VIGNAU, NICOLAS DE, came to New France with Champlain some time before 1612.
In 1611–12, Vignau wintered with Tessouat (fl. 1603–13), an Algonquin chief, on Allumette Island. Back in Paris in 1612 with “an account of the country which he said he had drawn up,” Vignau stated that he had gone with a relative of Tessouat to the “northern sea” (Hudson Bay), and that he had seen a shipwrecked English vessel. The story was a likely one: in 1612 the English had entered Hudson Bay and had lost two ships there. The king induced Champlain to undertake such a voyage.
After Vignau had reaffirmed his statement before two notaries, Champlain set off with him in March 1613 to try and reach Hudson Bay by way of the Ottawa River. To get there they had to pass through the territory of the Nipissing. But Tessouat’s Algonquin, on their island, controlled the head of the rapids and the access to the portage. They took advantage of their position to impose upon non-Algonquin traders a more or less heavy toll, and they were in danger of losing this lucrative source of income if the French were themselves going to trade with the hinterland. To explain their opposition to Champlain’s voyage, they therefore claimed that the Nipissing were an enemy nation (which was a lie). To reassure them Champlain made reference to Vignau’s experience. The Algonquin protested vociferously; Tessouat declared to Vignau: “If you visited those tribes, it was in your sleep.” Subjected to an interrogation that was loaded with threats, Vignau admitted that he had invented everything in order to get back to Canada. The Algonquins’ reply was: “Give him to us, and we promise you he will tell no more lies.” Champlain preferred to pardon a person whom he styled “the most impudent liar that has been seen for a long time.” Vignau asked to be left at the Saint-Louis Rapids, but no one supported his request; Champlain added: “We left him in God’s keeping.” This is the last information that we have about him.
But had Vignau really lied? He lived among the Algonquin of the Island from the summer of 1611 until the spring of 1612; now according to Gabriel Sagard the Algonquin were famous for the “Journeys into distant lands” which they undertook, like the good merchants that they were; it is also known that they maintained constant business relations with the nations in the north; moreover the details supplied by Vignau on the northern sea correspond to what other sources have given us; all this authorizes us to believe that Vignau had in fact gone to Hudson Bay. Champlain, who did not yet know these First Nations sufficiently well (he was making his first journey along the Ottawa River), seems to have been taken in by them; as for Vignau, he might have been the victim not of a dream but of the rigorous policy of the Algonquin of the Island, a people that Sagard calls “the harshest, the proudest and the least courteous.”