12 From Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, Volume 2

Samuel de Champlain



I set out accordingly from the fall of the Iroquois River[1] on the 2d of July.[2] All the savages set to carrying their canoes, arms, and baggage overland, some half a league, in order to pass by the violence and strength of the fall, which was speedily accomplished. Then they put them all in the water again, two men in each with the baggage; and they caused one of the men of each canoe to go by land some three leagues[3], the extent of the fall, which is not, however, so violent here as at the mouth, except in some places, where rocks obstruct the river, which is not broader than three hundred or four hundred paces. After we had passed the fall, which was attended with difficulty, all the savages, who had gone by land over a good path and level country, although there are a great many trees, re-embarked in their canoes. My men went also by land; but I went in a canoe. The savages made a review of all their followers, finding that there were twenty-four canoes, with sixty men. After the review was completed, we continued our course to an island[4], three leagues long, filled with the finest pines I had ever seen. Here they went hunting, and captured some wild animals. Proceeding about three leagues farther on, we made a halt, in order to rest the coming night.

They all at once set to work, some to cut wood, and others to obtain the bark of trees for covering their cabins, for the sake of sheltering themselves, others to fell large trees for; constructing a barricade on the river-bank around their cabins, which they do so quickly that in less than two hours so much is accomplished that five hundred of their enemies would find it very difficult to dislodge them without killing large numbers. They make no barricade on the river-bank, where their canoes are drawn up, in order that they may be able to embark, if occasion requires. After they were established in their cabins, they despatched three canoes, with nine good men, according to their custom in all their encampments, to reconnoitre for a distance of two or three leagues, to see if they can perceive any thing, after which they return. They rest the entire night, depending upon the observation of these scouts, which is a very bad custom among them; for they are sometimes while sleeping surprised by their enemies, who slaughter them before they have time to get up and prepare for defence. Noticing this, I remonstrated with them on the mistake they made, and told them that they ought to keep watch, as they had seen us do every night, and have men on the lookout, in order to listen and see whether they perceived any thing, and that they should not live in such a manner like beasts. They replied that they could not keep watch, and that they worked enough in the day-time in the chase, since, when engaged in war, they divide their troops into three parts: namely, a part for hunting scattered in several places; another to constitute the main body of their army, which is always under arms; and the third to act as avant-coureurs, to look out along the rivers, and observe whether they can see any mark or signal showing where their enemies or friends have passed. This they ascertain by certain marks which the chiefs of different tribes make known to each other; but, these not continuing always the same, they inform themselves from time to time of changes, by which means they ascertain whether they are enemies or friends who have passed. The hunters never hunt in advance of the main body, or avant-coureurs, so as not to excite alarm or produce disorder, but in the rear and in the direction from which they do not anticipate their enemy. Thus they advance until they are within two or three days’ march of their enemies, when they proceed by night stealthily and all in a body, except the van-couriers. By day, they withdraw into the interior of the woods, where they rest, without straying off, neither making any noise nor any fire, even for the sake of cooking, so as not to be noticed in case their enemies should by accident pass by. They make no fire, except in smoking, which amounts to almost nothing. They eat baked Indian meal, which they soak in water, when it becomes a kind of porridge. They provide themselves with such meal to meet their wants, when they are near their enemies, or when retreating after a charge, in which case they are not inclined to hunt, retreating immediately.


We set out on the next day, continuing our course in the river as far as the entrance of the lake. There are many pretty islands here, low, and containing very fine woods and meadows, with abundance of fowl and such animals of the chase as stags, fallow-deer, fawns, roe-bucks, bears, and others, which go from the main land to these islands. We captured a large number of these animals. There are also many beavers, not only in this river, but also in numerous other little ones that flow into it. These regions, although they are pleasant, are not inhabited by any savages, on account of their wars; but they withdraw as far as possible from the rivers into the interior, in order not to be suddenly surprised.

[. . . ]

The next day we entered the lake[5], which is of great extent, say eighty or a hundred leagues long, where I saw four fine islands, ten, twelve, and fifteen leagues long, which were formerly inhabited by the savages, like the River of the Iroquois; but they have been abandoned since the wars of the savages with one another prevail. There are also many rivers falling into the lake, bordered by many fine trees of the same kinds as those we have in France, with many vines finer than any I have seen in any other place; also many chestnut-trees on the border of this lake, which I had not seen before. There is also a great abundance of fish, of many varieties: among others, one called by the savages of the country Chaousarou,[6] which varies in length, the largest being, as the people told me, eight or ten feet long. I saw some five feet long, which were as large as my thigh; the head being as big as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp and dangerous teeth. Its body is, in shape, much like that of a pike; but it is armed with scales so strong that a poniard could not pierce them. Its color is silver-gray. The extremity of its snout is like that of a swine. This fish makes war upon all others in the lakes and rivers. It also possesses remarkable dexterity, as these people informed me, which is exhibited in the following manner. When it wants to capture birds, it swims in among the rushes, or reeds, which are found on the banks of the lake in several places, where it puts its snout out of water and keeps perfectly still: so that, when the birds come and light on its snout, supposing it to be only the stump of a tree, it adroitly closes it, which it had kept ajar, and pulls the birds by the feet down under water. The savages gave me the head of one of them, of which they make great account, saying that, when they have the headache, they bleed themselves with the teeth of this fish on the spot where they suffer pain, when it suddenly passes away.

