This year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent French settlement in North America, at Quebec, by Samuel de Champlain. The fame of Champlain, like that of other European explorers, “discoverers” and conquistadors, has diminished sharply over recent years. David Hackett Fischer's fine new biography, “Champlain's Dream,” is the first important book on Champlain in 20 years. Following a long string of revisionist histories of the Spanish, Jamestown and Mayflower settlers, it signals a new perspective on the European impact on the Americas.
Champlain, born in 1567, was not the first explorer to sail to the Canadian north, or even the first Frenchman. By the end of the 1500s, when Champlain made his first voyages, there was already an active fishing and fur commerce in the northern waters. And of course, the Spanish were far advanced in their subjugation of the southern regions.
But Champlain was a singular figure. Fischer, a Brandeis historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “Washington's Crossing,” presents Champlain as a deeply humane man, an explorer, cartographer and ethnographer whose vision of a new society in North America was shaped by France's 40 years of religious strife and by the misery and brutality he witnessed on his travels through Florida and the Spanish Caribbean.
Champlain, says Fischer, “had a dream of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence. He envisioned a new world as a place where people of different cultures could live together in amity and concord. This became his grand design for North America.”
The story of Champlain's many voyages and his explorations of four Canadian provinces and five American states fills many pages and is meticulously supported by Champlain's writings and maps amazingly detailed and accurate and by recent archaeological findings. “In his thoughts and acts we always find a consuming curiosity about the world,” writes Fischer, and the evidence bears him out.
Unlike other European explorers, Champlain had a genuine interest in and affinity for the native sauvages, by which he meant simply “forest-dwellers.” He built numerous alliances with native tribes, dealt with them fairly and honestly, and earned their trust and respect.
To the native people, Champlain possessed a high degree of vital spirit, what the Huron called orenda, a form of spiritual power that could be used for good or evil. Time and again Champlain won over the native tribes with his courage, open-heartedness, and acts of generosity what the French would call his bonhomie.
“Champlain's Dream” is an important addition to the debate over the European settlement of the Americas, and an inspiring and bittersweet “what if” in the history of colonial subjugation and exploitation.
This review first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.