SAINTE-CROIX - Champlain's Dream

Biographies & Memoirs


Champlain’s Worst Mistake, 1604–05

It was not easy to know this place without having wintered here…. There are six months of winter in this country.

—Samuel de Champlain, 16051

WHEN CHAMPLAIN AND HIS FRIENDS got back to France in the late summer of 1603, they were shocked to learn that their leader, Aymar de Chaste, was dead. His sudden loss was a shattering blow. Champlain wrote, “It grieved me greatly, as I realized that anyone else would have difficulty in undertaking this enterprise, and not being thwarted, unless it was a nobleman whose authority could overcome the envy of others.”2

Champlain went directly to court and once again he had no trouble getting direct access to Henri IV. He met several times with the king, gave him a manuscript map of New France, and delivered a “very special account which I drew up for him.”3 The two men talked about a grand dessein for America. “He was very pleased,” Champlain wrote, “promising not to give up this dessein, but to have it pursued and supported.”4

Perhaps they also talked about a new leader. No one could replace Aymar de Chaste, but someone had to succeed him—and quickly. The North American initiative had been without a driver in France for five months. To find a person with the necessary qualifications was not an easy task. He had to be a nobleman who could command respect, a gentleman who could attract support, a friend of the king with full access at court, a man of wealth who could work with investors, a man trained to arms and the sea, a leader of experience and maturity, a competent administrator, and most of all, a man of vision for New France.

That long list of qualities meant a short list of candidates. The search came down to one man: Pierre Dugua sieur de Mons, who was qualified in every important way. He was a nobleman of ancient family, a soldier who had fought bravely for the king, an officeholder with much administrative experience, and a man of wealth who could work with investors. He was a Protestant with a Catholic wife, and he had a spirit of tolerance. His Saintonge manners helped him get on with others. He had been to America on Chauvin’s ill-fated voyage, and knew the problems and opportunities in New France. Most important, as the king observed, the sieur de Mons was a man of “great prudence,” with much “knowledge and experience.”5

An imagined image of Pierre Dugua, sieur de Mons. He was yet another leader in this circle of soldiers who supported Henri IV, fought for peace and toleration in France, and shared a vision of a New France in North America.

He was very close to Henri IV. Since 1594, he had been a “Gentleman of the King’s Chamber,” one of about twenty noblemen who were authorized to enter even the most private rooms, where they functioned as chamberlains. De Mons was often at court, and went with the king as he shuttled between his palaces at the Louvre in Paris, Fontainebleau in its great forest to the south, and Saint-Germain-en-Laye to the west.6

At court in the fall of 1603, de Mons and Champlain used their access to Henri IV to promote the American project. De Mons made a report to the king on the fertility of the soil in New France. Champlain did a presentation on “the means of discovering the passage to China.” He argued that the waterways of New France might make a convenient middle route to Asia, “without the inconvenience of the northern icebergs, or the heat of the torrid zone, through which our seamen pass twice in going and twice in returning, with incredible labors and perils.”7

De Mons and Champlain also worked with what might be called an American circle at Court. Three men were at its center. All were a generation older than Champlain. Pierre Jeannin was Intendant of Finances and president of the Parlement of Burgundy. Nicolas Brûlart, marquis de Sillery, was a great jurist, soon to be chancellor of France. Champlain’s former commander, Charles II de Cossé-Brissac was a marshal of France and governor of Brittany. These men were trusted members of the king’s inner council. They held many offices in his government, and wielded great influence at court. All were men of learning, with a global outlook and a particular interest in the new world. These French humanists were caught up in the intellectual currents of their age. They shared the spirit of Champlain’s dream, and supported his project for New France.8

While Champlain and the sieur de Mons worked with these men in France, they also discussed sites for settlement in North America. On this question they were not of one mind. Champlain was drawn to the St. Lawrence Valley by the magnitude of the great river and the abundance of its fur trade. He observed that to advance up the river was to move south to a warmer climate and more fertile ground. Reports from the Indians about big bodies of water to the west also held the promise of a route to China.

The sieur de Mons saw the strength of these arguments, but he favored another place. His painful experience of Chauvin’s voyage to Tadoussac had, in Champlain’s words, “taken away any desire to enter the great river St. Lawrence, having on that voyage seen only a forbidding country.”9 De Mons wanted to find a site further south along the American coast, “to enjoy a softer and more agreeable climate.” He was drawn to a coastal region that had the same latitude as Saintonge, warmer winters than Tadoussac, more fertile soil than the St. Lawrence Valley, and a very beautiful name. It was called La Cadie, l’Acadie—or in English, Acadia.10

The name had first appeared on American maps early in the sixteenth century. Historians are of two minds about its origin. One story links it to the Greek Arkadia through Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Florentine navigator who sailed the coast of North America, and gave the name of Arcadia or Acadia to what is now North Carolina, for its handsome trees. Samuel Eliot Morison made a study of the name. He found that it first referred to the Carolinas, and was slowly moved northeast, “by the whims of successive cartographers.”11

Another story holds that l’Acadie was an Indian word. In Algonquian languages, “cadie” is a suffix that means place, in combinations such as Tracadie, or Shubenacadie. Many “cadies” and “quoddys” are to be found in the place names of northern New England and eastern Canada.12 Both ideas are correct, but the first had priority. By the start of the seventeenth century, Acadia or l’Acadie referred to land on both sides of what we call the Bay of Fundy, which Champlain named the Baie Françoise. It included the coasts of today’s Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and part of downeast Maine. An example was the Lavasseur map in 1601, which labelled that area as the “coste de Cadie.”13


