OTD: Champlain sets sail from France

On today’s date in 1603, French explorer Samuel Champlain set sail on his first voyage to Canada.

Born into a family of French mariners in 1574, Champlain began exploring North America 29 years later and eventually climbed to the top of society on this side of the pond.

“He departed on May 15, 1603, from Herfleur, and sailed up the St. Lawrence as far as Cartier had reached,” reads Elizabeth Cooper’s 1865 book A Popular History of America, referencing fellow French explorer Jacques Cartier, who sailed up the St. Lawrence River for the first time in 1535, when he also reached the Iroquoian capital of Stadacona (near present-day Québec city).

“Having gained information about the country around he returned to France.”

He later returned to the North American colony of New France in 1620, when he was appointed lieutenant to the Duke of Montmorency and spent the rest of his life trying to improve the territory rather than simply explore it.

On March 1, 1632, he was appointed New France’s first governor.

Champlain eventually died on Christmas Day, 1635, in Québec.

By the time of his death, the first Québécois settlers were beginning to arrive in New France. More than 100 years later, in 1763, France ceded New France (excluding the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon) to Great Britain and Spain at the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War.


In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mint featured Champlain on the third coin of its Great Explorers series.

The pure gold Proof coin with a face value of $200 features Champlain alongside a First Nations guide as they disembark from canoes on the Ontario shoreline. The coin was designed by Glen Green and has a limited mintage of 2,000.

Though there is no known confirmed portrait of Champlain, the coin’s design presents the French explorer as he is frequently portrayed in artistic depictions—with long dark hair, a long moustache and a trimmed beard and sporting a feathered cap, jacket and pantaloons of the era. In his right hand, Champlain carries his astrolabe, famously thought to have been lost on a portage through the Calumet rapids near Cobden, Ont. (although this story has been largely discredited). In his left hand, he holds a notebook that’s believed to have held his maps and drawings.

Behind the portrait is Champlain’s birch-bark canoe, which is replete with supplies and paddles. His back turned to the waterway and distant tree-lined shore behind him. A First Nations guide stands to his left with his own supply-filled canoe, holding a paddle in his right hand. His long hair sports two feathers, and he wears a buckskin loincloth, footwear and arm straps.

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