The Significance of Samuel de Champlain for the History of New York State
“When everything has been carefully studied, weigh anchor, and set sail.”
– Champlain, Treatise on Seamanship, 1632
Samuel de Champlain is the legendary French explorer who helped expand Europeans’ knowledge of the northern half of the North American continent. Few individuals in his time came to understand the potential that North America held in terms of its richly varied landscape, its many rivers, lakes, and streams, and its abundant flora and fauna. The coming of Champlain to the New World altered the course of global history.
The story of the European occupation of the northern half of New York State begins with the arrival of this soldier, explorer, and nation-builder. Whether it be for his ability as a navigator or his explorations of much of northeastern North America, his dealings with native peoples, or his persistence in colonial enterprise, Champlain can only be seen as a remarkable historical figure. He is also notable for being a man of relatively humble origins who nonetheless bequeathed to us extraordinary writings, illustrations, and maps of North America that convey a real sense of enthusiasm for the lands he explored, from the shores of Cape Cod to the reach of Lake Huron. He remains one of the notable cartographers of the Age of Exploration. His 1607 map, now at the Library of Congress and considered an “American Treasure,” is the first thorough delineation of the New England and Canadian coastline from Cape Sable to Cape Cod.
When Champlain sailed across the North Atlantic, the French had already laid claim to the St. Lawrence Valley. Jacques Cartier had traveled there in the 1530s, and his at times less-than-honest dealings with the St. Lawrence Iroquois alienated them from the French. Aside from some casual fur trading and fishing ventures, the French had not succeeded in founding a permanent colony in North America.
In 1608, with the backing of New France’s powerful Lieutenant General Pierre Dugua de Monts, Champlain sailed for the New World with the intention of founding a lasting settlement. He decided to establish his habitation in a strategic location, on the high cliffs overlooking the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, at a place now known as Quebec City.
This colonization attempt would ultimately prove to be a success, but not without enduring terrible setbacks. The fledgling French colony had to endure extreme hardships such as disease, extreme cold, and near starvation, as well as other privations. The colonists were so unhappy there were even rumors of mutiny. Many times the colony teetered on the brink of destruction, but each time Champlain found a way to keep it alive.
One of the ways Champlain ensured his colony’s success was to ally himself with the Indians who had been trading furs with the French. The opportunity to prove his friendship came in the summer of 1608, when a group of Huron, Algonquian, and Montagnais asked him to accompany them on a warring party into the heart of Iroquois territory. It is a mark of Champlain’s bravery, and courage in face of an unknown enemy, that he agreed to embark on such a risky undertaking. In the summer of 1609, Champlain, his associates, and a group of 60 native warriors traveled south along the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Iroquois River, taking a route that was, in effect, an Iroquois warpath. Not surprisingly, as they ventured south, men began to abandon the war party.
In the map that he drew of the surrounding territory, Champlain rechristened this river and named it after one of the most powerful men in King Henri IV’s court, Cardinal Richelieu. As they traveled southward and encountered waters unnavigable by shallop(1), they transferred into 24 birchbark canoes, which were better able to deal with shallows and rapids. By the time they had reached Chambly, there were only two French soldiers left, “eager to go.” Even the Indians considered leaving, and Champlain apparently convinced them “to persist in their first design...for I wished to show them that for myself I would not fail to keep my word to them, even if I went alone.”
Champlain paused to consider the advisability of his plan. In his writing he tells us, “Having thought it over well, I decided to proceed thither to carry out my promise and also to fulfill my desire.” On the evening of July 29, somewhere near present-day Ticonderoga (Crown Point, N.Y.), Champlain and his party met the Iroquois.
As Champlain tells the story, they encountered around 200 Iroquois warriors. Battle was inevitable, and the French camped and prepared for the next day’s fight. During the night, their allies engaged in shamanistic rituals, and there was loud boasting on the part of vanguards from both sides. By morning, Champlain and his party had agreed on a plan. As the story is told, his native allies advanced toward the Iroquois, and fell back. Champlain emerged and fired four bullets from his arquebus, killing two Iroquois chiefs with one volley. His companions fired more shots from the woods, and the mere sound of the gunpowder exploding was enough to scare the remaining members of the war party away. The shields of the Iroquois warriors, made of wood and hemp, were no match for French bullets.
One could say that for the French, it was a military victory. European technology and the element of surprise had vanquished Iroquois numbers and bravery in face of an unknown enemy. Symbolically, the fact that enemy chiefs had been killed and warriors had fled meant that the French and their native allies would have the upper hand in this part of the world. Historians, ever since, have been fond of noting that it was during this skirmish that European guns were fired for the first time in the Champlain Valley. As Harold Innis notes, the Iroquois “were defeated through the effective use of firearms.”(2) From here on, the Five Nations Iroquois would trade furs with the Dutch, mainly for guns and ammunition(3) . This would ultimately lead to the extermination of the Huron people by the Iroquois, and the exhaustion of beaver supplies in the Five Nations’ traditional hunting grounds.
