Samuel de Champlain

The year 1603 was signalized by the initiatory steps that resulted in the final settlement of the French in the region of the St. Lawrence. M. Aylmer de Chastes, governor of Dieppe, stimulated by the commercial success that had followed the efforts of Chauvin and others, obtained a charter to establish settlements in New France, and organized a company of Rouen merchants, the existence of which becomes of paramount historic importance as having introduced to the field of his later great work Samuel de Champlain, discoverer of the lakes and the territory of which this history treats, and the real founder of New France, as well as the most illustrious of those who guided its destinies.

“Champlain was born in 1567, at Brouage, a seaport situated on the Bay of Biscay. Addicted to an intercourse with the sea by the associations of his boyhood, near the most tempestuous waters of western Europe, he gratified his instincts by a connection at an early age with the Royal Marine of his native country. Although a Catholic by birth and sentiment, he followed in the civil wars of France the banner of Navarre. When that cause had triumphed he received a pension from the gratitude of his liberal but impoverished leader. Too active and ardent to indulge in the relaxations of peace, he conceived the design of a personal exploration of the colonial possessions of Spain, and to thus obtain a knowledge of their condition and resources, which was studiously veiled from the world by the jealous policy of that government. His scheme was sanctioned by the wise and sagacious head of the French administration. Through the influence of a relative in that service Champlain secured the command of a ship in the Spanish West India fleet. This singular position, not, perhaps, in perfect accordance with modern conceptions of professional honor, occupied two years, and when he returned to France his mind was stored with the most valuable information, and his journal, laded with the results of the keen observation of the regions he had visited, was quaintly illustrated by his uncultivated pencil 1.”

Champlain must have been born with the uncontrollable instinct of investigation and desire for knowledge of the material world that has always marked the great explorers. He made a voyage (1599), landed at Vera Cruz, penetrated to the city of Mexico and visited Panama. More, his journal shows that he conceived the idea of a ship canal across the isthmus by which “the voyage to the South Sea might be shortened by more than fifteen hundred leagues.”

At the request of De Chastes, Champlain was commissioned by the king lieutenant-general of Canada (a name derived, it is supposed, “from the Huron word Kan-na-ta, signifying a collection of cabins, such as Hochelaga.”2). He sailed from the port of Honfleur in March, 1603, in a single vessel, commanded by a skilled navigator named Pont-Grevé.

They arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence some time in May, and ascended the river as far as Stadacona, where they anchored. From this point Champlain sent Pont-Grevé upon an expedition up the river to above the Lachine Rapids. At Hochelaga he found, instead of the palisaded city described by Cartier, nothing indicating that the locality had ever been thickly populated. A few scattered bodies of Indians, of a different nation from those met by Cartier, who evinced the greatest wonder and interest in the new-comers, were all that he saw. These natives gave Pont-Grevé much information relative to the regions of the south and west, and other intelligence of a nature to fill the mind of the explorer with the wildest dreams of conquest and empire.

Without enacting more extended measures towards colonization and settlement than making a few brief expeditions of exploration, Champlain in the autumn returned to France; he found that in his absence his patron, De Chastes, had died, and that the concessions and privileges of the latter had been transferred to M. Pierre de Gast, the Sieur de Monts. Though a Protestant, the latter had secured additional favors from the royal hand, covering broad commercial rights, with vice-regal authority over a section of the new country extending from Philadelphia, or its site, on the south, to the forty-sixth parallel on the north, and from the sea shore on the east to an indefinite limit on the west.

Again, in the spring of 1604, Champlain sailed with four vessels, bringing with him a number of people intended to colonize the grants. They landed first at Nova Scotia, and remained there long enough to establish the beginning of a settlement, and, towards autumn, De Monts returned to France and left Champlain to explore the coast to the south as far as his grant extended. Champlain remained for some time at this point, pushing forward his settlement, and exploring the surrounding country, carrying out his employer’s instructions to the extent of sailing along the coast as far south as Cape Cod. In 1607 he returned to France.

Expressing to De Monts his belief that the better site for establishing the seat of the proposed new empire would be a point on the St. Lawrence River, some distance from the sea coast, he was sent with Pont-Grevé and a number of colonists, in 1608, to Stadacona, and there founded Quebec (a name of Indian derivation). There houses were built and agricultural operations begun.

