In the 16th instalment of ‘Nations of Canada,’ historian Greg Koabel describes how Samuel de Champlain overcame a decade of frustration by finally establishing a successful French fur-trading monopoly.
What follows is the sixteenth instalment of The Nations of Canada, a serialized Quillette project adapted from Greg Koabel’s ongoing podcast of the same name.
Although Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson never met—and, in fact, never visited any of the places that the other had explored, their stories are nevertheless interconnected.
Hudson’s quest for a passage to the Orient (as it was then described) was, in some ways, influenced by Champlain’s accounts of his explorations of the St. Lawrence River and surrounding areas. The English explorer hoped that the Hudson River (as it was later named) would provide a means to bypass the great St. Lawrence rapids near modern Montreal, which had blocked French progress. And during his final (and fatal) voyage into Hudson Bay (as we now know it), he focused not so much on finding a western passage through the Arctic, but an inland route that approached the St. Lawrence from the north.
On both fronts, Hudson was disappointed. Indeed, Europeans would never achieve any kind of navigable route to the Great Lakes until the construction of the Erie and Lachine Canals in the early nineteenth century.
But at the time, Champlain was unsure about what Hudson would find, and worried that an alternative route to the upper St. Lawrence—whether from the south, via the Hudson River, or from the north, via Hudson Bay—would marginalize his French-led operations. If there were a way through North America, Champlain was determined to ensure that it was controlled by France. Otherwise, all his work in Quebec would have been pointless.
Our last instalment, covering Henry Hudson’s historic but tragic voyage into Hudson Bay, played out over 1610 and 1611, when Champlain was also turning his attention to the region that would now be described as northern Quebec and Ontario. In large part, this decision was due to Indigenous geopolitics: The Iroquois Confederacy, which Champlain had battled alongside his Wendat, Algonquin, and Innu allies, was proving a significant military obstacle to southward French exploration.
On numerous occasions, Champlain had pressed his allies among the Innu to guide him up the Saguenay River, so he could explore the northern basin that fed the St. Lawrence. But each time, the Innu had politely refused or stalled: They had no interest in losing their lucrative position as fur-trading middlemen by allowing Champlain to forge a direct connection to the fur trappers of the north.
In 1611, Champlain tried a new strategy. He agreed to send a young Frenchman, Nicolas de Vignau, to live among the Kichesipirini, an Algonquin nation situated at a strategic point along the Ottawa River valley. As discussed in our fourteenth instalment, Vignau’s mission was to strengthen the French alliance with Tessouat, the influential chief of the Kichesipirini. But Champlain also wanted Vignau to investigate Kichesipirini trade links with the far north, as this community was known to trade with the Nipissing—another Algonquin-speaking nation, whose traders made annual trip to Hudson Bay to trade with the Cree.
Vignau was tasked with discovering everything he could about the “northern sea” that had been described by Champlain’s Indigenous allies. How far away was it? How did Indigenous traders get there? And how did it connect to the Ottawa River, and the wider network of waterways that criss-crossed the Canadian Shield?
Unbeknownst to Champlain, at just about the time he was relaying these final instructions to Vignau in the summer of 1611, Henry Hudson was being abandoned to his fate by his mutinous subordinates as they headed back to Europe. During the period in which Hudson had been exploring the coast of Hudson Bay in search of a navigable river, he’d been observed by the Cree, who sent these strange tidings south through their trade partners.
The sudden appearance of Europeans in the northern sea—just as Champlain was expressing interest in the same region—had the potential to disrupt the burgeoning French relationship with the Algonquins who controlled the Ottawa River. In managing this situation, Nicolas de Vignau had a more important job than he knew.
But as Vignau paddled north with Tessouat in the summer of 1611, Champlain had other, more immediate, problems to deal with. While he was pleased with the profitable Laurentian Coalition he’d assembled with his Indigenous allies on the Canadian side of the Atlantic, things weren’t going well in France, where the government still refused to re-instate the fur-trading monopoly upon which Quebec’s long-term survival depended. In the Fall of 1611, Champlain made the (by now familiar) trip back to France, determined to, yet again, plead the colony’s case.
