Canada: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

Samuel de Champlain, the Father of New France

To Jacques Cartier belongs the merit of having been the first to explore the mainland of Canada, but Samuel de Champlain has earned a higher place among the world's great men, because he founded a colony which was to be the seed from which has sprung the great Dominion of Canada. Champlain, who well deserves his name, "Father of New France," was born at a small fishing-port on the Bay of Biscay. Being the son of a sea-captain, he was early trained to seamanship. Although he was only thirty-six years old when he first went to Canada, he had had a good deal of experience, both as a soldier and explorer, having fought in the French wars under Henry IV., and led an expedition to the West Indies.

In 1603 he made his first voyage to Canada, which was to be the scene of his life-work. He was sent out by Aymar de Clermont, Seigneur de Chastes, to whom the King had granted a patent. This journey was to be one merely of exploration, just to find out the condition of life on the great river, discovered more than half a century before by Cartier, and to see what prospects there were for planting a future colony. Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence as far as Hochelaga, which he found deserted, the once busy and prosperous Indian town having been destroyed by savage enemies. Four years before Champlain's visit, an attempt had been made at Tadousac, at the mouth of the Saguenay, to start a settlement, but with no success, for the promoters were only keen upon the fur-trade, and cared nothing about the colonists. Throughout the history of the French rule in Canada, the adventurous life of the fur-trader proved more attractive to Frenchmen than the more sober, laborious work of the settler. But with the coming of Champlain the first real efforts at colonizing were begun.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert


When Champlain returned to France he found that his patron had died, and that his privileges had been handed on to Pierre du Guast, Sieur de Monts, who employed Champlain to help him in his work of exploration. De Monts set out with Champlain in 1604 to colonize in Canada, but in order to avoid the severe winters of the St. Lawrence he chose the shores of Nova Scotia for the site of his colony. Champlain spent the next three years exploring in this region, the story of which is told in the succeeding chapter.

In 1608, Champlain visited the St. Lawrence for the second time, with directions from De Monts to explore and colonize, and also to carry on a fur-trade with the Indians, the profits of which were to pay for the expedition. He selected the site of Stadacona, the Indian village where Cartier had received so kindly a welcome and which had now disappeared, as the place upon which to plant his infant colony. His men were soon busily at work at the foot of the great rock, building the log-houses that were to be the homes of the first brave citizens of Quebec. For protection there was a high wall of stakes surrounded by a ditch, while within the walls there were guns mounted upon bastions. In the centre of the square rose a dovecote upon a pole, typifying the peaceful nature of the settlement.

Almost before the work of building was finished, Champlain discovered a plot, which was to kill him, and to place the colony in the hands of those fur-traders who had no licence, and, therefore, were forbidden to practise their trade under the monopoly conferred upon De Monts. The leader, Jean du Val, was hanged, and four of the other conspirators sent back in chains to France, where they were severely punished.

Samuel de Champlain


The natives of America have always been called Indians by Europeans, owing to the mistake of Columbus, who thought he had discovered the long-desired India, but they were known, of course, by quite other names to themselves. The Canadian Indians belonged to the Algonquin race, who were very numerous, and who differed from other tribes in language. The Algonquins were to be found chiefly in Nova Scotia, and on the northern banks of the St. Lawrence. They numbered among their allies the Hurons, who did not belong to the same stock, being closely related to the Iroquois. Both the Hurons and the Algonquins were the deadly foes of the Iroquois, who were the most savage though the most cultured of all the Indian tribes.

The Iroquois are known also as the Five Nations, for they consisted of five different tribes, all akin to one another, and regarding each other as brothers. Their country lay south of Quebec, from Lake Ontario to the River Hudson. They were never able to muster more than three to four thousand warriors, but, in spite of their comparative smallness of numbers, they were the most feared among the Indians. Their strength lay in their organization, which gave them the power of carrying out very promptly any warlike plan proposed by their General Council. Each tribe had its own Council, but could not make a peace which would be binding on the others unless agreed upon by the Common Council. In times of war the Iroquois practised unspeakable cruelties upon their prisoners, but in their homes they were kind and very hospitable to one another.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Canada by Beatrice Home


The name Iroquois is of French origin, the savages speaking of themselves as the "people of the long house," a title taken from the style of dwelling in which they lived. Their houses were often as long as 150 feet, separate families gathering round the many fires that were burning all along the centre of the building, which was divided into small compartments on either side for sleeping accommodation.

Although their chief interest lay in warfare, the Indians did not neglect agriculture, for the invading Frenchmen found fields of maize stretching for some miles from their villages. Until long after the arrival of the Europeans, the Iroquois only used flint for their spear and arrow-heads, and their pottery was of a rough character. Pride and concealment of feelings were the dominating forces that controlled the Iroquois, who were trained from childhood to show neither pleasure, fear, nor passion upon their features They were capable of great eloquence, making long orations at their Councils, using all the imagery of the forest to express their meaning. Along with their nobler traits, of respect for age, and heroism in suffering for the cause of glory, the Iroquois carried natures full of jealous suspicion leading them to deeds of the meanest treachery. They loved the warfare that lent itself to sudden attack upon an unsuspecting people, rather than the reckless bravery of a battle in the open field.

