PLATTSBURGH — Two years in the making, a 250-word informational panel was unveiled yesterday at the site of the Samuel de Champlain monument in the City of Plattsburgh, offering 21st century context to a century old landmark.
EXAMINING THE HISTORY
A working group of concerned citizens, led in part by Pastor Gregory Huth, were the minds behind the panel, joining forces in 2018 to help correct some of the monument's historical inaccuracies.
The granite structure, erected in 1912, featured a canoe filled with local resources, beaver pelts and corn, and, at the boat's front, sat a Native American adorned in a feathered headdress.
Atop the granite stands a bronze statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, overlooking the lake that was later named in his honor. Words engraved there labeled him, "Navigator; Discoverer; Colonizer."
Working group members spent the last couple of years talking with Native American leaders, teachers and Champlain scholars to examine the monument and its place in history.
"We learned that Champlain was a 'discoverer' only from the European point of view," Huth said. "Native allies, including the Huron, Algonquin and Montagnais, who had lived in this valley for more than 11,000 years, had guided Champlain from Quebec to the shores of the lake that now bears his name."
Tuesday presenters discussed some of the monument's inaccuracies, discussing the depiction of the indigenous ally's headdress of some 15 or so feathers spanned across their head.
"(The) Native American is adorned in almost nothing more, but the headdress of a Plains Indian," Huth said, "who would've lived not here, but hundreds of miles to the west."
As previously reported by The Press-Republican, fellow working group leader and former Plattsburgh City Court judge Penelope "Penny" Clute has said that headdress was likely a stereotype derived from the Wild West shows of the late 1800's and early 1900's.
"No native people in the Northeast wore that kind of headdress," Clute had said. "Chiefs around here wore one, two or three feathers only and sticking straight up."
Clute had told The Press-Republican that monument designer, Hugh McLellan, and sculptor, Carl Heber, noted their error two years after the monument was erected, as documented in a 1914 letter.
The pair had said their source was one of Champlain's journal entries from the time. It contained a sketch of a battle in the Ticonderoga area between the French explorer's indigenous allies and their enemy, the Mohawk peoples.
During the altercation, the French explorer had killed three Mohawk chiefs. His journal drawing showed him with a gun at the center of the fight. Three chiefs were on the ground, wearing headdresses, containing multiple feathers.
CORRECTING SOME ERRORS
The recently revealed panel is titled, "Who Discovered Lake Champlain?" and is situated on the waterside of the structure, allowing readers to examine the front of the monument while learning about it.
The 250-word panel, translated in both French and English, features some historical images and local maps.
The text describes the region before Champlain came across it, the monument's features and briefly recaps the claimed ownership of the New World.
It also addresses the headdress mishap, stating, "the sculpture mistakenly gave the Native guide a headdress worn by the peoples of the western plains, not the northeast."
"These were some of the errors that we were able to correct by offering the educational panel that we present here today," Huth said Tuesday.
JUST THE BEGINNING
There were other, larger mistakes, Huth added, that an educational panel could never fix.
The year before Christopher Columbus landed on La Isla Española, or Hispaniola, in 1492, Huth said there were 145 million people living in the western hemisphere.
"By 1691, nearly 200 years later, that native population in both North and South America had been reduced by 90 to 95 percent," he said. "That's breathtaking."
Fellow working group member Don Papson thought the short panel was "only the beginning."
"It cannot explain the complex history of this place," he said. "We invite others to join us in redefining and discussing our relationships, and learning more about who really discovered Lake Champlain."
Papson hoped a future monument could be erected in honor of the region's native peoples.
"There is only so much we can do with this monument," Papson said. "It's stamped on the historic moment in which it was put up, which was the United States Colonial Era."
Working group members gave thanks to all of its sources, the City Common Council and Plattsburgh City Mayor Colin Read, the Lake Champlain Basin Program and anyone who had donated to the cause last year.
The panel was dedicated to Timothy "Tim" Hartnett, a former working group member, who died last year.
Email McKenzie Delisle:
Twitter: @McKenzie Delisle