In Champlain alone was the life of New France. By instinct and temperament he was more impelled to the adventurous toils of exploration than to the duller task of building colonies. Nevertheless Champlain dominated Canada.
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Judged by the standard of Indian war, a heavy blow had been struck on the common enemy. Here were hundreds of assembled warriors; yet none thought of following up their success. Elated with unexpected fortune, they danced and sang; then loaded their canoes, hung their scalps on poles, broke up their camps, and set out triumphant for their homes. Champlain had fought their battles, and now might claim, on their part, guidance and escort to the distant interior. Why he did not do so is scarcely apparent. There were cares, it seems, connected with the very life of his puny colony, which demanded his return to France. Nor were his anxieties lessened by the arrival of a ship from his native town of Brouage, with tidings of the King’s assassination. Here was a death-blow to all that had remained of De Monts’s credit at court; while that unfortunate nobleman, like his old associate, Pontrincourt, was moving with swift strides toward financial ruin. With the revocation of his monopoly, fur-traders had swarmed to the St. Lawrence. Tadoussac was full of them, and for that year the trade was spoiled. Far from aiding to support a burdensome enterprise of colonization, it was in itself an occasion of heavy loss.
Champlain bade farewell to his garden at Quebec, where maize, wheat, rye, and barley, with vegetables of all kinds, and a small vineyard of native grapes, — for he was a zealous horticulturist, — held forth a promise which he was not to see fulfilled. He left one Du Parc in command, with sixteen men, and, sailing on the eighth of August [1610 – jl], arrived at Honfleur with no worse accident than that of running over a sleeping whale near the Grand Bank.
With the opening spring he was afloat again. Perils awaited him worse than those of Iroquois tomahawks; for, approaching Newfoundland, the ship was entangled for days among drifting fields and bergs of ice. Escaping at length, she arrived at Tadoussac on the thirteenth of May, 1611. She had anticipated the spring. Forests and mountains, far and near, all were white with snow. A principal object with Champlain was to establish such relations with the great Indian communities of the interior as to secure to De Monts and his associates the advantage of trade with them; and to this end he now repaired to Montreal, a position in the gateway, as it were, of their yearly descents of trade or war. On arriving, he began to survey the ground for the site of a permanent post.
A few days convinced him, that, under the present system, all his efforts would be vain. Wild reports of the wonders of New France had gone abroad, and a crowd of hungry adventurers had hastened to the land of promise, eager to grow rich, they scarcely knew how, and soon to return disgusted. A fleet of boats and small vessels followed in Champlain’s wake. Within a few days, thirteen of them arrived at Montreal, and more soon appeared. He was to break the ground; others would reap the harvest. Travel, discovery, and battle, all must inure to the profit, not of the colony, but of a crew of greedy traders.
Champlain, however, chose the site and cleared the ground for his intended post. It was immediately above a small stream, now running under arches of masonry, and entering the St. Lawrence at Point Callieres, within the modern city. He called it Place Royale; and here, on the margin of the river, he built a wall of bricks made on the spot, in order to measure the destructive effects of the “ice-shove” in the spring.
Now, down the surges of St. Louis, where the mighty floods of the St. Lawrence, contracted to a narrow throat, roll in fury among their sunken rocks, — here, through foam and spray and the roar of the angry torrent, a fleet of birch canoes came dancing like dry leaves on the froth of some riotous brook. They bore a band of Hurons first at the rendezvous. As they drew near the landing, all the fur-traders’ boats blazed out a clattering fusillade, which was designed to bid them welcome, but in fact terrified many of them to such a degree that they scarcely dared to come ashore. Nor were they reassured by the bearing of the disorderly crowd, who, in jealous competition for their beaver-skins, left them not a moment’s peace, and outraged all their notions of decorum. More soon appeared, till hundreds of warriors were encamped along the shore, all restless, suspicious, and alarmed. Late one night they awakened Champlain. On going with them to their camp, he found chiefs and warriors in solemn conclave around the glimmering firelight. Though they were fearful of the rest, their trust in him was boundless. “Come to our country, buy our beaver, build a fort, teach us the true faith, do what you will, but do not bring this crowd with you.” The idea had seized them that these lawless bands of rival traders, all well armed, meant to plunder and kill them. Champlain assured them of safety, and the whole night was consumed in friendly colloquy. Soon afterward, however, the camp broke up, and the uneasy warriors removed to the borders of the Lake of St. Louis, placing the rapids betwixt themselves and the objects of their alarm. Here Champlain visited them, and hence these intrepid canoe-men, kneeling in their birchen egg-shells, carried him homeward down the rapids, somewhat, as he admits, to the discomposure of his nerves.
