Champlain's Dream

By David Hackett Fischer
Simon & Schuster. 838 pp. $40
Nov. 9, 2008


In Search of Champlain

His activities, which were revealed mainly through his writings, were always surrounded by a certain degree of mystery. - Raymonde Litalien, 2004

An old French engraving survives from the early seventeenth century. It is a battle-print, at first glance like many others in European print shops. We look again, and discover that it shows a battle in North America, fought between Indian nations four centuries ago. The caption reads in old French, "Deffaite des Yroquois au Lac de Champlain," the "Defeat of the Iroquois at Lake Champlain," July 30, 1609.

On one side we see sixty Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais warriors. On the other are two hundred Iroquois of the Mohawk nation. They meet in an open field beside the lake. The smaller force is attacking boldly, though outnumbered three to one. The Mohawk have sallied from a log fort to meet them. By reputation they are among the most formidable warriors in North America. They have the advantage of numbers and position, and yet the caption tells us that the smaller force won the fight.

The print offers an explanation in the presence of a small figure who stands alone at the center of the battle. His dress reveals that he is a French soldier and a man of rank. He wears half-armor of high quality: a well-fitted cuirass on his upper body, and protective britches of the latest design with light steel plates on his thighs. His helmet is no ordinary morion, or crude iron pot of the kind that we associate with Spanish conquistadors and English colonists. It is an elegant example of what the French call a casque bourgignon, a Burgundian helmet of distinctive design that was the choice of kings and noblemen - a handsome, high-crowned helmet with a comb and helm forged from a single piece of metal. Above the helmet is a large plume of white feathers called a panache - the origin of our modern word. Its color identifies the wearer as a captain in the service of Henri IV, first Bourbon king of France. Its size marks it as a badge of courage worn to make its wearer visible in battle.

This French captain is not a big man. Even with his panache, the Indians appear half a head taller. But he has a striking presence, and in the middle of a wild mêlée he stands still and quiet, firmly in command of himself. His back is straight as a ramrod. His muscular legs are splayed apart and firmly planted to bear the weight of a weapon which he holds at full length. It is not a conventional matchlock, as historians have written, but a complex and very costly arquebuse à rouet, a wheel-lock arquebus. It was the first self-igniting shoulder weapon that did not require a burning match, and could fire as many as four balls in a single shot.

The text with this engraving tells us that the French captain has already fired his arquebus and brought down two Mohawk chiefs and a third warrior, who lie on the ground before him. He aims his weapon at a fourth Mohawk, and we see the captain fire again in a cloud of white smoke. On the far side of the battlefield, half-hidden in the American forest, two French arquebusiers emerge from the trees. They kneel and fire their weapons into the flank of the dense Iroquois formation.

We look back at the French captain and catch a glimpse of his face. He has a high forehead, arched brows, eyes set wide apart, a straight nose turned up at the tip, a fashionable mustache, and a beard trimmed like that of his king, Henri IV. The key below the print gives us his name, the "sieur de Champlain."

This small image is the only authentic likeness of Samuel de Champlain that is known to survive from his own time. It is also a self-portrait, and its technique tells us other things about the man who drew it. A French scholar observes that "its style is that of a man of action, direct, natural, naive, biased toward exact description, toward the concrete and the useful." This is art without a hint of artifice. It tells a story in a straightforward way. At the same time, it expresses the artist's pride in his acts, and confidence in his purposes. It also points up a paradox in what we know about him. It describes his actions in detail, but the man himself is covered in armor, and his face is partly hidden by his own hand.

Other images of Champlain would be invented after the fact. Many years later, when he was recognized as the father of New France, he was thought to require a proper portrait. Artists and sculptors were quick to supply a growing market. Few faces in modern history have been reinvented so often and from so little evidence. All these images are fictions. The most widely reproduced was a fraud, detected many years ago and still used more frequently than any other.

Historians also contributed many word-portraits of Champlain, and no two are alike. His biographer Morris Bishop asserted from little evidence that "Champlain was, in fact, a lean ascetic type, dry and dark, probably rather under than over normal size ... his southern origin is indication enough of dark hair and black eyes." Another biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, wrote from no evidence whatever: "As one who has lived with Champlain for many years, I may be permitted to give my own idea of him. A well-built man of medium stature, blond and bearded, a natural leader who inspired loyalty and commanded obedience." A third author, Heather Hudak, represented him with bright red hair, a black panache and chartreuse britches. Playwright Michael Hollingsworth described Champlain as prematurely gray, as well he might have been, and an anonymous engraver gave him snow-white hair. Champlain's biographies, like his portraits, show the same wealth of invention and poverty of fact.

