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Champlain at Quebec

From the Island of Orleans to Quebec the distance is a league. I arrived there on the third of July, when I searched for a place suitable for our settlement, but I could find none more convenient or better than the point of Quebec, so called by the savages, which was covered with nut-trees. I at once employed a portion of our workmen in cutting them down, that we might construct our habitation there: one I set to sawing boards, another to making a cellar and digging ditches, another I sent to Tadoussac with the barque to get supplies. The first thing we made was the storehouse for keeping under cover our supplies, which was promptly accomplished through the zeal of all, and my attention to the work.

Thus opens Champlain's account of the place with which his name is linked imperishably. He was the founder of Quebec and its preserver. During his lifetime the results seemed pitifully small, but the task once undertaken was never abandoned. By steadfastness he prevailed, and at his death had created a colony which became the New France of Talon and Frontenac, of La Salle and D'Iberville, of Brebeuf and Laval. If Venice from amid her lagoons could exclaim, Esto perpetua, Quebec, firm based upon her cliff, can say to the rest of Canada, Attendite ad petram unde excisi estis--'Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn.'

Champlain's Quebec was very poor in everything but courage. The fact that it was founded by the men who had just failed in Acadia gives proof of this virtue. Immediately upon his return from Port Royal to France, Champlain showed De Monts a map and plan which embodied the result of his explorations during the last three years. They then took counsel regarding the future, and with Champlain's encouragement De Monts 'resolved to continue his noble and meritorious undertaking, notwithstanding the hardships and labors of the past.' It is significant that once more Champlain names exploration as the distinctive purpose of De Monts.

To expect a subsidy from the crown was futile, but Henry felt compunction for his abrupt recall of the monopoly. The result was that De Monts, in recognition of his losses, was given a further monopoly--for the season of 1608 only. At the same time, he was expressly relieved from the obligation to take out colonists. On this basis De Monts found partners among the merchants of Rouen, and three ships were fitted out--one for Acadia, the others for the St Lawrence. Champlain, as lieutenant, was placed in charge of the Laurentian expedition. With him went the experienced and invaluable Pontgrave.

Nearly seventy-five years had now passed since Jacques Cartier first came to anchor at the foot of Cape Diamond. During this period no one had challenged the title of France to the shores of the St Lawrence; in fact, a country so desolate made no appeal to the French themselves. Roberval's tragic experience at Cap Rouge had proved a warning. To the average Frenchman of the sixteenth century Canada meant what it afterwards meant to Sully and Voltaire. It was a tract of snow; a land of barbarians, bears, and beavers.

The development of the fur trade into a staple industry changed this point of view to a limited extent. The government, as we have seen, considered it desirable that colonists should be established in New France at the expense of traders. For the St Lawrence, however, the first and only fruits of this enlightened policy had been Chauvin's sixteen derelicts at Tadoussac.

The founding of Quebec represents private enterprise, and not an expenditure of money by Henry IV for the sake of promoting colonization. De Monts and Champlain were determined to give France a foothold in America. The rights upon which the venture of 1608 was financed did not run beyond the year. Thenceforth trade was to be free. It follows that De Monts and his partners, in building a station at Quebec, did not rely for their expenses upon any special favors from the crown. They placed their reliance upon themselves, feeling confident of their power to hold a fair share of the trade against all comers. For Champlain Quebec was a fixed point on the way to the Orient. For De Monts it was a key to the commerce of the great river. None of his rivals would begin the season of 1609 with a permanent post in Canada. Thus part of the anticipated profits for 1608 was invested to secure an advantage in the approaching competition. The whole success of the plan depended upon the mutual confidence of De Monts and Champlain, both of whom unselfishly sought the advancement of French interests in America--De Monts, the courageous capitalist and promoter; Champlain, the explorer whose discoveries were sure to enlarge the area of trading operations.

