A Series of Historical Narratives. By Little, Brown, & Co., Author of “ History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac,” “ Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life,” etc. Part First. Pioneers of France in the New World. Boston:
IT has been known for nearly a score of years within our literary circles, that one of the richest and least wrought themes of our American history had been appropriated by the zeal and research of a student eminently qualified by nature, culture, and personal experience to develop its wealth of interest. While very many among us may have been aware that Mr. Parkman had devoted himself to the task of which we have before us some of the results, only a narrower circle of friends have known under what severe physical embarrassments and disabilities he has been restrained from maturing those results. He has fully and sadly realized, within his own different range, the experience which he so aptly phrases as endured by his hero, the adventurous and dauntless Champlain. When that great pioneer, midway in his splendid career, was planning one of his almost annual voyages hitherward, at one of the most emergent periods of his enterprise, he was seized on board his vessel in France with a violent illness, and reduced, as Mr. Parkman says, to that “ most miserable of all conflicts, the battle of the eager spirit against the treacherous and failing flesh.” Mr. Parkman has known well what these words mean. In his case, as in that of Champlain, it was not from the burden of years and natural decay, but from the touch of disease in the period of life’s full vigor in its midway course, that mental activity was restrained. When, besides the inflictions of a racked nervous system, the author suffered in addition a malady of the eyes, which limited him, as he says, to intervals of five minutes for reading or writing, when it did not wholly preclude them, we may well marvel at what he has accomplished. And the reader will marvel all the more that the hindrances and pains under which the matter of these pages has been wrought have left no traces or transfer of themselves here. It may be possible that an occasional twinge or pang may have concentrated the terse narrative, or pointed the sharp and shrewd moralizings of these pages ; for there is an amazing conciseness and a keen epigrammatic sagacity in them. But there is no languor, no feebleness, no sleepy prosiness, to indicate where vivacity flagged, and where an episode or paragraph was finished after the glow had yielded to exhaustion.
Mr. Parkman’s theme is one of adventure on the grandest scale, with novel conditions and elements, and under the quickening of master passions of a sort to give to incidents and achievements a most romantic and soulabsorbing interest. Only incidentally, and then most slightly, does he have to deal with state affairs, with court intrigues, or with diplomatic complications. He has to follow men into regions and scenes in which there is so much raw material, and so much of the originality of human conditions and qualities, that no precedents are of avail, and it is even doubtful whether there are principles that have authority to guide or that may be safely recognized. Nor could he have treated his grand theme with that amazing facility and skill, which, as his work manifests them, will satisfy all his readers that the theme belongs to him and he to it, had not his native tastes, his training, and his actual experience brought him into a most intelligent sympathy with his subject-matter. Without being an adventurer, in the modern sense of the term, he has the spirit which filled the best old sense of the word. He has been a wide traveller and an explorer. Familiar by actual observation with the scenes through which he has to follow the track of the pioneers whom he chronicles, he has also acquainted himself by foot-journeys and canoenavigation under Indian guides with scenes and regions still unspoiled of their wilderness features. He has crossed the Rocky Mountains by the war-path of the savages, and penetrated far beyond the borders of civilization in the direction of the northern ice on our continent. He is skilled in native woodcraft, in the phenomena of the forest and the lake, the winding river and the cataract. He has watched the aspects of Nature through all the seasons in regions far away from the havoc and the finish of culture. He has been alone as a white man in the squalid lodges of the Indians, has lived after their manner up to the edge of the restraints which a civilized man must always take with him, and has consented to forego all that is meant by the word comfort, that he might learn actually what our iranscendentalists and sentimentalists are so taken with theoretically. He knows the inner make and furnishings of the savage brain and heart, the qualities of their thought and passions, their superstitions, follies, and vices ; and while he deals with them and their ways with the right spirit and consideration of a high-toned Christian man, he yields to no silly inventiveness of fancy or romance in portraying them. They are barely human, and they are hideous and revolting in his pages, as they are in real life. Mr. Parkman knows them for just what they are, and as they are. Helped by natural adaptation and sympathy to put himself into communication with them sufficiently to analyze their composition and to scan their range of being, he has presented such a portraiture and estimate of them as will be increasingly valuable while they are wasting away, to be known to future generations only by the record.
