- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

ALBANY, N.Y. — In most American textbooks, Samuel de Champlain serves as a sort of historical speed bump between Christopher Columbus and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

However, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer says he thinks Champlain deserves better treatment for his key role as leader of one of the earliest settlements in North America.

“He’s been vanishing from the seventh grade in the past 20 years,” says Mr. Fischer, author of “Champlain’s Dream,” a newly published biography of the 17th-century French explorer.

A lake shared by New York, Vermont and Quebec province bears Champlain’s name, as do colleges, communities and any number of entities on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Yet until a recent resurgence of interest in Champlain tied to the 400th anniversary of his explorations, his many accomplishments were often lumped with those of other European explorers who fell out of favor in academic circles during the late 20th century, Mr. Fischer says.

“Literature on him is like the century plant. It blooms every 100 years when he has an anniversary,” Mr. Fischer said in a recent interview from New England, where he was promoting his book.

Canada this year celebrated the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s founding of Quebec, and New York and Vermont are planning their own quadricentennial events commemorating his exploration of the region in 1609.

Vermont historian Paul Searls says Mr. Fischer’s book will help flesh out an iconic figure who took a decidedly different approach from his European contemporaries’ sentiments toward American Indians.

“David Hackett Fischer’s books tend to be very popular because they’re brilliantly written and extremely pleasant to read,” says Mr. Searls, an instructor at Lyndon State College and the University of Vermont.

“It would be nice if Champlain got his due. Champlain had a vision for North America that was based on cooperative rather than violent human interaction.”

Born on France’s Atlantic Coast in 1567, Champlain was more than an explorer. He was a skilled seaman, soldier and spy as well as an artist, cartographer, diplomat and prolific writer who detailed his extensive travels from the West Indies to the Canadian wilderness.

“He reminds me of Winston Churchill, who said he was confident history would be on his side because he planned to write it,” Mr. Fischer says. “Champlain wrote his own history.”

His book delves into the roots of Champlain’s strong sense of humanism, which developed while he was growing up in a seaport town and living through the many religious wars that plagued France in the late 16th century, when Catholics and Protestants slaughtered one another wholesale. The title of his new book alludes to Champlain’s “dream of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and war,” says Mr. Fischer, who teaches at Brandeis University outside Boston.

Sent by France’s King Henry IV to reconnoiter Spain’s emerging New World colonies, Champlain witnessed Indians being burned at the stake by the Inquisition and beaten for missing Mass. Appalled by what he saw, he strove to build peaceful relationships with the American Indians he encountered after arriving in North America in 1603.

“He was a man full of curiosity, and he was especially curious about people who lived in America,” says Mr. Fischer, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for history with “Washington’s Crossing.”

Champlain’s explorations in North American included voyages through what would become six Canadian provinces and five American states, including New York and Vermont. In July 1609, Champlain, along with two other Frenchmen and their Huron allies, explored the large lake that would later bear his name.

Despite a battle along the lake shore with a force of Mohawks, Champlain worked vigorously until his death in 1635 to establish peaceful relations with the many Indian nations he encountered, Mr. Fischer says.

He traveled only a small slice of what would become the United States, but Mr. Fischer says Champlain’s deeds shouldn’t take a back seat to contemporaries with better name recognition, particularly Henry Hudson. Champlain and Hudson will share the limelight when New York commemorates the 400th anniversary of their voyages next year.

“I hope that as people discover more about Champlain, they’ll begin to understand him in a larger way,” Mr. Fischer says. “He realized his dreams, which to me is the most amazing thing.”

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