“We attempted to catch them with a frying pan, but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.  Neither better fish more plenty or variety had any of us ever seene… but they are not to be caught with frying-pans.”[1] This statement is found in Walter Russell and Anas Todkill’s contribution to the Proceedings of 1612, and took place during the early days of settlement at Jamestown.  It illustrates the vulnerability of the outpost.  With a limited work force and set of tools even the most common tasks, such as fishing, appear to have been extremely difficult.  Although there is no comparable vignette emphasizing French troubles, the terrible fight with scurvy in the first year at Ste-Croix emphasizes the many surprises that early French settlers had to face.  Even though the first chapter of this thesis emphasized the knowledge that Smith and Champlain must have had before traveling to North America, these types of stories highlight that there was still much to be learned.

It is in light of this partial knowledge that Champlain and Smith have been assessed.  By balancing their European roots and the North American context, the position in which these men occupied becomes much more clear.  They were not representatives of the period of first contact – Europe and America had been interacting for at least a century – nor were they symbols of the sweeping domination that occurred in later years and frequently appears in popular memory.  Rather these two men are representative of a temporal, and by consequence cultural, interstitial space.

This interstitial space fits into a view of history that focuses on contact between cultures, and derives from taking an ‘absolutely simultaneous’ approach to the subject.  In this case the prime existence of this space occurred at the frontier and moved west with the boundary between European and Aboriginal worlds.  Essentially this is a modified view of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and is based on the work of James Axtell, Daniel Usner, and Richard White.  All three of these historians have suggested in one way or another that it was this spatial, temporal, and cultural boundary that played a key role in the development of North American identities on either side of modern day Canada and the United States.  Axtell was the first of these scholars to present this idea.  He suggested that without the native people the Spanish (and others who followed) would not have been as interested in America, and if Europeans had come they would have moved West much more quickly, as there would not have been a frontier created by the meeting of cultures.[2] Essentially, the picture painted by Axtell placed the aboriginal people in a central role to the development of American states.  Usner followed a similar direction by developing the concept of a ‘frontier exchange.’  For Usner “‘Frontier Exchange’ describes intercultural relations that evolved within a geographical area in a way that emphasizes the initiatives taken by the various participants.  Indians, settlers, and slaves had separate stakes in how the colonial region evolved.  But in pursuit of their respective goals, they found plenty of common ground upon which to adapt.”[3] In a number of ways these ideas are similar to the concept of the ‘middle ground’ that has been championed by Richard White, whose book by that title examined the French relationship with the aboriginal people after 1650 in the pays d’en haut.  White explained to his readers that, “The middle ground itself, however, did not originate in councils and official encounters; instead, it resulted from the daily encounters of individual Indians and Frenchmen with problems and controversies that needed immediate solution.”[4] Despite the similarity between White, Usner, and Axtell, White’s concept of the ‘middle ground’ is one step beyond the cultural negotiation of Smith and Champlain.  For White, the ‘middle ground’ was typified by people who more or less abandoned traditions of both cultures.  In the period that this thesis examines, neither European nor Aboriginal persons were able to fully embrace the other’s culture; yet they were able to learn from each other to create a shared space within which both societies could operate.

To use this concept properly, however, one must abandon simplistic notions of viewing this period through a moralistic lens of positive/negative and right/wrong, and instead embrace the historical reality of necessity versus facility.  To be more specific, one must place greater emphasis on the actual European-North American situation in which these individuals found themselves rather than the cultural baggage with which they might have come.  Actions of individuals must take into account the situation in which an historical actor is placed.  One must ask, for example, whether John Smith had any option, other than the death of his countrymen, for feeding the Jamestown settlers with aboriginal food stocks.  By asking such questions the arbitrary moral grounds of assessing actions based on judgements of right and wrong, which often reflect more on the historian than the source material, are removed; but the role of the historian to draw conclusions and even to assess historical actors is retained.  By examining the subject in terms of necessary actions and free choices, the views of historical actors are more accurately reflected, while at the same time allowing the reader to assess the more personal aspects of the historical actor’s policies.  Such an approach is part of the ‘absolute simultaneity’ written about in the introduction.  Taking this approach helps to remove some of the polemics of the subject, while still maintaining the integrity of the historical actors and the balance of the historical researcher.

