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Jacques Cartier

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Jacques Cartier

Portrait of Jacques Cartier by Théophile Hamel, ca. 1844. No contemporary portraits of Cartier are known.
Born 1491
St. Malo, France
Died September 1, 1557
La Chapelle-Janson, France
Occupation French navigator and explorer
Known for documented and claimed Canada for France

Jacques Cartier (1491– September 1 1557) claimed what is now Canada for France. He was the first who described and mapped the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, which he named "The Country of Canada(s)", as was so called both Iroquoian big settlements he saw in Stadaconna (Quebec City) and in Hochelaga (Montreal Island).


Jacques Cartier was born in 1491 in Saint-Malo, the port on the extreme north-east coast of the duchy of Brittany, which duchy would later be incorporated into France (in 1532). Cartier, who was a respectable mariner, improved his social status in 1520 by marrying Mary Catherine des Granches, member of a leading family. His good name in Saint-Malo is recognized by its frequent appearance on baptismal registers as godfather or witness.

First voyage, 1534

In 1532, the year Brittany was formally united with France, Cartier was introduced to King Francis I by Jean le Veneur, bishop of Saint-Malo and abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel, at the Manoir de Brion. Le Veneur cited voyages Cartier had already made to Brazil and Newfoundland to demonstrate his ability to "lead ships to the discovery of new lands in the New World". In 1534, Jacques Cartier set sail under a commission from King Francis I of France, hoping to discover a western passage to the wealthy markets of Asia. In the words of the king's commission, he was to "discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found". Starting on May 10 of that year, he explored parts of Newfoundland, the areas now known as the Canadian Atlantic provinces and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On one stop at Iles-aux-Oiseaux, his crew slaughtered around 1000 birds, most of them great auks (now extinct). Cartier's first encounter with aboriginal people, most likely the Mi'kmaq (Meeg-maw), was brief and some trading occurred. On his second encounter Cartier panicked as 50 Mi'kmaq canoes surrounded one of his long boats. Despite the Mi'kmaq signs of peace Cartier ordered his men to shoot two warning shots over their heads. The Mi'kmaq paddled away. His third encounter took place at Baie de Gaspé with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, where on July 24, without their assent, he planted a ten-meter cross bearing the words "Long Live the King of France" and took possession of the territory in the name of the king. The change in mood was a clear indication that the Iroquoians understood Cartier's actions. There is no historical consensus on exactly what happened and exactly where, but during this trip he kidnapped Chief Donnacona's two sons. Donnacona at last agreed that they may be taken under the condition that they return with European goods to trade. He also began to build diplomatic relations with the natives. Cartier returned to France in September 1534, sure that he reached an Asian coast.

Second voyage, 1535–1536

Jacques Cartier set sail for a second voyage on May 19 of the following year with three ships, 110 men, and the two native boys. Reaching the St. Lawrence, he sailed up-river for the first time, and reached the Iroquoian village of Stadacona, where Chief Donnacona was reunited with his two sons.

Jacques Cartier left his main ships in a harbour close to Stadacona, and used his smallest ship to continue up-river and visit Hochelaga (now Montreal) where he arrived October 2, 1535. Hochelaga was far more impressive than the small and squalid village of Stadacona, and more than 1,000 Iroquoians came to the river edge to greet the Frenchmen. The site of their arrival has been confidently identified as the beginning of the Sainte-Marie Sault -- where the Jacques Cartier Bridge now stands.

After spending two days among the St. Lawrence Iroquoians of Hochelaga, Cartier returned to Stadacona on October 11. It is not known exactly when Cartier decided to spend the winter of 1535-1536 in Stadacona, and it was by then too late to return to France. Cartier and his men prepared for the winter by strengthening their fort, stacking firewood, and salting down game and fish.

During this winter, Cartier compiled a sort of gazetteer that included several pages on the manners of the natives -- in particular, their habit of wearing only leggings and loinclothes even in the dead of winter.

