What if North America was French?

If the outcome of certain European wars had been different, the dominant culture of North America would be French and not English.

After reading David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream, I think this would have been a good thing.

The settlers of New Spain enslaved Indians.  The settlers of New England drove them out.  But settlers of New France intermarried with the Indians and lives with them in peace.

This was the dream of a remarkable individual, Samuel de Champlain.  Between his first voyage to the New World in 1603 and his death in 1635, his example and his laws established a pattern for a multi-cultural society.

His career would make a good TV mini-series, because it consisted of a series of crises, which in dramatic terms would be cliff-rangers—everything seemingly lost, but with the slim possibility of one last effort putting everything right.

Champlain was a soldier, sailor, navigator, explorer, map-maker, writer, administrator and diplomat, who was able to negotiate successfully in the councils of Algonquin and Huron warriors and the court of King Louis XIII Cardinal Richelieu.

He made mistakes in judgment, like everyone else.  The worst one was underestimating the severity of the Canadian winter.  He sometimes lost his temper.

But Fischer was unable to find a single incident in which he knowingly told a lie or broke a promise.  His observations of the lands he explored and his accounts of his own actions were not only truthful, but accurate.

When other French commanders made contact with Indian nations, they usually began a show of force and a demonstration of their superior firepower.

Champlain would walk into Indian settlements unarmed, either alone or with a single companion.

No fool he, sometimes on making first contact Champlain would sometimes have troops with firearms hiding in the underbrush in case things went wrong.  But he went out of his way to appear un-threatening.

He won the trust of the Indians by spending a lot of time with them and taking the trouble to understand them.  He sincerely liked them.  He didn’t have to fake friendship.

Champlain’s humanistic Catholicism was appealing to the Indians—I think partly because the Christian idea of forgiveness freed them of the duty of carrying on blood feuds without end.

Many Indian nations welcomed European settlers because they saw them as possible allies in their wars with other Indians.  Champlain avoided that trap.  He positioned himself as mediator.

But he did help the Algonquins and Hurons in their wars with the aggressive Iroquois to the South.

Champlain and allies vs. Mohawks

Champlain led a mixed French and Indian invasion of Mohawk territory in 1609.  They fought a battle on the shore of Lake Champlain, which he named/

The Mohawks wore wooden armor and fought shoulder-to-shoulder, as in an ancient Greek phalanx.  They probably would have won except for the French use of firearms, called arquebuses.

He led another expedition, against the Onondaga, in 1615, and fought a battle near today’s Syracuse.  The Onondaga took refuge in a wooden fort, which Champlain attempted to overcome by building a European-style siege engine—a portable wooden structure taller than the walls of the fort.

I never thought Indians wore armor or built forts.  I suppose a lot of what I think of as Indian warfare is an adaptation to the superior firepower of the English, French and Spanish.

After that, Champlain and the Indian nations of New France were able to negotiate a temporary peace with the Iroquois.  Fischer noted that this was partly because the Iroquois were preoccupied with fighting the Susquehannocks to their south.

New France at its greatest extent.  Click to enlarge

Fischer said that American historians for many years wrote of the Indians as savages and the settlers as saints.  More recently they have started to treat the settlers as savages and the Indians as saints.

The truth is that they are all flawed human beings, trying to protect their interests and get by as best they could.

Samuel de Champlain’s use of the word “sauvage” simply mean “forest-dweller,” with no negative connotation.  He thought the Indians as individuals were equal to the French in intelligence and greatly their superior in physical strength.

In the retreat from the battle with the Onondaga, Champlain was wounded and could not walk.  A Huron warrior carried him in a sack on his back for several days/

The main thing Champlain disliked about the Indians he knew was their love of torture.  They delighted in torturing any enemy captive.  In their culture, the ability to stand up to torture was regarded as the supreme test of a warrior’s courage.

However, he did not try to forbid torture.  He would not have succeeded if he had.  His few attempts to intervene ended badly.

Of course torture was also part of the judicial process in 17th century France and other European countries, and the Inquisition was active throughout the Spanish Empire.

While Fischer admires Champlain’s humane spirit, he pointed out that he had no concept of human rights or democracy as these things are understood today.  He believed in hierarchy and discipline, not freedom and liberty.

He consulted widely before making a decision.  In particular, he tried to reconcile the French idea of justice, which was retribution, with the Algonquin and Huron idea of justice, which was reparations.  But when he made his decision, he expected to be obeyed.

