T O discover a passage westward was still the main object of those who made their way up the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. This, too, was the object of Samuel Champlain, known as "the Father of New France," when he arrived with orders from France to establish an industrial colony "which should hold for that country the gateway of the Golden East." He had already ascended the river Saguenay, a tributary of the St. Lawrence, till stopped by rapids and rocks, and the natives had told him of a great salt sea to the north, which was Hudson's Bay, discovered some seven years later, in 1610. He now made his way to a spot called by the natives Quebec, a word meaning the strait or narrows, this being the narrowest place in the whole magnificent waterway. He had long been searching for a suitable site for a settlement, but "I could find none more convenient," he says, "or better situated than the point of Quebec, so called by the savages, which was covered with nut trees." Accordingly here, close to the present Champlain market, arose the nucleus of the city of Quebec—the great warehouse of New France.
Having passed the winter of 1608 at Quebec, the passion of exploration still on him, in a little two-masted boat piloted by Indians, he went up the St. Lawrence, towards Cartier's Mont Royal. From out the thick forest land that lined its banks, Indians discovered the steel-clad strangers and gazed at them from the river-banks in speechless wonder. The river soon became alive with Indian canoes, but the Frenchmen made their way to the mouth of the Richelieu River, where they encamped for a couple of days' hunting and fishing. Then Champlain sailed on, his little two-masted boat outstripping the native canoes, till the unwelcome sound of rapids fell on the silent air, and through the dark foliage of the islet of St. John he could see "the gleam of snowy foam and the flash of hurrying waters." The Indians had assured him that his boat could pass unobstructed through the whole journey. "It afflicted me and troubled me exceedingly," he tells us, "to be obliged to return without having seen so great a lake, full of fair islands and bordered with the fine countries which they had described to me."
The first settlement at Quebec.
He could not bear to give up the exploration into the heart of a land unvisited by white men. So, sending back his party, accompanied only by two Frenchmen as brave as himself, he stepped into an Indian canoe to be carried round the rapids and so continue his perilous journey—perilous, indeed, for bands of hostile natives lurked in the primeval forests that clothed the river-banks in dense masses.
As they advanced the river widened out; the Indian canoes carried them safely over the broad stream shimmering in the summer sun till they came to a great silent lake over one hundred miles long, hitherto unexplored. The beauty of the new country is described with enthusiasm by the delighted explorer, but they were now in the Mohawk country and progress was fraught with danger. They travelled only by night and lay hidden by day in the depth of the forest, till they had reached the far end of the lake, named Lake Champlain after its discoverer. They were near the rocky promontory where Fort Ticonderoga was afterwards built, when they met a party of Iroquois; war-cries pealed across the waters of the lake, and by daybreak battle could no longer be averted. Champlain and his two companions, in doublet and hose, buckled on their breastplates, cuisses of steel and plumed helmets, and with sword and arquebus advanced. Their firearms won the day, but all hope of further advance was at an end, and Champlain returned to Quebec with his great story of new lands to the south. It was not till the spring of 1611 that he was again free to start on another exploring expedition into the heart of Canada.
His journey to the rapids of the St. Louis has been well described: "Like specks on the broad bosom of the waters, two pigmy vessels held their course up the lonely St. Lawrence. They passed abandoned Tadoussac, the channel of Orleans, the tenantless rock of Quebec, the wide Lake of St. Peter with its crowded archipelago, and the forest plain of Montreal. All was solitude. Hochelaga had vanished, and of the savage population that Cartier had found sixty-eight years before, no trace remained."
In a skiff with a few Indians, Champlain tried to pass the rapids of St. Louis; but oars, paddles, and poles alike proved vain against the foaming surges, and he was forced to return, but not till the Indians had drawn for him rude plans of the river above, with its chain of rapids and its lakes and its cataracts. They were quite impassable, said the natives, though, indeed, to these white strangers everything seemed possible.
"These white men must have fallen from the clouds," they said. "How else could they have reached us through the woods and rapids which even we find it hard to pass?" Champlain wanted to get to the upper waters of the Ottawa River, to the land of the cannibal Nipissings, who dwelt on the lake that bears their name; but they were enemies, and the natives refused to advance into their country.
The defeat of the Iroquois by Champlain and his party on Lake Champlain.
Two years later he accomplished his desire, and found himself at last in the land of the Nipissings. He crossed their lake and steered his canoes down the French river. Days passed and no signs of human life appeared amid the rocky desolation, till suddenly three hundred savages, tattooed, painted, and armed, rushed out on them. Fortunately they were friendly, and it was from them that Champlain learned the good news that the great fresh-water lake of the Hurons was close at hand.
What if the Friar Le Caron, one of Champlain's party, had preceded him by a few days, Champlain was the first white man to give an account of it, if not the first to sail on its beautiful waters. For over one hundred miles he made his way along its eastern shores, until he reached a broad opening with fields of maize and bright patches of sunflower, from the seeds of which the Indians made their hair-oil. After staying a few days at a little Huron village where he was feasted by friendly natives, Champlain pushed on by Indian trails, passing village after village till he reached the narrow end of Lake Simcoe. A "shrill clamour of rejoicing and the screaming flight of terrified children" hailed his approach. The little fleet of canoes pursued their course along the lake and then down the chain of lakes leading to the river Trent. The inhabited country of the Hurons had now given place to a desolate region with no sign of human life, till from the mouth of the Trent, "like a flock of venturous wild fowl," they found themselves floating on the waters of Lake Ontario, across which they made their way safely.
It was a great day in the life of Champlain when he found himself in the very heart of a hostile land, having discovered the chain of inland lakes of which he had heard so much. But they were now in the land of the Iroquois—deadly foes of the Hurons. There was nothing for it but to fight, and a great battle now took place between the rival tribes, every warrior yelling at the top of his voice. Champlain himself was wounded in the fray, and all further exploration had to be abandoned. He was packed up in a basket and carried away on the back of a Huron warrior. "Bundled in a heap," wrote the explorer, "doubled and strapped together after such a fashion that one could move no more than an infant in swaddling clothes, I never was in such torment in my life, for the pain of the wound was nothing to that of being bound and pinioned on the back of one of our savages. As soon as I could bear my weight, I got out of this prison." How Champlain wintered with the Hurons, who would not allow him to return to Quebec, how he got lost while hunting in one of the great forests in his eagerness to shoot a strange-looking bird, how the lakes and streams froze, and how his courage and endurance were sorely tried over the toilsome marches to Lake Simcoe, but how finally he reached Montreal by way of Nipissing and the Ottawa River, must be read elsewhere. Champlain's work as an explorer was done. Truly has he been called the Father of New France. He had founded Quebec and Montreal; he had explored Canada as no man has ever done before or since. Faithful to the passion of his life, he died in 1635 at Quebec—the city he had founded and loved.