In October 1603 the sieur de Mons went to the king and proposed a settlement in Acadia. He also suggested a way to pay for it without cost to the Royal Treasury. De Mons believed that private investors could assume the costs of colonization, in return for a monopoly of the fur trade in New France. The very profitable voyage to Tadoussac earlier that year showed that such a venture could even yield a surplus for the Crown. That idea removed a major obstacle at court. Sully would not have to pay a sou from the treasury, and the king was very pleased. On October 31, 1603, de Mons received a commission as vice admiral for “all the seas, coasts, islands, harbors, and maritime countries which are found in the said province and region of Acadia.”14

A period of hard bargaining followed between de Mons and the king. On November 6, 1603, de Mons submitted “Seven Articles for the Discovery and Settlement of the Coast and Lands of Acadia,” and proposed changes in the terms of his appointment. He asked “very humbly” to be made viceroy rather than vice admiral of New France. Henri IV refused, on the ground that de Mons was not a “prince of the blood.” But he agreed to raise de Mons to the rank of lieutenant general, with quasi-regal powers that allowed him to act as if he were viceroy in North America.15

De Mons also wanted to report directly to the King’s Council, where the American circle was strong. Henri agreed but added one exception, perhaps at the request of lobbyists for merchants. He required that legal questions should go first to officials in the financial center of Rouen. That decision would make trouble in the years to come. It gave investors an advantage, as de Mons and Champlain were aware; but they could not resist the king.16

There were other issues. De Mons, thinking of Sully’s opposition, requested permission to take artisans to New France and also to recruit vagabonds and convicts. He wanted authority to impose fines on illegal traders, and asked for a direct order to build fortresses in America—probably to strengthen his hand with investors. The king approved, and added a request of his own. Reports had reached him that copper had been found in Acadia. He asked for a careful search of mines and minerals, and that was agreed. On November 8, 1603, the king signed a commission to his “dear and well beloved sieur de Mons, as lieutenant general for the country of Acadia.”17

*  *  *

For the sieur de Mons, Champlain, and their friends, Acadia was not merely a place. It was an idea, and even an emotion. They thought of it as a place of natural abundance, with many resources in fish, fur, timber, and soil—a place where people could live comfortably. More than that, they also envisioned Acadia as a place where Catholics and Protestants could live in harmony—a vision that came from the king himself. Henri IV ordered de Mons in no uncertain terms to “colonize the country on condition of establishing there the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion, permitting each person to practice his own religion.” This policy for America followed Henri IV’s solution for France.18

De Mons and Champlain also thought of Acadia as a region where European settlers and American Indians could live side by side in a manner very different from what Champlain had observed in New Spain. These French humanists did not wish to make the Indians into a servile work force, or drive them from their land. They respected the humanity of the Indians even in their “savage state,” without “faith or law or authority,” ni foi, ni loi, ni roi, as Champlain put it. They hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity, and to coexist with them.

Henri IV’s grant of absolute powers and a trading monopoly to the sieur de Mons, Dec. 18, 1603. After the fiasco at Sable Island, the king insisted that French colonization in North America must pay its own way. It never succeeded in doing so.

These men were not utopians. They had no hope of a heavenly city on this earth. Forty years of civil war and religious strife had made them realists. But the horrors they had seen also gave them a sense of urgency about higher ideas of humanity and toleration. It was a generational phenomenon. Like later generations of American founders who witnessed the atrocities in eighteenth-century warfare, and also like the “wise men” of the mid-twentieth century who had survived two world wars, the earlier generation of de Mons and Champlain combined realism and idealism in their vision of a better world.19

Before these men could erect a colony in Acadia, they had to build a base in France. They knew that the king would give them strong moral support, little material assistance, and no money. The sieur de Mons faced a major problem that way. The king’s grant of a trading monopoly did not sit well with other French merchants. In Brittany the provincial Estates continued to demand full “liberté de trafic du Canada.” In Normandy the Parlement at Rouen refused even to register the Royal grant.

Henri IV was quick to intervene. He made very clear to the men of Rouen that the project for New France was vital to the “advancement of Our Power and Authority,” and a monopoly of the fur trade was its necessary instrument. The king informed the merchants who claimed liberty of trade that they had full liberty to join the company of monsieur de Mons.20 Many did so. De Mons succeeded in raising a capital of 90,000 livres from investors in four commercial centers: Rouen, Saint-Malo, La Rochelle and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. All contributed to the company and were encouraged to send their ships to New France. At the end of the first year, profits were to be reinvested in colonization. Thereafter, dividends would be paid to the investors. A large sum of capital was paid into the venture, and the future of the De Mons Company looked very bright.21

In the early months of 1604, the sieur de Mons began to organize an expedition. One of the first people he invited was Champlain, who wrote, “The sieur de Mons asked if I would agree to make this voyage with him.” Champlain was quick to accept, but as the king’s servant and pensioner, once again he could do so only by royal leave. “I agreed to his request,” he said, “provided that I had the approval of His Majesty.” Champlain went to see the king again and wrote, “He gave me permission” on one condition, “that I should always make him a faithful report of everything I saw and discovered.”22

As often in his life, Champlain’s status was not clearly defined, which appears to have been the way he liked it, as it gave him larger possibilities. As before, he was not an officer in the chain of command, but he had the rank of a gentleman, with a pension from the Crown and orders to report directly to Henri IV on all that he saw and discovered. Champlain always acknowledged the authority of the sieur de Mons as commander of the expedition and was completely loyal to him. At the same time he served his own purposes, with the sanction of the king himself.

