partners once again refused to acknowledge his rights, and he was forced to stay in France. During his stay he wrote an account of his voyages from 1615 to 1618. In October of 1619 the Prince de Condé was freed and yielded his rights as viceroy to Henri II, Duc de Montmorency , admiral of France. Henri II confirmed Champlain in his office and on May 7th, 1620 Louis XIII asked Champlain to maintain the country of New France "in obedience to me, making the people who are there live as closely in conformity with the laws of my kingdom as you can." Champlain immediately returned to New France and was to spend the rest of his life focusing on administration of the country rather than exploration.
Champlain spent the winter building Fort Saint-Louis on top of Cap Diamant. By mid-May he learned that the fur trade had been handed over to another company led by the Caen brothers. After some tense negotiations it was decided to merge the two companies under the direction of the Caens. Champlain continued to work on relations with the Indians and managed to impose a chief on them of his choice. He also managed to create a peace treaty with the Iroquois tribes.
Champlain continued to work on improving his habitation, laying the first stone on May 6th, 1624. On August 15th he once again returned to France where he was encouraged to continue his work as well as to continue to look for a passage to China. By July 5th he was back at Quebec and continued expanding the city.
In 1627 Cardinal Richelieu took an interest in Quebec creating the Compagnie des Cent-Associés of which Champlain became a member. This new regime brought Champlain and on March 21st, 1629 Champlain became the lieutenant and representative of Richelieu and he became referred to as Commander of New France in the absence of Cardinal de Richelieu.
Things weren't to continue well for Champlain and his small village. Supplies were low during the summer of 1628 and English merchants had pillaged Cap Tourmente in early July. On July 10th Champlain received a summons from the Kirke Brothers, some English merchants. Champlain refused to deal with them and in response the English cut off supplies from going to the city. By the spring of 1629 supplies were dangerously low and Champlain was forced to send people to Gaspé to conserve rations. On July 19th the Kirke Brothers arrived and Champlain was forced to negotiate the terms of the cities' capitulation. By October 29th Champlain found himself in London.
During the next several years Champlain wrote 'Voyages de la Nouvelle France' dedicated to Richelieu as well as 'Traitté de la marine et du devoir d’un bon marinier'. It wasn't until the treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632 that Quebec was given back to France and on March 1st, 1633 Champlain reclaimed his role as commander of New France on behalf of Richelieu.
Champlain returned to Quebec on May 22nd, 1633 after an absence of four years. On August 18th, 1634 he send a report to Richelieu stating that he had rebuilt on the ruins of Quebec, enlarged its fortifications, constructed another habitation 15 leagues upstream, as well as another one at Trois-Rivières. He had also begun an offensive against the Iroquois Indians stating he wanted them wiped out or "brought to reason".
By October of 1635 Champlain was stricken with paralysis. He died December 25th, 1635 childless. He was buried temporarily in an unmarked grave while construction was finished on the chapel of Monsieur le Gouverneur. Unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in 1640 and immediately rebuilt but nothing is known of it after 1640 although after 1674 it no longer existed. As such the exact burial site of Champlain is unknown.
There is no authentic portrait of Champlain. Paintings of Champlain have been shown to be actually of Michel Particelli d’Émery . The only surviving picture we have is an engraving of a battle at Lake Champlain in 1609, but the facial features are too vague to make out.