Battle of Lake Champlain — the Beaver Wars Begin

July 30, 1609

The Battle of Lake Champlain was fought at Lake Champlain on July 22, 1609. It was the first battle of the Beaver Wars and the first time Native American Indians living in the region experienced European firearms.

Samuel de Champlain, Father of New France, Illustration

Samuel de Champlain. Image Source: Champlain, the Founder of New France by Edwin Asa Dix, 1903, Archive.org

Battle of Lake Champlain Summary

The Battle of Lake Champlain was fought between Algonquin, Huron, and Montagnais warriors against the Iroquois Confederacy on July 22, 1609, at Lake Champlain. 

A small contingent of French, led by Samuel de Champlain, fought with the Algonquin. It was the first battle in the Beaver Wars and the first time Native American Indians living in the region witnessed the use of European firearms.

According to accounts of the battle, the Iroquois were shocked at the appearance of Champlain and other other Frenchmen. The brief battle ended when the Iroquois fled after Champlain fired his musket and killed three Iroquois.

Samuel de Champlain, Fighting Iroquois, 1609, Illustration
This illustration depicts Champlain fighting the Iroquois at the Battle of Lake Champlain. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Lake Champlain Facts

  • The Battle of Lake Champlain took place on July 10, 1609.
  • Samuel de Champlain embarked on an expedition to establish better relations with Indian tribes in the Saint Lawrence River Region, including the Wendat Hurons, Algonquins, and Montagnais. 
  • The tribes asked for Champlain’s help in their conflict with the Iroquois Confederacy League, also known as the Five Nations.
  • Champlain and 11 men joined forces with the Algonquins and others to confront the Iroquois.
  • During the expedition, Champlain discovered a large lake, which is known today as Lake Champlain.
  • Algonquian forces, bolstered by the French, won the Battle of Lake Champlain.
  • The battle took place near the present-day location of Fort Ticonderoga in New York.
  • Because of the location, it is also known as the 1609 Battle of Ticonderoga.
  • Fort Ticonderoga was the site of two significant battles during the American Revolutionary War — the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga (1775) and the Siege of Fort Ticonderoga (1777).

Battle of Lake Champlain History

This portion of the history of the Battle of Lake Champlain is adapted from Indian History for Young Folks, written by Francis S. Drake and published in 1919. 

The Iroquois in New York

The Iroquois, or Six Nations, lived in western and central New York, which was favorable for grown maize and was plentiful with game for them to hunt. The region is dominated by many rivers and waterways, which allowed the Iroquois to send expeditions to wage war on their enemies. The alliance between the English and the Iroquois played a significant role in keeping Western New York from becoming a French Colony.

French Traders at Iroquois Council Fire, Illustration
This illustration by Frederic Remington depicts French Fur Traders visiting an Iroquois Council Fire. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Long Reach of the Iroquois

Around 1700, the Iroquois Confederacy reached the height of its power and controlled many of the tribes in the present-day regions of New York, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Northern Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New England, and Upper Canada.

The Iroquois called themselves Ongwe Hongwe, meaning “the men surpassing all others,” even though they had roughly 4,000 warriors among them. When they fought in battles, they inevitably suffered casualties. According to their custom, when one of their own died, they replaced him by adopting one of their captives into the tribe.

Iroquois Forts

They built forts surrounded by palisades — tall walls — with platforms on the inside. If the fort was attacked, they could stand on the platforms to throw rocks and shoot arrows at their enemies. Water was often stored inside the fort, in case the enemy tried to set the fort on fire. The forts were more than 100 feet long and circular or oval in shape.

The Iroquois Great Council at Onondaga

Their general assembly was at the Great Council held at the Long House in the Onondaga Valley and only the members of the council were admitted. The Confederacy had been formed to keep peace and for defensive purposes long before the arrival of the Europeans and the Great Council held supreme authority when it came to issues that affected all the nations.

The Onondagas, being the central tribe, were made “Keepers of the Fire” and their valley was the seat of government, where the Great Council met.

From Five Nations to Six Nations

The Confederacy initially consisted of five nations — Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, Oneidas, and Senecas. The Tuscaroras of North Carolina, after their defeat by the colonists in 1714, joined them, and the Five Nations became known as the Six Nations. Each of these six nations was a republic by itself, with a separate government. 

The Iroquois in 1609

At the time of the Battle of Lake Champlain, the Iroquois were still the Five Nations. According to some accounts, they had no contact with Europeans prior to the battle.

Champlain Prepares to Battle the Iroquois

In the summer of 1609, Samuel de Champlain, with two other Frenchmen, joined a party of Hurons and Algonquins in an expedition against the Iroquois. The Iroquois were the traditional enemies of both nations.

Together, they ascended the Sorel River and then crossed present-day Lake Champlain. At night they cut down large trees, as a barricade to their camp, and sent out a counting party, but posted no pickets around the camp.

Samuel de Champlain’s Account of the Battle of Lake Champlain

The following is Samuel de Champlain’s account of the battle. Minor text corrections and section headings have been added to make the text easier to scan and understand.

