I finish the books I start reading, almost without fail. This habit made my college liberal arts courses, sometimes assigning multiple hefty tomes a week, a nightmare. So how did “Champlain’s Dream”, a monograph about early French explorer Samuel de Champlain, founder of New France, avoid that fate? It’s a huge book! 848 pages! Almost 1.5 times the heft of a King James Bible bound in imitation leather!
Well it barely did get finished, and truth be told came awfully close to sitting at 10% finished on my Kindle. The first hundred pages, covering Champlain’s early life up until he first sails for New France, were a real slog. While I did find it interesting to learn about a part of history mostly unknown to me (the French wars of religion of the 16th century) this book was headed toward that rarefied list of “books Jeff didn’t finish”. But then my father told me it was awesome, and I heard a close friend’s dad has read everything Hackett Fischer has written, so I pushed through. Well worth it!!!* (if you are a history dork)
I first picked up the book because I am fascinated by the idea of historical what-ifs, and Champlain’s life and career certainly represent where things could have gone much differently in North America. Could the genocidal tragedy that befell the indigenous peoples of North America been avoided? What if the second Monday of October was not named after a European who, after bravely sailing into the unknown, proceeded to enslave and mutilate the people he found? While most of the early European explorers such as Columbus do seem to deserve the lashing they have received by recent historians, Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec City and leader of the first French settlements along the St. Lawrence, seems to be different.
Hackett Fischer’s fascinating story of a unique leader sheds some light on these questions. Champlain’s Dream presents a man who consistently treated the indigenous people as allies and, for the most part, equals. If his leadership had been emulated and followed by those who followed him, it’s hard to not believe that things could have been different for the indigenous. From the beginning of his time in North America, Champlain walked into local councils and customs as a learner and equal participant. He took risks in exploring huge swaths of the Great Lakes region, traversing deadly rapids with the same birchbark canoes as the locals, and entered the councils of hostile tribes as a supplicant, not conqueror. He managed to overcome British invasion and years of meagre support from the French crown to help French settlements along the St. Lawrence river eventually flourish, utilizing close alliances with native peoples.
Champlain was so well loved by his native allies that ethnohistorians have discovered oral histories praising him that have been passed down to today, almost 400 years later. Champlain did not let his European Christian worldview completely cloud his judgement; while he, like all other staunch religionists of his time, tried to convert the natives, he did not inflict cruel punishments on them when they did not see the light. Of course this view is only one side of the story, as it’s likely Champlain is not nearly as revered among the members of the Iroquois Nation of tribes, against whom he led numerous deadly raids.
If it’s not clear by now, this book is not for the non-history dork. David Hackett Fischer did a phenomenal job combing archives on both sides of the Atlantic, meticulously reviewing primary and secondary sources dating back 400 years, French, Spanish, and Canadian. If that sentence doesn’t get you excited, well, you aren’t a history dork, so let this modest review of mine be all that you read on the topic. Champlain was a fascinating guy who wasn’t your typical guns gold and glory explorer, and to some, he represents a major what-if in North American history.