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Samuel de Champlain’s 1615 Journey to the Lands of the Arendarhonon

February 4, 2023

Champlain as imagined by Théophile Hamel 1870

For someone who is such an influential figure in Canadian history, Samuel de Champlain remains somewhat of a mystery. He made more than 20 trips across the Atlantic Ocean during his career, participated in founding the first permanent European colony north of Florida, Acadia in 1605. Three years later he led the establishment of the settlement known today as Quebec City. He is considered by many to be the founder of New France (Quebec) and a notable explorer to boot.

Yet, no one knows exactly who Champlain was before he set out on this notable career. He may have been descended from a naval captain or poor fisherfolk. He may have been the illegitimate child of a notable family or even a ruffian who escaped punishment, then later turned up as an honest man. He may have been born Protestant or Catholic—and back then this distinction was consequential. He may have been born as early as 1567, or as late as the 1580s. In a society where class and lineage really mattered, nobody quite new where Samuel de Champlain came from. Despite his lasting significance in Canadian history, there is no authentic portrait of him. What little evidence there is suggests he may have been thin, wiry and below average height. It is not known if he was born a commoner or a noble, it may have been that as he gained extensive powers in America that befit a noble, he was elevated. It is likely that had anyone known who Champlain was born to be, he would never have assumed the role in French society that he did.

Before he crossed the Atlantic, it seems that he was a draftsman or painter—he certainly showed much skill as he drew maps of New France. In 1603 he was part of an expedition up the Riviere de Canada (St. Lawrence River) making it as far as the rapids at Hochelaga (Montreal). He learned from the people he met about the Great Lakes, including Niagara Falls—there was much interest among European navigators in finding a shorter water route to East Asia.

Over the following years, he continued to explore and write about what he found. In 1608, he returned to establish the settlement at Quebec City, and in the first winter 16 of 25 residents died of scurvy. He continued his explorations, and was involved in battles with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). When he returned to France he signed a marriage contract with a twelve-year-old girl, Hélène Boullé—it stated that because of her youth the wedding would not take place for two years and that he would receive a 6,000 livres dowry. It is not known how old he was, but he was certainly mature enough biologically to have children her age. She accompanied him to New France as he continued his exploration.

In 1615, as he tells the tale, Champlain promised to help fight the Haudenosaunee as he set out with a group of natives and two Frenchmen (one is thought to be Étienne Brûlé) to voyage to the country of a people he called the Huron (Arendarhonon, today many would refer to their descendants as Wendat, but that name came later). Travelling up the Ottawa River, through Lake Nipissing and the French River, he arrived at what he termed a freshwater sea (Lake Huron), then to a place he recorded Cahiagué (near Warminster). After discussing the forthcoming military expedition, twelve Arendarhonon and Étienne Brûlé set out to inform the allied Susquehannahs of their plan, as Champlain set out to the east with a second party.

They journeyed through Lake Simcoe, before portaging to what is the present-day Kawarthas. He wrote that they “carried their canoes about ten leagues [35 miles] by land, and we came upon another lake extending six or seven leagues in length and three in width. From it flows a river which empties into the great lake of the Entouhonorons [Lake Ontario].”

It is not certain which route Champlain would have taken through the Kawarthas from Lake Simcoe. Mitchell and Canal Lake would not be created until nearly three more centuries had passed, and a portage between watersheds from Lake Simcoe to Balsam Lake would have been lengthy, about 12 miles by nineteenth century calculations. The trail from Lake Simcoe to Goose Lake (tributary to Sturgeon Lake, north of Lindsay) was about 20 miles, but it bypassed Balsam and Cameron Lakes.  The large lake he describes is most likely Rice Lake, though it could possibly be Sturgeon Lake. None of the local lakes match the measurements he specified.

Champlain and his companions carried on to what is now New York State, where they unsuccessfully attacked the Haudenosaunee, Champlain took two arrows in his leg and was carried off. Though he later explained that he wanted to return to Quebec, the Arendarhonon persuaded him to spend the winter with them, and continuing his journeys through what is now southern Ontario. He departed in May and returned to Quebec, where he had been presumed dead. Champlain published an account of his journey and also mapped what is now eastern Canada based on his own expeditions and information that he had gathered from the people he met along the way. One of his maps, appears to show a rough outline of the Kawarthas.

After he returned from his 1615-6 expedition, Champlain did not set out on a similarly ambitious journey again. Having published his account of his experience, when he returned from France in 1620, it was to oversee the French colony at Quebec City, where he remained until he “was reborn in Heaven” on December 25, 1635, in the words of missionary Paul Le Jeune, who preached at his funeral. Over three decades in Canada, this man with a mysterious past was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the French colony at Quebec and related fur trade companies.

