Stories from the Lake: The Arrival

06/01/09 5:30PM Neal Charnoff, Lynne McCrea
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State of Vermont
Statue of Samuel de Champlain in Isle La Motte

(Host) It's All Things Considered on Vermont Public Radio, I'm Neal Charnoff.

This summer marks the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's arrival on the lake that bears his name.

As the region gets ready to observe the date, VPR is reflecting on how the French explorer has shaped our shared history and culture.

This afternoon, in our series ‘Stories from the Lake' we look at life in the area when Champlain arrived in 1609.

(Canoe paddling)

(Charnoff) A canoe out on the waters of Lake Champlain...

This is how Champlain came to the lake 400 years ago, down the Richelieu River from Quebec... (Birds; water lapping on shore) 

Standing at the tip of Isle La Motte, Professor Willard Sterne Randall of Champlain College looks out at the spot where Samuel de Champlain first stepped out of his canoe.

(Randall) "When Champlain arrived here, he was struck by the great beauty of the lake - shores lined with chestnut and walnut and oak, as he said the same trees he was used to from France, abundant game everywhere, a lake full of fish, and snow on Mt. Mansfield - which really struck him considering it was July."

(Charnoff) Champlain was born into a sailing family on the coast of France. He believed his country should expand overseas, by setting up a colony in the new world. Randall says Champlain envisioned a settlement with religious toleration.

(Randall) "That was very important to him, because he was born a Protestant in a Catholic country...

(Charnoff) Champlain also envisioned free trade with Native Americans... a place without war. But it didn't work out that way.

(Drum sounds/chanting)

(Charnoff) Instead, tribes that had already been warring on both sides of the lake were drawn into another 150 years of conflict - with the French and Algonquins constantly at war with the English and Iroquois.

(Wiseman) "Champlain of course in his writings was always very careful to be very respectful of the native politics..."

(Charnoff) Fred Wiseman is a professor of Humanities at Johnson State College. He specializes in Abenaki history and culture.

(Wiseman) "... Now he was sometimes very disrespectful of the native spirituality. And he was sometimes very disdainful of the food. So he did have his sort of cultural opinions. But as far as an important ally, he was very much pro-Abenaki."

(Charnoff) Even though Champlain had no contact with the Abenaki during the time he was here, Professor Wiseman says the tribe did feel his influence in the region. He says the Abenaki had withdrawn from the lake itself, which was a dangerous conduit for various war parties, and moved up into the rivers of the Champlain basin.

(Wiseman) "Of course, the Abenakis have old stories of being here since the creation of the world. And so the Abenaki people have no question that their ancestors were certainly here in 1609 and certainly earlier than that."

(Charnoff) Can you tell us what you know about life back then?

(Wiseman) People lived at this time probably in large villages, based on agriculture - raising corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. Early spring was a time of moose-hunting, and then bark-collecting, maple syrup collecting. Of course the fish would start running - fish harvest. After that you started planting... then fall came you had the fall harvest, then there was the fall hunt for moose and deer and then the snows came and you holed up another winter.

(Longtoe singing)

(Charnoff) Roger Longtoe is an El-Nu Abenaki who works to preserve tribal culture of the region, in part through songs and storytelling.

He says this is an example of an Abenaki greeting song...

(Longtoe) "The word ‘Gwanuday' - It's a word that's used in singing and it means ‘come into the house or big house', and it was used when we had ceremonies, or political meetings."

(Charnoff) Longtoe says it's important to realize that the Abenaki had been intermarrying with different tribes for thousands of years. And when the French arrived, intermarriages with the colonists helped build new alliances...

(Longtoe) "They came over in the 1600's, had very few women, we had many women, we saw them as good trade partners. Often the wives acted as interpreters and kept trade relations good - taught the husbands how to deal with the different native people".

(Charnoff) At the Abenaki Tribal Museum in Swanton, Fred Wiseman describes some of the artifacts and remains that are evidence of Native American presence here as long as 10,000 years ago. 

(Wiseman) "This shell necklace dates back to years before Champlain was here. This is actually an incarnate piece of history."

(Charnoff) Visits by Champlain and other European explorers heralded dramatic changes to their way of life. The divisions of the Old World came to the Americas, and tribes were forced to choose sides.

Today, Wiseman says that for the Abenaki, there are two views of Samuel de Champlain. One is of the benefits that he brought to the local tribes. But the other looks at the destructiveness of the Europeans who followed him.

(Wiseman) "And so, another viewpoint is looking at Champlain as a harbinger, or a representative of the beginning of a process that eventually leverages the Abenakis and other Native American people from their land, forced them into hiding, destroyed much of their songs, their stories, and their livelihoods. So yes, for us as Abenakis and our allies, he was a useful tool, a very good friend, but what he represented with 20/20 hindsight - that might not be so good.

(Charnoff) What Champlain found here is what continues to attract people today. Professor Willard Sterne Randall of Champlain College, looks out over the calm waters that Champlain first paddled 400 years ago, and reflects on the legacy he left behind.

(Randall) "Champlain's visit here was very much as it's been for people ever since. This is a place apart, different from anyplace they've been before. They find it beautiful, peaceful, full of hope, promise. Champlain came to the newest frontier. And this has always been a frontier. To me he's very much the poster boy for experimenting with new thoughts, ideas, ways to live, and I think he's still relevant for our time".


(Host) Next week during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, we continue our series ‘Stories from the Lake' with a look at the earliest European settlements in the region.

Our historical consultant has been Willard Sterne Randall, historian, author and professor at Champlain College.


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VPR's Champlain400 main page
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