Champlain was asked by the Algonquins, who had been very friendly to him, to help them against their fierce foes, the Iroquois. He agreed, and with a few of his own company and sixty of the Canadian Indians, he advanced into the land of the Five Nations, by way of the Richelieu River, then known as the River of the Iroquois. Proceeding along its course, he reached the beautiful lake that has since been known by his name—Lake Champlain—near the head of which he and his small force came upon a band of Iroquois nearly three times their number. The Iroquois were driven into a shameful retreat, owing to the panic caused by the mysterious deaths of their chiefs, whom Champlain and his few Frenchmen shot with their muskets. This was the first time the French had come into conflict with the Iroquois, who were to prove the greatest source of trouble to them throughout all the period of their rule in Canada. Champlain has often been blamed for not remaining strictly neutral with the Indians, but, considering the deadly feud that existed between the different groups of savages, it was almost impossible for him to have kept impartial. He needed the help of the Canadian Indians in his exploring expedition; and he would only have earned their enmity if he had not helped them against their foes.

Four years later Champlain was deceived by a man, named Nicolas Vignau, into thinking he had at last found the way to Cathay. Vignau led him up the Ottawa River, past the Falls of Chaudière—which so frightened the Indians who were with him that they threw offerings into the boiling waters to appease the angry spirit—and on to Allumette Island, where Champlain learned from some Algonquins the imposture practised upon him.

Champlain, who was at heart an explorer, fostering settlements chiefly as a means for the discovery of new lands, set out in 1615 on a great expedition to the west. He proceeded up the Ottawa to its tributary, the Mattawa, which brought him to Lake Nipissing, from which he journeyed to Georgian Bay, an inlet of Lake Huron. Here he was among the Hurons, whom he had promised to assist in their attack on the Iroquois. Crossing Lake Ontario with a war-party of Hurons, all in their savage war-paint, he reached a strong town of the Onondagas, one of the tribes of the Five Nations. The town was protected by very high wooden walls, with a trough of water running all round the top, to enable the defenders to put out any fire that might threaten their defences. The Hurons advanced yelling to the attack, but were driven back by a shower of arrows. Champlain then taught them how to make wicker-work shields to keep off the arrows, and also how to construct a sort of covered tower, from which he and the few Frenchmen with him might shoot over the high walls. When these preparations were ready the savages advanced again, but did not obey any of the orders which Champlain had given them. After a fruitless effort to set fire to the walls, they withdrew in disgust. Champlain, who had been wounded in the attack, had to spend the winter among the Hurons, returning to the little settlement at Quebec in the following spring, when he was welcomed with great joy.

The story of Champlain's life is one of ceaseless energy, spent in exploring farther and farther into the country, fighting the Iroquois, and ruling the colony.

Meanwhile the nominal rulers of Canada in France were constantly changing, but, happily for the future of Quebec, Champlain had always been maintained as Lieutenant-General. Going backwards and forwards to France, trying to get more funds and privileges for the little band of settlers at Quebec, Champlain was the life of New France. His two main objects, the outcome of his daring and yet devout character, were to find a short way to the Indies and to convert the heathen. In order to fulfill them he was anxious for the growth of the colony under his care.

In 1628, Cardinal Richelieu, the great French Minister, whom Louis XIII. had made all-powerful, formed a new company, which was to manage the affairs of Canada, under the title of the "Company of the Hundred Associates." A huge territory was comprised within the charter of the company, including Canada, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, and one of its chief terms was that the company was bound to send out a certain number of settlers, in order to increase the King's subjects in New France. Unfortunately the Cardinal barred Huguenots, which prevented the best type of working-class citizens from crossing the Atlantic, and so deprived the colony of a class of men that would have helped it by their energy, skill, and prudence.

Just at the time when the new company was being formed, and the people at Quebec were anxiously waiting for the supplies promised by Richelieu, an English fleet entered the St. Lawrence. It was led by Admiral Kirke, with instructions to fight all French ships and settlements in America, England being then at war with France. Kirke sent a demand for the surrender of Quebec, but, though his men were starving, and the defences quite incapable of standing a siege, Champlain refused to submit. Apparently thinking that the place was much stronger than it really was, Kirke did not attempt to take Quebec, but withdrew to the mouth of the river, where he found a French fleet, laden with ammunition and food for the starving garrison. The English warships attacked the French transports and captured them all.

All through the winter Quebec suffered the horrors of starvation, the men living on roots or anything they could get, and when, in the following spring, Kirke returned with a strong fleet, the place at once surrendered, the English being regarded almost in the light of saviours. Champlain was taken as a prisoner to England, but the rest of the garrison were treated very kindly, and allowed to remain in their homes.

For three years the flag of England floated from the Fort of St. Louis, which Champlain had built upon the summit of the Rock of Quebec, but when peace was made between England and France in 1632, at the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, the red flag of St. George was hauled down, and the lilies of France once more waved proudly in its place. It was Champlain who had insisted that the honour of France required the restitution of Canada, for the far-away colony was regarded as of little value in the eyes of the King. Champlain pointed out that England would grow much too powerful if she gained the St. Lawrence, and with it the entrance into the vast continent of America. He won his cause, and England was obliged, very reluctantly, to give up Quebec.

It was during the year after the signing of the treaty that Champlain returned for the last time to Quebec, the little colony for which he had done so much, and which he was never again to leave. He was happy in seeing a time of peace and prosperity settle down in Canada under his wise rule. He died, at the age of sixty-eight, on Christmas Day, 1635.

Quebec was fortunate in having a founder so noble as Champlain, whose pure life and unselfish ambition were an example alike to the settlers and to those who came after him. Had the men who succeeded him maintained his lofty aims, and shown his sound judgment, Canada to-day might still be known as New France.