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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.
This superb biography, the first in decades, is as dramatic and exciting as the life it portrays. Deeply researched, it is illustrated throughout with many contemporary images and maps, including several drawn by Champlain himself.
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David Hackett Fischer is University Professor and Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The recipient of many prizes and awards for his teaching and writing, he is the author of numerous books, including Washington's Crossing, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In Search of Champlain
His activities, which were revealed mainly through his writings, were always surrounded by a certain degree of mystery. -- Raymonde Litalien, 2004
An old French engraving survives from the early seventeenth century. It is a battle-print, at first glance like many others in European print shops. We look again, and discover that it shows a battle in North America, fought between Indian nations four centuries ago. The caption reads in old French, "Deffaite des Yroquois au Lac de Champlain," the "Defeat of the Iroquois at Lake Champlain," July 30, 1609.
On one side we see sixty Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais warriors. On the other are two hundred Iroquois of the Mohawk nation. They meet in an open field beside the lake. The smaller force is attacking boldly, though outnumbered three to one. The Mohawk have sallied from a log fort to meet them. By reputation they are among the most formidable warriors in North America. They have the advantage of numbers and position, and yet the caption tells us that the smaller force won the fight.3
The print offers an explanation in the presence of a small figure who stands alone at the center of the battle. His dress reveals that he is a French soldier and a man of rank. He wears half-armor of high quality: a well-fitted cuirass on his upper body, and protective britches of the latest design with light steel plates on his thighs.4 His helmet is no ordinary morion, or crude iron pot of the kind that we associate with Spanish conquistadors and English colonists. It is an elegant example of what the French call a casque bourgignon, a Burgundian helmet of distinctive design that was the choice of kings and noblemen -- a handsome, high-crowned helmet with a comb and helm forged from a single piece of metal.5 Above the helmet is a large plume of white feathers called a panache -- the origin of our modern word. Its color identifies the wearer as a captain in the service of Henri IV, first Bourbon king of France. Its size marks it as a badge of courage worn to make its wearer visible in battle.6
This French captain is not a big man. Even with his panache, the Indians appear half a head taller. But he has a striking presence, and in the middle of a wild mêlée he stands still and quiet, firmly in command of himself. His back is straight as a ramrod. His muscular legs are splayed apart and firmly planted to bear the weight of a weapon which he holds at full length. It is not a conventional matchlock, as historians have written, but a complex and very costly arquebuse à rouet, a wheel-lock arquebus. It was the first self-igniting shoulder weapon that did not require a burning match, and could fire as many as four balls in a single shot.7
The text with this engraving tells us that the French captain has already fired his arquebus and brought down two Mohawk chiefs and a third warrior, who lie on the ground before him. He aims his weapon at a fourth Mohawk, and we see the captain fire again in a cloud of white smoke. On the far side of the battlefield, half-hidden in the American forest, two French arquebusiers emerge from the trees. They kneel and fire their weapons into the flank of the dense Iroquois formation.8
We look back at the French captain and catch a glimpse of his face. He has a high forehead, arched brows, eyes set wide apart, a straight nose turned up at the tip, a fashionable mustache, and a beard trimmed like that of his king, Henri IV . The key below the print gives us his name, the "sieur de Champlain."
