The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | United States/Before 1800 | Part 2: Chapter XI

21: Part 2: Chapter XI

<< 20: Part 2: Chapter X || 22: Part 2: Chapter XII >>

Champlain and Pontgrave returned to France, while Pierre Chauvin of Dieppe held Quebec in their absence. The King was at Fontainebleau,—it was a few months before his assassination,—and here Champlain recounted his adventures, to the great satisfaction of the lively monarch. He gave him also, not the head of the dead Iroquois, but a belt wrought in embroidery of dyed quills of the Canada porcupine, together with two small birds of scarlet plumage, and the skull of a gar-fish.

De Monts was at court, striving for a renewal of his monopoly. His efforts failed; on which, with great spirit but little discretion, he resolved to push his enterprise without it. Early in the spring of 1610, the ship was ready, and Champlain and Pontgrave were on board, when a violent illness seized the former, reducing him to the most miserable of all conflicts, the battle of the eager spirit against the treacherous and failing flesh. Having partially recovered, he put to sea, giddy and weak, in wretched plight for the hard career of toil and battle which the New World offered him. The voyage was prosperous, no other mishap occurring than that of an ardent youth of St. Malo, who drank the health of Pontgrave with such persistent enthusiasm that he fell overboard and was drowned.

There were ships at Tadoussac, fast loading with furs; and boats, too, higher up the river, anticipating the trade, and draining De Monts's resources in advance. Champlain, who was left free to fight and explore wherever he should see fit, had provided, to use his own phrase, "two strings to his bow." On the one hand, the Montagnais had promised to guide him northward to Hudson's Bay; on the other, the Hurons were to show him the Great Lakes, with the mines of copper on their shores; and to each the same reward was promised,—to join them against the common foe, the Iroquois. The rendezvous was at the mouth of the river Richelien. Thither the Hurons were to descend in force, together with Algonquins of the Ottawa; and thither Champlain now repaired, while around his boat swarmed a multitude of Montagnais canoes, filled with warriors whose lank hair streamed loose in the wind.

There is an island in the St. Lawrence near the mouth of the Richelien. On the nineteenth of June it was swarming with busy and clamorous savages, Champlain's Montagnais allies, cutting down the trees and clearing the ground for a dance and a feast; for they were hourly expecting the Algonquin warriors, and were eager to welcome them with befitting honors. But suddenly, far out on the river, they saw an advancing canoe. Now on this side, now on that, the flashing paddles urged it forward as if death were on its track; and as it drew near, the Indians on board cried out that the Algonquins were in the forest, a league distant, engaged with a hundred warriors of the Iroquois, who, outnumbered, were fighting savagely within a barricade of trees. The air was split with shrill outcries. The Montagnais snatched their weapons,—shields, bows, arrows, war-clubs, sword-blades made fast to poles,—and ran headlong to their canoes, impeding each other in their haste, screeching to Champlain to follow, and invoking with no less vehemence the aid of certain fur-traders, just arrived in four boats from below. These, as it was not their cue to fight, lent them a deaf ear; on which, in disgust and scorn, they paddled off, calling to the recusants that they were women, fit for nothing but to make war on beaver-skins.

Champlain and four of his men were in the canoes. They shot across the intervening water, and, as their prows grated on the pebbles, each warrior flung down his paddle, snatched his weapons, and ran into the woods. The five Frenchmen followed, striving vainly to keep pace with the naked, light-limbed rabble, bounding like shadows through the forest. They quickly disappeared. Even their shrill cries grew faint, till Champlain and his men, discomforted and vexed, found themselves deserted in the midst of a swamp. The day was sultry, the forest air heavy, close, and filled with hosts of mosquitoes, "so thick," says the chief sufferer, "that we could scarcely draw breath, and it was wonderful how cruelly they persecuted us." Through black mud, spongy moss, water knee-deep, over fallen trees, among slimy logs and entangling roots, tripped by vines, lashed by recoiling boughs, panting under their steel head-pieces and heavy corselets, the Frenchmen struggled on, bewildered and indignant. At length they descried two Indians running in the distance, and shouted to them in desperation, that, if they wanted their aid, they must guide them to the enemy.

