Champlain's America


Samuel de Champlain was the single most important factor in the initial success of French attempts at gaining a foothold in America.  He spent the majority of his life in New France and devoted considerable energy to its success.  He crossed the Atlantic more than twenty times, going back and forth to encourage and maintain support for the venture.  During his first voyage to the region in 1603, under the command of François Gravé, he traveled up the Saguenay River and went as far west as Montreal.  He then made a series of voyages under Pierre du Gua de Monts between 1604 and 1607.  In 1608 Champlain again turned his attention to the St. Lawrence River, and on the third of July, 1608, established himself at Quebec, his base camp for further exploration.  The summer of 1609 found him at Lake Champlain fighting alongside his Indian allies in a skirmish against the Mohawk.  After wintering in France Champlain again sailed to Canada in the spring of 1610, only to leave again upon hearing of the assassination of Henri IV.  He  returned again for the summer season of 1611, then spent the following year and a half in France writing a book about his experiences (Les Voyages of 1613) and working to raise funds and support for the Canadian venture.  


Before New France: Champlain in the West Indies 

6.  Samuel de Champlain, Brief discours, 1598-1601. Manuscript. 

The "Brief narrative" describes a voyage made by Samuel de Champlain to the Spanish West Indies from 1599-1601, two years before he first set foot in New France.  Champlain made the trip as commander of his uncle's ship, which had been leased to the king of Spain for the yearly voyage to the "Indies."  As the explorer explains in his introduction, this fulfilled a longstanding desire of his to see a world of things that Spain had kept hidden from prying French eyes and that he intended "to make a true report of them to his Majesty on his return [to France]."  There has been considerable scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript "report" shown here is in the actual hand of Champlain, or whether it is a copy made by someone else. The final word on the matter has not yet been spoken (or written), but it is certain that this artistic rendering of landscape, flora and fauna, and the words that describe them is a valuable early view of America.


[6a] "[Santo Domingo.]"  From:  Samuel de Champlain, Brief discours,  1598-1601. Manscript.

The aforesaid island of  Santo Domingo is large, being one hundred and fifty leagues long, and sixty broad, very fertile in fruits and abounding in cattle and good merchandise, such as sugar, cassia, ginger, molasses, cotton, ox hides, and some furs.  There are numerous good harbors and good anchorages, and only a single town, named Hispaniola [Santo Domingo], inhabited by Spaniards; the rest of the population are Indians, a good-natured people, and very friendly to the French nation, with whom they traffic as often as they can, but this is without the knowledge of the Spaniards.

[6b] "Montaignes ou il y a des mines de cuivre.  Mountains where there are copper mines."  From:  Samuel de Champlain, Brief discours, 1598-1601. Manuscript.

This country is rather hot, and pretty mountainous; there are no mines of gold or silver, but only of copper

[6c] "Indians burned by the Inquisition."  From Samuel de Champlain, Brief discours,  1598-1601. Manuscript.

At the commencement of his conquests, [the king of Spain] had established the Inquisition among them, and enslaved them or put them cruelly to death in such numbers, that the mere account of it arouses compassion for them.  Such evil treatment was the reason that the poor Indians … fled to the mountains in desperation, and as many Spaniards as they caught they ate.

[6d] "[The dragon]".  From:  Samuel De Champlain, Brief discours, 1598-1601. Manuscript.

There are also dragons of strange shape, having a head approaching to that of an eagle, wings like a bat, a body like a lizard and only two rather large feet, the tail somewhat scaly; and they are as large as a sheep, but are not dangerous, and do no harm to anybody, though to see them one would say the contrary.

[6e] "Cochineal."  From: Samuel de Champlain, Brief discours, 1598-1601. Manuscript.

In the said country a great quantity of cochineal is gathered, which grows in fields as peas do on this side of the ocean, and it comes from a fruit the size of a walnut which is full of seed within.

The belief that cochineal (a red dye) was the seed of a plant was prevalent for a long time after the conquest of Mexico.  Cochineal is actually an insect that feeds on the nopal cactus, whose dried and crushed bodies produce a high-quality red dye.


Champlain's First Observations of Canada      

Pierre du Chauvin built the first French trading post in Canada in 1600 at Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River, where for fifty years past, Indians and Frenchmen had bartered for skins.  When Chauvin died in 1603 his fur monopoly was assumed by a partnership that included François Gravé, who was dissatisfied with the location of Tadoussac and immediately set out in search of a better site.  Samuel de Champlain, newly returned from his West Indies voyage, was part of this summer reconnaissance. 


7.  Samuel de Champlain, Des sauvages, Paris, 1603.

When he returned to France in the fall, Champlain reported his observations on Canada and its peoples to the king, and presented them to the public in his first printed book, Des sauvages, shown here. One concession he made to the public taste for the exotic was his account of the Micmac legend of the gougou, a female beast of enormous size who ate men.


What did Champlain Look Like?      

There are no portraits of Samuel de Champlain taken from life, so for a visual sense of the man we are dependent upon sketchy, “stick-figure” representations that the engravers who were his contemporaries (and who might have actually seen him) inserted into Champlain’s narrative maps and views of events in New France.


[7a] "Champlain in the sun?" From: Samuel de Champlain.  Carte géographique de la Nouvelle France,  Paris, 1613.

Marcel Trudeau, one of the most important historians of New France, believed the face in the compass rose on the 1613 Champlain maps could represent Champlain's face, based on the supposition that cartographers of that age traditionally portrayed themselves in their works.


[7b] "Champlain and his men support their Native American allies."  From: Champlain, Voyages, 1613.

This image of a European soldier valiantly firing against a throng of native Americans is a self-portrait originally sketched by Champlain.


[7c] "Champlain warning his companions of an Indian ambush." From:  Champlain, Voyages, 1613.

Here Champlain is shown warning Jean de Biencourt, sieur de Poutrincourt, one of the leaders of the first Acadian settlement,

  What did Champlain see?  



 8. Gloucester, Massachusetts, or  "Le beau port."  In: Samuel de Champlain, Les voyages, Paris, 1613.

In the summers of 1605 and 1606 Champlain made reconnaissance voyages along the North American coast to assess the potential for trade and settlement farther south, reaching his farthest-south point at Nauset on Cape Cod in the summer of 1606. The chart shown here of "Beau Port," modern-day Gloucester, Massachusetts, is considered the best of the Champlain charts. In Champlain's words, Gloucester was rejected as a settlement site because of “the duplicity of the large native population.”  Native American distrust of Champlain's party was, no doubt, a direct result of a century of confrontations with European fishermen and traders who made annual visits to the fishing banks in the summer season.  It was also recognized early on that the New England climate would not produce the prime cold-climate furs desired by French fur traders.

[8a] "Site of Quebec." In: Samuel de Champlain, Les voyages, Paris, 1613.
[8b] "Champlain's habitation at Quebec." In: Samuel de Champlain, Les voyages, Paris, 1613.

Champlain the Cartographer

Samuel de Champlain was the first truly scientific cartographer in North America and this remarkable map is the first to record personal, on-site observations of the variation of the compass. The top of the map represents magnetic north while the slanting latitude bar on the right indicates true north.

Champlain 1613 map

[9} “Carte géographique de la Nouvelle France.”  From: Samuel de Champlain, Les voyages, Paris, 1613.

Shown for the first time on this map are indications of the location of the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and the outpost of Montreal. The map is decorated with the explorer’s careful depictions of Native American peoples and plants.  It is truly a masterpiece.

Champlain's Explorations, 1615-1618      

[10]  [La Nouvelle France] faict par le Sr de Champlain, [Paris], 1616.

Champlain’s Voyages of 1619, to the right, carries his story to 1618, with its recounting of arduous exploration, unsuccessful battles against Native Americans, life-threatening wounds, and constant frustration.  The map shown here is something of a puzzle.  Its geographical and ethnographical information mesh with the narrative account of Champlain’s explorations of 1615-1618, which would suggest that the map was drawn by Champlain to illustrate Les voyages of 1619.  However, no copy of the book contains the map.  In fact, no evidence has been unearthed to explain why the map was not issued with the book as published.


Quebec Surrenders to the English. Champlain Sent Home.

In 1627 hostilities began between England and France, and Acadia was taken soon after. The English privateer, David Kirke, intercepted 400 would-be Quebec colonists and sent them back to France.  The following year he laid siege to Quebec, but Champlain managed to hold him off until hostilities ended for the winter.  The attackers returned the next spring, however, and Champlain, whose garrison had been diminished by disease over the winter, had little choice but to surrender and accept transport back to France.  Quebec was not to fall again until the successful attack by British and New England forces in 1759. 


Development Plan for New France      

11.  Articles accordez par le Roy, à la Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, Paris, 1628.

While Champlain was contending with Kirke’s attack in Quebec, attempts were underway back in France to find the means to support the struggling North American colony that was barely able to keep itself going.  New France seemed unable to attract positive notice at home.  Certainly, the perception of severe weather was a huge image problem, but Canada suffered from a chronic lack of population primarily because the fur monopolists were content with the status quo and not interested in supporting efforts to settle colonists in the territory.  The charter shown here was granted by Louis XII to the Company of the Hundred Associates, who were charged with developing Canadian settlements. 

A Plea for Support      

12.  Samuel de Champlain, Au Roy, Paris, [1630].

When Champlain returned to Paris in 1629, negotiations for the restoration of Canada were already in process and he joined in the effort. The veteran explorer addressed the king directly in this memoir, listing his many services to France and his long residence in Canada, vowing himself after thirty years still resolute, eager to convert the heathen, and determined to discover a western passage to the South Sea (the constant dream of 16th and 17th-century European explorers).  For good measure he provided a detailed description of the natural resources that could be developed effortlessly for the glory of France. This is perhaps the rarest of Champlain's published writings.

A Dowry Paid, New France Restored      

13.  Traicté entre le Roy Louis XIII, et Charles Roy de la Grand' Bretagne, pour la restitution de la Nouvelle France, Paris, 1632.

Shown here is the treaty that restored New France to France.  French success was finally achieved by the discharge of an old debt—Louis XIII paid his sister Henrietta Maria's dowry, owed the English crown since she was married to Charles I of England in 1625.

A Lifetime of Exploration      

14.  “Carte de la Nouvelle France.”  In:  Champlain, Les voyages, Paris, 1632.

Champlain’s last map accompanies his most complete publication, which describes events in Nouvelle France from the beginning up to 1629.  In the years since his last publication Champlain had not been occupied with personal exploration, but instead by lobbying and working for the good of the venture, mostly in France.  Banished from Quebec by the English  in 1629, Champlain was finally able to return in 1633.  He suffered a stroke in October, 1635, and died on Christmas Day.  At the time of Champlain’s death Quebec had just 200 people, while the English colonies numbered many thousands.


Exhibition seen in Reading Room from september 2008 through
december 2008.

Exhibition prepared by Susan Danforth, Curator of Maps and Prints.