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Book XII: Champlain on the war-path. (A. D. 1609.)

This passage is taken from ‘Voyages de la Nouvelle France, par le Sieur de Champlain,’ Paris, 1632, as translated in O'Callaghan's ‘Documentary History of the State of New York,’ vol. III. p. 3.

Parkman gives a full account of Champlain's adventures, in the latter half of his ‘Pioneers of France in the New World,’ from p. 165 onward.


Champlain on the war-path.

[this narrative is of great interest, as showing the mode of early Indian warfare, and the way in which the French at once modified it by teaching them the use of fire-arms. It also illustrates the way in which the French explored the interior of the country, even before the English had colonized the coasts, thus giving rise to that dispute out of which grew the series of French and Indian wars. Samuel de Champlain first sailed for America in 1603, and was the founder and governor of Quebec.]

Left the rapid1 of the said River of the Iroquois on the 2d of July (1609). All the savages2 began carrying their canoes, arms, and traps over land, about a league and a half, to avoid the current and force of the rapid. This was quickly effected.

They immediately launched the canoes into the water, two men in each with their baggage, whilst one of the men went by land about a league and a half, which was the probable extent of said rapid, though not so violent as at the foot, except at some points where rocks obstructed the river, which is no more [270] than three to four hundred paces wide. After the rapid was passed, though not without trouble, all the Indians who had gone by land over a pretty good road and level country, though covered with timber, reembarked in their canoes. My men were also on land, and I on the water, in a canoe. They reviewed all their force, and found twenty-four canoes with sixty men. After having completed their review, we continued our journey as far as an island, three leagues long, covered with the finest pines I ever beheld. They hunted, and caught some wild animals there. Passing thence about three leagues farther on, we camped, in order to rest for the night. Forthwith some began to cut down timber, others to pull off bark to cover lodges to shelter them, others to fell large trees with which to barricade their lodges on the shore. They know so well how to construct these barricades, that five hundred of their enemies would find considerable difficulty in forcing them, in less than two hours, without great loss. They do not fortify the side of the river along which their canoes are ranged, so as to be able to embark, should occasion require.

After they had camped, they despatched three canoes with nine good men, as is their custom at all their encampments, to reconnoitre within two or three leagues, if they see any thing; after which they retire. They


[271] depend the whole night on the exploration of the vanguard, which is a bad habit of theirs; for sometimes their enemies surprise them asleep, and kill them, without [their] having an opportunity of recovering their feet to defend themselves.

Remarking that, I remonstrated with them against the error they committed; told them to watch, as they saw us do, all night, and to have outposts to spy and see if they could perceive any thing, and not to live in that style, like cattle. They told me they couldn't watch, and that they labored all day hunting. So that, when they go to war, they divide their force into three: to wit, one party, scattered in divers places, hunting; another forms the main body, which is always under arms; and another party as a vanguard, to scout along the river, and see whether they will not discover some trail or mark indicating the passage of friends or enemies. This they ascertain by certain marks the chiefs of one nation give to those of another, which are not always alike, notifying each other from time to time when they alter any. By this means, they recognize whether those who have passed are friends or enemies.

The hunters never hunt in advance of the main body, or the scouts, so as not to create any alarm or disorder, but in the rear, and in the direction where they do not apprehend enemies. They thus continue until they are two or three days journey from the foe, when they advance stealthily by night, all in a body, except the scouts, and retire by day into the picket-fort, where they repose, without wandering abroad, making any noise, or building a fire, even for cooking, during that [272] time, so as not to be discovered, should their enemies happen to pass. The only fire they make is to smoke. They eat dried Indian meal, which they steep in water, like porridge. They prepare this meal for use when they are pinched, and when they are near the enemy, or when retreating. After these attacks, they do not amuse themselves hunting, retreating precipitately. ..

