Stories from the Lake: First French Settlements

06/08/09 5:20PM Lynne McCrea, Neal Charnoff
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VPR/Lynne McCrea
Isle La Motte
(Host) It's All Things Considered on Vermont Public Radio, I'm Dave McGown.

Next month marks the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain's arrival on the lake that bears his name.

Today, VPR's Neal Charnoff continues our series "Stories from the Lake" with a look at some of the earliest European settlements made possible by the French explorer.

(Sound of wind and waves)

(Charnoff) It's a windy day in Addison, along the southern shores of Lake Champlain.

Here at Chimney Point, the lake narrows, and the view across to New York is just a quarter of a mile. Bluffs on both sides of the lake made this a valuable strategic site from early on, and it's where the French built their first fort in the area, in 1731.

(Gilbertson) "It was called the Pointe a la Chevelure..."

(Charnoff) Elsa Gilberstson runs the historic site at Chimney Point.

(Gilbertson) "Le Chevelure refers to the crown, but it's not the regal crown, it's the top of your head crown, because the land from the water looks like the top of your head."

(Charnoff) The military outposts were built to protect the domestic settlements that the king of France, Louis XV, wanted to encourage. A military fort across the lake - at Crown Point - was planned. And supplies were shipped across the Atlantic from France.

(Gilbertson) "They had all kinds of interesting supplies. Spices for cooking - olive oil, fish, bread, cheese from Holland - so it wasn't too terribly rough."

(Charnoff) The very first settlement, in 1666, was on the northern part of the lake - at Isle La Motte, where Samuel de Champlain first came into the region some 50 years earlier. Many other settlements would follow.

(Randall) "The French would come down from Canada with their Indian allies, they would build forts, stockades, arm them with cannon..."

(Charnoff) Willard Sterne Randall is a professor of history at Champlain College.

(Randall) "... But they would also build houses and usually a catholic chapel and would start a farm. And in each case soldiers, when they retired, were give oxen, some land, and everyone pitched in and built houses... and that's a pattern that stayed for 150 years."

(Charnoff) Randall says that severe winters - and disease - were the biggest challenges for the French settlers...

(Randall) "It was always a tough winter. The problem was they didn't have fresh fruit - they got scurvy and eventually would starve to death. And it's a problem they never did solve."

(Charnoff) For those who did withstand hardships... what was life like?

(Randall) "They were mostly farmers and fishermen from France, they were wonderful hunters, they became very much like the Indians. And they set up theaters - the first play in the New World was performed for Champlain. They lived communally, they went to church together, they had their music and their dancing... If they could survive the disease, they could have a better life than they had in Old France".

(Traditional French music)

(Charnoff) While the French settlements flourished, Native Americans suffered from a world that had changed dramatically by the early 1700's. Historian Fred Wiseman says disease wiped out villages, as small pox, diphtheria and influenza swept through the region.

(Wiseman) "Native people had no resistance to these diseases - (Charnoff: That Europeans brought with them?) Yes - There were very few intrinsic diseases to North America. And so this was a tragic loss of historical and ceremonial knowledge."

(Charnoff) Historian Will Randall says Samuel de Champlain's original intent - to trade with Native American tribes and live in harmony - created an attitude that helped the French colonies.

(Randall) "They were able to live with the Indians of Canada longer than anyone else. They lived with them, gave them food, learned their customs, and treated them as brothers -- . far more than the English, who treated them as mercenaries and soldiers to constantly fight in wars."

(Charnoff) From Isle La Motte down to Chimney Point... the French left distinctive footprints. Elsa Gilbertson:

(Gilbertson) "They planted peas... even apple trees and plum trees. It's interesting - when the Revolutionary war was over, the next wave of settlers found the remnants of apple and plum trees, and found that quite fascinating."

(Charnoff) Just as fascinating to Gilbertson is the way the settlers divided up long and narrow lots on the lake, with everyone getting a tiny bit of lake frontage. She says traces of these "spaghetti lots" are still visible today...

(Gilbertson) "It was actually very smart because all of the houses were built then along the lake because that was the road. It was a little safer. They could - if they needed to - leave in a hurry - just get in their boat and go out the door. And then at the back part of their land, that's where they would be cultivating. So it was a clever system where you were all connected at the lake and close to each other."

(Charnoff) And Elsa Gilbertson doesn't want to forget that this area - the heart of Vermont - was "New France" before it was New England.

(Gilbertson) "You think, ‘oh, this was
America and it sprung out of the revolution'. But there's this whole much earlier history here and to think of this as being New France is kind of fun and exciting."

(Charnoff) Throughout this period, though, the French and the English vied for dominance. The English ultimately won. Historian Will Randall says that, with the French surrender in 1763, the region would become a very different place.

(Randall) The English settlers like Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys moved in and dismantled the French settlements lock, stock and barrel, and built their own farms and it happened very quickly between the French surrender in 1763 and the attack on Fort Ti in 1775. In that time thousands poured in from New England to build on the ruins of New France." 

(Charnoff) That's where we'll pick up the story next Monday, in our series "Stories from the Lake".  

Our entire series and all of VPR's Champlain 400 programming can be found at

For VPR news, I'm Neal Charnoff.

(Host)  Listen next Monday when we explore Lake Champlain's role in the American Revolution, and the development of towns after the war.

Traditional music in today's program was performed by French-Canadian fiddler Lisa Ornstein and guitarist Andre Marchand.

Our historical consultant has been Willard Sterne Randall, professor of history at Champlain College.


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