The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Frank R. Kramer
Few of the magnificently mad explorers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who naively supposed that they could reach the riches of the Orient more quickly across the American continent than by digging straight through the center of the earth were better prepared for their mission than Samuel de Champlain. The smell of gunpowder was as familiar to his nostrils as the perfumed wiggery of Paris; he knew with equal thoroughness the minutely-measured distances of map-making, as Royal Geographer in the court of Henry IV, and the long sea miles between the French coast and the Mexican Indians. To well-filled sails of experience he added the stout rigging of character: courage, perseverance, tact, piety and vision – all were his. As he sailed into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence in 1603, one thing alone was lacking to the success of his exploratory venture into the Canadian wilderness – an area manual on the history and culture of devils.
Hardly had he rounded the cliffs of the Gaspe Peninsula when he came to grips with the first of the demons that held the New World in fief. It was a portent of what was to come, of the hosts of devils that would contest his passing the rapids and portaging the falls, until finally he overcame them and became, in the eyes of the savages, himself a benevolent spirit.
“There is still one strange thing,” wrote Champlain, “worthy of an account, which many savages have assured me was true; that is, that near the Bay of Heat, toward the south, there is an island where a frightful monster makes his home, which the savages call Gougou, and which they told me had the form of a woman, but very terrible, and of such a size that they told me the tops of the masts of our vessel would not reach to his waist, so great do they represent him; and they say that he has often eaten up and still continues to eat up many savages; these he puts, when he can catch them, into a great pocket, and afterwards he eats them; and those who had escaped the danger of this awful beast said that its pocket was so great that it could have put our vessel into it. This monster makes horrible noises in this island, which the savages call the Gougou; and when they speak of it, it is with unutterable fear, and several have assured me that they have seen him. Even . . . Sieur Prevert from St. Malo told me that, while going in search of mines . . . he passed so near the haunt of this terrible beast, that he and all those on board his vessel heard strange hissings from the noise she (sic!) made, and that the savages with him told him it was the same creature, and that they were so afraid that they hid themselves wherever they could, for fear that she would come and carry them off .”
And then this sober, seasoned explorer makes a candid admission. “What makes me believe what they say is the fact that all the savages in general fear her, and tell such strange things of her that, if I were to record all they say of her, it would be considered as idle tales, but I hold that this is the dwelling-place of some devil that torments them in the manner described. This is what I have learned about this Gougou.”
Sailing up the St. Lawrence in a ship of more than ten tons, Champlain could afford to dismiss the Gougou: the sturdy vessel and the narrative of Jacques Cartier, who almost a century before had ascended the river to the site of Montreal, made the odds reasonably safe. But it was another matter when, ten years later, Champlain reached the rapids that boiled in disheartening succession near Montreal and on up the Ottawa River – long the highway of the Algonquins and Hurons and after Champlain the route of French missionaries, explorers, and traders to the western Great Lakes for almost two hundred years. “He that would passe them, must fit himself with the Canoas of the Sauages, which one may easily carrie . . . And beside this first Sault (rapid), there are ten Saults more, the most part hard to pass . . . They [the Indians] told us, that beyond the first Sault that we had scene, they trauelled some ten or fifteene leagues with their Canoas in the Riuer where there is a riuer [the Ottawa] which runneth to the dwelling of the Algoumequins [Algonquins] . . . and then they passed fiue Saults [the Cascades, Split Rock, Cedar and Coteau Rapids], which may containe from the first to the last eight leagues, whereof there are two where they carrie their Canoas to passe them: euery Sault may containe halfe a quarter or a quarter of a league at the most.”
Such was the highway to the Orient – enough to turn back any but the most intrepid explorer, the most incurable dreamer. Being both, Champlain would not be discouraged. “The strong love which I have always cherished for the exploration of New France,” he once testified in the tone of a credo, “has made me desirous of extending more and more my travels over the country, in order, by means of its numerous rivers, lakes, and streams, to obtain at last a complete knowledge of it, and also to become acquainted with the inhabitants . . . to learn the language, and form relations and friendships with the leading men of the villages and tribes, in order to lay the foundations of a permanent edifice, as well for the glory of God as for the renown of the French.”
