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A Rare Man of Peace

Book review: Champlain’s Dream


Published July 1, 2009 at 8:01 a.m.

Vermonters have christened everything from convenience stores to chocolate companies after Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570-1635). The French explorer charted vast stretches of North America and created hundreds of place names for geographical features in his remarkably accurate, elaborately illustrated maps. But he named only one after himself: the lake that he, two French companions and a small party of Indian allies reached on July 14, 1609. Vermont’s own, almost-Great Lake Champlain.

In Champlain’s Dream, historian David Hackett Fischer recounts the Frenchman’s dramatic arrival, exploration and lakeside battle at Ticonderoga in lavish and loving detail, as he does every aspect of Champlain’s life. The monumental biography is sweeping in scope and scholarship. (Care for a refresher course on France’s 16th-century Wars of Religion?) The Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t quite have David McCullough’s ear for spinning academic history into delightful yarns. But he keeps the 531 pages of narrative flowing by confining some of the more arcane points to 110 pages of endnotes and 66 pages of appendices.

Fischer engages readers with refreshing insights and colorful particulars as the story unfolds. What happened on Lake Champlain 400 years ago is a riveting example. A full moon meant the French and Indian allies had to proceed slowly southward to remain concealed from their enemies. This gave the explorer time to appreciate the lake’s abundant natural resources. In battle, he and his companions quickly defeated the much larger Mohawk forces. The Frenchmen’s arquebuses, Champlain recalled, “astonished them so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, took to their heels, and abandoned the field and their fort, fleeing into the depth of the forest.”

This clash was one of the rare times Champlain used firepower against the Indians. Fischer sharply contrasts Champlain’s philosophy and practice with how the English, the Dutch and especially the Spanish treated America’s native inhabitants. Other European powers saw the Indians as racially inferior and sought to remove or exploit them, through violence if necessary. Champlain spent several months covertly observing colonial rule in the Caribbean, where the Spanish enslaved Indians while forcibly converting them to Christianity. He noted that these practices were both cruel and ineffective, so outraging the Indians “that they made war against the Spaniards, and killed and ate them.”

The historian delves deeply into the milieu of 16th-century France to explain other factors that shaped Champlain’s more enlightened approach. Extant biographical info is surprisingly sparse for such an important figure. Even the year of his birth remains uncertain. Champlain wrote and published copiously about his voyages but little about his own life. In fact, he may have deliberately shrouded his personal background. Fischer examines one possible reason: Champlain may have been one of King Henri IV’s many illegitimate sons.

So Fischer must pursue the man through his historical context, and this he does brilliantly. A full chapter on Henri and the Wars of Religion, for example, illuminates how Champlain and the king (his future royal patron) “both become men of humanity in a world of cruelty and violence.” Having come of age on the battlefield, in the terrible crucible of civil war, they both committed themselves to ideals of peace and religious tolerance. Champlain’s dream was a New France never torn by the conflicts that nearly destroyed Old France.

Fischer thoroughly documents and analyzes what Champlain achieved pursuing this vision. The gifted explorer and cartographer traveled through territory that now encompasses six Canadian provinces and five American states. The skilled mariner made 27 Atlantic crossings without losing a ship. The wily politician mastered dealing with Parisian court intrigue, negotiating peace with a dozen Indian tribes and leading struggling settlers through the remote colony’s early days.

Although the facts themselves make Champlain’s life extraordinary, Fischer’s tone communicates a certain boosterism about his protagonist. He shows occasional flashes of defensiveness about academia’s late-20th-century bias against Dead White Males, especially those who had any contact with Native Americans. He carefully deconstructs anything Champlain wrote about the Indians that appears condescending.

Native Americans had been living on Lake Champlain for a long time when the Frenchman showed up. But if it feels culturally sensitive (or politically correct) to be dismissive of the 400th anniversary, ponder this: Who considered Champlain a hero and preserved his memory most faithfully? Stories about the “great and brave” white man who came in peace persisted in the oral traditions of Indian tribes for centuries. And that truly fulfilled Champlain’s dream.

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