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Maritime Museum begins “Lake Champlain’s First Navigators” Project - Prelude to 2009 Champlain Quadricentennial


For information contact:
Jeff Meyers, Associate Director
(802) 475-2022

(June 28, 2007) - Beginning July 9 th, the “First Navigators” Project, presented at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM), will interpret Native American culture and demonstrate how the region’s first mariners built and used birch bark canoes. LCMM has commissioned Aaron York, an internationally recognized Native American Artist based in Swanton, Vermont, to construct an 18-20 foot birch bark canoe. Based on research, this canoe will be a replica of the type seen by Samuel de Champlain during his travels here in 1609 . Professor Frederick M. Wiseman of Johnson State College and the Wôbanakik Heritage Center has worked with LCMM to help design the project.

The “First Navigators” Project is an “artist-in-residence” program. The boat builder and his assistant will work in a public setting at the museum. Over a four-week period beginning this July, the “First Navigators” Project will raise awareness of the ten thousand years of indigenous culture prior to Champlain’s journey to the lake that now bears his name, the cultures of the people that he encountered living in the region, the four hundred years since 1609, and the construction of bark canoes. Members of the Eastern Woodland Confederacy and the El Nu Abenaki will participate in launching the canoe on August 4 – 5, as part of a fun and fascinating weekend of interpretive programs, singing, dancing, storytelling, events and exhibits.

The “First Navigators” Project is an important opportunity for the public to gain perspective on the upcoming 400 th anniversary of Champlain’s exploration of the lake. During the Champlain Quadricentennial in the summer of 2009, communities and institutions around the lake will focus on the Champlain Valley’s historic legacy. The sophistication and wonder of the birch bark canoe was recorded by Samuel de Champlain in his account of his explorations of the region in 1609.

The project is made possible by generous and thoughtful support from the Amy Tarrant Foundation, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, the Vermont Quadricentennial Commission, the New York Quadricentennial Commission, the Wôbanakik Heritage Center, and the farm families that own Cabot Creamery.

Historic context for construction of a Native People’s birch bark canoe as a component of the 2009 Champlain Quadricentennial

In June of 1609, exploring what was then called “New France ” (parts of both present-day Canada and Vermont were part of New France until 1763), Samuel de Champlain traveled from his newly established base on the St. Lawrence River to see a “large lake filled with beautiful islands” that had been described to him by his Native friends, and was located to the south in the territory of the Iroquois. Champlain and his men traveled in a “chalupa” while their Native companions traveled in birch bark canoes.

In July, in the company of his new Algonquin, Wendat and Innu allies, Champlain ascended the “River of the Iroquois,” now known as the Richelieu River, to explore and to seek out their traditional enemy. The combined Native and French force was able to get as far as the Chambly basin, where a stretch of rapids began. Viewing the shallow and fast-moving rapids, Champlain realized that the chalupa could not continue. In one of the profound moments of our region’s history, Champlain wrote in his journal,

Having come back, and having seen what little chance there was of passing the rapids with our Chalupa, I was troubled; and I was much disappointed to return without having seen a large lake filled with beautiful islands and a great deal of beautiful country bordering the lakes, where their enemies live, as they had represented it to me. After thinking things over by myself, I resolved to go there to fulfill my promise and the desire I felt, and I set out with the savages in their canoes and took with me two men who volunteered.” [Bourne, The Voyages and Explorations of Samuel de Champlain]

Champlain and his two volunteer companions transferred their baggage and guns from the chalupa into the smaller and lighter birch bark canoes. The birch bark canoes were the perfect watercraft to be carried around the rapids and complete the journey into the lake that would soon bear his name. Champlain, his two French companions and his Native allies ventured south, and entered the lake that led to the territory of the Iroquois. Champlain recorded in his journal that “they had a review of all their men and found they had twenty-four canoes, with sixty men in them.”

While on the lake, Champlain and the Native war party did encounter an Iroquois group with the same intention. At the height of the battle, Champlain appeared with his firearm, the first ever seen by the Native people of this region, and with one shot, turned the tide of the battle and ushered in the New World. Champlain later wrote in his journal, “this place where this battle was made . . . I named the lake Lake Champlain.”

In exploring the history and heritage of the Champlain Valley, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is honored and pleased to usher in the Quadricentennial with a tribute to the traditions and skills of the lake’s “First Navigators.”

About the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
LCMM’s mission is to preserve and share the rich history of the Lake Champlain region. Through nautical exploration, hands-on exhibits and learning adventures for all ages, the museum brings the stories of Lake Champlain and its people to audiences of all ages. LCMM is a national leader in nautical archaeology fieldwork, research, and public programs including the construction and operation of full-scale replicas of historic vessels. The museum is open daily from May 26 – Oct. 14, 2007 For more information on the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum please call (802) 475-2022 or visit

4472 Basin Harbor Rd. Vergennes, VT 05491 · (802) 475-2022 ·