Gone are the days when historians can study ‘national heroes.’  In the last half century the historical profession has revolutionized its subject matter.  No longer are politics a focus for many students of history; ‘important’ individuals have fallen by the way to recognize those people who worked behind the scenes; text has become only one of a plethora of sources.  This watershed brought new types of history to the fore: social history, cultural history, cliometrics, ethnohistory, and many other blends based on subject and method.  In creating new paths for historians, the flow of historiography has cut off certain topics, such as national heroes and founding fathers, from being significant areas of study.

Many of the above branches of history have thrived specifically because they have become concerned with the condition of their historical actors; their examinations have helped our society to change and become more open.  Essentially this recent shift in the historiography has gone hand in hand with the Western social and political climate, and a greater dialogue in the equality of all human beings.  Groups traditionally under-represented in society and in the history books have begun to gain greater agency partially because they are now being included in our history, just as they were a part of our past.

With the advent of these new streams of historical discipline an historical oxbow lake has been created.  Historians have changed the way that we understand our subject, but many have done so by focusing on areas that were ignored prior to this watershed, and not re-evaluating older subjects.  The days of studying ‘national heroes’ and other topics left behind by the historiographical revolution must return.  Even if we feel these topics unimportant, the weight given by historians of the past warrants their study in the future.  They need to be revisited with greater depth and discussion of methodology.  Essentially that is the goal of this thesis: to examine Samuel de Champlain’s and Captain John Smith’s writings about the aboriginal people, giving fair balance to all of the major players and the environments in which they lived.

There are many new strategies for studying history since much of the secondary material about Smith and Champlain was published.  Some historians seek to “look at cultures in contact with each other in terms of absolute simultaneity,”[1] others call for a complete re-evaluation of how we approach the subject of European-North American contact, and others for a re-evaluation of who can approach European and North American history.[2] In writing this thesis the concept of “absolute simultaneity” has been used in order to retain a balanced view of both the North American and European worlds.  To do this, historians need to step out of their own framework and enter into an understanding of the period.  This is important because, even with the changes in the historiography, historians have still had trouble removing their modern stereotypes.  For example, Karen Kupperman has accused recent historians of having “eliminated the 19th century view of the native, but… [having] largely retained the 19th century view of the colonist.”[3] Likewise, Daniel Richter has emphasized the need for this type of understanding:

Yet outside the ethnohistorical sect the re-visioning has barely begun; the hoary ‘master narrative’ of American history seems distressingly tenacious.  Much scholarship remains trapped in what Vine Deloria, Jr., calls “the ‘cameo’ theory of history,” which “takes a basic ‘manifest destiny’ white interpretation… and lovingly plugs a few feathers, woolly heads, and sombreros into the famous events” without really changing the story line.[4]

These historians have made the accusation clear.  If change is going to occur, as many feel it must, then the historian needs to see this period as one in which two distinct but equally valued societies interacted.  At its most fundamental level this approach calls for historians to see each subject’s humanity.

This opens the history of ethnic relations to more unique approaches, and requires some re-evaluation.  Deborah Doxtator elaborated on the need for re-evaluation of how contact and colonial relationships are studied.  She wrote, “Rather than trying to fit Native information into Euro-based structures of history, perhaps the interrelationships between Native and European histories need to be more closely examined.”[5] Instead of simply attempting to treat all peoples as equals, this calls for an entire reassessment of how the subject is examined.  Not only should the scholar attempt to “look at cultures in contact with each other in terms of absolute simultaneity,”[6] but historians should also be evaluating the framework on which absolutely simultaneous history is to be hung.  The results may yield another radical departure for history, or a return to the status quo.  In either case such a thought exercise would make historians much more aware of the people with whom they have chosen to involve themselves.

Although this thesis focuses on the writings of two Europeans, the historiography of aboriginal communities must also be explored in order to provide an equal understanding of the people whom these two men encountered and wrote about.  Neil Salisbury has provided a window into aboriginal society before the influx of Europeans.  Using archaeological methods, Salisbury demonstrated that there were complex trading patterns in pre-contact North America.  He noted, “Highly valued materials such as Great Lakes copper, Rocky Mountain obsidian, and marine shells from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts have been found in substantial quantities at sites hundreds and even thousands of miles from their points of origin.”[7] Of even greater importance was that Salisbury demonstrated the growth of large and dynamic North American civilizations.  These “Mississippian societies” consisted of “fortified political and ceremonial centers and outlaying villages.”[8] They began to decline because of agricultural failure and increased warfare.  This led Salisbury to conclude, “When Europeans reached North America, then, the continent’s demographic and political map was in a state of profound flux.”[9] In this light the coming of the Europeans takes on less importance than some of the more internal changes that were also happening.

