Champlain and the Founding of Quebec
"I arrived there on the 3rd of July, wrote Samuel de Champlain in 1608, "when I searched
for a place suitable for our settlement, but I could find none more convenient or better
situated than the point of Quebec.” Champlain stepped ashore and unfurled the fleur-de-lys,
marking the beginning of that city and indeed of Canada.
Until Champlain, the entire New World adventure had brought only disappointment and death
for France. Explorers from Jacques Cartier to the Sieur de Monts had all failed to leave any
Champlain the visionary would change that history. He dreamed not only of adding a great
domain to France but of bringing wealth through the fur trade, of spreading the faith and of
penetrating the mysteries of the great and baffling continent. He persuaded the Sieur de
Monts to write off his Acadian ventures and fired him with a new energy for an expedition to
Quebec. There, he told De Monts, he would "plant himself on the great River of St Lawrence,
where commerce and traffic can be carried on much better than in Acadie. De Monts got his
trade monopoly renewed, appointed Champlain governor and set the shipwrights of Honfleur to
work modifying vessels for the voyage to Canada.
De Monts sent one ship, Le Levrier, under the command of Gravé du Pont to trade at
Tadoussac. Le Don de Dieu, commanded by Champlain, was sent to establish a post at Quebec.
Le Don de Dieu sailed from Honfleur on April 13, 1608, raised Cape St Mary's, Nfld, on May
26 and reached Tadoussac on June 3. There, Gravé du Pont was a virtual prisoner of the tough
Basques who ridiculed his claim to a monopoly on trade. Champlain, the consummate diplomat,
made peace with the Basques and resumed his course up the St Lawrence, arriving off Cap
Diamant on July 3.
Champlain set the men to work felling the butternut trees. They dug sawpits and sawed the
logs into planks. Their "habitation was an ambitious structure of three stories, a kind of
miniature Bastille. It had a gallery running around the outside and was embellished with a
dovecote, which only nobles were allowed to set up in France. The whole structure had a moat
around it and a drawbridge before the main entrance. Most of the materials were prepared on
the spot but the handsome glazed windows were brought from France.
Before the work was done, Champlain had to put down a mutiny. Several of his men, angered
that they were not to share in the profits of the fur trade, planned to murder him and sell
out to the Basques. One of the conspirators lost his nerve and told Champlain, who arrested
the gang of five. A hastily arranged trial found all five guilty. The ringleader, Jean
Duval, was hanged and his head was stuck on a pike; the others were sent back to France in
chains for punishment.
|Champlain built the "habitation" which was part fort and part village in 1608 at the site of present-day Québec City (courtesy John Ross Robertson Coll/Metropolitan Toronto Library).|
After the crisis the work resumed through September and some land was cleared and planted
with winter wheat and rye. Everything was made ready, but the first winter was severe. A
harsh frost descended in October and snow in mid-November. Eighteen men were afflicted by
scurvy and ten died.
When spring finally broke up the ice in April 1609, only eight of the 24 men who wintered at
Quebec were still alive. Yet the ever-confident Champlain made preparations to set off on an
expedition against the Iroquois.
These days, it is incorrect to praise the exploits of European explorers. There is
understandable sympathy for the First Nations who were "discovered and who suffered the
consequences of an invasion. Meanwhile, historians are busy disputing that history is made
by "great men or that in Champlain's case that his legend was formed at the expense of his
Protestant colleague De Monts. Nevertheless, most of us cling to the idea that individuals
do change the course of history and that special admiration is due to those who influence
the beginnings of things. In Canada, at the head of such a list, stands Samuel de Champlain.
As an American poet once put it, Canada is a country almost invented out of his single
brain. "This was a great adventurer, a tremendous energy, one of the foremost colonizers of