Jacques Cartier -
Tales of Adventure
for Young Explorers
JACQUES CARTIER: NEW LAND FOR THE FRENCH KING
Jacques Cartier (c. 1491 - 1557)
Born around 1491 in Saint-Malo, France, Jacques Cartier had been navigating for many years when the King of France, François I, sent him to discover "certaines îles et pays où l'on dit qu'il se doit trouver grande quantité d'or et autres riches choses" ["certain islands and lands where it is said there are great quantities of gold and other riches"] as well as, if possible, the route to Asia.
In 1534, with 61 men, Cartier explored and named the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only the Strait of Belle Isle was known to European fishermen at that time. He took possession of the new territory in the name of the King and then, as did most explorers of the time, returned to France with two Native people (Taignoagny and Domagaya) kidnapped in Gaspé in order, as Cartier wrote, to get information from them.
In 1535, guided by Taignoagny and Domagaya, Cartier became the first European to penetrate the St. Lawrence River to "Canada," an Iroquois name for part of the region that became known as Quebec. The Native people of Stadacona (Quebec) having refused to accompany him, Cartier found other guides near present-day Portneuf to lead him to Hochelaga (Montreal). Wanting to impress the inhabitants of Hochelaga, Cartier put on his dress uniform, ordered his sailors into formation and entered the Iroquoian village to the sound of "trompettes et autres instruments de musique" ["trumpets and other musical instruments,"] which the local people had not seen before. After the festivities, the hosts brought Cartier to the top of Mount Royal, from which they explained the major waterways by showing him the rivers on the horizon that came from huge freshwater seas to the west. They also told him that the gold, silver and copper objects in their possession came from the northwest. Cartier concluded that the passage to Asia could not be very far.
Being unable to go over the Lachine rapids in his boats and very short on rations, Cartier returned to winter at Stadacona. The French exchanged European goods with the Native people for game but this food was not enough. Twenty-five Frenchmen died of scurvy before Cartier learned from the Native people that a tea called "annedda," made from some evergreen bark and foliage, could cure the disease in fewer than eight days. On May 6, 1536, Cartier again returned to France, this time with ten people from Canada, including Chief Donnacona, to repeat their stories of gold and silver found in "the Kingdom of Saguenay" situated in the northern interior of Québec. None would ever return to North America.
The King, convinced of the need to set up a colony and explore the country and its minerals further, named Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, one of his courtiers, to head a new expedition of some 400 to 700 men and women, whom he was to govern. Cartier was named Captain General and master pilot of the vessels. As Roberval was late in leaving, Cartier weighed anchor first and, in August 1541, landed at the spot known today as Cap-Rouge, where he set up the colony of Charlesbourg-Royal. This was the first attempt at colonization by the French in Canada. Cartier had some gold and quartz crystals extracted, which he thought were diamonds, before returning to Hochelaga with the intention of getting over the Lachine Rapids. The difficulty and the length of the portage, as well as the description of the numerous rapids that followed, discouraged his crew.
On his return to Charlesbourg-Royal, the hostility of the Native people revealed an important incident. Only Thévet's testimony and that of some Basque fishermen supply the facts. Some foolish French youth, who wanted to demonstrate the efficiency of their swords, had severed the limbs of some Native people. This led to a retaliation in which 35 of Cartier's men were killed. After a winter lived under the constant threat of attack, Cartier returned to France. He crossed paths with Roberval near Newfoundland, but refused to obey the order to turn back.
The explorer would be blamed for disobeying his superior, for the failure of this first attempt at settlement and for his false diamonds (and other minerals thought originally to be gold and silver). He died in St. Malo in 1557. As the first person to inform Europeans about the St. Lawrence River, its populations and its natural resources, Cartier has found a better reception in history than he received in his own time. However even Champlain, who had great regard for Cartier, later said that his predecessor could have accomplished more if he had left the safety of his own ships.
Thévet explains the reason for slow colonization in a passage describing how the Indians make torches.