Champlain's Dream by David Hackett Fischer

Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer is a wonderful look at one of  North America’s European founding fathers and heroes.  Samuel de Champlain was the major impetus behind the creation and expansion of New France (Canada) – without him pushing the colony in the beginning, Canada may have been a British colony.

Here is an excerpt of the summary from the publisher’s website:

In this sweeping, enthralling biography, acclaimed historian David Hackett Fischer brings to life the remarkable Samuel de Champlain — soldier, spy, master mariner, explorer, cartographer, artist, and Father of New France.

Born on France’s Atlantic coast, Champlain grew to manhood in a country riven by religious warfare. The historical record is unclear on whether Champlain was baptized Protestant or Catholic, but he fought in France’s religious wars for the man who would become Henri IV, one of France’s greatest kings, and like Henri, he was religiously tolerant in an age of murderous sectarianism. Champlain was also a brilliant navigator. He went to sea as a boy and over time acquired the skills that allowed him to make twenty-seven Atlantic crossings without losing a ship.

But we remember Champlain mainly as a great explorer. On foot and by ship and canoe, he traveled through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states. Over more than thirty years he founded, colonized, and administered French settlements in North America. Sailing frequently between France and Canada, he maneuvered through court intrigue in Paris and negotiated among more than a dozen Indian nations in North America to establish New France. Champlain had early support from Henri IV and later Louis XIII, but the Queen Regent Marie de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu opposed his efforts. Despite much resistance and many defeats, Champlain, by his astonishing dedication and stamina, finally established France’s New World colony. He tried constantly to maintain peace among Indian nations that were sometimes at war with one another, but when he had to, he took up arms and forcefully imposed a new balance of power, proving himself a formidable strategist and warrior.

Throughout his three decades in North America, Champlain remained committed to a remarkable vision, a Grand Design for France’s colony. He encouraged intermarriage among the French colonists and the natives, and he insisted on tolerance for Protestants. He was a visionary leader, especially when compared to his English and Spanish contemporaries — a man who dreamed of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence.

Fischer’s book is an excellent examination of a man that many Americans do not think much about because they do not think that he had much influence on this country.  However, as Fischer points out, this impression would be wrong.  Champlain’s influence on French and Indian relations in Canada affected British/American relations with the Indians.  For example, due to the belligerence of the French to the Iroquois, those Indians turned to the British for support.  The Iroquois allied themselves with the British in two major wars – the French and Indian and the American Revolution.

Fischer does not concentrate as much on Champlain’s military adventures as he does on Champlain’s attempts at keeping the peace between the French and Indians and between the various Indian tribes.  Although it is now quite acceptable to bash European colonization, Fischer aptly points out that Champlain should not be grouped with those other Europeans who wanted to exploit the Indians for the betterment of their respective country.  Fischer explains that Champlain’s foremost endeavor was to treat the Indians as equals and hope for co-existence.

As mentioned above, Champlain’s tolerance did not end with the Indians, but extended to Protestants from his own country.  Although many of his countrymen wanted to strip the Huguenots of all rights, he advocated for a middle road – he did not want them to be on equal terms, but he also did not want to persecute them.

Fischer also thoroughly explains Champlain’s efforts of promoting New France in the French court.  He had a lot of support during the reign of King Henri IV, but he had to kick it up a notch after King Henri IV died – Queen Regent Marie de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu both tried to thwart Champlain’s plans of colonization.  As Fischer notes, Champlain liked to lobby behind the scenes – he was more interested in fulfilling his dream of a New France than getting attention for his ideas.

Based on the title of the book, I believe that Fischer did not intend his book to be a complete and detailed account of Champlain’s life.  He spends some time on Champlain’s early years in the religion wars of France and Champlain’s trip through the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean – but this part is mainly to explain how these years influenced his decisions in New France – e.g. his religious tolerance and treatment of the Indians.

Fischer’s prose is easy to read and the chapters are well organized – it is 531 pages with another 100 pages of appendixes.  In addition, the book includes plenty of maps to follow along with Champlain’s expeditions and illustrations highlighting the people and places associated with Champlain.

This book is a wonderful account of one of France’s greatest heroes in the New World.

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