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Samuel de Champlain
Adventurer in New France

In 2009 the region celebrated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Lake Champlain by Samuel de Champlain. 100 years earlier, Vermont, New York and Quebec invited the world to come see and celebrate what the intrepid French Explorer had found— a rich and beautiful place which had been inhabited by native peoples for generations before.
Click here for the story of those festivities.

By James P. Millard

Champlain's own illustration of his encounter with the Iroquois in July 1609. In a battle thought to have taken place somewhere near the Crown Point peninsula,
The explorer and his men used their powerful weapons to change the course of a battle between native peoples- long at war.

This interference was not forgotten, the Iroquois people would ally themselves with France's enemies in the future.

Samuel de Champlain. 1567-1635. "Voyages of Samuel de Champlain" Edited by Edmund F. Slafter, (Boston: Prince Society 1878)

The Champlain Memorial Statue at Crown Point, New York

Known as the "Father of New France" the intrepid explorer known as Samuel de Champlain first set foot in what is now known as Vermont and New York in July 1609. Although he probably only was  on the lake no more than a few weeks, he was to forever leave his mark. For in addition to leaving his name on the lake, Champlain also left a legacy- one of hatred and revenge. The native people that he was to encounter shortly after his entry into the lake would never forget that he had taken sides with their enemy.

July 1609

"... we entered the lake... Continuing our course over this lake on the western side, I noticed, while observing the country, some very high mountains on the eastern side, on top of which there was snow. I made inquiry of the savages whether these localities were inhabited, when they told me that the Iroquois dwelt there, and that there were beautiful valleys in these places, with plains productive in grain, such as I had eaten in this country, together with many kinds of fruit without limit. They said also that the lake extended near mountains, some twenty-five leagues distant from us, as I judge. I saw, on the south, other mountains, no less high than the first, but without any snow. The savages told me that these mountains were thickly settled, and that it was there we were to find their enemies; but that it was necessary to pass a fall in order to go there (which I afterward saw)..."1
From the journal of Samuel de Champlain

Champlain's own account of his exploration on the lake*

"...I set out accordingly from the fall of the Iroquois River1 on the 2d of July. All the Savages set to carrying their canoes, arms, and baggage overland, some half a league, in order to pass by the violence and strength of the fall, which was speedily accomplished.

They then put them all in the water again, two men in each with the baggage; and they caused one of the men in each canoe to go by land some three leagues, the extent of the fall, which is not, however, so violent here as at the mouth, except in some places, where rocks obstruct the river, which is not broader than three hundred or four hundred paces. After we had passed the fall, which was attended with difficulty, all the savages, who had gone by land over a good path and level country, although there are a great many trees, re-embarked in their canoes. My men went also by land; but I went in a canoe. The savages made a review of all their followers, finding that there were twenty-four canoes, with sixty men.

After the review was completed, we continued our course to an island, three leagues long, filled with the finest pines I had ever seen. Here they went hunting, and captured some wild animals. Proceeding about three leagues farther on, we made a halt, in order to rest the coming night...

We set out the next day, continuing our course in the river as far as the entrance to the lake.2 There are many pretty islands here, low, and containing very fine woods and meadows, with abundance of fowl and such animals of the chase as stags, fallow-deer, fawns, roe-bucks, bears, and others, which go from the main land to these islands.

Left: The Richelieu River (River of the Iroquois) just north of the entrance to Lake Champlain. The explorer came up the Richelieu on his voyage to the lake that bears his name. Photo by Roger and Doug Harwood.

We captured a large number of these animals. There are also many beavers, not only in this river, but also in numerous other little ones that flow into it.

 These regions, although they are pleasant, are not inhabited by any savages, on account of their wars; but they withdraw as far as possible from rivers into the interior, in order not to be suddenly surprised. The next day we entered the lake, which is of great extent, say eighty or a hundred leagues long, where I saw four fine islands3, ten, twelve, and fifteen leagues long, which were formerly inhabited by the savages, like the River of the Iroquois; but they have been abandoned since the wars of the savages with one another prevail.

There are also many rivers falling into the lake, bordered by many fine trees of the same kinds as those we have in France, with many vines finer than any I have seen in any other place; also many chestnut-trees on the border of this lake, which I had not seen before.4 There is also a great abundance of fish, of many varieties: among others, one called by the savages of the country Chaoufarou, which varies in length, the largest being, as the people told me, eight or ten feet long. I saw some five feet long, which were as large as my thigh; the head being as big as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp and dangerous teeth...Continuing our course over this lake on the western side, I noticed, while observing the country, some very high mountains on the eastern side, on top of which there was snow. I made inquiry of the savages whether these localities were inhabited, when they told me that the Iroquois dwelt there, and that there were beautiful valleys in these places, with plains productive in grain, such as I had eaten in this country, together with many kinds of fruit without limit. They said also that the lake extended near mountains, some twenty-five leagues distant from us, as I judge. I saw, on the south, other mountains, no less high than the first, but without any snow. The savages told me that these mountains were thickly settled, and that it was there we were to find their enemies; but that it was necessary to pass a fall in order to go there (which I afterward saw), when we should enter another lake, nine or ten leagues long...5

Now as we began to approach within two or three days' journey of the abode of their enemies, we advanced only at night, resting during the day...