Champlain himself was largely responsible for that. He wrote thousands of pages about what he did, but only a few words about who he was. His published works are extraordinary for an extreme reticence about his origins, inner thoughts, private life, and personal feelings. Rarely has an author written so much and revealed so little about himself. These were not casual omissions, but studied silences. Here again, as in the old battle-print, Champlain was hidden by his own hand. He was silent and even secretive about the most fundamental facts of his life. He never mentioned his age. His birth date is uncertain. Little information survives about his family, and not a word about his schooling. He was raised in an age of faith, but we do not know if he was baptized Protestant or Catholic.

After all this uncertainty about the man himself, it is a relief to turn to the record of his acts. Here we have an abundance of evidence, and it makes a drama that is unique in the history of exploration. No other discoverer mastered so many roles over so long a time, and each of them presents a puzzle.

By profession Champlain was a soldier, and he chose to represent himself that way in his self-portrait. He fought in Europe, the Caribbean, and North America, bore the scars of wounds on his face and body, and witnessed atrocities beyond imagining. Like many old soldiers, he took pride in his military service, but he grew weary of war. Always he kept a soldier's creed of honor, courage, and duty, but increasingly did so in the cause of peace. There is a question about how he squared these thoughts.

At the same time, Champlain was a mariner of long experience. He went to sea at an early age, and rose from ship's boy to "admirall" of a colonizing fleet. From 1599 to 1633 he made at least twenty-seven Atlantic crossings and hundreds of other voyages. He never lost a ship under his command, except once when he was a passenger aboard a sinking barque in a heavy gale on a lee shore, with a captain who was unable to act. Champlain seized command, set the mainsail, and deliberately drove her high on a rocky coast in a raging storm - and saved every man aboard. There are interesting questions to be asked about his leadership and astonishing seamanship.

Champlain is best remembered for his role as an explorer. He developed a method of close-in coastal exploration that he called "ferreting," and he used it to study thousands of miles of the American coast from Panama to Labrador. He also explored much of North America through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states. He was the first European to see much of this countryside, and he enabled us to see it through his eyes. His unique methods raise another question about how he did that work, and with what result.

Champlain also mapped this vast area in yet another role as a cartographer. He put himself in the forefront of geographic knowledge in his era. His many maps and charts set a new standard for accuracy and detail. Experts have studied them with amazement. They wonder how he made maps of such excellence with the crude instruments at his command. He also embellished his maps with handsome drawings. In his own time he was known as an artist. When rival French merchants opposed his appointment to high office, they complained that Champlain was a "mere painter," and therefore unfit for command. In his drawings he left us a visual record of the new world, which alone would make him an important figure. To study the few originals is to discover the skill and refinement of his art. But nearly all his art survives only in crude copies that challenge us to recover the spirit of his work.

Champlain was a prolific writer. He is most accessible to us through his published books, which exceed in quantity and quality the work of every major explorer of North America during his era. A close second was the work of Captain John Smith, but Champlain's published writings were larger in bulk. They covered a broader area, spanned a longer period, and drew deeply on the intellectual currents of his age. The problem is to find the mind behind the prose.

In his books Champlain played a role as a pioneer ethnographer. He left an abundance of first-hand description about many Indian nations in North America. During the late twentieth century some scholars criticized him for ethnocentrism. That judgment is correct in some ways, but Champlain's work remains a major source of sympathetic description. A challenging problem is to sort out truth from error.

He was also a naturalist. Champlain loved plants and animals, gathered information about the flora and fauna of the new world, and studied the climate and resources of the places he visited. He planted experimental gardens in four colonies and did much descriptive writing about the American environment before European settlement, and how it changed.

Especially important to his posterity was Champlain's role as a founder and leader of the first permanent French settlements in North America. A major part of his life was his economic association with many trading companies that paid for New France. This was Champlain's most difficult role, and his least successful. Wealthy investors often defeated him, and many companies failed. But in his stewardship, New France somehow survived three decades of failure - which is not only an unknown but a mystery.