The next step was to recruit colonists. No roster has survived, but many individuals can be identified by name, rank, or occupation. They made a model of diversity in early modern France. The leaders were “several noblemen,” and “a large number of gentlemen, of whom not a few were of noble birth,” in Champlain’s phrase. Nine of these gentleman-adventurers can be identified by name, all with the honorary title of “sieur.” Among them were the sieur de Mons, commander of the expedition, traveling with his able secretary Jean Ralluau, his servant Artus Daniel, and his bodyguard François Addenin, who may have been selected by Henri IV and was described “carrying arms under his charge for the service of his Majesty.”23

Another nobleman was Jean de Biencourt, sieur de Poutrincourt. He came from Picardy and he liked to say that he was going “for pleasure,” but he was also in search of a site in America “to which he might retire with his household, his wife and children.” Poutrincourt was a nobleman and a gentleman, “well-educated in the classics, a competent musician, and a brave soldier.” His companions took pleasure in his company.24

Others of high rank were identified as the sieurs d’Orville, de Genestou, de Sourin, de Beaumont, La Motte Bourgjoli, Fougeray de Vitré, and Pierre du Bosc-Douyn, called du Boullay, a senior captain in the Régiment de Poutrin-court. Little is known of these men beyond their garbled names and titles. None were mentioned for any special skill. Most were men of independent means who came as volunteers for what promised to be a great adventure. They were given special accommodations, as suited their station.25

Below these gentlemen were men of middling rank, recruited for their skills. At least seven were mariners with long experience at sea. The commander afloat, and first lieutenant of the sieur de Mons ashore, was François Gravé, sieur du Pont, as he was recorded in the port records of Honfleur. We have already met him as Champlain’s shipmate Pont-Gravé. He was greatly respected for his knowledge of the North Atlantic. Under him were Captain Timothée le Barbier of Le Havre, Captain Nicolas Morel of Dieppe, Captain Guillaume Foulques, and also Master Guillaume Duglas and Master Cramolet. These men appeared in the records of many voyages to America.26 Others with professional expertise included Pierre Angibault, sieur de Champdoré, a skilled shipwright and amateur pilot. Henri, sieur de Beaufort, was an affluent young apothecary, the son of a prominent Paris merchant. None of these men were nobles, but they were addressed as sieur.27

Champlain tells us that the sieur de Mons also recruited “about 120 workers,” men who worked with their hands. There were several surgeons, who labored with their hands and were not quite gentlemen, as apothecaries and physicians were thought to be. Others included housewrights, master carpenters, sawyers, masons, blacksmiths, gunners, armorers, and locksmiths (serruriers) who were expert in the repair of gunlocks. At the king’s request, the sieur de Mons employed two master miners named Maître Simon and Maître Jacques, who were identified as coming from Slavonia in southeastern Europe. Perhaps they were Croatian Catholics. Their task was to search for mineral deposits.28

There were also a large number of semiskilled artisans, unskilled laborers, and possibly the usual ships boys. Only a few appeared by name in the notarial records of Le Havre and Honfleur. One of them was Anthoine Lemaire, aged nineteen, a plasterer of houses.29 Some may have been convicts and paupers whom de Mons had permission to recruit, perhaps from prison-cells where they were offered the choice of a ship or a scaffold.30 Several groups tended to live and eat apart from the others. A detachment of Swiss soldiers came along. They were the leading mercenaries of their era, highly respected for discipline and widely used to protect princes from their own people. They were probably recruited to keep order among artisans and workers. The soldiers lived in special quarters between the officers and “other ranks.” Their commander may have been the veteran Captain du Boullay.31

Jean Biencourt de Poutrincourt was a Catholic nobleman from Picardy who fought against Henri IV until the king’s conversion, then joined him. He envisioned Acadia as his own feudal utopia, but he was also a humanist, classicist, mathematician, and musician. Some believe that this is his image; others think it is his cousin’s. It represents the dress and appearance of these men.

A party of seamen (matelots) also clubbed together as shipmates and messmates. Most of them sailed back to France at the end of the first summer, but at least twelve remained in the colony through the winter to sail its barques and shallops. Another interesting group were professional hunters, probably recruited from gamekeepers on country estates in France. They appear to have been very independent. They preferred to spend as much time as possible in the open air, ranging across the countryside.

