Two small, quaint vessels, not larger than the fishing-craft of Gloucester and Marblehead, — one was of twelve, the other of fifteen tons, — held their way across the Atlantic during Samuel Champlain’s early life.
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But a new era had dawned on France. Exhausted with thirty years of conflict, she had sunk at last to a repose, uneasy and disturbed, yet the harbinger of recovery. The rugged soldier whom, for the weal of France and of mankind, Providence had cast to the troubled surface of affairs, was throned in the Louvre, composing the strife of factions and the quarrels of his mistresses. The bear-hunting prince of the Pyrenees wore the crown of France; and to this day, as one gazes on the time-worn front of the Tuileries, above all other memories rises the small, strong finger, the brow wrinkled with cares of love and war, the bristling moustache, the grizzled beard, the bold, vigorous, and withal somewhat odd features of the mountaineer of Warn. To few has human liberty owed so deep a gratitude or so deep a grudge. He cared little for creeds or dogmas. Impressible, quick in sympathy, his grim lip lighted often with a smile, and his war-worn cheek was no stranger to a tear. He forgave his enemies and forgot his friends. Many loved him; none but fools trusted him. Mingled of mortal good and ill, frailty and force, of all the kings who for two centuries and more sat on the throne of France Henry the Fourth alone was a man.
Art, industry, and commerce, so long crushed and overborne, were stirring into renewed life, and a crowd of adventurous men, nurtured in war and incapable of repose, must seek employment for their restless energies in fields of peaceful enterprise.
Two small, quaint vessels, not larger than the fishing-craft of Gloucester and Marblehead, — one was of twelve, the other of fifteen tons, — held their way across the Atlantic, passed the tempestuous headlands of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence, and, with adventurous knight-errantry, glided deep into the heart of the Canadian wilderness. On board of one of them was the Breton merchant, Pontgrave, and with him a man of spirit widely different, a Catholic of good family, — Samuel de Champlain, born in 1567 at the small seaport of Bronage on the Bay of Biscay. His father was a captain in the royal navy, where he himself seems also to have served, though during the war he had fought for the King in Brittany, under the banners of D’Aumont, St. Luc, and Brissac. His purse was small, his merit great; and Henry the Fourth out of his own slender revenues had given him a pension to maintain him near his person. But rest was penance to him. The war in Brittany was over. The rebellious Duc de Mercaeur was reduced to obedience, and the royal army disbanded. Champlain, his occupation gone, conceived a design consonant with his adventurous nature. He would visit the West Indies, and bring back to the King a report of those regions of mystery whence Spanish jealousy excluded foreigners, and where every intruding Frenchman was threatened with death. Here much knowledge was to be won and much peril to be met. The joint attraction was resistless.
The Spaniards, allies of the vanquished Leaguers, were about to evacuate Blavet, their last stronghold in Brittany. Thither Champlain repaired; and here he found an uncle, who had charge of the French fleet destined to take on board the Spanish garrison. Champlain embarked with them, and, reaching Cadiz, succeeded, with the aid of his relative, who had just accepted the post of Pilot-General of the Spanish marine, in gaining command of one of the ships about to sail for the West Indies under Don Francisco Colombo.
At Dieppe there is a curious old manuscript, in clear, decisive, and somewhat formal handwriting of the sixteenth century, garnished with sixty-one colored pictures, in a style of art which a child of ten might emulate. Here one may see ports, harbors, islands, and rivers, adorned with portraitures of birds, beasts, and fishes thereto pertaining. Here are Indian feasts and dances; Indians flogged by priests for not going to mass; Indians burned alive for heresy, six in one fire; Indians working the silver mines. Here, too, are descriptions of natural objects, each with its illustrative sketch, some drawn from life and some from memory, — as, for example, a chameleon with two legs; others from hearsay, among which is the portrait of the griffin said to haunt certain districts of Mexico, — a monster with the wings of a bat, the head of an eagle, and the tail of an alligator.
This is Champlain’s journal, written and illustrated by his own hand, in that defiance of perspective and absolute independence of the canons of art which mark the earliest efforts of the pencil.
A true hero, after the chivalrous mediaeval type, his character was dashed largely with the spirit of romance. Though earnest, sagacious, and penetrating, he leaned to the marvellous; and the faith which was the life of his hard career was somewhat prone to overstep the bounds of reason and invade the domain of fancy. Hence the erratic character of some of his exploits, and hence his simple faith in the Mexican griffin.
His West-Indian adventure occupied him more than two years. He visited the principal ports of the islands, made plans and sketches of them all, after his fashion, and then, landing at Vera Cruz, journeyed inland to the city of Mexico. On his return he made his way to Panama. Here, more than two centuries and a half ago, his bold and active mind conceived the plan of a ship-canal across the isthmus, “by which,” lie says, “the voyage to the South Sea would be shortened by more than fifteen hundred leagues.”
