Chronicles of America 

Explorations in Acadia, 1603-1607

In the closing years of the sixteenth century the spirit of French expansion, which had remained so strangely inactive for nearly three generations, once again began to manifest itself. The Sieur de La Roche, another Breton nobleman, the merchant traders, Pontgrave of St. Malo and Chauvin of Honfleur, came forward one after the other with plans for colonizing the unknown land. Unhappily these plans were not easily matured into stern realities. The ambitious project of La Roche came to grief on the barren sands of Sable Island. The adventurous merchants, for their part, obtained a monopoly of the trade and for a few years exploited the rich peltry regions of the St. Lawrence, but they made no serious attempts at actual settlement. Finally they lost the monopoly, which passed in 1603 to the Sieur de Chastes, a royal favorite and commandant at Dieppe.

It is at this point that Samuel Champlain first becomes associated with the pioneer history of New France. Given the opportunity to sail with an expedition which De Chastes sent out in 1603, Champlain gladly accepted and from this time to the end of his days he never relaxed his whole-souled interest in the design to establish a French dominion in these western lands. With his accession to the ranks of the voyageurs real progress in the field of colonization was for the first time assured. Champlain encountered many setbacks during his initial years as a colonizer, but he persevered to the end. When he had finished his work, France had obtained a footing in the St. Lawrence valley which was not shaken for nearly a hundred and fifty years.

Champlain was born in 1567 at the seaport of Brouage, on the Bay of Biscay, so that he was only thirty-six years of age when he set out on his first voyage to America. His forbears belonged to the lesser gentry of Saintonge, and from them he inherited a roving strain. Long before reaching middle manhood he had learned to face dangers, both as a soldier in the wars of the League and as a sailor to the Spanish Main. With a love of adventure he combined rare powers of description, so much so that the narrative of his early voyages to this region had attracted the King's attention and had won for him the title of royal geographer. His ideas were bold and clear; he had an inflexible will and great patience in battling with discouragements. Possessing these qualities, Champlain was in every way fitted to become the founder of New France.

The expedition of 1603 proceeded to the St. Lawrence, where some of the party landed at the mouth of the Saguenay to trade with the Indians. The remainder, including Champlain, made their way up the river to the Indian village at Hochelaga, which they now found in ruins, savage warfare having turned the place into a solitude. Champlain busied himself with some study of the country's resources and the customs of the aborigines; but on the whole the prospects of the St. Lawrence valley did not move the explorers to enthusiasm. Descending the great river again, they rejoined their comrades at the Saguenay, and, taking their cargoes of furs aboard, the whole party sailed back to France in the autumn. There they found that De Chastes, the sponsor for their enterprise, had died during their absence.

The death of De Chastes upset matters badly, for with it the trade monopoly had lapsed. But things were promptly set right again by a royal act which granted the monopoly anew. This time it went to the Sieur de Monts, a prominent Huguenot nobleman, then governor of Pons, with whom Champlain was on friendly terms. To quiet the clamors of rival traders, however, it was stipulated that Monts should organize a company and should be bound to take into his enterprise any who might wish to associate themselves with him. The company, in return for its trading monopoly, was to transport to the new domains at least one hundred settlers each year.

Little difficulty was encountered in organizing the company, since various merchants of St. Malo, Honfleur, Rouen, and Rochelle were eager to take shares. Preparations for sending out an expedition on a much larger scale than on any previous occasion were soon under way, and in 1604 two well-equipped vessels set forth. One of them went to the old trading-post at the Saguenay; the other went southward to the regions of Acadia. On board the latter were De Monts himself, Champlain as chief geographer, and a young adventurer from the ranks of the "noblesse", Biencourt de Poutrincourt. The personnel of this expedition was excellent: it contained no convicts; most of its members were artisans and sturdy yeomen. Rounding the tip of the Nova Scotian peninsula, these vessels came to anchor in the haven of Port Royal, now Annapolis. Not satisfied with the prospects there, however, they coasted around the Bay of Fundy, and finally reached the island in Passamaquoddy Bay which they named St. Croix. Here on June 25, 1604, the party decided to found their settlement. Work on the buildings was at once commenced, and soon the little colony was safely housed. In the autumn Poutrincourt was dispatched with one vessel and a crew back to France, while Champlain and the rest prepared to spend the winter in their new island home.

The choice of St. Croix as a location proved singularly unfortunate; the winter was long and severe, and the preparations that had been made were soon found to be inadequate. Once more there were sufferings such as Cartier and his men had undergone during the terrible winter of 1534-1535 at Quebec. There were no brooks or springs close at hand, and no fresh water except such as could be had by melting snow. The storehouse had no cellar, and in consequence the vegetables froze, so that the company was reduced to salted meat as the chief staple of diet. Scurvy ravaged the camp, and before the snows melted nearly two-fifths of the party had died. Not until June, moreover, did a vessel arrive from France with, fresh stores and more colonists.

The experience of this first winter must have indeed "produced discontent," as Champlain rather mildly expressed it, but it did not impel De Monts to abandon his plans. St. Croix, however, was given up and, after a futile search for a better location on the New England coast, the colony moved across the bay to Port Royal, where the buildings were reconstructed. In the autumn De Monts went back to France, leaving Champlain, Pontgrave, and forty-three others to spend the winter of 1605-1606 in Acadia. During this hibernation the fates were far more kind. The season proved milder, the bitter lessons of the previous season had not gone unlearned, and scurvy did not make serious headway. But when June came and De Monts had not returned from France with fresh supplies, there was general discouragement; so much so that plans for the entire abandonment of the place were on the eve of being carried out when a large vessel rounded the point on its way into the Basin. Aboard were Poutrincourt and Marc Lescarbot, together with more settlers and supplies. Lescarbot was a Parisian lawyer in search of adventure, a man who combined wit with wisdom, one of the pleasantest figures in the annals of American colonization. He was destined to gain a place in literary history as the interesting chronicler of this little colony's all-too-brief existence. These arrivals put new heart into the men, and they set to work sowing grain and vegetables, which grew in such abundance that the storehouses were filled to their capacity. The ensuing winter found the company with an ample store of everything. The season of ice and snow passed quickly, thanks largely to Champlain's successful endeavor to keep the colonists in good health and spirits by exercise, by variety in diet, and by divers gaieties under the auspices of his "Ordre de Bon Temps", a spontaneous social organization created for the purpose of banishing cares and worries from the little settlement. It seemed as though the colony had been established to stay.

But with the spring of 1607 came news which quickly put an end to all this optimism. Rival merchants had been clamoring against the monopoly of the De Monts company. Despite the fact that De Monts was a Huguenot and thus a shining target for the shafts of bigotry, these protests had for three years failed to move the King; but now they had gained their point, and the monopoly had come to an end. This meant that there would be no more ships with settlers or supplies. As the colony could not yet hope to exist on its own resources, there was no alternative but to abandon the site and return to France, and this the whole party reluctantly proceeded to do.

On arrival in France the affairs of the company were wound up, and De Monts found himself a heavy loser. He was not yet ready to quit the game, however, and Champlain with the aid of Pontgrave was able to convince him that a new venture in the St. Lawrence region might yield profits even without the protection of a monopoly. Thus out of misfortune and failure arose the plans which led to the founding of a permanent outpost of empire at Quebec.

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