Now if ever the time was ripe for furthering these high-sounding aims. Ten years of forthright diplomacy had earned him the respect of the Indians and the ear of such men as Jeannin, the royal superintendent of finance. And last year he had secured a commission from Louis XIII with such sweeping powers as to make him -on paper at least -the actual ruler of New France. But prestige and powers must have seemed feeble and far away when, on May 27, 1613, he reached the great Montreal rapids. Here two years earlier his “hair stood on end to see such an awful place”; here he had run the rapids to prove to the Indians that he was not afraid and then admitted candidly: “Even the bravest people in the world who have not seen nor passed this place in small boats such as theirs, could not do so without great apprehension.” He was perhaps the first European to shoot these rapids; in 1535 Jacques Cartier, though he had laughed down Chief Donnaconna’s dire warning not to flaunt the wrath of Coudouagni, god of the rapids, had turned back. More than half a century from now the veteran Louis Joliet, returning from his epochal tour of the Mississippi, would capsize here, losing his maps and papers, in sight of the city now rising on the shore.
Once again, at the entrance of this American Avernus, Champlain with four Frenchmen (including the infamous young Nicolas du Vignau, who had promised to lead him to Hudson Bay) and one Indian guide found himself trespassing on the domain of aboriginal demons -twelve miles of whirling, weaving waters known as the Long Sault. “The rapidity of the current is so great,· Champlain reported, “that it makes a terrible noise, and in pouring down from one layer of rock to another it makes so much white foam everywhere that the water cannot be seen at all.· Caught in another white hell on the Gatineau River not far to the west, the Réollet brother Gabriel Sagard had asked his guides how such things could be. “They replied that it was the devil’s doing or the devil himself.” The trees on the bank stood trunk to trunk; portaging was impossible. Champlain was forced to drag his canoe with a rope wound around his hand. “As I was drawing mine,” he continued, “I thought I was lost, because it swerved into one of the whirlpools, and if I had not, fortunately, fallen between two rocks, the canoe would have dragged me in . . . In this danger I cried to God, and began to pull my canoe, which was returned to me by a back current, such as is found in these rapids. Having escaped, I praised God, begging Him to preserve us . . . As for our Frenchmen, they did not have any better luck, and several times they expected to lose their lives, but the Divine Goodness kept us all safe.”
And this was only the first of the rapids. The northwest passage was a grim carnival – now a roller coaster, jerking the canoe suddenly ahead and shooting it breathlessly over and between the rocks, now a tunnel of horrors in which spirit hands reached up to grasp the canoe and overturn Indian and Frenchman alike with Plutonic impartiality. It was the playground of the devil, in fact was created by Ta we’ ska re (or Tawiscara) himself, the evil brother, as the Hurons (whom Champlain was soon to visit) spun the tale. The good brother Tse’ sta’, they said, had made the land smooth and rolling, the forests clear. He had added all kinds of trees with fruits convenient to the hand, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries in vast clusters, maple with syrup coming out when the tree was tapped. Fish he made without scales, and – the supreme gift in this Huron utopia – had arranged the river currents so that they flowed down with the down-stream paddler and back when he returned. But when the evil twin Ta we’ ska re saw what his brother had done, he flew into a rage. He threw up mountains on the rolling hills, spread barren wastes, shriveled the berries and gave them thorns, coated the fish with flinty scales, and filled the rivers with falls and rapids.
Safely past the first Stygian barrier, they fought their way to Chaudiere Falls (a literal translation of Asticou, “the Boiler”) in the present city of Ottawa, – “the most wonderful, dangerous, and terrifying of all,” says Sagard in awe; “for it is wider than a full three-eighths part of a league.” Dropping over wide flat ledges, it now roars with less ferocity than the traffic moving north over the bridge to the right of the rapids between Chaudiere and Philemon Islands; but early nineteenthcentury sketches reveal its original grandeur. Wherever else along the Ottawa the devil may have ranged, here in this fearful splendor he had his throne, and “these poor people are so superstitious that they would not believe it possible for them to make a prosperous journey without observing this ceremony at this place.” Champlain watches the savages with half-amused, half-understanding interest while “one of them takes up a collection with a wooden plate, into which each one puts a bit of tobacco. The collection having been made, the plate is passed in the midst of the troupe, and all dance about it, singing after their style. Then one of the captains makes an harangue, setting forth that for a long time they have been accustomed to make this offering, by which they are insured protection against their enemies, that otherwise misfortune would befall them, as they are convinced by the evil spirit . . . This done, the maker of the harangue takes the plate, and throws the tobacco into the midst of the caldron, whereupon they all together raise a loud cry.”