To recap some of the developments that have been discussed in previous instalments: In 1610, Champlain’s lobbying efforts had been stymied by the assassination of Henri IV, as the ruling regency council (which operated on behalf of Louis XIII, who’d became King of France and Navarre when he was just eight years old) had little interest in Canada. In fact, the hard-line Catholic advisors who surrounded the Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici, looked sourly on the large number of Huguenots (i.e., members of France’s minority Protestant population) involved in the fur trade. One of those Huguenots was Champlain’s partner at court, Pierre Dugua de Mons, who’d been leader of the defunct monopoly company. He’d now been banished from court as a heretic.
One part of Champlain’s strategy, which had worked for him before, was to promote the Canadian project through print. Upon arrival back in France, he immediately began work on a book that covered the Acadian expedition of 1604 to 1607, as well as the founding of Quebec up until his alliance with the Wendat chiefs in 1611.
The real audience was not the broad public, but those engaged in factional court politics, as the nature of France’s new government remained in flux. Until Louis XIII became an adult, court politics would be defined by the rival factions. If Champlain and de Mons wanted their voices heard, they’d have to find allies.
The pair agreed that, in the current anti-Huguenot environment, the best strategy was for de Mons to resign from his position at the head of their joint commercial project. As a Protestant, he was doing the cause more harm than good. In order to attract a suitably influential replacement, they lobbied for the creation of a new position—one that sounded magnificent enough to attract the very cream of French political society: Viceroy of France’s New World colonies.
The prospective recruit had to be Catholic, obviously, and someone powerful enough to challenge the prevailing powers at court. It took more than a year of lobbying, cajoling, and pleading, but by the fall of 1612, Champlain and de Mons had their man: Charles de Bourbon, Comte de Soissons.
Soissons was a royal cousin to the young child-king, being a member of the Condé branch of the Bourbon dynasty (so called for his late father, Louis I, Prince of Condé). It was even conceivable that the Condé branch might recapture the throne one day, especially as Louis XIII showed signs of a sickly constitution.
Soissons was a 46-year-old veteran of cutthroat French politics at the highest level. He’d fought on just about every side of the civil wars that brought Henri IV to the throne, and managed to navigate that tumultuous period without losing his life or his fortune. Since 1610, he’d been governor of Normandy, an influential office, and one that made him familiar with the fur trade (much of which flowed through the Norman port of Rouen).
In October 1612, de Mons and Soissons struck a bargain. The former would surrender his formal role in colonial affairs while Soissons would get a fancy new title that would help him in the competitive world of regency politics. Meanwhile, Quebec would get an influential spokesman with an incentive to promote colonial interests.
There was just one problem: Mere days after Soissons accepted the new position of colonial viceroy, he was struck down by smallpox. In regard to Quebec’s fortunes, however, this personal tragedy turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Condé faction had seen the merits of the plan Soissons cooked up, and the head of the family stepped in to take his place—none other than Henri II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé.
This was a real coup for Champlain and de Mons: As the head of the Condé faction, Henri brought enormous prestige to the colonial project. He also happened to be a brash, confident young man—just 24 years old and second-in-line to take over from the child-king, Louis XIII, right behind the King’s four-year-old brother Gaston. Condé was looking to make his mark, and leading France to great exploits in the New World might just provide the means for him to do so. (Historical spoiler: As readers of The Three Musketeers will know, Louis XIII would go on to survive his childhood maladies and rule France until 1643. But amid the uncertainty of the regency period, French courtiers seeking Condé’s favour would have no way of knowing this.)
With a prince du sang standing in their corner, de Mons and Champlain suddenly found that doors started to open. The Crown issued Condé a 12-year monopoly on the fur trade in the St. Lawrence, and he immediately named Champlain his Lieutenant-General, in charge of managing things on the ground in Canada while Condé himself remained in France.
Everyone was happy, it seemed—except for the independent traders of Rouen and Saint-Malo, who had no desire to surrender the privileges (and profits) associated with their well-established trading operations in Quebec. Thanks to Condé, however, their protests were quickly silenced.
In the spring of 1612, Champlain also received (apparent) good news during a visit from none other than Nicolas de Vignau, the young man he’d placed among the Kichesipirini the previous summer. Following his return trip to the St. Lawrence, Vignau had caught the first ship of the season to Europe. Now back in Paris, he brought Champlain exhilarating news.
Not only had he gathered intelligence on the route to the northern sea, as Champlain had directed him to, but he’d actually followed this route himself. Specifically, Vignau claimed that he’d travelled with Algonquin guides to meet the Nipissing, then joined them for their annual trip to trade with the Cree on the shores of Hudson Bay. According to Vignau, the northern sea was much more easily accessible than any Frenchman had imagined. He estimated the round trip between the St. Lawrence rapids and the bay at just 17 days.
