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Champlain before 1603

Samuel de Champlain was born at Brouage, France around the year 1570. Little is known about his early childhood or education, as most information about him is derived from his own writings, which focus very little on his early years or the more intimate details of his personal life.

Through extensive genealogical research, scholars have discovered that Champlain’s father, Antoine, like his mother, Marguerite Le Roy, was descended from people who made their living from the sea. As Antoine’s maritime career advanced, Champlain was provided with ample opportunities to spend time on the water. These opportunities contributed to the formation of his identity and capabilities as a sailor. Between 1599 and 1603, he made at least 27 crossings of the Atlantic Ocean and numerous other sea voyages.

As a young man, Samuel de Champlain was also influenced by the diverse culture and values of the region of France in which he was living. Scholars have suggested that the then province of Saintonge had a distinct culture and heritage that shaped Champlain’s own world view – his humanist values, tolerance for diversity and immense curiosity about the world around him – and would later influence his approach to the colony the French referred to as New France.

Samuel de Champlain’s experiences as a soldier during the religious wars in France also influenced his identity and approach to colonization in New France. As a quartermaster in the army of King Henri IV in the religious wars in Brittany, Champlain witnessed terrible atrocities, as adherents to the Catholic and Protestant faiths battled for religious supremacy in France. These experiences not only contributed to Champlain’s ability as a soldier, but also resulted in his aversion to, and avoidance of, war whenever possible, and a tolerance for other religious practices in the context of Catholic universality. Champlain’s experiences as a soldier also shaped his approach to exploration and colonization, which was one rooted primarily in peace, if not always mutual understanding.

The wars of religion in Brittany came to a formal end with the institution of the Edict of Nantes by King Henri IV in April 1598 and the signing of the peace treaty at Vervins by France and Spain in May of the same year. Under the Treaty of Vervins, all Spanish troops were expected to leave France and return to Spain. The matter of their transportation presented an opportunity for Champlain, who accompanied his uncle, Guillaume Allène, also referred to as Captain Provençal, who was charged with repatriating a number of these soldiers by sea aboard the Saint-Julien.

After this voyage to Spain, Champlain is believed to have travelled to many parts of the West Indies and Mexico between 1599 and 1601. These travels greatly enhanced his navigational knowledge and enabled him to explore and describe different parts of the world. During this period, Champlain mentally recorded the geographical characteristics of the places he visited. Later he wrote descriptions – based on both his remembered observations and information from people he met along the way – of the lands he had visited and their flora and fauna. Champlain was also deeply interested in the African slaves and indigenous people he encountered in the West Indies and Mexico. His writings indicate his horror and disgust about the treatment of these people under Spanish rule and the system of religious tyranny that was imposed on them.

On his return to Spain, Champlain drafted a “brief discours” on his travels throughout the Spanish empire and, when he returned to France in 1601, presented it to King Henri IV. That same year, the king granted Champlain an annual pension and ordered him to remain at the French court.

During the period of 1598 to 1601, Champlain’s travels further shaped his identities as a sailor, explorer, cartographer, writer and naturalist. His experiences had a profound effect on his approach to exploration and colonization in what is now Quebec and Ontario.