Samuel de Champlain: Explorer, Cartographer and Geographer


Born in 1574 in La Rochelle, France, Samuel de Champlain came from a family of mariners. In his early years, Champlain explored Spain and the West Indies with his uncle. An explorer and a talented eager to show off his skills, Samuel de Champlain served as a geographer for King Henry IV (1601 to 1603) before joining François Gravé Du Pont’s expedition to Acadia (Canada), just before turning 30.

As a young man, Champlain was inspired by the adventures of Jacques Cartier who had also explored Acadia, claiming the Gaspé Peninsula in the name of Kind Francis I. Champlain read Cartier’s published accounts and dreamed of exploring Acadia for himself; hoping to travel further than Cartier. Champlain’s admiration led him to follow in Cartier’s footsteps exploring the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers, as well as the Gaspé Peninsula.

Du Pont’s expedition sailed down the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers, as well as to the Gaspé Peninsula, following (in essence) the path of Jaques Cartier. During the voyage, Samuel de Champlain’s task was to record what he saw, which he did masterfully; correctly envisioning the topographical visage of the region. As a result of his precise and detailed account of the region, Champlain was given the position of geographer on Lieutenant-General Pierre Dugua de Monts expedition to Acadia in 1604.

Upon landing in Acadia (now known as Nova Scotia) Champlain was assigned the task of finding a location for a temporary settlement. The idea was to build a fort, spend the winter, and explore the region more fully. Champlain chose a wee island on the St. Croix river and the fort was built.

From 1605 to 1607 Lieutenant-General Pierre Dugua de Monts’ expedition sailed down the New England coast. Previously explored by the British, Champlain was the first explorer to create a highly detailed accounting of the area now known as Plymouth Rock. Further cementing Champlain’s value as an explorer, navigator, and cartographer.

In 1608, Samuel de Champlain was promoted by Lieutenant-General Pierre Dugua de Monts from geographer to lieutenant, and set sail for another expedition up the St. Lawrence river, and in June 1608, Samuel de Champlain found the ideal location for a settlement in New France – now known as Québec City.

The Algonquin people and Samuel de Champlain

The relationship between Samuel de Champlain and the Algonquin people began in the summer of 1603 when Champlain came upon a group of first nations people led by Kitcisìpirini band chief, Chief Tessouat in what is now known as Tadoussac (who were celebrating a victory over the powerful Iroquois people).

Socially aligned by a clan/totem system, the Algonquin people were a challenge for Champlain, who found himself trying to establish relationships with each band chief (there are several bands/clans within the Algonquin people). This was vastly different to the European political system that Champlain was used to, however, in time, Champlain was successful in cultivating relationships with several band chiefs.

Six years later, in 1609, at the request of the Wendat (Hurons), Algonquin, Montagnais, and Etchemin peoples, Champlain joined them in the battle against the Iroquois, who were known as fierce fighters. When Champlain set out for Rivière de Iroquois he had nine French soldiers and 300 first nations people, however finding the Iroquois proved to be a challenge and many of the men headed home. When the Iroquois were found and the battle began, Samuel de Champlain had only 2 French soldiers and 60 first nations people. The Iroquois had an army of 200 which included three Iroquois chiefs.  Champlain’s survival was doubtful given the numbers, but according to his account of the battle, Samuel de Champlain killed two of the chiefs using his arquebus (muzzle-loaded gun). One of his men killing the third. With all three chiefs dead, the Iroquois fled.  

This battle against the Iroquois marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Champlain and his allies, with the Iroquois. One that lasted for more than a century.

French interludes and Growing New France

Returning to France in 1613, Champlain was smacked with lawsuits and unable to return to New France until two years later, at which time he was joined by his wife, Hèlène Boullé, and four Recollects (Franciscans) who were charged with expanding religious life in New France.

Back in New France Champlain continued to support his native allies and explored further inland. Returning once again to France in 1616, Champlain waited nearly four years before returning to New France in 1620.

Over the next four years, Champlain built Fort Saint-Louis (now the site of Château Frontenac) on Cap Diamond; giving Champlain an advantageous view of the St Lawrence river and the land below the cap. He continued to work on his relations with the natives, signed a peace treaty with the Iroquois, started expanding the colony, and began working on the fortifications of what is now Québec City.

Losing New France to the English, and France getting it back

During the Anglo-French war in 1627 to 1629, King Charles I of England authorised the capture of French ships sending supplies to the North American colonies. On July 10th, Champlain received a summons to surrender from the Kirke brothers, David, Louis, and Thomas (English-based Scottish merchants). Champlain bluffed, claiming the colony’s defences were rock solid, and the Kirke brothers left. Unfortunately, for Champlain, the Kirke brother’s captured a French supply fleet carrying a year’s supply on their way back. Champlain and the colony made it through the winter, but by spring supplies were dangerously low, forcing Champlain to send a small envoy to first nations communities in Gaspé to conserve rations. Unfortunately, the Kirke brothers intercepted Champlain’s message for help and he was forced to surrender the colony. New France was now in the hands of the British.