Samuel de Champlain, Discovery of Lake Champlain, Illustration
This illustration depicts Samuel de Champlain during the discovery of Lake Champlain. Image Source: The Founder of New France: A Chronicle of Champlain by Charles W. Colby, 1920.

An Early Description of Lake Champlain

We departed on the following day, pursuing our way up the river as far as the entrance to the lake. In it are many beautiful low islands covered with very fine woods and meadows with many wild fowl and animals to hunt, such as stags, fallow deer, fawns, roebucks, bears, and other kinds of animals which come from the mainland to these islands. 

We caught there a great many of them. There are also many beavers, both in that river and in several small streams which fall into it. This region although pleasant is not inhabited by Indians, on account of their wars; for they withdraw from the rivers as far as they can into the interior, in order not to be easily surprised.

The Discovery of Lake Champlain

On the following day, we entered the lake which is some 80 or 100 leagues in length, in which I saw four beautiful islands about ten, twelve, and fifteen leagues in length, which, like the Iroquois river, were formerly inhabited by Indians: but have been abandoned, since they have been at war with one another. 

There are also several rivers flowing into the lake, on whose banks are many fine trees of the same varieties we have in France, with many of the finest vines I had seen anywhere. There are many chestnut trees which I had only seen on the shore of this lake, in which there is also a great abundance of many species of fish. 

Description of the Vicious Gar Fish

Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. 

Its body has a good deal of the shape of the pike, but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray color and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them. The end of its snout is like a pig’s. 

This fish makes war on all the other fish which are in these lakes and rivers. And, according to what these tribes have told me, it shows marvelous ingenuity in that when it wishes to catch birds, it goes in amongst the rushes or reeds that lie along the shores of the lake in several places, and puts its snout out of the water without moving. 

The result is that when the birds come and light on its snout, mistaking it for a stump of wood, the fish is so cunning that, shutting its half-open mouth, it pulls them by their feet under the water. 

The natives gave me the head of one of them, a thing they prize highly, saying that when they have a headache, they bleed themselves with the teeth of this fish at the spot where the pain is and it eases them at once.

Battle of Lake Champlain, 1609, Champlain Drawing
This engraving of the battle is based on a drawing Champlain made. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Champlain Sees Iroquois Country

Continuing our way along this lake in a westerly direction and viewing the country, I saw towards the east very high mountains on the tops of which there was snow. 

I inquired of the natives whether these parts were inhabited. They said they were, and by the Iroquois, and that in those parts there were beautiful valleys and fields rich in corn such as I have eaten in that country, along with other products in abundance. 

And they said that the lake went close to the mountains, which, as I judged, might be some twenty-five leagues away from us. 

The War Party Proceeds to the Location of the Iroquois

Towards the south, I saw others that were not less lofty than the first mentioned, but there was no snow on these. The Indians told me that it was there that we were to meet their enemies, that the mountains were thickly populated, and that we had to pass a rapid which I saw afterward. 

Thence they said we had to enter another lake which is some nine or ten leagues in length, and that on reaching the end of it we had to go by land some two leagues and cross a river which descends to the coast of Norumbega, adjoining that of Florida. 

They could go there in their canoes in two days, as I learned afterward from some prisoners we took, who conversed with me very particularly regarding all they knew, with the help of some Algonquin interpreters who knew the Iroquois language.

Traveling by Night to Avoid the Iroquois

Now as we began to get within two or three days’ journey of the home of their enemy, we proceeded only by night, and during the day we rested. 

Nevertheless, they kept up their usual superstitious ceremonies in order to know what was to happen to them in their undertakings, and often would come and ask me whether I had had dreams and had seen their enemies. 

I would tell them that I had not, but nevertheless continued to inspire them with courage and good hope. When night came on, we set off on our way until the next morning. Then we retired into the thick woods where we spent the rest of the day. 

Champlain’s Dream

Towards ten or eleven o’clock, after walking around our camp, I went to take a rest, and while asleep I dreamed that I saw in the lake near a mountain our enemies, the Iroquois, drowning before our eyes. 

I wanted to succour them, but our Indian allies said to me that we should let them all perish; for they were bad men. When I awoke they did not fail to ask me as usual whether I had dreamed anything. I told them what I had seen in my dream. This gave them such confidence that they no longer had any doubt as to the good fortune awaiting them.

July 29 — Champlain Sees the Iroquois for the First Time

Evening having come, we embarked in our canoes in order to proceed on our way, and as we were paddling along very quietly, and without making any noise, about ten o’clock at night on the twenty-ninth of the month, at the extremity of a cape which projects into the lake on the west side, we met the Iroquois on the warpath. 

Both Sides Prepare for the Battle of Lake Champlain

Both they and we began to utter loud shouts and each got his arms ready. We drew out into the lake and the Iroquois landed and arranged all their canoes near one another. Then they began to fell trees with the poor axes which they sometimes win in war, or with stone axes, and they barricaded themselves well.

