In this excerpt from his epic biography of Samuel de Champlain, David Hackett Fischer recounts the founding and settling of Quebec, “a place that the Indians called Kebec, the narrowing of the waters.”
Early in the spring of 1608, the sieur de Mons and Champlain moved to the port of Honfleur on the river Seine. They chartered at least three ships. Champlain’s flagship was a large vessel, probably of 150 or 200 tons to judge by her cargo. Her captain was Guillaume Le Testu of Le Havre. The name of the vessel has not been found. A few seasons earlier Le Testu had been master of the ship Fleur-de-Lys; perhaps she was Champlain’s ship. The vessel was heavily laden with settlers, materials, supplies, and all “things necessary and proper for a settlement,” in Champlain’s phrase.
The other vessels were very small. One was the Lévrier of only 80 tons, with Nicolas Marion (or Marien) as master and Pont-Gravé as commander. She carried some supplies for the settlement but was meant mainly to serve as a trading vessel in Tadoussac. A third vessel was chartered for a different mission. Her captain was Champlain’s friend the shipwright Champdoré. His orders were to sail to Port-Royal, resettle Acadia, explore the coast, and renew alliances with Indian nations.
The small size of these vessels and the heavy borrowing at high interest were evidence of financial weakness in the De Mons Company. This mission was hanging by a thread. Money problems may also have been responsible for a late start. Champlain preferred to sail in March, but he appears to have met many delays in gathering men and material. Pont-Gravé sailed first on April 5, 1608. Champlain followed on April 13, very late in the season. He had lost a month of good weather, but the Atlantic passage was quick and uneventful. Champlain crossed the Grand Bank on May 15. Two weeks later he reached Isle Percée, a huge red sandstone rock 290 feet high and 1,500 feet long, with two natural stone arches. Even the aids to navigation were gigantic in this vast new world.
Champlain continued up the St. Lawrence River and arrived at Tadoussac on June 3, 1608…In the last week of June, 1608, Champlain ended his work on the Saguenay and prepared to sail up the St. Lawrence Valley in search of a permanent site. His river barque was finally ready on June 30, and he set off that very day to explore the great river. He did not sail in midstream as others might have done, but preferred to study the banks and tributaries with close attention. This method called for great skill and constant vigilance. It put his vessel at risk among the submerged rocks and shifting shoals of the river. He loved to go ferreting on an unfamiliar shore — sounding, sketching, entering every major stream, going ashore, studying the soil, collecting flora and fauna. The tone of Champlain’s account reveals the pleasure that he took in this happy work.
He also took delight in naming every prominent landmark along the river, often in colorful ways. On this trip, he named one tributary the Rivière du Gouffre, Whirlpool River, for its dangerous currents. He called another prominent landmark Cap Tourmente because of his struggle against its tricky winds and currents. His names are still to be found on the land in Canada and the United States.
For many miles beyond Tadoussac the countryside did not attract him as a place of settlement. “All the coast,” he wrote, “both on the north and south sides, from Tadoussac to the Isle d’Orléans, is hilly country and very poor, with nothing but pine, spruce and birch, and very ugly rocks, amongst which, in most places, one cannot penetrate.” Today, visitors find this terrain very attractive, but Champlain had different aesthetic ideas—and another purpose. When he came to the Île d’Orléans, about a hundred miles upriver from Tadoussac, he examined its shoreline closely and charted its very dangerous shoal water. Then he went ashore to explore the island itself, and admired its clear fertile meadows and open woodland, with “many fine oaks and nut trees,” and “vines and other trees such as we have in France.” Here was a very promising site for a large settlement.
At the eastern end of the island he went ashore near the great waterfall that he had earlier named after Admiral Montmorency of France, who had supported him. Champlain climbed to the top of the falls, walked inland on land that was “level and pleasant to see,” and found “a lake some ten leagues in the interior.” From that elevation, he wrote that “one can see high mountains which seem to be 15 or 20 leagues away.” Champlain returned to his boat and headed upstream, noting that the land had changed its character. “Here begins the fine good country of the great river, distant 120 leagues from its mouth.”
