The History of New York State
Book I, Chapter III
Part III

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


Samuel Champlain, born in a Biscayan village (Brouage, near La Rochelle) in 1567, son of a sea captain, and, from childhood a lover of the sea, was himself a navigator at the age of 22. He had served King Henry in the war in Brittany, and, with its ending had again sought the sea. Love of adventure induced him to join his uncle, who was Pilot-General of the Spanish Marine, at Cadiz. There he was given command of one of the ships about to sail for the West Indies under Don Francisco Colombo. Roaming for two years in the Spanish possessions of Central American brought him to Panama. There, he conceived the plan of a ship canal, "by which the voyage to the South Seas would be shortened by more than fifteen hundred leagues." #24 He was not the first to suggest such a project, a Biscayan pilot having put forward a similar plan, only, however, to be forbidden by Philip the Second to ever again broach the subject on pain of death.#25 Returning to France in 1601, Champlain repaired o court, and interested the King with his description of Mexico, Havana, and the colonizing methods of the Spaniards. It was probably at this time that Champlain was elevated to the untitled nobility and granted a small pension. He was thus familiar with one type of American colonization before he joined the ships of Pontgrave and Prevert in 1603, at the request of De Chastes. After a tempestuous voyage of 75 days, the little vessels reached the Newfoundland Banks, and eventually anchored off Tadoussac. The Pontgrave post had, however, been abandoned, and their mission was farther up the St. Lawrence. They passed the tenantless rock of Quebec, and when they reached the site of Montreal they found that no trace remained of the Indian town that Cartier had found there 8 years before. They encountered only "a few wandering Algonquins." In a skiff, with a few Indians, Champlain endeavored to pass h rapids of St. Louis, but failed. From the Indians, however, he gained crude charts of the rive above, "with its chain of rapids, its lake and cataracts." The great Falls of Niagara were indicated as a mere "rapid."

Apparently , this information was accepted as sufficient for the preliminary purpose of the explorers. They turned their vessels homeward, knowing that even though beyond the rapids the way to the Indies might be open, there were certain natural obstruction which must be surmounted before a sea-going vessel could pass through to the South Sea. When the voyagers reached Harve de Grace, however, grave news awaited them. De Chastes was dead.

The viceregal sceptre, however, was soon taken by another, though the plan of colonization underwent change. Champlian proceeded to court, and reported graphically to King Henry, who "offered to bestow upon him his favor and patronage." #26

Pierre du Gast, Sieur de Monts, who was the governor of pons, headed the colonial experiment. He preserved De Chastes' company, enlarged it. He received from the King the power to impress "idlers and vagabonds" with which to colonize "La Cadie," or "Acadie," a region defined as extending from the fortieth to the forty-sixth degree of north latitude, e. g., from Philadelphia to beyond Montreal.

De Monts resolved to find a desirable site for his government seat; with Champlain and other gentlemen, as well as 20 sailors, he explored the New England coast. Champlain very carefully charted the coast, but De Monts found no spot to his liking. So, in despair, he resolved to remove the capital of Poutrincourt's domain, Port Royal, having heard that his enemies in Paris were attempting to rob him of his monopoly, Pontgrave was given command at Port Royal and Champlian also remained.

The colony fared better during the next winter, but as spring passed into summer without tidings of De Monts, or aid arriving from France, Pontgrave built two small vessels and, with his command, set out for the fishing banks, hoping there to find French ships in which they might return to France. Twelve days later, when Poutrincourt arrived at Port Royal, he found only two Frenchmen, guarding the settlement. De Monts had had to remain in France, but Poutrincourt had returned after Pontgrave intercepted his ships and a week later the whole force was at Port Royal.

Champlain and Poutrincourt again explored the coast southward, in the hope of finding "a site for their colony under a more southern sky," but after many exciting skirmishes with the Indians, and the loss of several of their men, they returned to Port Royal in November, 1606. They were nor favorably impressed with the New England region, which was perhaps fortunate for the English. Fate permitted Gosnold Pring and Weymouth--in 1602, 1603 and 1605--to see the better side of New England, but incited the Indians to attack the French in 1606.