In terms of trade, Salisbury understood the Europeans to have fit into a pre-existing trade network.  From this point Salisbury concluded that “Indians as much as Europeans dictated the form and content of their early exchanges and alliances.”[10] Gordon Sayre has taken this even further by claiming that “Indians appear to have been more successful at it.  In the Map of Virginia Smith deplored the traitorous conduct of Dutchmen in Jamestown who traded for extra food without his sanction.  Powhatan’s people succeeded in breaking the English trade restrictions while maintaining their own…”[11] From this climax of equality claimed by Salisbury, and Sayre who extended the notion, it is clear that the aboriginal people played a key role in their relationships with Europeans, and the unbalanced view of European dominance that existed in the historiography, and still exists in popular memory, is more the product of a later period.

Cornelius Jaenen took a similar approach, but instead of dealing with all of North America before the European arrival, he examined “Amerindian Views of French Culture in the Seventeenth-Century.”[12] The tenor of the article is that the Native people with whom the French came into contact were not passive, subdued, or in awe of their new acquaintances.  Rather, they saw themselves and their culture and lifestyle as superior, or at least equal, to the intruding Europeans, which is similar to how Salisbury and Sayre understood the relationship.  Jaenen added to this understanding by noting the difficulty the First Nations had in understanding many European values.  The article is not entirely negative towards the French, since Jaenen also noted areas that brought societies together, such as ceremony and trade,[13] as well as benefits First Nations communities received from the relationship.[14] Despite these benefits, Jaenen demonstrated that rather than feeling awed by their new contacts, the aboriginal people “felt equal to, or superior to, the Europeans.”[15]

Although the works of these historians suggest some common themes and traits among pre-contact North American communities, when Smith and Champlain set foot upon American soil they entered into two very distinct worlds.  Even though they both encountered peoples from the Algonquian language group, the similarities ended there.[16]

The group of people whom Smith encountered in Chesapeake Bay were highly organized, perhaps a result of the changes Salisbury wrote about.  In the years before the English arrival many tribes had been consolidated into an empire/confederacy under the leadership of a man named Powhatan.  According to Christian Feest, at the climax of this consolidation the Powhatan group (also called the Virginia Algonquians) was made up of just fewer than 4,000 people; and the whole region was populated by about 9,000 people who belonged to other tribes.

Their villages were strung along the many rivers flowing into Chesapeake Bay and normally were made up of less than 100 people.  Only a handful of villages were compact and fortified.[17] These people were agricultural (making up about 25% of their diet) and sedentary although as supplies dwindled during the winter they also subsisted on hunting, fishing, and edible vegetation.  During this part of the year these people would move up river to participate in “communal hunts,” which involved using fire to drive deer towards groups of hunters.  In the spring the men cleared land and the women tended the corn, gourds, beans, and tobacco that subsequently grew there.  This society was highly structured and most daily tasks were assigned to specific groups of people, especially based on gender.

The Virginia Algonquians had some contact with Europeans during the sixteenth century, however in most instances it appears that these encounters frequently ended in violence.  This history and the fact that John Smith arrived at the climax of the centralization of these people (as the last of the groups on the James and York Rivers were coming under Powhatan’s leadership and control) helped to create a tense and rocky relationship during the early days of the Jamestown outpost.  In many ways the English – Powhatan encounter was a true meeting of empires, with highly structured hierarchies of power.  Further north there was no group of people who underwent this sort of centralization, or were as structured.

Reflecting this key difference is that Champlain encountered a variety of aboriginal peoples on his first voyage to the St. Lawrence River.  Like the Powhatan people further south, these men and women spoke an Algonquian dialect, however, rather than being centralized they were much more loosely connected.  Further emphasizing their complex connections were their ties and alliances with neighbouring tribes.  For example, during Champlain’s first voyage he wrote about a number of different aboriginal peoples who interacted with each other, such as the Algonquin, Innu, Etchemin, and Mi’kmaq.  Although connected and some allied together, they were not linked by a common power structure – thus retaining their own autonomy.

Generally, these groups relied much more heavily on the natural resources of their respective regions.  For the Innu and Mi’kmaq this required seasonal migrations from the coast to the forest, while for the Algonquin the summer months were spent in community and the winter spent much more dispersed hunting.  In all cases this migratory pattern did not necessarily hinder agriculture, but rather the climate and geography could not support this as a pillar of aboriginal life.  In terms of social structures little is known about seventeenth-century Algonquin culture, however the Mi’kmaq and Innu were loosely structured.  The words of Eleanor Leacock further elaborate this statement.  She wrote, “’Obedience’ was owed not to any individual, but to the practical and moral order of the group… The ‘captains,’ ‘sagamores,’ or ‘ chiefs’ referred to in the Relations and other accounts were apparently men of personal influence and rhetorical ability.”[18] This structure is important to bear in mind when considering Champlain’s comments regarding aboriginal leadership and how these people interacted with each other.

