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Jacques Cartier

established France's first claim to, and named, what is now Canada

Jacques Cartier was born into a family of mariners in Saint-Malo, France, in 1491. Prior to the voyages which made him famous, Cartier was a respected Master-Pilot who had made several voyages to Newfoundland in order to fish, and may have sailed with Giovanni di Verrazano on at least one voyage.

Jacques Cartier

First Voyage

In 1534, King Francis I sent Cartier to North America to search for gold and other precious metals, and for a Northwest Passage. He left Saint-Malo with three ships and 61 men on April 20, landed at Newfoundland on May 10, and then spent three months exploring the western coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, naming many of its islands and geological features along the way. He is also credited with the discovery of what is now known as Prince Edward Island.

While exploring the Gaspé Peninsula, which he claimed for France, Cartier met and established friendly relations with a group of Iroquois, the chief of whom allowed two of his sons to sail back to France with Cartier. The expedition returned to Saint-Malo on September 5, without any kind of precious metals.

map of Cartier's first voyage to Canada
Cartier's first voyage to Canada

Second Voyage

Although he had failed to find any gold or other precious metals, Cartier remained optimistic that such riches awaited discovery, and King Francis agreed. On May 19, 1535, Cartier, in command of three ships and 110 men, embarked on a mission to explore the St. Lawrence River, which the Iroquis had hinted might carry ships all the way to the western coast. The ships got separated during the crossing, but regrouped at Blanc Sablon on July 26, 1535, and began their expedition on July 29. After returning the two Iroquois to their home on the Gaspé Peninsula, Cartier entered Saint Lawrence Bay, which he so named because he arrived on the saint's feast day.

After establishing a base at an Indian village near what is now Quebec City, Cartier continued upriver to a mountain he named Mont Réal (where Montreal sits today), but rapids prevented further progress and Cartier decided to spend the winter at the base he had established. The winter proved disastrous, however, with 25 men dying of scurvy and the entire expedition incurring the anger of the initially friendly Iroquois population. In the spring, the explorers seized several Iroquois chiefs and traveled back to France, which was reached on July 15, 1536.

Cartier's second voyage to Canada
Cartier's second voyage to Canada

Third Voyage

Despite Cartier's two failures at finding either gold or a Northwest Passage, King Francis still desired a French presence in North America, so in 1541 he organized an expedition to establish a permanent settlement. This time, however, he chose Jean François de la Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, as expedition leader, with Cartier in a subordinate role. Roberval was still planning the expedition when Cartier set sail on May 23.

On August 23, 1541, Cartier reached what is now Cap Rouge, Quebec, where he left several men to build a settlement. He then continued upriver to Mont Réal, from which he embarked on an overland search for gold. That search proved fruitless, and Cartier returned to the new settlement. The Iroquis grew increasingly hostile over the winter, and by the spring many of the Frenchmen had been killed. Since Roberval had still not arrived with the rest of the colonists, Cartier decided to abandon the settlement and sail back to France. Roberval met him at Newfoundland and ordered him to stay, but Cartier refused. After warning Roberval about the Iroquis, he slipped away and continued on back to France.

Although he was pardoned for disobeying orders, Cartier was never given another command. He spent the rest of his life in and around Saint-Malo, and died on September 1, 1557.

1541, Francis , under , over Cartier; Cartier sailed in May 23, before Roberval had completed planning; sailed up St. Lawrence River to what is now Cap Rouge, near Quebec City on August 23, where some of his men built a settlement; reportedly misused the Iroquois word kanata (meaning village or settlement) to refer to the entire region around what is now Quebec City; it was later extended to the entire country. continued on in search of gold; traveled west on foot from Mont Réal but found no precious metals; returned to settlement; Iroquois became hostile over the winter and killed several Frenchman; Roberval had not arrived by spring, and Cartier decided to sail back to France; met Roberval in Newfoundland; was told to stay in Canada, but refused and warned Roberval about Iroquois; returned to France in October 1542, where was pardoned for disobeying orders

Cartier was the first to use "Canada" to designate the territory on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The word was derived from the Huron Iroquois word "kanata," which Cartier mistakenly interpreted as the native term for the land (it, in fact, means "village").


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See Also

Giovanni di Verrazano
Northwest Passage

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The Robinson Library >> Discovery of America and Early Explorations

This page was last updated on 09/03/2018.