Chronicles of America 

The Founding of Quebec, 1608-1616

In the spring of 1608 Champlain and Pontgrave once again set sail for the St. Lawrence. The latter delayed at the Saguenay to trade, while Champlain pushed on to the site of the old Stadacona, where at the foot of the cliff he laid the foundations of the new Quebec, the first permanent settlement of Europeans in the territory of New France. On the shore below the rocky steep several houses were built, and measures were taken to defend them in case of an Indian attack. Here Champlain's party spent the winter of 1608-1609.

With the experience gained at St. Croix and Port Royal it should have been possible to provide for all eventualities, yet difficulties in profusion were encountered during these winter months. First there was the unearthing of a conspiracy against Champlain. Those concerned in it were speedily punished, but the execution of the chief culprit gave to the new settlement a rather ominous beginning. Then came a season of zero weather, and the scurvy came with it. Champlain had heard of the remedy used by Cartier, but the tribes which had been at Stadacona in Cartier's time had now disappeared, and there was no one to point out the old-time remedy to the suffering garrison. So the scourge went on unchecked. The ravages of disease were so severe that, when a relief ship arrived in the early summer of 1609, all but eight of Champlain's party had succumbed.

Yet there was no thought of abandoning the settlement. The beginnings of Canada made astounding demands upon the fortitude and stamina of these dauntless voyageurs, but their store of courage was far from the point of exhaustion. They were ready not only to stay but to explore the territory inland, to traverse its rivers and lakes, to trudge through its forests afoot that they might find out for the King's information what resources the vast land held in its silent expanses. After due deliberation, therefore, it was decided that Champlain and four others should accompany a party of Huron and Algonquin Indians upon one of their forays into the country of the Iroquois, this being the only way in which the Frenchmen could be sure of their redskin guides. So the new allies set forth to the southeastward, passing up the Richelieu River and, traversing the lake which now bears his name, Champlain and his Indian friends came upon a war party of Iroquois near Ticonderoga and a forest fight ensued. The muskets of the French terrified the enemy tribesmen and they fled in disorder. In itself the incident was not of much account nor were its consequences so far-reaching as some historians would have us believe. It is true that Champlain's action put the French, for the moment in the bad graces of the Iroquois; but the conclusion that this foray was chiefly responsible for the hostility of the great tribes during the whole ensuing century is altogether without proper historical foundation.

Revenge has always been a prominent trait of redskin character, but it could never of itself have determined the alignment of the Five Nations against the French during a period of nearly eight generations. From the situation of their territories, the Iroquois were the natural allies of the English and Dutch on the one hand, and the natural foes of the French on the other. Trade soon became the Alpha and the Omega of all tribal diplomacy, and the Iroquois were discerning enough to realize that their natural role was to serve as middlemen between the western Indians and the English. Their very livelihood, indeed, depended on their success in diverting the flow of the fur trade through the Iroquois territories, for by the middle of the seventeenth century there were no beavers left in their own country. Such a situation meant that they must promote trade between the western Indians and the English, at Albany; but to promote trade with the English meant friendship with the English, and friendship with the English meant enmity with the French. Here is the true key to the long series of quarrels in which the Five Nations and New France engaged. Champlain's little escapade at Ticonderoga was a mere incident and the Iroquois would have soon forgotten it if their economic interests had required them to do so. "Trade and peace," said an Iroquois chief to the French on one occasion, "we take to be one thing." He was right; they have been one thing in all ages. As companions, trade and the flag have been inseparable in all lands. The expedition of 1609 had, however, some results besides the discomfiture of an Iroquois raiding party. It disclosed to the French a water-route which led almost to the upper reaches of the Hudson. The spot where Champlain put the Iroquois to flight is within thirty leagues of Albany. It was by this route that the French and English came so often into warring contact during the next one hundred and fifty years.

