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Enter Champlain

As a boy growing up in France, Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570-1635) showed a real flair for drawing. He especially liked to design mapsinspired in large part by the tales of adventure his naval captain father brought home. Champlain followed in his fathers footsteps and was commissioned by the French government no fewer than a dozen times between 1603 and 1633 to probe the waters of North America and also explore inland. As with so many other explorers at this time, Champlains primary objective was to find a Northwest Passage through to Asia, but he also worked to promote trade in furs and other commodities. When Richelieu became convinced that money was to be made from North America, even if a Northwest Passage were never found, he also authorized Champlain to establish colonies and (for Richelieu was a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, after all) to promote Christianity.

Champlain established a broad beachhead for France in North America. During the seven voyages made between 1603 and 1616, he thoroughly mapped northern reaches of the continent (accurately charting the Atlantic coast from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Cod), he established settlements, he got the French fur trade off to a most promising start, and he struck alliances with the Algonquin tribes and Hurons against the tribes of the powerful Iroquois League. These alliances would strengthen the French position in the New World at the often bloody expense of their archrivals, the British, who, during the next 150 years, would make few Indian allies but many Indian enemies. Beginning with Champlain, the lines of alliance and enmity among Frenchman, Englishman, and Indian were sharply drawn. These would, by the middle of the next century, deepen into the wounds of the long and tragic French and Indian War.

Champlain erected a crude settlement at Sainte-Croix in 1604, then moved it to Port Royal the following year. This was the nucleus around which the colony of Acadia would be formed. In July 1608, Champlain directed the digging of a ditch and the erection of a stockade. He called this Quebec.

In 1609, operating from his base in Quebec, Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence and the river he named after his patron, Richelieu, to the lake that was subsequently named after Champlain himself. Here he attacked a group of Iroquois, on behalf of his Algonquin allies, thereby cementing the French-Algonquin alliance all the more strongly. Later, in 1615, he would venture farther west, across the eastern end of Lake Ontario, and help the Huron Indians in an attack on the Oneida and Onondaga (two tribes of the Iroquois League). In these actions, Champlain was determined to secure the St. Lawrence region for France. He saw that this served as a major avenue of trade for the Indians. Whoever commanded the region would also command trade in the upper Northeast. Of course, securing alliance with one Indian group meant incurring the wrath of another. And the Iroquois were enemies to be feared. Highly organized, the Iroquois Leaguefive tribes, whose territory stretched from the east coast west to Lake Ontariowaged war mercilessly, employing tactics of torture and terror to intimidate their enemies.

Champlain was an enthusiastic booster of Canada, promoting it in the French court of Louis XIII and Richelieu, yet he initially discouraged out-and-out colonization. Little wonder. For Champlain was interested in operating Quebec as a kind of private trading post, with himself in a position to collect a healthy portion of the profits. Nevertheless, the settlement was the nucleus of a French North American fur-trading empire that would endure for the next 125 years.


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