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Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570-1635) was a French geographer and explorer whose mission was to establish a joint French and Native American agricultural and fur-trading colony. In 21 voyages to New France he laid the foundations for modern Canada.

Samuel de Champlain was born at Brouage, a small Huguenot seaport town in Saintonge. He was probably born a Protestant, but sometime before 1603 he embraced the Roman Catholic faith. He had served against the Catholic League in the army of Henry IV until 1598. By 1601 he was indulging his love of travel and the sea and extending his expertise in navigation.

Early Travels

Champlain spent time during 1601-1603 on voyages as far as the West Indies, working out of Spain. In 1603 he went, probably as an observer, with François Gravédu Pont, whom Aymar de Chaste, holder of the trade monopoly for New France from King Henry IV, was sending on an expedition to the St. Lawrence.

Gravé du Pont's ships arrived at Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River on the St. Lawrence, some 120 miles below Quebec, on May 26, 1603. Champlain and Gravé du Pont reached Montreal that summer; by questioning natives through an interpreter, Champlain made astonishingly accurate guesses about the network of the Great Lakes, including Niagara Falls. Both men were back in France by the end of September.

Champlain, however, had acquired some interest and curiosity about Acadia (the area of Newfoundland and around the St. Lawrence), where he hoped to find mines and perhaps a more effective route into the interior. De Chaste died and was succeeded in the monopoly by Pierre du Gua de Monts. De Monts was interested in finding a site with a warmer climate and invited Champlain to accompany a new expedition as geographer. Early in May 1604 the expedition made landfall at Port Mouton on what is now the southeast coast of Nova Scotia, some 100 miles southwest of Halifax. Champlain was asked to choose a temporary base for settlement, and he explored the south coast of Nova Scotia; the Bay of Fundy, including the Annapolis Basin; and the St. John River. De Monts, however, chose an island in the estuary of the St. Croix, now called Dochet Island.

The winter of 1604/1605 was a bad one, the cold being exceptionally severe, and the island became surrounded by treacherous half-broken ice floes, making it more a prison than a place of safety. Scurvy was prevalent, but Champlain, as was to be usual with him, seems to have been hardy enough to have escaped it.

In the summer of 1605 De Monts and Champlain explored the American coast as far south as Cape Cod. Although one or two English explorers had preceded Champlain on this coast, he made such precise and excellent charts of it that he really deserves the title of the first cartographer of the New England coast. The winter of 1605/1606 was spent comparatively easily in the Annapolis Basin, in a fort protected from the savagely cold northwest winds by the long high ridge that lies between the basin and the Bay of Fundy. In 1606 new arrivals turned up, with whom Champlain again explored southward along the American coast, this time as far as Martha's Vineyard.

The winter of 1606/1607 was mild and easy, for the new arrivals, Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt, Marc Lescarbot, and others, had brought supplies and wine. In May 1607 the whole colony returned to France, stopping en route to explore the area of Canso at the eastern end of Nova Scotia.

In 1608 Champlain received his first official position. Up to now all his work had been as observer or geographer on an informal basis. Now he was made lieutenant to De Monts. This new expedition went once more to the St. Lawrence. Arriving in the St. Lawrence in June 1608, they began the construction of a fort at the site of what is now the Lower Town of Quebec City. In the summer of 1609 Champlain cemented the fateful alliance between the French and the Hurons by an expedition against the Iroquois, up the Richelieu River toward Lake Champlain. This alliance dated from about 1603; if the French wanted furs, they had to support the Native Americans who supplied the furs, or at least controlled access to them. Thus they were compelled to support the Hurons and Algonquins against their enemies.

Champlain was back in France over the winter 1609/1610, making a report to De Monts and the king. The story of Champlain's relations with a number of French backers is long and complicated. There were a variety of them and a good deal of quarreling between various groups seeking to get control of the fur trade. Champlain had less interest in money than in exploration and in the development of a colony. With immense patience and seemingly unwearying persistence, he traveled back and forth across the Atlantic for the next 2 decades. In all he made some 21 voyages across the Atlantic.

Travel to the Interior

In 1615 Champlain made his boldest and most spectacular venture into the interior of Canada. Bound, as he believed himself to be, by promises to the Hurons to help them against the Iroquois and driven by his own considerable curiosity, he began his epic voyage to the Huron country with two Frenchmen and Native American canoeists. He left Montreal in July 1615. Traveling up the Ottawa River and a tributary, he reached Lake Nipissing, continuing down the French River to the northeastern corner of Lake Huron. He was probably the first white man to see it. By August 1 he was in Huronia, a fertile, well-watered country, populated by Huron villages, between the foot of Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, some 40 miles southeast.