Continuing our course over this lake on the western side, I noticed, while observing the country, some very high mountains on the eastern side, on the top of which there was snow[7].  I made inquiry of the savages whether these localities were inhabited, when they told me that the Iroquois dwelt there, and that there were beautiful valleys in these places, with plains productive in grain, such as I had eaten in this country, together with many kinds of fruit without limit[8]. They said also that the lake extended near mountains, some twenty-five leagues distant from us, as I judge. I saw, on the south, other mountains, no less high than the first, but without any snow[9]. The savages told me that these mountains were thickly settled, and that it was there we were to find their enemies; but that it was necessary to pass a fall in order to go there (which I afterwards saw), when we should enter another lake, nine or ten leagues long. After reaching the end of the lake, we should have to go, they said, two leagues by land, and pass through a river flowing into the sea on the Norumbegue coast, near that of Florida[10], whither it took them only two days to go by canoe, as I have since ascertained from some prisoners we captured, who gave me minute information in regard to all they had personal knowledge of, through some Algonquin interpreters, who understood the Iroquois language.

Now, as we began to approach within two or three days’ journey of the abode of their enemies, we advanced only at night, resting during the day. But they did not fail to practise constantly their accustomed superstitions, in order to ascertain what was to be the result of their undertaking; and they often asked me if I had had a dream, and seen their enemies, to which I replied in the negative. Yet I did not cease to encourage them, and inspire in them hope. When night came, we set out on the journey until the next day, when we withdrew into the interior of the forest, and spent the rest of the day there. About ten or eleven o’clock, after taking a little walk about our encampment, I retired. While sleeping, I dreamed that I saw our enemies, the Iroquois, drowning in the lake near a mountain, within sight. When I expressed a wish to help them, our allies, the savages, told me we must let them all die, and that they were of no importance. When I awoke, they did not fail to ask me, as usual, if I had had a dream. I told them that I had, in fact, had a dream. This, upon being related, gave them so much confidence that they did not doubt any longer that good was to happen to them.

When it was evening, we embarked in our canoes to continue our course; and, as we advanced very quietly and without making any noise, we met on the 29th of the month the Iroquois, about ten o’clock at evening, at the extremity of a cape which extends into the lake on the western bank. They had come to fight. We both began to utter loud cries, all getting their arms in readiness. We withdrew out on the water, and the Iroquois went on shore, where they drew up all their canoes close to each other and began to fell trees with poor axes, which they acquire in war sometimes, using also others of stone. Thus they barricaded themselves very well.

Our forces also passed the entire night, their canoes being drawn up close to each other, and fastened to poles, so that they might not get separated, and that they might be all in readiness to fight, if occasion required. We were out upon the water, within arrow range of their barricades. When they were armed and in array, they despatched two canoes by themselves to the enemy to inquire if they wished to fight, to which the latter replied that they wanted nothing else; but they said that, at present, there was not much light, and that it would be necessary to wait for daylight, so as to be able to recognize each other; and that, as soon as the sun rose, they would offer us battle. This was agreed to by our side. Meanwhile, the entire night was spent in dancing and singing, on both sides, with endless insults and other talk; as, how little courage we had, how feeble a resistance we would make against their arms, and that, when day came, we should realize it to our ruin. Ours also were not slow in retorting, telling them they would see such execution of arms as never before, together with an abundance of such talk as is not unusual in the siege of a town. After this singing, dancing, and bandying words on both sides to the fill, when day came, my companions and myself continued under cover, for fear that the enemy would see us. We arranged our arms in the best manner possible, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes of the savage Montagnais. After arming ourselves with light armor, we each took an arquebuse, and went on shore. I saw the enemy go out of their barricade, nearly two hundred in number, stout and rugged in appearance. They came at a slow pace towards us, with a dignity and assurance which greatly amused me, having three chiefs at their head. Our men also advanced in the same order, telling me that those who had three large plumes were the chiefs, and that they had only these three, and that they could be distinguished by these plumes, which were much larger than those of their companions, and that I should do what I could to kill them. I promised to do all in my power, and said that I was very sorry they could not understand me, so that I might give order and shape to their mode of attacking their enemies, and then we should, without doubt, defeat them all; but that this could not now be obviated, and that I should be very glad to show them my courage and good-will when we should engage in the fight.

