Many of us learned about Samuel de Champlain — French explorer and founder of New France back in the 1600s — in history class. Many of us have forgotten what we learned about him, and some of us have never heard of him. This year, 2015, marks the 400th anniversary of the exploration of Ontario by Samuel de Champlain, so it seems like a good time to take another look.
Something that happened 400 years ago is not likely to have much effect on us today, right? Not in the case of Samuel de Champlain…
Champlain is known historically as the “Father of New France,” founding the future city of Québec in 1608, and the colony of New France.
After exploring the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and New England (and a failed attempt to start a settlement there), he shifted attention to the St. Lawrence River Valley in 1608.
Champlain the Diplomat
Champlain learned very quickly that if his colony was to survive, he would need the help of his neighbours. The nearest lived in the hills north of the St. Lawrence and the settlement of Québec. Champlain called them Montagnais or the “People of the Hills.” They call themselves Innu, and live across Québec today. Although he and his men had wintered in Canada before, Champlain’s first winter on the St. Lawrence in 1608-09 was a hard one. Without the Innu people, who shared food, and kept away scurvy with cedar tea, all the Frenchmen might have died.
Champlain soon met men from First Nations far to the west of Québec, including the Algonquins of the Ottawa Valley, and the Huron of Georgian Bay. In order to keep good relations with them, Champlain gave gifts, which were a show of respect (rather than the way we think of gifts today). He traded goods the French took for granted, but made life easier for Aboriginal peoples: copper pots, metal axes, woolen blankets.
In 1611, Champlain met the Huron at the island of Montréal. They wished to make a “close alliance” with Champlain, and gave him 100 beaver pelts. Champlain considered this a princely gift and gave the chiefs presents in return. The meeting was commemorated by the Huron, who presented Champlain with a wampum belt made from hundreds of tiny seashell beads, showing the four Huron chiefs – the belt still exists, in the royal collections of France.
Champlain came to learn that an alliance also meant supporting your allies against their enemies. In 1609 and again in 1610, the Huron, Algonquin and Champlain’s men took on the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived south of Lake Ontario. Meant to end raids against the Huron and Algonquin, these two battles were a great success for Champlain and his allies, resulting in peace with the Mohawk for 20 years.
Champlain sent a number of young Frenchmen to live with his allies — the Algonquin, Nipissing and Huron — to learn their language and customs, and as a sign of respect. Étienne Brûlé and Jean Nicolet were two of these truchement, and were invaluable to Champlain in forging relationships with the people of these nations.
On his 1613 journey up the Ottawa River, Champlain met with several of the Algonquin nations who lived there. It seemed that his reputation had been spreading, and all were very interested to meet him. Chief Nibachis of the Kinouchepirinis Algonquins told Champlain he had heard of him, and seemed impressed. They smoked tobacco to seal an alliance between them.
In 1615, 400 years ago this year, Champlain travelled to Huronia on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron. Travelling by canoe, Champlain met with many nations along the long trip to Huronia. On the Ottawa River he again met the Algonquin chiefs, Iroquet and Tessoüat, who he had known for a number of years. He stayed with the Nipissing for two days on the shores of Lake Nipissing, feasting with them and giving their senior chief a metal hatchet.
Once in Huronia, Champlain spent a month travelling to the many villages of the region – Champlain estimated a population of 30,000 Huron – where he met many local chiefs, and developed good relations. Eventually, Champlain attended large gathering of chiefs and warriors, where it was agreed that they would campaign against the Onondaga of the Iroquois Confederacy, who had been raiding the trade routes of the Huron and Algonquins. Champlain and his men accompanied more than 500 warriors into the heart of Iroquois Country, where they laid siege to a well-fortified village. The siege ended in stalemate, and Champlain took arrow wounds to the leg. While he considered it a failure, his allies found it to be a success, with peace in the region for 15 years.