Another very interesting character may have been recruited for the purpose of communicating with the American Indians. His name was Mathieu Da Costa, or De Coste in French documents which described him as a “nègre” or “naigre” of African origin who “spoke the languages of Acadia.” One wonders how he learned them. His name suggested that he had been baptized in Portugal or Spain or perhaps the Cape Verde Islands. Somehow Da Costa had found his way to Acadia, perhaps on a Portuguese or Basque or Spanish ship. He may have been shipwrecked on the coast, or jumped ship, or marooned by an angry captain in North America. However it happened, Mathieu Da Costa appears to have been an African who lived for a time among the Indians of Acadia and learned to speak their Algonquian languages. His services were much sought by merchants in the American trade. On at least one occasion he appears to have been kidnapped by Dutch corsairs. The sieur de Mons was able to hire him, and later became involved in litigation with other men who wanted Da Costa’s skills.32

Another purpose was represented by three men of the cloth who were specially recruited, perhaps on orders from the king. One was a young Catholic priest, Nicolas Aubry, of a “good family” in Paris. He came along despite the strong opposition of his parents, who were frantic with anxiety. They followed him to Honfleur in a desperate effort to persuade him not to go.33 With Father Aubry was another Catholic priest whom Champlain called “le curé,” and a Protestant pastor called “le ministre.” Their names have not been found.34

A spirit of toleration was fully embraced by the leaders of the expedition, both Protestants such as sieur de Mons and Catholics such as Champlain. They shared the king’s religious policy, which combined Catholicism as the established religion with toleration for Protestant dissenters. Unhappily that spirit was not shared by the curé and the minister. From the start they raged against each other, and even came to blows, much to the disgust of others in the expedition, who showed more of the Christian spirit than either of these two religieux.

This expedition consisted entirely of males. No French women were aboard, no families or farmers. That fact makes very clear the purpose of this mission. Its object was not to plant a permanent settlement with a population that could grow by natural increase, but rather to build an avant-poste, an outpost of empire in North America. The sieur de Mons intended to construct an advanced base in the center of Acadia, analogous to a space station in our time, a safe and secure platform, strong enough to defend itself against the possibility of attack by Spanish or English raiders. Its function was to provide a base for exploring missions, to map the coast, and find sites for colonies where French families might settle and start small populations growing.

All these adventurers gathered in the Norman seaports of Honfleur and Le Havre, and crowded aboard two ships. One of them again was La Bonne-Renommée, 120 tons burthen, under three experienced seamen: Pont-Gravé as her commander, Captain Nicolas Morel of Honfleur as master, and Guillaume Duglas as pilot.35 The other vessel was Don de Dieu (Gift of God), 150 tons burthen, and a hundred feet long. She was the “amiral” or flagship of the expedition. On board were sieur de Mons as her commander, Captain Timothée le Barbier of Le Havre, her master, Louis Coman as pilot, and Champlain.36

These ships were very small by comparison with ocean-going vessels of later generations, but they were large by the standards of their time. The Don de Dieu was described as “one of the largest Norman ships that went every year to the Newfoundland cod fisheries.”37 Their holds were packed with absolutely everything that life required, as if they were going to the moon. There were tons of provisions: casks of red wine, hard cider, and water; barrels of salt pork, herring and cod, sacks of grain, dried vegetables and fruits, live sheep, swine, and chickens. They carried building supplies, prefabricated housing, sawn timbers, windows and doors, and everything that a shipwright would need to repair a vessel or build a new one. Also aboard were prefabricated parts for several shallops and skifs. Perhaps sailing in company with the larger vessels was a 40-foot patache of 17 or 18 tons.38

After much labor and tedious paperwork, some of which still survives, the expedition was ready. On April 7, 1604, the Don de Dieu left her mooring in Le Havre. Pont-Gravé followed in Bonne-Renommée on April 10. The two ships sailed independently with orders to meet at the fishing harbor of Canso on the northeastern tip of what is now Nova Scotia.39 Their departure had the air of a great occasion. They sailed as the king’s ships, and flew the naval ensign of France with the royal standard of Henri IV. Salutes were fired in their honor from other vessels and forts at Le Havre. Other French ships deferred to them. One man wrote, “It is a custom at sea for a merchant ship meeting a king’s ship such as ours, to come under her lee, and to sail parallel to her but at an angle, and also to dip her ensigns.”40

A Mi’kmaq petroglyph of an early European ship with a high poop, carved into the rocks of Kejimkujik Park, Nova Scotia. This Indian nation was familiar with Europeans long before Champlain. A leader, Membertou, acquired his own French shallop, painted its sails with his totem, and traded with fishermen far out at sea.

Don de Dieu was a fast sailor. Once at sea she made excellent time, but it was a lively passage and probably hard on landsmen who had never been afloat. They had favorable winds from the east in the North Atlantic, a rare occurrence in early spring, and went spanking along with a following sea and waves so high that they smashed the stern gallery of the flagship. We are told that “a carpenter was carried overboard by a wave,” but he “held fast to a line that happened to be hanging down the ship’s side.” One can only imagine conditions on the lower decks, which were crowded with frightened animals and seasick passengers.41

As they approached the new world, the ships began to meet floating ice in their path. The sieur de Mons ordered the Don de Dieu to steer a more southerly course, toward the lower coast of Acadia. They were moving very fast, and the pilot had more than the usual difficulty in calculating their position. On May 1, they were amazed to see the low sandy beaches of Sable Island on the outer edge of the great fishing banks. It was a surprise to the navigators, as they were only three weeks out of Le Havre, and their reckoning was off the mark. Champlain wrote that they were nearly wrecked on that unfortunate island, which was littered with the bones of broken ships.42

With luck they got clear and sailed onward to the coast of Acadia. On May 8, 1604, they sighted a headland with cliffs more than a hundred feet high. Champlain called it Cap de la Hève, after a French landmark near Le Havre with the same name and similar appearance. It marked the start of Champlain’s long career as an inventor of names for the land of North America. Many are still in use. Most of his early names were French. Later, as he began to work with Indian guides, they drew from native languages.43

Champlain’s chart of Port de la Hève (now La Have), a handsome harbor on the Atlantic coast. It was the first place where he and de Mons came ashore in Acadia, May 8, 1604. Note the Indian and European houses, side by side.