At length they could hear the yells of the combatants; there was light in the forest before them, and they issued into a partial clearing made by the Iroquois axemen near the river. Champlain saw their barricade. Trees were piled into a circular breastwork, trunks, boughs, and matted foliage forming a strong defence, within which the Iroquois stood savagely at bay. Around them flocked the allies, half hidden in the edges of the forest, like hounds around a wild boar, eager, clamorous, yet afraid to rush in. They had attacked, and had met a bloody rebuff. All their hope was now in the French; and when they saw them, a yell arose from hundreds of throats that outdid the wilderness voices whence its tones were borrowed,—the whoop of the homed owl, the scream of the cougar, the howl of starved wolves on a winter night. A fierce response pealed from the desperate band within; and, amid a storm of arrows from both sides, the Frenchmen threw themselves into the fray, firing at random through the fence of trunks, boughs, and drooping leaves, with which the Iroquois had encircled themselves. Champlain felt a stone-headed arrow splitting his ear and tearing through the muscles of his neck. he drew it out, and, the moment after, did a similar office for one of his men. But the Iroquois had not recovered from their first terror at the arquebuse; and when the mysterious and terrible assailants, clad in steel and armed with thunder-bolts, ran up to the barricade, thrust their pieces through the openings, and shot death among the crowd within, they could not control their fright, but with every report threw themselves flat on the ground. Animated with unwonted valor, the allies, covered by their large shields, began to drag out the felled trees of the barricade, while others, under Champlain's direction, gathered at the edge of the forest, preparing to close the affair with a final rush. New actors soon appeared on the scene. These were a boat's crew of the fur-traders under a young man of St. Malo, one Des Prairies, who, when he heard the firing, could not resist the impulse to join the fight. On seeing them, Champlain checked the assault, in order, as he says, that the new-comers might have their share in the sport. The traders opened fire, with great zest and no less execution; while the Iroquois, now wild with terror, leaped and writhed to dodge the shot which tore through their frail armor of twigs. Champlain gave the signal; the crowd ran to the barricade, dragged down the boughs or clambered over them, and bore themselves, in his own words, "so well and manfully," that, though scratched and torn by the sharp points, they quickly forced an entrance. The French ceased their fire, and, followed by a smaller body of Indians, scaled the barricade on the farther side. Now, amid howlings, shouts, and screeches, the work was finished. Some of the Iroquois were cut down as they stood, hewing with their war-clubs, and foaming like slaughtered tigers; some climbed the barrier and were killed by the furious crowd without; some were drowned in the river; while fifteen, the only survivors, were made prisoners. "By the grace of God," writes Champlain, "behold the battle won!" Drunk with ferocious ecstasy, the conquerors scalped the dead and gathered fagots for the living; while some of the fur-traders, too late to bear part in the fight, robbed the carcasses of their blood-bedrenched robes of beaver-skin amid the derision of the surrounding Indians.

That night, the torture fires blazed along the shore. Champlain saved one prisoner from their clutches, but nothing could save the rest. One body was quartered and eaten.(31) "As for the rest of the prisoners," says Champlain, "they were kept to be put to death by the women and girls, who in this respect are no less inhuman than the men, and, indeed, much more so; for by their subtlety they invent more cruel tortures, and take pleasure in it."

On the next day, a large band of Hurons appeared at the rendezvous, greatly vexed that they had come too late. The shores were thickly studded with Indian huts, and the woods were full of them. Here were warriors of three designations, including many subordinate tribes, and representing three grades of savage society,—the Hurons, the Algonquins of the Ottawa, and the Montagnais; afterwards styled by a Franciscan friar, than whom few men better knew them, the nobles, the burghers, and the peasantry and paupers of the forest. Many of them, from the remote interior, had never before seen a white man; and, wrapped like statues in their robes, they stood gazing on the French with a fixed stare of wild and wondering eyes.

