After serving in France under Henry of Navarre (King Henry IV) in the religious wars, Champlain was given command of a Spanish fleet sailing to the West Indies, Mexico, and the Isthmus of Panama. He described this three-year tour to the French king in Bref Discours (1859). In 1603 he made his first voyage to New France as a member of a fur-trading expedition. He explored the St. Lawrence River as far as the rapids at Lachine and described his voyage in Des Sauvages (1603).
With the sieur de Monts, who had a monopoly of the trade of the region, Champlain returned in 1604 to found a colony, which was landed at the mouth of the St. Croix River. In 1605 the colony moved across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal, N.S.), and in the next three years Champlain explored the New England coast south to Martha's Vineyard, discovering Mt. Desert Island and most of the larger rivers of Maine and making the first detailed charts of the coast. After the sieur de Monts's privileges had been revoked, the colony had to be abandoned, and through the efforts of Champlain a new one was established on the St. Lawrence River.
In 1608 in the ship Le Don de Dieu, he brought his colonists to the site of Quebec. In the spring of 1609, accompanying a war party of Huron against the Iroquois, Champlain discovered the lake that bears his name, and near Crown Point, N.Y., the Iroquois were met and routed by French troops. The incident is believed to be largely responsible for the later hatred of the French by the Iroquois.
In 1612 Champlain returned to France, where he received a new grant of the fur-trade monopoly. Returning in 1613, he set off on a journey to the western lakes. He reached only Allumette Island in the Ottawa River that year, but in 1615 he went with Étienne Brulé and a party of Huron to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, returning southeastward by way of Lake Ontario. Accompanying another Huron war party to an attack on an Onondaga village in present-day New York, Champlain was wounded and forced to spend the winter with the Huron.
Thereafter Champlain devoted his time to the welfare of the colony, of which he was the virtual governor. He helped to persuade Richelieu to found the Company of One Hundred Associates, which was to take over the interests of the colony. In 1629 Quebec was suddenly captured by the English, and Champlain was carried away to four years of exile in England; there he prepared the third edition of his Voyages de la Nouvelle France (1632). When New France was restored to France in 1632, Champlain returned. In 1634 he sent Jean Nicolet into the West, thus extending the French explorations and claims as far as Wisconsin. He died on Christmas Day, 1635, and was buried in Quebec.
Champlain's works were issued by the Champlain Society (1922-36) with English and French texts. See also biographies by N. E. Dionne (1905, repr. 1963), S. E. Morison (1972), and D. H. Fischer (2008).