Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Chapter I Champlain's First Voyage to America

SAMUEL CHAMPLAIN, the issue of the marriage of Antoine Champlain and Marguerite Le Roy, was born at Brouage, now Hiers Brouage, a small village in the province of Saintonge, France, in the year 1570, or according to the Biographie Saintongeoise in 1567. His parents belonged to the Catholic religion, as their first names would seem to indicate.

When quite young Samuel Champlain was entrusted to the care of the parish priest, who imparted to him the elements of education and instilled his mind with religious principles. His youth appears to have glided quietly away, spent for the most part with his family, and in assisting his father, who was a mariner, in his wanderings upon the sea. The knowledge thus obtained was of great service to him, for after a while he became not only conversant with the life of a mariner, but also with the science of geography and of astronomy. When Samuel Champlain was about twenty years of age, he tendered his services to Marshal d'Aumont, one of the chief commanders of the Catholic army in its expedition against the Huguenots.

When the League had done its work and the army was disbanded in 1598, Champlain returned to Brouage, and sought a favourable opportunity to advance his fortune in a manner more agreeable, if possible, to his tastes, and more compatible with his abilities. In the meantime Champlain did not remain idle, for he resolved to find the means of making a voyage to Spain in order 44 to acquire and cultivate acquaintance, and make a true report to His Majesty (Henry IV) of the particularities which could not be known to any Frenchmen, for the reason that they have not free access there." He left Blavet at the beginning of the month of August, and ten days after he arrived near Cape Finisterre. Having remained for six days at the Isle of Bayona, in Galicia, he proceeded towards San Lucar de Bara-meda, which is at the mouth of the river Seville, where he remained for three months. During this time he went to Seville and made surveys of the place. While Champlain was at Seville, a patache, or advice boat, arrived from Porto Rico bearing a communication addressed to the king of Spain, informing him that a portion of the English army had put out to sea with the intention of attacking Porto Rico.

The king fitted out twenty ships to oppose the English, one of which, the Saint Julien, was commanded by Provent^al, Champlain's uncle. Champlain prop<?sed to join the expedition under his uncle, but Prove^al was ordered elsewhere, and General Soubriago offered the command of the Saint Julien to Champlain, which lie gladly accepted.

The armada set sail in the beginning of January, 1599, and within six days, favoured by a fresh breeze, the vessels sighted the Canary Islands. Two months and six days later the armada drew near to the island called La Ddsirade, which is the first island approached in this passage to the Indies. The ships anchored for the first time at Nacou, which is one of the finest ports of the Guadeloupe. After having passed Marguerite Island and the Virgins, Champlain proceeded to San Juan de Porto Rico,1 where he found that both the town and the castle or fortress had been abandoned, and that the merchants had either made their escape or had been taken prisoners. The English army had left the town and had taken the Spanish governor with them, as he had surrendered on the condition that his life should be spared.

On leaving Porto Rico the general divided the galleons into three squadrons, and retained four vessels under his own command. Three were sent to Porto Bello, and three, including Champlain's vessel, to New Spain. Champlain arrived at Saint Jean de Luz eight days afterwards, although the place is fully four hundred leagues from Porto Rico. This fortress bore the name of San Juan d'Ulloa. Fifteen days afterwards we find Champlain setting sail for Mexico, situated at a distance of over one hundred leagues from San Juan.

Champlain was evidently very much interested in this country, and his description is that of an enthusiast: "It is impossible to see or desire a more beautiful country than this kingdom of New Spain, which is three hundred leagues in length, and two hundred in breadth. . . . The whole of this country is ornamented with very fine rivers and streams . . . the land is very fertile, producing corn twice in the year . . . the trees are never devoid of fruit and are always green." The voyage to Mexico occupied a month, and Champlain gave an animated description of the city of Mexico, of its superb palaces, temples, houses and buildings, and well laid streets, as well as of the surrounding country.

After leaving Mexico, Champlain returned to San Juan de Luz, and from there sailed in a patache to Porto Bello, "the most pitiful and evil residence in the world." The harbour, however, was good, and well fortified. From Porto Bello to Panama, which is on the sea, the distance is only seventeen leagues, and it is interesting to read Champlain's description :

"One may judge that if the four leagues of land which there are from Panama to this river were cut through, one might pass from the South Sea to the ocean on the other side, and thus shorten the route by more than fifteen hundred leagues; and from, Panama 'to the Straits of Magellan would be an island, and from Panama to the New-found-lands would be another island, so that the whole of America would be in two islands."

It is thus seen that the idea of connecting the Atlantic ocean with the Pacific by cutting through the Isthmus of Panama is not a modern one, as it was promulgated by Champlain over three hundred years ago.

