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Background

Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) has been described as a skilled sailor, meticulous cartographer, cunning soldier1 and effective colonial administrator.

From 1603 to 1632, he made 23 voyages across the Atlantic (12 going west, 11 going east).2 During these trips, he forged diplomatic relations with Canada’s First Nations peoples, founded settlements in what would soon become New France3 and explored a large portion of North America, including the coasts of present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, the states of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as well as the Lake Champlain corridor into the states of Vermont and New York. In addition, he travelled into the heart of Ontario via the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay.4 Champlain was not the first European to explore northeastern North America. His publications, however – complete with elaborate descriptions and illustrations of the landscape and Indigenous peoples, provided by an illustrator – offer the first original, if somewhat subjective, perspective of this early period of contact between Europeans and First Nations.5

Recently discovered documents prove that Champlain was baptized in La Rochelle, France on August 13, 1574 to Huguenot (Protestant) parents Anthoine Chapeleau6 and Marguerite Le Roy, who resided in Brouage.7 He may have learned some of his superior seafaring skills at the side of his father, a pilot at Brouage, but it is more likely that he gained this experience on the Spanish ship San Julián while on a voyage to the West Indies.

In 1603, Champlain made his first voyage to New France sailing up the St. Lawrence River to Tadoussac and then on to the Lachine Rapids with the experienced captain and trader François Gravé du Pont (c. 1560-1629).8 Champlain’s task was to conduct a resource survey for French King Henri IV to determine if Canada could be successfully settled by the French. The next year, Champlain sailed to Acadia as a cartographer with the Protestant fur entrepreneur Pierre Du Gua de Monts (c. 1558-1628). In addition to other responsibilities, Champlain was ordered to establish the Habitation (1605) at Port-Royal (today’s Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia). By 1608, de Monts had shifted his focus to the St. Lawrence valley, where Champlain was told to construct a second new Habitation, this time at Québec City, in fulfillment of the obligations set out in the trade monopoly given to de Monts by the King. Four centuries later, this settlement is the celebrated capital of the province of Quebec.9

On April 24, 1615, Samuel de Champlain left the French port of Honfleur aboard the ship Saint-Ėtienne with four Récollet missionaries on his seventh journey to North America.10 In his journals, he wrote that he had a “very favourable wind” that transported him across the Atlantic in 31 days without incident.11 Upon his arrival in Quebec, Champlain was informed that to finalize the French alliance with its Anishinaabe and Wendat allies,12 France wanted him to travel inland to Wendake (Huronia) in what is now the province of Ontario, to join the First Nations allies on another raid with their traditional enemy, the Haudenosaunee. He had been to the Upper Ottawa Valley two years earlier when he paddled up the Ottawa River, but was turned back by the Ottawa Valley Anishinaabe. This new expedition saw him push farther into the interior than he had ever ventured before, and he was able to see Mer Douce, the “Freshwater Sea” (Lake Huron) that Jacques Cartier had heard about.

Champlain’s book, published in 1619, gives the first account of his visit to several villages, his diplomatic efforts and some aspects of the culture of the Wendat and the landscape. His primary destination during this time was the heavily fortified Wendat town of Cahiagué, a town of over 200 longhouses and an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 inhabitants, in present-day Simcoe County. In early September, Champlain joined a mixed force of 400 to 500 Anishinaabe and Wendat warriors who travelled southeast along the Trent River system, crossed the eastern end of Lake Ontario and attacked the fortified village of their rivals, the Haudenosaunee, near Onondoga Lake in today’s New York state. During the battle, Champlain was wounded in the leg. Without reinforcements, the strong defences of the enemy, and facing the prospect of increasingly poor winter weather, a rapid retreat was made, transporting Champlain back to Cahiagué. After his recovery, he made diplomatic visits to the neighbouring Anishinaabe and Tionantati (Petun) peoples. He left Wendake on May 20 for Quebec and on August 3, 1616, he sailed back to Honfleur. But his trips throughout North America continued for another 15 years.13

Champlain was the most important person in the founding and management of New France during the first decades of the 17th century. His strengths were his complete loyalty and honest advice to his superiors in an era that was rife with intrigues and self-serving attempts at advancement. Of his superiors, he outlasted one lieutenant-general, five viceroys and finished his career as lieutenant to Cardinal Richelieu. Like no one before him, Champlain quickly grasped how Canada could be explored and settled peacefully by making alliances with, and learning from, the First Nations peoples. Eventually, he and Father Paul Le Jeune proposed to the Wendat and Anishinaabe that they intermarry with the French – “that we become one people.”

Subsequent to Champlain’s 1615 visit, there were concerted French efforts to convert the First Nations of the Great Lakes to Roman Catholicism and to foster diplomatic and trade alliances with them. Prolonged contact between the First Nations and the French profoundly affected both groups – including the devastation of Aboriginal populations by European diseases, the stresses of native-newcomer contact, and attacks by the Iroquois from New York that saw the collapse of Huron and other native societies in this region. As a result, the First Nations peoples of the Great Lakes region were never able to recover sufficiently to regain their pre-contact way of life and population.

