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History of Lake Champlain

Updated on January 16, 2015

Champlain: The Lake Between - Documentary DVD

Champlain: The Lake Between
Champlain: The Lake Between

This documentary DVD features epic stories of conflict and diplomacy and explores Lake Champlain's place in the formation of the U.S. and Canada.


Lake Champlain, 'The Water Between'

Lake Champlain has played a vital role in the history of nations and commerce for nearly a thousand years. From rival native nations, to European superpowers, to a new nation's struggle for survival the Lake has long been contested for its strategic importance.

The earliest residents referred to Lake Champlain as 'the water between' because it was the boundary of rival nations, as well as the boundary between New York's Adirondacks and Vermont's Green mountains.

In later years the importance of the Lake as a highway of commerce established the vitality and fortunes of the people and communities that inhabited its shores.

Lake Champlain history in recent times is mostly about as a recreational resource for local inhabitants and visitors who travel significant distances to visit and enjoy this great lake.

Photo of Lake Champlain Valley from New York's Adirondack Mountains from

The Earliest Residents

Depicts spear fishing along New York bluffs in the 1400s before the arrival of Champlain. Artwork by James Zeger. (Courtesy of Sodus Point Museum)
Depicts spear fishing along New York bluffs in the 1400s before the arrival of Champlain. Artwork by James Zeger. (Courtesy of Sodus Point Museum)

Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History

Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History
Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History

This beautiful coffee-table book covers Lake Champlain's history - natural, military, social and recreational. Hundreds of color photographs, drawings, maps and vintage images adorn this classic for lake lovers, Revolutionary War buffs, and nature lovers.


Before the arrival of Champlain

Artwork by James Zeger (Courtesy of Sodus Point Museum)

The earliest Lake Champlain history tells us that the shores of Lake Champlain have been inhabited for over 8000 years - since shortly after the melting of the great glacier at the end of the last Ice Age.

In the centuries before its "discovery" by Samuel de Champlain in 1609, the lake formed the boundary between two great Indian nations. On the Adirondack shores were the Iroquois (mostly Mohawk) and on the Vermont shore the Algonquins (mostly Abenaki). Each nation claimed the lake. The Iroquois called it 'Caniaderi Guarunte' (meaning: "mouth or door of the country", because the waterway was the northern gateway to their lands), and the Abenaki referred to the lake as 'Petonbowk' or 'Bitawbagok' (both of which mean "the water between").

The Lake's islands - between the two territories were fiercely contested; an early Jesuit missionary referred to them as the "highway of war parties".

Neither tribe had affection for early white settlers, but each eventually found themselves drawn into conflicts between the superpowers of that era.

Accounts of Indian attacks are chilling. Captivity, torture and death were very real threats that early settlers faced daily. In the first century of settlement, the Indians dominated the area, and most settlers felt lucky to reach adulthood with their scalps intact.

Samuel de Champlain - Father of New France

Samuel de Champlain
Samuel de Champlain | Source

Samuel de Champlain

The first European to visit the Lake Champlain Valley was Samuel de Champlain. Champlain was an explorer, geographer and colonizer, who was born in 1567 in Brouage, France on the Bay of Biscay. He served as captain of a Spanish sailing ship under Don Francisco Colombo. during which time he explored the Spanish West Indies and Mexico. Between 1601 and 1603 he wrote his first book, the 'Bref Discours'.

"Father of New France"

Champlain first visited the St. Lawrence River in 1603 and attempted to establish a French colony in Acadia. Around this same time he explored the Atlantic seacoast from Cape Breton to Martha's Vineyard.

In 1609 Champlain 'discovered' the lake that bears his name. Having allied himself, and France, with the Algonquin tribes they had encountered along the St. Lawrence, Champlain fought his first battle with the Algonquin's enemies the Iroquois near present day Ticonderoga, New York. This alliance between France and the Algonquins was to last for 150 years - and continued through The French and Indian War, which ended France's colonial presence in North America. The hatred that Champlain's battle with the Iroquois created also lasted for 150 years, and the Iroquois allied themselves with the British from that point on.