He returned to Huronia with his allies and recovered from his wounds. During his winter in Huronia, he met with the Nipissing, the Algonquin and the Odawa (Ottawa), who lived to the west on the Bruce Peninsula. More than once, Champlain was asked to arbitrate disputes.
Champlain also respected his Aboriginal allies. He found them to be equals to Europeans in intelligence, despite the dominant belief of his time that Europeans were superior to Aboriginal peoples. Champlain’s encounters and observations of Aboriginal culture provided him an opportunity to experience a different worldview compared to his euro-centric perspective.
Historians today consider Champlain to have been a statesman and a leader with vision. His approach to relations with the First Nations he encountered continued on, and his successors maintained good relations with their allies.
Five years after Samuel de Champlain’s death in 1635, the Iroquois Confederacy renewed its attacks on the Huron, Algonquin, Nipissing and other nations, and began raiding into the St. Lawrence Valley and its French settlements. There were huge consequences for the Great Lakes region: many Nations relocated to escape the attacks, while some, like the Huron, disappeared as Nations, never to be a powerful influence again. Decades of war followed, until the French were finally able to broker “The Great Peace” of 1701 among the nations of the Great Lakes.
Champlain the Naturalist
Wherever Champlain went, he recorded his observations. On his first journey to the New World, he sailed with a Spanish ship to many Caribbean islands. He made many observations of the plants he encountered – botanical descriptions made up a quarter of his report on his Caribbean adventure he titled “Brief Discourse.”
Champlain followed the same practice in North America. He made notes and drawings of many of the plants of the region, with details of leaves, fruit and nuts. He also noted the how the Aboriginal people made use of many plants for foods, teas and medicines. On the way to the land of the Iroquois, he noted how tasty the chestnuts were. In his gardens in Québec, he had many native plants, including corn, beans, squash and pumpkin.
He used his artistic skills when creating his 1612 map, which showed his knowledge of the lands he had surveyed or heard about, and indicated the bountiful land and seas around New France.
Two interesting notations on his final map of 1632: upon reaching Lake Huron (he was unaware that he was actually on a huge bay of Lake Huron called Georgian Bay today), his party came across a large group of Odawa picking blueberries, which are abundant in the open bedrock landscape of the French River Delta. South of the French River (which he called River of the Nipissings), he made a notation Chasse des Caribous, or “caribou hunting ground.” Woodland Caribou are now found north of Lake Superior, but were once living in Central Ontario.
His keen interest in the natural world and penchant for observation might be best illustrated by an incident which got him quite lost. Out with a Huron hunting party in the Kawartha Lakes region, he saw a strange bird and followed it. Walking alone, he went off “into the woods in pursuit of a certain bird which seemed peculiar, with a beak almost like a parrot, as big as a hen, yellow all over except for its red head and blue wings, which made short successive flights like a partridge” (Armstrong, 173-4). Champlain lost sight of the bird, but had gone so far from his starting point that he was lost for four days before his companions, Chief Darontal of the Hurons and his men, found Champlain again. There has been much speculation about what type of bird Champlain saw. One theory is that it was a Carolina Parakeet, as there have been occasional sightings of this now-extinct bird in Ontario (as recently as 1877), and archaeologists have found their remains in Ontario as well.
Champlain the Geographer
Champlain learned about navigation and cartography as a young man, sailing out from his home town of Brouage on the French coast with his uncle, who was a well-regarded pilot, ship’s captain and trader (and, once, even a cosair or privateer!). Champlain joined the navy and became familiar with navigational instruments, making charts and maps. Between 1598 and 1600, he sailed in Spanish ships to the Caribbean, visiting islands, making maps and observations – he made note of plants and animals he saw there. Some historians think Champlain was gathering information on Spain’s North American colonies for France – drawing maps and making observations. Back in France, Champlain spent time studying with geographers in Paris, perhaps drawing maps of Spanish territories.
