Samuel de Champlain
Map of New France, by Samuel de Champlain, 1612
born 1567, Brouage, France
died December 25, 1635, Quebec, New France [now in Quebec,
French explorer, acknowledged founder of the city of Quebec
(1608), and consolidator of the French colonies in the New
World. He discovered the lake that bears his name (1609) and
made other explorations of what are now northern New York,
the Ottawa River, and the eastern Great Lakes.
Champlain was probably born a commoner, but, after acquiring
a reputation as a navigator (having taken part in an
expedition to the West Indies and Central America), he
received an honorary if unofficial title at the court of
Henry IV. In 1603 he accepted an invitation to visit what he
called the River of Canada (St. Lawrence River). He sailed,
as an observer in a longboat, upstream from the mother
ship’s anchorage at Tadoussac, a summer trading post, to the
site of Montreal and its rapids. His report on the
expedition was soon published in France, and in 1604 he
accompanied a group of ill-fated settlers to Acadia, a
region surrounding the Bay of Fundy.
Champlain spent three winters in Acadia—the first on an
island in the St. Croix River, where scurvy killed nearly
half the party, and the second and third, which claimed the
lives of fewer men, at Annapolis Basin. During the summers
he searched for an ideal site for colonization. His
explorations led him down the Atlantic coast southward to
Massachusetts Bay and beyond, mapping in detail the harbours
that his English rivals had only touched. In 1607 the
English came to Kennebec (now in Maine) in southern Acadia.
They spent only one winter there, but the threat of conflict
increased French interest in colonization.
Heading an expedition that left France in 1608, Champlain
undertook his most ambitious project—the founding of Quebec.
On earlier expeditions he had been a subordinate, but this
time he was the leader of 32 colonists.
Champlain and eight others survived the first winter at
Quebec and greeted more colonists in June. Allied by an
earlier French treaty with the northern Indian tribes, he
joined them in defeating Iroquois marauders in a skirmish on
Lake Champlain. That and a similar victory in 1610 enhanced
French prestige among the allied tribes, and fur trade
between France and the Indians increased. In 1610 he left
for France, where he married Hélène Boullé, the daughter of
the secretary to the king’s chamber.
The fur trade had heavy financial losses in 1611, which
prompted Quebec’s sponsors to abandon the colony, but
Champlain persuaded Louis XIII to intervene. Eventually the
king appointed a viceroy, who made Champlain commandant of
New France. In 1613 he reestablished his authority at Quebec
and immediately embarked for the Ottawa River on a mission
to restore the ruined fur trade. The following year he
organized a company of French merchants to finance trade,
religious missions, and his own exploration.
Champlain next went to Lake Huron, where native chiefs
persuaded him to lead a war party against a fortified
village south of Lake Ontario. The Iroquois defenders
wounded him and repulsed his Huron-Algonquin warriors, a
somewhat disorganized but loyal force, who carried him to
safety. After spending a winter in their territory, he
returned to France, where political maneuvers were
endangering the colony’s future. In 1620 the king reaffirmed
Champlain’s authority over Quebec but forbade his personal
exploration, directing him instead to employ his talents in
The colony, still dependent on the fur trade and only
experimenting in agriculture, hardly prospered under his
care or under the patronage of a new and strong company.
English privateers, however, considered Quebec worth
besieging in 1628, when England and France were at war.
Champlain manned the walls until the following summer, when
his distressed garrison exhausted its food and gunpowder.
Although he surrendered the fort, he did not abandon his
colony. Taken to England as a prisoner, he argued that the
surrender had occurred after the end of French and English
hostilities. In 1632 the colony was restored to France, and
in 1633, a year after publishing his seventh book, he made
his last voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec.
Only a few more settlers were aboard when his ships
dropped anchor at Quebec, but others continued to arrive
each year. Before he died of a stroke in 1635, his colony
extended along both shores of the St. Lawrence River.