John Allemang: Sam the sham ... The myth of Champlain

Roundup: Talking About History

When Samuel de Champlain – the Father of Canada, as the grade-school teachers used to say – had to sell the Cardinal de Richelieu on sticking with the floundering colony of Quebec, he dangled the lure of a trade bonanza before France's all-powerful backroom boy.

“These fresh discoveries,” he wrote in The Vo yages to Western New France, Called Canada (1632), “have led to the project of forming there these colonies, which, though at first of little account, nevertheless, in course of time, by means of trade, will equal the states of greatest kings.”

Champlain was putting one over on the Cardinal and all the other important and otherwise-engaged decision makers in far-away France. The survival of the bleak habitation that improbably turned into Canada depended on his enthusiastic deception: As a colony and a nation-in-training, Quebec was little short of a disaster. After Champlain first set foot on the town's imposing site 400 years ago this summer – on July 3, 1608 – he produced reams of praise for the potential of his settlement at the narrowing of the St. Lawrence, but little in the way of what hard-nosed business backers would call “results.”

Several decades after the colony's scurvy-ravaged founding, despite all of Champlain's self-promoting propaganda and frequent trips back to France to reassure anxious investors, barely 200 people called Quebec home. They had just endured an embarrassing interlude in which a pair of English brothers seized the ragtag colony and expelled most of its starving inhabitants – and Champlain had the gall to tell the Cardinal that, “by means of trade,” everything was going to be just fine?...

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