As soon as we had landed, they began to run for some two hundred paces towards their enemies, who stood firmly, not having as yet noticed my companions, who went into the woods with some savages. Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces in advance of the rest, until I was within about thirty paces of the enemy, who at once noticed me, and, halting, gazed at me, as I did also at them. When I saw them making a move to fire at us, I rested my musket against my cheek, and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot, two fell to the ground; and one of their men was so wounded that he died some time after. I had loaded my musket with four balls. When our side saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to raise such loud cries that one could not have heard it thunder. Meanwhile, the arrows flew on both sides. The Iroquois were greatly astonished that two men had been so quickly killed, although they were equipped with armor woven from cotton thread, and with wood which was proof against their arrows. This caused great alarm among them. As I was loading again, one of my companions fired a shot from the woods, which astonished them anew to such a degree that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, and took to flight, abandoning their camp and fort, and fleeing into the woods, whither I pursued them, killing still more of them. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder escaped with the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen were wounded on our side with arrow-shots; but they were soon healed.

After gaining the victory, our men amused themselves by taking a great quantity of Indian corn and some meal from their enemies, also their armor, which they had left behind that they might run better. After feasting sumptuously, dancing and singing, we returned three hours after, with the prisoners. The spot where this attack took place is in latitude 43° and some minutes[11], and the lake was called Lake Champlain[12].



Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, Vol. 2, Samuel de Champlain, Public Domain

