1534 Jacques Cartier Explores the St. Lawrence in Canada

By the time John Winthrop’s fleet reached Massachusetts in 1630, the French had been living along the St. Lawrence River to the north for nearly 100 years. The English called the waterway the River of Canada.

John Cabot’s great discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 pleased Henry VII immensely. But Henry’s son and successor in 1509, Henry VIII, was too distracted by the complications of keeping his empire together and dealing with marital and religious matters to pay attention to exploration. As Spain and Portugal gobbled up Central and South America, the French feasted on the valleys and surrounding areas of the St. Lawrence River.

In 1531, a professor of mathematics and astronomy in Paris named Oronce Finé (1494-1555) drew two ornately decorated charts: one of the two poles, and one of the globe shaped like a heart. Both indicated a northwest passage around the islands of the arctic circle through which a ship could sail from one sea to the other. The charts included Greenland. Apparently, the French honored Norway/Denmark’s sovereignty over Greenland even though the Norsemen had abandoned it to the native Inuit’s around 1200 or 1300, some two to three hundred years earlier.

Oronce Finé’s chart of the North and South Pole, Paris, 1531.(1)

World Map by Oronce Finé, Paris, 1531. (2)

Three years later, in 1534, King Francis needed a new explorer. It had been ten years since Giovanni Verrazzano returned from his 1524 voyage, and six years since he succumbed to the appetite of the Carib Indians. Francis commissioned forty-three-year-old Jacques Cartier to continue the search for a northwest passage through North America. Cartier had already sailed to Newfoundland and Brazil.

King Francis wanted Cartier to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found.” Cartier’s ship, probably a carrack about the size of the Mathew, left Brittany, France, as the weather warmed up in May. As you can see from the map below, it is a fairly direct route from Brittany to the by-then-well-known Grand Banks of Newfoundland. It took him twenty days. He found fishing vessels from England, France, Spain, Flanders, and Portugal anchored along the shores and planning to stay through the summer.

Jacques Cartier spent some time charting the island, information that would be shared with cartographers in France, the Netherlands, and Majorca. Now and then he debarked to walk around. He also coasted the shoreline, taking measurements and notes about the flora [plant life], fauna [animal life], and people. His records have survived to this day. When he was finished, he prepared to move west

The large island of Newfoundland sits southeast of a gigantic bay later named the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cartier sailed west over the north side of Newfoundland through a narrow straight [Straight of Belle Isle] leading into that gulf. He became very excited. He was certain he had reached the Eastern Sea. He continued following the west side of Newfoundland, crossed to the opposite side of the bay, and coasted along the shore of what he thought were East Asia.

Along the way he met some of the native Indians, mostly Mi’kmaq and Iroquoians, with whom he traded. He thought he was trading with Asians in Cathay or Tartary. In exchange for furs, he bartered [traded] European items such as iron kettles and knives.

On the west side of the gulf, near today’s Gaspé Peninsula, he staked his claim on the land for France by planting a thirty-three-foot-tall cross with the words “Long Live the King of France” [in French] imprinted on it. Then, as had become the custom, Cartier kidnapped some natives to take back to France.

Whereas Giovanni Verrazzano had kidnapped a random native boy, Jacques Cartier kidnapped two princes, sons of the Iroquoian chief, Donnacona. Their names were Taigonagny and Dom Agaya. Chief Donnaconna was very angry. But, supposedly, when Cartier promised to return the princes on his next visit, as well as more goods for trade, the Iroquoian chief relented. Cartier wrote in his journal that he carried “two special sailors.”

On the way home, Cartier sailed past the entrance to “the largest river that is known to have ever been seen.” He named it the St. Lawrence. He finished circling the gulf and exited through the narrow straight through which he originally entered. By the time he reached Brittany in September, he had been away four months.

To King Francis I, Cartier proudly described today’s Canada as “lying in the same climates and parallels as your territories and kingdom.” He said the land was fertile and rich, with “an immense number of peoples living there.” He described the natives as being kind and peaceful. “These things [the people and the resources] fill those who have seen them with the sure hope of the future increase of our most holy faith and of your possessions and most Christian name,…”

During the winter, European scientists and scholars studied Taigonagny and Dom Agaya, assuming they were samples of Asian people. The experts analyzed the Indians’ language, their eating habits, and their clothing. They learned about the natives’ trading preferences. What did the Iroquoian’s want in exchange for more furs? Most of all, they taught the Iroquoians how to speak French, so that they could act as interpreters on the next voyage.