On reaching France he repaired to court, and it may have been at this time that a royal patent raised him to the rank of the untitled nobility. He soon wearied of the antechambers of the Louvre. It was here, however, that his destiny awaited him, and the work of his life was unfolded. Aymar de Chastes, Commander of the Order of St. John and Governor of Dieppe, a gray-haired veteran of the civil wars, wished to mark his closing days with some notable achievement for France and the Church. To no man was the King more deeply indebted. In his darkest hour, when the hosts of the League were gathering round him, when friends were falling off, and the Parisians, exulting in his certain ruin, were hiring the windows of the Rue St. Antoine to see him led to the Bastille, De Chastes, without condition or reserve, gave up to him the town and castle of Dieppe. Thus he was enabled to fight beneath its walls the battle of Arques, the first in the series of successes which secured his triumph; and he had been heard to say that to this friend in his adversity he owed his own salvation and that of France.
De Chastes was one of those men who, amid the strife of factions and rage of rival fanaticisms, make reason and patriotism their watchwords, and stand on the firm ground of a strong and resolute moderation. He had resisted the madness of Leaguer and Huguenot alike; yet, though a foe of the League, the old soldier was a devout Catholic, and it seemed in his eyes a noble consummation of his life to plant the cross and the fleur-de-lis in the wilderness of New France. Chauvin had just died, after wasting the lives of a score or more of men in a second and a third attempt to establish the fur-trade at Tadoussac. De Chastes came to court to beg a patent of henry the Fourth; “and,” says his friend Champlain, “though his head was crowned with gray hairs as with years, he resolved to proceed to New France in person, and dedicate the rest of his days to the service of God and his King.”
The patent, costing nothing, was readily granted; and De Chastes, to meet the expenses of the enterprise, and forestall the jealousies which his monopoly would awaken among the keen merchants of the western ports, formed a company with the more prominent of them. Pontgrave, who had some knowledge of the country, was chosen to make a preliminary exploration.
This was the time when Champlain, fresh from the West Indies, appeared at court. De Chastes knew him well. Young, ardent, yet ripe in experience, a skilful seaman and a practised soldier, he above all others was a man for the enterprise. He had many conferences with the veteran, under whom he had served in the royal fleet off the coast of Brittany. De Chastes urged him to accept a post in his new company; and Champlain, nothing loath, consented, provided always that permission should be had from the King, “to whom,” he says, “I was bound no less by birth than by the pension with which his Majesty honored me.” To the King, therefore, De Chastes repaired. The needful consent was gained, and, armed with a letter to Pontgrave, Champlain set out for Honfleur. Here he found his destined companion, and embarking with him, as we have seen, they spread their sails for the west.
Like specks on the broad bosom of the waters, the two pygmy vessels held their course up the lonely St. Lawrence. They passed abandoned Tadoussac, the channel of Orleans, and the gleaming cataract of Montmorenci; the tenantless rock of Quebec, the wide Lake of St. Peter and its crowded archipelago, till now the mountain reared before them its rounded shoulder above the forest-plain of Montreal. All was solitude. Hochelaga had vanished; and of the savage population that Cartier had found here, sixty-eight years before, no trace remained. In its place were a few wandering Algonquins, of different tongue and lineage. In a skiff, with a few Indians, Champlain essayed to pass the rapids of St. Louis. Oars, paddles, and poles alike proved vain against the foaming surges, and he was forced to return. On the deck of his vessel, the Indians drew rude plans of the river above, with its chain of rapids, its lakes and cataracts; and the baffled explorer turned his prow homeward, the objects of his mission accomplished, but his own adventurous curiosity unsated. When the voyagers reached Havre de Grace, a grievous blow awaited them. The Commander de Chastes was dead.
His mantle fell upon Pierre du Guast, Sieur de Monts, gentleman in ordinary of the King’s chamber, and Governor of Polls. Undaunted by the fate of La Roche, this nobleman petitioned the king for leave to colonize La Cadie, or Acadie, a region defined as extending from the fortieth to the forty-Sixth degree of north latitude, or from Philadelphia to beyond Montreal. The King’s minister, Sully, as he himself tells us, opposed the plan, on the ground that the colonization of this northern wilderness would never repay the outlay; but De Monts gained his point. He was made Lieutenant-General in Acadia, with viceregal powers; and withered Feudalism, with her antique forms and tinselled follies, was again to seek a new home among the rocks and pine-trees of Nova Scotia. The foundation of the enterprise was a monopoly of the fur-trade, and in its favor all past grants were unceremoniously annulled. St. Malo, Rouen, Dieppe, and Rochelle greeted the announcement with unavailing outcries. Patents granted and revoked, monopolies decreed and extinguished, had involved the unhappy traders in ceaseless embarrassment. De Monts, however, preserved De Chastes’s old company, and enlarged it, thus making the chief malcontents sharers in his exclusive rights, and converting them from enemies into partners.
A clause in his commission empowered him to impress idlers and vagabonds as material for his colony, — an ominous provision of which he largely availed himself. His company was strangely incongruous. The best and the meanest of France were crowded together in his two ships. Here were thieves and ruffians dragged on board by force; and here were many volunteers of condition and character, with Baron de Poutrincourt and the indefatigable Champlain. Here, too, were Catholic priests and Huguenot ministers; for, though De Monts was a Calvinist, the Church, as usual, displayed her banner in the van of the enterprise, and he was forced to promise that he would cause the Indians to be instructed in the dogmas of Rome.
– Pioneers of France in the New World Part II, Chapter 2 by Francis Parkman
Thus Champlain’s early life.
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.