  1. The River of the Iroquois, so called by Champlain, was long known by that name, says Charlevoix, because these Indians generally descended it, in order to make their inroads into the colony. Fort Richelieu, at the mouth of the river, erected in 1641, was named after the celebrated Cardinal, the river having already taken his name. This fort having been demolished, another was built by M. de Sorel, a French officer in command, which took his name, as likewise did the river. A fort was built on the same river at the present village of Chambly in 1664, and called Fort St. Louis. This wooden structure was replaced by another of stone, erected prior to 1721, to which the name of Chambly was given, as likewise by some writers to the river. The river has likewise sometimes been called the St. Johns, but the prevailing name is the Richelieu.
  2. Read the 12th of July.
  3. This fall is now avoided, and the navigation of the Richelieu secured by a canal connecting Chambly Basin and St. Johns, a distance of about ten miles.
  4. It is not entirely certain what island is here referred to. It has been supposed to be the Island of St. Thérèse. But, taking all of Champlain's statements into consideration, the logical inference would be that it is the Isle aux Noix.
  5. The distances are here overstated by more than threefold, both in reference to the lake and the islands. This arose, perhaps, from the slow progress made in the birch canoes with a party of sixty undisciplined savages, a method of travelling to which Champlain was unaccustomed; and he may likewise have been misled by the exaggerations of the Indians, or he may have failed to comprehend their representation of distances.
  6. Of the meaning of chaousarou, the name given by the Indians to this fish, we have no knowledge. It is now known as the bony-scaled pike, or gar pike, Lepidosteus osseus. It is referred to by several early writers after Champlain. "I saw," says Sagard, "in the cabin of a Montagnais Indian a certain fish, which some call Chaousarou, as big as a large pike. It was only an ordinary sized one, for many larger ones are seen, eight, nine, and ten feet long, as is said. It had a snout about a foot and a half long, of about the same shape as that of the snipe, except that the extremity is blunt and not so pointed, and of a large size in proportion to the body. It has a double row of teeth, which are very sharp and dangerous;… and the form of the body is like that of a pike, but it is armed with very stout and hard scales, of silver gray color, and difficult to be pierced."—Sagard's History of Canada, Bk. iii. p. 765; Laverdière. Sagard's work was published in 1636. He had undoubtedly seen this singular fish; but his description is so nearly in the words of Champlain as to suggest that he had taken it from our author. Creuxius, in his History of Canada, published at Paris in 1664, describes this fish nearly in the words of Champlain, with an engraving sufficiently accurate for identification, but greatly wanting in scientific exactness. He adds, "It is not described by ancient authors, probably because it is only found in the Lake of the Iroquois;" that is, in Lake Champlain. From which it may be inferred that at that time it had not been discovered in other waters. By the French, he says, it is called piscis armatus. This is in evident allusion to its bony scales, in which it is protected as in a coat of mail. It is described by Dr. Kay in the Natural History of New York, Zoölogy, Part I. p 271. On Plate XLIII. Fig. 139, of the same work, the reader will observe that the head of the fish there represented strikingly resembles that of the chaousarou of Champlain as depicted on his map of 1612. The drawing by Champlain is very accurate, and clearly identifies the Gar Pike. This singular fish has been found in Lake Champlain, the river St. Lawrence, and in the northern lakes, likewise in the Mississippi River, where is to be found also a closely related species commonly called the alligator gar. In the Museum of the Boston Society of Natural History are several specimens, one of them from St. John's River, Florida, four feet and nine inches in length, of which the head is seventeen and a half inches. If the body of those seen by Champlain was five feet, the head two and a half feet would be in about the usual proportion.
  7. The Green Mountain range in Vermont, generally not more than twenty or twenty-five miles distant. Champlain was probably deceived as to the snow on their summits in July. What he saw was doubtless white limestone, which might naturally enough be taken for snow in the absence of any positive knowledge. The names of the summits visible from the lake are the following, with their respective heights. The Chin, 4,348 feet; The Nose, 4,044; Camel's Hump, 4,083; Jay's Peak, 4,018; Killington Peak, 3,924. This region was at an early period called Irocosia.
  8. This is not an inaccurate description of the beautiful as well as rich and fertile valleys to be found among the hills of Vermont.
  9. On entering the lake, they saw the Adirondack Mountains, which would appear very nearly in the south. The points visible from the lake were Mt. Marcy, 5,467 feet high above tide-water; Dix's Peak, 5,200; Nipple Top, 4,900; Whiteface, 4,900; Raven Hill, 2,100; Bald Peak, 2,065.— Vide Palmer's Lake Champlain, p. 12.
  10. . The river here referred to is the Hudson. By passing from Lake Champlain through the small stream that connects it with Lake George, over this latter lake and a short carrying place, the upper waters of the Hudson are reached. The coast of Norumbegue and that of Florida were both indefinite regions, not well defined by geographers of that day. These terms were supplied by Champlain, and not by his informants. He could not of course tell precisely where this unknown river reached the sea, but naturally inferred that it was on the southern limit of Norumbegue, which extended from the Penobscot towards Florida, which latter at that time was supposed to extend from the Gulf of Mexico indefinitely to the north.
  11. This battle, or Skirmish, clearly took place at Ticonderoga, or Cheonderoga, as the Indians called it, where a cape juts out into the lake, as described by Champlain. This is the logical inference to be drawn from the whole narrative. It is to be observed that the purpose of the Indians, whom Champlain was accompanying, was to find their enemies, the Iroquois, and give them battle. The journey, or warpath, had been clearly marked out and described by the Indians to Champlain, as may be seen in the text. It led them along the western shore of the lake to the outlet of Lake George, over the fall in the little stream connecting the two lakes, through Lake George, and thence to the mountains beyond, where the Iroquois resided. They found the Iroquois, however, on the lake; gave them battle on the little cape alluded to; and after the victory and pursuit for some distance into the forest, and the gathering up of the spoils, Champlain and his allies commenced their journey homeward. But Champlain says he saw the fall in the stream that connects the two lakes. Now this little stream flows into Lake Champlain at Ticonderoga, and he would naturally have seen the fall, if the battle took place there, while in pursuit of the Iroquois into the forest, as described in the text. The fall was in the line of the retreat of the Iroquois towards their home, and is only a mile and three-quarters from the cape jutting out into the lake at Ticonderoga. If the battle had occurred at any point north of Ticonderoga, he could not have seen the fall, as they retreated immediately after the battle: if it had taken place south of that point, it would have been off the war-path which they had determined to pursue. We must conclude, therefore, that the battle took place at Ticonderoga, a little north of the ruins of the old Fort Carillon, directly on the shore of the lake. If the reader will examine the plan of the battle as given by Champlain's engraving, he will see that it conforms with great exactness to the known topography of the place. The Iroquois, who had their choice of positions are on the north, in the direction of Willow Point, where they can most easily retreat, and where Champlain and his allies can be more easily hemmed in near the point of the cape. The Iroquois are on lower ground, and we know that the surface there shelves to the north. The well-known sandy bottom of the lake at this place would furnish the means of fastening the canoes, by forcing poles into it, a little out from the shore during the night, as they actually did. On Champlain's map of 1632, this point is referred to as the location of the battle; and in his note on the map, No. 65, he says this is the place where the Iroquois were defeated by Champlain. All the facts of the narrative thus point to Ticonderoga, and render it indisputable that this was the scene of the first of the many recorded conflicts on this memorable lake. We should not have entered into this discussion so fully, had not several writers, not well informed, expressed views wholly inconsistent with known facts.
  12. The Indian name of Lake Champlain is Caniaderiguaronte, the lake that is the gate of the country.—Vide Administration of the Colonies, by Thomas Pownall. 1768, p. 267. This name was very significant, since the lake and valley of Champlain was the "gate," or war-path, by which the hostile tribes of Iroquois approached their enemies on the north of the St. Lawrence, and vice-versa.


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