Champlain’s Battle with the Iroquois

In 1609 Champlain, who had secured the friendship of the Montagnais Indians, or Montagners, engaged to assist them in an expedition against their enemies, the Iroquois. It is probable that he was partly incited to his action by desire to extend his knowledge of the country, and to widen his sphere of influence. They were joined by a number of Hurons and Algonquins, and in May proceded in canoes up the Sorel to the Chambly Rapids.

The Indians had told Champlain that the country they wished to conquer was thickly settled; that to reach it they must pass by a waterfall, thence into another lake, from the head of which there was a carrying-place to a river, which flowed towards the sea coast. This course of their intended march is clearly understood to-day as leading up Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga, thence up the outlet of Lake George past the falls, thence through Lake George to the Hudson River.

I left the rapid of the said river of the Iroquois, says Champlain in his journal, on the 2d of July. All the savages began carrying their canoes, arms and traps, overland about a league and a half, to avoid the current and force of the rapid. This was quickly effected.

They immediately launched the canoes into the water, two men in each with their baggage, whilst one of the men went by land about a league and a half; which was the probable extent of said rapid, though not so violent as at the foot, except at some points where rocks obstructed the river, which is no more than three or four hundred paces wide. After the rapid was passed, though not without trouble, all the Indians who had gone by land over a pretty good road and level country, though covered with timber, re-embarked in their canoes. My men were also on land and on the water in a canoe. They reviewed all their force and found twenty-four canoes with sixty men. After having completed the review, we continued our journey as far as an island three leagues long, covered with the finest pines I ever beheld. They hunted and caught some wild animals there. Passing thence about three leagues farther on, we camped in order to rest for the night.

Forthwith some began to cut down timber; others to pull off bark to cover lodges to shelter them; others to fall large trees with which to barricade their lodges on the shore. They know so well how to construct these barricades, that five hundred of their enemies would find considerable difficulty in forcing them in less than two hours, without loss. They do not fortify the side of the river along which their canoes are ranged, so as to be able to embark should occasion require.

After they had camped, they dispatched three canoes with good men, as is their custom at all their encampments, to reconnoitre within two or three leagues, if they see anything, after which they retire. They depend the whole night on the exploration of the van guard, which is a bad habit of theirs. For sometimes their enemies surprise asleep, and kill them without having an opportunity of recovering their feet to defend themselves.

Remarking that, I remonstrated with them against the error they committed; told them to watch, as they saw us do,1 all night, and to have out-posts to spy and see if they could perceive anything; and not to live in that style, like cattle. They told me they couldn’t watch, and that they labored all day hunting. So that when they go to war they divide their force into three, to-wit: one party, scattered in divers places, hunting; another forms the main body, which is always under arms; and another party as a van guard, to scout along the river and see whether they will not discover some trail or mark indicating the passage of friends or enemies. This they ascertain by certain marks the chiefs of one nation give to those of another, which are not always alike; notifying each other from time to time when they alter any.

By this means they recognize whether those who have passed are friends or enemies. The hunters never hunt in advance of the main body or the scouts, so as not to create any alarm or disorder; but in the rear and in the direction where they do not apprehend enemies. They thus continue until they are two or three days’ journey from the foe, when they advance stealthily by night, all in a body, except the scouts, and retire by day into the picket fort where they repose, without wandering abroad, making any noise or building a fire, even for cooking, during that time, so as not to be discovered, should their enemies happen to pass. The only fire they make is, to smoke. They eat dried Indian meal which they steep in water like porridge. They prepare this meal for use when they are pinched, and when they are near the enemy, or when retreating; after their attacks they do not amuse themselves hunting, retreating precipitately.

We left next day, continuing our route along the river as far as the mouth of the lake. Here a number of beautiful but low islands, filled with very fine woods and prairies, a quantity of game and wild animals, such as stags, deer, fawns, roebucks, bears and other sorts of animals that come from the mainland to the said islands. We caught a quantity of them. There is also quite a number of beavers, as well in the river as in several other streams which fall into it. These parts, though agreeable, are not inhabited by any Indians, in consequence of their wars. They retire from the rivers as far as possible, deep into the country, in order not to be so soon discovered.

Next day we entered the lake, which is of considerable extent; some fifty or sixty leagues, where I saw four beautiful islands, ten, twelve and fifteen leagues in length formerly inhabited, as well as the Iroquois rivers, by Indians, but abandoned since they have been at war the one with the other. Several rivers, also, discharge into the lake, surrounded by a number of fine trees similar to those we have in France, with a quantity of vines handsomer than any I ever saw; a great many chestnuts, and I had not yet seen except the margin of the lake, where there is a large abundance of fish of divers species.

Continuing our route along the west side of the lake, contemplating the country, I saw on the east side very high mountains capped with snow. I asked the Indians if these parts were inhabited? They answered me yes, and that they were Iroquois, and that there were in those parts beautiful valleys, and fields fertile in corn as good as I had ever eaten in the country, with an infinitude of other fruits, and that the lake extended close to the mountains, which were, according to my judgment, fifteen leagues from us. I saw others to the south, not less high than the former; only that they were without snow.

