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 permanent mark.
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.
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 our continent."
James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.