Champlain had an unshakeable belief in the future of Canada. Before returning to Canada in 1632, he divested himself of his French assets to settle permanently in La Nouvelle France. He regarded his legacy to be his maps and for having “prepared the way for others to follow.” In a rare tribute from Cardinal Richelieu, Champlain was lauded for “… the experience that you have acquired in becoming acquainted with the country of New France and its inhabitants … together with the special knowledge we have of your good sense, competence, generosity, prudence, zeal for the glory of God and affection and fidelity to the service of the King” – a rare tribute from the second most powerful person in France.

In 19th- and early-20th-century Ontario, Champlain became a symbol of what many people believed to be the European origins of the region. Today, we understand that without Champlain, there would have been no French presence in Canada – a presence that paved the way for the peaceful ethnic diversity of the country.

Note: This discussion of Champlain is intended to be an ongoing dialogue and, as such, all perspectives are welcome. To share your thoughts on this topic, please contact us at programs@heritagetrust.on.ca.

This historical background paper supports the plaque text, and opens a discussion about Champlain’s legacy. In addition, the Trust reached out to, and received input from, the Huron Wendat Nation, the Curve Lake First Nation, the Saugeen First Nation and the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation. The Ontario Heritage Trust is grateful for the support, guidance and input of this esteemed group of experts:

Dr. Michael Eamon, Principal, Catharine Parr Traill College. Director of Continuing Education and Professor of Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, Trent University.

Dr. Carl Benn, Professor of History, Ryerson University. Expert on the European contact period in Canadian history and the European interactions with First Nations.

Dr. David Hackett Fischer, Professor at Brandeis University, specializing in American history and comparative history. Author of Champlain’s Dream.

Dr. Yves Frenette, Professor. Holder of the Canada Research Chair in Migration, Transfers and Francophone Communities, Université de Saint-Boniface.

Dr. Alicia Hawkins, Associate Professor, Anthropological Archaeologist, Laurentian University.

Dr. Conrad Heidenreich, Professor Emeritus, historical geographer and expert on Champlain, York University. Author of Champlain in Wendake: The Country of the Huron in Ontario 1615-1616.

Dr. Brian Osborne, Professor Emeritus, Geography, Queen’s University, specialist in Aboriginal history, settlement history and cultural landscapes.

We also appreciate the advice and support of the Trust’s Vice-Chair, Harvey McCue, whose knowledge of Aboriginal issues was invaluable. McCue is the co-founder and developer of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Trent University.


1. Champlain was a fourrier – a quartermaster sergeant – and aide to the Quartermaster General (maréchal de logis) Jean Hardy of King Henry IV’s army in Brittany.
 
2. A detailed chronology of these voyages can be found in Appendix B of David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream, (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008), 574-586.
 
3. See Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Les voyages du sieur de Champlain Xaintongeois, capitaine ordinaire pour le Roy, en la marine [...], “abitasion du port royal,” (e010764747) and “abitasion de Quebecq," (e010774131), 1613.
 
4. See LAC, Alexander E. MacDonald fonds, Carte de la Nouvelle France … faicte [sic] ... par le sieur Champlain, 1632, NMC 51970.
 
5. Champlain’s accounts of Wendat life do not include some essential components of their culture, such as the Wendat confederacy of nations. It has also been suggested that, in his own view, Champlain exaggerated his importance as a diplomat with the First Nations. For a more extensive discussion, refer to Bruce Trigger’s volumes.
 
6. There is strong evidence that Champlain was the illegitimate son of the King of France, Henri IV. The possibility is being considered by historians. See discussion in David Hackett-Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream, 2008.
 
7. Janet Ritch, “Discovery of the Baptismal Certificate of Samuel de Champlain,” Website of the Champlain Society,
www.champlainsociety.ca/discovery-of-the-baptismal-certificate-of-samuel-de-champlain, Accessed on 13 May 2015; version française originale dans Les amitiés généalogiques canadiennes-françaises: Bulletin de l’amicale des familles d’alliance canadienne-française 36 (2013), 20-23.
 
8. This voyage is detailed in his work Des sauvages, ou Voyage de Samuel de Champlain, de Brouage, fait en la France nouvelle l'an mil six cens trois ... : contenant les moeurs, façons de vivre, mariages, guerres, & habitations des sauvages de Canadas [sic] ..., (Paris: Claude de Monstroeil, 1603).
 
9. In 1609, in return for letting the French settle at Québec and in fulfilment of Henri’s promise (1602-03) to the Montagnias that the French would provide them with military aid, Champlain was obliged to accompany his new allies with two other Frenchmen on a raid against the Mohawk.
 
10. H.P. Biggar, ed. The Works of Samuel de Champlain, 1608-1620, Volume IV, (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1932), 226.
 
11. H.P. Biggar, ed. The Works of Samuel de Champlain, 1615-1618 (Voyages), Volume III, (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1929), 59.
 
12. The Wendat were the principal allies of the French, but Champlain did not speak the language and had to rely on interpreters, and sometimes two sets (French-Algonquin-Wendat).
 
13. According to David Hackett-Fischer, Champlain may have visited what now is Ontario up to three more times: in 1620-24, in 1626-29 and in 1633-34.
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