The most important difference between the aboriginal people with whom these men interacted was the amount of prior contact these people had with Europeans.  Although there was contact in the Chesapeake Bay region, there was much more along the coastlines of the modern day Atlantic Canadian Provinces.  Fish and furs brought many more men into contact with the native people, thus creating relationships and familiarity on which Champlain’s expeditions could build.  With such a foundation, the voyages on which Champlain took part (to Tadoussac in 1603 and the Bay of Fundy from 1604 to 1607) were able to cultivate a more constructive relationship with the people who inhabited the land on which they chose to build their settlements.  Although this groundwork did not always prevent violent clashes with aboriginal people, it did provide security in the regions in which the French chose to build.

This last point calls for some clarification on the roles that these men played on their respective voyages.  Upon arriving in America, Smith was named to the governing council of the Jamestown settlement.  Although in a leadership position there appears to have been enough leeway for him to deviate from the policies advocated by his superiors, an action to which Smith resorted frequently.  On most occasions it is clear that Smith’s actions and decisions were not influenced by those around him, and that he acted as he saw fit.  Champlain on the other hand had significantly less control over his actions and on a number of occasions it is clear that he was merely following orders.  This difference makes it difficult to discern in Champlain’s writings what were his own actions and beliefs and what were those of his superiors.  One must continuously remember that first and foremost Champlain was recounting other people’s expeditions and policies towards the native people during this period.  However, it is clear that although much of what he said and did fits with the policy of his superiors (mainly that of the Sieur de Monts), Champlain also adhered to this policy when he was free to do otherwise – thus taking ownership for those ideas himself.  That the actions of both men were overseen on these expeditions must always be remembered when reading this thesis, as not to elevate these men beyond the station they actually occupied at this time in their lives.

In the history of exploration one scholar will examine Cartier, another Champlain, and another John Smith.  Even when topics are combined they often deal more with comparison than detailing the entire story.  Because of this there is always a need for scholars to take a step back and synthesize the subject matter on a larger scale in order to develop a better understanding of the subject as a whole.  David Beers Quinn has done this for the exploration period.  In his book North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlement: The Norse Voyages to 1612 Quinn displayed the continuity of the European presence in North America from the late fifteenth century to the early seventeenth.  Through detailing European activities, including those that did not bring them permanently to the ‘new’ continent (such as the fisheries), Quinn demonstrated that Europeans had been interacting with North Americans long before Champlain and Smith set foot on foreign shores.

This is an important observation for two reasons.  First, Quinn placed North America’s earliest settlements into a much more turbulent context.  There was nothing separating Jamestown from the failed Roanoke voyages twenty years earlier, nor was Quebec’s longevity any more certain than that of Saint Croix, or of Port-Royal in its initial stages.  When founded, both of these settlements would either meet with success, or like all that had been attempted before, be mired in failure.  The tentative nature of the settlements made them more fitting with the period Quinn examined than the permanent settlement that had developed by the end of the seventeenth century.  Because of this uncertainty this thesis will focus primarily on comparing Jamestown with Port Royal instead of Quebec.

The second reason a prior European-Aboriginal relationship is important lies in the nature of the relationship.  Because these settlements were minor extensions of previous relationships it seems likely that the aboriginal people would not have seen them as the sea change in which they are most often associated.  Most likely they saw the initial phases of these settlements as an extension of the relationship already developed with fishers and traders.  This is the case for Port Royal especially, where the Mi’kmaq had considerable contact with Europeans throughout the sixteenth century.

This process was part of the change that paved the way for the foundation of the outposts at Jamestown and Port Royal.  Before Champlain and Smith arrived there had been no successful settlement (for either kingdom) north of Florida.  What else had changed during those beginning years of the seventeenth century to make this possible?  Was it changes in North America or Europe? Secondly, what made the French more successful than the English in its relationships with the Native peoples (if they were more successful at all)?  Scholars have spent much time asking these questions, and it is worthwhile examining some of the conclusions they have reached.

There are numerous proposals as to why France appears to have been more successful in interacting with the native people while England was less so.  None of them can stand alone, and most likely all played a significant role in developing a productive relationship between the aboriginal people and the French in Quebec and Acadie.  The first and most significant relationship that took place was through the greater frequency of trade between France and many aboriginal communities in the sixteenth century.  Conrad Heidenreich explained that the French were “conditioned by at least twenty years of trading.”[19] According to Heidenreich this experience helped to reshape French attitudes towards exploration into a more flexible worldview that allowed aboriginal culture to be seen in a more positive light.

