Historical Context

At the Dawn of the "Age of Reason"!

The first quarter of the seventeenth century was a difficult time for France. The country fluctuated between order and chaos, according to the regent or monarch in power. The disruption of the social order, combined with intellectual stirrings, heralded a century of change.
imageFrance, circa 1600
From 1524, following the dispatch of explorers by the King of France, a number of cartographers took to referring to the vast northern expanses of North America as "New France." The territory situated to the south and west of Newfoundland, linked to the continent, was called "Acadia," and the land along the banks of Canada’s vast river, the St. Lawrence, was known by its Indian name, Canada.

Map by G. Levasseur, 1601
Synthesis of what was known of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and
the St. Lawrence Valley before Champlain’s arrival
Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, France

In France

Religious differences continued to divide the people. While the Protestants from Brittany and Normandy declared their loyalty to the "Most Catholic" King of France, Protestants in the west and south rebelled again.

Henri IV, the son of a Calvinist mother and a Catholic father, was assassinated on May 14, 1610, leaving his wife, Marie de Médicis, as regent until his eldest son, Louis XIII (then nine years old), reached the age of majority. In 1624, the young man was made king. Cardinal Richelieu, who later founded the Company of One Hundred Associates, helped Louis XIII rule.

Henri IV, circa 1610
Nicolo Van Aelst (1527-1612)
Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France

Cardinal Richelieu, 1635
by Philippe de Champaigne
La Sorbonne, Paris, France

Under the new monarch, civil calm was restored and opportunists began to solicit the sovereign’s support. Ever since Jacques Cartier had mistaken sulphur ore for gold and quartz for diamonds, there had been little interest in sending French citizens overseas permanently, leaving whalers, cod fishermen and fur traders to finance their own seasonal expeditions.

Saint-Malo, view from Paramé, 17th century
Anonymous engraving
Musée de Saint-Malo

Now, merchants from France’s major ports, almost maritime republics, demanded the right to trade freely with the Indians and fought for the monopolies within the fur trade. Their interventions and protests to the court delayed the process of setting up French outposts in the interior of the North American continent.

From Dieppe to Canada

In 1603, at the invitation of Commander de Chaste, the Governor of Dieppe, Champlain made his first voyage to Canada.

View of Dieppe, 1650
Private collection

With the king’s approval, a company made up of several gentlemen and the leading merchants of Rouen fitted out three ships at Saint-Malo, for departure from Honfleur.
Decree from the King’s Council authorizing captains Colombier, Prévert and Pont-Gravé to fit out three ships at Saint-Malo, 1603 Photo: Archives nationales de France
E5A, fol. 248


Paris, March 13, 1603

Regarding the petition submitted by the burgesses and inhabitants of St-Malo, that it please the king to make free, this year and in the future, the trade that was discovered in Canada at great expense by their predecessors. Notwithstanding the authorizations and prohibitions claimed by captains Prevert and Pont-Gravé. Having Faith in his Council has decreed and decrees, for good reason and after due consideration, that Captain Colombier of St-Malo, named by the said inhabitants of St-Malo, should fit out his vessel this year to engage in trade and discover lands in Canada and in the adjacent territory with the two ships of sieurs Prevert and Pont-Gravé, either jointly or separately, whichever is most appropriate. Responsibility for contributing one-third of the justified costs and expenses incurred in the said discovery, His Majesty inhibits and prohibits sieurs Prevert, Pont-Gravé and all other sieurs, subjects of whatever quality and condition, from troubling them with respect to the above-mentioned points. Prepared at the King’s Council held in Paris on this day of March 1603.

Decree from the King’s Council authorizing captains Colombier, Prévert and Pont-Gravé to fit out three ships at Saint-Malo, Paris, Archives nationales de France, E5A, fol. 248

Sketch of a Normandy ship on the cover of a pilot’s log, 1550
Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, France
Department of Manuscripts: Fonds français,
vol. 24269, fol. 55v

François Gravé Du Pont, the captain of one of the vessels, was to introduce Champlain to Canada.

In Canada

Pierre Chauvin, the Sieur de Tonnetuit, a shipowner and merchant from Honfleur, had owned a trading post with François Gravé Du Pont at Tadoussac, near the mouth of the Saguenay River, since 1600.

Chauvin’s post at Tadoussac
Photo: J.-P. Chrestien

Champlain landed at Tadoussac on May 26, 1603. Captivated from the moment he arrived, Champlain devoted his fortune and his life to Canada.


    Last Updated: September 1, 2009