In the footsteps of Champlain

May 1, 2013

We’ve only just found his baptismal certificate. We are still looking for his place of burial. We have no real portrait of him. Still, Samuel de Champlain has left many other traces. In this year marking the 400th anniversary of his exploration of the Outaouais, why not reflect on the life journey of this fascinating character?

In late May 1603, Samuel de Champlain boarded ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He had only one dream: to discover the route leading from the New World to the riches of the Orient.

He never reached China, but his 12 voyages to North America between 1603 and 1635 shaped our country. As an explorer, mapmaker and administrator, Champlain placed his many talents at the service of New France.

For many, he is known primarily as the founder of Québec City, but that is not the only place where he made his mark. “From Acadia to Lake Huron, archaeological sites line the routes travelled by Champlain. The discoveries made at these sites all reveal how the first settlers of New France lived,” says Yves Monette, Curator of Quebec Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Champlain’s curiosity and his friendly relations with First Nations helped him to go further and further in his explorations. He travelled upstream along the St. Lawrence River and followed the Saguenay, Richelieu and Ottawa rivers. A navigator through and through, he saw each waterway as leading to new discoveries.

He made use of his voyages and the knowledge of his fellow explorers to map many regions, leading to the production of his impressive map of 1632. This map covers the area from Baffin Land to Virginia, and from Newfounland to Lake Superior. It marks a shift in emphasis from intuition to accuracy in cartography.

“Champlain was a great diplomat,” notes Yves Monette. “The alliances that he formed with the Montagnais, Algonquin and Huron nations in the early 17th century provided a model to the governors who came after him. This enabled the French settlers to survive, adapt to the environment and put down roots. And it also enabled them to extend the reach of their small settlement on the St. Lawrence southward as far as the Gulf of Mexico and westward to the Rocky Mountains.”

From being an explorer and cartographer, Champlain became the unofficial governor of New France, performing all the duties without bearing the title. His wish was to make Québec City the centre of a strong colony. Before his death in 1635, he saw only the promising beginnings. But already he had prepared the ground for a new America and had established the foundations on which it would flourish.

Samuel de Champlain’s recently found baptismal certificate will be on display at the Museum of Civilization this summer.