This transformation allowed Champlain to make two fundamental innovations that revolutionized the French presence in North America.  The first was that Champlain used the aboriginal people to gather information about the ‘new’ territory, and the second was his adoption of the canoe which allowed him to bypass the hydrological blockades that had barred Cartier from traveling upriver.[20] These changes were key to French success in North America, allowing Champlain to build alliances and gain important information that was essential to surviving in a much harsher climate than that of Europe.  However, this thesis will also show that Smith made very similar innovations, suggesting a greater complexity to this subject.

What also set the French apart on a more fundamental level was the ‘Doctrine of Consent.’  France was unique in requiring that aboriginal people be asked permission to settle on their land.  Patricia Seed wrote, “No other Europeans so consistently sought the political permission of the Natives in order to justify their own political authority.”[21] This was necessary for the French because of the European political environment, and should not be taken as a sign of constructive relations without the support of other explanations.  Essentially the ‘Doctrine of Consent’ was part of the French method of claiming control of North America.  It was not done out of respect for the occupiers of the land, but rather to signify French right to the territory among other European powers.  Nonetheless, the building of alliances, which often incorporated the transference of people to learn the other’s culture, often facilitated consent.  This type of cultural exchange and recognition of the need for the aboriginal people that developed out of the ‘Doctrine of Consent’ is part of what made the French successful in many of their endeavours.  However, although the historiography has emphasized these cultural exchanges as a positive reflection of the relationship between the French and First Nations, it will be shown in this thesis that they also existed in John Smith’s Virginia – a point not often made in regards to the English.

The third reason given for the French success has to do with geography.  In New France and Acadie, the French occupied land that was not used in any significant fashion by the aboriginal peoples.  According to Jaenen, New France developed around “what in the seventeenth century was the no man’s land of the St. Lawrence Valley.”[22] The minimal intrusion of the French during the initial stages of this process no doubt allowed for roots to be developed and helps to explain the relatively peaceful relations in the region.  Philip Barbour, the editor of Smith’s works, has pointed out that the English were not so lucky, having decided to build Jamestown on Paspahegh territory and therefore inviting attack and poor relations.

Finally, the English and French differed because of their early colonial vision.  France was not as involved as England in colony building during the sixteenth century.  Although England did not become serious about North American settlement in the sixteenth century, it was involved in Ireland.  Nicholas Canny noted, “the involvement in Irish colonisation of men who afterwards ventured to the New World suggests that their years in Ireland were years of apprenticeship.”[23] More specifically Kupperman has pointed to Richard Hakluyt as having “first enunciated the idea that the English could draw on their experience learned in the cruel European and Irish wars when handling the American natives.”[24] In a more tangible fashion C.E.S. Franks has drawn the parallel analytically: “English complaints about the Irish were the same as about the Indians: they lacked shame, went around naked, were polygamous and sexually immoral, and even worse, had no concept of private property, nor did they accept the Protestant religion.”[25] While both countries had their share of pejorative literature towards the North American people, the English also had tangible experience that they could put into practice once having arrived on North America’s shores.

Before an all-too-rosy picture is created by these explanations for the French success, Olive Dickason has given another perspective: “once a colony was secure, the need for compromise would diminish and disappear as the Amerindians recognized the superiority of French ways and became Frenchmen.”[26] The French did not set out to live as a separate culture among the native communities, but instead sought their conversion and francification just as much as other European communities.  Nonetheless, in its initial stages the French method of settlement proved successful, and the roots created still exist four centuries later.

The English, on the other hand, were not as successful in their relationship with the aboriginal people.  In 1622 the Virginia Algonquians rose up and seriously threatened the outpost at Jamestown.  It was the climax to a number of little battles and skirmishes that had been taking place since the English arrived in North America in 1607.  This tension was not based on ethnicity, however.  Kupperman has argued strongly that the English did not employ concepts of race in order to justify the subduction of the aboriginal people.  The last words of Kupperman’s book sum up her perspective well:

It was the effect of unrestricted power, not preconceived racism, which caused the English to treat the American Indians as they did.  If, in the period after 1640, the American Indians were the subjects of racism by English people, the conclusion must be that this racism was a product of, not the cause of, the treatment of Indians by colonists.[27]

Kupperman did not believe that this idea hinders those who understand the English to have felt themselves superior, but contended that such an argument cannot be based on race.

Kupperman heartily subscribed to the feeling of superiority among the English.  When discussing John Smith’s disapproval of intermarriage, Kupperman wrote that English writers were optimistic that the aboriginal people would assimilate to their lifestyle, and “for Europeans to regress to Indian ways would be ludicrous in their view.”[28] Here lies the main stumbling block for the English.  It was not race, but a feeling of superiority (or civility) based on lifestyle, technology, and culture as developed in England that barred the English from bridging the gap between Europe, Virginia and New England.  While the French were intermarrying and sending and receiving both Natives and Frenchmen between communities,[29] the English leadership, for the most part, chose to enforce a separate sphere between their culture and that of the aboriginal people.