De Monts earnestly wished to found an American colony for France, but could not do so without the fur-trade monopoly. A year or so after he had lost this privilege, the Kind was prevailed upon to grant him a fresh monopoly for one year. Possessing this, De Monts at once sought Champlain, who consented to head an expedition, or at least to direct colonization and exploration of the St. Lawrence route to--it was hoped--the Indies, while the elder Pontgrave traded with the Indians at Tadoussac. Champlain sailed from Honfleur on April 13, 1608, eight days later than Pontgrave. The latter reached Tadoussac early in June and there found a Basque fur-trader, who was most insolent, positively refusing to close his trading relations with the Indians. The Basques declared that they would trade in spite of the French King. In the fighting that ensued, Pontgrave was wounded. The arrival of Champlain's ship, however, altered the front of the Basques, who then gave up their furs, and "betook themselves to catching whales."

Champlain did not stay long at Tadoussac, but continued on his course until he reached the cliffs of Quebec. His men were soon busy felling trees and clearing the site for buildings on what is now the market-place of the Lower Town of Quebec. Above them towered the promontory, and Cape Diamond. Champlain narrowly escaped being murdered by his own men, who had conspired with Basques and Spanish traders of Tadoussac. The outcome was that the head of Duval, the ringleader, was displayed on a pike, which grime example was sufficient to bring the disaffected back to obedience and restore the ease of mind of the commander. In the autumn Pontgrave returned to France, leaving Champlain and 29 men to winter at Quebec. The inevitable scurvy reached virulent stage during the winter, and when spring came only eight of the 28 men were alive. Pontgrave returned to Tadoussac in June. Thither Champlain at once hurried, not for relief, or rather only to be relieved of the responsibly which held him at Quebec. He wished to fathom the mysteries of the water beyond Quebec, and in his eagerness had formed alliance with Algonquin and Huron tribes of Canada against the Iroquois, who lived to the southwestward, beyond a "lake of many fair islands." Thus Champlain set the precedent which was followed by all succeeding governors of New France, trying to gain advantage for France by mingling in Indian politics. Unfortunately for France, his allies were the weaker tribe.

As the warriors from the upper country had not arrived at Quebec by the middle of June, 1609, Champlain, on the 18th of that month, with 11 fellow-countrymen and no better allies than a band of Montagnais, set out. However, as he ascended the St. Lawrence river, he soon came upon his Huron and Algonquiin allies, to the number of perhaps 300. They wished to see the fortifications at Quebec, so Champlain--whose steel-clad presence excited their wonder--acceded; and it was not until June was near its end that Champlain and the war party set sail from the fort. The Frenchmen were armed with the arquebus, and used a small shallop. The Indians, of course paddled canoes. They crossed the Lake of St. Peter, and reached the mouth of the Riviere des Iroquois, since called the Richelieu or the St. John. Here the Indians were inclined to tarry; and in their idleness quarrels arose. This reached such seriousness that three-fourth of the Indians deserted the expedition. However, Champlain went on, and 60 Indians in 24 canoes followed him. The sailed shallop outdistanced the paddled canoes; but soon Champlain's ears caught the unwelcome sound of rushing waters. With five men he went forward, on foot, to investigate. His disappointment was bitter when, parting the screen of foliage, "they looked out upon the river, and they saw it thick set with rocks where, plunging over ledges, gurgling under drift-logs, darting along clefts, and boiling in chasms, the angry water filled the solitude with monotonous ravings." The rapids seemed to spell the end of the expedition, Champlain at once realizing that no ship could navigate such waters. His disappointment was all the more poignant because his allies, "had promised him that his boat could pass unobstructed throughout the whole journey." "It afflicted me." Champlain writes, "and troubled me exceedingly to be obliged to return without having seen so great a lake, full of fair islands and bordered with the fine countries which they had described to me."

Sadly, he returned to where he had left the shallop. By this time the Indians had gathered at the spot. He rebuked them. Nevertheless, when he realized the rapid were not insurmountable obstacles to Indians, who could carry their canoes to the quieter waters above the rapids, he resolved to go on with them. Sending 9 of his men back to Quebec in the shallop, Champlain and two other Frenchmen, went on with the Indians in a canoe. Undoubtedly, the French explorers placed much reliance on their firearms; yet it called for no small degree of courage for three white men, supported only by 60 aborigines, to advance with hostile intent into the region of the most powerful Indian nation of North America.

