Champlain: one of the great names of Quebec history, but how well do we know him? Like Jacques Cartier, we are still questioning details about Champlain’s early life, including the exact date of his birth, whether or not he was actually named Samuel de Champlain, and whether he was born a Catholic. Circumstances of his early life are unknown, though there was a theory floating around in the early twentieth century that Champlain was actually the illegitimate son of aristocrats. However, this theory has since been discarded and we now believe that the most plausible background for Champlain was that his family were mariners and that he learned the art of navigating that way. Baptised in 1574, the Frenchman, perhaps a Protestant but converted to Catholicism early on, was born into an exciting time of exploration. By the time he would have been in his early thirties, he was already a geographer for the French king Henri IV.
One of the few dates that we are certain about in his life is 1603, when he joined a fellow explorer’s expedition to North America. He and his fellow crewmates would arrive in Montreal, where he would have observed the terrain and perhaps made notes, being one of the geographers on the crew. He was promoted to a lieutenant by Cardinal Richelieu, and in 1608, he would sail again up the Saint Lawrence River and establish a fort in Quebec City: the Habitation, one of the first permanent settlements set up for trading that was located, uncannily, near Stadacona, the since abandoned First Nations village that Jacques Cartier visited seventy years earlier. Around this time, he would come into conflict with the Iroquois because he would favour the Algonquin peoples that would come to trade. This display of favouritism would further the hostility between the French and this First Nations people, a hostility that would last many years.
Despite what would seem to be a momentous change of direction in history, compared to today’s standards, the Habitation was what could be described in current youth vernacular slang as an “epic fail”, numbering only about a hundred until the early 1600s. By the 1640s, there were about three hundred settlers. Compared to the sunny shores of England and France, whose climates are favoured by warm ocean currents, New France’s harsh climate and the new diseases contributed to the losses of many early settlers in the area. The fur trade, spurred on by the Company of One Hundred Associates, that would first bring more settlers. Champlain himself would be named Governor of New France, and would die in the new French colony around 1635.