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Samuel de Champlain

1567-1635

French Geographer and Explorer

Samuel de Champlain was among the first explorers to travel along the east coast of North America and into its interior. He is often credited as the founder of New France, which is known today as Canada. He also established or helped to establish colonies at Montreal, Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia, and Quebec. By founding Quebec, he created the first permanent European settlement in North America. He also helped to create much more accurate maps of northeastern North America, providing needed geographical information to later expeditions.

Born around 1567 in the town of Brouage on the coast of France, Champlain soon began a career at sea. He learned about navigation, mapmaking and chart-reading, and took part in his first major expeditions to the West Indies from 1601-1603. His interest spurred, he set sail again, this time aboard a ship that was headed to Canada, or New France. Led by François Gravé du Pont, the 1603 expedition toured Tadoussac and ventured north to Montreal. Through an interpreter who translated between Champlain and the native people, he learned about the existence of the Great Lakes.

Champlain's trip with du Pont kindled a desire to explore more of northern North America, and in particular, an area known as Acadia (Newfoundland and surrounding regions). Back from the du Pont expedition for less than a year, Champlain joined another voyage to Canada. Lieutenant General Pierre du Gua de Monts led this trip, which Champlain made as the ship's geographer. Champlain spent the fall of 1604 exploring the coasts of Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy and the St. John River as part of the crew, and then spent many days on his own touring and writing meticulous accounts of the coastline and adjoining inland areas. The expedition over-wintered on what is now known as Douchet Island in the St. Croix River, then made its way down the coast, traveling south to Cape Cod. Champlain continued his highly detailed description of the areas he visited, and generated needed information for maps of the Atlantic coastline of northern North America.

De Monts returned to France, but Champlain and other Frenchmen remained in Acadia for two years. Champlain spent his time exploring and further charting the eastern seaboard from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island. He and the other Frenchmen returned to France in 1607, but Champlain quickly landed a position as lieutenant for another expedition led by de Monts. By June 1608, Champlain was again in Canada. There, he led the construction of a fort in what is now Quebec. Within two years, the fort had become France's North American center for fur trading.

Champlain's interests in exploring this new wilderness became particularly evident during his 1615 journey into Canada's interior, where his eyes fell for the first time upon Lake Huron. In fact, he was likely the first European to ever see the freshwater expanse. He relied on native people to guide him through the forests and to assist with safe passage through the Indian-inhabited countryside. Intertribal violence persisted, however. One skirmish with a warring group of Indians left Champlain with a severe knee injury that required several months of recovery time.

After his explorations continued, Champlain not only was able to learn about the inland geography of Canada, but was successful in documenting the lives and lifestyles of the native people. His account was one of the first thorough descriptions of the Canadian native populations.

Champlain went to France periodically over the years, but always returned to Canada. He had even attained the title of commander of the colony at Quebec. A war between France and England forced him to surrender Quebec in 1629 and return to France, but his country regained both Quebec and Annapolis Royal in 1632. By then nearing 70 years old, Champlain went back to Quebec for the last time. His health deteriorated, and he died there on December 25, 1635.

LESLIE A. MERTZ

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Samuel de Champlain

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