Champlain’s Dream
by David Hackett Fischer,
New York: Simon and Schuster,
848 pp., $40.00, 2009

In the 1830s Black Hawk, chief of the Sac and Fox nations, recalled one of his people’s earliest memories. Many years before, his ancestor in the St. Lawrence Valley had a dream that on a journey he would meet a white man, which later came to pass. This strange traveler invited the chief into his tent and won his affection and respect. For many years afterward, the Black Hawks spoke of this unusual man who moved in their country unafraid and who dreamed that the white and red men would live together as one family.

This mysterious stranger undoubtedly was Samuel de Champlain. Today our memories of him seem as distant as those of the Black Hawks. Most Americans know little of Champlain beyond the lake named after him. Our schoolchildren might learn he explored the St. Lawrence River valley and helped found a place called “Canada.”

David Hackett Fischer reintroduces us to this extraordinary man, whom he describes convincingly as a world historic figure. Champlain’s story had earlier been told by the greatest American chroniclers, Francis Parkman and Samuel Eliot Morrison. Fischer, whose body of work compares favorably with these two, seeks to rescue Champlain from the temple guardians of political correctness, who, by attempting to make us conform to postliberal democracy, have made the serious study of the past all but impossible.

Fischer himself does not reject a moral purpose to his work. As in his acclaimed books on Paul Revere and George Washington, he attempts to establish principled and prudential leadership as the proper focus for those of us—indeed “most of us”—who are called to participate in an open and pluralistic democratic society. His biography of Champlain offers a true pedagogical purpose; to teach us how to be better citizens, and perhaps even better people.

In Champlain’s Dream Fischer delivers two books in one: the first part a narrative of the life of Champlain, and the second, a lengthy essay on the images of Champlain through the years. Here we find that Fischer’s account differs notably from such well known sources as Parkman, who saw his subject, somewhat anachronistically, as a medieval man.

In contrast, Fischer sees Champlain as having combined the best qualities of the Age of Faith and Age of Reason, which made him stand apart from most founders of the Americas. More than an explorer, Champlain sought to found a new world based on order and friendship. Learning from the poor example of others such as Jacques Cartier, who mistreated the Indians, Champlain vowed to be different. Although a believer in hierarchy—Champlain was a member of the haute bourgeoisie, not an aristocrat—he insisted on treating les sauvages, these wild men of the forest, with respect. Inspired by humanism, Champlain believed in the common humanity of all inhabitants of America and Europe.

Champlain was a master of many endeavors. “Like many others of his age,” Fischer writes, “Champlain used every discipline and art and science within reach.” As a soldier he fought in France’s civil wars. As a ship commander, he crossed the North Atlantic over two dozen times but never lost a major vessel. As a diplomatist, he brought peace between white settlers and suspicious Indian tribes. He stood out as a cartographer, naturalist, and a travel writer—although he never wrote about himself. Though a prudent man, he took dangerous risks exploring the rapids feeding the St. Lawrence, without ever knowing how to swim. In a time of religious strife, he was a man of peace and tolerance. In an age of imperialist striving, he evoked high principle. But Champlain was also a Christian realist. Fischer compares him to his contemporary Descartes, who likewise hated war, but “believed that some things were worse than war, and the worst thing was the triumph of evil in the world.”

Much about Champlain has been lost to us. Word portraits of Champlain give varied impressions, which have added to the mystery surrounding the man. There exists but one contemporary likeness of him, done by his own hand. It depicts him in his first fight against the Mohawks, aiming his harquebus. To add to the gap in his biography, Champlain had no family legacy. Unhappily married later in life, he left behind no children, although he adopted some.

Of modest origins, Champlain was born around 1570 and grew up near the seafaring and Huguenot town of La Rochelle, in France’s Saintorge region. His first name suggests he was baptized Protestant. Champlain was a young man when Henry IV, whom Champlain idolized, secured the French throne in 1589 after the country had endured religion-inspired civil wars for nearly 20 years. The new king had just reconverted to the Catholic faith—not the first time he had done so. His opponents claimed he had declared, “Paris is worth a mass,” but this time Henry appeared to have meant it. He labored hard at reconciliation and declared his toleration for religious beliefs. Many of his followers, attracted by his example, converted to the Catholic faith too. By the time of the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which evoked tolerance for the Huguenots, Champlain was a Catholic.