1535 Cartier’s Second Voyage

Cartier left again in May of the following spring. It was one week later in May than he had left on his first trip. He traveled with three ships, 110 men, and the two Iroquoian princes. A “fierce tempest” separated the ships. They had agreed that if such a thing happened, they would meet up in Newfoundland, which they did. They passed through the Belle-Isle Strait into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

This time the ships coasted along the northern shore of the gulf and entered the St. Lawrence river. They sailed up the wide channel for many miles to Chief Donnacona’s city, Stadacona [now Quebec]. Cartier named the lands occupied by the Iroquoians above the St. Lawrence Canada, derived from the Iroquoian name for village, which was kanata. The lands south of the river became La Nuova Francia [New France].) Chief Donnacona celebrated the reunion with his sons with a feast. They had been away for a year.

Employing his smallest boat, Cartier traveled up the St. Lawrence until he reached an even grander Iroquoian city called Hochelaga [now Montréal] in an area much colder than Stadacona. More than 1000 of the local people came to meet the strangers from far away lands believing they were spiritual healers. One of Cartier’s officers, possibly Jehan Poullet, recorded the scene(3):

“As we drew near to their village, great numbers of the inhabitants came out to meet us and gave us a hearty welcome, according to the custom of the country. They signaled to us that we should come to a halt there, which we did. And at once all the girls and women of the village, some of whom had children in their arms, crowded about us, rubbing our faces, arms, and other parts of the upper portions of our bodies that they could touch, weeping for joy at the sight of us and giving us the best welcome they could. They made signs to us to be good enough to put our hands upon their babies. After this the men made the women retire, and themselves sat down upon the ground round about us, as if we had been going to perform a miracle play.

“At once several of the women came back, each with a four-cornered mat, woven like tapestry, and these they spread upon the ground in the middle of the square, and made us place ourselves upon them. When this had been done, the ruler and chief of this country, whom in their language they call Agouhanna, was carried in, seated on a large deer-skin, by nine or ten men, who came and set him down upon the mats near the Captain [Cartier], making signs to us that this was their ruler and leader.

“This Agouhanna, who was some fifty years of age, was in no way better dressed than the other Indians except that he wore about his head, for a crown, a sort of red band made of hedgehog’s skin. This chief was completely paralyzed and deprived of the use of his limbs. When he had saluted the Captain and all his men, by making signs which clearly meant that they were very welcome, he showed his arms and his legs to the Captain motioning to him to be good enough to touch them, as if he thereby expected to be cured and healed. On this the Captain set about rubbing his arms and legs with his hands. Thereupon this Agouhanna took the band of cloth he was wearing as a crown and presented it to the Captain.

“And at once many sick persons, some blind, others with but one eye, others lame or impotent [of their legs] and others again so extremely old that their eyelids hung down to their cheeks, were brought in and set down or laid out near the Captain, in order that he might lay his hands upon them, so that one would have thought Christ had come down to earth to heal them ... making the sign of the cross over the poor sick people, praying God to give them knowledge of our holy faith and of our Savior’s passion, and grace to obtain baptism and redemption.

“Then the Captain took a prayer-book and read out, word for word, the Passion of our Lord [Gospel of St. John from the Bible], that all who were present could hear it, during which all these poor people maintained great silence and were wonderfully attentive, looking up to heaven and going through the same ceremonies they saw us do.

“After this the Captain had all the men range themselves on one side, the women on another, and the children on another, and to the headmen he gave hatchets, to the others, knives, and to the women, beads and other small trinkets. He then made the children scramble for little rings and tin Agnus Dei, [small tin replicas of a lamb representing the Bible passage, Lamb of God], which afforded them great amusement. The Captain next ordered the trumpets and other musical instruments to be sounded, whereat the people were much delighted.

“We then took leave of them and proceeded to set out upon our return. Seeing this, the women placed themselves in our way to prevent us, and brought us some of their provisions, which they had made ready for us, to wit; fish, soups, beans, bread, and other dishes, in the hope of inducing us to partake of some refreshment and to eat with them. But as these provisions were not to our taste and had no savor of salt, we thanked them, making signs that we were in no need of refreshment.

“We returned to our longboats, accompanied by a large number of these people, some of whom, when they saw that our people were tired, took them upon their shoulders, as on horseback, and carried them. And on our arrival at the longboats, we at once set sail to return to the bark for fear of any misadventure. Such a departure did not fail to cause the people great regret; for so long as they could follow us down the river, they did so.”

