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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Champlain and the Iroquois
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The first permanent French settlement in America, as we have already stated, was made by De Monts in 1605, on the coast of the Bay of Fundy, the settlement being named Port Royal, and the country Acadia. In 1608, De Monts was granted a monopoly of the fur-trade on the St. Lawrence River, and sent out two vessels under Samuel Champlain, who had previously visited that region. Champlain ascended the river to the site of the present city of Quebec, near the place where Cartier had wintered in 1541. The colony he there established was the first permanent French settlement in Canada. The history of this colony under Champlain's management, of the explorations which he made, and of his hostile relations with the Iroquois Indians, is one of the greatest interest, and reads like a page from romance rather than the detail of sober history.

Champlain was one of the most active and earnest explorers the world has ever known. "A true hero, after the chivalrous mediaeval type, his character was dashed largely with the spirit of romance. Earnest, sagacious, penetrating, he yet leaned to the marvellous; and the faith which was the life of his hard career was somewhat prone to overstep the bounds of reason and invade the alluring domain of fancy." In early life he had been seized with a desire to explore those golden realms from which the Spaniards sedulously excluded the people of other European nations. He entered the Spanish service, and made his way to the West Indies and Mexico. He afterwards took part in the Port Royal expedition of De Monts, and explored the New England coast. His enterprising spirit, while of the utmost importance to the success of the Canadian colony, brought the colonists into hostile relations with the powerful Iroquois confederacy of Indians, and started a bitter and unrelenting war through which the settlement was more than once threatened with annihilation.

The colony of Canada had no thought of agriculture. It was distinctively a trading settlement, a condition conducive to adventurous excursions, in which movements Champlain was the leading spirit. It, unlike all other American colonies, entered at once into an alliance, offensive and defensive, with the neighboring Indian tribes, aided them in their wars, and roused the undying enmity of powerful foes. A description of the settlement of Quebec, of Champlain's first excursion with the Indians, of the discovery of the lake which bears his name, and of his first encounter with the Iroquois, may be taken from Parkman's "Pioneers of France in the New World."]

And now, peace being established with the Basques, and the wounded Pontgrave busied, as far as might be, in transferring to the hold of his ship the rich lading of the Indian canoes, Chaplain spread his sails, and once more held his course up the St. Lawrence..

Above the point of the Island of Orleans, a constriction of the vast channel narrows it to a mile: on one hand the green heights of Point Levi; on the other, the cliffs of Quebec. Here a small stream, the St. Charles, enters the St. Lawrence, and in the angle between them rises the promontory, on two sides a natural fortress. Land among the walnut-trees that formed a belt between the cliffs and the St. Lawrence. Climb the steep height, now bearing aloft its ponderous load of churches, convents, dwellings, ramparts, and batteries,--there was an accessible point, a rough passage, gullied downward where Prescott Gate now opens on the Lower Town.. Two centuries and a half have quickened the solitude with swarming life, covered the deep bosom of the river with barge and steamer and gliding sail, and reared cities and villages on the site of forests; but nothing can destroy the surpassing grandeur of the scene..

A few weeks passed, and a pile of wooden buildings rose on the brink of the St. Lawrence, on or near the site of the market-place of the Lower Town of Quebec. The pencil of Champlain, always regardless of proportion and perspective, has preserved its semblance. A strong wooden wall, surmounted by a gallery loop- holed for musketry, enclosed three buildings, containing quarters for himself and his men, together with a court-yard, from one side of which rose a tall dove-cot, like a belfry. A moat surrounded the whole, and two or three small cannon were planted on salient platforms towards the river. There was a large magazine near at hand, and a part of the adjacent ground was laid out as a garden..

It was on the eighteenth of September that Pontgrave set sail, leaving Champlain with twenty-eight men to hold Quebec through the winter. Three weeks later, and shores and hills glowed with gay prognostics of approaching desolation,--the yellow and scarlet of the maples, the deep purple of the ash, the garnet hue of young oaks, the bonfire blaze of the tupelo at the water's edge, and the golden plumage of birch saplings in the fissure of the cliff. It was a short-lived beauty. The forest dropped its festal robes. Shrivelled and faded, they rustled to the earth. The crystal air and laughing sun of October passed away, and November sank upon the shivering waste, chill and sombre as the tomb..

