Samuel de Champlain in Huronia
Huronia, home of The Great Lodge, was the ground of European influence during early Ontario history. Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer known as the Father
of New France, arrived in the New World in 1603 and founded Québec City in 1608. Champlain’s venture into present-day Ontario lasted from 1615-1616, and 2015 marked the
four hundred year anniversary of this important piece of Canadian history. Champlain was the first French settler to observe that a successful colony would require the alliance of its Indigenous neighbours, and it is Champlain’s alliances with the Wendat and Anishinaabe peoples that led the famous French explorer from Québec into Huronia in 1615. During his travels in southern Georgian Bay it is possible that Samuel de Champlain passed by the land The Great Lodge would be built on nearly four hundred years later.
In May 1615, Samuel de Champlain and four Récollet priests journeyed from Québec City to the junction of the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers to trade and barter cloth, weapons and metals for Indigenous furs. Champlain’s party was greeted by members of the Wendat and Anishinaabe peoples, who proposed they forge an alliance and plan a campaign against the Onondaga, who had been raiding trade routes, stealing furs and taking prisoners. As the raiding and attacks posed a threat to Champlain’s fur trading route along the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, Champlain agreed, on the condition that he would be allowed to explore the area (now present-day Ontario, and more specifically, southern Georgian Bay).
After briefly returning to Québec to prepare, Champlain embarked upon his famous journey into what is now known as Huronia. Travelling along the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers, Champlain visited various Indigenous communities to solidify alliances. After meeting with the Nipissing nation, Champlain travelled from the French River into Lake Huron and landed in a location nearby present-day Penetanguishene. After arriving Champlain travelled around southern Georgian Bay, visiting eighteen villages in the Wendat confederacy and meeting with chiefs. In his writings Champlain spoke of the area’s plentiful fish, fruit and berries, and remarked on Georgian Bay’s charm; “These localities seemed to me very pleasant, in comparison with so disagreeable a region as that from which we had come”. Upon reaching the Wendat fortress Carhagouha (a ten minute drive from The Great Lodge), Champlain attended Ontario’s first mass, held by Father John Le Caron on August 12th 1615.
On August 17th, 1615, Champlain landed in Huronia’s largest town, Cahiagué, located near Lake Simcoe, where he followed through with his agreement to join an upcoming campaign against the Onondaga peoples. Departing Cahiagué on September 1st with the Wendat and later joined by the Anishinaabe, Champlain and his allies travelled to an Onondaga town east of Lake Ontario, arriving on October 10th, 1615. Accompanied by 500 warriors, Champlain, the Wendat and Anishinaabe proceeded into Onondaga territory. Their siege to an indestructible wall guarding the Onondaga village ended in stalemate, and with Champlain wounded and two Wendat chiefs injured, they decided to retreat. Carried in a basket, Champlain and the Wendat returned slowly to Huronia, hunting deer, fowl and birds along the way. Champlain spent the winter of 1615-1616 with the Wendat in Huronia, staying in Chief Atironta’s cabin and spending his time exploring, writing, hunting deer and observing the region’s wildlife.
15 years of peace in Huronia followed Champlain, the Wendat and Anishinaabe’s campaign against the Onondaga. While the Wendat and Anishinaabe considered the siege a success, Champlain left before seeing the impact of their battle, and thought the siege to be a failure. Champlain’s time in Huronia solidified his alliance with the Wendat, and the opening of the Ottawa River provided the French fur trade a safe passage. Departing Huronia in May 1616, Champlain finally returned to Québec in July. Although Champlain’s first exploration into Huronia would be his last, his French influence, alliances and writings deeply impacted Ontario’s early history, and his legacy lives on in Franco-Ontarian communities such as Lafontaine and Penetanguishene.