Champlain was then about 42 years old. He had lived through many experiences that had brought death to his comrades. The age was one in which men of action literally carried their lives in their hand as much oftener then the most adventurous soldiers of fortune ordinarily do now; and he had probably passed the average life-span of most campaigners of those uncertain times, when life in peace-time was just as likely to get short shrift as in war-time. Certainly, he seemed to give little thought to his own safety; in this instance, as events proved, his life depended wholly upon the first shot from his somewhat uncertain arquebus.

Maybe, it would be better to let the remainder of the Champlain story, that part which must come into this New York historical work, be stated in the actual words of the intrepid Champlain. AS translated by A. A. Bourne, and spreads upon the Champlain Tercentenary Reports of the State of New York (1909) by Senator Henry Wayland Hill, Champlain's narrative is as follows:

Felt these rapids of the Iroquois River on July 2 (probably Old Style), 1609 . . . . all the savages began to carry their canoes, arms and baggage by land about half a league, in order to get by the swiftness and force of the rapids. This was quickly accomplished. Then they put them all in the water, and two men in each boat, with their baggage . . . . . .After we had passed the rapid, all the savages . . . . . .re-embarked in their canoes . . . . . they had twenty-four canoes, with sixty men in them.

After describing the life of the aborigines in this vicinity, Champlain continues:

We left the next day, continuing our course in the river as far as the entrance to the lake. In this there are many pretty island, which are low, covered with beautiful woods and meadows, where there is a quantity of game, animals for hunting, such as stags, fallow-deer, fawns, roebucks, bears, and other animals which come from the mainland to these islands. We caught a great many of them. There are also many beavers, not only in the river, but in many other ones which empty into it. These places, although they are pleasant, are not inhabited by any savages, on account of their wars. They withdrew as far as possible from the river, into the interior, in order not to be suddenly surprised.

The next day we entered the lake, which is of great extent, perhaps 50 or 60 leagues long. There I saw four beautiful island, 10, 12 and 15 leagues long, which formerly had been inhabited by savages, like the river of the Iroquois; but they had been abandoned since they had been at war with one another. There are also several rivers which flow into the lake, where there is a great abundance of fish of a good many varieties.

Continuing our course in this lake on the west side, I saw as I was observing the country, some very high mountains on the east side, with snow on the top of them. I inquired of the savages if these places were inhabited. They told one that they were--by the Iroquois--and that in these places there were beautiful valleys and open stretches fertile in grain, such as I had eaten in this country, with a great many other fruits; and that the lake went near some mountains, which were perhaps, as it seemed to me, about fifteen leagues from us. I saw on the south others not less high then the first, but they had no snow at all.

It has been said that on one or more occasions snow has been seen on Mount Mansfield in the summer months.

Champlain, with his two companions and Indian warriors, proceeded southward, along the west side of the lake to the encampment of the Iroquois, their enemies. He thus describes their meeting:

When evening came we embarked in our canoes to continue on our way, and, as we were going along very quietly, and without making any noise, on the twenty-ninth of the month, we met the Iroquois at 10:00 o'clock a night at the end of a cape that projects into the lake on the west side, and they were coming to war. We both began to make loud cries, each getting his army ready. We withdrew toward the water and the Iroquois went ashore, and arranged their canoes in a line, ands began to cut down trees with poor axes, which they get in war sometimes, and also with other of stone; and they barricaded themselves very well.

Our men also passed the whole night with their canoes drawn up close together, fastened to poles, so that they might not get scattered and might fight all together, if there were need of it; we were on the water within arrow range of the side where their barricades were.

When they were armed and in array, they sent two canoes set apart from the others to learn from their enemies if they wanted to fight. They replied that they desired nothing else, but that, at the moment, there was not much light, and that they must wait for the daylight to recognize each other, and that as soon as the sun rose they would open the battle. This was accepted by our men; and, while we waited, the whole night was passed in dances and song, as much on one side as on the other, with endless insults, and other talk, such as the little courage they had, their feebleness and inability to make resistance against their arms, and that when day came, they should feel it to their ruin.