Pontgrave sailed from Honfleur on April 5, 1608. Champlain followed eight days later, reaching Tadoussac at the beginning of June. Here trouble awaited him. The Basque traders, who always defied the monopoly, had set upon Pontgrave with cannon and muskets, killing one man and severely wounding two others, besides himself. Going ashore, Champlain found Pontgrave very ill and the Basques in full possession. To fight was to run the risk of ruining De Monts' whole enterprise, and as the Basques were alarmed at what they had done, Darache, their captain, signed an agreement that he would not molest Pontgrave or do anything prejudicial to the rights of De Monts. This basis of compromise makes it clear that Pontgrave was in charge of the season's trade, while Champlain's personal concern was to found the settlement.

An unpleasant dispute was thus adjusted, but the incident had a still more unpleasant sequel. Leaving Tadoussac on June 30, Champlain reached Quebec in four days, and at once began to erect his storehouse. A few days later he stood in grave peril of his life through conspiracy among his own men.

The ringleader was a locksmith named Jean Duval, who had been at Port Royal and narrowly escaped death from the arrows of the Cape Cod Indians. Whether he framed his plot in collusion with the Basques is not quite clear, but it seems unlikely that he should have gone so far as he did without some encouragement. His plan was simply to kill Champlain and deliver Quebec to the Basques in return for a rich reward, either promised or expected. Some of the men he had no chance to corrupt, for they were aboard the barques, guarding stores till a shelter could be built. Working among the rest, Duval 'suborned four of the worst characters, as he supposed, telling them a thousand falsehoods and presenting to them prospects of acquiring riches.' The evidence subsequently showed that Champlain was either to be strangled when unarmed, or shot at night as he answered to a false alarm. The conspirators made a mutual promise not to betray each other, on penalty that the first who opened his mouth should be poniarded.

Out of this deadly danger Champlain escaped through the confession of a vacillating spirit named Natel, who regretted his share in the plot, but, once involved, had fears of the poniard. Finally he confessed to Testu, the pilot, who immediately informed Champlain. Questioned as to the motive, Natel replied that 'nothing had impelled them, except that they had imagined that by giving up the place into the hands of the Basques or Spaniards they might all become rich, and that they did not want to go back to France.' Duval, with five others, was then seized and taken to Tadoussac. Later in the summer Pontgrave brought the prisoners back to Quebec, where evidence was taken before a court-martial consisting of Champlain, Pontgrave, a captain, a surgeon, a first mate, a second mate, and some sailors. The sentence condemned four to death, of whom three were afterwards sent to France and put at the discretion of De Monts. Duval was 'strangled and hung at Quebec, and his head was put on the end of a pike, to be set in the most conspicuous place on our fort, that he might serve as an example to those who remained, leading them to deport themselves correctly in future, in the discharge of their duty; and that the Spaniards and Basques, of whom there were large numbers in the country, might not glory in the event.'

It will be seen from the recital of Duval's conspiracy that Champlain was fortunate to escape the fate of Hudson and La Salle. While this cause celebre was running its course to a tragic end, the still more famous habitation grew day by day under the hands of busy workmen. As fruits of a crowded and exciting summer Champlain could point to a group of three two-storey buildings. 'Each one,' he says, 'was three fathoms long and two and a half wide. The storehouse was six fathoms long and three wide, with a fine cellar six feet deep. I had a gallery made all round our buildings, on the outside, at the second storey, which proved very convenient. There were also ditches, fifteen feet wide and six deep. On the outer side of the ditches I constructed several spurs, which enclosed a part of the dwelling, at the points where we placed our cannon. Before the habitation there is a place four fathoms wide and six or seven long, looking out upon the river-bank. Surrounding the habitation are very good gardens.'

