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II.11. 1610-1612: War -- Trade -- Discovery

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Champlain and Pontgrave returned to France, while Pierre Chauvin of Dieppe held Quebec in their absence. The King was at Fontainebleau,--it was a few months before his assassination,--and here Champlain recounted his adventures, to the great satisfaction of the lively monarch. He gave him also, not the head of the dead Iroquois, but a belt wrought in embroidery of dyed quills of the Canada porcupine, together with two small birds of scarlet plumage, and the skull of a gar-fish.

De Monts was at court, striving for a renewal of his monopoly. His efforts failed; on which, with great spirit but little discretion, he resolved to push his enterprise without it. Early in the spring of 1610, the ship was ready, and Champlain and Pontgrave were on board, when a violent illness seized the former, reducing him to the most miserable of all conflicts, the battle of the eager spirit against the treacherous and failing flesh. Having partially recovered, he put to sea, giddy and weak, in wretched plight for the hard career of toil and battle which the New World offered him. The voyage was prosperous, no other mishap occurring than that of an ardent youth of St. Malo, who drank the health of Pontgrave with such persistent enthusiasm that he fell overboard and was drowned.

There were ships at Tadoussac, fast loading with furs; and boats, too, higher up the river, anticipating the trade, and draining De Monts's resources in advance. Champlain, who was left free to fight and explore wherever he should see fit, had provided, to use his own phrase, "two strings to his bow." On the one hand, the Montagnais had promised to guide him northward to Hudson's Bay; on the other, the Hurons were to show him the Great Lakes, with the mines of copper on their shores; and to each the same reward was promised,--to join them against the common foe, the Iroquois. The rendezvous was at the mouth of the river Richelien. Thither the Hurons were to descend in force, together with Algonquins of the Ottawa; and thither Champlain now repaired, while around his boat swarmed a multitude of Montagnais canoes, filled with warriors whose lank hair streamed loose in the wind.

There is an island in the St. Lawrence near the mouth of the Richelien. On the nineteenth of June it was swarming with busy and clamorous savages, Champlain's Montagnais allies, cutting down the trees and clearing the ground for a dance and a feast; for they were hourly expecting the Algonquin warriors, and were eager to welcome them with befitting honors. But suddenly, far out on the river, they saw an advancing canoe. Now on this side, now on that, the flashing paddles urged it forward as if death were on its track; and as it drew near, the Indians on board cried out that the Algonquins were in the forest, a league distant, engaged with a hundred warriors of the Iroquois, who, outnumbered, were fighting savagely within a barricade of trees. The air was split with shrill outcries. The Montagnais snatched their weapons,--shields, bows, arrows, war-clubs, sword-blades made fast to poles,--and ran headlong to their canoes, impeding each other in their haste, screeching to Champlain to follow, and invoking with no less vehemence the aid of certain fur-traders, just arrived in four boats from below. These, as it was not their cue to fight, lent them a deaf ear; on which, in disgust and scorn, they paddled off, calling to the recusants that they were women, fit for nothing but to make war on beaver-skins.

Champlain and four of his men were in the canoes. They shot across the intervening water, and, as their prows grated on the pebbles, each warrior flung down his paddle, snatched his weapons, and ran into the woods. The five Frenchmen followed, striving vainly to keep pace with the naked, light-limbed rabble, bounding like shadows through the forest. They quickly disappeared. Even their shrill cries grew faint, till Champlain and his men, discomforted and vexed, found themselves deserted in the midst of a swamp. The day was sultry, the forest air heavy, close, and filled with hosts of mosquitoes, "so thick," says the chief sufferer, "that we could scarcely draw breath, and it was wonderful how cruelly they persecuted us." Through black mud, spongy moss, water knee-deep, over fallen trees, among slimy logs and entangling roots, tripped by vines, lashed by recoiling boughs, panting under their steel head-pieces and heavy corselets, the Frenchmen struggled on, bewildered and indignant. At length they descried two Indians running in the distance, and shouted to them in desperation, that, if they wanted their aid, they must guide them to the enemy.

At length they could hear the yells of the combatants; there was light in the forest before them, and they issued into a partial clearing made by the Iroquois axemen near the river. Champlain saw their barricade. Trees were piled into a circular breastwork, trunks, boughs, and matted foliage forming a strong defence, within which the Iroquois stood savagely at bay. Around them flocked the allies, half hidden in the edges of the forest, like hounds around a wild boar, eager, clamorous, yet afraid to rush in. They had attacked, and had met a bloody rebuff. All their hope was now in the French; and when they saw them, a yell arose from hundreds of throats that outdid the wilderness voices whence its tones were borrowed,--the whoop of the homed owl, the scream of the cougar, the howl of starved wolves on a winter night.

 

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Pioneers of France in the New World -by- Francis Parkman

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