Champlain's description of the epochal conflict that began with the dawn, is as follows:

As soon as we were ashore they began to run a bout 200 paces toward their enemy, who were standing firmly and had not yet noticed my companions; we went into the woods with some savages. Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, to , give me a passageway, they divided into two parts and put me at their head, where I marched about twenty paces in front of them, until I was thirty paces from the enemy. They at once saw me and halted, looking at me, and I at them. When I saw them making a move to shoot at us I rested my arquebus against my cheek and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot two of then fell to the ground, and one of their companions, who was wounded and after ward died. I put four balls into my arquebus. When our men saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to make cries so loud that one could not have heard it thunder. Meanwhile, the arrows did not fail to fly from both sides. The Iroquois were much astonished that two men had been so quickly killed, although they were provided with armor woven from cotton thread and from wool, proof against their arrows. This alarmed them greatly. As I was loading again, one of my companions fired a shot from the woods, which astonished them again to such a degree that, seeing their chief dead, they lost courage, took to flight and abandoned the field and their fort, fleeing into the depths of the woods. Pursuing them thither, I killed some more of them. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve of them prisoners. The rest escaped with the wounded. There were fifteen or sixteen of our men wounded by arrow shots, who were soon healed.

This place where this charge was made, is in latitude 43 degrees and some minutes, and I named the place, Lake Champlain. #27

There has been some controversy among historians as to the location of this engagement, but most agree that it was in the vicinity of Ticonderago, writes Senator Hill. Mr. George F. Bixby, however, in an address before the Albany institute on November 5, 1889, contends that the first battle of Lake Champlain occurred at Crown Point.

Champlain and his two comrades, who used their firearms with such terrifying effect on July 30, 1609, are said to have been "the first white men to visit the territory now comprising the States of New York and Vermont.". Certainly, they were the first to come into indisputable record and their visit was long remembered by the Iroquois people. So long indeed did the Iroquois retain their unfavorable impression of the French, that they could never again think of them except as allied with their inveterate enemies, the Algonquins. Never, in a century and a half of effort, could the French break down this seemingly instinctive antipathy. Their good relations with other Indian nations gave them the sweep of almost all the inland lakes and rivers, from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the delta of the Mississippi. In this way they were able to prevent the British colonies from expanding far westward; but, though the British were thus, to all intents, only hanging onto the Atlantic fringe of North America for more than a century, the French could not shake them off into the sea, for between the two rival European nations were the Iroquois, a strong confederacy of Indian national that thwarted all attempts of the French to overrun New England, New York and other northern colonies.

For almost 50 years, a weak Dutch colony held sovereignty in the land through part of which Champlain passed on this fateful voyage of 1609. At any time between 1614 and 1664 New Netherland might have been successfully attacked by the French from Canada, if the latter could have been sure of its lines of communication. But these would pass through the strongholds of the Iroquois; so, with the exception of one raid on Schenectady, the French never penetrated much farther into New York than Champlain reached in 1609. It is idle to conjecture what might have happened had Champlain penetrated the Iroquois country with less hostile intent and had met Henry Hudson at the headwaters of the Hudson River. they were not destined to meet. Instead, these two explorers reached New York waters from opposite directions in the same year, and departed again, each believing that he had been the first European to enter them. Champlain had greater reason for so thinking, because the waters he explored were inaccessible, whereas the Hudson river, in all probability, had been seen by more than one of the many European navigators who voyages along the Atlantic coast after the time of Columbus. Still, lines that were penned by Professor John Erskine #28 in honor of Champlain might just as truly be applied to Judson, for both were under the influence of the same impelling spirit. The lines were:

The mind that once aspires shall never rest,
But mounts eternally from quest to quest.
Winged forever; still in us they live
Who to the golden welcome of our West
Followed their Dreams and found their visions true--
Builders of states and realms, who gave
From their own hearts the seed whence nations grew.

After so sensational demonstration of the white man's lightning as that given in Lake Champlain on that memorable fateful summer morning in 1609, both Champlain and his Indian allies deemed discretion to be the better part of valor. Champlain recognized that a brave Indian people would soon recover from their momentary terror of his apparently inescapable weapon of war, just as other Indians had. So, within three or four days of the engagement, the marauding French and Indians were again at the mouth of the Richelieu. There they separated, the Hurons and the Algonquins making for the Ottawa, and the Montagnais going on with Champlain to Quebec, thence to Tadoussac. Champlain returned to France with Pontgrave in the autumn, and was able to report to King Henry IV a few months before the latter was assassinated.