At this time Spain was in great need of a good transportation service at the isthmus. The treasures of Peru were sent to Europe by the Panama route to Porto Bello, from where the ships sailed to the old continent. The route between the Pacific coast and the Gulf of Mexico was exceedingly bad. Sometimes the merchants forwarded European goods to Panama, having them transported to Chagres. Here they were landed in boats and conveyed to Cruces. From Cruces to Panama mules were employed for the remainder of the journey. It was, however, the route taken by travellers visiting Peru, Chili, New Granada, Venezuela, and other Spanish possessions on the Pacific coast. The most regular connection between the two oceans was from Fort Acapulco to Vera Cruz, through Mexico. If Spain had adopted a better line of communication with her western territories in the New World she might have derived vast treasure from that source. In the year 1551 Lopez de Gomara, the author of a "History of Indies," a work written with care and displaying considerable erudition, proposed to unite the two oceans by means of canals at three different points, Chagres, Nicaragua and Tehuantepec. Gomara's proposals were not acted upon, and the honour of carrying out the project was reserved for France. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who succeeded in connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, was the man who, after the lapse of centuries, seriously interested his fellow-countrymen in boring the Isthmus of Panama.

Champlain returned to San Juan de Luz, where he remained for fifteen days, and he then proceeded to Havana, the rendezvous of the army and of the fleet. Eighteen days later he embarked in a vessel bound for Cartagena, where there was a good port, sheltered from all winds. Upon his return to Havana Champlain met his general and spent four months in collecting valuable information relating to the interesting island of Cuba. From Havana he proceeded past the Bahama channel, approached Bermuda Island, Terceira, one of the Azores, and sighted Cape St. Vincent, where he captured two armed English vessels, which were taken to Seville.

Champlain returned to France in March, 1601, having been absent on his first voyage for a period of two years and two months, during which time he collected much valuable information. He also published a small volume containing plans, maps and engravings, fairly well executed for the* time, and now exceedingly scarce. The manuscript of this volume is still preserved; it covers one hundred and fifteen pages with sixty-two drawings, coloured and surrounded with blue and yellow lines. It appears to have been written between the years 1601 and 1603.

The first voyage of Champlain across the Atlantic, though important from a military standpoint, did not suffice to satisfy the ambition of a man whose thoughts were bent upon discovery and colonization. Champlain was a navigator by instinct, and in his writings he gave to nautical science the first place.

"Of all the most useful and excellent arts," he writes, "that of navigation has always seemed to me to occupy the first place. For the more hazardous it is, the greater the perils and losses by which it is attended, so much the more is it esteemed and exalted above all others, being wholly unsuited to the timid and irresolute. By this art we obtain a knowledge of different countries, regions and realms. By it we attract and bring to our own land all kinds of riches; by it the idolatry of Paganism is overthrown and Christianity proclaimed throughout all the regions of the earth. This is the art which won my love in my early years and induced me to expose myself almost all my life to the impetuous waves of the ocean, and led me to explore the coasts of a portion of America, especially those of New France, where I have always desired to see the lily flourish, together with the only religion, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman."

After his return to France in the year 1601, Champlain received a pension, together with the appointment of geographer to the king. Pierre de Chauvin, Sieur de Tontuit, who had unsuccessfully endeavoured to establish a settlement at Tadousac, died at this time, while Champlain was residing in Paris. Here he had the good fortune to meet Aymar de Chastes, governor of the town and^chateau of Dieppe, under whose orders he had served during the latter years of the war with the League.

De Chastes, who had resolved to undertake the colonization of Canada, obtained a commission from the king, and formed a company, composed of several gentlemen and the principal merchants of Rouen. Francis Gravd, Sieur du Pont, who had already accompanied Chauvin to Tadousac, was chosen to return there and to examine the Sault St. Louis and the country beyond.

"Going from time to time to see the Sieur de Chastes," writes Champlain, "judging that I might serve him in his design, he did me the honour to communicate something of it to me, and asked me if it would be agreeable to me to make the voyage, to examine the country, and to see what those engaged in the undertaking should do. I told him that I was very much his servant, but that I could not give myself license to undertake the voyage without the commands of the king, to whom I was bound, as well by birth as by the pension with which His Majesty honoured me to enable me to maintain myself near his person, but that, if it should please him to speak to the king about it, and give me his commands, that it should be very agreeable to me, which he promised and did, and received the king's orders for me to make the voyage and make a faithful report thereof; and for that purpose M. de Gesvres, secretary of his commandments, sent me with a letter to the said Du Pont-Gravd, desiring him to take me in his ship and enable me to see and examine what could be done in the country, giving me every possible assistance."

"Me voila expedie" says Champlain, "I leave Paris and take passage on Pont-Gravd's ship in the year 1603, the 15th of the month of March." The voyage was favourable for the first fifteen days, but on the 30th a heavy storm arose, "more thunder than wind," which lasted until April 16th. On May 6th the vessel approached Newfoundland, and arrived at Tadousac on the 24th. Here they met with about one hundred Indians, under the command of Anadabijou, who were rejoicing on account of their recent victory over the Iroquois. The chief made a long harangue, speaking slowly. He congratulated himself upon his friendship with the French nation, and stated that he was happy to learn that the king was anxious to send some of his subjects to reside in the country and to assist them in their wars. Champlain was also informed that the Etchemins, the Algonquins, and the Montagnais, to the number of about one thousand, had lately been engaged in warfare with the Iroquois, whom they had vanquished with the loss of one hundred men.