Three dwellings of eighteen by fifteen feet each were a sufficiently modest starting-point for continental ambitions, even when supplemented by a storehouse of thirty-six feet by eighteen. In calling the gardens very good Champlain must have been speaking with relation to the circumstances, or else they were very small, for there is abundant witness to the sufferings which Quebec in its first twenty years might have escaped with the help of really abundant gardens. At St Croix and Port Royal an attempt had been made to plant seeds, and at Quebec Champlain doubtless renewed the effort, though with small practical result. The point is important in its bearing on the nature of the settlement. Quebec, despite such gardens as surrounded the habitation, was by origin an outpost of the fur trade, with a small, floating, and precarious population. Louis Hebert, the first real colonist, did not come till 1617.

Lacking vegetables, Quebec fed itself in part from the river and the forest. But almost all the food was brought from France. At times there was game, though less than at Port Royal. The river supplied eels in abundance, but when badly cooked they caused a fatal dysentery. The first winter was a repetition of the horrors experienced at St Croix, with even a higher death-rate. Scurvy began in February and lasted till the end of April. Of the eighteen whom it attacked, ten died. Dysentery claimed others. On June 5, 1609, word came that Pontgrave had arrived at Tadoussac. Champlain's comment is eloquent in its brevity. 'This intelligence gave me much satisfaction, as we entertained hopes of assistance from him. Out of the twenty-eight at first forming our company only eight remained, and half of these were ailing.'

The monopoly granted to De Monts had now reached its close, and trade was open to all comers. From 1609 until 1613 this unrestricted competition ran its course, with the result that a larger market was created for beaver skins, while nothing was done to build up New France as a colony. On the whole, the most notable feature of the period is the establishment of close personal relations between Champlain and the Indians. It was then that he became the champion of the Algonquins and Huron against the Iroquois League or Five Nations, inaugurating a policy which was destined to have profound consequences.

The considerations which governed Champlain in his dealings with the Indians lay quite outside the rights and wrongs of their tribal wars. His business was to explore the continent on behalf of France, and accordingly he took conditions as he found them. The Indians had souls to be saved, but that was the business of the missionaries. In the state of nature all savages were much like wild animals, and alliance with one nation or another was a question which naturally settled itself upon the basis of drainage basins. Lands within the Laurentian watershed were inhabited mainly by Algonquins and Huron, whose chief desire in life was to protect themselves from the Iroquois and avenge past injuries. The Five Nations dwelt far south from the Sault St Louis and did not send their furs there for the annual barter. Champlain, ever in quest of a route to the East, needed friends along the great rivers of the wilderness. The way to secure them, and at the same time to widen the trading area, was to fight for the savages of the St Lawrence and the Ottawa against those of the Mohawk.

And Champlain was a good ally, as he proved in the forest wars of 1609 and 1615. With all their shortcomings, the Indians knew how to take the measure of a man. The difference between a warrior and a trader was especially clear to their untutored minds, they themselves being much better fighters than men of commerce. Champlain, like others, suffered from their caprice, but they respected his bravery and trusted his word.

In the next chapter we shall attempt to follow Champlain through the wilderness, accompanied by its inhabitants, who were his guides and friends. For the present we must pursue the fortunes of Quebec, whose existence year by year hung upon the risk that court intrigue would prevail against the determination of two brave men.

From 1608 till 1611 De Monts had two partners, named Collier and Legendre, both citizens of Rouen. It was with the money of these three that the post at Quebec had been built and equipped. Champlain was their lieutenant and Pontgrave the commander of their trading ships. After four years of experience Collier and Legendre found the results unsatisfactory. 'They were unwilling,' says Champlain, 'to continue in the association, as there was no commission forbidding others from going to the new discoveries and trading with the inhabitants of the country. Sieur de Monts, seeing this, bargained with them for what remained at the settlement at Quebec, in consideration of a sum of money which he gave them for their share.'

