David Hackett Fischer knew 2008 was going to be a big year for Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec exactly four centuries ago. “My wife inherited a cottage years ago on Mt. Desert Island in Maine,” said Fischer in a phone interview from his office at Brandeis University, where he serves as the Earl Warren Professor of History. “We spend quite a bit of time there and back in 2004 there were many celebrations in that area about Champlain because he was one of the first Europeans to sail off that coast and gather information about that region.”
David Hackett Fischer
WHERE: University at Albany, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany
WHEN: 8 p.m. reading on Thursday in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center; 4:15 p.m. seminar on Thursday in the Standish Room of the the Science Library
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 442-5620
This past summer, Canada marked the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, the first permanent settlement in New France. It was a summer filled with numerous festivities, fireworks and musical and theatrical performances, and Samuel de Champlain was a central figure in all these celebrations.
Fischer has been writing full time on this project since 2004, trying to discover who Champlain was, where he came from, what he did, why he did it, what differences he made, and why we should care. All this research has led to his newest book “Champlain’s Dream” (Simon and Schuster, $40, 834 pps.).
The author will read from the book on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.
“I didn’t begin with a thesis when I decided to research Champlain,” said Fischer. “I just wanted to find out who the man was. In all my books, I’ve never known in advance what I’ll discover. That’s why I enjoy the research and the writing so much.”
Fischer is celebrated as a writer and historian who seeks to correct errors in traditional understandings of American history. He received the Pulitzer Prize for “Washington’s Crossing” in 2005, which was a strategic and tactical analysis of George Washington’s battles in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“I knew Champlain had been a soldier, a mariner and an explorer,” said Fischer, “but I didn’t know he was such a gifted leader who also drew such accurate maps and documented early American life in such detail. As an artist, he left such a remarkable visual record of the New World and the life of the Indians that, if he had only done that, he’d still be known today.”
Champlain’s dream was to create a New France, a place of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence. He envisioned the new world as a place where people of different cultures could live together in harmony.
“Champlain grew up in France during a time of bitter religious conflict,” said Fischer. “He also had traveled through the Spanish Caribbean colonies in his early twenties and was shocked by the treatment of the Indians there. He envisioned a different type of place for New France.”
Unlike many of the European explorers of his day, Samuel de Champlain embraced the Indians with respect, often joined them in long tobacco feasts, and made an informal alliance with them that endured for many generations.
“As a result of this,” said Fischer, “small colonies of Frenchmen and large Indian nations lived close together for many years. Even today Canada has had a history of incorporating their native people much better than our own country, and much of that attitude can be traced all the way back to Champlain.”
Alliance with Indians
According to Fischer, Champlain had a way of getting along with difficult people. He served under four powerful leaders in France: Henri lV, Queen Regent Marie de Medici, young Louis XIII, and Cardinal Richelieu. He also learned several Indian languages and established enduring alliances with all the American Indians of the region except for the Iroquois.
“If Champlain was alive today,” said Fischer, “I think he’d be very pleased that so much of what he started has survived and that Canada has become a place filled with so much diversity.”
Fischer enjoyed working on this project, but found it to be one of his most difficult books to write. “So much of the research came from early 17th-century documents,” he said, “and they were all written in French. My expertise is with U.S. and British history, so this was a whole new field for me.”
What he enjoyed was traveling through many of the areas where Champlain lived. “Many of the places remain unchanged today,” said Fischer. “I especially enjoyed visiting the little towns in France where Champlain grew up. These were places that had a lot of diversity in his time, which explains why he wanted to create that same type of atmosphere in New France.”
Fischer has been in love with teaching history since 1962. “I have great passion for teaching and I’ve always been fascinated with history and stories about long ago.”
One of Fischer’s first childhood memories was listening to his 90-year-old great-aunt tell stories about her life. “It was the early 1940s and I was about five or six and I’d listen to all these stories from my aunt,” he said. “She was a great storyteller and would bring these events to life.”
One story took place when his aunt was in her early teens. She was at her home just outside Baltimore one summer day when she heard the sound of wind. “She looked out the window and saw no leaves blowing,” said Fischer. “When she walked outside she saw a long trail of wagons in the distance moving away from her and the sound wasn’t wind. It was the sound of wounded soldiers moaning on their way back from Gettysburg. It’s no wonder I got excited about history after hearing stories like that.”
Fischer believes people are more interested in history today than in days past. “There have been so many major events since the 1990s, like the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11,” he said, “which makes people want to look back to make sense of those big changes.” Even Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke asked economists at the Federal Reserve to forget theories and look to history to solve the financial crisis.
He also believes our politicians could learn from people like Samuel de Champlain. “Champlain didn’t always agree with the Indian way of life, but he dealt with them as equals and earned their respect,” said Fischer. “Champlain also perfected an attitude he called prevoyant, which meant he was ready to act upon chance events when they occurred. This would have changed things drastically in the Iraq War. Champlain also knew as a leader that people must be led and not be driven.”