Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain, cartographer, explorer, colonial administrator, author (born circa 1567 in Brouage, France; died 25 December 1635 in Quebec City). Known as the “Father of New France,” Samuel de Champlain played a major role in establishing New France from 1603 to 1635. He is also credited with founding Quebec City in 1608. He explored the Atlantic coastline (in Acadia), the Canadian interior and the Great Lakes region. He also helped found French colonies in Acadia and at Trois-Rivières, and he established friendly relations and alliances with many First Nations, including the Montagnais, the Huron, the Odawa and the Nipissing. For many years, he was the chief person responsible for administrating the colony of New France. Champlain published four books as well as several maps of North America. His works are the only written account of New France at the beginning of the 17th century.

Samuel de Champlain (false portrait)
False portrait of Samuel de Champlain, based on an engraved portrait of Michel Particelli d'Emery by Balthazar Moncornet and dated 1654. Nevertheless, this image has become the one most associated with Champlain as no other detailed image of the man exists.

Early Life and Career

There is no authentic portrait of Champlain and little is known about his family background or youth. He may have been baptized a Protestant. It is certain, however, that he was a Catholic as of 1603.

In 1613, he wrote that he was interested “from a very young age in the art of navigation, along with a love of the high seas.” By the age of 20, he had sailed to Spain, the Caribbean and South America. The account of these voyages, Bref Discours, is attributed to him, but he himself never referred to it.

First Voyages to Canada

Champlain landed in Canada in 1603, on a voyage up the St. Lawrence River with François Gravé du Pont. At the time, Champlain held no official title. He published an account of this voyage, Des Sauvages, ou, Voyage de Samuel Champlain, in France. It was the first detailed description of the St. Lawrence since Jacques Cartier’s explorations. Since that time, the Algonquin had taken over the area from the Iroquois. At Tadoussac and other locations in the Laurentian Valley, the French had contact primarily with the Montagnais, Algonquin, Maliseet and Mikmaq peoples.

In 1604, Champlain sailed to Acadia with Pierre Dugua de Mons, who planned to establish a French colony there. Champlain had no position of command at either of the Acadian settlements at Ste-Croix or Port-Royal (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia). As a cartographer, he was tasked with searching the coast for an ideal location for settlement. He also acted as a diplomat in dealings with the Indigenous peoples that Dugua wanted to get to know better.

In 1605 and again in 1606, Champlain explored the coastline of what is now New England. He went as far south as Cape Cod. In 1608, Dugua chose the St. Lawrence over Acadia. He sent Champlain to establish a settlement at Quebec (now Quebec City), where the fur trade with First Nations could be controlled more easily.

Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, established by Champlain in 1605, was the centre of Acadian life. This reconstruction is a national historic park.

Settlement at Quebec

Champlain, a visionary, dreamed of adding a great domain to France. But he also wanted to bring wealth through the fur trade, to spread the Catholic faith and to penetrate the mysteries of the great and baffling continent. He persuaded the Sieur de Monts to write off his Acadian ventures and fired him with a new energy for an expedition to Quebec. There, he told De Monts, he would “plant himself on the great River of St. Lawrence, where commerce and traffic can be carried on much better than in Acadie.” De Monts got his trade monopoly renewed, appointed Champlain governor and set the shipwrights of Honfleur to work modifying vessels for the voyage to Canada.

De Monts sent one ship, Le Levrier, under the command of Gravé du Pont to trade at Tadoussac. Le Don de Dieu, commanded by Champlain, was sent to establish a post at Quebec.

Le Don de Dieu sailed from Honfleur on 13 April 1608. It raised Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland, on 26 May and reached Tadoussac on 3 June. There, Gravé du Pont was a virtual prisoner of the tough Basques who ridiculed his claim to a monopoly on trade. Champlain, the consummate diplomat, made peace with the Basques. He then resumed his course up the St. Lawrence, arriving off Cap Diamant on 3 July.