It will not be necessary to follow the fortunes of Champlain farther, for he does not again come conspicuously into New York history. #29 He returned to New France in 1610, though as a free-lance, without royal sanction or mission; but from 1612 to 1629 and from 1633 to 1635 Champlain was in Quebec, always the active leader, and for some time governor of the colony. He fought against the Iroquois many times, organized a formidable expedition against them in Central New York in 1615, and was himself slightly wounded in an engagement near Onondaga Lake. In 1620, he had to beat off an attack by Iroquois upon his own stronghold, Quebec. Although no more serious campaigns were undertaken by him, "he had to face the continued and sleepless hatred of the Iroquois, and no man knew from day to day and year to year at what moment the war-whoop of the savage might not be heard from the four quarters of the horizon." #30

He outwitted an attacking English fleet in 1628, but in 1629 had to surrender Quebec, on the return of Admiral Kirke. Nevertheless, Champlain's audacious effrontery in 1628 saved New France for France, for by the treaty of peace between England and France the status quo of 1628 was recognized. So in 1633 Champlain was restored to his post as governor, and there remained until his death, on Christmas Day of 1635.

Champlain certainly deserves place among the great American explorers. He was the first white man in Lake Champlain, was the first to see Lake Huron, the first to cross Lakes Nipissing and Ontario, the first to explore the Ottawa, and the first to leave an impression in the territory now owned by New York State. Parkman thus sums up Champlain's life in America: "For twenty-seven years he had labored hard and ceaselessly for its welfare, sacrificing fortune, repose, and domestic peace to a cause embraced with enthusiasm and pursued with intrepid persistency. His character belonged partly to the past, partly to the present. The preux chevalier, the crusader, the romantic-loving explorer, the curious knowledge-seeking traveler, the practical navigator, all claimed their share in him. His views, though far beyond those of the mean spirit around him, belonged to his age and his creed. He was less statesman than soldier. He leaned more to the most direct and boldest policy, and one of his last acts was to petition Richelieu for men and munitions for repressing that standing menace to the colony, the Iroquois. His dauntless courage was matched by an unwearied patience, proved by life-long vexations, and not wholly subdued even by the saintly follies of his wife. He (had) . . . . .the foible of earnest and generous natures, too ardent to criticize and to honorable to doubt the honor of others. Perhaps the heretic night have liked him more if the Jesuit had liked him less. The adventurous explorer of Lake Huron, the bold invader of the Iroquois, befits but indifferently the monastic sobrieties of the fort of Quebec and his sombre environment of priests. . . . . . his books mark the man--an for his theme and his purpose, nothing for himself. #31

We now come to the last of the events that brought the New York region positively into the American route of march of European civilization. It was as though aeons of human movement, tens of centuries of Old World civilization, thousands of years of scientific study of the universe, centuries of theorizing by sages, of ceaseless groping by geographers and of heroic effort by self-sacrificing mariners--all drawn in thought or action irresistibly westward--reached climax and consummation within the confines of New York in 1609, when two fearless European navigators--one French, the other English--after voyaging almost within hearing of the other's gunfiring--of the shot that forever decided the destiny of North America. It was sensational, dramatic, but also quite inevitable. As the Hon. Elihu root remarked at the Champlain Tercentenary Celebrations #32 in 1909, after the events of three memorable centuries had clearly show what was the trend of human affairs in 1609, "the conditions which limited the powers and directed the purposes of the various countries of Europe in the early years of the seventeenth century made it inevitable that the struggle for American control should ultimately become a single combat between France and Great Britain." "Of all the people of Europe, only the French and the English possessed the power, the energy, the adventurous courage, the opportunity and the occasion, for expansion across the Atlantic. The field, and the prize were for them, and for them alone." In 1609--momentous year! the year when Kepler gave the world the new astronomy, and when Galileo was building the telescope with which he discovered the satellites of Jupiter--North America was almost without white inhabitants. The abandoned Acadian settlement at Port Royal, the handful of Frenchmen at Quebec, and the almost expiring Virginia colony were the only credentials, in the way of possession, that France and England could present. But they brought strong credentials from the Old World. As Mr. Root says: "The field was open; the hands upon the margin that reached out to grasp control seemed few and feeble; but the period of preparation was past." The destiny of America had been slowly shaped on pathways treaded hard in Europe. "The mighty forces that were to urge on the most stupendous movement of mankind inhuman history had already received their direction. The time was ripe for the real conflict to begin."


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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