Champlain was skeptical, however. By his calculations (informed by long interviews with Indigenous traders), the northern sea was much further away. Perhaps Vignau was embellishing part of his story, blurring the line between what he’d seen himself and what he’d picked up from Kichesipirini hosts.
But other events seemed to corroborate the young man’s story. In this regard, the key element in Vignau’s narrative was a curious message that Nipissing traders wanted him to pass along to Champlain.
As Vignau related to Champlain, the Cree had reported to the Nipissing that they’d seen the fabled Europeans—who, for these northern communities, had previously been just a rumour—on Hudson Bay, at the northern tip of their trade network. The Europeans had stayed on the coast for the winter, but in the spring had divided into two groups. One sailed away, and the other remained. Throughout these developments, the Cree remained cautious—both because of the potential danger these men posed, but also because they were unsure of how they fit into the Indigenous trading system. Would the Cree relationship with the Nipissing traders be affected by establishing a direct link with these Europeans?
This cautious attitude was vindicated when the Europeans attempted to steal corn that the Cree stockpiled each year through the fur trade. Readers who remember how Henry Hudson’s story ends won’t find this plot element surprising: If this thieving party was indeed Henry Hudson and his abandoned men, they were likely desperate for food.
The Cree reported to the Nipissing that none of the Europeans survived the winter that followed their abandonment. None that is, except for a boy. The Cree adopted him and now offered him to the Nipissing, likely seeing him as an awkward commodity. Was this boy a member of the same nation whose traders were plying the St. Lawrence? Would Champlain welcome his return and reward those that protected him? Or was he a member of some rival European group? And if so, would Champlain see his presence among them as a challenge to French interests.
The Cree, who’d correctly intuited that European power relationships could be just as complicated and delicate as those among Indigenous nations, decided to pass this conundrum on to the Nipissing, who (according to Vignau) now sought guidance from Champlain. Did he wish to return this young refugee to his home? If so, the Nipissing invited a French delegation to come collect him as a gift.
That was an interesting proposition. Certainly, Champlain welcomed an opportunity to see the region inhabited by the Nipissing first-hand. And it is very likely that the Nipissing were counting on that. So far, the Nipissing had only dealt with the French through intermediaries such as the Kichesipirini. This represented an opportunity to bypass such arrangements and deal directly with the French.
Still, Vignau’s claim of a 17-day round trip between the St. Lawrence and Hudson Bay didn’t ring true. Champlain hadn’t seen the ground first-hand, but the distance involved was more than 800 km as the crow flies. And through his discussions with Indigenous allies, he knew that it was not a straight shot. The route included multiple waterways connected by overland portages. Yet he was being told that a one-way trip took scarcely more than a week.
It was soon after Vignau arrived in France to share his story that corroborating evidence seemed to emerge from the northern side of the English Channel. Although the English had treated Hudson’s expedition as a state secret, Champlain got his hands on a hastily-translated French copy of a Dutch account of Hudson’s voyage, complete with charts of the massive bay that Hudson had (for European purposes) discovered.
There was simply no way Vignau could have known the details of Hudson’s voyage—including the fate of Hudson and his son. Since Champlain had last seen Vignau, the latter had been in the Canadian wilderness, and then crossing the Atlantic. And so Vignau’s account and the Dutch document could be treated as entirely independent sources. And both of them indicated that Europeans visited the shores of Hudson Bay the winter before Vignau joined the Kichesipirini; that the Cree and the English had fleeting contact; and that a small group of explorers had been abandoned before the rest sailed back home. An epilogue featuring a desperate Hudson and his companions attempting to steal corn from the local Cree made all the sense in the world.
The clincher was the boy. As readers will remember, one of the crew members unceremoniously dumped onto the shallop following the mutiny had been Hudson’s teenage son, John. Surely, this would have been the same boy whom the Cree had passed along to the Nipissing.
The apparent confirmation of Vignau’s story meant two things to Champlain.