Thus the intrepid De Monts became sole proprietor of the habitation, and whatever clustered round it, at the foot of Cape Diamond. But the property was worthless if the fur trade could not be put on a stable basis. Quebec during its first three years had been a disappointment because, contrary to expectation, it gave its founders no advantage over their competitors which equaled the cost of maintenance. De Monts was still ready to assist Champlain in his explorations, but his resources, never great, were steadily diminishing, and while trade continued unprofitable there were no funds for exploration. Moreover, the assassination of Henry IV in 1610 weakened De Monts at court. Whatever Henry's shortcomings as a friend of Huguenots and colonial pioneers, their chances had been better with him than they now were with Marie de Medicis [Footnote: The second and surviving wife of Henry IV--an Italian by birth and in close sympathy with Spain. As regent for her son, Louis XIII, she did much to reverse the policy of Henry IV, both foreign and domestic.] Champlain states that De Monts' engagements did not permit him to prosecute his interests at court. Probably his engagements would have been less pressing had he felt more sure of favor. In any event, he made over to Champlain the whole conduct of such negotiations as were called for by the unsatisfactory state of affairs on the St Lawrence.

Champlain went to France. What follows is an illuminating comment upon the conditions that prevailed under the Bourbon monarchy. As Champlain saw things, the merchants who clamored for freedom of trade were greedy pot-hunters. 'All they want,' he says, 'is that men should expose themselves to a thousand dangers to discover peoples and territories, that they themselves may have the profit and others the hardship. It is not reasonable that one should capture the lamb and another go off with the fleece. If they had been willing to participate in our discoveries, use their means and risk their persons, they would have given evidence of their honor and nobleness, but, on the contrary, they show clearly that they are impelled by pure malice that they may enjoy the fruit of our labors equally with ourselves.' Against folk of this sort Champlain felt he had to protect the national interests which were so dear to him and De Monts. As things then went, there was only one way to secure protection. At Fontainebleau a great noble was not habituated to render help without receiving a consideration. But protection could be bought by those who were able to pay for it.

The patron selected by Champlain was the Comte de Soissons, a Bourbon by lineage and first cousin of Henry IV. His kinship to the boy-king gave him, among other privileges, the power to exact from the regent gifts and offices as the price of his support. Possessing this leverage, Soissons caused himself to be appointed viceroy of Canada, with a twelve-year monopoly of the fur trade above Quebec. The monopoly thus re-established, its privileges could be sublet, Soissons receiving cash for the rights he conceded to the merchants, and they taking their chance to turn a profit out of the transaction.

Such at least was the theory; but before Soissons could turn his post into a source of revenue he died. Casting about for a suitable successor, Champlain selected another prince of the blood--Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, who duly became viceroy of Canada and holder of the monopoly in succession to his uncle, the Comte de Soissons.

The part of Champlain in these transactions is very conspicuous, and justly so. There was no advantage in being viceroy of Canada unless the post produced a revenue, and before the viceroy could receive a revenue some one was needed to organize the chief Laurentian traders into a company strong enough to pay Soissons or Conde a substantial sum. Champlain was convinced that the stability of trade (upon which, in turn, exploration depended) could be secured only in this way. It was he who memorialized President Jeannin; [Footnote: One of the chief advisers of Marie de Medicis. In the early part of his career he was President of the Parlement of Dijon and an important member of the extreme Catholic party. After the retirement of the Duc de Sully (1611) he was placed in charge of the finances of France.] enlisted the sympathy of the king's almoner, Beaulieu; appealed to the royal council; proposed the office of viceroy to Soissons; and began the endeavor to organize a new trading company. Considering that early in 1612 he suffered a serious fall from his horse, this record of activity is sufficiently creditable for one twelve-month. Meanwhile the Indians at Sault St Louis grieved at his absence, and his enemies told them he was dead.

It was not until 1614 that the new program in its entirety could be carried out. This time the delay came, not from the court, but from the merchants. Negotiations were in progress when the ships sailed for the voyage of 1613, but Champlain could not remain to conclude them, as he felt that he must keep faith with the Indians. However, on his return to France that autumn, he resumed the effort, and by the spring of 1614. the merchants of Rouen, St Malo, and La Rochelle had been brought to terms among themselves as participants in a monopoly which was leased from the viceroy. Conde received a thousand crowns a year, and the new company also agreed to take out six families of colonists each season. In return it was granted the monopoly for eleven years. De Monts was a member of the company and Quebec became its headquarters in Canada. But the moving spirit was Champlain, who was appointed lieutenant to the viceroy with a salary and the right to levy for his own purposes four men from each ship trading in the river.