They met with the Huron raiding party at the main village of Cahiagué, on the north side of Lake Simcoe. On September 1 they canoed down the Trent River system to Lake Ontario, and then via the Oswego River to the Iroquois village at the eastern end of Lake Onondaga, not far from present-day Syracuse. Huron impatience and lack of discipline made a coherent assault on the Iroquois fort impossible. Champlain was wounded in the knee by an Iroquois arrow, and with support failing to come from the Susquehannas, the Huron allies, the raiders had to return home. Champlain, unable to walk, was at times carried like a baby on the back of a Huron.

Champlain was obliged to winter in the disagreeable habitat of a Huron village but continued his inveterate habit of travel and exploration, visiting other tribes that were neighbors of the Hurons. In addition, and perhaps more important, he provided a detailed and informed account of the Native American ways of living, one of the earliest and best available. He returned to France in 1616.

In 1619 enforced leisure owing to legal complications gave him opportunity to write accounts of his voyages, which he illustrated with sketches and maps. In 1620, as lieutenant to the viceroy of New France, the Duc de Montmorency, Champlain set out again for Canada, this time with his wife, some 30 years younger than he. In 1627 Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's chief minister, established the Company of One Hundred Associates, chartered to run the fur trade and organize settlement. Champlain was a member and became, in fact, the commander of the colony under Cardinal Richelieu.

All would have gone well but for the outbreak of war between England and France in 1627. A London company formed to get at the St. Lawrence trade financed, and Charles I of England commissioned, an expedition under David Kirke and his brothers to displace the French from Canada. They took four critically important French supply ships off Gaspé and thus almost stopped the life of the colony. By the summer of 1629, with no relief in sight, Champlain was compelled to surrender to the English and leave.

Not until 1632, with the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, did England agree to restore Quebec (and Port Royal in Acadia) to France. In 1633 Champlain returned to New France, again under the aegis of a revived Company of One Hundred Associates. He died at Quebec, the town he founded, on Christmas Day, 1635.

Champlain was physically a resilient, tough, capable man. He also had the moral essentials for his role, courage and indomitableness. He was good-natured and kind and a man of his word, which explains his considerable success with Native Americans. But he also could be ruthless. When, in 1608, there was a plot against his life by the locksmith Duval, Champlain formed a council that tried Duval and his accomplices. Duval was executed on the spot and his head stuck on a pike at the fort at Quebec.

Champlain was a man of large ideas; his aim was to establish a joint French and Native American agricultural and furtrading colony. He contemplated the Christianizing of Native Americans and their intermarriage with the French. He is, of all the explorers, the real founder of Canada, and he himself would have been pleased to be thought so. It was certainly what he set out to do.

Further Reading

H. P. Biggar edited Champlain's writings: The Works of Samuel de Champlain (6 vols., 1922-1936). Two lively and well-written biographies are Samuel Eliot Morison, Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France (1972), and Morris Bishop, Champlain: The Life of Fortitude (1948). □

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Champlain, Samuel de, Explorations of


CHAMPLAIN, SAMUEL DE, EXPLORATIONS OF. Born about 1567 in the small French Atlantic port of Brouage, Samuel de Champlain had most likely already been to Spanish America when, in 1603, he embarked as an observer on a trading expedition to the St. Lawrence Valley. Hoping to find a shorter route to the Orient, he questioned Native people, notably Algonquins, whom he met at the summer trading rendezvous at Tadoussac, about the hydrography of the interior. They subsequently took him on a trip some fifty miles up the Saguenay River before showing him the St. Lawrence as far as the Lachine Rapids above present-day Montreal. The following year, Champlain joined Sieur de Monts, Newly invested with the monopoly of the fur trade, as geographer on a venture to Acadia. After exploring parts of the Nova Scotia coastline, the party spent a difficult winter at Sainte-Croix

(later St. Croix Island, Maine), before moving to Port-Royal (later Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia). On two expeditions in 1605 and 1606, Champlain mapped the coast as far as Nantucket Sound, returning to France only in 1607.

Having convinced de Monts that the St. Lawrence Valley was more promising than Acadia for trade, exploration, and settlement, Champlain—along with a few dozen artisans and workers—established a base of operations at Quebec in 1608. The colony they founded would remain essentially a commercial and missionary outpost in the explorer's lifetime. (He died in 1635.) In 1609 Champlain and two compatriots accompanied a Native war party on a foray into Mohawk Iroquois territory, emerging victorious from an engagement at the southern end (near Crown Point, New York) of the lake to which Champlain gave his name. In 1613, the Algonquins invited Champlain to visit their country in the middle reaches of the Ottawa River. In 1615 and 1616, a similar invitation from the powerful Hurons took him east and south of Lake Huron and, on the occasion of a raiding party, to Iroquois villages probably situated between Lakes Oneida and Onondaga. While the allies permitted him to see their own and some of their neighbors' or enemies' territory, they refused him access to other parts of the interior, including the route northward to Hudson Bay he had learned about. Thus aided and constrained, Champlain explored much of the lower Great Lakes region. An energetic promoter of his colony, which he saw as a future customs station for the China trade, he published his Voyages in installments, illustrating them with carefully drafted maps. The 1632 cumulative edition of the Voyages, containing a remarkable map of New France, summarized the geographic and ethnographic observations of a long career.

