What Champlain Saw

January 2009

In 1609, four hundred years ago, Samuel de Champlain first set his eyes upon the lake to which he later assigned his name. Some of what he saw remains unchanged, some is completely different, and some of what he thought he saw he did not actually see.

Champlain came seeking war. He had agreed to assist the Native American tribes of the north, the tribes with which he had been trading and cooperating, in their battle against the Iroquois. Champlain’s war party initially consisted of members of the Montagnai, Ochastaiguin, and Algonquin tribes as well as eleven other French soldiers. By the time the group reached Lake Champlain it had shrunk. First, disputes between different factions of the tribes about battle plans led to a split and some warriors returning home. Second, when the war party reached the falls on the Richelieu River at what is today Chambly, Champlain found that the rapids were much more extensive than had been described. The Frenchmen had been travelling in large heavy boats which could not be easily transported around the falls. Instead, Champlain called for volunteers and two of the eleven agreed to accompany him in canoes. Eventually, 24 canoes containing a total of 60 men made it to Lake Champlain. The rest returned to Quebec.

Champlain spent only about a month on the lake. During much of his time he and his party travelled at night to avoid detection by the hostile tribes they sought. As a result, his journals make only brief remarks about the particular flora, fauna, and geology of the Lake Champlain region.

He does describe “many pretty islands here, low, and containing very fine woods and meadows”. He reported a great quantity of abundant fish and game. Champlain remarked upon both the Green and Adirondack Mountains, and his native guides told him 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”. Today, though the abundance of fish and game has been reduced, the islands, mountains, and valleys remain.

Yet not all of what Champlain wrote about, did he actually see. For example, despite travelling in July, he noted, “high mountains on the eastern side (of the lake), on the top of which were snow”. Summer snow events are not unheard of, and some might point to Champlain’s notebook as evidence of global warming, but his other notes contradict this observation. In remarking upon the Adirondack Mountains on the west Champlain tells us they were, “no less high than the first, but without any snow”. Surely if the Greens held snow in July the actually taller Adirondacks would as well. Furthermore, in Champlain’s drawing of his later battle with the Iroquois he placed a palm tree at the edge of the forest. If we are to take his observation of snow at face value, must we also accept the tree? More likely, Champlain observed limestone outcrops or fog around the summits of the Greens and mistook it for snow.

At times, Champlain’s descriptions of flora and fauna are limited by his vocabulary. Thus he claims to have seen numerous different deer species - “stags, fallow-deer, fawns, roe-bucks”, that were familiar in Europe but were quite distinct from our white-tailed deer. He notes, “trees of the same kinds as those we have in France” without recognizing that they were indeed quite different species. The natural science of Champlain’s time had not yet settled into a standard nomenclature for different species. Today, all species are designated by a two part Latin name, but the man who began this convention, Carolus Linnaeus, would not be born until nearly 100 years after Champlain’s voyage.

One of the trees Champlain singled out was the chestnut, “which I had not seen before”. Even though most American chestnuts were killed by an introduced fungal disease by about 1940, chestnut was never a substantial component of northeastern forests. Ecologist Emily Russell writing in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club noted that chestnuts migrated north only slowly following glaciation and that they were “restricted to moist but well-drained, acid loam soils”. The clays that predominate around the Champlain Valley are clearly not well drained, and they tend to be more basic than acidic. It is not clear whether Champlain has misidentified the trees, perhaps confusing American beech trees with chestnuts, or if localized populations of chestnuts may have belied their general role in the forest. After all, Russell also offered a caveat about chestnuts northward expansion: “The palatability of its fruits and the coincidence of its migration with the development of agriculture also suggest that its spread into New England may have been associated with cultural changes in Native American populations.”

Though Champlain offered a broad assessment of the “great abundance of fish” he appeared particularly fascinated by one monstrous species, the Chaosarou. Champlain was told this animal grew up to “eight or ten feet long”. It was “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…it is armed with scales so strong that a poniard could not pierce them…This fish makes war upon all others in the lakes and rivers.” Some have made the fanciful claim that Champlain’s is the first account of the lake monster Champ, but it is more likely that he is describing a long-nosed gar, an improbable looking but fairly common denizen of the lake.

Champlain never returned to the lake he named for himself. As a result, he missed much of what was to be learned about the region and the resources it held. Next month - an exploration of some of what Champlain did not see. 

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access.

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