This Week in History


Champlain Charts Coast

For the week of Monday May 18, 1998

On May 19, 1604, navigator and geographer Samuel de Champlain, could be seen charting the Acadian coastline, near the Bay of Fundy. On this, his second voyage to New France, Champlain was hired to help establish a French settlement in the New World. Despite the difficult conditions and the harsh winter, Champlain loved New France and devoted most of his life to its settlement.

Samuel de Champlain (1570-1635), Presumed Portrait

Samuel de Champlain (1570-1635)
Presumed Portrait

© Library and Archives Canada / C- 6643

From the late 1400s to the 1700s, the Kings and Queens of Europe were anxious to control as much of the globe as possible. In the European view, the Americas, Africa, Australia and Asia were new and undiscovered territories, overflowing with resources and available for ownership. France laid claim to the east coast of Canada, which it named New France. Champlain was hired to help find the best location for a colony, which would become the base for all fish and fur trade to France. As the expedition travelled up and down the coast, Champlain drew very detailed maps of the territory. While travelling near the present-day Maine (USA) - New Brunswick (Canada) border, the men discovered an island at the mouth of a large river, naming both "Sainte-Croix." After further exploration, they decided to settle on "Isle-Sainte-Croix" and worked hard clearing land and constructing buildings. Unfortunately, they were unprepared for their first winter. The island offered no protection from the wind, and they could not cross the drifting ice to hunt on the mainland. Because their diet consisted mostly of salted meat, it wasn't long before scurvy set in, killing almost half of the men. That spring, realizing their mistakes, the survivors relocated to Port-Royal (now in Nova Scotia) -- buildings and all.

The mainland proved much friendlier to the Europeans. Fresh water and game were readily available, and their attempts at agriculture were extremely successful. Despite the milder winters, the men still found it bleak and depressing. In 1607, Champlain organized the first social club in North America, l'Ordre de Bon Temps or the Order of Good Cheer, to help lift the spirits of his men. Each day, a different member of the Order was responsible for supplying dinner. This provided a diversion from the everyday boredom, while supplementing their diet. Relations between the settlers and the Aboriginal people were so good that Membertou, Grand Chief of the Mi'kmaq frequently attended these dinners. That summer, just as the colony began to thrive, orders arrived to abandon Port Royal. Heavy-hearted, the men returned to France.

Samuel de Champlain's map of 1632

Samuel de Champlain's map of 1632
© Library and Archives Canada / NMC- 51970

Within one year, Champlain would return to New France, this time founding the city of Québec. Known as the Father of New France, Champlain worked tirelessly promoting settlement, exploring and mapping territory, and preserving alliances with the Mi'kmaq and the Hurons.

Samuel de Champlain is commemorated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada at Ottawa and Orillia, Ontario. Membertou is recognized at Port Royal, Nova Scotia for his role in the French-Mi'kmaq Alliance. Because of their importance to early French settlement, Port-Royal is designated a national historic site and St. Croix River a Canadian Heritage River. St. Croix Island is an international historic site, commemorated by Parks Canada and the United States National Parks Service.

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