Was New France Born in New England?

shapeimage_2-8_294One of the enduring curiosities of early Canadian history is what Samuel de Champlain, routinely celebrated as Canada’s founding father, was even doing in eastern North America when he first arrived in 1603. From his initial appearance on the St. Lawrence River in that year, until his departure from Acadia in 1607 as the Port Royal habitation was abandoned, Champlain was an ill-defined adjunct to the successive trade monopolies operating in New France. He was neither a merchant, nor a lieutenant to the monopoly-holder, nor a soldier, nor a ship captain. Nor was he the “royal geographer,” as his contemporary, Marc Lescarbot, ventured, trying to put a finger on exactly who Champlain was.

This article originally appeared in The Beaver 86, no. 6, December 2006/January 2007. The ideas were further developed in God’s Mercies and Half Moon.

The Champlain who made his first appearance on the St. Lawrence in 1603 was an intelligence officer, and his king, Henri IV, now appears to have sent him to investigate the evidence, which had just been published in England, for a passage to the Orient that lay upstream of what we now call the Lachine rapids at present-day Montrêal—a passage that was said to run through the continent, rather than over top of it. Once you have read A Briefe and True Relation of the Discoverie of the North part of Virginia, the slender best-selling book that went on sale in London in late 1602, there can be little doubt that Champlain appeared in New France, and ultimately made his career there, in response to the ideas expressed within it by an Englishman named Edward Hayes. Stranger still, Hayes’s ideas were rooted in French experiences in the New World that the French themselves largely came to know only through Hayes. When Champlain was finished with his fact-checking of Hayes, the results he published would reverberate in the colonizing schemes of the English who were his direct competitors.

• • •

Champlain was an intelligence gatherer by nature and profession. He had been close to his king, Henri IV, since at least March 1595, when he made his debut in a military pay record, being compensated for certain voiage secret—a “secret voyage”—made in Henri’s service. After peace was secured with Spain in 1598, Champlain spent 1599 to 1601 skulking around the Spanish Caribbean for the elucidation of Henri, right before he traveled to the St. Lawrence River for the first time, in 1603. Having filed a report with Henri on what he had seen in the Caribbean, and received a royal pension that was probably the source of his standing as a navy captain, Champlain was called upon to make a fact-finding mission to the St. Lawrence in association with a new trading monopoly. It can now be seen that a critical task was to investigate the evidence that Hayes, an indefatigable English colonization promoter, had assembled for a route to the Orient up the St. Lawrence.

The Hayes material appeared in late 1602 in A Briefe and True Relation, which recounted the voyage that summer of Bartholomew Gosnold in association with Bartholomew Gilbert to Norumbega, as the coast of New England was known. Written by participant John Brereton, it was the first narrative of any significant length on a voyage to the region since a letter recounting the 1525 voyage of Giovanni da Verrazzano on behalf of Francois I was first published by Giambattista Ramusio in 1556 in Navigationi et Viaggi. The Brereton account was of particular interest to the French, who considered Norumbega their territory because of Verrazzano’s voyage.

A Briefe and True Relation was published to goad investment in a follow-up voyage, so was padded with supportive propaganda, including a treatise by Edward Hayes. Although it was included anonymously, Hayes was indisputably the source. The little book, only about 4,000 words, was so successful publisher George Bishop quickly brought out a second edition crammed with even more material on the colonizing potential of eastern North America.

Hayes was a respected former associate of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, commanding a ship on Sir Humphrey’s ill-fated 1583 voyage to the New World. Hayes fleshed out ideas that English historiographer Richard Hakluyt first expressed in A Discourse on Western Planting, which Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Ralegh, had hired Hakluyt to craft and present on his behalf to Elizabeth I in 1584, in support of his successful bid to secure a monopoly for a colony in eastern North America. Hakluyt’s Discourse set down two concepts fundamental to the Hayes treatise: that colonization was a necessary precursor to discovering a passage to the Orient, and that the passage could be found, at least in part, through the heart of North America: “by these Colonies the Northwest passage to Cathay and China may easily, quickly and perfectly be searched out as well by river and overland, as by sea…” [spelling modernized]

Hayes wrote a fairly elaborate treatise around 1591 with Christopher Carleill, which advocated an English colony on the St. Lawrence. It was reconceived, probably about 1601, in support of the Gosnold venture. With the anonymous addendum to the Brereton account in A Briefe and True Relation, Hayes continued to champion the search for a transcontinental passage to the Pacific Ocean (which was called the South Sea), but now the eastern entrance, instead of being the St. Lawrence, would be a river that drained into the Atlantic in Norumbega.

