The Starting Point of the Expedition on Lake Ontario

The narrative states that the expedition descended what is now known as Trent River, which empties into Lake Ontario, and after short days’ journeys, reached the border of Lake Ontario. It then proceeds. I give the original French, as Champlain’s works are quite rare, and copy from the edition of 1619, modernizing the old French orthography: “où etans, nous fimes la traverse en l’un des bouts, tirant a. l’orient, qui est l’entrée de la grande rivière St. Laurens, par la hauteur de quarante-trois degrés de latitude, où it y a de belles iles fort grandes en ce passage.”

Where then was the starting point of the expedition? Gen. Clark says ” Kingston.” Dr. Shea says, ” from a peninsula beyond (east of ? Quinté Bay, on the north shore,” agreeing with Gen. Clark that it must have been at Kingston. There is some confusion among geographers as to the extent of Quinté Bay. Some represent it as reaching to Kingston.

Quinté Bay proper, according to the best authorities, extends no farther eastward than the eastern extremity of Prince Edward Peninsula, called Point Pleasant. It is often called the River Trent, being as it were an extension of that stream.

Champlain evidently considered, and correctly so, that when he had passed Point Pleasant, he had arrived at the Lake. He says that the river he descended “forms the passage into the lake,” and a little farther on, “we traveled by short days’ journeys as far as the border of Lake Ontario, where having arrived, we crossed,” &c.

Having fixed the starting point at Kingston, Gen. Clark claims that from thence he “ran east a distance not given, thence southerly to a point fourteen leagues (35 miles) from the commencement of the River St. Lawrence.” Champlain says, the crossing embraced fourteen leagues. How the starting point at Kingston, much less the extension of the route eastward from Kingston, is “reconciled with the map,” does not appear.

I claimed the starting point to have been opposite the eastern end of Point Pleasant, and in this I am sustained by both map and text.

According to the text, the crossing began as soon as they reached the lake, and that occurred when they passed out of the river (or bay) at Point Pleasant. Champlain does not say that they went an inch east of that Point. I quite agree with Dr. Shea’s translation of the words “tirant a l’orient,” and of the passage in which it occurs. Those words have no reference to the direction pursued by Champlain, but to the end of the lake which he crossed.

“Having arrived at the borders of the lake, we crossed,” he says, “one of its extremities which, extending eastward, forms the entrance of the great River St. Lawrence, in 43 degrees of latitude, where there are very large beautiful islands on the passage.” I suggested this interpretation some months ago to the Superintendent of the translation of Champlain’s Voyages of 1603, 1613 and 1619, now being made for the Prince Society. I am inclined to believe that General Clark’s extension of the route eastward to Kingston, originated in a mistranslation of those words. His construction of the route certainly requires “tirant a l’ orient” to refer to the direction pursued by Champlain, which is in conflict with Dr. Shea’s translation, while the route I propose is in entire harmony with it.

Dr. Shea further says, “That Champlain was actually at the head of the St. Lawrence, of which he gives the latitude, seems almost certain. For one who had founded a trading settlement on the lower river, the examination and exact locating of the head of the river, when he was so near it, seem imperatively demanded.”

It must be remembered, however, that Champlain was on a war expedition, aided by only a few of his own countrymen, with several hundred Huron and Algonkin warriors, approaching a hostile country. Under such circumstances he would hardly have gone so far east, and so much out of his way, to make geographical or hydrographical observations, either during a cautious approach or a hurried retreat.

Although Champlain gives the latitude of the entrance of the river, instead of that furnishing an argument in favor of his having been there, its effect is directly the reverse, for the latitude which he records at forty-three degrees is quite erroneous, and would place the entrance as far South as Syracuse. The true latitude is 44° 6′, a difference of over a degree. A gross error for a Captain in the French marine to make from actual observation.

Champlain's Expedition of 1615 Against the Onondaga Magazine Of American History Vol. I January 1877.

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