When it was evening, we embarked in our canoes to continue our course; and, as we advanced very quietly and without making any noise, we met on the 29th of the month the Iroquois, about ten o'clock at evening, at the extremity of a cape which extends into the lake on the western bank.6  They had come to fight. We both began to utter loud cries, all getting their arms in readiness. We withdrew out on the water, and the Iroquois went on shore, where they drew up all their canoes close to each other and began to fell trees with poor axes, which they acquire in war sometimes, using also others of stone. Thus they barricaded themselves very well.

Our forces also passed the entire night, their canoes being drawn up close to each other, and fastened to poles, so that they might not get separated, and that they might be all in readiness to fight, if occasion required. We were out upon the water, within arrow range of their barricades. When they were armed and in array, they dispatched two canoes by themselves to the enemy to inquire if they wished to fight, to which the latter replied that they wanted nothing else; but they said that, at present, there was not much light, and that it would be necessary to wait for daylight, so as to be able to recognize each other; and that, as soon as the sun rose, they would offer us battle. This was agreed to by our side. Meanwhile, the entire night was spent dancing and singing, on both sides, with endless insults and other talk; as, how little courage we had, how feeble a resistance we would make against their arms, and that, when day came, we should realize it to our ruin. Ours also were not slow in retorting, telling them how they would see such execution of arms as never before, together with an abundance of such talk as is not unusual in the siege of a town. After this singing, dancing, and bandying words on both sides to the fill, when day came, my companions and myself continued under cover, for fear that the enemy would see us. We arranged our arms in the best manner possible, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes of the savage Montagnais. After arming ourselves with light armor, we each took an arquebuse, and went on shore. I saw the enemy go out of their barricade, nearly two hundred in number, stout and rugged in appearance. They came at a slow pace towards us, with a dignity and assurance which greatly amused me, having three chiefs at their head. Our men also advanced in the same order, telling me that those who had three large plumes were the chiefs, and that they had only these three, and that they could be distinguished by these plumes, which were much larger than those of their companions, and that I should do what I could to kill them. I promised to do all in my power, and said that I was very sorry they could not understand me, so that I might give order and shape to their mode of attacking their enemies, and then we should, without doubt, defeat them all; but that this could not now be obviated, and that I should be very glad to show them my courage and good-will when we should engage in the fight.

As soon as we had landed, they began to run for some two hundred paces towards their enemies, who stood firmly, not having as yet noticed my companions, who went into the woods with some savages. Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces in advance of the rest, until I was within about thirty paces of the enemy, who at once noticed me, and, halting, gazed at me, as I did also at them. When I saw them making a move to fire at us, I rested my musket against my cheek, and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot, two fell to the ground; and one of their men was so wounded that he died some time after. I had loaded my musket with four balls. When our side saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to raise such loud cries that one could not have heard it thunder. Meanwhile, the arrows flew on both sides. The Iroquois were greatly astonished that two men had been so quickly killed, although they were equipped with armor woven from cotton thread, and with wood which was proof against their arrows. This caused great alarm among them. As I was loading again, one of my companions fired shot from the woods, which astonished them anew to such a degree that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took to flight, abandoning their camp and fort, and fleeing into the woods, whither I pursued them, killing still more of them. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder escaped with the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen were wounded on our side with arrow-shots; but they were soon healed.

After gaining the victory, our men amused themselves by taking a greater quantity of Indian corn and some meal from their enemies, also their armor, which they had left behind that they might run better. After feasting sumptuously, dancing and singing, we returned three hours after, with the prisoners. The spot where this took place is in latitude 43º and some minutes, and the lake was called Lake Champlain..."

Click here to view our continuing series:
The Voyages of Sieur de Champlain
, first published in 1613.Champlain's accounts of his explorations of Arcadia, the St. Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers and Lake Champlain

 Champlain's explorations are memorialized in the area...
                               

Click on the thumbnails to see a full size image.
Samuel de Champlain statues at Crown Point, Plattsburgh, and Champlain, New York and Isle la Motte, Vermont

Footnotes:

[1] We now know the River of the Iroquois as the Richelieu. Champlain is here describing their portage around the rapids at Chambly.
[2] Present day Rouses Point, New York is located at the "entrance of the lake."
[3] Isle la Motte, North and South Hero [Grand Isle], and Valcour.
[4] Chestnuts were plentiful in the area before they were wiped out by a blight.
[5] Present day Lake George.
[6] Either the Crown Point or Ticonderoga peninsula.

Sources/Notes:
* Samuel de Champlain. 1567-1635. "Voyages of Samuel de Champlain" Edited by Edmund F. Slafter, (Boston: Prince Society 1878) 210
Samuel de Champlain image: Warwick Stevens Carpenter. The Summer Paradise in History. Albany: General Passenger Department, The Delaware and Hudson Company. 1914. Courtesy of John and Barbara Gallagher.

Last modified: 11/10/2012


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