Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain

Birth: 1567-1580 (estimates include 1567, 1570, 1574, 1575, 1580 – only document from childhood is a baptism on August 13, 1574) in Brouage or La Rochelle, France
Death: December 25, 1635 in Québec City, New France (aged 61)
Profession: explorer, navigator, cartographer, geographer, soldier, diplomat, administrator, chronicler

Summary of Great Accomplishment:
– “Father of New France”
– Founder of Québec City
– Explorer and cartographer of New France
– Forged alliance with natives against the Iroquois

Early Life:

Brouage was a Catholic city in otherwise Huguenot Protestant southwestern France. His given name, Samuel, was not a typical Catholic name, so his parents were likely either lapsed Catholics or Protestants. Given he required funding from the Catholic French King, he likely played down his religious identity.

The de Champlains were mariners by trade (father, uncle) at an opportune time: the Age of Exploration. This allowed him more responsibility and opportunity in a feudal society where birth defined your identity.

Caribbean Adventure:

From 1599 to 1601, de Champlain travels with his geographer/cartographer uncle François Gravé Du Pont to the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and some of ports of New Spain.

First Steps in the Saint-Laurence:

In 1603, de Champlain makes his first of many voyages to the Saint-Laurence River by patronage of King Henri IV of France. He encountered aboriginals at Tadoussac, Québec, the entrance-way to the Saguenay River that flows in the Saint-Laurence. He explored this river and down the Saint-Laurence to Montréal. De Champlain recalls his tales in his book “Les Sauvages” (the savages).

Second Trip to North America (1604-1607):

In 1605, de Champlain decides to explore the Atlantic coastline from founding Port-Royal in Acadie down to Cap Cod.

In 1608, de Champlain declares the foundation of Québec City and New France. He moved down the Saint-Laurence to the Great Lakes, the first European to do so.

Settling Down:

In 1620, King Louis XIII placed Champlain in charge of developing the fledgling New France colony from Québec, which effectively ended his career as an explorer. The primary economic development of the colony was setting up trade posts for fur export.

He died in 1635.

Champlain’s first test on the path to becoming a warrior-explorer was service in King Henri IV’s army fighting in the Brittany theater of the French Wars of Religion (1594-1598). After the war, Champlain accompanied his navigator uncle on a French ship, the Saint-Julien, first ferrying Spanish soldiers to the southern Spanish port of Cádiz, and then on a two-year Spanish mission to the New World. He reported the findings back to King Henri for which he was financially rewarded. Champlain took over his ailing uncle’s Cádiz-based naval business upon return from the new world.

Champlain gained professional independence from the financial reservoir of his royal pension from the King and the inheritance from his uncle (dead 1601). Champlain went on to be a royal geographer for the King from 1601 to 1603, surveying French fishermen who fished the virgin coasts off the North American northeast.

Champlain also studied France’s failure to establish a fur trade post on the continent and asked the King to participate in the next attempt by mercant Aymar de Chaste in 1603. The leader of the expedition, François Gravé Du Pont, was a ship captain who established the first post at Tadoussac with Captain Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit of the Royal French Navy. Tadoussac is situated at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, the perfect location to meet fur trading aboriginals with the finest, thickest northern pelts. The trade off was the harsh environment, which nearly wiped out all of the first trade post occupants.

Du Pont learnt the harsh realities of the New World the hard way and was determined to make this expedition work as navigator of the Bonne-Renommée. Champlain took a liking to his skill and determination and the two quickly become friends and allies in the quest to open North America to French commercial interests. Champlain used the opportunity to map out the St Lawrence and write a book about his encounters with the aboriginals (Des Sauvages: ou voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouages, faite en la France nouvelle l’an 1603).

Champlain returned to North America in 1604 with the latest expedition to establish a royal fur monopoly under a new merchant, Pierre Dugua de Mons. This time, Champlain explored the Maritimes to camp out the winter, a prelude to the foundation of the Acadia colony.

The expedition ultimately settled on Saint Croix Island in the Saint Croix River between present-day Maine and New Brunswick. After the first winter of 1604-1605, the colonists relocated to the other side of the Bay of Fundy in the famous Port Royal colony in present-day Nova Scotia and Dugua returned to France to defend his fur trade monopoly (he failed like the last few – the King being so indecisive).

Port Royal was Champlain’s staging point from 1605-1607 to explore down the Atlantic coast all the way to Cape Cod, running into fights with some of the locals. This put him off colonizing further south from Port Royal.

Besides, the better furs were further north. In 1608, Dugua, Champlain (commanding the Don-de-Dieu) and Captain Du Pont (commanding the Lévrier) decided to start anew down the St. Lawrence. The staging point was Champlain’s old stomping ground at Tadoussac. The colonists worked their way up the St. Lawrence in small boats.

Champlain founded Québec over the summer of 1608, constructing various buildings and fortifications. He also spent time dealing with the aboriginals of the region, such as the Iroquoian-speaking Huron, the Algonquian-speaking Algonquins, Montagnais and Malecites. These relationships would seal the fate of New France about 150 years later when he agreed to ally against the Iroquois Confederacy.

In 1609, Champlain headed south with a handful of soldiers and 300 aboriginal allies down the Richelieu River into Lake Champlain, most of whom headed back north when they couldn’t find the enemy. The remaining party ran into some Iroquois and a skirmish soon broke out. The French/Huron party was vastly outnumbered but Champlain and his two colleagues wielded a mighty arquebus (basically a small shoulder-fired cannon).

The Frenchmen killed two of the Iroquois chiefs. Champlain had won the battle, but lost the war. The English, who otherwise were terrible that courting aboriginal allies, now had the Iroquois on their side for the upcoming French-Indian Wars.

In 1610, Champlain brought the fight to the Mohawks with these same aboriginal allies, completely crushing all the resistance with the mighty arquebus.

The same year, the assassination of King Henri by a Catholic terrorist derailed the plans for a French colony. Champlain’s religion is subject to debate, but his financier, Dugua, was Protestant, like many of the seafearing merchants of France. The deceased king’s wife, a fervent Catholic, blocked the political influence of Protestants.

Champlain returned to France in 1610 to protect his budding colony and even married a 12-year old to get better court access (the marriage was not much of a happily ever after story – she grew tired of the New World and left the marriage childless to join a convent).

Champlain explored more of New France in 1613, going up the Ottawa River, recounted in Voyages. Champlain founded a merchant cartel in 1614 back in France and put it to use in 1615, while expanding the presence of the Catholic Church with missionaries and land grants.

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