Thus came the first white man upon the soil of the territory of which we write, and thus, from the 30th day of July, 1609, dates the period of its history. Previous to this date there is not even the uncertainties of tradition to tell us of its aboriginal occupants-though it undoubtedly did have at one time an Indian population, while the course of Otter Creek was from time immemorial, according to Indian tradition, a favorite pathway of travel. Champlain found the northern Indians, or the Montagners, engaged in a bloody war with the powerful Iroquois, and hence he says of the country bordering the lake: “These parts, though agreeable, are not inhabited by any Indians in consequence of their wars.” How long these wars had been in progress it is impossible to state with any degree of accuracy; but certainly for a generation or more. The Algonquins, though the most numerous, lacked the strength of unity, their population being spread over so large an amount of territory, and they were thus generally getting the worst of the contest. It is little wonder then that they hailed with delight this new weapon which the white men brought, armed with which they could, for a time, win victory on any field.

Previous to the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy each of the five nations composing it was divided into five tribes. When the union was established, each tribe transferred one-fifth of its members to every other nation than its own. The several tribes thus formed were named as follows: Tortoise, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Potato, Snipe, Heron. The Snipe and Heron correspond with the Great and Little Plover, and the Hawk with the Eagle of the early French writers. Some authors of repute omit the name of the Potato tribe altogether. These tribes were formed into two divisions, the second subordinate to the first, which was composed of the four first named. Each tribe constituted what may be called a family, and its members, who were all considered brothers and sisters, were also brothers and sisters of the members of all the other tribes having the same device. It will be seen that an indissoluble bond was thus formed by the ties of consanguinity, which was still further strengthened by the marriage relation. It was held to be an abomination for two persons of the same tribe to intermarry; every individual family must therefore contain members from at least two tribes. The child belonged to the tribe, or clan, of the mother, not to the father, and all rank, titles and possessions passed through the female line. The chief was almost invariably succeeded by a near relative, and always on the female side; but if these were unfit, then a council of the tribe chose a successor from among remoter kindred, in which case he was nominated by the matron of the late chief’s household. The choice was never made adverse to popular will. Chiefs and sachems held their offices only through courteous, winning behavior and their general good qualities and good conduct. There was another council of a popular character, in which any one took part whose age and experience qualified him to do so; it was merely the gathered wisdom of the nation. The young warriors also had their council; so, too, did the women. All the government of this “remarkable example of an almost pure democracy in government3 ” was exercised through councils, which were represented by deputies in the councils of the sachems. In this peculiar blending of individual, tribal, national and federal interests lies the secret of that immense power which for more than a century resisted the hostile efforts of the French; which caused them for nearly a century to be alike courted and feared by the contending French and English colonies, and enabled them to exterminate or subdue their neighboring Indian nations, until they were substantially dictators of the continent, gaining them the title of “The Romans of the New World.”

While the Iroquois Indians were superior in mental capacity and less improvident than the Algonquins and other nations, there is little indication that they were ever inclined to improve the conditions in which they were found by the Europeans. They were closely attached to their warrior and hunter life; hospitable to friends, but ferocious and cruel to their enemies; of no mean mental capacity, but devoting their energies to the lower, if not the lowest forms of enjoyment and animal gratification; they had little regard for the marriage tie, and lasciviousness and unchastity were the rule; their dwellings, even among the more stationary tribes, were rude, their food gross and poor, and their domestic habits and surroundings unclean and barbaric; their dress was ordinarily of skins of animals, until the advent of the whites, and was primitive in character; woman was degraded into a mere beast of burden; while they believed in a supreme being, they were powerfully swayed by superstition, incantations by “medicine men,” dreams and the like; their feasts were exhibitions of debauchery and gluttony.

Evidences of an Indian occupation are occasionally met with in the county even at this late day, as the plow sometimes turns up relics in the form of spear and arrow-heads, stone axes, etc. These relics have been found in large quantities along the borders of the lake, Otter Creek, Lemon Fair and other streams, and among them specimens of pottery and domestic implements. Upon the Cutts farm, on the lake shore in Orwell, there is a place where they manufactured their arrow-heads from a kind of flinty stone obtained in the vicinity. Large piles of the fragments produced in working out these arrow-heads are yet to be seen. Another manufactory of these implements may be seen on Mount Independence 4. An interesting specimen of their pottery was unearthed in Middlebury in 1820. It is an urn or pot capable of holding about twenty quarts, and appears to have been made from pulverized granite and clay, baked but unglazed.