Hayes argued that the transcontinental route would not be a traditional ocean passage, but composed of rivers, lakes and portages. His scheme was overly complex, but essentially involved employing native labour and indigenous elk and buffalo as pack animals in moving goods between the headwaters of the great rivers that would be discovered flowing respectively to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As far-fetched as it might seem, the idea of hopping from one river to another to cross great distances had been employed successfully by the Muscovy Company in Asia, with an expedition in 1579-81 traveling more than 1,500 miles from the White Sea in the Arctic to south shore of the Caspian Sea.

Hayes no longer advocated placing an English colony on the St. Lawrence because he believed the inland route above the Lachine rapids led to the Northern Sea. He had no stomach for Arctic voyaging. (Ships would be “frozen into the seas, or forced to Winter in extreme cold and darkness like unto hell: or in the midst of Summer, we shall be in peril to have our ships overwhelmed or crushed in pieces by hideous and fearful mountains of ice floating upon those seas.”) Hayes favoured establishing a colony between latitudes 40 and 44 on the Norumbega coast, where the climate best suited the English constitution. Native trading partners then could be questioned on their geographic knowledge.

This was all interesting, but what obviously made the French take notice was how Hayes went about dismissing the suitability of the St. Lawrence for his passagemaking scheme. The evidence Hayes marshaled for the St. Lawrence leading to a passage to the Northern Sea was published in full for the first time in A Briefe and True Relation, and drew on confidential French and French Basque sources from the 1580s and 1590s. Some of it had already been published by Hakluyt, but key elements had not.

France had been torn by wars of religion and succession for decades. It wasn’t until Henri IV secured the throne in 1594, and peace with Spain in 1598, that his kingdom could begin to regain momentum in overseas trade and colonization. Hayes addressed this in his discussion of Norumbega: “These lands were never yet actually possessed by any Christian prince or people, yet often intended to be by the French nation, which long sithence [would have] had inhabited there, if domestical wars had not withheld them.”

Much knowledge of 16th-century French explorations had been preserved or popularized not by the French, but by the Italians and the English. The accounts of Cartier’s first two voyages survived only in Italian, as published by Ramusio in 1556, and were available in an English translation (1580) before they were in French (1598). The English publication of Cartier was arranged by Richard Hakluyt, in his zeal to gather and disseminate any information that could encourage English efforts to colonize and to expand trade. As the French emerged from internal turmoil they could not help but turn to Hakluyt’s hugely popular published works—in particular the three-volume second edition of Principal Navigations, published between 1598 and 1600, which included a reprint of the English translations of the first two Cartier voyages, as well as of the fragmentary account of his third voyage—for information on where some of their countrymen had already been, and clues as to what might await exploitation.

Before Champlain arrived on the St. Lawrence in 1603, one Frenchman had already tried to capitalize on French intelligence preserved by Hakluyt. Jean Sarcel, Sieur de Prévert, of Dieppe, seems to have made a voyage in 1602 in search of a copper mine Étienne Bellenger claimed to have discovered while exploring the coast of Acadia, Bay of Fundy and Norumbega in 1583, in a failed attempt to establish a fur-trading post. While attached to the English embassy in Paris, Hakluyt interviewed Bellenger and produced the only account of his explorations, including it (attributed to “Stephen Bellinger”) in the first edition of Principal Navigations in 1589. Hakluyt also gathered a map detailing Bellenger’s discoveries (which has since disappeared) and turned it over to Hayes.

During his Paris years, Hakluyt also secured letters written by Jacques Noel, a trader operating on the St. Lawrence, who claimed to be a nephew of Jacques Cartier and had credible first- or second-hand knowledge of a “great lake” beyond the Lachine rapids. In the 1590s, the English also gleaned much confidential information on the St. Lawrence from a French Basque fur trader named Stevan de Bocall, who according to a letter from merchant Edmund Palmer to Lord Burghley in 1595, “hath had great traffic with the savages” and claimed that explorers could “pass that way over a point of land to the South Sea.” Palmer wrote of Bocall: “For that country and these passages I think he has not his fellow in the world.”