Champlain explored further along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. From 1617 through 1629 he worked to strengthen the colony of Quebec and promote trade on the lower Saint Lawrence River.

He was taken captive after the surrender of Quebec to the British in 1629 and imprisoned in London, but returned to New France in 1633 where he remained until his death in 1635 on Christmas Day.


Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent French settlement in North America and established the tiny village that would eventually become Quebec City. A skilled cartographer, he provided many of the first maps of North America. He built alliances with Native populations, creating the foundation for the French fur trade; and later as governor set New France on the road to becoming a self-sufficient, productive colony. Champlain also suffered his share of defeat & disappointment- including the 1629 surrender of Quebec to England.

Samuel de Champlain:

Samuel de Champlain: Explorer of the Great Lakes And Founder of Quebec

Learn about Samuel de Champlain the explorer who founded the first French colony in North America- Quebec, and who traded with and fought with and against the local Native tribes. Instead of exploring southward to find gold and spice, like most of his contemporaries, Champlain treked northward and charted the unknown territories of the north, like the Great Lakes Region and Lake Champlain, which bears his name.

Video: Fort Ticonderoga

War Returns to the Lake Champlain Valley - The War of 1812

Battle of Lake Champlain
Battle of Lake Champlain

Learn More about The War of 1812

1812: The War That Forged a Nation (P.S.)
1812: The War That Forged a Nation (P.S.)

Borneman extracts people and events and integrates them into a popular narrative of the conflict's campaigns and battles. A lively narrator and explainer of a war fought with muskets and sailing ships, Borneman will be welcomed by military-history readers.


"The Battle of Lake Champlain"

painting byJulian O. Davidson, NY 1884

The War of 1812 saw invasions of Canada, which was then part of Great Britain, by the United States, and invasions of the U.S. by the British. Naval battles were fought on the high seas, in Chesapeake Bay, on the Great Lakes and on Lake Champlain. Land battles were fought in New Orleans, around the Chesapeake and along the U.S.-Canada border from Michigan to New England.

As had been the case in past conflicts, Lake Champlain provided an easy route for the British armies in Canada to invade the U.S. and threaten Albany and New York City. It would also cut off New England from the rest of the new nation. This posed an added threat in that there was less support for the war in New England since the war had stopped trade with England, a key trading partner of the New England merchants.

A British army of 11,000 commanded by Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost combined with a naval squadron under Captain George Downie at Plattsburgh, New York, which was defended by 1500 American troops and 2000 Vermont militia led by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and the hastily constructed U.S. Naval squadron commanded by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough.

Macdonough anchored his ships in a line in Plattsburgh Bay forcing the British ships to fight at close range, making the battle more even. Both sides suffered serious losses to their vessels. Then the American fleet cut their bow lines and hauled on their kedge anchors to turn the fleet 180 degrees - facing the British with undamaged gun batteries. The British squadron was quickly destroyed and surrendered.

On land the British forces suffered from miscommunication, misdirection and delay. When Prevost learned of the defeat of his naval forces, he realized that without control of the Lake, maintaining and supplying a force in Plattsburg was untenable and he ordered a retreat to Canada.

The Battle of Lake Champlain, or the Battle of Plattsburgh, as it's also known was fought on September 11, 1814. It was the final attempt at a British invasion of the northern states during the War of 1812. The battle was fought just prior to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, that ended the war. The American victory in Plattsburg removed any British leverage to demand control over the Great Lakes or territorial gains in New England.

After the War of 1812, the US Army began to build "'Fort Blunder'", which was an unnamed fortification built by the Americans at the northernmost end of Lake Champlain. It was intended to protect against any further attacks from British Canada. The nickname came because of a surveying error, which the construction on the fort on a point 3/4 mile north of the Canadian border. Once discovered, construction was halted; local residents scavenged materials from the abandoned fort to use in their homes. Later the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842 moved the border northward to include the strategically important site of "'Fort Blunder'." In 1844, work began again - this time as Fort Montgomery.