Judged by the standard of Indian war, a heavy blow had been struck on the common enemy. Here were hundreds of assembled warriors; yet none thought of following up their success. Elated with unexpected fortune, they danced and sang; then loaded their canoes, hung their scalps on poles, broke up their camps, and set out triumphant for their homes. Champlain had fought their battles, and now might claim, on their part, guidance and escort to the distant interior. Why he did not do so is scarcely apparent. There were cares, it seems, connected with the very life of his puny colony, which demanded his return to France. Nor were his anxieties lessened by the arrival of a ship from his native town of Brouage, with tidings of the King's assassination. Here was a death-blow to all that had remained of De Monts's credit at court; while that unfortunate nobleman, like his old associate, Pontrincourt, was moving with swift strides toward financial ruin. With the revocation of his monopoly, fur-traders had swarmed to the St. Lawrence. Tadoussac was full of them, and for that year the trade was spoiled. Far from aiding to support a burdensome enterprise of colonization, it was in itself an occasion of heavy loss.

Champlain bade farewell to his garden at Quebec, where maize, wheat, rye, and barley, with vegetables of all kinds, and a small vineyard of native grapes,—for he was a zealous horticulturist,—held forth a promise which he was not to see fulfilled. He left one Du Parc in command, with sixteen men, and, sailing on the eighth of August, arrived at Honfleur with no worse accident than that of running over a sleeping whale near the Grand Bank.

With the opening spring he was afloat again. Perils awaited him worse than those of Iroquois tomahawks; for, approaching Newfoundland, the ship was entangled for days among drifting fields and bergs of ice. Escaping at length, she arrived at Tadoussac on the thirteenth of May, 1611. She had anticipated the spring. Forests and mountains, far and near, all were white with snow. A principal object with Champlain was to establish such relations with the great Indian communities of the interior as to secure to De Monts and his associates the advantage of trade with them; and to this end he now repaired to Montreal, a position in the gateway, as it were, of their yearly descents of trade or war. On arriving, he began to survey the ground for the site of a permanent post.

A few days convinced him, that, under the present system, all his efforts would be vain. Wild reports of the wonders of New France had gone abroad, and a crowd of hungry adventurers had hastened to the land of promise, eager to grow rich, they scarcely knew how, and soon to return disgusted. A fleet of boats and small vessels followed in Champlain's wake. Within a few days, thirteen of them arrived at Montreal, and more soon appeared. He was to break the ground; others would reap the harvest. Travel, discovery, and battle, all must inure to the profit, not of the colony, but of a crew of greedy traders.

Champlain, however, chose the site and cleared the ground for his intended post. It was immediately above a small stream, now running under arches of masonry, and entering the St. Lawrence at Point Callieres, within the modern city. He called it Place Royale; and here, on the margin of the river, he built a wall of bricks made on the spot, in order to measure the destructive effects of the "ice-shove" in the spring.

Now, down the surges of St. Louis, where the mighty floods of the St. Lawrence, contracted to a narrow throat, roll in fury among their sunken rocks,—here, through foam and spray and the roar of the angry torrent, a fleet of birch canoes came dancing like dry leaves on the froth of some riotous brook. They bore a band of Hurons first at the rendezvous. As they drew near the landing, all the fur-traders' boats blazed out a clattering fusillade, which was designed to bid them welcome, but in fact terrified many of them to such a degree that they scarcely dared to come ashore. Nor were they reassured by the bearing of the disorderly crowd, who, in jealous competition for their beaver-skins, left them not a moment's peace, and outraged all their notions of decorum. More soon appeared, till hundreds of warriors were encamped along the shore, all restless, suspicious, and alarmed. Late one night they awakened Champlain. On going with them to their camp, he found chiefs and warriors in solemn conclave around the glimmering firelight. Though they were fearful of the rest, their trust in him was boundless. "Come to our country, buy our beaver, build a fort, teach us the true faith, do what you will, but do not bring this crowd with you." The idea had seized them that these lawless bands of rival traders, all well armed, meant to plunder and kill them. Champlain assured them of safety, and the whole night was consumed in friendly colloquy. Soon afterward, however, the camp broke up, and the uneasy warriors removed to the borders of the Lake of St. Louis, placing the rapids betwixt themselves and the objects of their alarm. Here Champlain visited them, and hence these intrepid canoe-men, kneeling in their birchen egg-shells, carried him homeward down the rapids, somewhat, as he admits, to the discomposure of his nerves.(32)

