Champlain was here

America's founding myth tells of the Puritans landing in wild, uncharted lands. Yet a French explorer had already mapped the territory in exquisite detail.

Samuel de Champlain’s illustration of “Beau Port,” now Gloucester.
Samuel de Champlain’s illustration of “Beau Port,” now Gloucester. (Courtesy of the John Cartner Brown Library at Brown University )
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ted Widmer
March 9, 2008

NEW ENGLANDERS GROW up imbibing certain creation myths, most of which relate to how unbelievably historic we are. It all started here, and entire businesses -- the vending of tricorne hats, for example -- depend on the tight control of information relating to the beginnings of America -- the Revolution, and the Salem witch trials before that, and at the dawn of time, the Pilgrims, hacking their way into the forest primeval. Everything trails in their wake; or so we like to believe.

But is it possible that New England trails in someone else's wake? As in, the dreaded French? These disorienting thoughts will become harder to push away in 2008, as Quebec celebrates the 400th anniversary of its founding by Samuel de Champlain -- the explorer who found not only New France, but much of New England as well. Indeed, if a few things had turned out differently, we might all be bundled up in scarves and hats bearing the fleur-de-lys insignia of the New France Patriots.

By 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, Champlain had accomplished nearly everything for which he is famous. He had crisscrossed the Atlantic dozens of times (29 times before his death in 1635), he had penetrated deeply into the hinterland, and he had glimpsed -- and named -- most of the harbors, rivers, and capes that we rediscover every weekend of the summer. It is startling to return to his maps, and see the familiar contours of Cape Cod, Cape Ann, and Boston Harbor, all included as part of an American region that was anything but "New England." Given his natural inclination to roam, there is every reason to believe that Champlain might have started French settlements hundreds of miles to the south if he had been given more support from the French crown. As it was, he did a great deal more than most Americans realize to delineate the coastlines of Maine and Massachusetts, along with huge swaths of Vermont and New York.

The richness of French history in North America has been neglected in recent generations, although there was once a time, not so many generations ago, when names like Champlain and Verrazano (who sailed for France, and named Rhode Island) were remembered with enthusiasm. It would not quite be right to call Champlain obscure -- after all, he has an enormous lake named after him. But for most of us, he sits on a list of explorers and early settlers to be memorized somewhere around age 13, and then forgotten.

There is every reason to do better, and not merely because of the dull pressure that centennials exert upon us. Champlain is endlessly fascinating -- a writer as well as a man of action, and a Westerner who was uncharacteristically interested in the native peoples and ecologies he encountered. It's a cliche to say that studying someone else's history is a way to learn our own -- but in this case, it's literally true. Perhaps Quebec is not so far away -- or so foreign -- after all.

. . .

Champlain led one of the more romantic lives of an age devoted to swashbuckling. A child of the sea, he grew up in the port of Saintonge, on France's Atlantic coast, and began crossing the Atlantic in 1599, at roughly age 29, joining a Spanish expedition to the Caribbean. Unlike most of his fellow mariners, he kept a careful written record of all that he saw, and a manuscript of this first voyage brims with his sense of curiosity about the flora and fauna he encountered in the New World (including, curiously, "dragons of strange shape, having a head approaching to that of an eagle, wings like a bat, a body like a lizard, and only two rather large feet, the tail somewhat scaly").

Champlain's genius was not only that he understood how to survive in New France better than most of his countrymen -- he also knew how to translate that survival into gripping language. He seemed always to be pressing out toward the margins of what was known. From Acadia (Nova Scotia), he traveled south in 1604-06, exploring a great deal of Maine and Massachusetts, including the charming harbor he called "Beau Port," now Gloucester, where he was nearly killed by Indians (he captured the moment in his map), and a strange elbow-like peninsula he named 'Mallebarre," now Cape Cod. Other names he gave -- "Grand Manan," "Isle au Haut," and "Mount Desert" never changed at all. After founding Quebec, he continued to roam, finding his way well into the interior of North America, far past what any Boston Puritan knew of this strange new world.

His watershed moment may be the great map of New France folded inside the 1613 edition of his "Voyages," seven years before the Pilgrims arrived. It is so vastly superior to every map that came before it that it is almost as if he was seeing the country for the first time, which in many cases he was. There are vivid images of natives, essential facts about rivers and oceans, beautiful renderings of sea creatures (including one that is almost certainly an off-color joke, a very phallic sea cucumber that cannot be reproduced in a family newspaper), and possibly an image of Champlain himself, staring sphinx-like from inside the sun of a compass rose.

That rumor is all the more enticing for the fact that we do not know what Champlain looked like. The only depiction of him from life was, characteristically, a self-portrait, showing him in the middle of a battle, showered by arrows, leading his native and French compatriots forward into the unknown. Describing an ideal sailor, late in life, Champlain might have been referring to himself: "an upright, God-fearing man, not dainty about food or drink, robust and alert, with good sea legs."

One of the great myths of American history is that the earliest settlers of New England came here by accident, not knowing where they were, and built a new society, far from anyone else. Champlain's map gives the lie to that legend. We cannot know exactly what they knew, but it does not seem implausible that copies would have reached the Pilgrims in their sanctuary in Leiden, not too far from Paris. William Bradford, the great Pilgrim chronicler, nearly gives away the secret when he first describes Cape Cod, and admits that "ye French & Dutch to this day call it Malabarr."

In a sense, this map was the great achievement of his life. Like James Joyce and "Ulysses," he returned to his masterpiece over and over again. All of those nameless trips into the interior allowed him to expand it, and over the years "New France" grew to the west and north, ultimately reaching to Labrador and the Great Lakes. As defined by Champlain, it also stretched notably to the south, and he included much of the readership of The Boston Globe in his fiefdom of the future.

But not all of his compatriots felt Champlain's enthusiasm for New France. His ambition was never shared at home, where strict controls were maintained on colonial growth, and after the English began coming to these parts, momentum shifted to a people far better able to control their own destiny. When Champlain died on Christmas in 1635, there were only 200 people in Quebec. They and their descendants soldiered on without him, overcoming adversity as difficult (and probably more so) than any faced by New Englanders -- including the frequent invasions of "les Bastonnais," the Bostonians who tried to take the city every generation or so, right up to the American Revolution. Four centuries later, according a small measure of respect to the great French explorer of Massachusetts seems a small way to unwrinkle some of these ancient hostilities, and in so doing, to honor a worthy American ancestor.

Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and is the author of a forthcoming book, "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World." An exhibit curated by the JCB, "Champlain's America: New England and New France," will run at the Boston Public Library from March 13 to May 31.

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