Once more disappointment followed. Save for De Monts, Champlain's company was not inspired by Champlain's patriotism. During the first three years of its existence the obligation to colonize was willfully disregarded, while in the fourth year the treatment accorded Louis Hebert shows that good faith counted for as little with the fur traders when they acted in association as when they were engaged in cut-throat competition.

Champlain excepted, Hebert was the most admirable of those who risked death in the attempt to found a settlement at Quebec. He was not a Norman peasant, but a Parisian apothecary. We have already seen that he took part in the Acadian venture of De Monts and Poutrincourt. After the capture of Port Royal by the English he returned to France (1613) and reopened his shop. Three years later Champlain was authorized by the company to offer him and his family favorable terms if they would emigrate to Quebec, the consideration being two hundred crowns a year for three years, besides maintenance. On this understanding Hebert sold his house and shop, bought an equipment for the new home, and set off with his family to embark at Honfleur. Here he found that Champlain's shareholders were not prepared to stand by their agreement. The company first beat him down from two hundred to one hundred crowns a year, and then stipulated that he, his wife, his children, and his domestic should serve it for the three years during which the grant was payable. Even at the end of three years, when he found himself at liberty to till the soil, he was bound to sell produce to the company at the prices prevalent in France. The company was to have his perpetual service as a chemist for nothing, and he must promise in writing to take no part in the fur trade. Hebert had cut off his retreat and was forced to accept these hard terms, but it is not strange that under such conditions colonists should have been few. Sagard, the Recollet missionary, says the company treated Hebert so badly because it wished to discourage colonization. What it wanted was the benefit of the monopoly, without the obligation of finding settlers who had to be brought over for nothing.

A man of honor like Champlain could not have tricked Hebert into the bad bargain he made, and their friendship survived the incident. But a company which transacted its business in this fashion was not likely to enjoy long life. Its chief asset was Champlain's friendship with the Indians, especially after his long sojourn with them in 1615 and 1616. Some years, particularly 1617, showed a large profit, but as time went on friction arose between the Huguenots of La Rochelle and the Catholics of Rouen. Then there were interlopers to be prosecuted, and the quarrels of Conde with the government brought with them trouble to the merchants whose monopoly depended on his grant. For three years (1616-19) the viceroy of Canada languished in the Bastille. Shortly after his release he sold his viceregal rights to the Duke of Montmorency, Admiral of France. The price was 11,000 crowns.

In 1619 Champlain's company ventured to disagree with its founder, and, as a consequence, another crisis arose in the affairs of New France. The cause of dispute was the company's unwillingness to keep its promises regarding colonization. Champlain protested. The company replied that Pontgrave should be put in charge at Quebec. Champlain then said that Pontgrave was his old friend, and he hoped they would always be friends, but that he was at Quebec as the viceroy's representative, charged with the duty of defending his interests. The leader of Champlain's opponents among the shareholders was Boyer, a trader who had formerly given much trouble to De Monts, but was now one of the associates. When in the spring of 1619 Champlain attempted to sail for Quebec as usual, Boyer prevented him from going aboard. There followed an appeal to the crown, in which Champlain was fully sustained, and Boyer did penance by offering a public apology before the Exchange at Rouen.