What has been shown in the previous chapters is that Smith and Champlain helped to bridge the gap between Europe and America by recognizing the absolute necessity of aboriginal people to their settlement plans.  Being men of action, both proved remarkably adaptable to living in a new land, and both realized that their societies (both outpost and homeland) had to embody this characteristic if they were to succeed.  To provide one example, Karen Kupperman has offered a reminder that “when things were at their worst under his [Smith’s] governorship, he sent out colonists to live with the ‘Salvages’ in order to learn how they utilized the natural products of the area.”[5] Champlain, who after the founding of Quebec sent Étienne Brûlé to live among the aboriginal people, seems to have developed a comparable policy around the same time.  In a similar manner Gordon Sayre believes that the aboriginal people played a role in fostering Smith and Champlain’s place in this shared space.  Sayre considered that “each [Champlain and Smith] pursued a policy that made sense in the context of how he understood Native American culture and power and what his colonists needed for their survival; each portrayed himself as a colonial leader in a manner consonant with his image of Native American leadership.”[6] This can best be seen through Smith’s parallel relationship with Powhatan in the Generall Historie. Whether a historical reality or a function of their narratives, the influence of the native people on both men can be seen clearly running through all of their texts.

This appearance given by their writings also furthers the concept of an interstitial (or bridged) space by showing its duality.  It can be seen as either representative of actual métissage culturel, as was shown in Chapter 1, or evidence of aboriginal influence in their rhetoric, as emphasized most strongly in Chapter 3.  In either case it shows that Smith and Champlain left North America profoundly influenced by their interactions with the North American people. When David Quinn wrote that Champlain had “an exceptional capacity for adjusting himself to the borderland between France and America, between Indians at one cultural level and Frenchmen at another, and rendering both commercial and cultural exchanges possible,” he could just as well have replaced Champlain by Smith.[7] Both men adjusted to a new and foreign land, and both made that a cornerstone of their writing.

There are those who do not see Champlain in this light.  The best-known scholar to take a critical view of Champlain is Bruce Trigger.  He believes that Champlain lacked curiosity, and that he was “temperamentally incapable of understanding the Indians on their own terms.”[8] According to Trigger, Champlain’s “successes therefore appear to be attributable more to the situation than to the man.”[9] Trigger’s work implies that the common spaces described throughout this thesis were more a function of the situation than the historical actors.  Although there are few flaws in his analysis, Trigger has not turned his argument on its head and looked at it from another perspective.  By doing so one can conclude that if Champlain’s successes were more attributable “to the situation than to the man,” then the situation can be seen as having thrust Champlain into an environment where he had to make ‘frontier exchanges.’  Whether one sees Champlain as in control, like Quinn, or as controlled, like Trigger, his role as a bridge between France and North America was the same.  In either scenario Champlain still had to make decisions, and most often these involved learning how to live in America from the aboriginal people.

Secondly, Trigger has used Champlain’s Quebec experiences to draw his analysis of Champlain’s “Indian Policy.”  Doing this inadvertently projects the situation in Quebec onto the experiences recounted in Des Sauvages and Voyages (1613).  However, Champlain’s perspective most likely changed between 1603 and 1632.  With every passing year he would have learned more about how to survive in a harsher climate, aboriginal life, and operating in the French political world – all of which would have affected his relations with the aboriginal people.  Furthermore, such experiences would have solidified his views and made many elements of aboriginal life seem more commonplace, perhaps diluting the evidence of ‘frontier exchanges’ from the later historical sources.  To fully understand Champlain and his policy towards the native people one must begin with Des Sauvages and read chronologically, giving careful consideration to the accounts one uses when the chronology between works overlaps and observing the changes as they take place.  Karen Kupperman has made a similar observation regarding Smith’s writing.  She has noticed, “as his views hardened and simplified, Smith provided what amounted to a caricature of his earlier views; the respect he had formerly shown for Indian culture and technology had evaporated.  He was out of touch with American realities.”[10] If Trigger and Kupperman are correct in their analysis of Smith’s and Champlain’s later lives (a subject beyond the scope of this thesis) then another bridge can be built between them.

The discussion in the previous two paragraphs can be added to another aspect of the shared space these men inhabited with the aboriginal people.  Once they were out of North America (events that they could only have assumed were permanent) both men made themselves appear as a bridge between the cultures.  Jean Lévesque has emphasized this point by writing, “les discours de Champlain et de Smith ont en commun d’utiliser leurs expériences respectives des peuples autochtones pour justifier leurs propres visées coloniales.”[11] Through their self-serving magna opera, both took on the mantle of promoting themselves as the only people who could massage both sides and ensure permanent settlement for their respective kingdoms.  This rhetorical position was just as important to Smith and Champlain as the actual space that they occupied at the beginning of their careers.