One would gladly know how the founders of Quebec spent the long hours of their first winter; but on this point the only man among them, perhaps, who could write, has not thought it necessary to enlarge. He himself beguiled his leisure with trapping foxes, or hanging a dead dog from a tree and watching the hungry martens in their efforts to reach it. Towards the close of winter, all found abundant employment in nursing themselves or their neighbors, for the inevitable scurvy broke out with virulence. At the middle of May only eight men of the twenty-eight were alive, and of these half were suffering from disease.. Great was the joy of Champlain when he saw a sail-boat rounding the Point of Orleans, betokening that the spring had brought with it the longed-for succors.

[Pontgrave had returned with supplies and emigrants. After a consultation it was decided that he should remain in charge of Quebec while Champlain entered upon his meditated explorations, by which he hoped to find a practicable way to China. It was the same dream of a passage to the Pacific that had animated so many of his predecessors.]

But there was a lion in the path. The Indian tribes, war-hawks of the wilderness, to whom peace was unknown, infested with their scalping-parties the streams and pathways of the forest, increasing tenfold its inseparable risks. That to all these hazards Champlain was more than indifferent, his after-career bears abundant witness; yet now an expedient for evading them offered itself, so consistent with his instincts that he was fain to accept it. Might he not anticipate surprises, join a war-party, and fight his way to discovery?

During the last autumn a young chief from the banks of the then unknown Ottawa had been at Quebec; and, amazed at what he saw, he had begged Champlain to join him in the spring against his enemies. These enemies were a formidable race of savages, the Iroquois, or Five Confederate Nations, dwelling in fortified villages within limits now embraced by the State of New York.

[The Canadian foes of this confederacy were the Hurons, a tribe of their own race, the Algonquins of the St. Lawrence region, and the Montagnais, a less energetic tribe of the same region. With these Indians Champlain joined himself in a projected expedition against their powerful enemies.]

It was past the middle of May, and the expected warriors from the upper country had not come,--a delay which seems to have given Champlain little concern, for, without waiting longer, he set forth with no better allies than a band of Montagnais. But as he moved up the St. Lawrence he saw, thickly clustered in the bordering forest, the lodges of an Indian camp, and, landing, found his Huron and Algonquin allies. Few of them had ever seen a white man. They surrounded the steel-clad strangers in speechless wonderment. Chaplain asked for their chief, and the staring throng moved with him towards a lodge where sat, not one chief, but two, for each band had its own. There were feasting, smoking, speeches; and, the needful ceremony over, all descended together to Quebec; for the strangers were bent on seeing those wonders of architecture whose fame had pierced the recesses of their forests.

[On May 28 the expedition again set out, passing down the St. Lawrence to the "Riviere des Iroquois," since called the Richelieu, or the St. John. Here the warriors encamped for two days, hunted, fished, feasted, and quarrelled, three- fourths of the party seceding, while the rest pursued their course. Champlain outsailed his allies. But he soon found himself in impassable rapids, and was obliged to return. The Indians had lied to him, with the story that his shallop could traverse the river unobstructed.]

But should he abandon the adventure, and forego the discovery of that great lake, studded with islands and bordered with a fertile land of forests, which his red companions had traced in outline and by word and sign had painted to his fancy.. He directed Marais, with the boat and the greater part of the men, to return to Quebec, while he, with two who offered to follow him, should proceed in the Indian canoes.

The warriors lifted their canoes from the water, and in long procession through the forest, under the flickering sun and shade, bore them on their shoulders around the rapids to the smooth stream above. Here the chiefs made a muster of their forces, counting twenty-four canoes and sixty warriors. All embarked again, and advanced once more, by marsh, meadow, forest, and scattered islands, then full of game, for it was an uninhabited land, the warpath and battle-ground of hostile tribes. The warriors observed a certain system in their advance. Some were in front as a vanguard, others formed the main body, while an equal number were in the forests on the flanks and rear, hunting for the subsistence of the whole; for, though they had a provision of parched maize pounded into meal, they kept it for use when, from the vicinity of the enemy, hunting should become impossible.