Accumulating courage and agility for perhaps a hundred years in this region, the Indians grappled with the devils of the Ottawa rapids when ever there was a chance of success and learned to save their lives by appeasement and portaging whenever there was not. It was a matter of skill and sorcery – what they could not win by the one they maneuvered by the other. And so when Champlain, who apparently had neither, appeared miraculously on the lovely waters of little Muskrat Lake a few miles east of Allumette Lake, Chief Nibachis, “who came to visit us with his followers, astonished that we could have passed the falls and bad roads in order to reach them,” was struck with awe at this visitation.
“After offerings tobacco, according to their custom, he began to address his companions, saying, that we must have fallen from the clouds, for he knew not how we could have made the journey, and that they who lived in the country had much trouble in traversing these bad ways: and he gave them to understand that I accomplished all that I set my mind upon: in short, that he believed respecting me all that the other savages had told him.” And a little farther up the Ottawa at Allumette Lake Chief Tessoüat, whom Champlain had met at Tadoussac in 1603 and again at Lachine Rapids eight years later, “was greatly amazed to see me, saying that he thought I was a dream, and that he did not believe his eyes.”
Tessoüat might have been paddling through pools of metaphor; the Indians loved nothing better than excursions into the metaphorical, and “unless you accustom yourself to it,” said the Jesuit Father Jean de Brebeuf, “you will understand nothing in their councils, where they speak almost entirely in metaphors.” But there was nothing figurative, as Champlain well knew, in the chief s exclamation. He had met with the astonishing effect of dreams in this country four years ago – when he had led a party of his Indian allies on a raid against the Iroquois near the lake that bears his name. As they approached the enemy camp, they became apprehensive about “how much of their undertakings would succeed” and repeatedly asked him whether he had dreamed. To each query he answered no. But by this time he may have remembered what he had learned in the previous year at Quebec. “They believe also that all the dreams that they have are true; and, in fact, there are a great many of them who say that they have seen and dreamed things which have come to pass or will take place.” He had, at any rate, a providential visitation: he dreamed that he saw the Iroquois in a lake, drowning. “When I woke up they did not fail to ask me, as is their custom, if I had dreamed anything. I told them the substance of what I had dreamed. This gave them so much faith that they no longer doubted that good was to befall them.” The Jesuits were soon to think that dreams were “the master of their lives,” “the God of the country.” Dreams, according to tribal lore, were inspired by demons – good and bad, and dreams were the media of their materialization. Champlain’s materialization at Allumette Lake, like that of the demons, belonged to the world of dreams.
Would to heaven, Champlain must have thought, his unexpected appearance among these far-off Algonquins had been as easy as taking shape from a dream, or as simple as dropping from the skies. He was quite ready, however, to agree with the Indians that there was a touch of the supernatural in his escape from so many diabolical whirlpools and not the least unwilling to accept their awed esteem. Two years later, among the Hurons, he would come to appreciate how deeply embedded in savage folk-belief their credulity was. “Whenever they see a man doing something extraordinary,” he learned, “or furthermore who is in a rage as if out of his reason and senses, they call him oqui, or, as we should say, a great knowing spirit, or a great devil.” The man who had tamed the turbulent demons from the St. Lawrence to Allumette Lake must be himself an oki, or demon.
The extraordinary skill, strength or cleverness, the unusual shape or appearance, the unexpected event – these were the works of the devil or manifestations of the devil himself. The Indians, wrote Father Bressani forty years after, had “a superstitious regard for anything that savored a little of the uncommon.” It was a conception permeating the tribal world from the familiar demons or good-luck charms (the Ascwandic or Aaskouandy) which everyone carried in his dried-skin pouch in the form of odd stones or eagle claws or snake-skins to the unseen powers that moved and regulated the universe. It appears in an old Huron maxim with a mingling of superstition and practical humor “that skill, strength, and vigilance are the most powerful Aaskouandy that a man can have.” The medicine-man, as doctor and priest of the tribe, enjoyed his share of respect for the mysterious. “Ordained” in his oki-hood after an oki had entered his body, he maintained his exceptional status, Champlain discovered, by healing the sick, predicting future events, “in short, by practicing all abuses and delusions, of the Devil.” And finally, the vast, inexplicable play of elemental powers over Huronia gave proof through the sky that the okis were there.
