The Ideal Colonist
Samuel de Champlain was brave, skillful, principled and chaste.
By David Hackett Fischer
Simon & Schuster. 834 pp. $40
Samuel de Champlain is little known to most Americans, except as the namesake of a frigid lake. Generally speaking, we're biased against the French and bored by Canada. In school books, France's role in the making of our nation doesn't extend much beyond Lafayette, the French-and-Indian War and the Louisiana Purchase.
So it may surprise American readers that Champlain not only founded Quebec City but reached Plymouth Harbor 15 years before the Pilgrims. He explored Cape Cod and Maine and probed upstate New York as far inland as Syracuse. Millions of Americans descend from early settlers who followed Champlain to New France, a domain that in his day extended from Canada to Philadelphia.
Champlain also stands out for the stunning breadth and drama of his career. This is a man who never learned to swim, yet shot American rapids in bark canoes and crossed the Atlantic 27 times without losing a ship. He sought peace with Indians but marched on the Mohawk, defeating them in battle while plucking an arrow from his neck. He was also a talented spy, mapmaker, artist, naturalist and writer -- as well as a gourmand who founded the first gastronomic society in America, the Ordre de Bon Temps. In short, it's hard to imagine a more appealing biographical subject than this French action-figure with high ideals and a taste for moose meat and beaver tail.
It's also hard to conjure a historian better suited to reintroducing Champlain to U.S. readers than David Hackett Fischer, the acclaimed author of several works on colonial America and trans-Atlantic history (his last, Washington's Crossing, won a Pulitzer Prize). In his exhaustively researched new book, Champlain's Dream, Fischer depicts the French explorer as the rare European who genuinely believed in coexisting peacefully with natives, through trade alliances, cultural tolerance and intermarriage. This distinguished Champlain from his Spanish contemporaries, who routinely enslaved and slaughtered Indians, and from early English colonists, who generally lived apart from natives and drove them from their land.
To a remarkable degree, Champlain lived up to his ideals and realized the dream of colonizing New France without brute conquest. This contributes, however, to a disappointing biography. Fischer is so admiring of his subject that he presents Champlain as more monument than man. The Frenchman appears almost perfect, and perfectly dull.
Fischer's skills as a narrative historian also seem to have deserted him. In earlier books, Fischer focused tightly on dramatic events such as Paul Revere's ride and Washington's crossing of the Delaware. Here, he works in wide-angle, panning across continents and decades. This approach cries out for ruthless editing, which he fails to provide. Champlain's Dream is dense with extraneous characters and detail, and very slow going for anyone but a devoted student of the subject (for whom Fischer tacks on 200 pages of appendices and notes).
Fischer's failure to give pace to his story or life to his protagonist is a disservice not only to the reader but to Champlain, whose own writing is rich with adventure and keen observation. Fischer sometimes quotes Champlain to effect, but too often he substitutes his own cliché-ridden and generic prose: "Champlain's most important school was the sea itself." "He took pleasure in the discovery of humanity with all its infinite variety." France's royal court "teemed with life and throbbed with energy." The author even undercuts Champlain's graphic and disapproving tales of Indian torture and cannibalism: "Scholars have explained this ancient custom," Fischer writes, "as a ceremony or ritual, rooted in cultural practice and religious belief."
Fischer also deals skittishly with Champlain's love life, or lack thereof. He claims that Champlain "was strongly attracted to women," but the evidence he provides suggests otherwise. Champlain's only documented attachment was to a well-connected French girl he wed when she was 12 and he at least 40. The union brought with it a large dowry and an agreement that the marriage not be consummated for two years. When that time came, the teenaged bride fled Champlain, and though she returned, "One wonders if they were living as man and wife," Fischer writes. She later fled their childless union to enter a convent.
Champlain apparently kept chaste with Indians, too, despite frank approaches by native women during his three decades in America. Of this, Fischer writes only that Champlain "acted like a holy man," in contrast to other Frenchmen, adding that his abstinence enhanced his "spiritual power" among Indians. To ignore the possibility that Champlain was homosexual seems an odd bit of coyness in the 21st century.
Fischer strikes another fogey note by telling us repeatedly how much Native Americans loved Champlain. (The sources for these flattering anecdotes are, inescapably, European accounts, since contact-era Indians left no written record.) He is likewise at pains to exonerate Champlain for his attacks on the Iroquois. By mowing down these troublesome Indians with his musket, he writes, Champlain sought "a middle way of peace through the carefully calibrated use of limited force." Fischer deals only briefly and belatedly with the devastating impact of European diseases on Indians. Then, in the book's conclusion, he cites the autobiography of Black Hawk, written two centuries after Champlain's death, to remind us yet again how much Indians admired "the great white general" who treated natives "as kin."
The best chapters of Fischer's book come near the end, when Champlain is mostly off stage. Here, Fischer gives a fascinating survey of immigrants to French Canada and the hybrid culture they and their descendants created. Words that have vanished in France still endure in North America, while others blend the New World and Old: For instance, the dogsled command Mush! derives from the French "Marche!"
Fischer also tells of the many people who bridged French and Indian culture, thanks to an early form of student-exchange program. Champlain often placed young men with Indian tribes to learn their language and ways, while he took in native children himself. A number of these truchements, or interpreters, became explorers, and the French fur traders who followed often took Indian wives. Today, the mixed-race descendants of these voyagers and French-Indian settlers may number 12 million -- a statistic that speaks more eloquently to Champlain's dream than the 500 pages of hagiography that precede it. ·
Tony Horwitz is the author, most recently, of "A Voyage Long and Strange," about early European exploration of North America.