From mid-November 1535 to mid-April 1536, the French fleet lay frozen solid at the mouth of the St. Charles River, under the Rock of Quebec. Ice was over a fathom (1.8 m) thick on the river, and snow four feet (1.2 m) deep ashore. To add to the discomfort, scurvy broke out -- first among the Iroquoians, and then among the French. In his journal, Cartier states that by mid-February, "out of 110 that we were, not ten were well enough to help the others, a pitiful thing to see". Cartier estimated the number of natives dead at 50. One of the natives who survived was Domagaya, the chief's son who had been taken to France the previous year. Upon his visiting the French fort for a friendly call, Cartier enquired and learned of him that a concoction made from a certain tree called annedda (probably arbor vitae), would cure scurvy. This remedy likely saved the expedition from destruction, and by the end of the winter, 85 Frenchmen were still alive.

Ready to return to France in early May 1536, Cartier decided to take Chief Donnacona to France, so that he might personally tell the tale of a country further north, called the " Kingdom of Saguenay", said to be full of gold, rubies and other treasures. After an arduous trip down the St. Lawrence and a three-week Atlantic crossing, Cartier and his men arrived in Saint-Malo on 1536-07-15.

So ended the second and most profitable of Cartier's voyages, lasting 14 months. Having already located the entrance to the St. Lawrence on his first voyage, he now opened up the greatest waterway for the European penetration of North America. He had made an intelligent estimate of the resources of Canada, both natural and human, aside from considerable exaggeration of its mineral wealth. While some of his actions toward the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were dishonourable, he did try at times to establish friendship with them and other native peoples living along the great St. Lawrence river -- an indispensable preliminary to French settlement in their lands .

Third voyage, 1541–1542

On October 17, 1540, Francis I ordered the Breton navigator to return to Canada to lend weight to a colonization project of which he would be "captain general". But on January 15, 1541 Cartier was supplanted by Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a Huguenot courtier. So, unlike the previous voyages, this one is supposed to be led by the Huguenot Roberval, with Cartier as his subordinate. But, while Roberval waited for artillery and supplies, he gave permission to Cartier to sail on ahead with his ships.

On May 23, 1541, Cartier departed Saint-Malo on his third voyage with five ships. This time, any thought of finding a passage to the Orient was forgotten. The goals were now to find the "Kingdom of Saguenay" and its riches, and to establish a permanent settlement along the big St. Lawrence River.

Anchoring at Stadacona, Cartier again met the Iroquoians, but found their "show of joy" and their numbers worrisome, and decided not to build his settlement there. Sailing a few miles up-river to a spot he had previously observed, he decided to settle on the site of present-day Cap-Rouge, Quebec. The convicts and other colonists were landed, the cattle that had survived three months aboard ship were turned loose, earth was broken for a kitchen garden, and seeds of cabbage, turnip and lettuce were planted. A fortified settlement was thus created and was named Charlesbourg-Royal. Another fort was also built on the cliff overlooking the settlement, for added protection.

The men also began collecting what they thought were diamonds and gold, but which turned out, when later back in France, to be quartz crystals and iron pyrites, respectively - which gave rise to a French expression: "faux comme les diamants du Canada" ("As false as Canadian diamonds"). Two of the ships were dispatched home with some of these minerals on September 2.

Having set tasks for everyone, Cartier left with the longboats for a reconnaissance in search of "Saguenay" on September 7. Having reached Hochelaga, he was prevented by bad weather and the numerous rapids from continuing up to the Ottawa River.

Returning to Charlesbourg-Royal, Cartier found the situation ominous. The Iroquoians no longer made friendly visits or peddled fish and game, but prowled about in a sinister manner. No records exist about the winter of 1541-1542 and the information must be gleaned from the few details provided by returning sailors. It seems the natives attacked and killed about 35 settlers before the Frenchmen could retreat behind their fortifications. Even though scurvy was cured through the native remedy ( Thuja occidentalis infusion), the impression left is of a general misery, and of Cartier's growing conviction that he had insufficient manpower either to protect his base or to go in search of Saguenay Kingdom.

Cartier left for France in early June 1542, encountering Roberval and his ships along the Newfoundland coast. Despite Roberval's insistence that he accompany him back to Saguenay, Cartier slipped off under the cover of darkness and continued on to France, still convinced his vessels contained a wealth of gold and diamonds. He arrived there in October, in what proved to be his last voyage. Meanwhile, Roberval took command at Charlesbourg-Royal, but it was abandoned in 1543 after disease, foul weather and hostile natives drove the would-be settlers to despair.


