Geoffroi de Beaulieu, the Dominican confessor to Saint Louis IX, testified that when the great French king lay dying on the sands of Tunis, he uttered a prayer: “O, that we may be pleasing to God, let us find a way for the Catholic Faith to be preached and established among the Tunisians!” Some three and a half centuries later, as the sun set upon his life in the noble city of Québec he had founded, Samuel de Champlain had his mind taken up with similar thoughts, looking forward to the day when the sons of France would take as their Christian wives the daughters of the Hurons and Algonquins, and leaving a testament worthy of the fair days of the thirteenth century: “I nominate the Virgin Mary as my heir.”
Just as Saint Louis presents for us a compelling instance of the truth that power does not necessarily corrupt and proves that the roles of king, crusader, and father can in fact be lived out with disinterested integrity, creative fidelity, and real effectiveness, so also does Champlain vindicate the ideal—so dear to the hearts both of St. Louis and of St. Thomas More—of the Christian explorer who brings the light of faith and the benefits of civilization to the heathen savage.
Champlain (ca. 1567-1635) was the son of a ship’s captain from a modest port nestled among the salt marshes of western France, and though he certainly had a love of adventure and was able to notch his belt with a number of first sightings—notably the lake he claimed as his own on the border between Vermont and New York—his great achievement was as a founder and father of a new society, not as a discoverer. Between July 3, 1608, the traditional founding date of the city of Québec, and his death there on Christmas day twenty-seven years later, Champlain quite literally spilled his blood so that the blessings of Christian civilization might be brought to the great north woods. It is true that he found it necessary to prove his friendship with the Hurons by joining them in more than one aggressive invasion of the territory of the Iroquois, but his overwhelming desire and efforts were made in the direction of the peaceful settlement of the St. Lawrence valley. It was a goal that took all of his considerable wit, steadiness, and sheer physical endurance.
The French settlement on the banks of the St. Lawrence was the work of fur traders, who came alone, bringing neither priests nor colonists, and seeking first adventure and profit. Their commercial endeavors, however, required peaceful collaboration with the native tribes, and Champlain soon found himself cast as the chief interpreter of French ways to the Indians and of Indian ways to the French. He did not learn to master their languages, nor, with the exception of one unplanned winter sojourn, did he live among them for any great length of time. Yet his sturdy uprightness made him a trusted partner in the fur trade, even if he was never able to fulfill his desire to bring a detachment of French regulars to Canada to set down the hostile Iroquois and bring lasting peace to the region.
What is most admirable about Champlain is the development that can be perceived in his dealings with the Indians, a development that led him from a life of adventure and commerce steadily towards the deeper and more lasting tasks of evangelization and the building of Christian society. For he soon learned that the primitive, irrational natives would need better exemplars of the reasonable life of Christian virtue than those provided by the rough trappers and traders that the fur companies had brought to New France. “Inhabitants and families are needed,” he explained, in one of his accounts of his voyages, “to keep [the tribesmen] to their duty and by gentle treatment to constrain them to do better and by good example to incite them to correct living.” Priests were, of course, needed as well. Pious benefactors back in France—generous souls who shared Champlain’s commitment to France’s evangelical mission—paid the expensive fares for Franciscan and, later, Jesuit missionaries. And soon, slowly, families arrived to associate themselves with Champlain’s work of civilization. Louis Hébert, the first Frenchman to bring his family to Québec and to farm the land there, made of his homestead a bountiful garden, and not just of melons and peas, but also of charity. The natives, it is said, wept at his death, so much had they loved him. And his own testament suggests the reason why: “I die happy, since it has pleased Our Lord to do me the grace of seeing converted savages die before my eyes. I crossed the seas to come and succor them, rather than from any private interest, and I would die happily for their conversion, if such should be God’s good pleasure.” Champlain was right: what the Indians needed was for good French Catholics—the salt of the Earth—to come and to share a life with them, a simple life of toil and suffering, supplication and thanksgiving.
Samuel de Champlain died without having found the passage to the Orient, without solving the problem of the Iroquois, and even without creating a strong and lasting colonial structure for Québec. What he had done, however, was something more essential, for he had charted and led others to take a path that only he could see. His magnanimous vision of a New France was eagerly shared, not by thousands upon thousands, but by a sufficient number of adventurers—noble patrons, heroic priests, resourceful merchants, doughty farmers—that a great work for God was able to go forward, under the White Lily of France, the standard of their holy king Louis.