But Champlain’s role in Canadian history certainly did not end in 1635. Since then, many Canadians revered Samuel de Champlain and he was memorialized in many ways across the country, including a monument in Orillia. For years, many residents in the Kawarthas took an interest in trying to say exactly where Champlain had travelled. It was rumoured that he carved his name in the Fenelon Gorge, but it seemed that no one could quite make out his initials on the great rock walls.

Today, he is one of the figures, formerly seen as a founding father of Canada, being re-examined through very different lenses. In 2015, Trent University’s Professor Doug Williams (Gitiga Migisi) of Curve Lake described him as a murderer and gigolo, who “was racist, prejudiced, and oppressive. Champlain engaged in hate crimes that would see him arrested and jailed by today’s standards.” The language used in his 1615 account, though reflective of French norms at the time, is troubling to many readers today. Now it is hard for most Canadians to read the (translated) period documents and understand what the words meant four centuries ago—the connotations of many terms have changed over the generations. The monument in Orillia attracted much controversy in recent years and has been taken down. Parks Canada deferred plans for its re-erection after the Huron-Wendat Nation and the Chippewas of Rama First Nation decided to no longer participate in the working group studying the possibility of re-installing a very public likeness of a man for whom there is no authentic portrait.

Samuel de Champlain: Father of Canada? Gigolo? Noble? Bastard? Explorer? Murderer? In the sixteenth century a man of mysterious origins who was given a new identity as a leader of the nascent French colony in Canada. Having been a great figure of Canadian history, in the twenty-first century his perceived identity continues to evolve with Canadian society.

The translated text of his 1615 journey through the Kawarthas:

When we had made this decision they sent two canoes with twelve of the strongest savages and one of our interpreters [Étienne Brûlé] who begged me to let him make the journey; which I granted readily, since he wished it, and, in this way, would see the country, and would find out about the people who inhabit it. The danger was not slight, since it was necessary to pass through the midst of the enemy [Haudenosaunee]. We continued on our way toward the enemy, and went about five or six leagues through these lakes, and then the savages carried their canoes about ten leagues by land, and we came upon another lake extending six or seven leagues in length and three in width [Interpreted variously as Sturgeon Lake or Rice Lake]. From it flows a river which empties into the great lake of the Entouhonorons [Lake Ontario]. When we had crossed this lake we passed a rapid, and, continuing our course, still going down this river, about sixty-four leagues—that is, to the entrance of this lake of the Entouhonorons—we passed five rapids by land, some of them four or five leagues long, where there are several lakes of rather large size. The lakes, as well as the river which flows from one to the other, abound in fish, and the whole country is very beautiful and attractive. Along the river bank it seemed as if the trees and been planted there in most places for pleasure, and also as if all these regions had once been inhabited by the savages who had been obliged to abandon them, for fear for the enemies. The vines and walnuts are very plentiful and grapes ripen there, but they always leave a sharp, acid taste, which comes from not being cultivated; for the clearings in this place are rather attractive.

Hunting for stags and bears is very common here. We hunted there and took a goodly number of them as we journeyed down. To do this they station 400 or 500 savages in line in the woods, with the line touching at certain points that project into the river, and then marching in order, with bow and arrow in hand, shouting and raising a great noise to surprise the animals, they keep going until they reach the end of the point on the river. Then all the animals that are between the point and the hunters are driven to throw themselves into the water, unless they try to run the gauntlet of the arrows which are shot at them by the hunters. Meanwhile, the savages who are in the canoes, posted and arranged on purpose along the shore, approach the stags and other animals hunted and worried and greatly frightened. Then the hunters kill them with spearheads attached to the end of a stick, like a half-pike. This is how they hunt, and they follow the same method in the islands, where there is a great deal of game. I took special pleasing in watching them hunt in this way, observing their skill. Many animals were killed by shots of arquebus, at which they were greatly amazed. But it unfortunately happened that, as some one was shooting at a stag, a savage who changed to come in range was wounded by a shot of an arquebus, without any one intending it, as may be assumed. Thereupon, there arose a great commotion among them, which was, however quieted by giving some presents to the wounded man, which is the usual way of pacifying and settling quarrels. And, if the wounded man dies, the presents and gifts are given to the relatives of him who has killed. As for game, there is a great deal of it in the season. There are also many cranes, as white as swans, and several other kinds of birds such as those in France.

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