French King, Henry IV, was a keen map-lover. He was fascinated by globes, maps and new discoveries. He sponsored an atlas of France called Théâtre Français, and founded a geographic museum with six huge maps of France, the continents and oceans. He also created a centre for the development of skills in astronomy, cartography, navigation, surveying and geography. His court in Paris included geographers, and Champlain was later known as géographe du roi – “Geographer to the King.”
Champlain chose the site of the New France settlement very carefully, sailing the St. Lawrence River in 1608 and making note of its features and landscape. The location, which later became the city of Québec and capital of New France, occupied a point with a high bluff at a narrowing to the St. Lawrence River. The site was defensible and controlled the river, should unfriendly sailing ships approach. The lands around the settlement were fertile and suitable for agriculture. It became a trading hub as well, where merchants bought and traded goods – furs had been traded for decades before the French settlement, and Champlain and his fledgling colony became dependent on fur trading, since government support of the colony was scarce.
Champlain made several inland journeys with his Aboriginal allies, to Lake Champlain (which he obviously named for himself) and Montréal Island, which was an important trading place for many nations. In 1613, he decided to explore the region to the north of the St. Lawrence River, after hearing reports of a great northern sea from Nicolas de Vignau, one of his young interpreters. Vignau had claimed to have been there and Champlain surmised that it might be Hudson Bay. Champlain was skeptical, as he had learned of the great distances of this land from his Montagnais allies, so he decided to go himself. He set off on May 27, after a long voyage from France, with two Frenchmen (including Vignau) and an Algonquin guide in two canoes laden with supplies, trade goods and navigational instruments. They left the St. Lawrence just after Montréal Island and headed up the Ottawa River, which was difficult with many rapids to portage around.
Champlain made many navigational observations – he “shot the sun” with one of his instruments, estimating its angle for the time of day, which gave him a latitude of 45 degrees and 18 minutes, which was remarkably accurate. He estimated that Hudson Bay was at least 500 miles to the north – obviously Vignau’s estimate was off by quite a bit.
Champlain and his men passed a group of 15 Algonquin canoes – when he told them he was travelling upstream, they tried to discourage him, saying that the way became much more difficult. They left the river to avoid the worst of the rapids, passing through several small lakes near the present-day town of Cobden – it was here that he seems to have lost his Astrolabe, a navigational instrument that he used to estimate latitude (how far north he was). After that, his mapping became less accurate, which might be expected. The astrolabe, discovered in a field in 1867, can be seen at the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.
Once back on the Ottawa River, they came to Allumette Island, the home of the largest of the Algonquin nations, and their great chief Tessoüat. When Champlain told him he was travelling to meet the Nipissings, Tessoüat also tried to discourage him. When he was told that Vignau had been to the Nipissing country and to the far northern sea, Tessoüat was angry and said Vignau had never left their village. Concerned for Vignau’s safety, Champlain ended his journey north, and returned to Québec. It would be two more years before he would meet the Nipissing, see his first Great Lake and visit Huronia.
His map of 1613 recorded the new knowledge of the Ottawa River but also information he had gathered from his talks with the Algonquin during the trip. Like many cartographers, he used second-hand knowledge, as well as other maps, like the ones that showed the newly discovered Hudson Bay. Champlain continued to gather geographic knowledge from the Aboriginal people he encountered, who knew the region intimately.
A map he made in 1616 added La Mer Douce to the region, and shows a chain of islands representing the Thirty Thousand Islands he paddled through along the Georgian Bay Coast, although not the larger part of Lake Huron, which he was not aware of.
His final map of 1632 was the best source of knowledge of the Great Lakes for many years, even showing Lake Superior, and still hinting of a way to the Orient.
Want to retrace Champlain’s route through Ontario Parks? Use this list to plan your trip!
Armstrong, Joe C.W. Champlain. Toronto: Macmillan, 1987.
Cole, R., ed. Historical Atlas of Canada: vol I. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
Fischer, David Hackett. Champlain’s Dream. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Le Rêve de Champlain. TFO / TVO. Web. July 29, 2015.