Late in the day they landed and drew up their canoes, ranging them closely side by side. All was life and bustle. Some stripped sheets of bark, to cover their camp-sheds; others gathered wood,--the forest was full of dead, dry trees; others felled the living trees, for a barricade. They seem to have had steel axes, obtained by barter from the French; for in less than two hours they had made a strong defensive work, a half-circle in form, open on the river side, where their canoes lay on the strand, and large enough to enclose all their huts and sheds. Some of their number had gone forward as scouts, and, returning, reported no signs of an enemy. This was the extent of their precautions, for they placed no guard, but all, in full security, stretched themselves to sleep,- -a vicious custom from which the lazy warrior of the forest rarely departs.

[An important part of the subsequent proceedings was the operation of the medicine-man, who entered his magic lodge and invoked the spirits in mumbling tones, while his dusky audience listened in awe and wonder. Suddenly the lodge rocked with violence to and fro,--as alleged, by the power of the spirits, through Champlain could see the first of the medicine-man shaking the poles. The diviner was now seized with convulsions, and invoked the spirit in an unknown language, while the answer came in squeaking and feeble accents. This mummery over, the chief stuck sticks in the earth in a certain order, each stick representing a warrior and indicating his position in the expected battle. They all gathered round and studied the sticks, then formed, broke, and reformed their ranks with alacrity and skill.]

Again the canoes advanced, the river widening as they went. Great islands appeared, leagues in extent,--Isle a la Motte, Long Island, Grande Isle. Channels where ships might float and broad reaches of expanding water stretched between them, and Champlain entered the lake which preserves his name to posterity. Cumberland Head was passed, and from the opening of the great channel between Grande Isle and the main he could look forth on the wilderness sea. Edged with woods, the tranquil flood spread southward beyond the sight. Far on the left the forest ridges of the Green Mountains were heaved against the sun, patches of snow still glistening on their tops; and on the right rose the Adirondacks, haunts in these later years of amateur sportsmen from counting- rooms or college halls, nay, of adventurous beauty, with sketch-book and pencil. Then the Iroquois made them their hunting-ground; and beyond, in the valleys of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Genesee, stretched the long line of their five cantons and palisaded towns..

The progress of the party was becoming dangerous. They changed their mode of advance, and moved only in the night.. At twilight they embarked again, paddling their cautious way till the eastern sky began to redden. Their goal was the rocky promontory where Fort Ticonderoga was long afterwards built. Thence they would pass the outlet of Lake George, and launch their canoes again on that Como of the wilderness.. Landing at the future site of Fort William Henry, they would carry their canoes through the forest to the river Hudson, and, descending it, attack, perhaps, some outlying town of the Mohawks..

The allies were spared so long a progress. On the morning of the twenty-ninth of July, after paddling all night, they hid as usual in the forest on the western shore, not far from Crown Point. The warriors stretched themselves to their slumbers, and Champlain, after walking for a time through the surrounding woods, returned to take his repose on a pile of spruce boughs..

It was ten o'clock in the evening, when they descried dark objects in motion on the lake before them. These were a flotilla of Iroquois canoes, heavier and slower than theirs, for they were made of oak bark (or more probably elm bark). Each party saw the other, and the mingled war-cries pealed over the darkened water. The Iroquois, who were near the shore, having no stomach for an aquatic battle, landed, and, making night hideous with their clamors, began to barricade themselves. Champlain could see them in the woods laboring like beavers, hacking down trees with iron axes taken from the Canadian tribes in war, and with stone hatchets of their own making. The allies remained on the lake, a bowshot from the hostile barricade, their canoes made fast together by poles lashed across. All night they danced with as much vigor as the frailty of their vessels would permit, their throats making amends for the enforced restraint of their limbs. It was agreed on both sides that the fight should be deferred till daybreak; but meanwhile a commerce of abuse, sarcasm, menace, and boasting gave unceasing exercise to the lungs and fancy of the combatants,--"much," says Champlain, "like the besiegers and besieged in a beleaguered town."

