Samuel de Champlain
French, circa 1567 - 1635

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Samuel de Champlain - Reminiscences of Trade and Colony | About This Narrative |

Reminiscences of Trade and Colony

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Samuel de Champlain is known as the founder of Quebec and the Father of New France.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

He could see it so clearly. The ship coursed over the waves, the shore nothing more than a thin smudge of trees and rocks. There did not seem to be much to see. His uncle urged him to the side of the ship.

"Look carefully Samuel," Uncle directed, as he pointed towards the land. "You must observe carefully, and note every detail, if you want to navigate these waters." (1)

Young Samuel thought of the blank vellum in his cabin, waiting to record his observations. He stared at the shoreline. What had appeared as a nondescript shore started to resolve into discrete areas. An inlet here—a slight jutting of a promontory there. He felt a wave of excitement, as he discovered there was much more to be seen, more to be captured with paper and ink. But then, it faded away into blackness.

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At a time when most cartographers based their maps on written accounts of new lands, Champlain drew his maps from his own explorations. Click here for a closer look.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

Samuel de Champlain struggled to wake from the dream of his youth. There were voices in the room. For a moment, he thought the voices were speaking English. Was he a prisoner once again? (2)

"Gouverneur?" the voice spoke near his ear.

Reassured at the familiar French tongue, Governor Champlain tried to open his eyes, but only his right eye obeyed him. It revealed one of the Jesuit brothers leaning over him, concern written on his face. Memory returned to him. Thankfully, he was in his own bed, in New France. He had been preparing to attend the Holy Day Mass when he was struck with a sudden weak feeling in his left side. He remembered falling to the ground—then nothing.

The Governor tried to speak, but his mouth and tongue would not form the words. His left eye, indeed his left arm and leg, felt as if they were made of wood. He knew he would not rise from this bed again. He'd recognized the signs of his health turning for the worse. Perhaps if he had not worked so hard the past two years, this day might not have come so soon. But there had been so much to do, so much to repair and build up in the colony, so much damage to undo—from the four years the English held control over the land—land that he had discovered, mapped and claimed in the name of France.

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Champlain founded Quebec (City) in 1608 as a trading post; it later became the capital of New France. Click here for more information.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

When he had received word the treaty between England and France meant the return of New France, he was ready to put into action the plans he had been detailing for years. He did not regret a moment of the past two years. He could rest easy, knowing the colony was well established, with over 150 French men and women to keep the seeds of civilization growing.

The Jesuit brother brought a pan of water from the fireplace. He dipped a cloth in the water, and carefully wiped the governor's face, easing his eyes closed. He felt the warmth of the water on the right side of his face, but when the cloth passed over his brow, there was no sensation on the left side at all.

No matter. The work of the past two years was nothing, compared to what they had suffered in the earlier days. Champlain's mind drifted back to his earliest experiences in this land. One of their first winters had been so difficult, Champlain worried the men would desire to give up the task, and insist on returning home in the spring. The Order of Good Cheer was the answer. Champlain remembered the looks on the men's faces when they learned they were each ordered to take a turn leading a hunt to provide fare for the table, and plan an entertainment for one of the long winter nights. They must have thought he was mad. But it gave each man a feeling of control, and the winter passed with less discontent than even he thought possible. (3)

Once they had entered into partnership with the savages of the Huron (Wendat) tribes, winters became easier to bear. A face Champlain had not thought of for a while rose up in his mind's eye—Young Etienne Brule. Champlain sighed. Brule was only 17 or so, when he first volunteered to befriend and live with the savages. Champlain had noticed that the younger the man, the more easily he learned the languages. For years, Brule served Champlain as interpreter, learning many of the Native dialects, and leading exploration parties in the search for the passageway to the Orient.