“I arrived there on the 3rd of July,” Champlain wrote in 1608. “I searched for a place suitable for our settlement, but I could find none more convenient or better situated than the point of Quebec.” Champlain stepped ashore and unfurled the fleur-de-lys, marking the beginning of that city and indeed of Canada.

Champlain set the men to work felling the butternut trees. They dug sawpits and sawed the logs into planks. Their “habitation” was an ambitious structure of three stories, a kind of miniature Bastille. It had a gallery running around the outside and was embellished with a dovecote, which only nobles were allowed to set up in France. The whole structure had a moat around it and a drawbridge before the main entrance. Most of the materials were prepared on the spot but the handsome glazed windows were brought from France.

Before the work was done, Champlain had to put down a mutiny. Several of his men, angered that they were not to share in the profits of the fur trade, planned to murder him and sell out to the Basques. One of the conspirators lost his nerve and told Champlain, who arrested the gang of five. After the crisis, the work resumed through September. Some land was cleared and planted with winter wheat and rye. Everything was made ready, but the first winter was severe. A harsh frost descended in October and snow in mid-November. Eighteen men were afflicted by scurvy and 16 died.

Samuel de Champlain
Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage. It depicts a battle between Haudenosaunee and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain.

When spring finally broke up the ice in April 1609, only eight of the 24 men who wintered at Quebec were still alive. Yet the ever-confident Champlain made preparations to set off on an expedition against the Iroquois.

Champlain vowed to make Quebec the centre of a powerful colony. However, he was opposed by the various merchant companies that employed him. It was more profitable for them to be involved only in the fur trade. In a 1618 report, Champlain outlined Quebec’s commercial, industrial and agricultural opportunities. His dream seemed about to come true in 1627 when the Compagnie des Cent-Associés was founded. By 1628, however, the Kirke brothers had taken over Tadoussac, Cap Tourmente, and Quebec in the name of the English Crown. The capital of the fledgling colony of New France was also taken by the English in 1629. Champlain was taken prisoner and sent to England. He and Quebec were returned to the French under the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1632.

Appointed lieutenant by Cardinal Richelieu, Champlain returned to Quebec in 1633. He was able to see the promising beginnings of the colony he had planned. He was paralyzed in the fall of 1635 due to a stroke. He died on Christmas Day that year. His remains, buried under the Champlain chapel which adjoined Notre-Dame-de-la-Recouvrance, may today lie under the cathedral basilica, Notre-Dame de Québec.

Relationship with Indigenous People

Champlain developed a vast trade network by forming and consolidating alliances with the Montagnais of the St. Lawrence, the nations on the Ottawa River, and the Huron of the Great Lakes. These alliances obliged Champlain to support his allies in their wars against the Iroquois, whose territory was to the south of Lake Ontario and into present-day New York. He participated in military campaigns in 1609 (on Lake Champlain), in 1610 (near Sorel) and in 1615 (in Iroquois territory). Injured in the third expedition, he was forced to spend the winter of 1615—16 in Huronia. He took advantage of this time to explore the Lake Huron region. He also developed cordial relations with other nations, notably the Odawa and the Nipissing. (See also Indigenous-French Relations.)

Champlain’s Writings

Champlain left behind a considerable body of writing, largely relating to his voyages. The most important editions of his work are the ones prepared by C.H. Laverdière (1870) and the bilingual edition of H.P. Biggar (1922–36). Champlain’s works are the only written account of New France at the beginning of the 17th century. As a geographer and “artist” (as a factum states), he illustrated his accounts with numerous maps, of which the most important and the last was that of 1632. It includes a list of place names not found on the map as well as unpublished explanations. It presents everything known about North America at that time.

See also: Samuel de Champlain: Timeline; Exploration; Exploration: Timeline; Exploration Literature; Exploration and Travel Literature in French; History of Cartography in Canada; Champlain Sea; Lake Champlain.

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Further Reading

  • Josepha Sherman, Samuel de Champlain: Explorer of the Great Lakes Region and Founder of Quebec (2002).
  • David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream (2009).
  • Adrianna Morganelli, Samuel de Champlain: From New France to Cape Cod (2005).

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