Now that we have gathered the historiographical contexts in which Smith and Champlain have been portrayed, we can explore how historians have viewed their actions regarding the aboriginal people.  Developing an understanding of these two men is absolutely essential to grasping the overall scheme that was just discussed, because not only were they products of it, they were also two of its chief proponents.  This point is made even clearer when one considers that during this period Smith and Champlain were only two of a handful of Europeans whose boots had touched North America north of Florida.

Much of the historiography of these two men has been entrenched in heroics.  Morris Bishop summed up the goal of many of Smith’s and Champlain’s biographers when he wrote, “The author’s chief hope is that it [Bishop’s book] may arouse in others an answering admiration and love for the founder and father of Canada, the patron of her spirit, her Hero.”[30] Few historians have deviated from this interpretation of Champlain.  Only Bruce Trigger has downplayed his role by strongly emphasizing the important position that the fishers and traders occupied during this early period in Canadian history, casting Champlain as a man of circumstance rather than fortitude.  The historiography for Smith, too, is entrenched with patriotic writing.  Leo Lemay echoed Bishop’s words, considering Smith as “not only the greatest colonist and explorer of early America, he was also its greatest visionary.”[31] However, Lemay’s voice is only one of a few in recent scholarship.  Most historians have erred on the cautious side, trying to bring a greater balance to the subject.  This is one of the largest discrepancies in the literature.  Where Smith has been approached with more balance, Champlain has most frequently been enshrined as the embodiment of a Canadian ethos.

For the most part Smith has been seen as a self-righteous and arrogant man of action.  Alden Vaughan has presented a darker view of Lemay’s “greatest visionary.”  Vaughan stated, “Smith had no strong affection for the American Natives.  Throughout his dealings with them the captain treated Indians as common adversaries, grudgingly giving them credit for strength or wisdom, but never trusting or cherishing them.”[32] But for Vaughan the relationship was reciprocal.  “The Indians, in turn,” Vaughan wrote, “considered Smith their principal enemy.”[33] This opinion was shared by Kupperman, who placed Smith at the bottom of the list in terms of how Englishmen valued the aboriginal culture.[34] Perhaps these are accurate views, but there is some evidence to suggest that how we understand Smith may be more related to continuing a historiographical tradition rather than looking at the evidence in a fresh light.

Consider two stories:  The first is about Smith, the second about Champlain.  In December 1607 John Smith led a group up the Chickahominy River on a barge.  When they got as far as they could go, Smith left the barge and used a canoe to travel further.[35] The second vignette is similar.  In July 1603 Champlain was using a small draft boat at the bottom of the Lachine rapids on the St. Lawrence.  Having been in North America for about two months he had seen the natives’ canoes many times.  It was here that he discovered the necessity of this craft in order to further explore the North American interior.[36] The stories are twin images of each other.  Both men found themselves in a similar situation and decided to adopt the craft of the aboriginal people.  However, Champlain has been credited with making a major in-road for the French, while Smith has not received the same accolades.  These parallel stories show the need to examine these men side by side with full emphasis on their individuality and humanity.

Gordon Sayre has also helped to explain why Smith has been seen in a more negative light by placing him in a Machiavellian framework.  However, Sayre also moved beyond the influence of these ideas claiming that Smith’s actions can only be understood in light of his relationship with the emperor Powhatan.  Sayre explained that “it was Powhatan’s Machiavellian cunning more than his despotic rule that served as an effective model for Smith, and it was in the subsequent episode, the one Weraskoyack was warning about, that Smith and Powhatan emerged as psychological doubles, equally resourceful, egotistical, and suspicious.”[37] James Axtell has placed Smith in a similar framework claiming, “while Smith was no saint, the colony had prospered briefly under his forceful command… Perhaps his greatest legacy was an Indian policy that respected the natives’ military audacity and economic shrewdness while meeting them head-on with daring determination.”[38] This is a similar observance to that made by Vaughan, but without the negative implications.  Both Axtell and Sayre have taken a more pragmatic approach to Smith’s works by balancing the European and North American worlds in which he existed.

Lemay is the only recent historian who has had anything really positive to write about John Smith.  However, he has had little positive to write about the historiography.  Assaulting the work of Karen Kupperman and Francis Jennings, Lemay wrote: “These writers take pride in understanding and in identifying with the early seventeenth-century Indians but find the early seventeenth-century whites to have been absolute barbarians.”[39] Although one can base such an argument on Jennings’ moralistic vocabulary, neither he nor Kupperman have created such a polar argument in their works.[40] In fact, if anything Kupperman has presented a convincing case that the English were acting in the only way they knew how, by trying to place a previously unknown people into their own worldview.  Both historians have presented early North American encounters as both sides acting and reacting to a situation that they did not fully understand.

