Jacques Cartier

From New World Encyclopedia

Portrait of Jacques Cartier by Théophile Hamel, ca. 1844. No contemporary portraits of Cartier are known.

Jacques Cartier (December 31, 1491 – September 1, 1557) was a French navigator who first explored and described the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, which he named Canada, while attempting to sail from Europe to Asia via a new route under the commission of French King Francis I. He would make three voyages to North America in all and have numerous encounters with the native peoples, who he learned he must befriend in order to open up settlements to the French in the region and make further inland penetration of the continent possible. On his final voyage to Canada, Cartier traveled as the underling of Huguenot Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval, who attempted to create a French settlement named Charlesbourg-Royal. After many setbacks, including the loss of cooperation and friendship from local indigenous peoples, Cartier surreptitiously left the colony for his native land, soon to be followed by the remaining settlers.

At the time of his death, no permanent French settlements had yet been established in the "New World." Cartier was one of the first of his time to acknowledge that the land he had discovered was not physically connected to the "Old World" of Europe and Asia.


Jacques Cartier was born in 1491, in Saint-Malo, a port on the north coast of the duchy of Brittany which would later be incorporated into France, in 1532. Cartier, who was part of a respectable family of mariners, also improved his social status in 1520, by marrying Mary Catherine des Granches, member of a leading ship-owning family. His good name in Saint-Malo is recognized by its frequent appearance on baptismal registers as godfather or witness.[1]

First voyage, 1534

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."[2] 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 40 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 Gaspe with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, where on July 24, 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, but during this trip he either kidnapped Domagaya and Taignoagny, the sons of Chief Donnacona, or Chief Donnacona agreed that his sons 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 1535. His brother, Jean, died during the voyage due to harsh weather.

Second voyage, 1535-1536

Jacques Cartier set sail for a second voyage on May 13 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 (located nearby the site of present-day Quebec City), where Chief Donnacona was reunited with his two sons.

Jacques Cartier left his main ships in a harbor 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 thing pitiful 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 inquired 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 kidnap Chief Donnacona himself, 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 July 15, 1536.

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 dishonorable, 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 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 St. Lawrence.

Unlike the previous voyages, this one was led by the Huguenot Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval, with Cartier as his subordinate. While Roberval waited for artillery and supplies, he gave permission to Cartier to sail on ahead with his ships.

Anchoring at Stadacona on August 23, Cartier again met the Iroquoians, but found their "show of joy" and their numbers worrisome, and decided not to build his settlement there. Sailing nine 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 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 exists 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, 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.

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, and died aged 66 on September 1, 1557, from an epidemic. He died before any permanent European settlements were made in Canada; that had to wait for Samuel de Champlain in 1608.


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. He used the name to describe the village (Stadacona), the surrounding land and the river itself. 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 it is understood today, a vast federation stretching across the North American content. Eastern parts had previously been visited by the Norse, Basque, and Breton fishermen, and perhaps the Corte-Real brothers and John Cabot (in addition, of course, to the natives who first inhabit 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. This region was to become the first European-inhabited area of that country since the Vikings. But even to this extent, the use 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.

Despite these critical notes, 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, that he entered and departed some 50 undiscovered harbors without serious mishap, and that the only sailors he lost were victims of an epidemic ashore, he may be considered one of the most conscientious explorers of the period.

Cartier was also one of the first people to formally acknowledge that the New World was really 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.[3] 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-sixteenth 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.[4] 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 C.E. 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; used in the 1535-36 and 1541-42 voyages; replica 1967 built for Expo 67 in Montréal
  • Petite Hermine
    • Length:ft
    • Beam:ft
    • Depth of hold:ft
    • 40 tons
    • Built:France; used in the 1535-36 voyage and abandoned in 1536
  • Émérillon
    • Length: 78.8 ft
    • Beam: 22ft
    • Depth of hold: 12ft
    • 120 tons
    • Built: France; used in the 1535-36 and 1541-42 voyages
  • Georges (1541-42)
    • Length: ft
    • Beam: ft
    • Depth of hold: ft
    • tons
    • Built: France; used the 1541-42 voyage
  • Saint-Brieux
    • Length: ft
    • Beam: ft
    • Depth of hold: ft
    • tons
    • Built: France; used the 1541-42 voyage


  • Place Jacques-Cartier, a major street in the Vieux Port of Montreal
  • Jacques-Cartier River
  • Jacques-Cartier Bridge
  • Jacques-Cartier State Park

Popular references

Jacques Cartier is referred to in the song "Looking for a Place to Happen" by the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip, on the album, Fully Completely.

In 2005, Cartier's Bref récit et succincte narration de la navigation faite en MDXXXV et MDXXXVI was named the most important book in Canadian history by the Literary Review of Canada.

Jacques Cartier Island. This Island is located on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland & Labrador, in the town of Quirpon. The island itself is located on the North side of the harbor and it provides excellent shelter to a deep harbor. It is said that the island was named by Jacques Cartier himself on one of his voyages through the Straits of Belle Isle during the 1530s.


  1. H.P. Biggar, A Collection of Documents relating to Jacques Cartier and the Sieur de Roberval (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1930).
  2. Marcel Trudel, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Jacques Cartier. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
  3. Randy Boswell, Pottery shard unearths North America's first French settlement. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
  4. Kevin Dougherty, Long-lost Jacques Cartier settlement rediscovered at Quebec City. Retrieved October 30, 2007.

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External links

All links retrieved November 6, 2021.


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