The Life of Samuel de Champlain

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The Father of New France

Born into a family of master mariners, Samuel de Champlain is remembered today as the Father of New France and as one of Canada’s most important explorers.

Samuel de Champlain was born in Brouage, in Saintonge, France. The exact location and date of birth are not known because many of the town records were destroyed in a fire in 1690. In 1870, a Canadian priest, Father Laverdiere claimed that Champlain was born in 1567. As he did not provide any evidence in support of this claim, the circumstances of Champlain’s birth remain the subject of debate.

Samuel de Champlain’s Early Voyages

In 1598, Champlain went to sea for the first time, with his uncle who was a navigator aboard a ship bound for Spain. From there the ship was sent to the West Indies as part of a Spanish convoy. The voyage lasted two years and gave Champlain the opportunity to see Spain’s colonies in the New World, first hand. Following his return to France, Champlain wrote an account of the voyage, which was sent to King Henry, who awarded Champlain an annual pension as a result.

Meanwhile, Champlain’s uncle died in 1601, leaving Champlain an estate near La Rochelle, a number of businesses in Spain and a 150 ton trading vessel. This inheritance, combined with the king’s pension gave Champlain a much greater degree of freedom than other explorers, who had to rely on royal patronage to finance their expeditions. Between 1601 and 1603, Champlain served as one of King Henry’s court geographers, spending much of his time traveling up and down France’s Atlantic coast, gathering information on the New World. He also studied previous French attempts at colonization along the St. Lawrence River, such as Jacques Cartier’s attempt to establish a settlement in the previous century.

The Founding of New France

In 1603, Champlain traveled to what would eventually become New France, as an observer on an expedition led by Francios Grave du Pont. Du Pont taught Champlain how to navigate on Canadian Rivers, as well as how to deal with the First Nations.

Champlain arrived at Tadoussac, Quebec on March 15, 1603, eager to see the places that Jacques Cartier had visited 60 years before.

Using the extensive notes he had made on the voyage, Champlain drew the first accurate map of the St. Lawrence River Valley, following his return to France. He also published an account of the expedition.

In 1604, Champlain returned to Canada, this time staying for several years. Between 1604 and 1607, Champlain explored the east coast of North America as far south as Cape Cod. He attempted to establish a colony on Saint Croix Island in the Bay of Fundy, however, a poor location coupled with a sudden shift in court politics in France meant that the colony was abandoned in 1607.

Samuel de Champlain and Quebec City

In 1608, Champlain was recalled to France, where he was ordered to select a new site for a French colony along the St. Lawrence River. He was placed in command of a three-ship convoy and arrived at Tadoussac, where the men and equipment were loaded onto small boats, arriving at the “point of Quebec” on July 3, 1608.

The Habitation, as Champlain first called the colony consisted of a walled compound and a fort overlooking the settlement. This is where the French-Canadian term Habitant came from. This event was significant because it marked the founding of what would eventually become Quebec City, North America’s oldest city.

In May, 1610 the development of this colony, now called New France suffered a major set back, when King Henry was assassinated by Catholic fanatics. Rule fell to Queen Marie de Medici, who served as regent for her nine year old son, Louis XIII. Queen Marie had little interest in New France and many of Champlain’s supporters were denied access at court as a result. Champlain had no choice but to return to France to build new political connections.

On March 29, 1613, Champlain returned to New France, where he became the colony’s new Royal Commissioner. On May 27, Champlain set out on a new expedition to explore the back country and to search for a rumoured “northern sea” which was probably Hudson Bay. In August, Champlain returned to France where he wrote an account of his life from 1604 to 1612.

In May 1624, Champlain laid the first stone of the fortifications for what is now Quebec City. In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu founded the Comagnie des Cent-Associes, which took over the fur trade and sent a fleet loaded with colonists and supplies to New France in 1628.

In July, jealous English merchants attacked New France and were eventually able to capture the fleet sent to re-supply the colony that April. Champlain was forced to surrender New France as a result. However, the colony was returned to French control in 1632.

The Death of Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain suffered a severe stroke in October, 1635. He died on Christmas Day.

Sources

Fischer, David Hackett, Champlain’s Dream, (Simon and Schuster, 2008),

Trudel, Marcel. “Biography of Samuel de Champlain”. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

 

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