The Don de Dieu entered a long bay and dropped anchor. The date was May 8, 1604, and they had made a very fast crossing. Champlain wrote, “The weather was so favorable that we were only a month to Cap de la Hève.” The average speed of Don de Dieuwas about five knots, with daily runs that would have been above eight knots—faster than some transatlantic convoys in the Second World War.44

The passengers and crew were happy to go ashore on terra firma, and thanked God that they were still alive. Champlain got a small skiff and surveyed the bay with great care. He sounded its depth, calculated the latitude, measured compass variation, and made a very accurate chart.45 On both sides of the bay he mapped two large Indian camps where the Mi’kmaq (he called them Souriquois) came every summer to fish along the coast. They returned to their forest hunting grounds in the winter. A web of Indian paths bore witness to the importance of this place, and old burial grounds testified to its long use.46

The Mi’kmaq had met many Europeans on the coast long before Champlain and the sieur de Mons arrived. Their legends recorded memories and dreams of earlier contact. One was clearly an account of Vikings. Another was recorded as the dream of a young Mi’kmaq woman who one morning looked out to sea and saw a “little island” which had “drifted near to the land” with “trees on it and branches to the trees on which a number of bears as they supposed were crawling about.” The Mi’kmaq seized their bows and spears and went to shoot the bears, and were amazed to discover that “these supposed bears were men, and that some of them were lowering down into the water a very singularly constructed canoe, into which several of them jumped and paddled ashore.” Among them was a man dressed in white who “came towards them making signs of friendship, raising his hand towards heaven, and addressing them in an earnest way, but in a language which they could not understand.” The young woman described the other men as dressed in skins, which suggested that they were Basques. European accounts of the fishing coast noted that Basques wore “good garments of skins,” and that they were on the coast of Acadia long before Champlain arrived.

The Atlantic coast of North America was already a busy place in 1604, with much traffic by seaborne Indians, European fishermen, Basque whaling ships, and trading vessels of many nationalities. By every account, the Mi’kmaq welcomed the French, and offered to help them.47

The harbor at La Hève was an attractive site for settlement but in 1604 it seemed dangerously exposed to seaborne predators of many nations. The French stayed four days and moved on, running south along the coast in search of opportunities.

On May 12 they sailed about twenty-five miles to another harbor, now called Liverpool. Here they surprised a small French trading vessel of about 50 tons called La Levrette (Greyhound). Her captain, Jean de Rossignol of Le Havre, was busily bartering furs from the Indians. He claimed to have a license from the French admiralty, but it was only for trade on the coast of Florida. The sieur de Mons told him that he was in violation of the king’s patent, and probably offered terms, but Rossignol was defiant. De Mons seized the ship and made the captain a prisoner for return to France. Champlain mapped the harbor and named it Port au Rossignol.48

A memory of this event survives in the oral traditions of the Mi’kmaq people of Bear River Reserve. It was recorded in the early twentieth century by a Métis guide named Henry Peters. “Well,” said he, speaking of Champlain’s vessel, “they came into Liverpool one time and there was a ship there that wasn’t supposed to be. They boarded the ship, and there was just the mate and cook on board. Well, they had to tell where the captain and the crew were. They were upriver trading with the Indians, which they didn’t have permission from the governor to do. Well, when the traders came down the river they waylaid them and took the canoes of fur and the crew. They thought they got them all. Rossignol was the captain and that’s where Lake Rossignol, the largest lake in Nova Scotia, got its name.” Peters remembered that two of Rossignol’s seamen were named Peter and Charles. They slipped over the side of their canoe, and “swam to shore underwater to keep them from being shot. So where were they to go? They went back up the river to Kedgie.”49

This was a Mi’kmaq community on islands in Lake Rossignol. Peters recalled that each Mi’kmaq family had its own island. The two European seamen took Indian wives, but no islands were left for them, so they settled on the lakeshore, at places that came to be called Peter’s Point and Charles Point. Henry Peters himself was descended from the seaman named Peter, and learned the story from his father, who had heard it from his father. It describes a process by which a unique population began to grow in Acadia as early as 1604—a mix of Indians, French, English, Scottish, Basques, Portuguese, and Africans.50

After this affair, the sieur de Mons and Champlain sailed on, with little Levrette in company and master Rossignol an angry prisoner below. They went about ten miles along the Atlantic coast of Acadia and entered another very beautiful bay with open cleared land. Champlain named it Port au Mouton after a sheep that fell overboard, and was “eaten as a fair prize.” It was an inviting place, with fresh water, game, and birds. De Mons decided to bring his men ashore and give them a rest from their seaboard routine. He ordered them to make camp at Port au Mouton on high ground between the bay and two fresh water lakes. The men improvised their own cabins “Indian fashion,” or “according to their fantasy,” in Champlain’s words.51


Port au Mouton (pronounced Matoon in Nova Scotia) was named by Champlain after a sheep fell overboard and drowned there. De Mons led his men ashore, and they built their own shelters, “each according to his fancy,” while Champlain went exploring.