It appears from the very beginning of Lemay’s book that he was attempting to right what he saw as a historical wrong.  For him, “within the early seventeenth-century context, Smith’s behavior was not only fair, he was surprisingly kind and humanitarian.  He treated Indians as he treated whites.”[41] Kupperman would both agree and disagree with this statement.  She would disagree that Smith was kind and humanitarian, but agree that he treated them “as he treated white people.”  In fact this is the general thesis of her books.  In Settling with the Indians she wrote that the aboriginal people “were subject to this form of ‘contempt’ not because they were racially different or savage, but because they were lumped in the minds of colonial leaders in the same status category as low-born English people.”[42] Although he made some valuable points, Lemay rarely had a negative comment regarding Smith’s treatment of the aboriginal people, and it would serve his analysis well if he took a more balanced look at those who have written before him.

Lemay’s book cannot be written off, however, because it does bring the historian’s attention to the fact that the historiography regarding John Smith tends to be based in polarities.  He has either been seen as wonderful, as Lemay saw him, or as despised, like Jennings’ and Vaughan’s writings suggests.  However, based on his use of the canoe it seems likely that he falls somewhere in between, perhaps alongside Champlain.  More balance must be brought to this subject.

Kupperman provided an excellent example for this, and throughout her works Smith is often referred to in more balanced terms than those that have been ascribed to her in this introduction.  Although she clearly sees Smith’s relationship with the aboriginal people as destructive, she has noted that he understood the necessity of relying on the aboriginal people in order to survive in the colonists’ new homeland – placing him much closer to Champlain than he has previously been seen.

Samuel de Champlain had much more experience with Americans prior to his arrival in North America.  Unlike Smith who spent his youth fighting in Europe, Champlain spent some time travelling to the Americas before his arrival in Tadoussac in 1603.  Samuel Morison described how his early life and his later exploration were interconnected:

He [Champlain] was impressed by the magnificence of the capital, admired the fertility of Mexico, and deplored the cruelty of the Spaniards to the Indians.  He evidently resolved to prevent anything of that sort in New France, if ever he were in authority there, and in this he remained consistent.  No early European explorer was anywhere near so successful as Champlain in making friends of the Natives, or so humane in protecting them.[43]

Aside from the clairvoyance that Morison ascribed to Champlain (by suggesting that he was making plans for his time in New France while in the West Indies) this quotation outlines the previous contact that Champlain had with peoples from the Americas as well as with other European settlements.  Although there is little likelihood that Champlain knew he would be in New France in the coming years, there can be little doubt that this was a formative experience.

This quotation also serves as a great example of things to keep in mind while writing history of Aboriginal-European contact.  Morison took a unique approach to writing his biography of Champlain.  Instead of just doing academic research, Morison and his wife put the canoe on top of the car and spent a summer paddling in Champlain’s wake.  This approach added a personal touch to his writing but from time to time the historian’s rigour has been replaced by romance.  The passage above serves as a prime example of the problems with this type of history.  The first problem is the clairvoyance that has already been mentioned.  There were three years between his supposed voyage to the West Indies and his next voyage to North America.[44] It is highly unlikely that Champlain was even fathoming traveling to North America at the time of this experience.  Second, Morison told his readers that Champlain was “humane in protecting them.”  The question that one must ask is whether they needed protection, or maybe even more importantly, who needed the protection?  Although Champlain later allied with the Innu and Wendat (Huron) peoples, it was not an alliance based on protection but rather military support.  The end of this quotation is a clear demonstration of the patronizing attitude with which historians have written in the past.

Both Gordon Sayre and Jean Lévesque have attempted to compare Smith’s and Champlain’s perceptions of the aboriginal people.  At the centre of his work, Lévesque supported the idea that both were men of action and goal oriented.  Separating Champlain from his contemporaries who traveled in North America Lévesque wrote, “il serait plutôt le représentant d’un point de vue mitoyen, nous dirions le point de vue de l’homme d’action.  Comme Smith d’ailleurs.”[45] But perhaps more important than this similarity is one that has not yet been discussed but is key to understanding these two men.  Lévesque observed, “les discours de Champlain et de Smith ont en commun d’utiliser leurs expériences respectives des peuples autochtones pour justifier leurs propres visées coloniales.”[46] One must never forget that both of these men had an agenda for writing and that no aspect of their North American experiences can be examined without this in mind.  They not only played a role in the development of these communities, but also in forming a European understanding of this ‘new’ continent.