On July 3, Champlain and his men went another mile up the river past the Île d’Orléans, and reached the place that the Indians called Kebec, the narrowing of the waters. He had been there five years previously. This time he judged it by far the best place for permanent settlement. The strength of its position caught a soldier’s eye. The high rocky promontory commanded the full width of the river. A strong fort could control traffic through the St. Lawrence Valley.
Below the promontory was a level area, perfect for a trading settlement. It is now the lower town of Vieux-Québec. Champlain found it covered by a thick stand of nut trees, with an odor that reminded him of French walnuts. The settlers came ashore and immediately began the heavy work of clearing the land.
Below the promontory was a level area, perfect for a trading settlement. It is now the lower town of Vieux Québec. Champlain found it covered by a thick stand of nut trees, with an odor that reminded him of French walnuts. The settlers came ashore and immediately began the heavy work of clearing the land. Champlain divided his workers into several parties: one group cut down the trees; another sawed the logs into planks; a third dug cellars and ditches. A fourth had the easiest duty, sailing from Quebec to Tadoussac and back again many times with supplies.
The first priority was to build a secure storehouse, which was done promptly “by the diligence of every one.” The storehouse had two purposes: to serve the needs of trade and to hold provisions for the winter. As always, Champlain insisted on an abundance of food stocks, remembering the disasters that had destroyed many French settlements. Then they went to work on the building that Champlain called the habitation. It was different from the design of Acadia, where the settlement took the form of a quadrilateral fort. In Quebec, Champlain put up three interconnected buildings. One was for the artisans. Another, on the south side, looking out over the river, was the residence of Champlain. A third was for a forge and workshops. To the west was the storehouse with its deep cellar. In the courtyard he placed a dovecote with the escutcheon of the sieur de Mons and probably the king’s arms. Each part of the habitation was a large structure of two stories. On one of the buildings, Champlain put a great symbolic sundial as an emblem of light, time, symmetry, and order. He also raised the flag of France on a staff high above the roof. It caught the strong winds on the river, and flew bravely over the busy settlement.
The habitation was designed to withstand a siege. The entire complex was surrounded by a palisade (unfinished until 1610), with a ditch 15 feet wide and six feet deep that could only be crossed by a drawbridge. The ditch was enfiladed by cannon mounted on triangular bastions. Historian Marcel Trudel writes that Champlain “reproduced in miniature a European fortress.” The strength of the fortress also demonstrated his resolve to build a permanent settlement and hold it against any enemy. Around the settlement at Quebec, Champlain also ordered his workers to plant gardens. He had done it in every settlement: first on Sainte-Croix Island, once more at Port-Royal, and now in Quebec. “While the carpenters, sawyers and other laborers worked on our quarters,” Champlain wrote, “I put the rest to work clearing land around the settlement in order to make gardens in which to sow grain and seeds to see how everything would succeed.
The soil appeared to be very good.” His published engravings show the plan of the gardens. Here again, as in Champlain’s other experiments, the plantings were done not in functional hills or rows but in elaborate designs that resembled the formal gardens of France. Champlain’s drawing of the settlement showed six garden plots, and there were likely more. He was still planting in the fall. “On the first of October,” he wrote, “I had some wheat sown and on the fifteenth some rye.” He noted that the killing frosts came early, with a mild “white frost” on October 3. Even so, he kept on sowing. “On the 24th [of October],” he wrote, “had some native vines planted and they prospered extremely well.”
Champlain was much interested in native plants and made a list of the more attractive varieties: “nut trees, cherry trees, plum trees, vines, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, red currants and several small fruits which are quite good.” Among the others were blueberries, which caught his eye. He wrote, “There are also several sorts of useful herbs and roots.” Champlain was quick to discover the botanical expertise of the Indians and sought to learn from them. He also introduced many seeds and plants from France. Grains were tried in great variety, especially wheat and rye. Fall and spring sowings both succeeded at Quebec.
Champlain also introduced flowers, and was especially fond of roses. He was very much the driver of French gardening in America. The men who did the work did not share his passion. Often he complained of his gardens that “after I left the settlement to come back to France, they were all ruined for want of care, which distressed me very much.” Champlain’s gardens were not only useful and ornamental. They were also symbols of sovereignty and order. Champlain made an association between l’estate and l’état, the garden and the state.