The sieur de Mons decided to stay there for several weeks with Don de Dieu and Levrette moored in the bay, while he ordered two smaller craft to explore the coast in opposite directions. A shallop with Indian guides was sent northeast in search of Pont-Gravé and Bonne-Renommée, which carried many of the expedition’s supplies. At the same time, de Mons asked Champlain to take command of a small barque of eight tons. Champlain’s orders were to proceed with Jean Ralluau, the secretary of the expedition, and maître Simon, one of the Balkan miners. They were told to search the “coasts, ports and harbors” and find “where our vessels might proceed in safety.”52

Champlain left on May 19, 1604, and found himself on a dangerous Atlantic coast with many capes, rocks, and treacherous shoals that extended far from shore. He had to stand well out into the ocean to keep clear of them, then work his way back, chart the coast, and set maître Simon ashore to search for mineral deposits, while he and Jean Ralluau examined the soil for its fertility. Then he returned to the sea, dodged sunken obstructions that could sink his boat, and repeated the operation at the next cove. It was slow and tricky work, with rough seas, rip tides, and strong currents.53

By this laborious method Champlain followed the deep-indented Atlantic coast of Acadia, and found more than ten coves and bays in a stretch of forty miles. At last he came to Cape Sable, an island that marked the extreme southeastern tip of Acadia. Near it Champlain found a haven “where vessels can anchor without the least fear of danger.” It was a promising place for a fort and trading post.

Then he rounded the southern end of Acadia and came upon islands with an unimaginable abundance of nesting birds. Champlain named one of them Isle aux Cormorans “because of the infinite number of these birds of whose eggs we took a barrel full.” On another island he found birds he called tan-gueux, probably gannets, and wrote that “we killed them easily with a stick.” On two other islands, he wrote, “the abundance of birds of different kinds is so great that no one would believe it possible unless he had seen it: such as cormorants, ducks of three kinds, snow geese, murres, wild geese, puffins, snipe, fish-hawks and other birds of prey, sea-gulls, curlews, turnstones, divers, loons, eiders, ravens, cranes and other kinds unknown to me which make their nests there.”54

The beaches of these islands were also “completely covered with seals, whereof we took as many as we wished,” and he discovered a taste for seal meat, which with a marinade makes very good eating. In the face of this vast abundance of life, the first thought of these hungry men was to kill as many as possible for pleasure and the pot, then gorge themselves, kill again, and eat once more.55

Champlain and his crew sailed on, along the short southern coast of Acadia, and found more harbors. They took a close look at Cap Fourchu (which resembled the tongs of a fourchette, or fork), and Champlain studied an attractive harbor that is now the port of Yarmouth. Nearby, maître Simon found what might have been mines of iron and silver. Then they turned north and entered the long inlet of St. Mary Bay, where Champlain discovered an attractive site for settlement with open meadows and “soil among the best I’ve ever seen.” He named it Port Sainte-Marguerite. Maître Simon also thought he had found a deposit of iron and silver.56

They could go no farther. With provisions running low, Champlain came about, and returned the way he had come. On the Atlantic coast he was overtaken by a wild gale, and saved his barque only by running her ashore in a safe place. After the storm passed, they sailed on and reached Port-au-Mouton the next day. Champlain wrote, “The sieur de Mons was expecting us from day to day, not knowing what to think of our delay except that some accident must have happened.”57

Champlain had acquitted himself well in his first independent command. It was no small feat to navigate so difficult a coast with twelve men in a small barque. He had followed de Mons’ instructions to the letter. The sieur de Ralluau (a skilled seaman himself) appears to have made a favorable report, and Champlain was given more responsibility.58

De Mons wanted to examine the coast of Acadia himself, on both sides of the Baie Françoise, now the Bay of Fundy. He put the gentleman-adventurers aboard the Don de Dieu, while he and Champlain took a small shallop and worked closely together, exploring promising parts of the coast.59 They moved quickly around the southern end of Acadia, following the route that Champlain had explored. De Mons wanted to have another look at the long stretch of water that is now called St. Mary Bay, probably because of the report from maître Simon about deposits of iron and silver there. They found little in the way of minerals, and “no place where we might fortify ourselves.”60

They sailed out of St. Mary Bay and headed northeast up the much larger Baie Française in search of good sites. Two leagues along the coast, they turned into a narrow opening between high headlands, and found themselves on a magnificent sheet of water, almost like an inland sea. Champlain wrote, “we entered one of the most beautiful harbors I have seen on all these coasts, which could safely hold 2,000 ships.” They named it Port-Royal—today’s Annapolis Basin.61 To enter it from the sea today is to share his sense of wonder and discovery.