The Hayes treatise in A Briefe and True Relation in 1602 went beyond anything published by Hakluyt, who routinely held back sensitive intelligence. Hayes brought to bear all the evidence for what lay beyond the Lachine rapids in one concise argument, stating that, according to Jacques Noel, the rapids “did lead into a mighty lake, which at the entrance was fresh, but beyond, was bitter or salt; the end whereof was unknown.” But Noel, at least in the materials published by Hakluyt, had never said anything about saltwater in this lake, nor did his letters give the lake the name that Hayes used: Tadouac. Either Hakluyt had held back certain facts in Principal Navigations or Hayes’ recollection of Noel’s evidence had been contaminated by information from Bocall. As it happened, Lake Tadouac, a protean Great Lakes, appeared in Edward Wright’s famous world map of 1599, which Hakluyt included in his third and final volume of Principal Navigations in 1600. Wright showed this lake being drained by the St. Lawrence. His cartography suggested that past the rapids at Montréal and Lake Tadouac, one could sail on to the Northern Sea and Northwest Passage and reach the Orient.

The Hayes treatise spelled out the opportunities above the rapids more explicitly than anything ever to appear in the public domain. And one must remember that no European at this point was known to have traveled any distance beyond the Lachine rapids. Cartier had been to the rapids twice but had gone no farther than a 1541 scouting on foot a few miles upstream of Lac St-Louis to the next rapids. Most if not all of what Hayes had published in A Briefe and True Relation assuredly was news to the French. Hayes’s treatise amounted to a blueprint for how, where and why eastern North America could be colonized. It is striking how rapidly official French efforts fell in line with it, and how Champlain’s fact-finding would echo it.

• • •

When Champlain came along, the French trade and colonization effort on the St. Lawrence was a mess, with the king trying to broker an agreement in 1603 between rival commercial factions just to keep the fur trade operating. At some point, perhaps soon after Aymer de Chaste, a vice-admiral in the patronage-bloated French navy was named to the head of the monopoly by Henri that February, the bestselling A Briefe and True Relation and its Hayes treatise must have surfaced in France. Suddenly, there was an organization with verve and direction. It may well have been the expanded second edition that changed the momentum of the monopoly, and with it the life of Champlain.

In his final volume of writing, in 1632, Champlain averred that de Chaste lobbied him to join the 1603 expedition, and that he did so with Henri’s blessing. But Champlain had already stated in his 1613 Voyages that Henri “commissioned me to make the most exact researches and explorations in my power” on the 1603 expedition.

The 1603 expedition was what might be called Phase I of the new French initiative. It was focused on scoping out the opportunities of the St. Lawrence, and included a fact-checking by Champlain of Hayes’s assertions, based on confidential French sources, on what lay beyond the rapids at Montréal. The Sieur de Prévert was also tasked to the search for a rich mine that the additional materials in A Briefe and True Relation, borrowing from Bellenger, asserted could be found southwest of Cape Breton. Phase II would follow Hayes’s advice and establish the colony in Norumbega in 1604, from which, with the assistance of native trading partners, a search could be mounted for a river passage inland.

Champlain evidently had little time to prepare. He was impressively ignorant of what Cartier had accomplished — he claimed a “first” for getting to the rapids even though Cartier had been there twice. He most certainly was never aware that Edward Hayes was a source of intelligence. He may have been shown the Brereton account, but unless he could read English, he was likely ikelylprovided a dossier of facts culled from the Hayes treatise to follow up.

Champlain could not surmount the Lachine rapids in July 1603, so he questioned native guides on what lay beyond, and followed up with a second interview of Algonquin he encountered downstream, at Ile d’Orleans. In Des Sauvages, published soon after his return, Champlain produced word portraits of the Great Lakes system in which it is possible to recognize Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls and Lake Erie. The two separate accounts gathered from guides then moved on to a vast lake they had heard of but never season. It was Huron, but Champlain believed it was a saltwater ocean.