In the late summer, Indians visited Quebec and talked with Champlain. Most were Montagnais, and Champlain took a deep interest in them. “I studied their customs very particularly,” he wrote. He knew that the Montagnais were a hunting and gathering people — and thought that they were the most skillful hunters he had ever met. They were also expert traders, and constructed complex networks of exchange. He admired them as a handsome people, “well-proportioned in body, without deformity and agile.” He found the women very attractive, “well-formed, plump, of a dusky hue on account of certain pigments with which they rub themselves, which make them look olive-colored.”
Algonquins also began to appear — many nations who lived along the upper St. Lawrence River from Quebec to the Great Lakes. Among them was the son of Iroquet, a leader of the Petite-Nation who lived far to the west, near Georgian Bay on the shore of Lake Huron. These nations, Algonquin and Montagnais, had “long been at war” with their ancient Iroquois enemies, especially the Mohawk, the easternmost of the Iroquois nations. Nobody could remember when this fighting had begun. It started long before the Europeans arrived. But with the expansion of the fur trade, these wars were growing more violent. The result was a cycle of violence and vengeance that kept all parties at war. The Algonquin and Montagnais wanted Champlain to join them in fighting the Mohawk.
Champlain welcomed them all to Quebec, and gave them a “kind reception,” in the words of one Algonquin sagamore. They began to build alliances, French and Indians together, but with different purposes in mind. The Montagnais and Algonquins wanted Champlain to join them in defeating their mortal foes the Mohawk. The French commander agreed, and said that he “wished to help them against their enemies,” but with a different purpose in mind. His object was to bring peace to the St. Lawrence Valley. He hoped to break the cycle by striking forcefully against the Iroquois, whom he regarded as the aggressors. The plan was not to destroy their power; it was to raise the price of raiding in the St. Lawrence Valley. During the summer and fall of 1608, they made an alliance with different goals in mind. It was a fateful agreement.
While Champlain was meeting with the Indians, the seasons were changing rapidly. Winter came early to Quebec in 1608. On November 18, the settlement was lashed by “a great gale,” and a “heavy fall of snow.” It was the harbinger of a long winter that nearly destroyed the colony. The months from October to December were bad enough, with fierce winds, wet weather, and high water. Then the weather turned bitter cold and very dry — the cruelest combination. Houses were without the insulation that snow provided. Communications became difficult. Thick ice choked the rivers, and snow paths failed to form on the ground. Without deep snow, the hunting of large animals became difficult.
All of this was very hard on the French settlers and much harder on the hunting Indians. When the fall of 1608 approached, the Montagnais moved to Quebec, as they did every year. Champlain observed that they lived on the edge of subsistence and had a complex annual rhythm in their hunting and fishing. They came to the narrows of Quebec to fish for eels that began to come up the river in great numbers from about September 15, and continued to run abundantly to mid-October. “During this time,” Champlain wrote, “the natives all live upon this manna and dry some for the winter to last till the month of February.” They were a vital source of food.
After the eel-run, the Montagnais went hunting for beaver from late October to December. Then in the coldest months they hunted large game such as moose, which were more easily caught when the snow was deep. Champlain greatly respected the skill of the Montagnais, and their mastery of the environment in which they lived. He was interested in their warm and handsome clothing. “In winter,” he wrote, “they are clad in good furs, such as the skins of moose, otter, beaver, bear, seal, deer, and more, which they have in great quantity.” He was fascinated by their snowshoes.
“When the snow is deep,” he wrote, “they make a kind of racquet, two or three
times as large as those in France, and tie them to their feet, and in this way they walk over the snow without sinking; otherwise they could not hunt or walk in many places.”
