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Events to honor early explorer: Champlain

Events to honor early explorer: Champlain

You wouldn’t know it from most of the events held to date, but Henry Hudson wasn’t the first Europea

You wouldn’t know it from most of the events held to date, but Henry Hudson wasn’t the first European to explore upstate New York 400 years ago this summer.

Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer setting out from a base on the St. Lawrence River, reached the future New York territory first.

He entered the 120-mile-long lake he named Lake Champlain by canoe in early July 1609, fully two months before Henry Hudson steered the sailing ship Half Moon up what would become known as the Hudson River.

Northern New York and the state of Vermont, which border Lake Champlain, are playing up the Frenchman’s role in their celebrations of the Hudson-Champlain quadricentennial year, even as the Hudson Valley highlights Hudson’s importance.

“It really was the first European contact with the local native Americans,” said Erica Houskeeper, spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.

“To commemorate this milestone, Vermont is marking more than 100 events,” she said.

The Burlington Celebrate Champlain Festival is one of the state’s signature events. It began Thursday and will continue through July 14. There are concerts by performers including Tony Bennett, community activities in downtown Burlington and along the city’s waa big parade on July 11.

There will also be a “Vermont Indigenous Celebration” of Abenaki and other native cultures July 9-12 at the ECHO Lake Aquarium in Burlington and French Heritage days in Vergennes July 17-18.

Vermont artists who have painted Lake Champlain currently have their work on exhibit at the Boston Public Library, and the exhibit will move to the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester Aug. 22 to Sept. 20.

The Champlain celebrations, like those for Hudson, mark an event that changed history.

“It was the beginning of French settlement in North America,” Houskeeper said. “Forty percent of Vermonters have French-Canadian heritage.”

In New York, the state-promoted Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial events mostly focus on Hudson but include a 400th anniversary re-enactment of Champlain’s arrival, to be held at Fort Ticonderoga on July 25.

On Sept. 18, a Festival of Nations (Canada, France, Great Britain, Native Americans and the United States) will be held at Crown Point, site of the ruins of early French and English forts.

Lake Champlain was one of the places where the two European powers fought over ultimate control of the North American continent during the French and Indian wars, and the Crown Point ruins — located at a narrows where there is now a bridge — symbolize that conflict.

The Crown Point State Historic Site has some improvements this year, including a new interpretive exhibit, according to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The 1858 Champlain Memorial Lighthouse at the nearby Crown Point state campground is to be rededicated on Sept. 19 after a $2 million renovation.

A bust by famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin will be rededicated in front of the historic lighthouse.

The restoration is one of the “legacy” projects intended to leave permanent reminders of this year’s quadricentennial celebration.

Lake Champlain and Lake George were the highways of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Champlain Canal in 1823 linked the Champlain and Hudson valleys by boat.

A 15-day kayak trip that starts Aug. 3 in Moreau and will go down the Hudson is celebrating the legacy of both explorers.

Tom Wood, chairman of the Saratoga County Quadricentennial Committee, said Champlain’s legacy is visible through the many families of French-Canadian background.

“Here in Schuylerville we have always had a significant French legacy population,” Wood said. “Obviously [Champlain] was looking to establish settlements for France.”

Having arrived at and founded Quebec City only the summer before, Champlain was 42 years old when he and a group of 60 Algonquian guides paddled up the Richelieu River to the lake in July 1609. He had already participated in two earlier exploration trips to North America, exploring, mapping and developing friendly relations with natives.

Champlain and his guides traveled along the big lake until late July 1609, when a hostile encounter with a party of Iroquois — traditional enemies of the Algonquians — near either Crown Point or Ticonderoga (historians aren’t sure) caused both sides to fall back.

And Henry Hudson was still elsewhere on the East Coast, looking for that mythical route to Asia on behalf of Dutch investors. He was weeks away from finding the Hudson River.

Champlain’s explorations paved the way for French participation in what became a thriving fur trade in the 1600s and permanent French settlement of Quebec and throughout Maritime Canada. He was rewarded with the honorific “de” and became Samuel de Champlain.

In later years, Champlain would explore further into Canada, as far west as Lake Huron. While noblemen in France held the governor’s title, he functioned as the senior on-site administrator of the new French empire. He died in Quebec in 1635.

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