Explorations, the care of his little settlement at Quebec, trading operations, and two visits to France occupied Champlain's attention during the next few years. Down to this time no white man's foot had ever trodden the vast wilderness beyond the rapids above Hochelaga. Stories had filtered through concerning great waters far to the West and North, of hidden minerals there, and of fertile lands. Champlain was determined to see these things for himself and it was to that end that he made his two great trips to the interior, in 1613 and 1616, respectively.

The expedition of 1613 was not a journey of indefinite exploration; it had a very definite end in view. A few years previously Champlain had sent into the villages of the Algonquins on the upper Ottawa River a young Frenchman named Vignau, in order that by living for a time among these people he might learn their language and become useful as an interpreter. In 1612 Vignau came back with a marvelous story concerning a trip which he had made with his Algonquin friends to the Great North Sea where he had seen the wreck of an English vessel. This striking news inflamed Champlain's desire to find out whether this was not the route for which both Cartier and he himself had so eagerly searched--the western passage to Cathay and the Indies. There is evidence that the explorer from the first doubted the truth of Vignau's story, but in 1613 he decided to make sure and started up the Ottawa River, taking the young man with him to point the way.

After a fatiguing journey the party at length reached the Algonquin encampment on Allumette Island in the upper Ottawa, where his doubts were fully confirmed. Vignau, the Algonquins assured Champlain, was an impostor; he had never been out of their sight, had never seen a Great North Sea; the English shipwreck was a figment of his imagination. "Overcome with wrath." writes Champlain, "I had him removed from my presence, being unable to bear the sight of him." The party went no further, but returned to Quebec. As for the impostor, the generosity of his leader in the end allowed him to go unpunished. Though the expedition had been in one sense a fool's errand and Champlain felt himself badly duped, yet it was not without its usefulness, for it gave him an opportunity to learn much concerning the methods of wilderness travel, the customs of the Indians and the extent to which they might be relied upon. The Algonquins and the Hurons had proved their friendship, but what they most desired, it now appeared, was that the French should give them substantial aid in another expedition against the Iroquois.

This was the basis upon which, arrangements were made for Champlain's next journey to the interior, the longest and most daring enterprise in his whole career of exploration. In 1615 the Brouage navigator with a small party once again ascended the Ottawa, crossed to Lake Nipissing and thence made his way down the French. River to the Georgian Bay, or Lake of the Hurons as it was then called. Near the shores of the bay he found the villages of the Hurons with the Recollet Father Le Caron already at work among the tribesmen. Adding a large band of Indians to his party, the explorer-now struck southeast and, by following the chain of small lakes and rivers which lie between Matchedash Bay and the Bay of Quinte, he eventually reached Lake Ontario. The territory pleased Champlain greatly, and he recorded his enthusiastic opinion of its fertility. Crossing the head of Lake Ontario in their canoes the party then headed for the country of the Iroquois south of Oneida Lake, where lay a palisaded village of the Onondagas. This they attacked, but after three hours' fighting were repulsed, Champlain being wounded in the knee by an Iroquois arrow.

The eleven Frenchmen with their horde of Indians then retreated cautiously; but the Onondagas made no serious attempt at pursuit, and in due course Champlain with his party recrossed Lake Ontario safely. The Frenchmen were now eager to get back to Quebec by descending the St. Lawrence, but their Indian allies would not hear of this desertion. The whole expedition therefore plodded on to the shores of the Georgian Bay, following a route somewhat north of the one by which it had come. There the Frenchmen spent a tedious winter. Champlain was anxious to make use of the time by exploring the upper lakes, but the task of settling some wretched feuds among his Huron and Algonquin friends took most of his time and energy. The winter gave him opportunity, however, to learn a great deal more about the daily life of the savages, their abodes, their customs, their agriculture, their amusements, and their folklore. All this information went into his journals and would have been of priceless value had not the Jesuits who came later proved to be such untiring chroniclers of every detail.

When spring came, Champlain left the Huron country and by way of Lake Nipissing and the Ottawa once more reached his own people at Quebec. It took him forty days to make the journey from the Georgian Bay to the present site of Montreal.

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