It is through Mr. Parkman’s keen observation and discernment, as a traverser of wild regions and a student of aboriginal life and character, that his pages arc made to abound with such vivid and vigorous delineations. He has great skill in description, whether on a grand scale or in the minutest details of adventure or of scenery. He can touch by a phrase, most delicately or massively, the outline and the features of what he would communicate. He can strip from field, river-bank, hill-top, and the partially cleared forests all the things and aspects which civilization has superinduced, and can restore to them their primitive, unsullied elements. He gives us the aroma of the wild woods, the tints of tree, shrub, and berry as the autumn paints them, the notes and screams and howls of the creatures which held these haunts before or with man; and though we were reading some of his pages on one of the hottest of our dog-days, we felt a grateful chill come over us as we were following his description of a Canadian winter.
Mr. Parkman’s subject required, for its competent treatment, a vast amount of research and a judicious use of authorities in documents printed or still in manuscript. Happily, there is abundance of material, and that, for the most part, of prime value. The period which his theme covers, though primeval in reference to the date of our own English beginnings here, opens within the era when pens and types were diligently employed to record all real occurrences, and when rival interests induced a multiplication of narratives of the same events, to the extent even of telling many important stories in two very different ways. The element of the marvellous and the superstitious is so inwrought with the documentary history and the personal narratives of the time, exaggeration and misrepresentation were then almost so consistent with honesty, that any one who essays to digest trustworthy history from them may be more embarrassed by the abundance than he would be by the paucity of his materials. Our author has spared no pains or expense in the gathering of plans, pamphlets, and solid volumes, in procuring copies of unpublished documents, and in consulting all the known sources of information. He discriminates with skill, and knows when to trust himself and to encourage his readers in retying upon them.
It has been with all these means for faithful and profitable work in his possession, gathered around him in aggravating reminders of their unwrought wealth, and with a spirit of craving ardor to digest and reproduce them, that Mr. Parkman has been compelled to suffer the discipline of a form of invalidism which disables without destroying or even impairing the power and will for continuous intellectual employment. Brief intervals of relief and a recent period of promise and hopefulness of full restoration have been heroically devoted to the production of that instalment of his whole plan which we have in the volume before us.
That plan, as his first and comprehensive title indicates, covers a narration of the initiatory schemes and measures for the exploration and settlement of the New World by France and England. As France had the precedence in that enterprise, this first volume is fitly devoted to its rehearsal. The French story is also far more picturesque, more brilliant and sombre, too, in its details. There is more of the wild, the romantic, and the tragic in it. Mr. Parkman briefly, but strikingly, contrasts the spirit which animated and the fortunes which befell the representatives of the two European nations,—the one of which has wrought the romance, the other of which has moulded the living development, of North America.
Under the specific title of this volume, — the “Pioneers of France in the New World,” — the author gives us historical narratives of stirring and even heroic enterprise in two localities at extreme points of our present territory: first, the story of the sadly abortive attempt made by the Huguenots to effect a settlement in Florida; and second, the adventures, undertakings, and discoveries of Champlain, his predecessors and associates, in and near Canada. The volume is touchingly dedicated to three near kinsmen of the author,—young men who in the glory and beauty of their youth, the joy and hope of parents who yielded the costly sacrifice, gave themselves to the deliverance of our country from the ruin plotted for it by a slave despotism.
Mr. Parkman mentions — allowing to it in his brief reference all the weight which it probably deserves — a vague tradition, which, had it been sustained by fact, would have introduced an entirely new element into the conditions involved in the rival claims to the right of colonizing and possessing America, as practically contested by European nations. The Pope’s Bull which deeded the whole continent to Spain, as if it were a farm, reinforced the claim already conventionally yielded to her through right of discovery. For anything, however, to the knowledge of which Columbus came before his death, or even his immediate successors before their death, all the parts of America which he saw or knew might have been insulated spaces, like those in which he actually set up Spanish authority. What might have been the issue for this continent, or rather for the spaces which it covers, had it been really divided by the high seas into three immense islands like Australasia, so that Spain, France, and England might have made an amicable division between them, would afford curious matter for speculation. The tradition referred to is, that the continent had been actually discovered by a Frenchman four years before the first voyage of Columbus hitherward. A vessel from Dieppe, while at sea off the coast of Africa, was said to have been blown to sight of land across the ocean on our shores. A mariner, Pinzon, who was on board of her, being afterwards discharged from French service in disgrace, joined himself to Columbus, and was with him when he made his great discovery. It may have been so. But the story, slenderly rooted in itself, has no support. Spain was the claimant, and, so far as the bold and repeated attempt of the Huguenots to contest her claims in Florida was thwarted by a diabolical, yet not unavenged ruthlessness of resistance, Spain made good her asserted right.