Nobody knows what Champlain looked like

Champlain was probably born around 1570.  Little is known of his boyhood and youth.  Fischer thinks it likely that he was raised as a Protestant and converted to Catholicism as an adult, much like King Henry IV of France., who may have been his biological father.

Like most men of that era, he took on adult responsibility as a young age.  He went to sea as a boy with his legal father.  He fought on King Henry’s side in France’s internal wars and went to New Spain as an undercover agent in 1598-1601.

King Henry IV looked with favor on Champlain’s dream.   But he was assassinated in 1610, and power went to the boy king Louis XIII, his mother Marie de Medici and, after 1624, his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu.

None of them thought much of Champlain, who was not of noble blood and not part of any inner circle, and owed his position merely to ability.

New France was put under the rule of a succession of viceroys, who never left France itself.  Champlain’s title was merely that of lieutenant to the victory.

The French court kept sending people over to check up on Champlain, but he was always able to make friends with his minders and bring them over to his point of view.

He went back and forth between Canada and France continually.  When he was in Canada, his support by the inrvestors and French court would deteriorate.  When he was in France, the situation in Canada would deteriorate.

Fischer said Champlain probably crossed the ocean 27 times from 1599 to 1635, at a time when Atlantic crossings were highly dangerous.  He was his own navigator and pilot and had a number of close calls.

As a historian, David Hackett Fischer’s method is to exhaustively research every little detail of everything that could affect his top, and then to present an in-depth mosaic consisting of hundreds of little facts.

This is the method he used in his books on Paul Revere’s ride and George Washington’s crossing the Delaware, and it is the method that Robert Caro uses in his ongoing multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.

He created a very rich picture of Champlain and his times, but a reader has to spend a lot of time and effort to take it all in.

The book ends with Champlain returning to Canada one last time.  He saw that the French colony was well-established and its future assured.  French, Indians, missionaries, fur traders—all welcomed him and showed their gratitude to him.

Then he had a stroke, became sick and died.  He did not live to receive a message that was on the way from Cardinal Richelieu, relieving him of his command with no word of thanks, and turning over rule to a blue-blood mediocrity from the French court.

While this was rank ingratitude, Fischer noted that Champlain had never asked anything for himself.  Everything was for his dream, which he lived to see come true.  His lack of external honors was, in a sense, a tribute to his sense of honor.

Afterthoughts [8/4/2020]  The good relations between the French and the Indians were not fore-ordained.   There were Spanish and English colonists, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Roger Williams, who took up for the Indians.  There were French colonists, such as Jacques Cartier, who plundered and kidnaped the Indians.

Nor were the French especially benign rulers of their other colonies.  The fact that French Canada took a different path is at least partly due to the direction set by Samuel de Champlain.

It is an exaggeration to say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson did, that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man, but there are inflection points or switch points in history in which one man’s or woman’s decisions can set a direction for a new community, organization or movement.

If the American War of Independence had failed, both French and Indian cultures would have a stronger position in North America.

It is false to say that the American Revolution was fought in defense of slavery.  But it is a fact that it was found partly in defense of westward expansion.

One of the grievances against the British crown was the attempt to prevent the Atlantic colonists from establishing settlements west of the Appalachians.

There was no economic benefit to England is allowing subsistence farmers into what is now Kentucky or Ohio, but there was benefit in promoting the fur trade, which was dominated by French Canadians.

The Indian nations had varied customs and languages, just as European nations did, but one thing many of them had in common was a strong sense of personal independence.

Indians were averse to taking orders, either from their own leaders or from European settlers.  This was appealing to many Europeans.

There are many examples of white children being kidnapped by Indians and refusing to be “rescued.”  Likewise, there are many examples of Indian children being forced into white Christian schools and refusing to submit.  Something valuable has been lost.

Canadian history has no equivalent to the U.S. Indian Wars, which is to Canadians’ credit, although their settlers managed to get most of the valuable land anyhow.


Samuel de Champlain and the Question of Leadership by John Bedell for Bensozia.

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2 Responses to “What if North America was French?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    If not quite a good thing, a very much better thing. A lot more could be said . . .


  2. The First French Settlement in the Americas — Micheline’s Blog | Vermont Folk Troth Says:

    […] What if North America was French? — Phil Ebersole’s Blog […]


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