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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 6: The Duel for North America, 1608 - 1763


Samuel de Champlain (1567 - 1635)

Before founding New France, Champlain had served as a captain in the Spanish navy in the Caribbean and had written a book containing the first proposal for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. His first French colony was established in Acadia (Nova Scotia). When the struggling colonists there became depressed during the harsh winter, Champlain organized an Order of Good Cheer that required the settlers to provide food and entertainment for each other several nights a week.

The Acadia settlement was abandoned in 1607, and a year later Champlain established Quebec. The new colony numbered only about one hundred people during its first twenty years, despite the fact that Champlain constantly lobbied the French government for stronger support. Finally, Cardinal Richelieu helped reorganize the colony and the fur trade. After 1627 about three hundred settlers a year immigrated to New France.

Quote: It was impossible to know this country without having wintered here, for on arriving in summer everything is very pleasant owing to the woods, the fair landscape, the good fishingbut winter in this country lasts six months! (1610)

REFERENCE: William Jay Jacobs, Champlain (1994).


Robert La Salle (1643 - 1687)

Born to a wealthy French family, La Salle, who became the greatest of the French-Canadian explorers, immigrated to New France at age twenty-three. Learning of the Ohio River from the Indians, he became convinced that it led to China. Subsequently, so often did he talk about going to China that his neighbors called his estate Le Chine (China).

Selling his estate to get funds for an expedition south from New France, La Salle next enlisted the support of King Louis XIV. After La Salles venture bogged down on the Illinois River he walked the thousand miles back to Canada to get new supplies and start over. He discovered the mouth of the Mississippi in 1682.

In 1684 Louis XIV sent La Salle back across the Atlantic to drive out the Spanish and establish a permanent settlement. But despite months of searching, he could not find the mouth of the river again. His desperate party landed instead in Texas, where La Salle was murdered by his mutinous men.

Quote: I have chosen a life more suited to my solitary disposition, which nevertheless does not make me harsh to my people; though joined to a life among savages, it makes me, perhaps, less polished and compliant than the atmosphere of Paris requires. (Letter to France, 1683)

REFERENCE: Robert Weddle, et al., eds., La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf (2000).


George Washington (1732 - 1799)

Before he became the commanding general in the American Revolution and the first U.S. president, Washington was a young Virginia gentleman, surveyor, and militia officer who played an important part in the French and Indian War. We examine here only his early career (up to 1763).

Washingtons father died when George was eleven, and almost nothing is known of their relationship. Washington grew up with various Virginia-gentry relatives, including his half-brother Lawrence, whose estate was at Mount Vernon. Lawrence also provided him with what little formal education he received. He learned mathematics and surveying and knew the Bible and some English literature, including contemporary novels like Tom Jones and Humphrey Clinker. He traveled with Lawrence to Barbados, where he contracted a mild case of smallpox.

During his difficult mission into the Ohio country, he was shot at by Indians, nearly drowned crossing a river, and almost froze to death from exposure. After his service with Braddock, he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, and returned to managing their plantations as a twenty-seven-year-old patriarch. Solemn, soft-spoken, and extremely dignified in manner, he had a strong liking for fox hunts, fishing, cards, theatrical events, horse racing, billiards, and dancing.

Quote: The Virginia Companies behaved like men and died like soldiers; for I believe out of the three companies that were there that day scarce thirty were left alive.The English soldiers exposed all those who were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death; and at length, despite every effort to the contrary, [they] broke and ran as sheep before the hounds. (Letter to Governor Dinwiddie on the Battle of Fort Duquense, 1755)

REFERENCE: James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: The Forge of Experience, 1732 - 1775 (1965).



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