Our Indians all night long also kept their canoes close to one another and tied to poles in order not to get separated, but to fight all together in case of need. 

The Iroquois Approach the Algonquians

We were on the water within bowshot of their barricades. And when they were armed, and everything in order, they sent two canoes which they had separated from the rest, to learn from their enemies whether they wished to fight, and these replied that they had no other desire, but that for the moment nothing could be seen and that it was necessary to wait for daylight in order to distinguish one another. 

Final Preparations for the Battle of Lake Champlain

They said that as soon as the sun should rise, they would attack us, and to this, our Indians agreed. Meanwhile, the whole night was spent in dances and songs on both sides, with many insults and other remarks, such as the lack of courage of our side, how little we could resist or do against them, and that when daylight came our people would learn all this to their ruin. 

Our side too was not lacking in retort, telling the enemy that they would see such deeds of arms as they had never seen, and a great deal of other talk, such as is usual at the siege of a city. 

July 30 — the Battle of Lake Champlain Begins

Having sung, danced, and flung words at one another for some time, when daylight came, my companions and I were still hidden, lest the enemy should see us, getting our firearms ready as best we could, being however still separated, each in a canoe of the Montagnais Indians. 

Champlain Approaches the Iroquois

After we were armed with light weapons, we took, each of us, an arquebus — a type of long-gun — and went ashore. I saw the enemy come out of their barricade to the number of two hundred, in appearance strong, robust men. They came slowly to meet us with a gravity and calm which I admired; and at their head were three chiefs. 

The Algonquians Point Out the Iroquois Chiefs

Our Indians likewise advanced in a similar order, and told me that those who had the three big plumes were the chiefs and that there were only these three, whom you could recognize by these plumes, which were larger than those of their companions; and I was to do what I could to kill them. 

I promised them to do all in my power, and told them that I was very sorry they could not understand me so that I might direct their method of attacking the enemy, all of whom undoubtedly we should thus defeat; but that there was no help for it, and that I was very glad to show them, as soon as the engagement began, the courage and readiness which were in me.

The Iroquois Stand Their Ground

As soon as we landed, our Indians began to run some two hundred yards towards their enemies, who stood firm and had not yet noticed my white companions who went off into the woods with some Indians. 

The Iroquois See Champlain and Gaze at Him

Our Indians began to call to me with loud cries; and to make way for me they divided into two groups, and put me ahead some twenty yards, and I marched on until I was within some thirty yards of the enemy, who as soon as they caught sight of me halted and gazed at me and I at them. 

Champlain Kills the Three Iroquois Chiefs

When I saw them make a move to draw their bows upon us, I took aim with my arquebus and shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to the ground and one of their companions was wounded who died thereof a little later.

Battle of Lake Champlain, 1609, Champlain Firing, Illustration
This illustration depicts de Champlain during the battle. Image Source: Famous Discoverers and Explorers of America by Charles Johnston, 1917.

The Battle of Lake Champlain Intensifies

I had put four bullets into my arquebus. As soon as our people saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to shout so loudly that one could not have heard it thunder, and meanwhile, the arrows flew thick on both sides. 

The Iroquois are Astonished by Champlain’s Weapon

The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly, although they were provided with shields made of cotton thread woven together and wood, which were proof against their arrows. This frightened them greatly. 

The Iroquois Flee from the Battle

As I was reloading my arquebus, one of my companions fired a shot from within the woods, which astonished them again so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took to flight, abandoning the field and their fort, and fleeing into the depth of the forest, whither I pursued them and laid low still more of them. 

Our Indians also killed several and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder fled with the wounded. Of our Indians, fifteen or sixteen were wounded with arrows, but these were quickly healed.

Aftermath of the Battle of Lake Champlain

After we had gained the victory, our Indians wasted time in taking a large quantity of Indian corn and meal belonging to the enemy, as well as their shields, which they had left behind, the better to run. Having feasted, danced, and sung, we three hours later set off for home with the prisoners.

Battle of Lake Champlain Significance

The Battle of Lake Champlain is important to United States history because of the role it played in starting the Beaver Wars, a long-running series of battles and skirmishes fought over control of the Fur Trade. Since the Iroquois were fighting against the French and their Indian allies, the Iroquois allied with the English. The alliance kept Western New York from falling under French control and played a significant role in the French and Indian Wars, and the Albany Congress.

Battle of Lake Champlain Video

This video from Timeline provides more information on the 1609 Battle of Lake Champlain that started the Beaver Wars.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Battle of Lake Champlain — the Beaver Wars Begin
  • Date July 30, 1609
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Lake Champlain, Samuel de Champlain, Algonquin, Huron, Montagnais, Iroquois Confederacy, Who fought in the Battle of Lake Champlain, What happened at the Battle of Lake Champlain, When was the Battle of Lake Champlain, Where was the Battle of Lake Champlain Why was the Battle of Lake Champlain Important, How did the Battle of Lake Champlain affect Colonial America, Battle of Lake Champlain APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 11, 2023

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