Cartier spent the rest of his life in Saint-Malo and his nearby estate, where he often was useful as an interpreter in Portuguese language, and he died aged 65 or 66 on September 1, 1557 from an epidemic. No permanent European settlements were made in Canada before 1608, when Samuel Champlain founded Quebec City.


The Dauphin Map of Canada, circa 1543, showing Cartier's discoveries

Cartier was the first to document the name Canada to designate the territory on the shores of the St-Lawrence River. The name is derived from the Huron- Iroquois word "kanata", or village, which was incorrectly interpreted as the native term for the newly-discovered land. Cartier used the name to describe Stadacona, the surrounding land and the river itself. And Cartier named "Canadiens" the inhabitants ( Iroquoians) he had seen there. Thereafter the name Canada was used to designate the small French colony on these shores, and the French colonists were called Canadiens, until the mid-nineteenth century, when the name started to be applied to the loyalist colonies on the Great Lakes and later to all of British North America. In this way Cartier is not strictly the European discoverer of Canada as this country is understood today, a vast federation stretching a mari usque ad mare (from sea to sea). Eastern parts had previously been visited by the Norse, as well as Basque, Galician and Breton fishermen, and perhaps the Corte-Real brothers and John Cabot (in addition of course to the Natives who first inhabited the territory). Cartier's particular contribution to the discovery of Canada is as the first European to penetrate the continent, and more precisely the interior eastern region along the St. Lawrence River. His explorations consolidated France's claim of the territory that would later be colonized as New France, and his third voyage produced the first documented European attempt at settling North America since the time of the Norse. But even to this extent, the title of discoverer is perhaps too enthusiastic, as the two sons of Donnacona guided Cartier in his first exploration of the inner continent (in the second voyage) through the St. Lawrence estuary up to the village of Stadacona.

Cartier's professional abilities can be easily ascertained. Considering that Cartier made three voyages of exploration in dangerous and hitherto unknown waters without losing a ship, and that he entered and departed some 50 undiscovered harbors without serious mishap, he may be considered one of the most conscientious explorers of the period.

Cartier was also one of the first to formally acknowledge that the New World was a separate land mass from Europe/Asia.

Rediscovery of Cartier's first colony

On August 18, 2006, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced that Canadian archaeologists had discovered the precise location of Cartier's lost first colony of Charlesbourg-Royal. The colony was built where the Cap Rouge river runs into the St. Lawrence River and is based on the discovery of burnt wooden timber remains that have been dated to the mid-16th century and a fragment of a decorative Istoriato plate manufactured in Faenza, Italy, between 1540 and 1550 that could only have belonged to a member of the French aristocracy in the colony--probably the Sieur de Roberval, who replaced Cartier as the leader of the settlement. This colony was the first European settlement in modern day Canada. Its discovery has been hailed by archaeologists as the most important find in Canada since the c.1000 AD L'Anse aux Meadows Viking village was unearthed in northern Newfoundland.


  • Grande Hermine
    • Length: 78.8 ft
    • Beam: 22ft
    • Depth of hold: 12ft
    • 120 tons
    • Built: France 1534; given in 1535 to Cartier by the King of France; used in the 1535-1536 and 1541-1542 voyages; replica 1967 built for "Expo 67" in Montréal; abandoned in 2001 from Saint-Charles River ( Québec City)
  • Petite Hermine
    • Length: ft
    • Beam: 55ft
    • Depth of hold: 67ft
    • 60 tons
    • Built: France; used in the 1535-1536 voyage and abandoned in 1536 springtime by Cartier in Saint-Charles River because too many of his sailors died in Québec City during last wintertime
  • Émérillon
    • Length: ft
    • Beam: ft
    • Depth of hold: ft
    • 40 tons
    • Built: France; used in the 1535-1536 and 1541-1542 voyages
  • Georges (1541-1542)
    • Length: ft
    • Beam: ft
    • Depth of hold: ft
    • tons
    • Built: France; used the 1541-1542 voyage
  • Saint-Brieux
    • Length: ft
    • Beam: ft
    • Depth of hold: ft
    • tons
    • Built: France; used the 1541-1542 voyage


  • Place Jacques-Cartier, a major street in the Vieux Port of Montreal
  • Jacques-Cartier River
  • Jacques-Cartier Bridge
  • Jacques-Cartier State Park
  • Cartier Pavilion, built in 1955, at Royal Military College Saint-Jean
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