The War of 1812 and Lake Champlain - videos

The War of 1812: Writings from America's Second War of Independence (LOA #232) (Library of America)
The War of 1812: Writings from America's Second War of Independence (LOA #232) (Library of America)

This comprehensive collection of eyewitness accounts contains 140 letters, memoirs, poems, songs, editorials, journal entries, and proclamations by more than 100 participants, both famous-Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Tecumseh, Dolley Madison, and the Duke of Wellington, among others-and less well known, such as Laura Secord, the Canadian Paul Revere, and William B. Northcutt, whose remarkable diary provides a common soldier's view.

War of 1812
War of 1812

This two-hour video documentary looks at this important era from the American, Canadian, British and Native American perspectives. It features some limited but well done reenactments.

The War of 1812
The War of 1812

The War of 1812 in historical and social context from renowned historians David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler


Sails and Steam in the Mountains: - A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain

Sails and Steam in the Mountains: A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain
Sails and Steam in the Mountains: A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain

Bellico traces Lake George and Lake Champlain history through the French and indian War, The American Revolution, and the War of 1812; then moves beyond to the era of the canal boatsand steamships of the 19th and 20th Centuries Commercial era.


Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain

Due to its strategic location - acting as a 17th and 18th Century superhighway connecting Canada (New France) with New York and New England, Lake Champlain was well traveled by fleets of warships, and later commercial shipping.

Some of the warships were sunk in battle or scuttled to prevent capture. Some of the commercial vessels were victims of sudden weather changes on the lake or accidents aboard ship.

Whatever the cause, the bottom of Lake Champlain is the final resting place of over 300 vessels. If you're interested in learning more about the shipwrecks in Lake Champlain history, visit: Lake Champlain Shipwrecks.

The gunboat 'Philadelphia'

Gunboat Philadelphia in Smithsonian Museum
Gunboat Philadelphia in Smithsonian Museum | Source

Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain & Lake George Resources

Monster Wrecks of Loch Ness and Lake Champlain
Monster Wrecks of Loch Ness and Lake Champlain

Explores not only the Lake Champlain and Loch Ness monsters, but other intriguing mysteries from both lakes.


Lake Champlain Lighthouses

Colchester Reef Lighthouse at the Shelburne Museum
Colchester Reef Lighthouse at the Shelburne Museum

More About Lake Champlain Lighthouses

Life in the Colchester Reef Lighthouse
Life in the Colchester Reef Lighthouse

43 pages with drawings by Edward Sanborn. Features ship prints; floor plans and cross sectional drawings of the light. Also has list of lighthouse keepers during the light's 62 years of service.


Colchester Reef Lighthouse, at the Shelburne Museum

image from

After the long and bloody military campaigns that dominated Lake Champlain history for hundreds of years, peace finally came to the Lake Champlain Valley. With peace came new opportunities for businesses and commerce on the lake.

As commercial traffic increased on Lake Champlain, it became necessary to provide a way to get the ships and their cargo to port safely. Over the years a number of lighthouses were constructed to warn captains away from rock outcroppings and shoals in the lake.

These lighthouses were constructed from various materials, including wood, iron and quarried stone, depending on what local or nearby materials were available. To see the variety of different styles and materials used, and learn the history of these lighhouses visit: Lighthouses of Lake Champlain.

The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster
The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster

The history of Lake Champlain would be incomplete without a look at Champ , the Lake Champlain monster.


The Untold Story of Champ: - A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster

Champ, or Champy, is the nickname of Lake Champlain's own lake monster... perhaps a relative of the famous Loch Ness monster.

Champ sightings have been recorded for hundreds of years; the earliest recorded sighting was by Samuel de Champlain himself.

Did You Like Our Page on Lake Champlain History?

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    • Unlimited11-11 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom McHugh 

      5 years ago from Lake Champlain, Vermont, USA

      @TanoCalvenoa: Thanks for visiting and liking my lens. i have several other lenses related to Lake Champlain.

      I hope that someday you'll have the chance to visit Lake Champlain for yourself.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I'd heard of Lake Champlain, although now I know a lot more about it. Thanks!


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