The great gathering dispersed: the traders descended to Tadoussac, and Champlain to Quebec; while the Indians went, some to their homes, some to fight the Iroquois. A few months later, Champlain was in close conference with De Monts at Pons, a place near Rochelle, of which the latter was governor. The last two years had made it apparent, that, to keep the colony alive and maintain a basis for those discoveries on which his heart was bent, was impossible without a change of system. De Monts, engrossed with the cares of his government, placed all in the hands of his associate; and Champlain, fully empowered to act as he should judge expedient, set out for Paris. On the way, Fortune, at one stroke, wellnigh crushed him and New France together; for his horse fell on him, and he narrowly escaped with life. When he was partially recovered, he resumed his journey, pondering on means of rescue for the fading colony. A powerful protector must be had, — a great name to shield the enterprise from assaults and intrigues of jealous rival interests. On reaching Paris he addressed himself to a prince of the blood, Charles de Bourbon, Comte de Soissons; described New France, its resources, and its boundless extent; urged the need of unfolding a mystery pregnant perhaps with results of the deepest moment; laid before him maps and memoirs, and begged him to become the guardian of this new world. The royal consent being obtained, the Comte de Soissons became Lieutenant-General for the King in New France, with vice-regal powers. These, in turn, he conferred upon Champlain, making him his lieutenant, with full control over the trade in furs at and above Quebec, and with power to associate with himself such persons as he saw fit, to aid in the exploration and settlement of the country.
Scarcely was the commission drawn when the Comte de Soissons, attacked with fever, died, — to the joy of the Breton and Norman traders, whose jubilation, however, found a speedy end. Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, first prince of the blood, assumed the vacant protectorship. He was grandson of the gay and gallant Conde of the civil wars, was father of the great Conde, the youthful victor of Rocroy, and was husband of Charlotte de Moutmorency, whose blond beauties had fired the inflammable heart of Henry the Fourth. To the unspeakable wrath of that keen lover, the prudent Conde fled with his bride, first to Brussels, and then to Italy; nor did he return to France till the regicide’s knife had put his jealous fears to rest. After his return, he began to intrigue against the court. He was a man of common abilities, greedy of money and power, and scarcely seeking even the decency of a pretext to cover his mean ambition. His chief honor — an honor somewhat equivocal — is, as Voltaire observes, to have been father of the great Conde. Busy with his intrigues, he cared little for colonies and discoveries; and his rank and power were his sole qualifications for his new post.
In Champlain alone was the life of New France. By instinct and temperament he was more impelled to the adventurous toils of exploration than to the duller task of building colonies. The profits of trade had value in his eyes only as means to these ends, and settlements were important chiefly as a base of discovery. Two great objects eclipsed all others, — to find a route to the Indies, and to bring the heathen tribes into the embraces of the Church, since, while he cared little for their bodies, his solicitude for their souls knew no bounds.
It was no part of his plan to establish an odious monopoly. He sought rather to enlist the rival traders in his cause; and he now, in concurrence with Du Monts, invited them to become sharers in the traffic, under certain regulations, and on condition of aiding in the establishment and support of the colony. The merchants of St. Malo and Rouen accepted the terms, and became members of the new company; but the intractable heretics of Rochelle, refractory in commerce as in religion, kept aloof, and preferred the chances of an illicit trade. The prospects of New France were far from flattering; for little could be hoped from this unwilling league of selfish traders, each jealous of the rest. They gave the Prince of Conde large gratuities to secure his countenance and support. The hungry viceroy took them, and with these emoluments his interest in the colony ended.
1612, 1613. THE IMPOSTOR VIGNAU
The arrangements just indicated were a work of time. In the summer of 1612, Champlain was forced to forego his yearly voyage to New France; nor, even in the following spring, were his labors finished and the rival interests brought to harmony. Meanwhile, incidents occurred destined to have no small influence on his movements. Three years before, after his second fight with the Iroquois, a young man of his company had boldly volunteered to join the Indians on their homeward journey, and winter among them. Champlain gladly assented, and in the following summer the adventurer returned. Another young man, one Nicolas de Vignan, next offered himself; and he also, embarking in the Algonquin canoes, passed up the Ottawa, and was seen no more for a twelvemonth. In 1612 he reappeared in Paris, bringing a tale of wonders; for, says Champlain, “he was the most impudent liar that has been seen for many a day.” He averred that at the sources of the Ottawa he had found a great lake; that he had crossed it, and discovered a river flowing northward; that he had descended this river, and reached the shores of the sea; that here he had seen the wreck of an English ship, whose crew, escaping to land, had been killed by the Indians; and that this sea was distant from Montreal only seventeen days by canoe. The clearness, consistency, and apparent simplicity of his story deceived Champlain, who had heard of a voyage of the English to the northern seas, coupled with rumors of wreck and disaster, and was thus confirmed in his belief of Vignau’s honesty. The Marechal de Brissac, the President Jeannin, and other persons of eminence about the court, greatly interested by these dexterous fabrications, urged Champlain to follow up without delay a discovery which promised results so important; while he, with the Pacific, Japan, China, the Spice Islands, and India stretching in flattering vista before his fancy, entered with eagerness on the chase of this illusion.
– Pioneers of France in the New World Part II, Chapter 12 by Francis Parkman
Champlain dominated Canada amid all of this.
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.
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