Known as the Father of Canada or the Father of New France, Samuel de Champlain was a major contributor to the development of a French presence in North America. He was born in the village of Brouage on the Bay of Biscay and received his maritime education from his father, a ship’s captain. Little else is known about his early years.
Champlain served briefly in the French army before joining his uncle on a series of trading voyages to Panama, Mexico and the West Indies. His written account of his adventures included early speculation about the feasibility of constructing a canal through Central America. King Henry IV was impressed by young Champlain and provided him with a small pension.
In 1603, Champlain accompanied Francis Gravé, Sieur du Pont on a voyage to the Rivière de Canada (St. Lawrence River). The purpose of this venture was to develop the fur trade, but Champlain spent much of his time exploring his surroundings. He pushed up the St. Lawrence as far as the rapids near what would become Montréal, an area visited nearly 70 years earlier by Jacques Cartier. Champlain viewed Niagara Falls and held to the belief that westward exploration would yield an opening to Asia.
A second voyage began in 1604 and resulted in a small settlement on an island in the St. Croix River (at the present-day boundary between New Brunswick and Maine). Champlain and his party spent a miserable winter there before relocating to Port Royal in the spring. Nearly two years were spent in exploring coastal lands to the south; it appears that Champlain probably ventured as far as Cape Cod. Lack of support from home led to widespread discouragement among the settlers; many accompanied Champlain back to France.
In 1608, Champlain returned to North America with the Sieur de Monts, but on this voyage they hoped to find more hospitable conditions than those encountered on Acadia. A small settlement was established at what would become Québec. The anticipated fur trade with the local natives was slow to develop and the first winter was harsh beyond all expectations; only eight of 24 settlers survived. Champlain eventually managed to forge tight bonds with the neighboring Algonquin and Huron. In 1609, he participated with them in a raid against their traditional enemy, the Iroquois. Using firearms, a frightening novelty to the Iroquois, Champlain succeeded in killing two opposing chiefs and making lasting allies of the Algonquin and Huron. On this foray, Champlain may have been the first European to see Lake Champlain, which he named for himself. He then returned to France for supplies and reinforcements.
Champlain returned to New France briefly in 1610. He was wounded while fighting the Iroquois and went back to France for treatment. In later years, he traveled across the Atlantic on a number of occasions in his efforts to keep the struggling colony alive. Pressing European affairs often diverted the attention of French officials and Champlain was forced to make his case for the colony repeatedly.
Warfare erupted between England and France in 1626. North America became one of the theaters of operations and was characterized by successful English forays against a number of settlements in New France. By 1628, the English had succeeded in cutting off Québec from outside contact. Champlain and the beleaguered settlers held out for a year, but were forced to surrender when provisions ran out. Champlain was taken into custody and briefly detained in England. Peace was achieved in 1632 and Québec was returned to French hands. Champlain returned to New France the following year, was warmly greeted and spent his remaining days strengthening the colony.
More than any other factor, Champlain’s determination was responsible for the success of New France. He initiated a solid relationship with native tribes, particularly the Huron, and was a witness to the growing rivalry in North America between France and England.
See France in the Age of Exploration .
See also Indian Wars Time Table .
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