For Sayre the similarities between these two men have developed out of their experience with the aboriginal people.  Sayre believes that “Smith and Champlain’s foes are alter egos of the leaders who write about them.”[47] He went on to claim “the stark contrast between the egotistical Smith and the modest Champlain is an effect of the structure of their narratives and of their motives in relations with the Native Americans.”[48] Although there is much truth to the ideas of both Lévesque and Sayre this thesis will show that there was not only much similarity between Smith’s and Champlain’s interactions with the native people, but also in how they wrote about them.  It will demonstrate that they embodied an intermediate space between North America and Europe, and sought to promote themselves as an embodiment of that space in their literature.  This interpretation integrates both the ‘men of action’ interpretation of Lévesque and the influence of the aboriginal people highlighted by Sayre.  Neither of their works, however, fully explains Smith’s and Champlain’s realities because neither fully encompasses both the European and North American experiences of these two men.

There exists, however, a historiographical aura that stigmatizes Champlain and Smith, and there remains a need to examine this subject with a greater balancing of the worlds in which these men existed.  By doing this a true assessment can be made as to how these men thought and responded to their contacts with North America’s inhabitants.  This thesis seeks to meet this need by maintaining a firm footing in the North American environment, while also including Smith and Champlain’s European upbringing and worldview.

Therefore this work has been divided chronologically to preserve a balance between Europe and North America.  The first chapter examines Smith’s A True Relation and Champlain’s Des Sauvages. Smith’s work is a letter, which he wrote in 1608, after being in Virginia for a year, whereas Champlain’s was derived from a report he made of his first voyage to North America in 1603.  Both serve as a first impression of North America.  The second chapter draws Champlain and Smith together through the ties of common experience in New England – Champlain from 1604 to 1607 and Smith in 1614.  This environmental similarity facilitates the comparison of their impressions and writing styles and leads into the last chapter which examines their magna opera and how they reflected upon their earlier experiences, seen in chapters one and two.

By looking at the early period in their careers it is much easier to understand their views than it is to use their later works.  This decision runs contrary to the existing historiography of the subject, as Sayre and Lévesque have based their studies on Jamestown and Quebec.  At first glance this choice appears to have been the most logical form of comparison, seeing as Quebec and Jamestown were France and England’s first successful year-round outposts.  However, given the short amount of time Smith actually spent in North America, and the long time Champlain lived along the Saint Lawrence, it seems hardly fair to compare their experiences in this manner.  Instead, the three years Champlain spent at Port Royal serve as a much stronger comparison with Smith’s time in Virginia, both chronologically and experientially.  To study Smith and Champlain in the light of Quebec and Jamestown is to be blinded by the colonies’ subsequent successes rather than dealing with each man’s actual experience in these outpost settlements.  The parallel between Jamestown and Port Royal in the years before 1610 better facilitates this comparison. 

As the study of history changes and more evidence comes to light via the opening of archives, the opening of the earth via archaeology, or the opening of minds to working with other disciplines, we need to revisit the historical subjects of the past.  This has not occurred with John Smith or Samuel de Champlain.  This thesis attempts to make a limited re-examination of this field and it is hoped will open the door to a greater re-evaluation of many of the men once considered their countries’ heroes, and discarded in the light of new historical methods.  History is constantly revising itself, and with every new revision we come closer to truly understanding our past and our present.


[1] Natalie Zemon Davis, “Polarities, Hybridities: What Strategies for Decentring?” in Germaine Warkentin and Carolyn Podruchny, (eds.) Decentring the Renaissance: Canada and Europe in Multidisciplinary Perspective 1500-1700, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 30.

[2] This summary is taken from a conference in 1996 called Decentring the Renaissance.  The purpose was to look at Canada during the Renaissance period while maintaining a balanced view of the contact between European and Aboriginal.  The first section of the conference proceedings provides a diverse overview of methodological issues.  In that section Natalie Zemon Davis, Deborah Doxtator, Toby Morantz, and Gilles Thérien have discussed various approaches to this period.  It is the work of the first three scholars [their approaches are list respectively above] that applies most directly to developing an approach to the relationship Samuel de Champlain and John Smith each had with the aboriginal people. Germaine Warkentin and Carolyn Podruchny, (eds.) Decentring the Renaissance: Canada and Europe in Multidisciplinary Perspective 1500-1700, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)

[3] Karen O. Kupperman, Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640, (Totowa, N.J., 1980), 114.

[4] Daniel K. Richter, “Whose Indian History?” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, vol. 50 (1993), 381. – italics and ellipses in this quotation are Richter’s.