First, it opened up new vistas for French commercial expansion. Not only was there an easy route to Hudson Bay and a whole new swathe of fur trapping territory to be tapped, but young John Hudson was Champlain’s ticket into that world. For almost a decade, Champlain had been trying (and failing) to make progress beyond the St. Lawrence. Now he had a formal invitation to bypass the usual middlemen and get French agents into the thick of prime fur-trapping territory. (As has been noted previously, the quality of North American furs generally improved as one travelled north.)
Secondly, and more immediately, Champlain saw these new developments as a threat: A rival European power had actually beaten the French to what might be an alternative access point to the fur network. Coupled with Hudson’s voyage into the waterways south of the St. Lawrence in 1609, this was a troubling development. French dominance of the fur trade was being threatened to the north by the English, and to the south by Dutch traders who were following up on Hudson’s discovery.
But in the short-term, Champlain saw a way to turn this threat into an opportunity. While still in France, his immediate objectives lay in the political world of the French court. So far, Champlain’s tales of Indigenous alliances had failed to pique the interest of decision-makers. But a rival European power directly challenging French colonial interests? That was a different kettle of fish.
There were other developments at play, too. Earlier in the year, the English sent Thomas Button on a follow up-voyage, tracing Hudson’s footsteps into Hudson Bay. And the Dutch had sent their own expedition to further chart the Hudson River. One of its ships returned to Europe in July to update investors in Amsterdam. Champlain and de Mons talked up these developments whenever they could, which is one reason they’d been able to land the Prince of Condé as their patron. What better way to build a reputation as a French patriot and a statesman than by responding to a challenge to French claims on the global stage?
By the time Champlain was preparing for his return to Canada in the spring of 1613, even the (formerly independent) merchants in French port cities were reconciling themselves to Condé, signing on to what became known as the Company of Canada. Each of three groups, based in the port cities of Saint-Malo, Rouen, and La Rochelle, agreed to contribute funds for the upkeep of Quebec, and promised to grow the colony by settling at least six families per year. In exchange, they would share in the profits of the fur trade, which would be regulated by Condé’s officials (prominent among them being his Lieutenant-General, Samuel de Champlain).
When he returned to Canada in early 1613, Champlain’s first stop was Tadoussac. There, he met a ship out of Saint-Malo that had sailed before the new Company was confirmed. Unlike conflicts that had taken place under similar circumstances in previous years, this one was swiftly resolved. Condé’s name carried weight, and the Breton captain agreed to buy a license to trade from Champlain.
On the other hand, the Innu whom Champlain encountered at Tadoussac hinted at a bigger problem: It was dawning on them that they’d be the losers in the new Canadian world that was emerging. The main centre of trade was already starting to shift west from Innu-controlled Tadoussac to the annual Wendat and Algonquin meet-ups further up the St. Lawrence.
The fact that Champlain had a secured a new monopoly was also bad news for Innu traders, as they’d benefited from a system that had allowed them to play European buyers off each other so as to drive up prices. It didn’t help that the previous winter had been another difficult one: Lower than normal precipitation had made it difficult to hunt big game such as moose (who moved slower in snow drifts). And so dependency on the fur trade left the Innu in a precarious economic position.
The next few years would indeed strain Franco-Innu relations, with Champlain himself becoming the focus of resentment. Increasingly, Champlain was treating them not as allies, but as subjects whom he might be able to convert to European-style farming practices, thus lessening his reliance on European newcomers.
Champlain’s next stop was Quebec—i.e. the site that would eventually become modern Quebec City. The word “colony” would be a generous term for the settlement as it then stood. Only a handful of people stayed there during the winters, and for the last couple of years it had pretty much functioned as a glorified warehouse. In order to maintain the settlement, de Mons had leased it to fur traders from La Rochelle and Rouen, who’d wanted a place to store goods for their trade on the upper St. Lawrence.
After just a week, Champlain moved on. The real action, like the fate of French Canada, lay further upriver. He was eager to discover if the Laurentian Coalition he’d forged with his Indigenous allies was still viable, despite Champlain’s choice to remain in Paris the previous summer.
On May 21, 1613, Champlain arrived at the great rapids where the Ottawa River brought Wendat and Algonquin canoes to the St. Lawrence. Sailing with him were Nicolas de Vignau and a collection of French fur traders. Those traders had reported to Champlain that commerce on the river had been disappointing the previous summer. The Wendat and Algonquins whom they encountered had wanted to renew their alliance with Champlain through the usual annual avenues of trade and joint raids against the Iroquois. But with no Champlain, and no war, Indigenous traders hadn’t been very forthcoming.
