Log Cabin Chronicles

"Samuel de Champlain: A poor linguist, a rigid Roman Catholic, as alien to the Indian as a man from Mars. Perhaps they liked his style..."


champlainIn our last episode we left our intrepid hero, Sam Champlain, furtively paddling into a big beautiful lake with about sixty Indians warriors from three different tribes. They searched cautiously for weeks in midsummer of 1609 looking for a fight but the country was empty and still. Despite the tension, Sam must have loved every minute of it.

Samuel de Champlain, Captain of Marine in the service of His Majesty Henri IV and Father of New France, was a man of many skills but his primary passion in life was exploring strange new places just for the fun of it. Of course, then as now, traveling around unknown places is an expensive hobby and Sam was not independently wealthy.

For those willing to finance such expeditions there must usually be a profit in it somewhere. For fifty years the northern New World had already proved profitable for some, first from the Georgian Banks fisheries off Newfoundland, then from the coastal fur trade in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But it was risky business and by 1609 had about reached its limits -- without some major new initiative.

Hundreds of ships would blow across the North Atlantic each spring, jostle and bump each other, competing for fish or lush American animal pelts, then blow back to Europe before winter ice could close the continent. The more ships that came to touch land around the mouth of the St. Lawrence, then up as far as Montreal Island, heightened the competition and reduced the profits.

The Native American producers of the rich furs could not keep up with the demand and made the reasons clearly known to the Europeans. A huge area must be hunted, dozens of tribes involved, long distances must be traversed. All this could be done, but there was war along the trade routes, ambush and fear. War was bad for business.

While Champlain may have been technically in service of the King, he worked for a private partnership of merchants. The French government put no money into these speculative enterprises. The government could, however, decree a trading monopoly for a certain private company. Political connections, of course, were required, but some fair prospect of success was also necessary. For his trading company, Champlain himself was that fair prospect of success.

Sam had already made a favorable impression on the King a few years earlier when he presented his portfolio of maps of the New England and Nova Scotia coasts to the court. These basic maps remained in common use for nearly a hundred years.

Although Champlain had not yet published the volumes of his travels, he was well regarded in Paris as a man acquainted with the New World -- perhaps better than any other. He also had a plan.

Champlain argued not only that a royal grant of monopoly was necessary to curb the commercial chaos on the St. Lawrence, but that such a monopoly could only be enforced by a year-round French presence on the river. He proposed to build an outpost at Quebec as the ideal choke-point to control European access to the interior.

The annual fur market could continue to be celebrated farther upstream at Montreal Island but in a fashion more orderly and profitable for all concerned. The King liked the plan. Sam's company got their monopoly, temporarily at least, and he was appointed chief of the enterprise.

The success of the project depended mainly on the Indians and no European seemed to get along better with them than Samuel de Champlain. He was a poor linguist, a rigid Roman Catholic, as alien to an Indian as a man from Mars. Perhaps they liked his style. More probably, they respected his integrity and willingness to deal with them fairly.

But, most importantly, he promised to "help them with their wars."

On three occasions over the twenty-five years or so he lived along the St. Lawrence Sam went into battle with his tribal friends. It was barely enough to fulfill his pledge.

The Lake Champlain battle in 1609 was the first. Champlain's military experience was limited at best, perhaps a stint as a quartermaster on the Continent, but he could handle his weapon and knew basic European-style tactics. New World forest warfare, however, was something else again, furtive and disorganized, sometimes shockingly brutal.

So Sam wasn't expecting a tourist excursion when he set off from Quebec to prove his courage and demonstrate French authority. Champlain traveled up the St. Lawrence in a "shallop," a good sized, sturdy vessel fitted with sails capable of comfortably accommodating all twelve Frenchmen. He hoped to be able to ride the shallop all the way into the beautiful great lake.

For years, the shallop had been Champlain's preferred transport as he picked along rocky coastlines, ducking into harbors and around islands, exploring up rivers as far as the tide could take him. It was probably a pretty good platform for making close observations, measuring distances, taking soundings. He had room for all his mariner-map maker tools, tablets, pen and ink for taking notes and sketching. He also had a place to work while others sailed the boat.

A short distance up the Richelieu River that all changed. The summer was dry, the river very low but even in full flood neither French shallop or Indian canoe could ascend these rocky rapids. Further, it was obviously impossible to drag the shallop around by the narrow portage trails.

Either Champlain transferred to a canoe or abandoned the expedition. Then a big argument broke out among the Indians, probably over the advisability of such a risky invasion of enemy territory. Champlain was determined to continue.

Only sixty warriors of the several hundred Indians gathered at the first rapids agreed. Champlain called for volunteers among his Frenchmen. Only two of twelve stepped forward. Champlain sent the rest back to Quebec with the shallop and climbed into an Indian canoe, perhaps for the first time in his life.

These northern birch bark canoes probably looked similar to a modern canoe, perhaps twelve feet long and two wide, low to the water, with room for a paddler at each end and a passenger in the center. There was scant room for cargo. Champlain would have had to abandon most of his equipment and most importantly, his work space. Trying to draw or take notes in a tippy canoe on Lake Champlain would have been nearly impossible even in good weather. Sam probably didn't even try.

So, when Champlain came to drafting the account of his exciting Lake Champlain adventure several years later, perhaps during one of his two dozen trips across the North Atlantic, he probable didn't have much to go on besides a spotty memory of a beautiful lake and a first battle.

Alas, any field notes or sketches Champlain might have ever made are lost forever. We are unlikely to learn much more about where he went and what he saw. The age-old disputes and confusions are likely to remain unresolved.

They call this history and all too often teach it like something certain, hard as concrete, as real as the daily news. Officially, according to the state of Vermont and the local academic establishment, "history" begins in 1600 a.d., nine years before Champlain ever laid eyes on the Lake and thirteen years before he published. A hundred years more would pass before the historical record would fill much fuller. There would be no such place as "Vermont" until 1777.

History is really pale blue, not black and white; a beautiful, washed-out sky blue.

To Part One

Michael J. Badamo edits The Watchman in Montpelier, Vermont.

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