As day approached, he and his two followers put on the light armor of the time. Champlain wore the doublet and long hose then in vogue. Over the doublet he buckled on a breastplate, and probably a back-piece, while his thighs were protected by cuisses of steel, and his head by a plumed casque. Across his shoulder lay the straps of his bandoleer, or ammunition-box; at his side was his sword, and in his hand his arquebuse, which he had loaded with four balls. Such was the equipment of this ancient Indian-fighter, whose exploits date eleven years before the landing of the Puritans at Plymouth, and sixty-six years before King Philip's War.

Each of the three Frenchmen was in a separate canoe, and, as it grew light, they kept themselves hidden, either by lying in the bottom, or covering themselves with an Indian robe. The canoes approached the shore, and all landed without opposition at some distance from the Iroquois, whom they presently could see filing out of their barricade, tall, strong men, some two hundred in number, of the boldest and fiercest warriors of North America. They advanced through the forest with a steadiness which excited the admiration of Champlain. Among them could be seen several chiefs, made conspicuous by their tall plumes. Some bore shields of wood and hide, and some were covered with a kind of armor made of tough twigs interlaced with a vegetable fibre supposed by Champlain to be cotton.

The allies, growing anxious, called with loud cries for their champion, and opened their ranks that he might pass to the front. He did so, and, advancing before his red companions-in-arms, stood revealed to the astonished gaze of the Iroquois, who, beholding the warlike apparition in their path, stared in mute amazement. But his arquebuse was levelled; the report startled the woods, a chief fell dead, and another by his side rolled among the bushes. Then there rose from the allies a yell, which, says Champlain, would have drowned a thunder-clap, and the forest was full of whizzing arrows. For a moment, the Iroquois stood firm and sent back their arrows lustily; but when another and another gunshot came from the thickets on their flank, they broke and fled in uncontrollable terror. Swifter than hounds, the allies tore through the bushes in pursuit. Some of the Iroquois were killed; more were taken. Camp, canoes, provisions, all were abandoned, and many weapons flung down in the panic flight. The arquebuse had done its work. The victory was complete. .

The victors made a prompt retreat from the scene of their triumph. Three or four days brought them to the mouth of the Richelieu. Here they separated; the Hurons and the Algonquins made for the Ottawa, their homeward route, each with a share of prisoners for future torments. At parting they invited Champlain to visit their towns and aid them again in their wars, -- an invitation which this paladin of the woods failed not to accept.

[Thus ended the first Indian battle in the northern United States, the fruitful seed of an abundant crop of future disasters. The subsequent history of Champlain may be rapidly epitomized. In the next year (1610) he took part in another successful war-expedition. In 1611 he founded the city of Montreal. The year 1613 he employed in an exploration of the Ottawa River, deceived by a statement that it led to a great lake which was connected with the North Sea. In 1614 he made another long journey, up the Ottawa, then overland to Lake Huron, and then south, in company with a war-party of Hurons, to the Iroquois country, where an attack was made on a strong fortification. The assault proved a failure. The Iroquois defended themselves valiantly, and finally drove off their foes, Champlain being twice wounded. In 1629, twenty years after the settlement of Quebec, it contained less than a hundred persons, and these the prey of a severe famine, from whose consequences they were saved only by a surrender of the place to the English, then at war with France. At the end of the war it was restored to France. The history of Canada during the remainder of the century is largely made up of the revenge taken by the Iroquois for their earlier disasters. Their dreaded foe, Champlain, died in 1635. He had aided in making a treaty of peace between the Hurons and the Iroquois in 1622, but in 1648 the latter broke the truce, and suddenly fell upon the French and their allies, slaughtering the whites without distinction of sex or age, and causing a complete dispersal of the Hurons, who ceased to exist as a separate tribe. For years afterwards the Iroquois remained lords of the situation, keeping the French shut up in their fortified posts, while their allies were left without succor. The Algonquins were dispersed, the Eries obliterated, and the war ended in 1672, after more than twenty years' duration, in the conquest of the Andastes, a powerful Huron tribe. In 1687 the war was renewed, through a treacherous act of Denonville, the Canadian governor, and in the succeeding year the Iroquois made a descent on the Island of Montreal, which they laid waste, and carried off two hundred prisoners. This brings us to the era of war between the French and the English, in which the services of the Indians were freely called into requisition, and desolating raids and massacres abounded.]

Francis Parkman

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