The land attracted them as much as the harbor. Champlain added: “From the mouth of the river to the point we reached are many prairies or meadows but these are flooded at high tide, and numbers of small creeks that cross from one side and another…. The place was the most proper and pleasant for a settlement that we had seen.”62

They might have planted their settlement there, but de Mons wanted to explore the rest of the Baie Française before he made a decision. Thinking perhaps of the king’s interest in mines they sailed up the bay to another large basin where minerals were said to have been found. They went ashore, did some prospecting, and came upon some hopeful traces of copper, and they called the place Port-des-Mines, today’s Minas Basin.63

Champlain and de Mons continued around the head of the bay and were astonished by its prodigious tides, among the highest in the world. They began to explore its western shore, moving very quickly now. On June 24, they came to “one of the largest and deepest rivers we had yet seen,” and named it the rivière Saint-Jean “because that was the day when we arrived.” They entered the river and were startled to discover a reversing falls, which changed direction when the incoming tide submerged the rapids, as it does today. They waited for the tide to change, and sailed through the falls on the incoming tide. Upstream they found another broad bay, and they could go no farther. Indians told them that the St. John River offered an avenue to the St. Lawrence Valley with only a short portage. On the coast to the north, they also found a fine harbor, today’s handsome city of Saint John, New Brunswick.64

From the St. John River they headed south through so many islands that they were unable to count them. They were traveling with Indian guides, and named a large island Grand Manan, after the Algonquian word for island.65 They came to Passamaquoddy Bay, entered a broad estuary and followed it upstream to a beautiful place where three rivers came together in the shape of a crucifix, and just below, a handsome wooded island of about five acres which they called “Isle Sainte-Croix,” Holy Cross Island.

It caught Champlain’s eye as “easy to fortify.” He was deeply mindful of defense, not primarily against Indians but Europeans. Champlain keenly remembered the fate of Laudonnière’s colony in Florida, destroyed by a Spanish commander who ordered his men to murder the French colonists in cold blood. In 1604, the French leaders in Acadia were determined that they would not be caught in the same way.


The St. John River, in what is now New Brunswick, was named by Champlain for Saint John’s Day, June 24, 1604, when he went there and made this map. He was interested in its reversing falls (C) and its river valley, which was joined by a portage to the St. Lawrence. The Indian fort (E) later became a French and English post.

Sainte-Croix was a natural fortress, “eight or nine hundred paces in circumference.” On three sides it had granite cliffs twenty to thirty feet high, so steep as to be virtually impassable. On the fourth side of the island, facing downstream, they found a small crescent beach of sand and clay, guarded by granite rocky outcrops called “nubbles,” which could bear the weight of ramparts and cannon.66


Sainte-Croix Island was occupied by the French in June 1604. It lay in a river of the same name that is now the boundary between the United States and Canada. Champlain’s shallop is anchored upstream of the island and a three-masted patache is moored below.

The island was attractive in other ways. In June it looked lush and very fertile. Champlain and the sieur de Mons explored the banks of both its rivers, and found good ground for farming, with flowing streams of fresh water, excellent sites for mills with a good head of water, and an abundance of timber. Upstream they found deposits of copper ore, sand, clay, and building-stone. The river teemed with alewives, bass, and shad. At low tide, Champlain found “plenty of shellfish such as clams, mussels, sea-urchins and sea-snails, which were of great benefit to everyone.”67

And so it was decided. This would be their first settlement. After a long search, de Mons and Champlain made a quick judgment. They must have been very tired, and they had an anxious eye on the calendar. It was the last week in June when they arrived at Sainte-Croix Island. Spring had gone, and something had to be done.68

The settlers swarmed ashore, and were immediately assaulted by an enemy they had not met before. Champlain described them as “mosquitoes which are little flies,” and “several of our men had their faces so swollen by their bites that they could scarcely see.” New Englanders and New Brunswickers will recognize them as the dreaded black flies, clouds of tiny carnivores that are often at their worst in late June.69

The other French ships soon came up the river— Don de Dieu with little Levrette, and several shallops. A few days later a small barque duport of about 8 tons arrived. She had been sent by Pont-Gravé from Canso on the Atlantic coast, where he was gathering a cargo of fish and furs. On board were the masters of Basque ships arrested by Pont-Gravé for illegal trading. The sieur de Mons “treated them humanely, les receut humainement,” in Champlain’s phrase, and he ordered their return to France.70

Champlain’s plan of settlement on Sainte-Croix Island. The elegant house of de Mons is to the right of the tree. To the north are the storehouse and barracks for the Swiss soldiers. To the south are houses for gentlemen and bunkhouses for artisans and laborers.

On Sainte-Croix their first task was to fortify the island. Champlain wrote, “We began to erect a barricade on a small islet, a little apart from it, and this served as a platform for mounting our cannon.” Today it is still called Cannon Nubble, and it appears very much as Champlain described it. The battery faced downriver toward the open sea, where they felt the greatest danger. Its guns controlled the entire width of the river, and a deep anchorage where Champlain found sixty feet of water, enough for large ocean-going ships to ride safely at their moorings. After the battery was in place, the barricade may have been extended along a beach on the south side of the island, and within a few days the settlement was declared to be in “a state of defense.”71

Then the sieur de Mons laid out the settlement. He ordered that the woods on the island should be cut down, “save the trees along the shore,” and one large tree was left standing in what appears to have been a small village square. A very handsome house was erected for the governor, made of “fair sawn timber, with the banner of France overhead.” It had an elegant hipped Mansard roof and “artistic and beautiful woodwork.” A fireplace was built with beautiful yellow bricks that had been brought from France, as were the timbers, heavy doors, and casement windows. The colonists also built a big storehouse, the largest and most important structure on the island, for its provisions were “the safety and life of each.” It had a stone foundation and was “built likewise of fair timber, covered with shingles.”72