We left next day, continuing our route along the river as far as the lake.3 Here are a number of beautiful but low islands, filled with very fine woods and prairies, a quantity of game and wild animals, such as stags, deer, fawns, roebucks, bears, and other sorts of animals that come from the mainland to the said islands. We caught a quantity of them. There is also quite a number of beavers, as well in the river as in several other streams which fall into it. These parts, though agreeable, are not inhabited by any Indians, in consequence of their wars. They retire from the rivers as far as possible, deep into the country, in order not to be so soon discovered.

Next day, we entered the lake, which is of considerable extent, some fifty or sixty leagues, where I saw four beautiful islands, ten, twelve, and fifteen leagues in length, formerly inhabited, as well as the Iroquois River, by Indians, but abandoned since they have been at war the one with the other. Several rivers, also, discharge into the lake, surrounded by a number of fine trees similar to those we have in France, with a quantity of vines handsomer than any I ever saw; a great many chestnuts; and I had not yet seen, except [273] the margin of the lake, where there is a larger abundance of fish of divers species. Among the rest there is one called by the Indians of the country chaousarolu,4 of divers lengths. The largest, I was informed by the people, are of eight to ten feet. I saw one of five, as thick as a thigh, with a head as big as two fists, with jaws two feet and a half long, and a double set of very sharp and dangerous teeth. The form of the body resembles that of the pike; and it is armed with scales that the thrust of a poniard cannot pierce; and it is of a silver gray-color. The point of the snout is like that of a hog. This fish makes war on all others in the lakes and rivers, and possesses, as these people assure, a wonderful instinct; which is, that, when it wants to catch any birds, it goes among the rushes or reeds bordering the lake in many places, keeping the beak out of the water without budging; so that when birds perch on the beak, imagining it a limb of a tree, it is so subtle, that, closing the jaws which it keeps half open, it draws the birds under water by the feet. The Indians gave me a head of it, which they prize highly, saying, when they have a headache, they let blood with the teeth of this fish at the seat of the pain, which immediately goes away.

Continuing our route along the west side of the lake, contemplating the country, I saw on the east side very high mountains capped with snow. I asked the Indians if those parts were inhabited. They answered me yes, and that they were Iroquois, and that there were in those parts beautiful valleys, and fields fertile in corn as good as I had ever eaten in the country, with an [274] infinitude of other fruits; and that the lake extended close to the mountains, which were, according to my judgment, fifteen leagues from us. I saw others to the south, not less high than the former; only that they were without snow. The Indians told me it was there we were to go to meet their enemies, and that they were thickly inhabited, and that we must pass by a waterfall,5 which I afterwards saw, and thence enter another lake6 three or four leagues long; and, having arrived at its head, there were four leagues overland to be travelled to pass to a river7 which flows towards the coast of the Almouchiquois, tending towards that of the Almouchiquois,8 and they were only two days going there in their canoes, as I understood since from some prisoners we took, who, by means of some Algonquin interpreters who were acquainted with the Iroquois language, conversed freely with me about all they had noticed.

Now, on coming within about two or three days journey of the enemy's quarters, we travelled only by night, and rested by day. Nevertheless, they never omitted their usual superstitions to ascertain whether their enterprise would be successful, and often asked me whether I had dreamed, and seen their enemies. I answered No, and encouraged them, and gave them good hopes. Night fell, and we continued our journey until morning, when we withdrew into the picket-fort to pass the remainder of the day there. About ten or eleven o'clock, I lay down, after having walked some time around our quarters; and, falling asleep, I thought [275] I beheld our enemies, the Iroquois, drowning within sight of us in the lake near a mountain; and being desirous to save them, that our savage allies told me that I must let them all perish, as they were good for nothing. On awaking, they did not omit, as usual, to ask me if I had any dream. I did tell them, in fact, what I had dreamed. It gained such credit among them, that they no longer doubted but they should meet with success.

