Home New Hampshire Samuel de Champlain Explores the Merrimack River — On Paper

Samuel de Champlain Explores the Merrimack River — On Paper


Samuel de Champlain discovered the Merrimack River with drawing paper and crayon rather than wind and sail. He had used those tools to communicate with Indians while anchored off the coast of New Hampshire.

Samuel de Champlain (imagined)

Samuel de Champlain (imagined)

Samuel de Champlain, a French mariner, began exploring North America in 1603. He established the settlements of Port Royal and Quebec City, mapped the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes and eventually settled in New France as its chief administrator. He is known as the Father of New France and the first European to map Lake Champlain, which he named for himself.

Champlain was born into a family of mariners sometime around 1570. He made his first voyage with his uncle, a wealthy mariner who bequeathed his estate to Champlain when he died in 1601.Champlain then began exploring North America on a brief expedition in 1603. In the spring of 1604 he joined a second expedition to New France. It lasted several years, and focused on what would later became known as Acadia. The expedition was led by Pierre Dugua de Monts, a nobleman and merchant with a fur trading monopoly in New France. In 1605 and 1606, Champlain sailed as far south as Cape Cod.

Champlain in New Hampshire

According to the memoir written by the Rev. Edmund F. Slafter, on July 15, 1605, Champlain and De Monts sailed from Cape Porpoise, Maine, past Rye, N.H., and anchored off Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, N.H.

On the 15th of July, De Monts and his party left Cape Porpoise, keeping in and following closely the sinuosities of the shore. They saw no savages during the day, not any evidences of any, except a rising smoke, which they approached, but found to be a lone beacon, without any surroundings of human life. Those who had kindled the fire had doubtless concealed themselves, or had fled in dismay. Possibly they had never seen a ship under sail.

A Gliding Monster

Slafter knew that European fishermen preceded Champlain. Year after year they came to the Atlantic coast of North America during the summer for the abundant cod.

The fishermen who frequented our northern coast rarely came into these waters, and the little craft of our voyagers, moving without oars or any apparent human aid, seemed doubtless to them a monster gliding upon the wings of the wind. At the setting of the sun, they were near the flat and sandy coast, now known as Wallace’s Sands. They found in vain for a roadstead where they might anchor safely for the night. When they were opposite to Little Boar’s Head, with the Isles of Shoals directly east of them, and the reflected rays of the sun were still throwing their light upon the waters, they saw in the distance the dim outline of Cape Anne, whither thy directed their course, and, before morning, came to anchor near its eastern extremity, in sixteen fathoms of water. Near them were the three well-known islands at the apex of the cape, covered with forest-trees, and the woodless cluster of rocks, now called the Savages, a little further from the shore.

The Merrimack in Pembroke, N.H.

Crayon and Drawing Paper

The next morning five or six Indians timidly approached them in a canoe, and then retired and set up a dance on the shore, as a token of friendly greeting. Armed with crayon and drawing-paper, Champlain was despatched to seek from the natives some important geographical information. Dispensing knives and biscuit as a friendly invitation, the savages gathered about him, assured by their gifts, when he proceeded to impart to them their first lesson in topographical drawing. He pictured to them the bay on the north side of Cape Anne, which he had just traversed, and signifying to them that he desired to know the course of the shore on the south, they immediately gave him an example of their apt scholarship by drawing with the same crayon an accurate outline of Massachusetts Bay, and finished up Champlain’s own sketch by introducing the Merrimac River, which, not having been seen, owing to the presence of Plum Island, which stretches like a curtain before its mouth, he had omitted to portray.

Bonus Information

The intelligent natives volunteered a bit of history. By placing six pebbles at equal distances, they intimated that Massachusetts Bay was occupied by six tribes, and governed by as many chiefs. He learned from them, likewise, that the inhabitants of this region subsisted by agriculture, as did those at the mouth of the Saco, and that they were very numerous.

The photo, “Samuel de Champlain by Ronjat,” is by Book author: François Pierre Guillaume Guizot. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story updated in 2022.


Pam Beveridge July 15, 2014 - 6:16 pm

Recommend David Hackett Fischer’s book “Champlain’s Dream”

Champ, the Lake Champlain Lake Monster - New England Historical Society January 18, 2017 - 8:37 am

[…] Samuel de Champlain was said to have seen Champ in 1609, but that story is based on a made-up quote in Vermont Life magazine in 1970. […]

How the New England State Names Came to Be - New England Historical Society September 5, 2017 - 2:27 pm

[…] Each of these points of view had its own strong supporters over the years, so much so, perhaps, that no one ever managed to dislodge the informal, original name applied to it by explorer Samuel de Champlain. […]

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