At nightfall we embarked in our canoes to continue our journey, and as we advanced very softly and noiselessly, we encountered a war party of Iroquois on the 29th of the month, about ten o’clock at night, at the point of a cape which puts into the lake on the west side. They and we began to shout, each seizing his arms. We withdrew towards the water and the Iroquois repaired on shore, and arranged all their canoes, the one beside the other, and began to hew down trees with villainous axes, which they sometimes got in war, and others of stone, and fortified themselves very securely.

Our party, likewise, kept their canoes arranged the one along side the other, tied to poles so as not to run adrift, in order to fight all together should need be. We were on the water about an arrow-shot from their barricades.

When they were armed and in order, they sent two canoes from the fleet to know if their enemies wished to fight, who answered they desired nothing else; but that just then there was not much light, and that we must wait for day to distinguish each other, and they would give us battle at sunrise. This was agreed to by our party. Meanwhile the whole night was spent in dancing and singing, as well on one side as on the other, mingled with an infinitude of insults and other taunts, such as the little courage they had; how powerless their resistance against their arms, and that when day would break they should experience this to their ruin. Ours, likewise, did not fail in repartee; telling them they should witness the effects of arms they had never seen before; and a multitude of other speeches, as is usual at a siege of a town. After the one and the other had sung, danced and parliamented enough, day broke. My companions and I were always concealed, for fear the enemy should see us preparing our arms the best we could, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes belonging to savage Montagnars. After being equipped with light armor we took each an arquebus and went ashore. I saw the enemy leave their barricade; they were about two hundred men, of strong and robust appearance, who were coming slowly towards us, with a gravity and assurance which greatly pleased me, led on by three chiefs. Ours were marching in similar order, and told me that those who bore three lofty plumes were the chiefs, and that there were but these three and they were to be recognized by those plumes, which were considerable longer than those of their companions, and that I must do all I could to kill them. I promised to do what I could, and that I was very sorry they could not clearly understand me, so as to give them the order and plan of attacking their enemies, as we should undoubtedly defeat them all; but there was no help for that; that I was very glad to encourage them and to manifest to them my good will when we should be engaged.

The moment we landed they began to run about two hundred paces towards their enemies who stood firm, and had not yet perceived my companions who went into the bush with some savages. Ours commenced calling me in a loud voice, and making way for me, opened in two and placed me at their head, marching about twenty paces in advance, till I was within thirty paces of the enemy. The moment they saw me they halted, gazing at me and I at them. When I saw them preparing to shoot at us, I raised my arquebus, and aiming directly at one of the three chiefs, two of them fell to the ground by this shot and one of their companions received a wound of which he died afterwards. I had put four balls in my arquebus. Ours, on witnessing a shot so favorable for them, set up such tremendous shouts that thunder could not be heard: and yet, there was no lack of arrows on one side and the other. The Iroquois were greatly astonished seeing two men killed so instantaneously, notwithstanding they were provided with arrow-proof armor of woven cotton thread and wood. This frightened them very much. Whilst I was re-loading, one of my companions in the bush fired a shot, which so astonished them anew, seeing their chiefs slain, that they lost courage, took to flight and abandoned the field and their fort, hiding themselves in the depths of the forest, whither pursuing I killed some others. Our savages also killed several of them and took ten or twelve prisoners. The rest carried off the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen of ours were wounded by arrows; they were promptly cured.

After having gained the victory they amused themselves plundering Indian corn and meal from the enemy; also their arms which they had thrown away in order to run the better. After having feasted, danced and sung, we returned three hours afterwards with the prisoners.

The place where this battle was fought is in forty-three degrees some minutes latitude, and I named it Lake Champlain.

Authorities differ with regard to the exact location of the scene of this battle, the first of a long series that were to consecrate the locality with the blood of three contending powers. The prevailing opinion has been that it occurred near, if not directly upon, the promontory afterwards occupied by Fort Ticonderoga; but we are inclined to agree with Hon. John Strong, who places it on Sandy Point, directly opposite the town of Addison. After the battle, it is recorded, Champlain and his men retreated across the lake, where they remained until the latter part of the day before continuing their journey. This, if the view suggested be correct, would place them upon Chimney Point, in the southern part of the present town of Addison.

Here it was, then, in Addison county, that the lake which was destined to be the theatre of such great events in the history of our country, was christened; for the wording of Champlain’s journal clearly indicates that it was not until just after this battle that he named the lake, i.e., “The place where the battle was fought is in forty-three degrees some minutes latitude, and I named it Lake Champlain 3 “.

3. The Abenaqui Indians called the lake “Pe-ton-bon-que,” that is, “The Waters that lie Between,” viz., them and the Iroquois. The Iroquois called it “Caniaderi-guar-unte,” that is, “The Lake that is the Gate of the Country.” The Dutch and English called it “Corlear,” after the celebrated Dutchman of Schenectady, who went down the lake in 1665, and was drowned near Fort Cassin.


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