Some of the tribes composing the confederacy of the Iroquois emigrated to Canada at an early day, allying with the French in their war against the British. These Indians have repeatedly, even up to a comparatively recent date, presented claims against Vermont for lands lying along the eastern shore of the lake. In 1798 the Legislature met at Vergennes, and during its session was waited upon by a committee of Indians bearing a petition signed by twenty chiefs, representing, as they said, “the seven nations of Lower Canada Indians.” This petition, setting forth their grievances, asked for $89,600 in restitution for “all that tract of land lying northerly of a straight line from Ticonderoga to the great falls of Otter Creek [Sutherland Falls], from thence to be continued to the top of the Green Mountains, thence along said mountains which divide the water that runs into the Connecticut River and the water that flows into Lake Champlain and Mississquoi River, to the latitude of forty-five degrees.” Among the tribes represented were the Abenaquis and Cognahwaghahs. The latter originally formed a part of the Mohawks, but revolted from that tribe, joined the French, and settled at the Sault St. Louis, above Montreal. If they had any claim it must have been under the Iroquois title; while the Abenaquis “claimed under the title of that nation who once inhabited the whole country east of Lake Champlain, south of the St. Lawrence, and embracing the northern part of New England. This would seem to favor the idea that the Iroquois-as Champlain represents when he discovered the lake- might then have occupied the country on its eastern border. If so, the Abenaquis must have gained possession of it, and occupied it afterwards, until they joined their brethren at St. Francis 5”. The subject of the petition was referred to a committee, who reported that the lands claimed had, in their opinion, formerly belonged to said Indians, but whether their title had ever been extinguished by purchase, conquest, dereliction of occupancy, or in any other way, they could not ascertain. The Legislature supported the Indian agents during their attendance, gave them a hundred dollars in token of friendship, and they returned to their tribes well pleased with their success, and hoping to succeed still better another season.

It is like a pathetic page from a romance to read, in Champlain’s journal, that “the Iroquois were greatly astonished, seeing two men killed so instantaneously,” one of whom was their noble chief; while the ingenuous acknowledgment of Champlain, “I had put four balls in my arquebus,” is a vivid testimony of how little mercy the Iroquois nations were to expect thenceforth from their northern enemies and the pale-faced race who were eventually to drive them from their domain. Still, however, if the Indians were dumbfounded when they witnessed for the first time the deadly effect of firearms, Champlain and his two companions were equally surprised by the fiendish cruelties inflicted by the Indian warriors upon their prisoners. “After proceeding about eight leagues down the lake,” says Dr. Fitch in his history of Washington county, N. Y., ” they landed after nightfall, and taking one of the prisoners, made a speech to him, upbraiding him with the barbarities which he and his people had perpetrated in the war, without showing mercy in any instance, and informing him that it would now devolve on him to submit to the same destiny. They then told him to sing if he had any courage; this he commenced doing, but in the most sad and dolorous tones. A fire had been previously kindled, and was now burning briskly. Each Indian took from it a brand, and commenced burning the skin of the poor creature, a little at a time, to make him suffer longer torment. Remitting this at times, they would then throw him on his back in the water. Afterward pulling off his finger-nails, they put hot ashes on the ends of his fingers. Next they tore the scalp from the top of his head and then dropped melted pitch upon the naked skull. They then pierced holes through his arms near the wrists, and with sticks drew out therefrom the sinews and nerves, forcibly pulling on them until they were rent asunder. Strange cries at times were uttered by this miserable creature; yet, during the whole of the horrid performance, he was so firm and unshaken that one would have said he did not feel any pain. The Indians urged Champlain to take a firebrand and join them in their employment. But he remonstrated with them, telling them he was unused to such cruelties — that his people only shot at their enemies with their guns, and if they would only permit him to have one shot at the captive with his arquebus it was all he would ask. They would not consent to this, and, unable to longer endure the sight, he turned away with disgust. Perceiving his disquietude they called him back, telling him to do as he had desired. He thereupon discharged his arquebus at the sufferer with such effect that, as Charlevoix intimates in describing this scene, he had no occasion for desiring a second shot. Even now that their victim was dead they were not satisfied, but, ripping him open, they threw his entrails into the lake, and then cut off his head, arms and legs, preserving only his scalp, which they added to the number they had taken from those who had been killed in the battle. More atrocious still, they took his heart, and cutting it into a number of slices, gave a piece to one of his own brothers, and to each of the other prisoners, ordering them to eat it. These put it into their mouths, but were unable to swallow it; whereupon some of the Algonquin Indians who guarded the prisoners allowed them to spit out the whole and throw it into the water.”


1. Watson’s Essex County

2. Lossing.

3. Lossing.

4. History of Orwell, by Hon. Rosewell Bottum

5. See William’s History of Vermont, ll, 282, 290.

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