And so when Chief Nibachis harangued his followers on the miraculous appearance of this man who accomplished all that he set his mind upon, he was not merely giving him the keys to the village, or even conferring an honorary chieftainship upon him. He was according his unexpected guest the place of distinction in the tribal world of spirits which his astonishing exploit seemed to warrant. We in this day have a way of doing the same thing – of regarding a saintly man, for example, as one apart from the rest of us, as a saint akin to the spirits.
How much of all this did Champlain appreciate or take seriously? Did he recognize what it might mean to him in furthering his explorations, in smoothing the rapids and shortening the route to Cathay? Especially now, when he was striking out on his own? The friendly Hurons, who might have furnished him canoes and guides, had not come down to the Lachine rapids this season to trade. He was dependent upon the tribes he visited for everything he needed and could expect little from the Allumette tribe, who were middlemen on the Ottawa and would not take kindly to the prospect of his dealing directly with the tribes of the interior (on occasion they refused passage even to the Jesuit missionaries). Champlain was no novice in Indian relations: in the ten years since he had turned westward over the St. Lawrence he had learned that the impact of a man’s extraordinary audacity in plunging confidently into perils terrifying to the Indians themselves was an effective force – as effective as guns, promises and threats in winning their cooperation. Yet there is no hint in his memoirs that his reception was anything but a passing tribal tribute to his daring. He would not, of course, discover how closely he fitted the part of an oki until his visit to the Hurons two years later. But if he entertained any thoughts whatever of reaching the North Sea on the wings of his reputation, they were suddenly interrupted by the dramatic disclosure that Vignau had grossly deceived him – a disclosure as challenging to his diplomatic adroitness as the rapids had been to his courage.
Vignau’s unmasking began innocently enough: Champlain set, before Chief Tessoüat his plan of finding a trade route to the North Sea (he neglected to mention the map Vignau had shown him in France on the strength of which he had spent a year of preparation and was now risking his life in the rapids) and asked for four canoes to continue his trip as far as the Lake Nipissing tribe. The chief, his one eye cocked on the threat of his own monopoly if this determined explorer should succeed in his plan, replied with a shrewd mixture of sound sense and superstition. He described “again the difficulty of the roads, the number of rapids, the wickedness of those tribes” (the Nipissings had a widespread reputation as sorcerers). The story is a familiar one to Champlain’s biographers, who tell it with deep relish:
how Champlain countered that he had Vignau’s word that he had been on the country of the Nebicerini [Nipissing Indians];
how Tessoüat, whose Island was the northernmost point Vignau had reached, turned upon the young imposter: “If you have been among these people, it was while you were asleep . . . You are a scoundrel, and he [Champlain] ought to put you to death more cruelly than we do our enemies”;
how Thomas, the Interpreter, came to the distracted Champlain shortly after this staccato by-play with the Intelligence that Tessoüat had sent a canoe secretly to the Nebicerini to inform them of the Frenchman’s coming.
This was highly disturbing news. What further obstructions did the old chief have in mind? In a few days, Champlain felt, the whole atmosphere had changed: when he arrived, the chief had hailed him as a man of unusual – even supernatural -talents; now he was impugning Champlain’s faith in his guide and trying to block his passage into the interior. But there was still a chance to save face and recover the advantage: he might coax or promise, bluff and threaten, or indulge the vagaries of savage superstition. Few historians can bring themselves to mention his choice – the dream superstition. “Thereupon,” he says, “in order to profit by the opportunity, I went to the savages to tell them, that I had dreamed the past night that they purposed to send a canoe to the Nebicerini without notifying me of it, at which I was greatly surprised, since they knew that I was desirous of going there.”