When the Montagnais had good luck in all of their successive hunts, they could eat through a long North American winter. But the failure of even one hunt meant a time of hunger. The failure of several hunts could cause starvation. The Montagnais had no reserves of food, unlike the Huron and Iroquois, who were highly successful farmers and produced surpluses from their fields. Champlain urged the Montagnais to take up farming — not in the European way, but on the model of their Indian neighbors. “The soil is very good and suitable for cultivation,” he wrote, “if they were willing to take the trouble to sow Indian corn, as do all their neighbors, the Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois,” who “are free from such cruel attacks of famine,” and “live prosperously in comparison with the Montagnais, Canadien and Souriquois.”
In the fall of 1608, Champlain worried about the Montagnais, and watched as something terrible began to happen to them. All of their hunts ran short. The eel season was shorter than usual. The beaver hunt failed mainly because of a very wet fall. In high water the hunters could not get to the beaver lodges. The Montagnais reported to Champlain that “they did not take many beavers because the waters were too high, on account of the rivers overflowing.”
The wet fall was followed by a long dry winter with very little snow.
The moose hunt failed — the third hunting failure in a row for the Montagnais. Champlain observed: “All these tribes suffer so much from hunger that sometimes they are obliged to live on certain shell-fish, and to eat their dogs and skins with which they clothed themselves.” The crisis came in February of 1609. Montagnais families began to appear on the south side of the St. Lawrence, across from Champlain’s habitation. The river was high and the current strong, and great floes of ice were tumbling downriver. The Montagnais called to the French for assistance, and in desperation launched their canoes into the turbulent stream. Their fragile vessels were caught by the ice, and “broken into a thousand pieces.” The French watched as men, women, and children, weakened from hunger, fell into the water, clinging to ice floes. Suddenly the current drove the ice ashore and they leaped to safety. Champlain wrote that “they came to our settlement so emaciated and worn out that they look like skeletons.”
He gave them bread and beans, and bark to build their huts. Some were so hungry that they seized the rotten carcasses of a dog and a sow that the French had set out as carrion, and ate the putrid flesh half cooked. “When they have food,” he wrote, “they lay nothing by, but eat and make good cheer continuously day and night, and after that they starve to death.” He observed the misery of the Montagnais with great sadness, and their swings from exaltation to deep depression and despair. The instability of their life and chronic insecurity took a terrible toll. Champlain wrote that they were in “great dread of their enemies,” and hardly ever slept quietly. They were “afflicted by terrible dreams that haunted them.”
As the winter grew worse, the French also began to suffer. They had plenty of bread and beans and some supplies of salted fish and meat, but not much else. In late November, the French settlers began to fall ill with severe symptoms that Champlain described as “dysentery.” The Indians were also afflicted. Champlain wrote, “in my opinion,” it came from “having eaten badly cooked eels.” So severe was this “dysentery” that it killed many Frenchmen, including the locksmith Natel, who had saved Champlain’s life.
In midwinter, the survivors came down with scurvy. For three months, they had some success in keeping it at bay, perhaps by hunting and fishing in late fall and early winter, which brought supplies of fresh meat that many explorers have found to possess antiscorbutic properties, and possibly by eating roots and husks that offered a source of vitamin C. But in February they began to run out of whatever had protected them. Champlain wrote that “the scurvy began very late in February, and lasted till the middle of April.” It took a terrible toll. Champlain ordered the surgeon Bonnerme to do autopsies, “to see if they were affected like those in other settlements. The same conditions were found.” Then the surgeon himself fell severely ill, and died of the same cause. Champlain wrote, “All this gave us much trouble, on account of the difficulty we had in nursing the sick.” Altogether seven Frenchmen died of scurvy, and thirteen of dysentery.
After four months of suffering, spring at last arrived. A harbinger was the first run of fish in the St. Lawrence River. Vast numbers of shad swam upstream — more than anyone could possibly eat, and the French discovered a culinary delight in a vast abundance of shad roe, with a bit of French bacon for flavor. The last pockets of snow melted away, and the countryside turned green again. Only a small remnant of the colonists came through the winter. Champlain wrote that of 28 habitants, eight remained alive, and “half of the living were very ill.” But the settlement at Quebec had survived — to face another challenge.
Excerpted from Champlain’s Dream: The Visionary Adventurer Who Made a New World in Canada, by the Pulitzer Prize winner David Hackett Fischer. Reproduced by permission of the author and the publisher, Random House Canada.