THE SEARCH FOR THE REMAINS OF FRENCH EXPLORER SAMUEL DE CHAMPLAIN
Story and photos by Robert J. Galbraith.
Quebec City archaeologist, René Lévesque believes he is on the verge of finding the lost burial crypt of Samuel de Champlain – the ‘Father of New France,’ that for the last 370-years has been lost somewhere beneath the cobbled streets of Old Quebec City.
Lévesque was twelve years old, in 1937, when he first heard of the missing tomb while on a school excursion to Old Quebec City.
“A lecturer giving a speech at the foot of Champlain’s monument told us that Champlain was lost somewhere beneath our feet, not far from where we stood,” explained the 80-year-old Lévesque.
The next day he looked at the tumbled ruins of Champlain’s Fort St-Louis, hidden from view under the landmark boardwalk, metres away from the famous statue. “Ever since that day, it has been my life-long passion to find him.”
The exact location of Champlain’s grave and crypt were lost after the chapel that enclosed it burned down in 1640, five years after his death on Christmas Day, at the age of 65. Since then, other structures were built over the site and then the city streets were widened in 1830, erasing any memory of the exact location.
During this time, there were many rumours that the crypt may have been found during the street construction and then secretly dumped at a landfill in the port area. But Lévesque disagrees with this theory, saying that since the body would have been encased in a bronze or lead casket, with markings identifying it as Governor of New France, “The chances of this are very slim at best. It would have been difficult to keep such a secret.” So Lévesque believes that it remains nearby, just waiting to be found.
As we sat in a café on rue Buade, just meters from the area where he expects to find Champlain, Lévesque proclaimed that, “Quebec City is the Rome of North America,” because of its architectural and historical heritage.
Lévesque, a retired geography teacher, is not the first person who has tried to find the missing crypt. When Quebec nationalism was going through resurgence in the 19th century, a number of Catholic priests hypothesized where the remains might lie, publishing brochures explaining their reasons and location. But all the suppositions were met with a dead end.
Over the years of searching, Lévesque has run into a number of his own setbacks. After some arm-twisting with the cultural authorities, he was allowed to open a copper-encased casket found under a basement crawl space of Notre Dame Basilica. Upon opening the coffin, it was instead found to contain the remains of a 19th-century Jesuit. In another instance, an associate under Lévesque’s direction, accompanied by a television news crew, dug through the wall of a café and ended up in the basement of a Chinese restaurant.
Because of these past follies, some archaeologists look at Lévesque’s claim with scepticism, considering his quest fruitless. Even the local media has painted him as somewhat of a fanatic, a man obsessed with his search. But Lévesque, smitten with Champlain fever, just shrugs off the critics while keeping his sharp eye trained below the history-strewn subterranean world of Old Quebec City.
“Lévesque was one of the first people to conduct archaeological studies in Quebec, and has drawn popular attention to it,” says Louise Pothier, archaeologist and project manager for exhibitions at Pointe-a- Calliere Museum, in Montreal. “He is a pioneer, and, you can’t see this man without taking into fact all his background and knowledge,” she said. “Intuition and experience are very important in the field of archaeology, and will never be replaced by words we read in books. He has a sixth sense when at a site, something you just can’t learn.”
Marcel Moussette, a professor with the department of history at Laval University in Quebec City, considers Lévesque “a very intelligent and gifted man, but he does not go deep into analysis of material and preparing final documentation.”
Moussette doubts that Lévesque’s search will provide very much information on Champlain or early history, even if he discovers the lost crypt. “What do we do with it? Will it really contribute to our knowledge? I don’t think it will,” said the professor-archaeologist. “Lévesque was archaeology in Quebec, but times have changed and Lévesque has been left behind, especially with his search,” stated Moussette.
The history of world archaeology is fraught with broken dreams as well as fantastic discoveries. The 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s treasure-laden burial vault by British archaeologist, Howard Carter in Egypt’s’ Valley of the Kings is one find that continues to enthral the world.
