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Champlain

Champlain

Founder of Québec

This imposing statue of Samuel de Champlain is commensurate with the role that he played in Québec and New France. Not only did he found Québec in 1608, but for 25 years he tirelessly championed the ambitious project to establish a French colony in the St. Lawrence Valley. As a young man, he thirsted for adventure. As an adult, he saw Québec’s enormous potential.

Champlain, the founder

This statue, inaugurated in 1898, is not of Champlain but of Michel d’Emery, Louis XIII’s superintendant of finance, whose image was borrowed by the sculptor. There is no known authentic portrait of Champlain, but his achievements and writings provide a true-to-life portrait of his personality.

Champlain started off as an adventurer. As a young man (he was born sometime around 1570), he made several voyages to America as a sailor. His first crossing probably took him to the Caribbean. A second got him as far as Montréal in 1603, after which he spent three years in Acadia. This bon vivant was blessed with an iron constitution that enabled him to weather the Canadian winters unscathed. Throughout this period he proved to be an excellent cartographer.

In 1608 he led a group of 25 people to help establish Québec. He had a settlement, the “abitation,” built on the shores of the St. Lawrence on the site of today’s Place-Royale. It consisted of a warehouse and three tiers of housing surrounded by a stockade. He had chosen Québec for strategic reasons—the narrowing of the river, Cape Diamond, the natural harbour at Rivière Saint-Charles, and the region’s fertile lowlands. His primary goal was business. The Hurons descended the river from their homeland territory of Lake Huron to Tadoussac, where they traded their furs. Champlain intercepted them ahead of any of his competitors and took advantage of the situation to form special alliances with them.

The explorer

The Europeans who braved the voyage to North America had more than the lucrative fur trade in mind. They had a dream—to discover a direct passage through the continent to China instead of taking the route around Africa or South America. Between 1609 and 1616, Champlain explored relentlessly. He went up the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain, followed the Ottawa River to Lake Huron, then accompanied his Huron allies as far as the land of the Iroquois, south of Lake Ontario in what is now New York State. Along the way he collected topographical data and then went on to draw highly accurate maps.

The visionary

The voyages Champlain made and the information he gleaned from the Native peoples bolstered his confidence in finding a passage to China. In 1618 he devised a grand scheme for making Québec a hub of trade, a plan he touted to the King of France and Paris’s board of trade. The city, a crossroads between Asia and Europe, would be called Ludovica.

With his travelogues, the maps he had published, and this project, Champlain became the main proponent of a French colony on the shores of the St. Lawrence. He would soon have the backing of the board of trade and King Louis XIII. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s most powerful minister, was entrusted with creating New France and hired Champlain to represent him in Québec.

The administrator

Starting in 1620 Champlain was in charge in Québec. He commissioned the first Saint-Louis Fort on Cape Diamond, which was where his young wife, Hélène Boulé, lived. She would remain in Canada a mere four years. He improved the food supply by establishing a farm at Cap Tourmente, drafted legislation, created solid bonds with the Aboriginals, and even managed to survive the power struggles in France that held Québec’s fate in thrall. He expanded the fledgling colony by building a fort at Trois-Rivières. This inexhaustible man crossed the Atlantic 21 times in all.

Champlain’s legacy and renown

When Champlain died in Québec on Christmas Day 1635, New France was on the cusp of greatness. Québec and the St. Lawrence Valley would become the seat of French-speaking North America, all because of Samuel de Champlain’s tenacity.

Today numerous researchers take an interest in this remarkable man. His peaceful approach to establishing a colony and his determination, clearsightedness, energy, and steady but sure rise in society are sources of fascination. Champlain has left behind meticulous maps and exhaustive writings that provide insight into the Native peoples, geography, and a colony in the making in northeastern America in the early 17th century.

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