It was shortly after this incident that Conde abdicated in favor of Montmorency. The admiral, like his predecessor, accepted a thousand crowns a year and named Champlain as his lieutenant. He also instituted an inquiry regarding the alleged neglect of the company to maintain the post at Quebec. The investigation showed that abundant cause existed for depriving the company of its monopoly, and in consequence the grant was transferred, on similar terms, to William and Emery de Caen. Here complications at once ensued. The De Caens, who were natives of Rouen, were also Huguenots, a fact that intensified the ill-feeling which had already arisen on the St Lawrence between Catholic and heretic. The dispute between the new beneficiaries and the company founded by Champlain involved no change in the policy of the crown towards trade and colonization. It was a quarrel of persons, which eventually reached a settlement in 1622. The De Caens then compromised by reorganizing the company and giving their predecessors five-twelfths of the shares.

The recital of these intricate events will at least illustrate the difficulties which beset Champlain in his endeavor to build up New France. There were problems enough even had he received loyal support from the crown and the company. With the English and Dutch in full rivalry, he saw that an aggressive policy of expansion and settlement became each year more imperative. Instead, he was called on to withstand the cabals of self-seeking traders who shirked their obligations, and to endure the apathy of a government which was preoccupied with palace intrigues.

At Quebec itself the two bright spots were the convent of the Recollets1  and the little farm of Louis Hebert. The Recollets first came to New France in 1615, and began at once by language study to prepare for their work among the Montagnais and Huron. It was a stipulation of the viceroy that six of them should be supported by the company, and in the absence of parish priests they ministered to the ungodly hangers-on of the fur trade as well as to the Indians. Louis Hebert and his admirable family were very dear to the Fathers. In 1617 all the buildings which had been erected at Quebec lay by the water's edge. Hebert was the first to make a clearing on the heights. His first domain covered less than ten acres, but it was well tilled. He built a stone house, which was thirty-eight feet by nineteen. Besides making a garden, he planted apple-trees and vines. He also managed to support some cattle. When one considers what all this means in terms of food and comfort, it may be guessed that the fur traders, wintering down below on salt pork and smoked eels, must have felt much respect for the farmer in his stone mansion on the cliff.

We have from Champlain's own lips a valuable statement as to the condition of things at Quebec in 1627, the year when Louis Hebert died. 'We were in all,' he says, 'sixty-five souls, including men, women, and children.' Of the sixty-five only eighteen were adult males fit for hard work, and this small number must be reduced to two or three if we include only the tillers of the soil. Besides these, a few adventurous spirits were away in the woods with the Indians, learning their language and endeavoring to exploit the beaver trade; but twenty years after the founding of Quebec the French in Canada, all told, numbered less than one hundred.

Contrast with this the state of Virginia fifteen years after the settlement of Jamestown. 'By 1622,' says John Fiske, 'the population of Virginia was at least 4000, the tobacco fields were flourishing and lucrative, durable houses had been built and made comfortable with furniture brought from England, and the old squalor was everywhere giving way to thrift. The area of colonization was pushed up the James River as far as Richmond.'

This contrast is not to be interpreted to the personal disadvantage of Champlain. The slow growth and poverty of Quebec were due to no fault of his. It is rather the measure of his greatness that he was undaunted by disappointment and unembittered by the pettiness of spirit which met him at every turn. A memorial which he presented in 1618 to the Chamber of Commerce at Paris discloses his dream of what might be: a city at Quebec named Ludovica, a city equal in size to St Denis and filled with noble buildings grouped round the Church of the Redeemer. Tributary to this capital was a vast region watered by the St Lawrence and abounding 'in rolling plains, beautiful forests, and rivers full of fish.' From Ludovica the heathen were to be converted and a passage discovered to the East. So important a trade route would be developed, that from the tolls alone there would be revenue to construct great public works. Rich mines and fat cornfields fill the background.

Such was the Quebec of Champlain's vision--if only France would see it so! But in the Quebec of reality a few survivors saw the hunger of winter yield to the starvation of spring. They lived on eels and roots till June should bring the ships and food from home.

1 The Recollets were a branch of the Franciscan order, noted for the austerity of their rule.

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Chronicles of Canada, The Founder of New France, A Chronicle of Champlain, 1915


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