Thankfully the Treaty of Susa (ending the Anglo-French war in 1629) was signed before the Kirke brothers captured New France, and according to the treaty parties who captured territories after the treaty was signed were obligated to return those territories.  It took a little over two years for New France to be returned to the French (this was known as the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye).

Samuel de Champlain’s return to New France and his death

In 1633, Samuel de Champlain returned to New France as Lieutenant-General of New France. While Champlain was not Governor of New France, most of the colonists, French merchants, and natives treated him as such. A little over a year after he returned to New France, Champlain reported he had rebuilt the ruins of the colony, and established two more colonies.

In October 1635, Samuel de Champlain suffered a severe stroke. He died December 25, 1635. Champlain’s body was temporarily buried in a church while a chapel was being built for his remains. Unfortunately, the chapel was raised by a fire in 1640.

The quest for Samuel de Champlain’s body

Although the building holding the remains of Samuel de Champlain was rebuilt, this building no longer exists, and nobody knows where it was located, although rumours have it that the chapel was located in what is now called the Upper-City (Haute-Ville). The location of Samuel de Champlain’s body remains a 370+ year mystery.

Jesuits and Récollets Arrive in Québec

Sailing with Samuel de Champlain, four Recollects (Franciscans) arrived in Québec on 2 June 1615. Charged with converting the native people to Christianity, the Recollects were later replaced by Jesuits and expelled from New France in 1629.

Sent to Québec in 1625 to convert the Huron people to Christianity, the Jesuits worked tirelessly to establish missions among the native people along the Saint Lawrence River. Converting the Hurons proved to be a challenge for the Jesuits as French settlements were sparse and the native people were reluctant to not only convert to Christianity, but to living according to European standards, and culture.

Over time, the Jesuits learned the Huron language and found some success in teaching a portion of the native people in their own language. Conversion was hard for the Huron people who felt conflicted as Christianity demanded that they give up their old belief system.

Who arrived in Québec City first? The Ursuline or the Augustinian nuns?

When the Saint-Joseph docked in Québec in 1639 it was carrying Ursuline and Augustinian nuns from France. While there is some debate as to whom stepped off the ship first, the Ursulines and the Augustinian nuns had different missions in Québec; education and medicine.

The Ursuline Monastery of Québec

Founded by Marie de l’Incarnation, the monastery was also run by Sisters Marie-de-Saint-Joseph and Cécile de Saint-Croix, and Marie-Madeline de Chauvigny de la Peltrie, all of whom had sailed together from France to New France in 1639.

Landing in Québec on 1 August 1639, the sisters resided in Lower Town, before building The Ursuline Monastery of Québec in Upper Town. A collection of stone buildings surrounding an enclosed courtyard, the monastery included a chapel, living quarters for the sisters, and a school for the teaching of native girls.

While the Jesuits struggled to teach the native boys, the Ursuline sisters had great success teaching the girls. During this time, the sisters worked closely with the Algonquin and Iroquois people, and in time Marie de l’Incarnation, founder of the monastery, not only learned the languages of the Algonquin and Iroquois people, but she wrote dictionaries for their languages as well.

The Ursuline Monastery of Québec, which is still in operation today, survived sieges by Phips (1690) and Wolfe (1759). It has taken in wounded soldiers and was the original burial site of French Governor, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

The Augustinians and l’Hotel-Dieu de Québec

Three Augustinian nuns arrived in Québec on Arriving 1 August 1639; Sisters Marie Guenet de Saint-Ignace, Anne Leconte de Saint-Bernard, and Marie Forestier de Saint-Bonaventure-de-Jésus. Financed by the Duchess of Aiguillon (niece of Cardinal Richelieu), the sisters were assigned the task of establishing a hospital to care for the native people, as well as the colonists.

Their first hospital was established outside the colony of Québec, in what is now known as Sillery. However after several attacks by the Iroquois, the sisters decided to move the hospital within the city walls for added protection, and in 1646 Hôtel-Dieu de Québec was opened.

In 1693, Bishop Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Vallier built a second hospital for the poor, Hôpital Général de Québec. Initially, four Augustinians were sent to help run the hospital, however by 1698 the bishop had entrusted the hospital to the sisters, and in 1701, it became an independent monastery. The sisters also opened an additional ten monastery-hospitals in New France, welcomed immigrants, and cared for abandoned children (1800 to 1850).

The oldest hospital established in North America, north of Mexico,

Hôtel-Dieu de Québec was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1936 and was operated by the Augustinian sisters until 1962. Now run by the government, Hôtel-Dieu de Québec is known for its cancer treatment, and kidney disease programs.

François de Laval, First Bishop of New France

François de Lava

A Jesuit, François de Laval was appointed as the first Roman Catholic bishop of Québec by Pope Alexander VII when he was 51 years old. Educated at College of La Flèche in France, Laval was inspired by the writings of Jesuit missionaries who spoke of the Huron people in Canada.

