Date: Mon, 20 Oct 1997 22:36:33 -0400
From: neil Good
Subject: Riviere de Champlain


Here is a suggested solution to a longstanding relatively minor mystery in cartography; the precise location of the "Riviere de Champlain", a still unidentified river that was described and named by Samuel de Champlain during his journey to Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1606.

The theory here is that Champlain may have been referring to the entrance to Waquoit Bay, a small landlocked tidal bay between the towns of Falmouth and Mashpee on Cape Cod's southwest shoreline. The key support is found on a 1846 U.S. Coast Survey Chart titled "Coast of Massachusetts, from Falmouth Spire to Suconesset Point." See Maphist illustration page; [This page]

This chart shows a narrow curving channel, about one half mile long, connecting Waquoit Bay with Nantucket Sound. This inlet was partially washed away towards the end of the 19th century. In the early half of this century it was stabilized by two stone breakwaters and has since lost much of its natural appearance. MapHist subscribers who care to are asked to mull over the problem and the proposed solution. There is a chance it may have a bearing on another historical dilemma that might be discussed on MapHist at some point in the future.

In the detailed journal describing his voyage along the coast of New England, Champlain tells how after sailing southwest, "nearly twelve leagues" from "Port Mis-fortune," or present day Stage Harbor in Chatham, "...we passed near a river which is very small and difficult to approach because of shallows and rocks at its mouth. I gave it my name." (The Voyages and Explorations of Samuel de Champlain 1604-1616, trans. by Ann N. Bourne, vol. 1, pg. 130. Allerton Books 1906.)

This "Riviere de Champlain," which appears on Champlain's manuscript chart of 1607 and also on his map of 1612, is generally held to have marked the southernmost point in North America Champlain ever reached. In the opinion of at least one early 20th century writer, naming it or any other landmark after himself was uncharacteristic of Champlain who was noted for his modesty. (Wasn't Champlain also responsible for naming New York's Lake Champlain?)

According to W.F. Ganong, (see footnote, p.425, Vol. 1, Works of Samuel De Champlain, 1922,) Charles H. Laverdiere (in 1873?) identified the "Riviere de Champlain" with today's Mashpee River which flows into Popponesset Bay, a harbor just east of Waquoit Bay. This bay however does not appear to have anything resembling a river linking it with Nantucket Sound.

Later in 1906 Prof. Edward G. Bourne of Yale and/or Ann N. Bourne proposed Champlain had seen the eastern end of Woods Hole Passage, which connects Vineyard Sound with Buzzard's Bay, (ref. above). This suggestion was severely criticized in 1935 by Amelia Forbes Emerson in her book "Early History of Naushon Island," "Some writers think that by La Rivier de Champlain the passage of Woods Hole is meant. That a seaman of such powers of observation could record this as a river's mouth seems incredible. Should a minute study of his sailing directions be made, new light might be shed upon this southernmost limit of Champlains's voyage." (pg. 48)

In "Samuel de Champlain, Father of New France," S.E. Morison estimated a French league of the 17th century to be somewhere between 2.2 and 2.7 nautical miles (1972, p. xiii.) Using the smaller of the two estimates, "nearly twelve leagues" or about 26 nautical miles southwest from Stage Harbor would put Champlain within the immediate vicinity of Waquoit Bay. If the shoreline of this area appeared similar in 1606 to the shoreline depicted on the 1846 chart, is it possible the entrance to Waquoit Bay could have been described as a "riviere qui est petite,- a river which is small," the term found in Champlain's journal?

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