On the way back to Tadoussac, Champlain said he also questioned an Algonquin around Ile d’Orleans. According to this young man, Champlain wrote, after proceeding beyond the rapids and lakes a traveler enters “a very large lake, which may extend some 300 leagues in length. Proceeding some hundred leagues into the said lake, they encounter an island which is very big where, beyond the said island, the water is drinkable. But he told us that, continuing on some hundred leagues further, the water is still worse. Arriving at the end of the said lake, the water is totally salty. He told us that there is a fall which may extend for a league in width, from where an exceedingly great current of water descends into the said lake. Past this rapid, one no longer sees any land, either on the one side or on the other, but a sea so great that they have not seen the end of it, nor heard of anyone who may have seen it.”

This third interview closed the deal for Champlain. The distance from the rapids “to the salt sea, which is possibly the South Sea, is some 400 leagues,” he wrote in Des Sauvages. “It is not to be doubted, then, according to their statement, that this is none other than the South Sea, the sun setting where they say.”

Champlain’s proof for a route to the South Sea beyond the rapids hinged on this final interview, which was fundamentally different from the information he had gathered from guides at the rapids and Algonquin at Ile d’Orleans. In describing a lake fresh at one end and salt at the other, with a sea beyond of which no one had seen the end, Champlain came remarkably close to repeating Hayes’ assertion that, according to Jacques Noel, the rapids “did lead into a mighty lake, which at the entrance was fresh, but beyond, was bitter or salt; the end whereof was unknown.”

Champlain’s evidence for the route to the South Sea beyond the rapids becomes more problematic when the publishing history of Des Sauvages is examined. His account of the summer of exploration first appeared in late 1603—the licence (“avec privilege du Roy”) on the title page was dated Nov. 15—or perhaps early 1604. But in 1605, another version was published which omitted Champlain entirely. The original’s title was missing, and so was Champlain’s authorship. The account, shortened by about two-thirds, was now a single chapter in a larger work on the peace between France and Spain by the historian Pierre-Victor Palma Cayet. It has generally been considered an abstract of Des Sauvages, produced after the original was published. But it merits serious consideration as the missing report provided by Champlain to Henri IV on his return, written before Des Sauvages.

Cayet had been a tutor to the young Henri and was sufficiently close to have gathered this report from the king. And the style—more terse, omitting any mention of the writer/observer while correctly recognizing the leading roles of nobles in the 1603 expedition—was consistent with a report filed by someone sent to gather intelligence.

There are crucial differences between Champlain’s Des Sauvages and the Cayet version. In Cayet, there are no references to salty water above the rapids; it’s either salubre, wholesome, or mauvais, bad. And the entire third anecdote, so similar to the words of Hayes, is missing. (I am grateful to Dr. Conrad Heidenreich, an expert on Champlain’s cartography, for pointing out the critical differences. His skepticism about the third anecdote led me to my conclusions about how the different versions of Des Sauvages came about.) It seems that in crafting his first-person tale in Des Sauvages Champlain prepared a more elaborate narrative, inserting explicit language about saltwater along with the third testimonial, which read like a fabrication tailored to meet the expectations of Hayes’s treatise.

• • •

With Champlain having “proved” the Hayes evidence for a route to the Orient upstream of the rapids, Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Mons, secured a broad new monopoly territory in November 1603. Henri IV granted him exclusive trade, fishing and mineral rights between latitudes 46 and 40. While the brief monopoly awarded to the Sieur de Roberval in 1540 also used latitude 40 as a lower limit, it seems more significant that this lower boundary for settlement was so recently being advocated by Hayes. Phase II focused its entire exploration and colonization energies where Hayes said they should be: on Norumbega. From 1604-1607, when Henri terminated the monopoly, it strove to establish a settlement, first at Ile Ste-Croix, then at Port Royal. Champlain, still with no particular role in the monopoly, went about exploring and charting Norumbega, searching for the great river into the continent that Hayes said would be found.

Champlain understood that Norumbega was where operations would be headed when he wrote Des Sauvages, and justified the move in pure Hayesean terms. He delivered a report to the King, he wrote, “on the feasibility of discovering the passage to China, without the inconveniences of the ice of the north or the heats of the torrid zone…” A colony could be placed in the temperate zone and a river passage sought into the continent, whose headwaters were near the passage to the South Sea he claimed to have ascertained above the Lachine rapids. “One would accomplish a great good by discovering, on the coast of Florida [i.e. the Atlantic coast] some passage running near to the great lake before referred to, where the water is salt; not only on account of the navigation of vessels, which would not then be exposed to so great risks as in going by way of Canada, but also on account of the shortening of the distance by more than three hundred leagues. And it is certain that there are rivers on the coast of Florida, not yet discovered, extending into the interior, where the land is very good and fertile, and containing very good harbours.” (Champlain used the term Florida in a common, broad sense. The Spanish applied it to most of the eastern seaboard.) The English were striving to develop Norumbega (as well as Virginia) at the same time, in strict accordance with Hayes’ advice, and it was a minor miracle that Champlain and the English did not run into each other. But they did meet, in a way, through Des Sauvages, which may have been a critical source of geographic intelligence to the nascent English colonization movement.

