Cham­plain’s car­to­graphic debt

The un­her­alded role Indige­nous Peo­ples played in help­ing the fa­mous ex­plorer map New France

Canadian Geographic - - CON­TENTS - By Harry Wil­son*


How Indige­nous Peo­ples helped Cham­plain map New France

“I HAD MUCH con­ver­sa­tion with them re­gard­ing the source of the great river and re­gard­ing their coun­try … they spoke to me of these things in great de­tail, show­ing me by draw­ings all the places they had vis­ited, tak­ing plea­sure in telling me about them.” — Sa­muel de Cham­plain, Les Voy­ages, 1613

HE MAY HAVE been one of the great­est ex­plor­ers and car­tog­ra­phers of his era, but Sa­muel de Cham­plain didn’t hes­i­tate to give credit where it was due. He cer­tainly does so in the pas­sage above, which de­scribes how the Huron peo­ple helped him nav­i­gate the wilds of New France and, ul­ti­mately, cre­ate maps such as the one shown here, Cham­plain’s first de­tailed de­pic­tion of the ter­ri­tory and one of the first to il­lus­trate parts of the Great Lakes. Euro­pean ex­plor­ers re­ly­ing on Indige­nous ge­o­graphic knowl­edge wasn’t a new tac­tic. Dur­ing Jac­ques Cartier’s voy­age of 1541-42, for in­stance, Iro­quois guides used sticks and twigs to show him the course of the St. Lawrence River and the lo­ca­tion of rapids and wa­ter­falls. But Cham­plain counted on Indige­nous ex­per­tise like no other white man had. What­ever his mo­ti­va­tions were — colo­nial glory, com­mer­cial riches, con­ver­sion of the “sav­ages” to Chris­tian­ity — Cham­plain knew that “the way to over­come phys­i­cal ob­sta­cles to ex­plo­ration was to be­come ac­cepted by the Na­tive peo­ple and learn to pro­ceed with their help,” as Conrad Hei­den­re­ich notes in The Be­gin­nings of French Ex­plo­ration out of the St. Lawrence Val­ley: Mo­tives, Meth­ods, and Chang­ing At­ti­tudes to­wards Na­tive Peo­ple. Do­ing so in­cluded adopt­ing the use of the birch­bark ca­noe (Cham­plain shot the Lachine Rapids with Indige­nous com­pan­ions in 1613, an event al­luded to in the paint­ing shown op­po­site) and ask­ing end­less ques­tions. For ex­am­ple, much of what is shown along the St. Lawrence River west of the Lachine Rapids (la­belled as “grand sault”) on this map he gleaned not from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence but from Indige­nous ac­counts in 1603 — ac­counts that also con­tained de­scrip­tions of Lake On­tario and what could have been ei­ther Lake Erie or a com­pos­ite of other Great Lakes. Cham­plain in­cluded both bod­ies of wa­ter on his map and il­lus­trated each with manned ca­noes, not­ing the time it would take to cross the for­mer — “15 Journees des canaux des sauvages” — and the length of the lat­ter — “300 lieux de long.”

Were these and other de­lin­eations on the map im­per­fect? Of course — but that hardly seems to mat­ter now. What’s more thought-pro­vok­ing to­day is the spirit in which the in­for­ma­tion was shared, and whether Cana­di­ans can find some rec­on­cil­i­a­tion-era wis­dom in Cham­plain’s de­scrip­tions of how his Indige­nous com­pan­ions had con­tin­ued to en­lighten him. As he writes in Les Voy­ages, “I was not weary of lis­ten­ing to them, be­cause some things were cleared up about which I had been in doubt un­til they en­light­ened me.” * with files from Is­abelle Char­ron, early car­to­graphic archivist, Li­brary and Ar­chives Canada

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