Mr. Parkman sketches rapidly some preliminary details relating to Huguenot colonization in Brazil and early Spanish adventures. The zeal of the French Huguenots had anticipated that of the English Puritans in seeking a Transatlantic field for its development. A philosophical historian might find an engaging theme, in tracing to diversities of national character, to the aims which stirred in human spirits, and to fickle circumstances of date or place, the contrasted issues of failure and success in the different enterprises. To human sight or foresight, the Huguenots had the more hopeful omens at the start. But religious zeal and avarice, combined in a way most cunningly adapted to contravene, if that were possible, the Saviour’s profound warning, “No man can serve two masters,” were, after all, only combined in a way to bring them into the most shameful conflict. The Huguenot at the South shared with the Spaniard the lust for gold ; and the backers alike of Roman and Protestant zeal in Canada divided their interest between the souls of the Indians and the furs and skins of wild animals.
The heroic and the chivalric elements in the spirit and prowess of these early adventurers give a charm even to the narratives which reveal to us their fearful sufferings and their atrocities. Physically and morally they must have been endowed unlike those who now hoe fields, make shoes, and watch the wheels of our thrifty mechanisms. Avarice and zeal, the latter being sometimes substituted by a daring passion for the romantic, nerved men, and women too, to undertakings and endurances which shame our enfeebled ways. The partners in these enterprises were never homogeneous in character, as were eminently the Colonists of New England. They were of most mixed and discordant materials. Prisons were ransacked for convicts and desperadoes; humble artisans and peasants were accepted as laborers ; roving mariners, whose only sure port of rest would be in the abyss, were bribed for transient service, the condition always exacted being that they must be ready for the nonce to turn landsmen for fighting in swamp or bush. These, with a sprinkling of young and impoverished nobles, and one or two really towering and master spirits, in whom either of the two leading passions was the spur, and who could win through court patronage a patent or a commission, made in every case, either South or North, the staple material of French adventure.
After a graphic sketch of the line of Spanish notables in the New World,—of Ponce de Leon, of Garay, Ayllon, De Narvaez, and De Soto,—Mr. Parkman concisely reviews the successive attempts at a settlement in Florida by Frenchmen. His central figures here are Admiral De Coligny and his agents, Villegagnon, Ribaut, and Laudonnière. They had no fixed policy towards the Indians, and they followed the worst possible course with them. They wholly neglected tillage, and so were in constant peril of starvation. They were lawless and disorderly in their fellowship, and were always at the mercy of conspirators among themselves.
Beginning about the year 1550, and embracing the quarter of a century following, there transpired on the coast of Florida a series of acts of mingled heroism and barbarity not easily paralleled in any chapter of the world’s history. Menendez, under his commission as Adelantado, having effected the first European settlement in North America at St. Augustine, and the French having established a river fort named Caroline, the struggle which could not long have been deferred was invited. We have here a double narrative. While the French commander, Ribaut, is shipwrecked in an enterprise by sea against St. Augustine, Menendez, by land, after a most harassing tramp through forest and swamp, successfully assails Fort Caroline. Though he has pledged his honor to spare those who surrendered to his mercy, he foully breaks his pledge, as no faith was to he kept with heretics. A brutal massacre, which shocked even his Indian allies, signalized his victory. An inscription on the trees under which he slaughtered his victims announced that vengeance was wreaked on them, “not as Frenchmen, but as heretics. ”
These atrocities were in their turn avenged, after a similar fashion and in the same spirit, by Dominique de Gourgues. It is doubtful whether he was a Huguenot; but he felt, as the French monarch and court did not, the rankling disgrace of this bloody catastrophe. An intense hater of the Spaniards, he gave his whole spirit of chivalry and prowess, in the approved fashion of the age, to avenge the insult to France. Providing himself with three small vessels, navigable by sail or oar, he gathered a fit company for his enterprise ; but not till well on his way did he reveal to them his real purpose, in which they proved willing coadjutors. He found the Spaniards at their forts had alienated the Indians, who readily leagued with him. By a bold combination and a fierce onslaught he carries the Spanish works, and retaliates on his fiendish and now cowering prisoners by hanging them, “not as Spaniards, but as traitors, robbers, and murderers.” De Gourgues came to do this, not to make another attempt for a permanent settlement in the interest of France. He therefore destroyed the forts, and with a friendly parting from his red allies, much to their sorrow, returned home. Thus closes one episode in the world’s tragic history.