One can’t help but suspect that those leading English colonizing ventures in the years immediately following Des Sauvages were giving it careful reading, and were incorporating into their own Hayesean schemes Champlain’s arguments for a passage to the South Sea above the Lachine rapids. Hakluyt had Des Sauvages translated (but not published in his lifetime) and as a patentee of the London wing of the 1606 Virginia Company, surely provided its more salient observations to the planners and participants. Champlain’s evidence for a saltwater passage beyond the rapids was erroneously amplified among the English by Hakluyt’s flawed translation: he misread the word salubre for salé, thus turning Champlain’s “wholesome” water to “salty.” Perhaps Champlain had not been sufficiently bold about the presence of seawater beyond the rapids, and Hakluyt took corrective measures.

There is an unmistakable echo of Champlain’s fact-finding results in the instructions given by the London wing of the Virginia Company to leaders of the English flotilla that set out to found the Jamestown colony in the Chesapeake in December 1606. They were to choose a river “which bendeth most toward the North-west for that way you shall soonest find the other sea.” There was no previous recorded English expedition to the Chesapeake, so the idea that the river should bend northwest if the “other” sea was to be reached must have come from careful study of the available evidence. And the only hard evidence resided in Des Sauvages.

Captain John Smith was more explicitly indebted to Des Sauvages in discussing the passagemaking potential of the Potomac River in his Map of Virginia, published in 1612. Its headwaters, he asserted, were in nearby mountains, beyond which was “a great salt water, which by all likelihood is either some part of [Canada], some great lake, or some inlet of some sea that falleth into the South sea.” (Smith’s book mangled Canada into Commada.)

The most explicit connection to Des Sauvages turned up in a letter to James I written in December 1607 by George Popham, president of the Sagadahoc colony of the West Country wing of the 1606 Virginia Company. The colony had been founded at the mouth of the Kennebec that summer—two years after Champlain scouted the river and found it wanting. Popham wrote that the Kennebec led inland to saltwater only seven days’ journey from the colony, and that this saltwater “can be none other than the Southern Ocean, stretching towards the land of China which doubtless cannot be far away from this region.” Popham’s observation was remarkably close in wording to Champlain’s conclusions in Des Sauvages about the great lake upstream of the rapids.

Clearly, the French and English who were striving to establish colonies in eastern North America at the beginning of the 17th century were in a kind of intellectual echo chamber, their ideas reverberating in each others’ plans and reports. It was a new, literate age of exploration, with much material that used to be squirreled away in handwritten manuscripts suddenly becoming available for everyone to read, regardless of nationality, particularly as the propaganda potential of voyage reports were seized by promoters as a way of raising merchant capital and currying royal favour.

Champlain wasn’t absolutely dependent on Hayes’ ideas in formulating his plans for New France. Some of his ideas, for example, appear to reflect a knowledge of the Spanish colony in Florida, which he might have gathered firsthand during his Caribbean sojourn. But that Champlain would have been propelled to New France by an English bestseller should surprise no-one, for the French had already inspired the English, through the research and translations by Hakluyt, and the Dutch and the English were feeding off each others’ published books and charts in their Arctic efforts. Ironically, a colonization scheme Edward Hayes devised to inspire his fellow Englishmen ended up being adopted with complete fidelity by the French. But that’s what can happen when you write a bestseller. —Douglas Hunter

This original article would not have been possible without the support of Conrad Heidenreich and the late Janet Ritch, who were working on their important new volume on Champlain, Samuel de Champlain Before 1604 (Champlain Society/McGill-Queen’s, 2010). They shared with me Janet’s new translation of Des Sauvages, which allowed me to spot clues to Champlain’s indebtedness to Edward Hayes. They endorsed my findings in Champlain Before 1604 (Appendix 5).