In a sense, Champlain and his project were on trial. If these traders were going to buy into the new company, he had to show them that his personal relationship with Indigenous traders brought value to the enterprise.
Soon after the Frenchmen arrived at the rapids, word spread to the surrounding area: Champlain was back. A few days later, a group of nine men in three canoes approached. This was not a good sign. Champlain had hoped that his appearance would summon a much larger assembly.
Champlain did his best to explain the situation. His King had needed him back in France for the past year, and so he’d been unable to fulfill his promise to return in 1612. The men, Algonquins from the Ottawa River, were glad to see Champlain’s return, but reported that there wasn’t likely to be much trading this summer. Many of their fellow traders had been put off by the aggressiveness and rudeness of the independent traders the year before. Unlike the Innu, the Wendat and Algonquins weren’t economically dependent on European trade. If they didn’t like what they saw on the St. Lawrence, they didn’t feel any great need to show up.
Champlain decided to take the optimistic view, however. Yes, his absence had damaged the Laurentian Coalition, just as he’d feared. But the situation wasn’t irreparable. His presence could rectify things.
In fact, he had a convenient way to kill two birds with one stone. Young Vignau had relayed an invitation for Champlain to finally travel beyond the rapids. If he moved up the Ottawa River to meet the Kichesipirini who’d hosted Vignau, he could both renew his friendship with Tessouat, their chief, and fulfill his long delayed ambition to do some northward exploring.
The Algonquins who’d come to meet him at the rapids, however, were a bit wary. They were not Kichesipirini themselves, and the politics of the Ottawa River were complicated. The route was populated by various nations who were generally friendly with one another, but who also jealously guarding their territory. Perhaps none were more jealous that the Kichesipirini, who occupied a strategic choke point on the Ottawa River at Morrison Island, which sits on what is now the Quebec side of the provincial border, opposite the small Ontario city of Pembroke.
Nevertheless, Champlain convinced one of the Algonquin traders to act as his guide. They would take two canoes, with enough room for Champlain, the guide, Vignau, another young translator named Thomas, and two French traders. The six man party set off as soon as possible. Champlain was eager to do as much exploring as he could before the summer ended.
Almost immediately, the Frenchmen discovered another reason the Algonquins had been hesitant to guide them up the Ottawa: Early June was perhaps the worst possible time to travel. The upstream thaw was still going strong, meaning the river flow was at its peak. This was a manageable difficulty for experienced Indigenous canoeists, but the Frenchmen struggled. Portages were particularly hard, as only Vignau and Thomas had any experience at all carrying canoes overland.
At one point, in fact, Champlain’s inexperience nearly cost him his life. Just a few kilometers into their journey, their progress was blocked by a series of rapids. And so the party “tracked” its canoes—in other words, walked along the shore while leading the canoes on lines, like walking a dog. While traversing a particularly rough patch, Champlain stumbled, and was pulled into the river by a rope that had dug into his wrist. The river was raging, and Champlain didn’t know how to swim.
Had Champlain not been able to cling to a rock until his fellow travellers saved him, this is where his story would have ended. The incident highlighted the danger of the rapids that closed off both the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence rivers near Montreal. Champlain wouldn’t be the last Frenchman to have an accident in these waters, and some would not be as lucky.
After Champlain’s near-death experience, the group encountered a nation of Algonquins that Champlain later recorded as “the Pike People.” They were enthusiastic about Champlain’s return to Canada, but were less sure of his plan to continue upriver. No need, they assured their guest: Champlain could return to the comfort of the St. Lawrence while they would gladly spread word of his return to groups further up north.
Champlain persisted though. It was crucial that he visit his allies personally, he said, to make amends for his absence the year before. Reluctantly, the Pike People agreed to provide Champlain with their own guide, who knew the local waters. After a brief pause, the caravan continued upriver.
Champlain repeated the same rhetorical tactic at other stops, with equal success. But although his party was managing the tricky political waters of the Ottawa River fairly well, Champlain was getting more and more uneasy about Vignau’s original story, upon which this whole adventure had been predicated.
Vignau had maintained that the round trip from the St. Lawrence to Hudson Bay and back had taken just 17 days—a figure that, as was now obvious, wasn’t even close to being accurate.