In the history of French exploration in North America, Champlain is a pivotal figure, for it is with him that this enterprise began to venture inland toward the Great Lakes region and beyond. This great aboriginal domain he saw as the threshold to Asia and impatiently claimed as New France. To gain entry to it, Champlain had no choice but to obtain the permission and assistance of its Native inhabitants within the framework of the broader military and commercial alliance. Champlain was forced, aided above all by a few interpreters sent to live with the allied nations, to embark on explorations that were as much diplomatic as territorial.


Champlain, Samuel de. The Works of Samuel de Champlain. Edited by H. P. Biggar. 6 vols. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1922–1936.

Heidenreich, Conrad. "Early French Exploration in the North American Interior." In North American Exploration. Vol. 2, A Continent Defined. Edited by John Logan Allen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. "A Continent Revealed: Assimilation of the Shape and Possibilities of North America's East Coast, 1524–1610." In North American Exploration. Vol. 1, A New World Disclosed. Edited by John Logan Allen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Trigger, Bruce. Natives and New comers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Reconsidered. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985.

Trudel, Marcel. "Champlain, Samuel de." Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 1, 1000–1700. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.

———. Histoire de la Nouvelle-France. Vol. 2, Le comptoir 1604-1627. Montreal: Fides, 1966.


See alsoExploration of America, Early ; Explorations and Expeditions: French .

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Champlain, Samuel de

Samuel de Champlain (shămplān´, Fr. sämüĕl´ də shäNplăN´), 1567–1635, French explorer, the chief founder of New France.

After serving in France under Henry of Navarre (King Henry IV) in the religious wars, Champlain was given command of a Spanish fleet sailing to the West Indies, Mexico, and the Isthmus of Panama. He described this three-year tour to the French king in Bref Discours (1859). In 1603 he made his first voyage to New France as a member of a fur-trading expedition. He explored the St. Lawrence River as far as the rapids at Lachine and described his voyage in Des Sauvages (1603).

With the sieur de Monts, who had a monopoly of the trade of the region, Champlain returned in 1604 to found a colony, which was landed at the mouth of the St. Croix River. In 1605 the colony moved across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal, N.S.), and in the next three years Champlain explored the New England coast south to Martha's Vineyard, discovering Mt. Desert Island and most of the larger rivers of Maine and making the first detailed charts of the coast. After the sieur de Monts's privileges had been revoked, the colony had to be abandoned, and through the efforts of Champlain a new one was established on the St. Lawrence River.

In 1608 in the ship Le Don de Dieu, he brought his colonists to the site of Quebec. In the spring of 1609, accompanying a war party of Huron against the Iroquois, Champlain discovered the lake that bears his name, and near Crown Point, N.Y., the Iroquois were met and routed by French troops. The incident is believed to be largely responsible for the later hatred of the French by the Iroquois.

In 1612 Champlain returned to France, where he received a new grant of the fur-trade monopoly. Returning in 1613, he set off on a journey to the western lakes. He reached only Allumette Island in the Ottawa River that year, but in 1615 he went with Étienne Brulé and a party of Huron to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, returning southeastward by way of Lake Ontario. Accompanying another Huron war party to an attack on an Onondaga village in present-day New York, Champlain was wounded and forced to spend the winter with the Huron.

Thereafter Champlain devoted his time to the welfare of the colony, of which he was the virtual governor. He helped to persuade Richelieu to found the Company of One Hundred Associates, which was to take over the interests of the colony. In 1629 Quebec was suddenly captured by the English, and Champlain was carried away to four years of exile in England; there he prepared the third edition of his Voyages de la Nouvelle France (1632). When New France was restored to France in 1632, Champlain returned. In 1634 he sent Jean Nicolet into the West, thus extending the French explorations and claims as far as Wisconsin. He died on Christmas Day, 1635, and was buried in Quebec.

Champlain's works were issued by the Champlain Society (1922–36) with English and French texts. See also biographies by N. E. Dionne (1905, repr. 1963), S. E. Morison (1972), and D. H. Fischer (2008).

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Champlain, Samuel de

Champlain, Samuel de (1567–1635) French explorer, founder of New France (Canada). Following the discoveries of Jacques Cartier, he made 12 visits to New France. Besides seeking a Northwest Passage, he encouraged settlement and the fur trade, established friendly relations with Algonquin peoples (at the cost of antagonizing the Iroquois), and vastly increased geographical knowledge during his extensive travels. In 1608, he founded Québec.

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