Biography of Jacques Cartier, Early Explorer of Canada

Jacques Cartier

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Jacques Cartier (December 31, 1491–September 1, 1557) was a French navigator sent by French King Francis I to the New World to find gold and diamonds and a new route to Asia. Cartier explored what became known as Newfoundland, the Magdalen Islands, Prince Edward Island, and the Gaspé Peninsula, and was the first explorer to map the St. Lawrence River. He claimed what is now Canada for France.

Fast Facts: Jacques Cartier

  • Known For: French explorer who gave Canada its name
  • Born: Dec. 31, 1491 in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France
  • Died: Sept. 1, 1557 in Saint-Malo
  • Spouse: Marie-Catherine des Granches

Early Life

Jacques Cartier was born on Dec. 31, 1491, in Saint-Malo, a historic French port on the coast of the English Channel. Cartier began to sail as a young man and earned a reputation as a highly skilled navigator, a talent that would come in handy during his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean.

He apparently made at least one voyage to the New World, exploring Brazil, before he led his three major North American voyages. These voyages—all to the St. Lawrence region of what is now Canada—came in 1534, 1535–1536, and 1541–1542.

First Voyage

In 1534 King Francis I of France decided to send an expedition to explore the so-called "northern lands" of the New World. Francis was hoping the expedition would find precious metals, jewels, spices, and a passage to Asia. Cartier was selected for the commission.

With two ships and 61 crewmen, Cartier arrived off the barren shores of Newfoundland just 20 days after setting sail. He wrote, "I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain."

The expedition entered what is today known as the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the Strait of Belle Isle, went south along the Magdalen Islands, and reached what are now the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Going north to the Gaspé peninsula, he met several hundred Iroquois from their village of Stadacona (now Quebec City), who were there to fish and hunt for seals. He planted a cross on the peninsula to claim the area for France, although he told Chief Donnacona it was just a landmark.

The expedition captured two of Chief Donnacona's sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, to take along as prisoners. They went through the strait separating Anticosti Island from the north shore but did not discover the St. Lawrence River before returning to France.

Second Voyage

Cartier set out on a larger expedition the next year, with 110 men and three ships adapted for river navigation. Donnacona's sons had told Cartier about the St. Lawrence River and the “Kingdom of the Saguenay” in an effort, no doubt, to get a trip home, and those became the objectives of the second voyage. The two former captives served as guides for this expedition.

After a long sea crossing, the ships entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then went up the "Canada River," later named the St. Lawrence River. Guided to Stadacona, the expedition decided to spend the winter there. But before winter set in, they traveled up the river to Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montreal. (The name "Montreal" comes from Mount Royal, a nearby mountain Cartier named for the King of France.)

Returning to Stadacona, they faced deteriorating relations with the natives and a severe winter. Nearly a quarter of the crew died of scurvy, although Domagaya saved many men with a remedy made from evergreen bark and twigs. Tensions grew by spring, however, and the French feared being attacked. They seized 12 hostages, including Donnacona, Domagaya, and Taignoagny, and fled for home.

Third Voyage

Because of his hasty escape, Cartier could only report to the king that untold riches lay farther west and that a great river, said to be 2,000 miles long, possibly led to Asia. These and other reports, including some from the hostages, were so encouraging that King Francis decided on a huge colonizing expedition. He put military officer Jean-François de la Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, in charge of the colonization plans, although the actual exploration was left to Cartier.

War in Europe and the massive logistics for the colonization effort, including the difficulties of recruiting, slowed Roberval. Cartier, with 1,500 men, arrived in Canada a year ahead of him. His party settled at the bottom of the cliffs of Cap-Rouge, where they built forts. Cartier started a second trip to Hochelaga, but he turned back when he found that the route past the Lachine Rapids was too difficult.

On his return, he found the colony under siege from the Stadacona natives. After a difficult winter, Cartier gathered drums filled with what he thought were gold, diamonds, and metal and started to sail for home. But his ships met Roberval's fleet with the colonists, who had just arrived in what is now St. John's, Newfoundland.

Roberval ordered Cartier and his men to return to Cap-Rouge, but Cartier ignored the order and sailed for France with his cargo. When he arrived in France, he found that the load was really iron pyrite—also known as fool's gold—and quartz. Roberval's settlement efforts also failed. He and the colonists returned to France after experiencing one bitter winter.

Death and Legacy

While he was credited with exploring the St. Lawrence region, Cartier's reputation was tarnished by his harsh dealings with the Iroquois and by his abandoning the incoming colonists as he fled the New World. He returned to Saint-Malo but got no new commissions from the king. He died there on Sept. 1, 1557.

Despite his failures, Jacques Cartier is credited as the first European explorer to chart the St. Lawrence River and to explore the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He also discovered Prince Edward Island and built a fort at Stadacona, where Quebec City stands today. And, in addition to providing the name for a mountain that gave birth to "Montreal," he gave Canada its name when he misunderstood or misused the Iroquois word for village, "kanata," as the name of a much broader area.

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