This small image is the only authentic likeness of Samuel de Champlain that is known to survive from his own time. It is also a self-portrait, and its technique tells us other things about the man who drew it. A French scholar observes that "its style is that of a man of action, direct, natural, naive, biased toward exact description, toward the concrete and the useful." This is art without a hint of artifice. It tells a story in a straightforward way. At the same time, it expresses the artist's pride in his acts, and confidence in his purposes. It also points up a paradox in what we know about him. It describes his actions in detail, but the man himself is covered in armor, and his face is partly hidden by his own hand.10
Other images of Champlain would be invented after the fact. Many years later, when he was recognized as the father of New France, he was thought to require a proper portrait. Artists and sculptors were quick to supply a growing market. Few faces in modern history have been reinvented so often and from so little evidence. All these images are fictions. The most widely reproduced was a fraud, detected many years ago and still used more frequently than any other.11
Historians also contributed many word-portraits of Champlain, and no two are alike. His biographer Morris Bishop asserted from little evidence that "Champlain was, in fact, a lean ascetic type, dry and dark, probably rather under than over normal size...his southern origin is indication enough of dark hair and black eyes."12 Another biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, wrote from no evidence whatever: "As one who has lived with Champlain for many years, I may be permitted to give my own idea of him. A well-built man of medium stature, blond and bearded, a natural leader who inspired loyalty and commanded obedience."13 A third author, Heather Hudak, represented him with bright red hair, a black panache and chartreuse britches.14 Playwright Michael Hollingsworth described Champlain as prematurely gray, as well he might have been, and an anonymous engraver gave him snow-white hair. Champlain's biographies, like his portraits, show the same wealth of invention and poverty of fact.15
Champlain himself was largely responsible for that. He wrote thousands of pages about what he did, but only a few words about who he was. His published works are extraordinary for an extreme reticence about his origins, inner thoughts, private life, and personal feelings. Rarely has an author written so much and revealed so little about himself. These were not casual omissions, but studied silences. Here again, as in the old battle-print, Champlain was hidden by his own hand. He was silent and even secretive about the most fundamental facts of his life. He never mentioned his age. His birth date is uncertain. Little information survives about his family, and not a word about his schooling. He was raised in an age of faith, but we do not know if he was baptized Protestant or Catholic.
After all this uncertainty about the man himself, it is a relief to turn to the record of his acts. Here we have an abundance of evidence, and it makes a drama that is unique in the history of exploration. No other discoverer mastered so many roles over so long a time, and each of them presents a puzzle.
By profession Champlain was a soldier, and he chose to represent himself that way in his self-portrait. He fought in Europe, the Caribbean, and North America, bore the scars of wounds on his face and body, and witnessed atrocities beyond imagining. Like many old soldiers, he took pride in his military service, but he grew weary of war. Always he kept a soldier's creed of honor, courage, and duty, but increasingly did so in the cause of peace. There is a question about how he squared these thoughts.
At the same time, Champlain was a mariner of long experience. He went to sea at an early age, and rose from ship's boy to "admirall" of a colonizing fleet. From 1599 to 1633 he made at least twenty-seven Atlantic crossings and hundreds of other voyages. He never lost a ship under his command, except once when he was a passenger aboard a sinking barque in a heavy gale on a lee shore, with a captain who was unable to act. Champlain seized command, set the mainsail, and deliberately drove her high on a rocky coast in a raging storm -- and saved every man aboard. There are interesting questions to be asked about his leadership and astonishing seamanship.16
Champlain is best remembered for his role as an explorer. He developed a method of close-in coastal exploration that he called "ferreting," and he used it to study thousands of miles of the American coast from Panama to Labrador. He also explored much of North America through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states. He was the first European to see much of this countryside, and he enabled us to see it through his eyes. His unique methods raise another question about how he did that work, and with what result.
Champlain also mapped this vast area in yet another role as a cartographer. He put himself in the forefront of geographic knowledge in his era. His many maps and charts set a new standard for accuracy and detail. Experts have studied them with amazement. They wonder how he made maps of such excellence with the crude instruments at his command.17 He also embellished his maps with handsome drawings. In his own time he was known as an artist. When rival French merchants opposed his appointment to high office, they complained that Champlain was a "mere painter," and therefore unfit for command. In his drawings he left us a visual record of the new world, which alone would make him an important figure. To study the few originals is to discover the skill and refinement of his art. But nearly all his art survives only in crude copies that challenge us to recover the spirit of his work.18
Champlain was a prolific writer. He is most accessible to us through his published books, which exceed in quantity and quality the work of every major explorer of North America during his era. A close second was the work of Captain John Smith, but Champlain's published writings were larger in bulk. They covered a broader area, spanned a longer period, and drew deeply on the intellectual currents of his age. The problem is to find the mind behind the prose.
In his books Champlain played a role as a pioneer ethnographer. He left an abundance of first-hand description about many Indian nations in North America. During the late twentieth century some scholars criticized him for ...
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