Turning now towards the North, Mr. Parkman takes a comprehensive review of the hazy period of history covered by traditions and imperfect records, with vague relations of adventure by Normans, Basques, and Bretons, on fishing expeditions to Newfoundland and the main coast. These were followed by three exploring enterprises and partial settlements, between 1506 and 1518, Verrazzano, with four ships, coasted along our shores, and was for fifteen days the guest of some friendly Indians at Newport, the centre of our modern fashionable summerlife. Jaques Cartier made two voyages in 1534-5, gave the name of St. Lawrence to the river, and visited the sites of Quebec and Montreal. A third voyage was planned for 1541, to be followed by a reinforcement by J. F. de la Roque, Sieur de Roberval. Its arrival being delayed, the famished settlers, wasted by the scurvy, and dreading another horrid winter of untold sufferings, returned home. Roberval renewed the occupancy of Quebec, and then there is a chasm and a broken story.
La Roche, in 1598, left forty convicts, adventurers in his crew, on Sable Island, merely for a temporary sojourn while he should coast on. Being blown back to France in his vessel, these forlorn exiles were left for five years on that dreary waste, and only twelve survivors then remained to be rescued. Some wild cattle that had propagated from predecessors left by luckless wanderers on a previous voyage, or which had swum ashore from a wreck, had furnished them a partial supply. Pontgravé and Chauvin attempted a settlement at Tadonssac, the dismal wilderness at the mouth of the Saguenay, thenceforward the rendezvous of European and Indian traders. All these were preliminary anticipations of the real occupancy of New France. Champlain, Poutrincourt, and Lescarbot, in 1607, established at Port Royal the first agricultural colony in the New World. Then began that series of futile and vexatious dealings on the part of the French court, in granting and withdrawing monopolies,conflicting commissions and patents, with confused purposes of feudalism and restricted privilege, which embarrassed all effective progress, and visited chagrin and disappointment on every devoted adventurer.
The great picture on Mr. Parkman’s canvas is Champlain. That really noble-souled, heroic, and marvellous man, whom our author appreciates, yet with sagacious discrimination presents to the life, is a splendid subject for his admirable rehearsal. At the age of thirty - three he becomes the most conspicuous, and, on the whole, the most intelligent, agent of the French interest in these parts of the world. Dying at Quebec at the age of sixty-eight, and after twentyseven years of service to the colony, he had probably drawn his life through more and a greater variety of perils than have ever been encountered by man. He was dauntless and all - enduring, fruitful in resource, self - controlled and persevering, and, though not wiser than his age, purer and more true. He was as lithesome as an Indian, and could outdo him in some physical efforts and endurance. His almost yearly voyages between France and Quebec led him through strange contrasts of court and wilderness life; but he was the same man in both. His discovery of the lake which bears his name, his journey to Lake Huron, under the lure of the impostor Vignau, encouraging his own dream of a passage through the continent to India, and his many tramps for Indian warfare or discovery, are most attractive episodes for our author.
Mr. Parkman relates incidentally the massacre in Frenchman’s Bay, the efforts and cross purposes of the Recollets and the Jesuit missionaries, and furnishes a vivid sketch of the fortunes of the settlement under threatened assaults from Indians and in a temporary surrender to the English. He intimates the matter which he has yet in store. May we enjoy the coveted pleasure of reading it 1