The Frenchmen were not able to travel any farther upriver because “the most violent rapids it is possible to see” blocked their course. While camped by the river, Cartier noticed that the hill on an island in the center of the river was shaped like a crown. He named the hill Mont Réal [Royal Mountain](4), and proceeded to climb it. “On reaching the summit,” he wrote, “we had a view of the land for more than thirty leagues round about.” He named a smaller city at the rapids La Chine [The China], because he thought China was just beyond the waterfalls.

The exploratory party returned to Stadacona in October. Since it was too late in the year to sail back to France, they prepared to winter in America. That meant catching game, such as deer, and going fishing. They salted and dried the meat to preserve it for eating during the chilly months. They built a small wooden fort and stocked it with firewood, though they stayed on their ships, which were anchored or tied up about a “half-league away” from Stadacona. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to plant, grow, and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables before the cold weather arrived.

By November, the ground and surfaces of the rivers were frozen solid. Cartier wrote that the ice in the river measured a fathom [six feet] thick. The snow on the land piled four feet deep. He was amazed that the natives could bear the frost wearing such scanty garments.

Meat alone did not suffice as a diet. Even the Indians had not stored enough fresh fruits and vegetables, which they all needed to provide the nutrients their bones and muscles required. Everyone began showing signs of scurvy. First they felt tired and nauseous. Then their bones felt achy, followed by their whole body aching. Cartier described it in more detail.

“…some lost all their strength, their legs became swollen and inflamed, while the sinews contracted and turned as black as coal. In other cases the legs were found blotched with purple-colored blood. Then the disease would mount to the hips, thighs, shoulders, arms, and neck. And all had their mouths so tainted that the gums rotted away down to the roots of the teeth, which nearly all fell out.”

The sickness seemed to start among the Indians. By February, fifty Indians were dead and the French fared no better.

“The disease spread among the three ships to such an extent that, in the middle of February, of the 110 men forming our company, there were not ten in good health so that no one could aid the other, which was a grievous sight considering the place where we were. . . .”

Twenty-five Frenchmen died by the end of the month.

Then one day, the Iroquoian prince Dom Agaya revealed to the white men what seemed like a miracle cure. Captain Cartier had seen him ten days earlier showing signs of sickness. “one of his legs about the knee had swollen to the size of a two-year-old baby, and the sinews had become contracted. Don Agaya’s teeth had gone bad and decayed, and the gums were rotten and tainted.” But ten days later, Cartier saw the Iroquoian walking with fellow tribe members, looking healthy again.

The French captain asked the Iroquoian prince what cured him. Dom Agaya said it was the bark and leaves of what he called an Annedda tree [possibly the Eastern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis]. The Indians thought the tree cured every disease. They drank the brew and used the dregs as a salve on their swollen and affected joints and gums.

To prove this to the captain, Dom Agaya sent two women to show him where the trees were. The collectors brought back nine or ten branches. Then the women showed Cartier how to grind the leaves and the bark and boil it all in water. They instructed him to drink the tea every two days, while applying the dregs to his joints. The French journalist wrote:

“The Captain at once ordered a drink to be prepared for the sick men but none of them would taste it. At length one or two thought they would risk a trial. As soon as they had drunk it they felt better, which must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes; for after drinking it two or three times they recovered health and strength and were cured of all the diseases they had ever had. And some of the sailors who had been suffering for five or six years from the French pox [syphilis] were by this medicine cured completely.

“When this became known, there was such a press for the medicine that they almost killed each other to have it first; so that in less than eight days a whole tree as large and as tall as any I ever saw was used up, and produced such a result that had all the doctors of Louvain(5) and Montpellier been there, with all the drugs of Alexandria, they could not have done so much in a year as did this tree in eight days; for it benefited us so much that all who were willing to use it recovered health and strength, thanks be to God.”

Spring finally arrived and the eighty-five surviving Frenchmen prepared to leave for home. This time Cartier asked Chief Donnacona to accompany him. Donnacona had been telling the explorers about a kingdom known as Saguenay that lay just beyond the rapids. The chief said it was rich with gold, rubies, and other treasures. Certain this was Cathay, Cartier wanted Donnacona to personally testify the existence of the kingdom to King Francis.

In May of 1536 the French departed. They journeyed back up the St. Lawrence, crossed the Atlantic, and landed in France mid-July. This time Cartier had been away fourteen months.