In a more general sense this exchange was created not just by these two men, but also by the coming together of two continents of people – the ‘situation’ to which Trigger alluded earlier in this conclusion.  Although the French and English took different approaches to settling in North America, the shared experience of European contact with North Americans helped to develop a common space at this early stage.  This can be seen most clearly from the Western shores of the Atlantic, by providing a contrast to the evidence presented from a European perspective in the previous chapters of this thesis.

Looking east from the rocky coast of North America, the ‘frontier exchange’ was equally favourable for the aboriginal people.  Neal Salisbury has observed: “While much of the scholarly literature emphasizes the subordination and dependence of Indians in these circumstances, Indians as much as Europeans dictated the form and content of their early exchanges and alliances.”[12] This can be seen clearly within all of the aboriginal societies with whom Champlain and Smith came into contact.  If the aboriginal communities had avoided European contact once Jamestown and Port Royal were settled, these outposts would have had little to sustain them.  Almost certainly they would have followed in the footsteps of Roanoke and the Cartier/Roberval expedition.  Likewise, James Axtell noticed that in these early years of settlement the Europeans could not have appeared very threatening.  “The Powhatans of Virginia could not have been too alarmed by the initial wave of English settlers and soldiers,” Axtell wrote, “because 80 percent of them died of their own ineptitude and disease.”[13] There is little doubt the French presented a similar image to the Mi’kmaq in the initial years at Port Royal, and perhaps to the Innu at Tadoussac as well.  Despite the large number of deaths within the English community at Jamestown, the Virginian Algonquians also saw the English as useful.  H.C. Porter noted: “It is important to realise, first, that Powhatan saw the English settlers as potential allies in his task of consolidating, extending and protecting his Empire.  The English could be used.”[14] That this was the case with the Innu can be seen best in Champlain’s later travels when he describes joining a war party against the Iroquois in 1609.  In this beginning stage of settlement, the balance of power lay firmly within the North American communities, despite European statements regarding their own superiority.

This was not a fact missed by the aboriginal people either.  Cornelius Jaenen has demonstrated that the North American people with whom the French came into contact felt superior to the Europeans. Jaenen noted the difficulty the First Nations had in understanding the value the French placed on concepts such as private property, French culture, Catholicism and missionary life, poverty, and the use of handkerchiefs and other aspects of personal hygiene.  For the Innu and Huron these systems and facts of European life were illogical and inferior compared with their own.  In many ways this was a true clash of cultures in which both sides could not comprehend the ways of the other. One of the clearest examples of this was shown by Jesuit Paul LeJeune who reported in the Jesuit Relations, “I heard my host say one day, jokingly, Missi picoutau amiscou, ‘The beaver knows how to make all things to perfection: It makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, and bread; in short, it makes everything.’ He was making sport of our Europeans, who have such a fondness for the skin of this animal…”[15] For the Innu the beaver was of little value, and European goods of high value, and vice versa for the Europeans.  In aboriginal eyes the Europeans were the ones holding the short end of the stick.

This passage also emphasizes the benefits that came across the Atlantic for the North American peoples.  Francis Jennings has noted that “trade was possible because of compatible traits in the two cultures.  Europeans seeking wealth and dominance in America found peoples there who already understood and practiced division of labor and exchange of commodities.”[16] Iron tools quickly replaced the aboriginal people’s traditional tools, made of natural and often more fragile materials.  Likewise, metal pots completely changed the method of cooking, allowing food to be heated directly over the fire.[17] Just as Champlain and Smith were adopting aboriginal technology, such as the canoe, North Americans were adapting European technology to their purposes as well.  There was only common ground if both Europeans and North Americans were prepared to interact with each other.

However, there was a darker side to this ‘reciprocal’ relationship.  Although there were people from both sides of the Atlantic who wanted, and benefited from, the introduction of Europeans into the aboriginal trading system, there were also people who did not benefit and who may have opposed interaction with the Europeans.  Carol Devens has shown that much of the contact between Frenchman and Aboriginal had a negative impact on aboriginal women.  Although there are many differences between the Virginia and New France contexts, the effect of trading was most likely the same for each society.  Devens believes:

Items whose manufacture had previously constituted some of women’s most important productive activities were being replaced with European merchandise… [making] it possible for women to spend more time instead readying furs for market.  As a result, the significance of woman’s direct contribution to the community welfare diminished as their relationship to the disposal of furs changed.[18]

Although the Virginian Algonquians were not as involved in the fur trade, it seems likely that the introduction of manufactured goods would have had a similar impact on the lives of women by changing how certain tasks were managed.