Carter, who had been searching for the site for years, discovered the lost burial crypt of the Egyptian ‘Boy King’ after being told by the top Egyptologists that his search was in vain and that the ‘Valley of the Kings’ had been exhausted of all its finds. Regardless of the critics of the time, Carter kept searching and eventually found the ‘mother of all archaeological discoveries,’ at a time when everyone else in the field had given up searching and packed away their shovels and trowels.
Lévesque and a handful of close associates who have contributed to the quest, have narrowed down the search area to less than a hundred square meters, over which cafés, restaurants, gift shops and Quebec’s Notre Dame Basilica stand. The location is believed to be within an area bordered by rue Sainte Anne, rue Buade, rue du Trésor, and rue du Fort. He is hoping that with the ongoing search and the help of ground x-raying and sonar equipment, he will soon be able to ascertain whether cavities beneath the zone contain the casket and remains of Champlain.
“With the help of the sensors we have found the original stone walls of the Champlain Chapel. On the x-ray view screen we can pinpoint a large rectangular form just inside the walls. This is what we are hoping is the crypt, with the casket inside” said the soft-spoken, white haired archaeologist. “We have never had so much hope.”
The immediate area surrounding the suspicious stone form is black earth, everything else is solid bedrock and unsuitable for any burials. This encourages Levesque that he is close on the verge of discovery.
Backing up his supposition and the technology, is an eyewitness account from the former proprietor, who once owned the business now resting above the suspected crypt. During the basement expansion of his business in 1932, a work crew came upon a large stone chamber, which the owner believed was a lost and forgotten burial crypt.
The proprietor explained to Levesque that he had asked the province that an archaeologist come to investigate the stone and mortar structure. But before the archaeologist showed up, the workers had finished the job and cemented up a new wall. “He saw what he believed was the crypt while excavating for the expansion,” says Levesque. “He knew enough to understand that he had come across something that could be very important to the history of the city and North America.”
Lévesque, who speaks eight languages, is not only a walking history book on the early history of Quebec, but he is a true diplomat to his cause, and wears his love of Quebec City and his province on his shirt sleeve. Local residents stop him on the tourist-filled streets, shaking his hand and enthusiastically asking him if he is closer to finding Champlain. He is treated like an archaeological rock star, the pioneer of modern Quebec archaeology.
But the search has been hard on Lévesque, who says he receives no funding from provincial or municipal coffers. “I feel like an archaeological beggar. I spent $2000.00 of my own money on the search last year,” he explained. “We don’t want to find Champlain for the money; we want the money to find Champlain.”
With the coming 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec, in 2008, Lévesque believes that there should be some government money allocated to the search for the remains of the man who founded the city back in 1608. “We should be looking for the ‘Father of New France’, besides the grandiose and profitable tourism projects the province is undertaking. I seem to be the only one yelling about Champlain.”
Regardless, the devoted separatist and sentinel of history believes it is part of his nationalist duty as a Quebecois patriot, to find the remains of the great explorer and cartographer.
“All the people in Quebec City want to know about Champlain. He would be a great role model, someone who would instil nationalist pride in our young people, and a new-found pride in our French heritage.”
***Footnote—Rene was a good friend of mine and a huge inspiration and I miss him so much. Even though he was a staunch separatist, he never forced his views upon me but instead let me decide myself. If all separatists were of a similar demeanor, Quebec might be a nation of its own at this time. He was an ‘old school archaeologist’ with an exceptional talent and understanding of the province and its history. To this day, I regret missing his funeral but his perseverance and dedication drives me on as an amateur historian. If anyone knows his family, can you please ask them to contact me as I have a number of photos of Rene in the field, or should I say, under the field. I wish he was here now to help me with my thoughts and as a companion in this field of knowledge. He was a great Quebecois and an even better person. RJG