Why was this battle so significant for the subsequent course of North American history? By agreeing to ally himself with the Iroquois’ enemies, and by traveling into Iroquois territory to wage war against them, Champlain set in motion a series of events that would eventually determine the fate of North America. First of all, it is worth noting that on this 1609 trip Champlain ventured down an Iroquois warpath: the aptly named Iroquois River. He gave that river a European, and indeed a Christian, name: la rivière Richelieu. After his victory over the Iroquois, Champlain decided to map the lake and give it his name. The lake that would eventually be known as the lac de Champlain, and then “Champlain’s Lake,” became a European warpath. Champlain had opened up one of the major trade and military routes of North America.
But even more important is the question of the political and military alliances that emerged as a result of this skirmish. The French had already cast their lot with the Huron, Algonquian, and Montagnais. They traded with these groups, they sought to convert them to Christianity, many Frenchmen took native women as their wives, and they accompanied them in warfare. When Champlain fired his arquebus on the shore of the lake that would come to bear his name, the Iroquois absorbed the lesson that the French would be their deadly foes.
Thus, one of the persistent problems the French would face in their colonization efforts would be the enmity of the Iroquois. The French would expend considerable resources and energy waging war against the powerful Five Nations confederacy. The Iroquois menace would weaken, and at times threaten, the very existence of New France itself, and when the time came for the British to permanently defeat the French in the New World, the Iroquois would cast their fate with the British. This would lead to the permanent downfall of the formal French presence in North America following the French and Indian War.
Along this route would travel French explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and the first white settlers of the valley. The St. Lawrence/Richelieu/Lake Champlain/Hudson River would become the maritime highway along which the destiny of North America would be played out for more than 200 years. The French attempt to fortify and control the northern half of this route. Ultimately, the British would fight the French for control of the continent. When the Thirteen Colonies eventually decided to rebel from the British, it was the Hudson River/Lake Champlain route that once again became important, as the Americans traveled along it in 1775 in hopes of convincing the Quebeckers to join in an insurrection that they hoped would be continental in scope. When persuasion proved to be ineffectual, a full-fledged invasion occurred. And finally, when war broke out again between the United States and England in 1812, it was on Lake Champlain where one of its most significant battles would took place.
This also means that for the first 150 years of New York State’s existence, the northern part of the state would be in French hands. The areas north of the Mohawk River would be claimed by the French, and the Lake Champlain/Lake George region would be dotted with French fortifications. The initial landholding régime of the Champlain Valley was the French seigneurial system. Years later, following the 1837 Papineau rebellions in Lower Canada (Quebec), the Champlain Valley would be home to French Canadian republicans, political refugees fleeing British justice by coming to New York State.
This was happening at a time when economic crisis, crop failures, and overpopulation of the St. Lawrence Valley led thousands of French Canadian settlers to flee to the Champlain Valley, where they found employment in the mills, mines, and quarries of upstate New York’s expanding economy. The French presence initiated by Champlain’s visit was reinforced by mass migration of French-speaking Canadians to the United States throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. This too left an enduring mark on the sociocultural landscape of northern New York.
If south of Albany, New York State had a strong Dutch and then English Protestant character, then north of Albany, New York State took on a French and Catholic character. This is still evident in the place names, family names, and religious buildings of northern New York. One need only visit the National Shrine of North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, to see evidence of some of the complexities of French efforts at Christianizing the earliest inhabitants of New York State.
In short, the history of European occupation of New York State began with Champlain’s travels down the rivière des Iroquois in 1609. Incredibly, historians note that had Champlain lingered on until September and traveled a few miles farther south, he could have met Henry Hudson, who was busy claiming this region for the Dutch. But it is of central importance to note that Champlain’s travels didn’t end here. A man of insatiable curiosity, Champlain also agreed to accompany his native guides into Huronia, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, and to continue his cartographic endeavors and increase European knowledge of the New World.
Champlain didn’t shy away from engaging in battle with an unknown and fearsome enemy. The illustration produced to accompany his account of the 1609 skirmish shows the only extant, if diminutive, portrait of Champlain, at the center of the battle, attired like a Renaissance warrior in plate metal armor and plumed helmet, firing his arquebus at the center of the scene. No doubt this is the artifice of an illustrator intent on embellishing a good story. But the fact remains that Champlain did do these things, becoming one of the most legendary figures of North American history. His story is worth telling, since time cannot diminish its appeal. A man of the French Renaissance, Champlain attempted to embody its values, and his life’s work remains an enduring legacy to world civilization.
Sylvie Beaudreau, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
Plattsburgh State University of New York