Directly in terms of the Virginia Algonquians, Smith’s dealing with the male werowances to procure corn may have created problems among the women of that community who were responsible for raising the crops.[19] Helen Rountree believes that “any unravaged corn that the fields produce will be harvested and processed by the women; also allocated for cooking by the women; and apparently owned by the women.”[20] Smith’s policy of ‘ask first and take later’ could not have gone over well with the women who worked so hard on the fields. Whether along the shores of the Saint Lawrence or Chesapeake Bay it seems most likely that the loudest voice of discord in the aboriginal societies came from the women whose lives were significantly changed by the coming of the Europeans.  Although European technology changed the lives of both men and women, the patriarchal system that the Europeans introduced favoured interaction with men, and therefore many of the changes that occurred in aboriginal communities may have taken place without the agreement of women.

Nonetheless, there were some remarkable similarities between the European and North American responses to permanent contact, which created fertile soil for a constructive relationship.  To begin, each group was conditioned by the century of contact and the internal trading systems respective of each continent.  These contacts allowed for those who came to settle to come well prepared, having developed a plan on how to succeed in a new land; this contact also gave the aboriginal people the experience they needed to respond, bringing Europeans into their trading patterns, and as allies in inter-national conflicts.  This helps to explain why newcomers were not expelled in these early years.  Similarly, North Americans and Europeans wanted something from each other.  In the case of Europeans, it was the resources to survive in a new land, and raw materials to meet European commercial demands.  For the North Americans, European tools improved the quality of life in many ways, and their trade quickly became part of a pre-existing North American trading system.[21] In this way, each group entered the permanent relationship between Europe and North America with similar goals and desires, and some of them were met while others quickly became abused.  But at this initial stage of contact much of the outcome of this contact still lay in the future.  At the most fundamental level, then, North American-European relationships were built out of need – the European need to fuel a merchant capitalist economy and compete with other kingdoms; and the North American need for alliances, trade, and technological improvements.  This was where Champlain, Smith and their aboriginal acquaintances began a ‘frontier exchange’ and tried to work together building a productive relationship.

These last paragraphs help to show the difficulty with understanding European-Aboriginal relationships during this stage in the development of North America.  As David Read has written:  “Smith’s writing resists our desire to understand the process of colonization as itself a coherent phenomenon.”[22] Too often the subject of settlement has involved the simple and dualistic model of Europe and North America (or more refined: England or France and North America) without taking into consideration other European kingdoms who were active in North America at the same time, the variety of aboriginal groups with which Europeans interacted, or the fundamental role of individuals acting of their own volition.  This type of thinking has locked many people, and some scholars, into viewing this period through a polemical and moralistic lens of black and white, or positive and negative, rather than seeing the complexity that existed at the time.  Studying the writings of Champlain and Smith reveals the necessity of approaching this subject with ‘absolute simultaneity’ and looking at it through a lens of complexity.  In terms of John Smith, David Read has emphasized this by writing, “we cannot say that Smith’s attitude toward the natives is sensitive and respectful or, on the other hand, that it is bigoted and intolerant; it seems, strangely enough, to be both.”[23] The same dichotomy exists for Champlain.  This calls for a return to a more balanced view in the historiography of those once considered ‘great men’ – a moving away from hero worship and pejorative moral statements towards a more humane approach to history which offsets positive/negative and right/wrong, and frames those judgements in a wider context.

