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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Samuel de Champlain (c. 1570 - 1635)

Samuel de Champlain was an excellent cartographer and a bold and curious traveller, very able in forming alliances with the Native peoples in Canada. Born the son of a navy captain around 1570 in Brouage, on the coast of France, Champlain started sailing at a very young age. He was in Henry IV's army and, later, travelled to the West Indies with the Spanish forces. Shortly after returning to France, Champlain encountered Aymar de Chaste, who held a trade monopoly in New France and who he had met before at court. De Chaste invited Champlain to see and describe the St. Lawrence River, about which the latter had learned from Cartier's accounts. Champlain must also have had a commission from the King to accept De Chaste's invitation.

The religious wars having ended in 1598, the French nation regained its interest in exploration. Other European nations were bringing back not only cod and whale oil from their explorations, but also furs, acquired from the Native peoples in the valley of the St. Lawrence. French companies agreed to finance voyages to New France and establish colonies there, endeavours previously sponsored by the French King. In return, the King granted such companies a monopoly over colonial trade.

On March 15, 1603, Champlain boarded the Bonne Renommée at Honfleur for the first of his 21 voyages between France and New France. At Tadoussac -- a meeting point for fur trading -- he had his initial contact with the Native peoples of Canada and saw their annual celebration. Continuing on, Champlain was drawn by the breadth and mystery of the Saguenay, and ventured into it. After a few kilometres, he realized he could not go further with his boats. When he asked what there was upstream, he was told that there were rapids, falls and a salt-water sea in the north. Champlain deduced that this must be "quelque gouffre de ceste mer qui desgorge par la partie du Nort dans les terres" ["some gulf of this sea which empties northward through these lands"] seven years before the European discovery of Hudson Bay. Going up the St. Lawrence River, the Native people showed him the mouth of the Richelieu River, the "Iroquois route".

Map: "Port de Tadoussac" by Samuel de Champlain

At the Saint-Louis (Lachine) rapids  --  which Champlain braved in a canoe  --  the Native people described the river network of the Great Lakes and the falls at Niagara. Champlain asked pointed questions, listened carefully, and easily grasped the drawings that his guides traced, frequently in the sand and on birch bark. One of these maps he later reproduced on paper. A western sea did not seem far to him, but he put off plans to look for it, when, on the trip back, a merchant he met at Gaspé directed him towards Acadia.

From 1604 to 1607, Champlain accompanied Lieutenant General of Acadia Pierre du Gua de Monts to look for potential sites for a colony and also for possible mines. Champlain visited and mapped the Bay of Fundy, the Annapolis Valley and the Atlantic coast south of the St. Lawrence, from the Saint John River to Cape Cod. Their first winter, on Sainte-Croix Island, was very hard and many died from scurvy. The next summer they moved to Port-Royal  --  which proved to be not much warmer  --  and eventually left from there in search of a more clement location down the coast, but the death of several French at the hands of the Native people at Port Fortuné put an end to the project. In the end, Port Royal was deemed a fairly good spot, especially when Champlain founded the Order of Good Cheer to raise the health and morale of those who wintered there with sports, entertainment and good food. In 1607, as the trade monopoly came to an end, trade shifted from the Acadian colony in favour of the St. Lawrence valley.

Map: ["Quebec"], 1613, by Samuel de Champlain

In July 1608, Champlain, who had become lieutenant to de Monts, built the first permanent and continuous habitation, at Quebec. From then on, it was the place for trade and administration of the colony, as well as the departure point for Algonquin, Huron and Montagnais war expeditions against the Iroquois, expeditions in which Champlain took part. This military and political alliance had been forged in 1602 between the French and the Montagnais, and Champlain was obliged to take part. The alliance allowed Champlain to discover the source of the Richelieu River, the lake that bears his name. (At the same time, south of Lake Champlain, Henry Hudson was ascending the Hudson River and establishing Dutch contact with the region.)

Drawing: Champlain's sketch of himself engaged in a battle

In 1610, Champlain tried to get above the Lachine rapids to explore and to build trade alliances, but he could not get guides or canoes. Nevertheless, he managed to send Étienne Brûlé on the St. Lawrence River with the Huron and Nicolas du Vignau with the Algonquin on the Ottawa River. In exchange, Savignon, the son of the Algonquin chief Iroquet, went to France. The following year, Vignau returned, dressed as an Algonquin, and Savigon told of the strange art of quarrelling among the French  --  they argue loudly but they don't fight! Brûlé would prove exceptional in his adaptation to Native ways of life, perhaps the original "coureur de bois." In 1613, Champlain tried to explore inland, without guides, to follow up on Vignau's story of a route to Hudson Bay. The small French party reached Allumettes Island, on the Ottawa River, where the chiefs accused Vignau of having lied to Champlain about the trip he claimed to have made beyond that point. The Algonquin refused to provide Champlain with the guides and canoes that he required to carry on, claiming also that the Nipissing people would kill him.

In 1615, the war against the Iroquois provided Champlain with the opportunity to continue his explorations. Accompanying Huron warriors, he passed Allumettes Island, and travelled the Mattawa River, Lake Nipissing and the French River before he reached Lake Huron. From there, the warriors brought him south, crossing Lake Ontario, to an Iroquois village somewhere in present-day New York State. The premature assault failed, and the reinforcements that had been promised by the Andaste did not arrive. Champlain was wounded. The Huron, having had enough, went home, and took the French with them.

In the country of the Huron:
"Durant le temps de l'hyver qui dura quatre mois, j'eu assez de loisir pour considerer leur pays, moeurs, coustumes, & façon de vivre & la forme de leurs assemblées, & autres choses que je desirerois volontiers décrire. Mais auparavant il est necessaire de parler de la situation du pays, & contrées, tant pour ce qui regarde les nations, que pour les distances d'iceux. Quand à l'estenduë, tirant de l'Orient à l'Occident, elle contient prés de quatre cent cinquante lieuës de long, & quelque quatre-vingt ou cent lieuës par endroicts de largeur du Midy au Septentrion, soubs la hauteur de quarante & un degré de latitude, jusques à quarante huit & quarante-neuf thoises."

(Champlain 1632, 72, 73)

Image: Title page of Champlain's 1632 account   Image: Page from Champlain's 1632 account Image: Page from Champlain's 1632 account

Although Champlain wanted to return to Quebec after these experiences, no-one was willing to take him there, and he had to winter among the Huron. Making the best of his situation, Champlain took notes, made observations and drew. In this way he gave us an exceptional description of the mores and customs of the Huron as well as the first European sketches of Native peoples living inland in Canada.

This was Champlain's last voyage of exploration. The "father of New France" was busy with his new colony from the time of his return until his death in Quebec on Christmas Day, 1635. As an explorer, Champlain charted a road to the interior of the continent that was used by explorers travelling west for two centuries.

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