Samuel Champlain in Acadie

Samuel de Champlain was an explorer, mapmaker, and colonist, who laid the foundations for settlement in eastern Canada.

Samuel de Champlain is well-known for helping establish a French colony at Québec. What many may not know is that he spent over three years in the French colony of Acadie, which once included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and part of New England.

On May 8, 1604, after a three-week voyage, a French expedition that included Champlain sighted the coast of Acadie. The first cape they saw reminded them of the last headland they passed on setting out, so they named it Cap de la Hève after that landmark in Normandy. It is still known as Cape LaHave today.

The ship anchored in Green Bay, which they named Port de la Hève, and Champlain set about making a map of the bay. On his map he included a "little river" or petite rivière, by which it is still known today, as is the village at its mouth. His map showed beaches and islands at the mouth of another river, which he clearly did not have time to explore, simply identifing it as “a river with little water." Today we know this river as the LaHave. Two Mi’kmaw camp sites are also shown and two figures near the petite rivière may represent the travellers’ first meeting with the Mi’kmaq. Champlain's map of Port de la Hève was the first of a series of equally detailed maps of harbours with which he illustrated his book, Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain, published in 1613. He also made the first accurate map of the Bay of Fundy, southwest Nova Scotia, and New England, in 1607.

Champlain was with a party led by Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Mons, who had been granted trading rights in Acadie. They continued their journey, looking for a suitable place to establish a settlement and trading post. They continued to Port du Rossignol, today’s Liverpool, Port au Mouton (so-called because a sheep fell overboard while the men were disembarking), and sailed on around the coast and into the Bay of Fundy.  

De Mons selected Saint-Croix Island, on the border of today’s New Brunswick and Maine, as the site for their settlement. From there, Champlain set out to explore the Atlantic coast as far as the Penobscot River before returning to the Habitation at Sainte-Croix. There the party spent a disastrous winter suffering from cold and scurvy, and many men died. In the spring, realising that the island was not suitable for their settlement, de Mons and Champlain sailed as far south as Cape Cod in search of a better location, eventually settling on Port Royal (the Annapolis Basin) to rebuild the Habitation.

The Habitation at Port Royal was better located and better designed to withstand winter weather than Saint-Croix. Champlain described how the French were welcomed and helped by the Mi’kmaq, led by Chief Membertou with whom Champlain became good friends. When the settlement was under way, de Mons returned to France and was replaced as leader of the community by Jean de Poutrincourt.

From the first, Champlain was anxious to maintain friendly relations with the land's Indigenous inhabitants and approached them respectfully. Despite his advice, Poutrincourt was less sensitive in his dealings with them. On a voyage down the Atlantic coast with Champlain in 1606, Poutrincourt’s aggressive tactics resulted in a serious skirmish with the local Indigenous people, dashing Champlain’s hopes of peaceful relations with them.

Back at Port Royal, they were welcomed by the first dramatic performance in North America, Le Théâtre de Neptune, written by Marc Lescarbot. Champlain made himself a garden where he enjoyed spending time. He established the Order of Good Cheer whose members took turns to provide an elaborate dinner for their friends. The master of the feast, wearing a chain of office, led in a procession of helpers carrying a variety of dishes. This entertainment both occupied the long winter evenings and ensured a healthy diet to prevent scurvy. Membertou’s band remained friendly, and the community at the Habitation seemed set for success.

Political manoeuvres by rival French merchants resulted in the settlers being recalled to France late in the summer of 1607, abandoning the Habitation. Champlain never returned to Acadie, but his experiences there were valuable in him helping establish the Quebec settlement the following year.



Port Royal, National Historic Site, Annapolis County