Maybe this wasn’t the ideal season for travel; and, sure, the clumsy Frenchmen were holding things up. But still, after eight days, the guides informed them that they were not yet even half way to the Kichesipirini. And after that, a traveller would still be facing an even longer journey to Hudson Bay. This wasn’t a matter of Vignau being off by a day or two. His whole story just didn’t add up.
Champlain’s suspicions only deepened as they approached Kichesipirini territory. The party’s guides advised cutting overland, to avoid the dangerous rapids immediately downriver from Morrison Island. This is what made the Kichesipirini base such a strategic chokepoint on the Ottawa River: Travellers were forced to traverse Kichesipirini land in order to protect themselves from the rough waters.
Vignau, however, claimed that they could continue through the river, as he’d come up this way two years earlier, in the late summer of 1611, without taking the land route. The more direct route, he said, was perfectly safe.
The Indigenous guides were appalled by Vignau’s plan, which they deemed suicidal. They asked the young man if he was “tired of living.” Champlain (rightly) put his trust in the guides, and they moved inland.
On June 9, they arrived at Morrison Island. In 13 days, the party had covered 250 km—less than a third of the total distance to Hudson Bay. Even under ideal conditions, a return trip from Montreal to Hudson Bay would take close to two months, not the 17 days Vignau had claimed.
Champlain now understood that the Ottawa River was not an expressway like the lower St. Lawrence. The trip could only be made by men who knew the land well, and who travelled on lightweight canoes that could be carried through the many portages. This was confirmation that that the Algonquins who lived along the river were invaluable partners in the fur trade.
As soon as Champlain saw the Kichesipirini base on Morrison Island, he recognized that these were among the most important of the Algonquin partners. The island was a slab of limestone that offered little in the way of subsistence. But it was also a natural fortress, providing views of the approaches on the Ottawa from both above and below.
Upon their arrival, a welcome party greeted them. Coincidentally, it was exactly ten years to the day since Champlain had first met Tessouat, the Kichesipirini chief. Their friendship had been forged at the great assembly at Tadoussac that the French explorer had stumbled across by chance in 1603, when a large coalition of Algonquin-speakers were celebrating a victory over the Iroquois.
Champlain began with the same speech he’d been using with the other Algonquin nations on the Ottawa River. He apologized for his absence the previous summer, but assured Tessouat that there’d be a great war raid against the Iroquois this year. Already, many nations were gathering on the St. Lawrence, and the brave Kichesipirini were, of course, welcome to take part. But before he could turn back, Champlain had one more visit to make. He had to personally deliver his apologies to the Nipissing, further upriver, and invite them to join the venture.
This request put Tessouat in an awkward position—something Champlain likely knew. The Kichesipirini carefully guarded their status as middlemen on the Ottawa, and saw little benefit in introducing the French to their Nipissing trading partners further upriver.
Tessouat accepted Champlain’s explanations for his previous absence, and reassured him that their friendship was still strong. But he discouraged the Frenchman from continuing northward. Tessouat also advised against any meeting with the Nipissing. He described them both as notorious sorcerers who would likely kill any Frenchmen who entered their territory, as well as cowards, who would not be of any use in war. Better for Champlain to turn around now, and spend the summer trading with his friends.
Champlain recognized this as a familiar tactic used by other middlemen, especially the Innu, who’d discouraged him from going up the Saguenay using similar tales. But this time, Champlain would not be put off. And Tessouat eventually agreed to provide him with guides and canoes to visit the Nipissing.
Confident that he’d achieved his objective, Champlain retired for the evening. Some time later that night, however, Thomas, the young translator he’d brought with him on the voyage, came to visit Champlain with a report that all was not well: He’d overheard Tessouat and the other elders discussing how the proposed voyage might yet be postponed, or even cancelled.
An angry Champlain stormed back into the Kichesipirini council, and denounced his supposed friends as liars. Champlain pointed to Vignau, and asked why, if the Nipissing were so dangerous, this Frenchman had been able to survive in their company eighteen months ago?
A stony silence descended on the group of elders—not because of Champlain’s insults, but because of the claim that Vignau had spent time among the Nipissing. Tessouat turned to Vignau and asked if this was true. Did he really claim to have visited the Nipissing?
After a long, uncomfortable pause, Vignau admitted that he had done so.
The Kichesipirini leaders immediately exploded with their own violent accusations of dishonesty. Vignau had done no such thing, and was lying—a grave violation of the hospitality that Tessouat had shown him.