But Brule had failed him. Instead of being a civilizing influence on the Huron, he adapted their ways. He lived in a sinful and degenerate manner. In the end, he may have even betrayed their colony to the English, helping them navigate the difficult river currents and capture Quebec in 1629. Champlain could still taste the bitter disappointment. He had thought of the young Brule as "his lad"—one like himself, born to be an explorer. And rumor had it that the Huron had turned against Brule—or at least one of them did, and Brule left this earth prematurely. Champlain wondered if he would see Brule again soon. He had a moment's regret for removing the young man's name when revising some of the written accounts of their discoveries. (4)

The governor peered about the room again. Several of the holy brothers were now gathering in the room. He wished they would go about their business. It was a holy day; they must make ready for the Christmas mass for the colonists. The Huron children attending the college would also be at the mass. They were making good progress in learning the French language, but some were still resistant to the missionary call of the Jesuits. "At least they won't be learning English," he reflected.

The future of New France was tied with this nation of Hurons, and had been ever since he and his men aided them in wars against the Iroquois. It was difficult to realize those first battles were nearly 35 years ago, and the hostilities of the Iroquois towards the French showed no signs of weakening. "We made good enemies of the Iroquois," the governor reflected, "to make good friends of the Huron." (5)

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The 1609 Battle of Champlain set off eight decades of hostilities between New France and the Iroquois Confederacy. Click here for more information.
Courtesy of Rare Books Division, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Champlain prayed that his college in the colony would strengthen the Huron people, and bring them to an acceptance of civilizing ways. He feared the colony would need the Hurons and the other tribes who allied with the Hurons to face the Iroquois and their foreign ally, the English.

Despite the treaty, Samuel de Champlain did not trust the English; he knew they had an appetite to expand into New France. He knew his people would be on guard for any sign of northward settlement by the enemy. Even if it took generations, they would stay on their guard against the English. Champlain knew his colony would thrive. "And, once the Huron learn our ways," he thought with confidence, "the only language that will ever be heard in this land will be French."

A great restlessness overcame the governor. His right arm rose involuntarily. The holy brothers gathered by his bedside. Champlain tried to speak, as he felt heaviness spread in his body. His arm fell to his side, a dead weight.

He could see the worry in their eyes. He wanted to tell them "Do not be anxious. For too long, I have been a politician, running a colony, writing letters to the King and the government, begging for support. I came here to be an explorer. I came here to make maps, to see everything as clearly as I possibly could."

Champlain felt the wooden weight overtake him. He could no longer see the holy brothers, but he could hear them murmuring frantic prayers. He appreciated their concern, but wished they realized what he knew—what he had always known.

"I am an explorer. It has been too long since I have explored an unknown place. I have no fear of a new journey. I know how to navigate uncharted waters."

The sound of their prayers faded, as Champlain held on to one final thought: "I will observe carefully, and note every detail."

Samuel de Champlain - Reminiscences of Trade and Colony | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

As is frequently the case with a famous historic person, not a lot is known about Samuel de Champlain's early years, or his personal life. He is an iconic figure in Canadian history, the "Father of New France." But he did leave a written and graphic record, in his maps, illustrations, correspondence and publications describing his voyages to the "new world."

Information in this narrative came from secondary sources, including Samuel Eliot Morrison’s biography "Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France," as well as the English translation of Champlain's own writings in "Voyages of Samuel de Champlain."

Historic records tell us Champlain died of complications from stroke. Obviously, the dramatic format of this narrative infers Champlain's emotional state of mind on the day of his death. Knowing that Champlain had only regained his colony from the English two years prior, it is reasonable to assume concerns would still be prominent in his mind. Our historic perspective shows those concerns were justified. Why use the dramatic device of deathbed memories? It gives us an opportunity to reflect, along with de Champlain, about momentous events in his life, specifically as they demonstrate his experiences with the English. It also helps connect us to these past experiences from so long ago, by reminding us that this iconic giant from history was a real person.

This narrative was written by Cindy Boyer.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People in The Many Stories of 1704.

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