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A Rare Man of Peace 

Book review: Champlain’s Dream

Published July 1, 2009 at 8:01 a.m.

Vermonters have christened everything from convenience stores to chocolate companies after Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570-1635). The French explorer charted vast stretches of North America and created hundreds of place names for geographical features in his remarkably accurate, elaborately illustrated maps. But he named only one after himself: the lake that he, two French companions and a small party of Indian allies reached on July 14, 1609. Vermont’s own, almost-Great Lake Champlain.

In Champlain’s Dream, historian David Hackett Fischer recounts the Frenchman’s dramatic arrival, exploration and lakeside battle at Ticonderoga in lavish and loving detail, as he does every aspect of Champlain’s life. The monumental biography is sweeping in scope and scholarship. (Care for a refresher course on France’s 16th-century Wars of Religion?) The Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t quite have David McCullough’s ear for spinning academic history into delightful yarns. But he keeps the 531 pages of narrative flowing by confining some of the more arcane points to 110 pages of endnotes and 66 pages of appendices.

Fischer engages readers with refreshing insights and colorful particulars as the story unfolds. What happened on Lake Champlain 400 years ago is a riveting example. A full moon meant the French and Indian allies had to proceed slowly southward to remain concealed from their enemies. This gave the explorer time to appreciate the lake’s abundant natural resources. In battle, he and his companions quickly defeated the much larger Mohawk forces. The Frenchmen’s arquebuses, Champlain recalled, “astonished them so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, took to their heels, and abandoned the field and their fort, fleeing into the depth of the forest.”

This clash was one of the rare times Champlain used firepower against the Indians. Fischer sharply contrasts Champlain’s philosophy and practice with how the English, the Dutch and especially the Spanish treated America’s native inhabitants. Other European powers saw the Indians as racially inferior and sought to remove or exploit them, through violence if necessary. Champlain spent several months covertly observing colonial rule in the Caribbean, where the Spanish enslaved Indians while forcibly converting them to Christianity. He noted that these practices were both cruel and ineffective, so outraging the Indians “that they made war against the Spaniards, and killed and ate them.”

The historian delves deeply into the milieu of 16th-century France to explain other factors that shaped Champlain’s more enlightened approach. Extant biographical info is surprisingly sparse for such an important figure. Even the year of his birth remains uncertain. Champlain wrote and published copiously about his voyages but little about his own life. In fact, he may have deliberately shrouded his personal background. Fischer examines one possible reason: Champlain may have been one of King Henri IV’s many illegitimate sons.

So Fischer must pursue the man through his historical context, and this he does brilliantly. A full chapter on Henri and the Wars of Religion, for example, illuminates how Champlain and the king (his future royal patron) “both become men of humanity in a world of cruelty and violence.” Having come of age on the battlefield, in the terrible crucible of civil war, they both committed themselves to ideals of peace and religious tolerance. Champlain’s dream was a New France never torn by the conflicts that nearly destroyed Old France.

Fischer thoroughly documents and analyzes what Champlain achieved pursuing this vision. The gifted explorer and cartographer traveled through territory that now encompasses six Canadian provinces and five American states. The skilled mariner made 27 Atlantic crossings without losing a ship. The wily politician mastered dealing with Parisian court intrigue, negotiating peace with a dozen Indian tribes and leading struggling settlers through the remote colony’s early days.

Although the facts themselves make Champlain’s life extraordinary, Fischer’s tone communicates a certain boosterism about his protagonist. He shows occasional flashes of defensiveness about academia’s late-20th-century bias against Dead White Males, especially those who had any contact with Native Americans. He carefully deconstructs anything Champlain wrote about the Indians that appears condescending.

Native Americans had been living on Lake Champlain for a long time when the Frenchman showed up. But if it feels culturally sensitive (or politically correct) to be dismissive of the 400th anniversary, ponder this: Who considered Champlain a hero and preserved his memory most faithfully? Stories about the “great and brave” white man who came in peace persisted in the oral traditions of Indian tribes for centuries. And that truly fulfilled Champlain’s dream.

Excerpt from Champlain’s Dream, Chapter 7: Tadoussac — The Great Tabagie, 1603

In May 1603, Champlain first arrived in the St. Lawrence River Valley, the heart of what became New France, and later, the province of Québec. He landed at Tadoussac, where the Saguenay River empties into the St. Lawrence. A “huge assembly” of Montagnais and Algonquin Indians (Champlain estimated at least 1000) gathered for a tabagie, a “great tobacco feast ... to celebrate a victory over their common enemy, the Iroquois.” Accompanying the explorer and his expedition commander, Pont-Gravé, were two young Montagnais interpreters. — E.C.

The two French leaders came ashore with their young Montagnais companions and walked boldly into camp. They showed not the slightest sign of fear or hostility — a demeanor that was very different from that of many Europeans...

One of the two Montagnais who had been to France ... talked at length of his good treatment by the people of France. Champlain remembered that the young Indian was heard “with the greatest possible silence.” When he finished, the grand sagamore smoked a long pipe, passed it to the other sagamores and to Pont-Gravé, and began to speak “with great gravity.” He said that “in truth they ought to be very glad to have His Majesty for their great friend.”

[...] After more dances and celebrations the Indians retired to their lodges. Champlain delighted in their company. He was fascinated by their character and culture, and quick to perceive its complexity ... “They speak very deliberately,” Champlain wrote, “as though they would make themselves well understood, and stopping suddenly, reflect for a good while, and then begin to speak again.”

[...] Here was a moment of high importance in the history of North America. Nobody had planned these events, but both French and Indian leaders were quick to see an opportunity. The Great Tabagie marked the beginning of an alliance between the founders of New France and three Indian nations. The Indians gained a potential ally against their mortal enemies, the Iroquois. The French won support for settlement, exploration, and trade...

The leaders who had met at Pointe aux Alouettes also did something else. They gave tone to the alliance ... They treated each other with dignity, forbearance, and respect. They began to build an atmosphere of trust that was fundamental to relations between Europeans and Indians. They also kept it growing. When trust grew strong, many things were possible. When trust was lost, it was rarely regained. This meeting was important for that spirit, as well as for its substance. It marked the beginning of a relationship that was unique in the long history of European colonization in America. Something of its spirit has endured in Canada between Europeans and Indians even to our own time—an extraordinary achievement.

The Quadricentennial Issue

Like, oh my Quad! Quadricentennial, that is. After a long build-up, the massive celebration on account of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival here 400 years ago is finally upon us, and we can hardly contain the puns.

This week we preview some events in the Burlington International Waterfront Festival — see Dan Bolles’ Q&A with Steve Earle. But while we look forward to the fun, this issue also looks back — at the rich human and natural history surrounding Lake Champlain. Lauren Ober visits four individuals whose livelihoods and passions have depended on the water. She also tours the embattled Fort Montgomery across the lake. Elisabeth Crean wades through the hefty bio of Champlain the peaceful explorer, and Alice Levitt forages at the Abenaki Traditional Garden in the Intervale. Marc Awodey offers the most sobering perspective with a poem about lives lost beneath the waves.

Any way you look at it, Champlain is a lake with stories worth telling.

This is just one article from our 2009 Quadricentennial Issue. Click here for more Quadricentennial stories.

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Elisabeth Crean


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