This outburst, in turn, set off a flurry of events that are a bit muddled in Champlain’s descriptions. The Kichesipirini peppered Vignau with questions intended to reveal his duplicity. Who had guided him to the Nipissing? What rivers had they taken? Vignau couldn’t answer. Tessouat offered to kill Vignau for Champlain—the only way to safely remove such a dishonourable man from his service.
Champlain politely refused the offer, explaining that Vignau’s crimes were against the French, and so his punishment must be carried out under French law.
Taking the young man aside, Champlain demanded the complete truth. Vignau, with his life hanging in the balance, admitted that he had not travelled to Hudson Bay with the Nipissing. The story of the Englishmen in Hudson Bay and the captured boy were true enough, but he had only heard them second hand.
It seems (according to Champlain, at any rate) that Vignau hoped to use his concocted story in order to advance his fortunes, including the procurement of a more permanent position on the Ottawa River. (We don’t know much about Vignau’s background, but it’s likely that he had humble origins.) He may have envisioned a special status for himself as a kind of representative of France in the lands north of the St. Lawrence.
Meanwhile, Champlain’s other translator, Thomas, informed him that Tessouat had sent a canoe to the Nipissing—to what purpose, Thomas couldn’t say. This was turning into a fiasco.
Champlain suspected that Tessouat wasn’t being truthful either. Through Étienne Brûlé (the young French translator who’d lived among the Wendat, whom we met in the instalment titled United Against the Iroquois), Champlain knew that some Nipissing often wintered in Wendat territory, a sign of close friendship, not malevolent sorcery. He also knew that the Nipissing were frequent trading partners with the Kichesipirini. It seemed unlikely that they were as dangerous as Tessouat was claiming.
That night, Champlain’s dream of reaching Hudson Bay died. Who knew how far the northern sea really was? And attempting to force his way to the north risked upsetting the all-important coalition of Algonquin nations. Champlain decided to cut his losses and agreed to Tessouat’s offer to guide him back down the Ottawa River.
Yet even in defeat, Champlain managed to accomplish something. As the convoy headed down river, it was joined by several different Algonquin groups looking to trade. By the time they all reached the St. Lawrence, the armada consisted of more than eighty canoes, and brought the largest haul of furs the St. Lawrence had yet seen.
Even better, the traders out of Saint-Malo to whom Champlain had sold licenses at Tadoussac had come upriver to trade. They were impressed with the volume and quality of pelts, which outstripped that of their usual trading partners at Tadoussac. The Company collected a significant haul in the form of fees.
For their part, the Algonquins took a positive view of the trading as well. Under Champlain’s supervision, the exchanges were conducted in a more respectful and orderly fashion than had been the case in 1612. For the first time, the fur trade, and the colonial project that went with it, seemed to be on firm footing, both in both Canada and France, and among both European buyers and Indigenous suppliers.
The one sad postscript to this happy ending was the fate of Nicolas de Vignau. The whole way down the Ottawa River, his status hung in limbo. What punishment would Champlain dole out?
Vignau begged for the opportunity to discover the overland route to Hudson Bay. This time, he promised, he would travel there himself. Champlain had no problem with granting that wish, though he knew it would not end well for the disgraced subordinate. Vignau was no longer useful to him as a translator, as any trust he had among the Algonquins had melted away. The Kichesipirini, in particular, were adamant that if they found Vignau in their territory, the liar would be summarily executed.
Champlain had told them that this would be an acceptable outcome for the French. As far as he was concerned, Vignau no longer enjoyed the protection of the King. He would not be mourned, and there would be no reprisal for his death.
Vignau then disappeared from history (along with John Hudson, whose fate isn’t recorded, whatever the truth of the tale that had him being passed from the Cree to the Nipissing). If Vignau did truly set out on his own to reach Hudson Bay, he likely didn’t get very far. Either he died on his own in the expansive wilderness of the Canadian Shield, or he was quietly killed by his former Algonquin hosts. Champlain was true to his word, and no French officials inquired into the young man’s fate.
By September, Champlain was sailing back to France for the winter—for once, in a spirit of triumph. The Saint-Malo traders who’d started the year as enemies of the Company now treated it as an honour to escort Champlain across the Atlantic.
For the first time since he’d first set foot on Canadian shores ten years earlier, Champlain and his compatriots would not be desperately searching for a way to survive just another season. Instead, they could plan for the future.