A covered gallery went up, “wherein we spent our time when it rained,” and also a bakehouse, cookhouse, blacksmith’s shop, and carpenter’s house. The dwellings followed, “each working at his own.” The gentlemen and servants put up their own small tenements. Champlain wrote, “I worked at mine, which I built with the aid of some servants of the sieur d’Orville and myself.” Artisans and laborers constructed bunkhouses for themselves, and the Swiss soldiers had barracks. An oven was added, and a hand mill, and an attempt was made at digging a well, but it appears not to have been very successful. On the shore opposite the island, an Indian village sprang up and the French built them a chapel “in the Indian manner.”73

Fields were planted on the mainland and a large garden on the island. Champlain wrote that the seeds “came up very well” except on the island, where “the soil was dry and sandy, and everything was scorched when the sun shone.” They had trouble watering the seedlings, which required “great pains.”74

Much archaeology has been done on this island from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. In general these projects have confirmed the accuracy of Champlain’s written account. An engraving of the settlement in Champlain’s Voyages depicts a more idealized image, but it is also accurate in its main lines.75

In September, the sieur de Mons ordered the Don de Dieu and Levrette back to France, and seventy-nine men prepared to stay the winter, with de Mons in command and Champlain at his side. The latitude of Sainte-Croix Island was about the same as Saintonge, and the French expected that the winter would be similar as well. To their shock, the first snow fell in the first week of October. By January three feet of snow were on the ground, and a cruel wind howled down the river. Temperatures plummeted and the winter turned bitter cold for many months.76 The Sainte-Croix River froze during the first week of December. The movement of the tide broke the heavy ice into jagged pieces that froze again in an impenetrable tangle of slabs and blocks. The men on Sainte-Croix Island could not cross the river by foot or boat, and were isolated from the mainland. Their cider and wines froze solid, except for some fortified Spanish wine. They had no source of water except melted snow, and soon they were short of firewood as well. Their diet of dried provisions and salt meat was miserable. Men began to grow weak from malnutrition, and symptoms of scurvy began to appear among them.

In mid-winter the habitants started to die, many in severe pain. Of the seventy-nine French colonists who wintered on the island, Champlain tells us, thirty-five died and twenty more were “very near it.” Here again, the evidence of archaeology has confirmed Champlain’s account. The bodies were buried in graves so shallow that the skeletons began to emerge from the ground. For many years, the Indians called this haunted place Bone Island.77

The French surgeons were baffled by these deaths. They performed careful autopsies on the victims in hope of finding the cause. Champlain wrote, “We opened several of them to determine the cause of their illness.” In the twentieth century, archaeologists found the body of a settler on whom an autopsy was performed—the earliest evidence of a European autopsy in North America. Once more, the evidence of archaeology confirmed the accuracy of Cham plain’s account. Forensic pathologists examined the remains in 2003, and were impressed by the professional skill of the French surgeons. But the autopsies gave the colonists no way of understanding what was happening to them.78

This skull of a French settler was found on Sainte-Croix Island by archaeologists. He died of scurvy in 1604–05. This modern CT scan and analysis by multi-detector computed tomography found clear traces of scurvy and confirmed Champlain’s account. Archaeology also yielded evidence of the autopsy that he described.

Champlain believed that scurvy was a dietary disease and he attributed its cause to an excess of salt provisions and a shortage of fresh food. Not until the twentieth century would the absence of vitamin C be identified as the cause, but even before the settlement on Sainte-Croix Island, ships’ doctors on long voyages were beginning to find a cure. As early as 1602–03 a writer named François Pyrard reported outbreaks of scurvy on ships bound for the East Indies, and concluded that “there is no better or more certain remedy than oranges or citrons.” Champlain heard about this finding. He wrote that “the Flemish” had found “a very strange remedy, which might be of service to us, but we have never ascertained the character of it.”79

Champlain observed that Indians survived the winter without scurvy and concluded that another remedy was fresh-killed meat. A Jesuit priest who talked with the survivors reported: “Of all the men of sieur de Mons who wintered first at Sainte-Croix, only eleven remained in good health. These were the hunters who much preferred the chase to the air of the fireside, running actively to lying passively in bed, setting traps in the snow for wild game to sitting around the fire, talking of Paris and its great chefs.”80

In late March the river thawed. The sieur de Mons and Champlain obtained a supply of fresh meat from the Indians, and the French settlers began to recover, before the greening of the forest plants.81 But when spring finally came to Sainte-Croix Island, only eleven of seventy-nine settlers were in good health. Most were dead. They had made a calamitous choice of site, without studying the island carefully enough to realize that it had no reliable source of water and fuel. They did not think that communications with the mainland might be difficult in the winter, or that relations with the Indians would be vital to their survival. Both de Mons and Champlain had read about earlier colonies that had been planted on islands, and had been cut off from assistance, with disastrous results. In 1560, French Admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon had founded a French settlement on a small island in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro, and it had failed. Something similar had happened on Sable Island.82

The choice of Sainte-Croix appears to have been a decision that de Mons and Champlain made together. There were no recriminations. Both men learned from their terrible mistake, and moved on. They were determined to persevere—but in another place.

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