Log Cabin Chronicles

Vermont Was a Pretty Nice Place in 1609 But It Has Been Downhill Ever Since the European Riff-Raff Started Moving In


Old Sam kind of blew it as a travel writer in 1609. He left his name on our lake but I sometimes wonder if he ever really saw Vermont at all. I know he was here, but Samuel de Champlain's descriptions of his Lake Champlain excursion stand remarkably enigmatic, sparse, and in radical contrast to much of the rest of his work.

He couldn't get his dates straight. Some publishing errors may have crept in but Champlain never bothered to correct an obviously screwed up chronology in later editions. He may have been on the lake for as little as two weeks or more than a month.

Only the date of his famous battle with the Iroquois seems certain, July 30, 1609, while the location remains unknown and in dispute. He probably didn't think an exact chronology was very important and, for his purposes, it probably wasn't.

Champlain badly mixed up his directions on the Lake. His maps show Lake Champlain trending much more westerly than southerly. He makes it much longer and wider than actuality. One can never be sure just where Champlain is looking when he reports mountains to the east or the south. We may assume he did not adequately correct his compass readings to account for magnetic deviation but that doesn't help much when trying to figure out just where he was and what he saw.

Most of Champlain's account of his trip, understandably, tells the story of the battle and his starring role. Most subsequent commentary also focuses on this singular event, usually out of context and often badly misinterpreted. Much of the rest details observations of his Indian allies, their superstitions and battle rituals, their methods of training for war, how they scouted, guarded, provisioned, their cruelties and tortures.

We are left with only a few spotty comments on where he went and what he saw: the great beauty of Lake Champlain, the abundance of fish, the only chestnut trees he had seen in New France, "many of the finest vines I had seen anywhere," snow on a mountain in July.

Barely two or three paragraphs tell us anything at all about the place, the actual lake and environs, that he saw. This in distinct contrast to Champlain's accounts and maps of other places he explored. Some context might help explain it.

Champlain had just barely begun building Quebec in 1609, the first year round trading establishment in New France. He was operating under a fresh and tenuous commission from King and the trading company that employed him. For the first time, Champlain was now in complete charge of all the King's business in New France.

The new responsibilities no doubt weighed heavily, his trickiest and most important task being the establishment of friendly and profitable relations with as many American tribal people as possible. To his regret, this involved taking sides in an Indian war that had been going on for generations.

The Indians the French had been trading with for years, northern Algonkian tribes and, more recently, Hurons from a thousand miles to the west, more or less controlled the trade route waterways from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, but were under constant threat and attack by the Iroquois tribes to the south in what is now New York.

For years, the Indians along the St. Lawrence had seen the French ships fire off their cannon and armored French soldiers wreathed in musket and pistol smoke. Now they wanted French help in fighting their wars. Champlain felt he had to prove French courage and skill or the Indians would take their business elsewhere, to the English, or the Basques, or perhaps a rival French trading company, or even, God forbid, to the Spanish, all of whom lurked about ready to make deals.

With a force pitifully reduced by Indian dissension and French fear, Champlain entered the lake with two Frenchmen and about sixty Indians of three different tribes. For the first time in his life he was traveling a long distance in an Indian canoe. The countryside, though beautiful and obviously lush and pastoral, was dead still and completely uninhabited. Everybody was scared.

Five or six years earlier, when Champlain explored Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy, and the ragged coast of New England, he drew wonderfully detailed, remarkably accurate maps of the coastline and many of its inlets and harbors. That was his job. He was official Royal Geographer for those expeditions. He had no command or commercial responsibilities. Others were in charge. On Lake Champlain things were very different.

To Part Two

Michael J. Badamo edits THE WATCHMAN in Montpelier, Vermont.

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