[5] Deborah Doxtator, “Inclusive and Exclusive Perceptions of Difference: Native and Euro-Based Concepts of Time, History, and Change,” Decentring the Renaissance, 46.

[6] Davis, 30.

[7] Neil Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, vol. 53 (1996), 438.

[8] Salisbury, 439.

[9] Salisbury, 449.  Karen Kupperman has given a particular explanation/example of why and how agricultural change impacted European-Aboriginal contact: “These conditions [The Little Ice Age] probably led to the intense drought conditions researchers have found in the Chesapeake and along the Carolina Outer Banks at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth, which they have labeled the worst conditions in eight hundred years.  The early colonial record contains plenty of evidence of drought and competition over the ability to bring rain through supernatural means.  The colonists, none of whom produced their own food in the early years, must have created intolerable burdens on native food supplies.” Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America, (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University, 2000), 36.

[10] Salisbury, 454.

[11] Gordon Sayre, Les Sauvages Américains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 14.

[12] Cornelius Jaenen, “Amerindian Views of French Culture in the Seventeenth Century,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 55 (1974), 261-291.

[13] Jaenen, 268-269.

[14] Jaenen, 265.

[15] Jaenen, 290.

[16] Although this similarity is based on language, the Handbook of North American Indians states that the language of the Virginia Algonquians is extinct.  Christian F. Feest, “Virginia Algonquians,” in Bruce Trigger, ed., The Handbook of North American Indians, (Washington, Smithsonian Institution, 1978), 253.

[17] Feest, 259.

[18] Eleanor Leacock, “Seventeenth-century Montagnais Social Relations and Values,” The Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6, (Washington, Smithsonian Institution, 1981), 191.

[19] Conrad Heidenreich, “The Beginning of French Exploration out of the St Lawrence Valley: Motives, Methods, and Changing Attitudes towards Native People,” Decentring the Renaissance, 246.  David Beers Quinn has also espoused this idea in North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlement: The Norse Voyages to 1612, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), 488 and 536.

[20] Heidenreich, 238-239.

[21] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640, (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 62. This is also discussed in Olive P. Dickason, “The Sixteenth-Century French Vision of Empire:  The Other Side of Self-Determination,” Decentring the Renaissance, 90-91 and Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlement, 489.

[22] Jaenen, “The French Relationship with the Native Peoples of New France and Acadia,” (Research Branch, Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada, 1984), 6.

[23] Nicholas Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, (1973), 595.

[24] Kupperman, “English Perceptions of Treachery, 1583-1640: The Case of the American ‘Savages,’” The Historical Journal, Vol. 20 no. 2. (1977), 267.

[25] C.E.S. Franks, “In Search of the Savage Sauvage: An Exploration into North America’s Political Cultures,” American Review of Canadian Studies, Vol. 32, no. 4 (2002), 561.

[26] Dickason, 107.

[27] Kupperman, Settling with the Indians, 188.

[28] Kupperman, Settling with the Indians, 156.

[29] On intermarriage see Naomi Griffiths, “Mating and Marriage in early Acadia,” Renaissance and Modern Studies, vol. 35 (1992), 109-127. or Heidenreich, 245.

[30] Morris Bishop, Champlain: The Life of Fortitude, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963), x.

[31] Leo Lemay, The American Dream of Captain John Smith, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 16.

[32] Alden T. Vaughan, American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia, (Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1975), 35.

[33] Vaughan, 35.

[34] Kupperman, Settling with the Indians, 31.

[35] Vaughan, 34.

[36] Heidenreich, 239.

[37] Sayre, 66.

[38] James Axtell, After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 202-204.

[39] Lemay, 11.

[40] Francis Jennings’ The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest can easily distract the reader through a vocabulary based in polemics.  However, the basic argument of the book is very similar to many of the themes presented by Kupperman.  The language is perhaps too forceful for the argument that he actually makes.

[41] Lemay, 116.

[42] Kupperman, Settling with the Indians, 3.

[43] Samuel Morison, Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France, (Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1972), 20.

[44] Champlain mentioned his travels to the West Indies on a number of occasions in his works, however whether those travels are recounted in Brief Discours is questionable. For more information see Luca Codignola, “Le Prétendu Voyage de Samuel de Champlain aux Indes Occidentales, 1599-1601,” in Madeleine Frédéric and Serge Jaumain, (eds.), La Relation de Voyage, (Brussels: Université Libre de Bruxelles, Centre d’études Canadiennes, 1999), 61-80.

[45] 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), 105. My Translation: “he was rather the representative of a common point of view, we could say the point of view of a man of action.  Like Smith elsewhere.”

[46] Lévesque, 113. My Translation: “the writings of Champlain and Smith both use their experiences with the aboriginal people to justify their colonial vision.”

[47] Sayre, 50.

[48] Sayre, 77.

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