Through those same three decades from 1603 to 1635, Champlain also returned to France in most years. He had another busy career as a courtier and a tireless promoter of his American project. Four people ruled France in that era: Henri IV until 1610, Marie de Medici as queen regent after 1610, Louis XII from 1617, and Richelieu as "first minister" from 1624. Champlain worked directly with all except the queen regent, argued vigorously for New France, and prodded them so forcefully that one wonders how he stayed out of the Bastille. During that long period, six highborn French noblemen and "princes of the blood" served as lieutenant general or viceroy or "cardinal-admiral" of New France. All but one of them were absentees who never came to America. Each of them without exception chose Champlain to be his chief lieutenant and commander in the new world. He got on with all those very difficult people - another puzzle.

One of Champlain's most important roles was in the peopling of New France. For some reason the French have always been less likely to emigrate than were millions of British, Germans, and other Europeans. And yet in thirty years Champlain did more than any other leader to establish three French-speaking populations and start them growing in North America. In a pivotal moment from 1632 to 1635 when he was acting governor, they suddenly began to expand by sustained natural increase, and they have continued to do so, even to our own time. Champlain had a leading hand in that, and even subsidized marriages and families with his own wealth. Each of these three populations developed its own distinct culture and speechways which made them Québécois, Acadien, and Métis. Today their descendants have multiplied to millions of people. Something of Champlain's time survives in their language and folkways. They are chief among his many legacies.

Champlain also played a role in the religious history of New France. He worked with Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Recollets, Jesuits, and Capuchins. His Christian faith was deeply important to him, increasingly so as he grew older. But he struggled to reconcile an ideal of tolerance with the reality of an established Church - a problem that he never solved.

If nothing else, his life was a record of stamina with few equals. But always it was more than that. Champlain was a dreamer. He was a man of vision, and like most visionaries he dreamed of many things. Several scholars have written about his dream of finding a passage to China. Others have written of his dream for the colonization in New France. But all these visions were part of a larger dream that has not been studied. This war-weary soldier had a dream of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence. He envisioned a new world as a place where people of different cultures could live together in amity and concord. This became his grand design for North America.

Champlain was not a solitary dreamer. He moved within several circles of French humanists during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They are neglected figures of much importance in the history of ideas - bridge-figures who inherited the Renaissance and inspired the Enlightenment. They were not of one mind, but they had large purposes in common. One group of French humanists centered on the person of Henri IV and were guided by his great example. Another was an American circle in Paris who never crossed the Atlantic but were inspired by the idea of the new world. In a third group were many French humanists who came to North America with Champlain - men such as the sieur de Mons and the sieur de Razilly. In the beginning they were his leaders. By the end he became theirs.

Champlain traveled in other circles among the leaders of Indian nations, who also were great dreamers. He knew them intimately, and they live as individuals in the pages of his books. Champlain had a way of getting along with very different people, and he also had the rarest gift of all. In long years of labor, he found a way to convert his dreams into realities. In the face of great obstacles and heavy defeats, he exercised his skills of leadership in extreme conditions. Those of us who are leaders today (which includes most of us in an open society) have something to learn from him about that.

Champlain was a leader, but he was not a saint. We do not need another work of hagiography about him. He was a mortal man of flesh and blood, a very complicated man. He made horrific errors in his career, and some of his mistakes cost other men their lives. He cultivated an easy manner, but sometimes he drove his men so hard that four of them tried to murder him. His quest for amity and concord with the Indians led to wars with the Mohawk and the Onondaga. His private life was deeply troubled, particularly in his relations with women. Champlain lived comfortably as a man among men, but one discovery eluded this great discoverer. He never found the way to a woman's heart. It was not for want of trying. He was strongly attracted to women, but his most extended relationship ended in frustration.

His ideal of humanity was very large, but it was also limited in strange, ironic ways. Champlain embraced the American Indians, but not his own French servants. He had deep flaws and made many enemies, responded badly to criticism, and could be very petty to rivals. But other men who knew this man wrote of him with respect and affection. Even his enemies did so.

Just now, we have an opportunity to study this extraordinary man in a new light. In the early twenty-first century, three nations are celebrating the 400th anniversary of his achievements. Something similar happened in the early twentieth century, for his 300th anniversary. The literature about Champlain is like a century plant. It blooms every hundred years, then fades and blooms again.


Excerpted from Champlain's Dream by David Hackett Fischer Copyright © 2008 by David Hackett Fischer . Excerpted by permission.
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