On June 9th following, Champlain witnessed the spectacle of a grand feast given by the Indians in commemoration of their victory. The celebration consisted of dances, songs, speeches and games. Tessouat, the sagamo of-the Ottawas, was the chief captain, and took a prominent part in the demonstration.

After a long description of these public festivities, Champlain gives ample details of the manners and customs of the Indians, especially of their superstitions. The Indians believed that a God existed who was the creator of all things, but they had a curious manner of explaining the creation of man. "When God had made everything," they said, "He took a quantity of arrows and fixed them in the earth, whence came men and women, who have increased ever since." The sagamo said they believed in the existence of a God, a son, a mother and a sun; that God was the greatest of the four; that the son and the sun were both good; that the mother was a lesser person, and so was the father, who was less bad.

The Indians were convinced that their deity had held communication with their ancestors. One day five Indians ran towards the setting sun where they met God, who asked them, "Where are you going?" " We are going to seek our life," they replied. Then God said, "You will find it here." But they did not hear the divine word, and went away. Then God took a stone and touched two of them, and they were immediately turned into stones. Addressing the three other Indians, God asked the same question, "Where are you going?" and He was given the same answer. "Do not go further," said the divine voice, " you will find your life here." Seeing nothing, however, they continued their journey. Then God took two sticks and touched two of them, and they were at once turned into sticks. The fifth Indian, however, paused, and God gave him some meat, which he,ate, and he afterwards returned to his countrymen.

These Indian tribes had their jugglers, whom they called pilotois, from the Basques, or autmoins, which means a magician. These jugglers exercised great sway over the Indians, who would not hesitate to kill a Frenchman if the jugglers decided that it was necessary.

In spite of their superstitions Champlain believed that it would be an easy task to convert the Indians to Christianity, especially if the French resided near them. This desirable end was not to be attained without great difficulty, as Champlain soon realized, for the missionaries toiled for many years before their efforts were crowned with success.

Champlain now proceeded to explore the river Saguenay for a distance of twelve to fifteen leagues, and he thus describes the scenery:

"All the land I have seen is composed of rocks, covered with fir woods, cypress, birch, very unpleas-ing land, where I could not find a league of plain land on each side." He also learned from the Indians of the existence of Lake St. John, and of a salt sea flowing towards the north. It was evidently Hudson Bay to which these northern tribes directed Champlain's attention, and if they had not seen it themselves they had probably heard of its existence from the Indians dwelling around the southern or south-western shores of the bay, who came annually to Nemiscau Lake to trade their furs. This lake was half way between Hudson Bay and the river St. Lawrence. The Kilistinons and other Indians of the north had regular communication with their congeneres scattered along the shores of the St. Maurice and the several rivers which flow into Lake St. John.

When the French arrived in Canada with Chauvin, in the year 1600, they began to monopolize the fur trade of all the Indian nations, but some years later the English established themselves on the shores of Hudson Bay, and prosecuted the trade for their own benefit.

Champlain could not, evidently, have been in possession of any exact information as to the existence of this large bay, as he was searching for a northern passage to Cathay, the great desideratum of all the navigators and explorers of the time.

After having promised to aid the various tribes gathered at Tadousac in their wars, Champlain and Pont-Grave proceeded to Sault St. Louis. This expedition lasted fifteen days, during which they saw Hare Island, so named by Jacques Cartier, and the Island of Orleans. The ship anchored at Quebec where Champlain stopped to make a short description of the country watered by the St. Lawrence, and they then proceeded to Sault St. Louis. Here Champlain gathered much valuable information relating to lakes Ontario and Erie, the Detroit River, Niagara Falls, and the rapids of the St. Lawrence. Returning to Tadousac, he determined to explore Gaspesia, and proceeded to visit Perce and Mai Bay, where he met Indians at every turn. He also was informed by Prevert, from St. Malo, who was exploring the country, of the existence of a copper mine.

Champlain carefully noted all the information he had received, and after his return to Tadousac he sailed again for France on August 16th, 1603, and reached Havre de Grace, after a passage of twenty-one days. On his arrival in France, he heard that Aymar de Chastes had died a few weeks previously, on August 13th. This was a great loss to Canada, and especially to Champlain, for he was convinced that the noble and enterprising de Chastes was seriously disposed to colonize New France. "In this enterprise," he says, "I cannot find a single fault, because it has been well inaugurated." With the death of de Chastes, the project of colonizing would undoubtedly have fallen through had not Champlain been present to promote another movement in this direction. Champlain had an interview with the king, and presented him with a map of the country which he had visited, and placed in his hands a relation of his voyage. Henry IV was so favourably impressed that he promised to assist Champlain in his patriotic designs.

Return to our Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus