Champlain's America


As early as the first decade of the sixteenth century, Norman and Breton fishermen were conducting annual voyages to the teeming fishing banks off Newfoundland, occasionally bringing back sauvages (Native Americans) to pique the curiosity of their countrymen at home.  Although France did not succeed in establishing a permanent colony in the Americas during the 1500s, the early years of the seventeenth century saw conditions ripening in both France and England for New World colonizing projects.  The end of the civil wars left Henry IV triumphant in France, and increasing mercantile interest in the fur trade led him to grant monopoly concessions to companies in return for underwriting colonial development.  While the English were establishing themselves solidly and securely in the Chesapeake region, the French were making repeated efforts in the far north to settle the River of Canada, even sending tentacles southward to assess the potential and possibilities of the New England coast.


First Cartographic Focus on New England and New France 

[1] [Giacomo Gastaldi], "La Nuova Francia."  In:  Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Terzo volume delle navigationi et viaggi, Venice, 1556.

This is the first printed map to focus on New England and New France.  The geographic information is based on the 1524 voyage of Giovanni Verrazzano, who explored the American coastline for King Francis I of France.  His avoidance of the dangerous coastline and shoals from Cape Cod to Maine created the "information gap" that gives this map its confused, foreshortened look.  Nonetheless, it clearly states French claims to the St. Lawrence region and emphasizes French fishing activity in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  Although Ramusio discusses the explorations of Jacques Cartier in his book, no Cartier information shows on this map.

Jacques Cartier and "Canadian Diamonds"

Sidetracked by wars in Italy, it took Francis I ten years to follow up on the possibilities presented by Verrazzano's voyage.  In 1534 and 1536 Jacques Cartier was charged with finding gold to the north as the Spaniards had done in Mexico.  Cartier spent the winter of 1536 at the future site of Quebec, reporting on Indian tales of a golden city called Saguenay, which kindled French interest enough to send Cartier back with a colonizing expedition in 1541/1542.  After a hard winter Cartier returned to France with a cargo of "gold and diamonds," which were found to be worthless, giving rise to the saying "fake as a Canadian diamond."  Further colonization efforts in New France were halted for half a century




Interest Rekindled      

2.  Jacques Cartier. Discours du voyage fait ... aux terres neufves de Canadas, Rouen, 1598.

Because Cartier's explorations had not been financially successful there was no rush to publicize his efforts.  But with the passing of fifty years and more, times had changed—France and Spain were at peace and a new king was on the throne (the Huguenot Henri IV, the first of the Bourbons) who encouraged the development through monopolies of mercantile interests such as the fur trade.  The account of Cartier's expedition, which had first appeared in Italian in Ramusio's collection of voyages, the Navigationi et viaggi, was translated into French and published in Rouen in 1598.  Its publisher expressed the hope that the account would serve as encouragement for a Canadian expedition by the Marquis de la Roche that year.

 3.  Jacques Cartier. A shorte and brief narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northwest partes called Newe France, London, 1580.

In 1580, almost 20 years before the publication of Cartier's account in France, John Florio translated Ramusio's Italian narrative into English and had it published in London as part of an effort to stir up sluggish British interest in overseas exploration and trade.  By the turn of the century, the English were looking seriously at the advantages North America had to offer, interest that would eventually lead to colonization in New England and ever-escalating conflict with French interests to the north.

Native American Custom?

4.  "La terra de Hochelaga nella Nova Francia." In: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Navigationi et viaggi, Venice, 1556.   

At the bottom left center of this plan Cartier and his men greet the inhabitants of the Native American town of Hochelaga, near the site of present-day Montreal.  Further to the left, two Native Americans carry Europeans "piggyback" fashion.  Scholars have suggested that this was perhaps a ceremonial gesture of deference practiced by some tribes in the Americas.  Many Europeans did not understand the subtleties of the ritual and expected to be carried everywhere.

"We do not live by mines"

5.  "La Nouvelle France" In:  Marc Lescarbot, Histoire de la Nouvelle France, Paris, 1609.

Marc Lescarbot was a lawyer who spent a year in Canada, accompanying Samuel de Champlain in his explorations up the St. Lawrence River in 1608.  He painted a glowing picture of the potential of the country and scolded Frenchmen for distracting themselves with religious discord and fruitless searches for imaginary golden cities, when they could instead be reaping the benefits of the fertility and the vast resources of New France.

Lescarbot's was the first detailed map of Canada published prior to the extensive exploration and mapping of the country by Champlain.  The map locates the first trading post at Tadoussac (1600) and the Indian town of Hochelaga.  "Kebec" is shown on a map for the first time, here in its Micmac form meaning "narrows of the river."   The map also reflects the extensive French activity in Acadia (Nova Scotia and northern Maine), areas soon to be contested with Great Britain.


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

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