Champlain Among The Mohawk, 1609


A few generations ago, American colonial history centered on a single narrative that flowed from Jamestown in 1607 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Today early American history has blossomed into a braided narrative with many story lines.


A starting point might be four small beginnings, far apart in space but close in time. On April 26, 1607, Capt. John Smith and his comrades founded Jamestown in Virginia. Four months later, in mid-August 1607, Capt. George Popham established a New England colony near Pemaquid in Maine. The following year, during the spring and summer of 1608, Spanish colonists, led by Capt. Martínez de Montoya, built a permanent settlement at Santa Fe in the region they called New Mexico. And on July 3, 1608, Capt. Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent colony in New France at Quebec. The stories that began to unfold at these places shaped much of modern North America.


One of the most interesting of those small beginnings was New France. For more than 30 years the central figure was the extraordinary Champlain. He left six fascinating books of travels, filled with many superb maps and illustrations. His writings tell much about his actions but little about the man, and nearly nothing about his inner life.


Champlain came from Brouage, a little town on the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast of France. A busy place in his youth, it served as the center of a lucrative salt trade. Today this small seaport lies quietly a mile from the sea. Born around 1570 and probably baptized Protestant, he grew up in a prosperous maritime family and was schooled by his father, who had risen through the ranks from seaman, pilot, and master to captain, merchant, and ship owner. Champlain came of age in a dark period, when horrific wars of religion had shattered France.


The United States has experienced one civil war, in which 600,000 people died over four years. The French people suffered nine civil wars of religion in nearly 40 years (1562–98). More than 2 million died, and atrocities beyond description occurred. Champlain fought in the largest of these wars, following an extraordinary leader who would become Henry IV, founder of the Bourbon dynasty. The king became the young Champlain’s mentor, model, patron, and friend. Both men converted to Catholicism but always defended toleration for Protestants.


War was their profession. While always keeping a soldier’s creed of honor, duty, courage, and loyalty to a larger cause, their feelings about war changed with the horrors they encountered. These veteran campaigners came to hate war for its cruelty, destruction, and terrible waste. They knew, however, that some of the world’s evils overshadow even war. In a world of cruelty and violence, they dedicated themselves to fighting for peace and humanity.


Henry and his army won their last great struggle in 1598, giving France the Peace of Vervins and toleration under the Edict of Nantes. Henry next set his sights on bringing a general peace to Europe. Soon a web of peace treaties opened the Atlantic to commerce and made North America accessible for those many colonial beginnings in 1607 and 1608. It was a pivot point in American history.


The king was deeply interested in America, particularly the large area labeled on world maps as Nova Francia, after voyages of Jacques Cartier in the 16th century. Henry intended to turn that geographical expression into an empire called la Nouvelle France. Champlain got a new job.


He had already begun to serve the king as a secret agent. In 1599 he traveled through Spanish America on a long espionage mission. Upon its completion, Champlain delivered a long report called a Bref discours that outlined the strengths and resources of the Spanish empire in detail. Champlain found the people he variously called Indiens or sauvages fascinating. Impressed by their high intelligence, he was shocked by the cruelty and violence they had suffered under the Spanish. To illustrate the report, Champlain added his own luminous watercolors of their sufferings: Indians burned alive for heresy; Indians cudgeled on the orders of priests for not attending mass; Indians and African slaves compelled to dive to lethal depths in the pearl fisheries of Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. Altogether the Bref discours was a report on how not to found an empire in America.


Impressed with the report, King Henry gave Champlain a pension and the assignment to work with other experts in the basement of the Louvre on the colonization of North America. Champlain closely studied the history of earlier French settlements, which had all ended in disaster. He also traveled to the Atlantic ports of France, interviewing fishermen who knew about America and the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic. He composed what he called his grand dessein for France in North America, a plan in large part based on a dream of peace and humanity, of amity and concord among the peoples of Europe and America.


Champlain pulled many others into his grand design, moving in a number of circles, all of which revolved around Henry IV. One consisted of the men who would go eventually with him to America: Pierre Dugua, the sieur de Mons; Marc Lescarbot; Jean de Poutrincourt; and François Gravé du Pont, a grizzled mariner from Saint-Malo whom he called Pont-Gravé. His friends at court formed another circle: Pierre Jeannin, several Sillerys and Brularts, and his old commander, the Comte de Cossé-Brissac, who offered advice and urgent support.