Contact us


Champlain's Astrolabe

Champlain's Astrolabe

Champlain's Astrolabe
Canadian Museum of Civilization/S94-37602

It was in 1613 that Champlain lost his astrolabe and without it he found it very difficult to find his bearings. Amazingly, more than two centuries later, in 1867, Edward Lee, a 14 year old farmer from the city of Cobden, Ontario, found Samuel de Champlain's astrolabe in the field he was ploughing.

Cowley, captain of a steamboat on Lake Muskrat offered young Lee 10 dollars in exchange for the astrolabe. At the time, this was a significant amount of money. Lee agreed to give him the astrolabe, but never received the money in return.

Cowley sold the astrolabe to his employer, R.W. Cassels, the president of a Toronto company. He in turn sold it to a collector in New York, Samuel Hoffman. Then, in 1942 the astrolabe was passed on to the New York Historical Society, which owned it until 1989.

The same year, the astrolabe returned to Canada, when the Department of Communications of the Museum of Civilization acquired it.

Ornamental Box with Champlain's Astrolabe

Ornamental Box with Champlain's Astrolabe
Canadian Museum of Civilization/S95-25105

Champlain's astrolabe is the smallest of 35 nautical astrolabes of French origin that were conserved. The instrument is in excellent condition, other than the fact that a small ring, screwed on to the bottom of the circle of the astrolabe and which acts as a weight to stabilize it, is missing.


Here are a few words from Champlain's day.

Algoumekins : a group of Native Peoples that Champlain would have called the "Algonquins". These Amerindians call themselves "Anishnabeks", meaning real men.

Bouille ou boulle : birch.

Cabaner : to put up cabins by way of a camp.

Canadien : Amerindian.

Lieue : an old route measurement, the equivalent of approximately 4 km.

Matachias : painting on the skin, tattoos; ropes or strings of bright colours, braided or decorated with wood or glass beads.

Pearls Found in Ontario

Pearls Found in the Municipalities of Barton, Trafalgar and Nelson
in Ontario, First Half of the 17th Century
Jean-Luc Pilon/Canadian Museum of Civilization

Patenôtre : rosary beads, necklace or other body jewels.

Pétun : tobacco.

Pétuner : to smoke.

Sagamité : cereal that the Indians made by crushing grains of corn between two stones and mixing them with water.

Indians Grinding Grain, 1664

Indians Grinding Grain, 1664
National Archives of Canada/C-99218

Sagamo : Amerindian chief.

Saut : falls, rapids.

Tabagie : feast.

Terrir : discover the earth.

Taken from Champlain, Des Sauvages, texte établi, présenté et annoté par Alain Beaulieu et Réal Ouellet, Éditions Typo, Montréal, 1993, pp. 239-241.

Did you know…?

Nobody knows Champlain's exact year of birth. Some say it was in 1567, others say 1570.

Champlain Lake, discovered by the explorer in 1609, is located in the American states of New York and Vermont and touches the Canadian border at Quebec.

Samuel de Champlain was the first person to hold the title of Governor of New France from 1633 to 1635.

The patron saint of travelers is Ste. Anne.

The two large linguistic families of the Northeast Amerindians of North America were the Algiques and the Iroquois.

 Caughnewanga Iroquois Who Played their Ancestors' Parts

Caughnewanga Iroquois Who Played their Ancestors'
Parts in the Pageant of the Quebec Tercentenary, July 1908
National Archives of Canada/PA-24702/Detail

Voltaire, the 18th century French writer and philosopher, coined the phrase "quelques arpents de neige" (a few acres of snow) to describe Canada.

Champlain's astrolabe was found the same year as Confederation, 1867. One could say that was Champlain's way of reminding us of the role he played in founding Canada!

When Champlain died, the population of New France was only 150 people. New England's population was already 2 000 souls.

The North American Natives are also called Indians and Amerindians because when the Europeans first set foot on the continent they thought they had reached the Indies.This also explains why Canadians call corn "Indian corn".

Aside from being known as the founder of Port-Royal and Quebec City, Samuel de Champlain is also called the "father of New France" and even "the founder of Canada".

Samuel de Champlain founded Port-Royal in 1604 and Quebec City in 1608.

Archeological digs have proven that Champlain and Lescarbot went whale hunting at Ile aux Basques, located near Trois-Pistoles and at Chaffaud-aux-Basques, about 15 km from Tadoussac.

On the statue found at Nepean Point in Ottawa, Samuel de Champlain holds the astrolabe in his hand. If you look closely at the astrolabe, you will see it is backwards! The ring of the astrolabe is supposed to weigh it down, therefore, it should be at the bottom. On this statue, the ring is pointing upwards!

Statue of Samuel de Champlain at Nepean Point in Ottawa

Statue of Samuel de Champlain at Nepean Point in Ottawa
Musée canadien des civilisations/S98-393/Détail

One of the oldest navigational instruments, the astrolabe appeared around 170 B.C. It was used to tell time and measure latitude, but does not measure longitude. In the 16th century, the nautical astrolabe fulfilled the strict requirements of the navigators, so astrolabes became more common.

The astrolabe has two needles. To use it, the navigator must hold the instrument to the horizon in a northern direction. It is important to use the north to get your bearings with the astrolabe. Another needle must point at the sun, then showing a number. To know the value of this number that gives the degree of latitude, the user must consult a booklet containing astronomical tables.

© ROPFO 2001. All rights reserved.