America's First Social Club

NEITHER New York City, nor Albany, nor Philadelphia, nor yet Boston, can claim the distinction of having started the first social club in North America. At least there is no record of its having done so. The honor goes to Samuel de Champlain, captain in ordinary for King Henry IV of France, and the Father of New France.

Champlain and Sieur de Monts were real lovers of adventure, and on one of their voyages in 1604 sailed into the Bay of Fundy and through what is now known as Digby Gut into the Annapolis Basin. There, opposite the mouth of the Annapolis River, they erected a fort. The situation, however, proved unsatisfactory, and in 1605 they crossed the Basin and built a fort six miles up the Annapolis River, naming it Port Royal. Around it grew the first European settlement in America north of the Gulf of Mexico.

De Monts soon returned to France, but Champlain stayed on at Port Royal for a while, and he it was who, in the winter of 1606-7, instituted and kept going the ‘ Order of Good Cheer,’ the first social club in North America. Champlain, in an account of his explorations, writes: —

‘We spent this winter very pleasantly, and had good fare by means of the Order of Good Cheer which I established, and which everybody found beneficial to his health, and more profitable than all sorts of medicine we might have used. This order consisted of a chain which we used to place with certain ceremonies about the neck of one of our people, commissioning him for that day to go hunting. The next day it was conferred upon another, and so in order. All vied with each other to see who could do the best, and bring back the finest game. We did not come off badly, nor did the Indians who were with us.’

In Champlain’s company was one Marc Lescarbot, a poet and historian, and to him we are indebted for a charming description of the Order of Good Cheer: —

‘I shall relate how, in order to keep our table joyous and well provided, an Order was established, which was called the Order of Good Cheer, originally proposed by Champlain. To this order each man of the said table was appointed Chief Steward in his turn, which came around once a fortnight. Now this person had the duty of taking care that we were all well and honorably provided for. This was so well carried out that, though the epicures of Paris often tell us that we had no Rue aux Ours (street of the rôtisseurs, or sellers of cooked meat, in Paris) over there, as a rule we made as good cheer as we could have in this same Rue aux Ours and at less cost. For there was no one who, two days before his turn came, failed to go hunting or fishing, and to bring back some delicacy in addition to our ordinary fare. So well was this carried on that never at breakfast did we lack some savory meat or fish, and still less at our midday or evening meals; for that was our chief banquet, at which the ruler of the feast or chief butler, whom the savages call Atoctegic, having had everything prepared by the cook, marched in, napkin on shoulder, wand of office in hand, and around his neck the collar of the Order, which was worth more than four crowns; after him all the members of the Order, carrying each a dish. The same was repeated at dessert, though not always with so much pomp. And at night, before giving thanks to God, he handed over to his successor in charge the collar of the Order, with a cup of wine, and they drank to each other.’

A truly marvelous man, Champlain, who in that lonely, far-away log fort, surrounded by Indians, could lead his companions in fun and gayety, thus helping them to pass the long hard winter.