Samuel Champlain, Part 1

I’m going to make two or three posts on French explorers and their battles against native archery. This post will focus on Samuel Champlain, explorer of Quebec and the Great Lakes region. Champlain fought in several battles against the Iroquois on behalf of his allies, the Huron and Algonquins.

In July 1609, Champlain and two French companions, armed with harquebuses, traveled with their allies up the Richelieu River and met the Iroquois war party.

After this singing, dancing, and bandying words on both sides to the fill, when day came, my companions and myself continued under cover, for fear that the enemy would see us. We arranged our arms in the best manner possible, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes of the savage Montagnais. After arming ourselves with light armor, we each took an arquebuse, and went on shore. I saw the enemy go out of their barricade, nearly two hundred in number, stout and rugged ‘ in appearance. They came at a slow pace towards us, with a dignity and assurance which greatly amused me, having three chiefs at their head. Our men also advanced in the same order, telling me that those who had three large plumes were the chiefs, and that they had only these three, and that they could be distinguished by these plumes, which were much larger than those of their companions, and that I should do what I could to kill them.

I promised to do all in my power, and said that I was very sorry they could not understand me, so that I might give order and shape to their mode of attacking their enemies, and then we should, without doubt, defeat them all ; but that this could not now be obviated, and that I should be very glad to show them my courage and good-will when we should engage in the fight.

As soon as we had landed, they began to run for some two hundred paces towards their enemies, who stood firmly, not having as yet noticed my companions, who went into the woods with some savages. Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces in advance of the rest, until I was within about thirty paces of the enemy, who at once noticed me, and, halting, gazed at me, as I did also at them. When I saw them making a move to fire at us, I rested my musket against my cheek, and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot, two fell to the ground ; and one of their men was so wounded that he died some time after. I had loaded my musket with four balls.

The translator notes that “This mode of fighting, in close array, shown also in a drawing which in the original accompanies this portion of the text, contrasts strongly with that which the Indians followed after they became acquainted with fire-arms.”

When our side saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to raise such loud cries that one could not have heard it thunder. Meanwhile, the arrows flew on both sides. The Iroquois were greatly astonished that two men had been so quickly killed, although they were equipped with armor woven from cotton thread, and with wood which was proof against their arrows. This caused great alarm among them. As I was loading again, one of my companions fired a shot from the woods, which astonished them anew to such a degree that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, and took to flight, abandoning their camp and fort, and fleeing into the woods, whither I pursued them, killing still more of them. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder escaped with the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen were wounded on our side with arrow-shots; but they were soon healed.

Loading the musket with multiple bullets was common. John Smith did the same thing in his skirmishes with Powhatan. Contemporary military writers Humfrey Barwick and Thomas Digges both mention the practice. Digges, an experienced artillerist, put the effective range of this “case shot” at 100 paces.

The problem with loading a musket with more than one bullet is that it increased the pressure in the barrel, and with it the chance that the weapon could explode. Indeed, in an earlier skirmish, Champlain’s musket, “bursting in my hands, came near killing me.”

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