Posts Tagged ‘New France’

What if North America was French?

August 3, 2020

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.

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