At nightfall we embarked in our canoes to continue our journey, and, as we advanced very softly and noiselessly, we encountered a war-party of Iroquois, on the 29th of the month, about ten o'clock at night, at the point of a cape which juts into the lake on the west side. They and we began to shout, each seizing his arms. We withdrew towards the water; and the Iroquois repaired on shore, and arranged all their canoes, the one beside the other, and began to hew down trees with villanous axes which they sometimes got in war, and other of stone, and fortified themselves very securely. Our party likewise kept their canoes arranged, the one alongside the other, tied to poles so as not to run adrift, in order to fight all together, should need be. We were on the water about an arrow-shot from their barricades.

When they were armed and in order, they sent two canoes from the fleet, to know if their enemies wished to fight; who answered they desired nothing else, but that just then there was not much light, and that we must wait for day to distinguish each other, and that they would give us battle at sunrise. This was agreed to by our party. Meanwhile the whole night was spent [276] in dancing and singing, as well on one side as on the other, mingled with an infinitude of insults and other taunts; such as the little courage they had, how pow-érless their resistance against their arms, and, that when day would break, they should experience this to their ruin. Ours, likewise, did not fail in repartee, telling they should witness the effect of arms they had never seen before; and a multitude of other speeches, as is usual at a siege of a town. After the one and the other had sung, danced, and parliamented9 enough, day broke. My companions and I were always concealed, for fear the enemy should see us preparing our arms the best we could, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes belonging to the savage Montagnars.10

After being equipped with light armor, we took each an arquebuse, and went ashore. I saw the enemy leave their barricade. They were about two hundred men, of strong and robust appearance, who were coming slowly toward us, with a gravity and assurance which greatly pleased me, led on by three chiefs. Ours were marching in similar order, and told me that those who bore three lofty plumes were the chiefs, and that there were but these three, and they were to be recognized by those plumes, which were considerably larger than those of their companions, and that I must do all I could to kill them. I promised to do what I could, and that I was very sorry they could not clearly understand me, so as to give them the order and plan of attacking their enemies, as we should indubitably defeat them all,—but there was no help for that,—that I [277] was very glad to encourage them, and to manifest to them my good — will when we should be engaged.

The moment we landed, they began to run about two hundred paces towards their enemies, who stood firm, and had not yet perceived my companions, who went into the bush with some savages. Ours commenced calling me in a loud voice, and, making way for me, opened in two, and placed me at their head, marching about twenty paces in advance, until I was within thirty paces of the enemy. The moment they saw me, they halted, gazing at me, and I at them. When I saw them preparing to shoot at us, I raised my arquebuse, and, aiming directly at one of the three chiefs, two of them fell to the ground by this shot, and one of their companions received a wound of which he died afterwards. I had put four balls in my arquebuse. Ours, on witnessing a shot so favorable for them, set up such tremendous shouts, that thunder could not have been heard; and yet there was no lack of arrows on one side and the other.

The Iroquois were greatly astonished, seeing two men killed so instantaneously, notwithstanding they were provided with arrow-proof armor, woven of cotton thread and wood: this frightened them very much. Whilst I was reloading, one of my companions in the bush fired a shot, which so astonished them anew, seeing their chiefs slain, that they lost courage, took to flight, and abandoned the field and their fort, hiding themselves in the depths of the forest, whither pursuing them, I killed some others. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve prisoners. The rest carried off the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen of ours were wounded by arrows: they were promptly cured. [278]

After having gained the victory, they amused themselves plundering Indian corn and meal from the enemy, also their arms which they had thrown away in order to run better. And having feasted, danced, and sung, we returned three hours afterwards with the prisoners.

The place where this battle was fought is in forty-three degrees some minutes latitude; and I named it Lake Champlain-

1 Now Chambly, Canada East.

2 A tribe of Algonquins.

3 Lake Champlain.

4 The gar-fish, or bony pike.

5 Ticonderoga.

6 Lake George.

7 Hudson River.

8 Indians east of Cape Cod.

9 Parleyed or discussed.

10 A name given to all the St. Lawrence Indians.

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