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Samuel de Champlain

Founder of Quebec and Father of New France (1570-1635)

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Champlain, SAMUEL DE, founder of Quebec and Father of New France, b. at Brouage, a village in the province of Saintonge, France, 1570, or, according to the “Bibliographie Saintongeoise”, 1567; d. at Quebec, December 25, 1635. He was the son of Antoine Champlain, a mariner, and Marguerite Le Roy, and his early education was entrusted to the parish priest. While still a youth Champlain accompanied his father on several voyages, and thus became familiar with the life of a mariner. When about twenty years of age he tendered his services to the Marechal d’Aumont, one of the chief commanders of the Catholic army in its expeditions against the Huguenots. The career of a soldier did not appeal to the youth, whose ambition was to become a navigator. “Navigation”, he wrote, “has always seemed to me to occupy the first place. By this art we obtain a knowledge of different countries, regions, and realms. By it we attract and bring to our own land all kinds of riches; by it the idolatry of paganism is over-thrown, and Christianity proclaimed throughout all the regions of the earth. This is the art…which led me to explore the coasts of a portion of America, especially those of New France, where I have always desired to see the lily flourish, together with the only religion, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman” (Les voyages du Sieur de Champlain, Paris, 1613, Pt. V).

In 1598 Champlain returned to Brouage and made preparations for a voyage to Spain in the interest of his fellow-countrymen. While at Seville he was offered the command of the Saint Julien, one of the vessels fitted out by Spain to oppose the attack made on Porto Rico by the English. It was during his cruise in the Saint Julien that Champlain first suggested the possibility of uniting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans by cutting through the Isthmus of Panama. Champlain kept a journal of his explorations in the Gulf of Mexico, and after his return to France, in 1601 or 1602, he received a pension and the appointment of geographer to the king. It was in the year 1603 that Champlain first visited the shores of Canada, as the lieutenant of Aymar de Chastes, viceroy under Henry IV. Pierre de Chauvin had proposed to make a permanent settlement at Tadoussac, but Champlain was not in favor of this place, and, having cast anchor at the foot of Cape Diamond, he considered that the point of Quebec would be the most advantageous site for the future colony. He then proceeded with Pont-Grave to explore the St. Lawrence as far as Sault Saint Louis, and gathered from the natives such information as he could concerning Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Detroit River, Niagara Falls, and the rapids of the St. Lawrence, and returned to France in August, 1603. The next year he followed the fortunes of de Monts’ expedition in Acadia, as geographer and historian. The party wintered on the island of Sainte-Croix, and in the spring Champlain explored the country between the island and Port Royal, continuing this work until the fall of 1607. As the lieutenant of de Monts Champlain laid the foundation of the Abitation de Quebec on the 3d of July, 1608, and around this modest dwelling arose the little village of Quebec. A year later the founder joined the Hurons in an expedition against the Iroquois whom they defeated. Criticism has been directed against Champlain for having become involved in Indian warfare; but with a knowledge of the conditions of trade, and of the situation of the few Frenchmen at this time, his action seems to have been in the best interests of the settlement. It was during this expedition that Champlain discovered the lake which still bears his name. On his visit to France in 1610 he married Helene Boulle, then a girl only twelve years of age. According to the marriage settlement the young wife remained with her parents for two years. In 1620 she arrived at Quebec, and resided in the fort until 1624. Madame Champlain was beloved in New France, and after her husband’s death she founded the Ursuline Convent at Meaux.

In the year 1611 Champlain continued his exploration of the St. Lawrence. Within a short distance of Mount Royal, discovered by Jacques Cartier seventy-five years before, he found a place suitable for a future settlement, and ordered the ground to be cleared and prepared for building. La Place Royale, the name given to the site by Champlain, is now in the heart of the commercial portion of the city of Montreal. The island opposite, now a popular summer resort, he named Sainte-Helene, in honor of his wife. After his return from France in 1613 he set out from Sainte-Helene with four Frenchmen and an Indian, to explore the region above Sault Saint Louis. In the month of June he came in sight of the River Gatineau, the River Rideau, and the Chaudiere Falls, and went as far as Allumette Island. Two years later, on the 14th of August, 1615, he set out from Carhagouha at the head of a small band of Frenchmen to assist the Hurons against the Iroquois. The place of rendezvous was Cahiague. On their journey they passed by Lake Ouantaron, now known as Lake Simcoe, and proceeded by way of Sturgeon Lake. Following the River Trent they reached the Bay of Quinte, where, says Champlain, “is the entrance to the grand river St. Lawrence”. Crossing Lake Ontario they penetrated the woods and passed over the River Chouagen or Oswego. This journey had occupied five weeks, and the expedition had endured many hardships before meeting the enemy. During the skirmishes Champlain had been severely wounded in the knee by an arrow, but the pain from the wound he says “was nothing in comparison with that which I endured while I was carried, bound and pinioned, on the back of one of the savages”. The Hurons were forced to retreat, and it was not until the 23d of December that the party again arrived at Cahiague. Champlain had now prepared the way for colonization in New France, but for a time his efforts were fruitless. The merchants were not disposed to assist him in developing the country, seeing that the fur trade held out prospects of large gain. After crossing the ocean several times, however, he induced a few hardy settlers of sterling merit to seek their fortune on the banks of the St. Lawrence. These were the real pioneers of New France. In 1629 the little settlement received a check, when an English fleet under three brothers named Kirke appeared before Quebec, and the fort was compelled to surrender. Under the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye Quebec was restored to France, and Champlain again took up his residence in the fort, where he died, after having spent forty years of his life in the heroic endeavor to promote the religious and commercial interests of the land of his fathers in the New World.

Champlain published the following works: “Bref discours des choses plus remarquables que Samuel Champlain de Brouage a reconnues aux Indes Occidentales” (1598); “Des sauvages: ou voyage de Sieur de Champlain fillet en l’an 1603” (Paris, s. d.); “Les Voyages du Sieur Champlain Xainctongeois, 1604-1613” (Paris, 1613); “Voyages et Descouvertures faites en la Nouvelle-France, depuis l’annee 1615 jusques a la fin de l’annee 1618. Par le Sieur de Champlain” (Paris, 1619). “Les Voyages de la Nouvelle-France Occidentale, dicte Canada, faits par le Sieur de Champlain Xainctongeois, depuis l’an 1603 jusques en l’annee 1629″ (Paris, 1632); “Traite de la marine et du devoir d’un bon marinier. Par le Sieur de Champlain” (s. d.). In 1870 the Abbe Laverdiere edited the works of Champlain in six volumes under the title of “Euvres de Champlain publiees sous le patronage de l’Universite Laval, par l’Abbe C. H. Laverdiere, M.A., professeur d’Histoire a la Faculte des arts et Bibliothecaire de l’Universite” (2d ed., Quebec, 1870). While the work was in the press the plates were destroyed by fire and only the proof sheets were saved. This edition does not contain the account of the visits to Mexico and the West Indies. The first volume has an excellent biographical sketch of Champlain by, Abbe Laverdiere. The “Voyages du Sieur de Champlain” was published in two volumes (Paris, 1830), and another edition in the same year at the expense of the French Government. The “Voyage to the West Indies and Mexico (1599-1602)” appeared in 1859.


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