Fischer delves deeply into this cultural background, including the religious background that shaped Champlain. As he demonstrated in his classic Albion’s Seed, Fischer dedicates close attention to religion, culture, and folkways of Champlain’s native Saintorge, the ways of an independent, prudent, and frank people. Fischer does indulge in speculation that Champlain might have been the illegitimate offspring of Henry IV, who, we learn, was as liberal in his affections as he was in his politics. Intriguingly, Champlain claimed once to be “bound by birth” to the king. If so, Fischer surmises that it would explain much about Champlain’s good access at court, despite his being a commoner, and his later rocky relations with Henry’s successors.

Champlain served his king’s desire to expand France’s global interests. He learned from sailing with the Spanish how to navigate the Atlantic. At the beginning of the 17th century, a thriving trade with the native Americans had already developed, and many Europeans were acquainted with the inhabitants of North America. The word “Iroquois” derives from the French and Basque corruption of this important tribe’s name for itself.

His earliest French settlement was near Cape Cod. Many died of scurvy in the harsh winter. It is a tribute to his diplomatic skill that he was respected by the local tribes. His colonists settled near the Indians but did not push them off their land. Later French leaders had no success in dealing with them. French settlements were soon driven from the area, thus changing the course of North American history forever. Only north of the Penobscot River did Champlain and other French explorers have any success.

The failure of the parent company for the colony forced Champlain to return home. It would be a familiar story in the history of French colonization in the New World. Changing fashion in Paris forced Champlain’s company to search for beaver up the St. Lawrence River. Gaining support from religious orders like the Jesuits and from Protestant investors helped raise the necessary funds to continue the expedition. Mixing Protestants and Catholics in settlements did not always lead to happy results, or, as Champlain put it, “two contrary religions are never very fruitful to God’s glory among the infidels.” Finally in 1608 Champlain founded a simple settlement up the St. Lawrence in a place the local Indians called “Kebec,” simply, the narrowing of the waters. It was at Quebec that Champlain found his most successful and enduring colony.

When one considers how difficult it was to settle Canada, it is remarkable that any new society developed there at all. Not only had the settlers to contend with local Indian tribes and harsh weather, but also the predations of other Europeans. Champlain faced mutinies and murder plots. There was more trouble in attracting investors to the colony. Only the French lawyers seemed to make money out of America. At one time, Champlain was forced to surrender Quebec to English freebooters, commissioned by Charles I to harass the French colonies. When Charles secured his dowry from France—he had taken Louis XIII’s sister Henrietta Maria as his wife—the colony was restored. Louis’s powerful minister Richelieu was no friend of Champlain’s in court, but he eventually reinstated him as lieutenant governor of “New France.”

Peace not just with the Indians, but among them, was fundamental to Champlain’s purpose. Fighting, after all, disrupted trade. To bring the Mohawks, the largest tribe of the Iroquois, to parlay, Champlain and about sixty warriors took their canoes south down to what is now Lake Champlain to confront them. As Fischer described it, it was a carefully calibrated use of force. Champlain did not want to crush the Mohawks, but to defeat them in limited battle and bring them into negotiations. The Mohawks, a few hundred strong, came out to meet them, clad in wooden armor and arrayed in a phalanx. Champlain triple-loaded his harquebus and fired. Two Mohawk chieftains fell. This first encounter with a “thunder stick” frightened the Mohawks, who were quickly routed. As was their custom, Champlain’s allies tortured to death some of the captives, a reminder in our multicultural age that no people are without cruelty. It was a bitter end to victory. Fischer describes this clash as having occasioned a military revolution for the Indians. Adapting quickly to this surprise, Indian tribes abandoned the phalanx and developed the guerrilla tactics for which they became well known.

Much of what we know about the native Americans in these times came from Champlain’s voluminous writings, in which he mentions hundreds of Indians by name. Champlain discovered that the Indians lived in several levels of development. The Huron tribes were prosperous and practiced a high level of land cultivation. Their food aid helped the precarious Quebec colony in its early years. In contrast, the Montagnais survived by begging. These natives had many attractive qualities—they strictly told the truth, and hated liars—but most lived “without faith, law, or king.” Their code was lex talionis—justice by retaliation. Nevertheless, they were attracted to Champlain’s sense of fairness and his policy of not taking vengeance against murdered settlers. Likewise, his chaste behavior around Indian women added to his orenda, that is, his spiritual power.Champlain’s example allowed him to made peace with most of the local tribes, although the Iroquois remained stubborn holdouts.

Champlain died in Quebec on Christmas Day, 1635. The local tribes came to mourn with the colonists. He left an enduring legacy and contributed to the founding of the French speaking people of North America. Prudence and realism tempered his dreams of a better world.

Michael J. Ard covers Western Hemisphere affairs for the Office of the Director for National Intelligence. He writes from Leesburg, VA.