Consecrated the Vicar Apostolic of Québec by Cardinal Celio Piccolomini, Laval sailed from La Rochelle to New France on 13 April 1659. Arriving in Québec two months later, Laval was met with challenges on his arrival, namely that of Abbé de Queylus, a Sulpician (Catholic society of Apostolic Life) who had been working as Vicar General for the colony. Abbé de Quells was reluctant to accept Laval’s place in the colony as its new religious leader and refused to allow Laval to take over the ecclesiastical duties of the colony. This jurisdictional battle that would continue for about two years.

François de Laval dreamed of being more than a bishop, he wanted to train priests and guarantee parish ministries, so on 26 Mar 1663 Laval founded the Séminaire de Québec, and in 1665, the seminary was affiliated with Séminaire des Missions Étrangère de Paris. Three years later the Petit Séminaire opened, accepting native and French students.

Over the next few years, Laval would struggle to work with the state in regards to the trading of alcohol to the native people, threatening to excommunicate anyone caught trading alcohol with the native people. The trading of alcohol was considered a state affair, not a religious affair, and for many years, Laval would battle with the governors of the colony. On 24 May 1679, Laval succeeded in obtaining a royal decree to ban the trade of alcohol to native people.

In 1674 Laval petitioned to make the colony an independent diocese, and it was then that Laval was made the first Roman Catholic bishop of Québec (Laval had been appointed as bishop of Petraea prior to sailing to New France).

Jean Talon

Appointed as intendant of the Québec colony in 1665, Jean Talon is credited with worked tirelessly to establish local industries in the colony; introducing crops of flax and hops, creating a shipyard, opening the first brewery, as well as establishing the lumber industry. Talon’s goal was simple, to make the colony as self-sufficient as possible.

While creating industries and strengthening the colony’s agriculture, Talon is also responsible for having new settlers brought over from France, including over eight-hundred women who were brought over for the purpose of marrying the men in the colony, and to help grow the colony’s population. To encourage his population growth plans couples were given financial compensation when they married, and again when they had children.

Jean Talon’s genius not only helped the colony to thrive, but he encouraged growth; establishing several new settlements just outside the city proper. Talon is easily an important figure in Québec’s history.

Sir William Phips and the Battle of Québec

Fought between New France and Massachusetts Bay, the Battle of Québec was the first battle in which the colony’s defences were put to the test.

The battle began when Captain John Schuyler marched and canoed overland to Montréal with roughly 150 militia from Albany, as well as Iroquois warriors. The idea was for Schuyler to occupy French forces near Montréal, making Québec’s defences weak when Sir William Phips attacked. Unfortunately, Schuyler’s company was stricken with smallpox and suffered from a lack of supplies. Eventually, tensions grew, arguments took place, and many of the militia and Iroquois turned back before reaching Montréal. As a result, the raid on Montréal was unsuccessful, as Schuyler decided his forces were not strong enough to attack the town’s garrison, and they turned back.

The failure of Schuyler meant that over 200 troops were now available to go to the aid of Louis de Buade de Frontenac, who had spotted Sir William Phips and his ships sailing along the St-Lawrence river near Tadoussac.

When Phips arrived, Frontenac has almost 3,000 men on-hand to defend the colony, a significantly larger force than Phips had anticipated.

Due to the shallow water of the St-Lawrence, Phips was unable to dock along the shore, and was forced to send Major Thomas Savage to deliver his demands to Count Frontenac; namely, to surrender New France.

An intelligent man, and one who was very familiar with war tactics, Frontenac had Savage blindfolded and led through the streets of Québec, with its angry colonists shouting and creating such a ruckus as to mislead Savage into thinking the population of the colony was greater than it really was.

When Savage handed over Phip’s demands, Frontenac was furious. So furious that he was tempted to hang Savage within view of Phips and his fleet, however Bishop François de Laval was able to calm Frontenac down, and instead, he sent a note telling Phips: “I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouths of my cannons and muskets”.

Savage returned to Phips, blindfolded, and that evening the drums of war could be heard throughout the colony. Frontenac sent militiamen and natives into the woods near the east side of the Saint-Charles river, which hedged a group of 1,200 English troops, who in the confusion landed their field guns on the wrong side of the river. While the militiamen kept the troops on the Saint-Charles river occupied, Phip’s largest ships (four anchored in the St-Lawrence in front of Québec) started their attack on Québec, volleying canon after canon at the colony. Unfortunately, for Phips the fleet’s ammunition was low, and they eventually ran out.

A week after demanding Québec’s surrender, Phips and his fleet tucked tail and head back to Boston. Defeated. 

Battle of the Plains of Abraham

A key battle in the Seven Years’ War, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham began on 13 September 1759 between the British Army and Navy and the French Army. Taking place on a plateau owned by a farmer, Abraham Martin, just outside the walls of the colony of Québec, the battle lasted only fifteen minutes but was one of the most important battles in Québec’s history.

The British troops were led by General James Wolfe, the French by General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm; both of whom were mortally wounded during the battle. Montcalm’s men were not up to par as many were not formally trained soldiers, but militiamen whose instincts were not sufficient to win the battle against the British. Wolfe, on the other hand, had an army of highly trained soldiers at this disposal, which is why he won the battle.

Four years later the Treaty of Paris was signed, in which France ceded all of its colonies and territories in North America to the British.