Biography of Jacques Cartier

Discoverer and Explorer of Canada

Jacques Cartier

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A French navigator, Jacques Cartier was sent by the King of France, François I, to the New World to discover gold and diamonds and a new route to Asia. Jacques Cartier explored what became known as Newfoundland, the Magdalen Islands, Prince Edward Island and the Gaspé Peninsula. Jacques Cartier was the first explorer to map the St. Lawrence River.


Between June 7 and December 23, 1491, in St-Malo, France


September 1, 1557, in St-Malo, France

Accomplishments of Jacques Cartier

  • Jacques Cartier gave Canada its name when he misunderstood or misused the Iroquois word for village "Kanata" to mean the name of the whole area.
  • He discovered Prince Edward Island in 1534.
  • He was the first explorer of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • Jacques Cartier built a fort at Stadacona, where Quebec City is now located.
  • Further up the St. Lawrence, Cartier had Indian guides lead him to Hochelaga (Montreal).
  • Jacques Cartier was the first explorer to chart the St. Lawrence River.

Major Expeditions of Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier led three voyages to the St Lawrence region in 1534, 1535-36 and 1541-42.

Cartier's First Voyage 1534

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 the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the Strait of Belle Isle, going south along the Magdalen Islands, and reached what are now the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Going west to the Gaspé, he met several hundred Iroquois from Stadacona (now Quebec City) who were there for the fishing and seal hunt. He planted a cross at Pointe-Penouille to claim the area for France, although he told Chief Donnacona it was just a landmark. The expedition then headed for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, capturing two of Chief Donnacona's sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, to take along. They went through the strait separating Anticosti Island from the north shore but did not discover the St. Lawrence River before returning to France.

The Second Voyage 1535-1536

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. 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. Before winter set in, they traveled up the river to Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montreal. 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 did save many 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 set sail for home.

Cartier's Third Voyage 1541-1542

Reports back, including those from the hostages, were so encouraging that King François decided on a huge colonizing expedition. He put military officer Jean-François de la Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, in charge, although the explorations were to be left to Cartier. The war in Europe and the massive logistics, including the difficulties of recruiting, for the colonization effort, slowed Roberval down, and Cartier, with 1500 men, arrived in Canada a year ahead of Roberval. They settled at the bottom of the cliffs of Cap-Rouge, where they built forts. Cartier made 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 tiny 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 sailed for home.

Cartier's ships met Roberval's fleet just arrived in St.John's, Newfoundland. Roberval ordered Cartier and his men to return to Cap-Rouge. Cartier ignored the order and sailed for France with his precious cargo. Unfortunately when he arrived in France he found that his cargo was really iron pyrite and quartz. Roberval's settlement efforts were also a failure.

Jacques Cartier's Ships

  • Grande Hermine (1535-36, 1541-42)
  • Petite Hermine (1535-36)
  • Émérillon (1535-36, 1541-42)
  • Georges (1541-42)
  • Saint-Brieux (1541-42)

Related Canadian Place Names

  • The name Montreal comes from Mount Royal, the mountain Jacques Cartier named for the King of France.