Many historians have already begun to broaden the scope of their research. Karen Kupperman has called for the European-Aboriginal relationship to “be visualized not as steadily, though unevenly, growing knowledge of a constant reality, but rather as a many-stranded spiral of discourse that transformed all participants.”[24] To begin this one must abandon dualistic (and fatalistic?) models that ignore the complexity of the European and American backgrounds from which the historical actors come, and instead embrace a model that is more a web of interconnectivity, with each group being linked through another – both influencing and being influenced through everyday experience in whichever environment historical actors find themselves.[25]

The study of Smith’s and Champlain’s writings emphasizes this web of European-North American interaction well.  Clearly the exchange-based interstitial space created directly through Smith’s and Champlain’s interactions with the aboriginal people (or vice versa) generated part of this web.  However, through the roles they created for themselves in their later writings, the rhetorical position that Smith and Champlain took also linked the aboriginal people of North America with literate Europeans who never traveled across the Atlantic.  In a similar manner, the connection between North American groups such as the Virginia Algonquians, Mi’kmaq, and Innu found in Salisbury and Bourque/Whitehead’s work serves to show that news about Europeans may have travelled far inland via North American trading patterns long before Europeans moved past the tidal estuaries along the East coast.

This model of a web reveals the complexity and the humanity of the first decade of the seventeenth century.  It shows Smith and Champlain to have been more than national heroes who could do no evil and who only cared about the survival of ‘their’ colonies, by also showing their weaknesses and failures.  This type of model reveals that they were influenced by many factors – not just torn between their European upbringing and the American reality, but also by the power of rhetoric and the plurality of alternative choices that they could have made.  Francis Jennings has highlighted this interaction by writing: “Europeans went through a far more complex historical process than just fighting their way into the New World.  What they did was to enter into symbiotic relations of interdependence with Indians (and Africans), involving both conflict and cooperation, that formed the matrix of modern American society.”[26]

With a web-based model it is possible to see that Smith and Champlain were two leaders on the cusp of two converging worldviews.  For them, and the aboriginal leaders with whom they interacted, life together would be a series of trials and errors.  As in all relationships there were successes and failures.  Some were caused by necessity, such as a lack of food, and others by ignorance or vengeance; some deliberate and some accidental; some problems caused by Europeans and others by aboriginal people.  What is most clear, however, is that through these interactions all parties influenced and changed because of the other.  For a brief pause in history, then, it looked like the Europeans were moving towards a sort of harmony (as opposed to a melody in which they sang the same tune) with the North American world, and right up until their deaths it appears that Smith and Champlain wanted to be the ones to make that happen.


[1] John Smith, Proceedings, in Philip Barbour (ed.), The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, vol. I, 228.

[2] James Axtell, After Columbus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 222-243.

[3] Daniel Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy, (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 8.

[4] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, empires and republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 56.

[5] Karen O. Kupperman, Settling with the Indians (Totowa, N.J., 1980), 173.

[6] Gordon Sayre, Les Sauvages Américains, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 78.

[7] David B. Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlement, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), 474.

[8] Bruce Trigger, “Champlain Judged by His Indian Policy: A Different View of Early Canadian History,” Anthropologica, vol. 13, (1971), 89-90.

[9] Trigger, 93.

[10] Kupperman, “‘Brasse without but golde within:’ the writings of Captain John Smith,” Virginia Cavalcade. Vol. 38 no. 2. (Autumn 1988), 75.

[11] Jean Lévesque, “Représentation de l’Autre et Propagande Coloniale dans les Récits de John Smith en Virginie et de Samuel de Champlain en Nouvelle-France (1615-1618),” Canadian Folklore Canadien, vol. 17 no. 1, (1995), 113.  My Translation: “the writings of Champlain and Smith both use their experiences with the aboriginal people to justify their colonial vision.”

[12] Neal Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, vol. 53 (1996), 454.

[13] Axtell, Beyond 1492, (New York: Oxford University, 1992), 228.

[14] H.C. Porter, The Inconstant Savage: England and the North American Indian, 1500-1600, (London, 1979), 286.

[15] Alan Greer, ed., The Jesuit Relations, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 26.

[16] Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1975), 85.

[17] Peter N. Moogk, La Nouvelle France, (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 2000), 23.

[18] Carol Devens, “Separate Confrontations: Gender as a Factor in Indian Adaptation to European Colonization in New France,” American Quarterly, 1986, 472.

[19] Helen Rountree, “Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw,” Ethnohistory, vol. 45 no. 1, (Winter 1998), 3.

[20] Rountree, 10.

[21] Salisbury, 458.

[22] David Read, “Colonialism and Coherence: The Case of Captain John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia,” Modern Philology, vol. 91 no. 4, (May 1994), 429.

[23] Read, 442.

[24] Kupperman, (ed.), America in European Consciousness: 1493-1750, (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1995), 5.

[25] This idea was also presented by Jennings, ix, 173.

[26] Jennings, 173.

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