THE white man was 70 years in getting his first firm foothold on the soil of the United States. Nine Spanish expeditions had ended in disaster, when France ventured where Spain had failed.
Already Portugal had sent three exploring expeditions to look over the empty continent. Gaspar Corte-real was swallowed up somewhere in the waste of waters about the year 1500, and his brother Miguel, sailing in search of him, vanished in the same mystery. From that mystery a professor of Brown University lately has tried to rescue Miguel, by reading in the puzzle inscribed on Dighton Rock in Massachusetts the statement that the lost explorer became a leader of the New England Indians.
France entered the lists of New World explorers in 1524, when King Francis I sent the Italian Verrazano to hunt a way to China through North America. Verrazano is credited, notably, with the discovery of New York Harbor, and from his pedestal at the Battery, he gazes out upon its great commerce today.
Almost 40 years afterward, two ships flying the flour de lis, landed a party of Protestants, or Huguenots, on the South Carolina coast in May of 1562, and planted a little colony near the site of the present town of Beaufort. Like the Spaniards before them, those Frenchmen came to get riches without working for them. Like all who were to come after them in the same spirit, they learned in bitter sorrow that fortune was not to be won on those easy terms in this stern, northern zone of the New World. Instead of living off the fat of the land, they had begun to live off one another, in a last resort to cannibalism, ere they regained the shores of France.
In two years more another colony of Huguenots settled at the mouth of the St. John's River in Florida. These colonists, too, disdained honest toil and chose buccaneering instead, which quickly drew upon them the fire of Spain. There is a legend that the commander of the Spanish expedition, after savagely butchering the colonists, protested on a placard he left behind him: "I do this not as to Frenchmen, but as to Lutherans."
In that dim, gray dawning of nationalism men were prouder to kill one another for the love of God than for the love of country. A French avenger, who slaked his blood thirst in a slaughter of all the Spanish he could find on the same spot three years afterwards, nailed to a tree the declaration that he had killed them "not as Spaniards, but as traitors and murderers."
In providing a temporary base of operations against those French in Florida, the Spanish chanced to establish the first permanent white settlement within the bounds of the United States. That town of St. Augustine, founded in 1585, remained still the only abode of white men in all this country when the first century of the discovery came around. Another soon was to spring up in 1598, but some 2000 miles away, where Spaniards from Mexico settled New Mexico, which is next oldest to Florida among the States of the American Union.
When France reappeared in America, it was at a point far removed from the Spanish and on the border of New England. Carrying in his pocket the commission of Henry of Navarre to govern the entire North Atlantic, the noble Sieur de Monts sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay in 1604 and planted a colony on an island in the St Croix River. Although the colony vanished after one devastating Winter, the ruined foundation of one of its houses lasted to tell an important tale long years afterward. For that bit of rubbish was accepted as proof of prior French occupation and became a marker on the boundary of the United States and Canada.
With Sieur de Monts came the intrepid Samuel de Champlain. While exploring the coast of New England, Champlain bestowed the misnomer of Mt Desert on that verdant isle and the name of St Louis on a place that was to be settled by a people who would have no saints—Plymouth of the Pilgrims. Turning northward and up the St Lawrence, this chivalrous, romantic, credulous man heard the Indian tale of the "Great Waters" in the West. For 20 years, in canoe, on sledge and snowshoe, he looked for the open road to the golden Orient, in Lake Champlain, up the Ottawa, out on Georgian Bay and Lake Huron and across Lake Ontario. And he lost Canada without finding China.
That pregnant event befel near Ticonderoga, N Y, and at the very onset of Champlain's daring quest. While skimming the bosom of the beautiful lake that bears his name, he came upon an outpost of the most powerful Indian nation in North America. The Iriquois were a league of red nations, which had held together since about 1450. That empire of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas stretched westward from the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts, entirely across New York State, to the strategic point where the Appalachian Mountain barrier that begins in Alabama is broken by Lake Erie. It is the only gateway that nature left between the East and the West of the United States, and the warriors of the Five Nations were the keepers of the gate, beyond which the terror of their name spread afar among the tribes of the Western prairies.
The Indians with Champlain looked to him for protection against their hereditary foe. He did not disappoint them. With a few puffs of fire from his harquebus, he won for France the undying loyalty of the Canadian tribes . . . and the undying enmity of the imperial Iriquois. And they were to cast what was the last rollcall, 150 years afterward, when the French lost Canada on the Plains of Abraham.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 11, 1927