The great gathering dispersed: the traders descended to Tadoussac, and Champlain to Quebec; while the Indians went, some to their homes, some to fight the Iroquois. A few months later, Champlain was in close conference with De Monts at Pons, a place near Rochelle, of which the latter was governor. The last two years had made it apparent, that, to keep the colony alive and maintain a basis for those discoveries on which his heart was bent, was impossible without a change of system. De Monts, engrossed with the cares of his government, placed all in the hands of his associate; and Champlain, fully empowered to act as he should judge expedient, set out for Paris. On the way, Fortune, at one stroke, wellnigh crushed him and New France together; for his horse fell on him, and he narrowly escaped with life. When he was partially recovered, he resumed his journey, pondering on means of rescue for the fading colony. A powerful protector must be had,—a great name to shield the enterprise from assaults and intrigues of jealous rival interests. On reaching Paris he addressed himself to a prince of the blood, Charles de Bourbon, Comte de Soissons; described New France, its resources, and its boundless extent; urged the need of unfolding a mystery pregnant perhaps with results of the deepest moment; laid before him maps and memoirs, and begged him to become the guardian of this new world. The royal consent being obtained, the Comte de Soissons became Lieutenant-General for the King in New France, with vice-regal powers. These, in turn, he conferred upon Champlain, making him his lieutenant, with full control over the trade in furs at and above Quebec, and with power to associate with himself such persons as he saw fit, to aid in the exploration and settlement of the country.

Scarcely was the commission drawn when the Comte de Soissons, attacked with fever, died,—to the joy of the Breton and Norman traders, whose jubilation, however, found a speedy end. Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, first prince of the blood, assumed the vacant protectorship. He was grandson of the gay and gallant Conde of the civil wars, was father of the great Conde, the youthful victor of Rocroy, and was husband of Charlotte de Moutmorency, whose blond beauties had fired the inflammable heart of Henry the Fourth. To the unspeakable wrath of that keen lover, the prudent Conde fled with his bride, first to Brussels, and then to Italy; nor did he return to France till the regicide's knife had put his jealous fears to rest. After his return, he began to intrigue against the court. He was a man of common abilities, greedy of money and power, and scarcely seeking even the decency of a pretext to cover his mean ambition. His chief honor—an honor somewhat equivocal—is, as Voltaire observes, to have been father of the great Conde. Busy with his intrigues, he cared little for colonies and discoveries; and his rank and power were his sole qualifications for his new post.

In Champlain alone was the life of New France. By instinct and temperament he was more impelled to the adventurous toils of exploration than to the duller task of building colonies. The profits of trade had value in his eyes only as means to these ends, and settlements were important chiefly as a base of discovery. Two great objects eclipsed all others,—to find a route to the Indies, and to bring the heathen tribes into the embraces of the Church, since, while he cared little for their bodies, his solicitude for their souls knew no bounds.

It was no part of his plan to establish an odious monopoly. He sought rather to enlist the rival traders in his cause; and he now, in concurrence with Du Monts, invited them to become sharers in the traffic, under certain regulations, and on condition of aiding in the establishment and support of the colony. The merchants of St. Malo and Rouen accepted the terms, and became members of the new company; but the intractable heretics of Rochelle, refractory in commerce as in religion, kept aloof, and preferred the chances of an illicit trade. The prospects of New France were far from flattering; for little could be hoped from this unwilling league of selfish traders, each jealous of the rest. They gave the Prince of Conde large gratuities to secure his countenance and support. The hungry viceroy took them, and with these emoluments his interest in the colony ended.


(31)The first white man to descend the rapids of St. Louis was a youth named Louis, who, on the 10th of June, 1611, went with two Indians to shoot herons on an island, and was drowned on the way down; the second was a young man who in the summer before had gone with the Hurons to their country, and who returned with them on the 18th of June; the third was Champlain himself.

(32) Wampum was a sort of beads, of several colors, made originally by the Indians from the inner portion of certain shells, and afterwards by the French of porcelain and glass. It served a treble purpose,—that of currency, decoration, and record, wrought into belts of various devices, each having its significance, it preserved the substance of treaties and compacts from generation to generation.

<< 20: Part 2: Chapter X || 22: Part 2: Chapter XII >>