It was Tessoüat’s turn to pull himself out of the rapids of intrigue. He may have had his suspicions; but a dream was too subjective, too much a part of his own beliefs, for him to question it. Instead, he denounced Vignau’s malicious deception so vehemently that the Indians were ready to “tear him apart.” Champlain was now convinced (his early doubts about Vignau’s veracity had grown greater as he had led him – against the Indians’ advice – into more and more rock-choked channels), but he wanted to hear the confession from the lips of “our liar” himself. He took him aside and threatened to hang and strangle him if he persisted in his hoax. Vignau confessed.
What now should he do with the impostor? To release him to the fury of the savages was unthinkable; no Frenchman, himself included, would be safe in the future. Years later Duluth, already launched on a trip into the unknown regions west of Lake Superior, turned back when he heard that a party of La Salle’s men (his rivals for the glory of opening the west ) was in the hands of the Sioux and paddled down the Mississippi to rescue them. And Champlain could scarcely jeopardize his reputation by delegating his responsibilities to Tessoüat. Characteristically, he moved promptly but with cautious restraint -with something of the same qualities that had brought him so far up the Ottawa. He set loose the cowering Vignau not to the Indians who were clamoring for him but to the wilderness he had falsely claimed to know.
Champlain had lost little by acknowledging the justice of Tessoüat’s accusations – either of his own standing or of future French security. His explorations, of course, had run into a dead end. But he had had a more intimate glimpse of the streams of Indian behavior – currents as important to his purposes as the route to Hudson Bay. In grappling with the demons of the rapids and the demonic in men’s minds, he learned that it was the unusual in a man’s character that impressed these Indians most deeply, that drew from them an awed respect charged with the atmosphere of spirit-worship. White men, too, respect character, but no such tribal lore lies beneath their feeling.
The discovery held interesting possibilities for Champlain’s present plans; he found no difficulty, for instance, in exploiting his reputation to bring a trading flotilla of forty canoes back over the long route to the St. Lawrence. Moreover, the folk-belief that set him among the okis might prove to be a useful formula -a formula for transmuting the base metal of dependency into a golden potential for assistance and negotiation. On his second ascent up the Ottawa River two years later, Chiefs Nibachis and Tessoüat received him with feasts, outfitted him with provisions, and sent him on his way to the Nipissiriniens.
All the facets of his relations with the Indians glowed with the dominant hue of his personality, enhanced as it was by superstition. We see it when he is trading with them, exploring with their help, or leading them into skirmishes with the Iroquois. It is at its brightest when he is arbitrating their disputes, war-breeding disputes like the one he was called upon to settle between the Hurons and Algonquins during his stay in Huronia in the winter of 1615-1616. Here he is no head of a great trading company, no captain of arquebusiers, no spokesman of the king. He is in the sorry plight of impatiently accepting the hospitality of the Hurons after having been carried back to Huronia with a wound suffered in the fiasco against the Iroquois a few months before. And yet his word commands respect because, as Morris Bishop says pregnantly, “of the recognizable integrity of his spirit.” And this, as the Indians recognized also in the Vignau affair, is the stuff that okis are made of.
What we are saying seems like a truism – until we become involved in explaining the success or failure of the French in America through the policies of statesmen and fur companies (how strange they must have seemed at times to native diplomats!) and forget that the Indians saw these policies only in the personalities of the men who tried to carry them out. In time the compagnie des marchands became popularly known in France as the compagnie de Champlain; to the Indians it had never been anything else. It was all very well to come to Canada armed with a gun and a commission from Louis XIII empowering the holder with the right to make treaties, propagate the faith, build forts. The next step was to make it mean something to the Indians, to deal with tribal behavior. It was better, in short, to be linked with the okis than with the king.
But we must say no more of Champlain and what he learned about okis and demons. After all. we can see the impact of the extraordinary more clearly in the events of a few years later than in Champlain’s stray notes. We can trace it in the superstitious transformation of the Jesuit missionaries into gods and devils. We see it too in the story of Jean Nicolet, Champlain’s young ambassador to the “Chinese” at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and of Nicolas Perrot, whose reception as “wonderful men,” that is, as okis, helped to lay open to them the waterways of the western Great Lakes.
This article first appeared in Inland Seas in Fall 1951