1541 Cartier’s Third Expedition

Not for five more years, in May of 1541, did Jacques Cartier leave on his third mission. This time he was employed to set up a colony at the Kingdom of Saguenay under the leadership of a French Huguenot [Protestant] with the longish name of Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval. Leaving ahead of Roberval, and taking Donnacona with him, Cartier sailed with five ships filled with settlers. Many of them were convicts who had been released from prison with the understanding they would populate Canada. The ships also carried cattle and supplies the planters would need for establishing a permanent settlement. After a brief stop in Stadacona, they sailed upriver to a place now called Cap-Rouge in Quebec.

The moment the planters arrived, they began digging for precious metals and jewels. Much to their delight, they found diamonds, or what looked like diamonds, and began mining in earnest. At the same time, they built a camp, broke ground for a kitchen garden, and planted seeds for lettuce, turnips, cabbage, and other edibles.

They constructed two fortifications. They named the principal fort Charlesbourg Royal, and the other was some sort of fortification “overlooking the river from a cliff.”

By September, the planters had filled the holds of two ships with Canadian diamonds. They shipped them off to France. French geologists gave the rocks a thorough inspection before proclaiming that they were worthless quartz. But Captain Cartier was still in Canada and would not learn this discouraging news until the following spring.

In the meantime, Cartier and some of his men took one of the longboats upriver in search of the Kingdom of Saguenay. Once again, cold weather and the rapids at Hochelaga turned them back. When the party returned to Charlesbourg Royal, they found the settlers under attack by the natives. Thirty-five settlers had died before the rest could find refuge in the fort. Cartier and his men calmed things down. However, in June, after filling some of the ships with more Canadian diamonds, the majority of the settlers left for France.(6)

Jean-François de Roberval, who had since caught up with Captain Cartier, took over the leadership of what remained of the camp. He battled the weather and the natives for one more year. In 1593, he and his soldiers abandoned the fort and returned to France as well.

By that time Jacques Cartier had learned his diamonds were worthless. However, all was not lost. The furs he had acquired were valued at a great price. As mentioned in Section I, the beaver had been captured to extinction in Europe. So, the abundance of the valuable rodent in Canada and New France was exciting news. It ignited a lucrative trade that eventually became the mainstay for all the New England colonies.

Cartier’s Report on Canada

Cartier’s impression of the Iroquoians was published for the benefit of the church and future merchants and explorers. Of particular import was his introduction to tobacco.

“These people have no belief in God that amounts to anything; for they believe in a god they call Cudouagny, and maintain that he often holds intercourse with them and tells them what the weather will be like. They say that when he gets angry with them, he throws dust in their eyes. They believe furthermore that when they die they go to the stars and descend on the horizon like the stars. Next, they go off to beautiful green fields covered with fine trees, flowers, and luscious fruits.

“After they had explained these things to us, we showed them their error and informed them that Cudouagny was a wicked spirit who deceived them; and that there is but one God, Who is in Heaven, Who gives us everything we need, and is the Creator of all things, and that in Him alone we should believe. Also that one must receive baptism or perish in hell.

“Several other points concerning our faith were explained to them that they believed without trouble, and proceeded to call their Cudouagny, Agojuda [the evil one], to such an extent that several times they begged the Captain to cause them to be baptized. One day the leader [and] Donnacona, Taignoagny, and Dom Agaya came with all the people of their village to receive baptism. But since we did not know their real intention and state of mind, and had no one to explain to them our faith, an excuse was made to them.

“Taignoagny and Dom Agaya were requested to tell them that we should return on another voyage and would bring priests and some chrism [consecrated sacramental oil], giving them to understand as an excuse, that no one could be baptized without his chrism. This they believed because the princes had seen several children baptized in Brittany. At the Captain’s promise to return, they were much pleased and thanked him.

“These people live with almost everything in common, much like the Brazilians. They go clothed in beasts’ skins, and rather miserably. In winter they wear leggings and moccasins made of skins, and in summer they go barefoot. They maintain the order of marriage, except that the men take two or three wives. On the death of their husband, the wives never marry again, but wear mourning all their lives by dyeing their faces black with brayed charcoal and grease as thick as the back of a knife-blade; and by this one knows they are widows.

“They have another very bad custom connected with their daughters, who as soon as they reach the age of puberty are all placed in a brothel open to every one, until the girls have made a match. We saw this with our own eyes; for we discovered houses as full of these girls as is a boys’ school with boys in France. Furthermore, betting [gambling], after their fashion, takes place in these houses in which they stake all they own, even to the covering of their privy parts.

“They are by no means a laborious people and work the soil with short bits of wood about half a sword in length. With these they hoe their corn which they call ozisy, in size as large as a pea. Corn of a similar kind grows in considerable quantities in Brazil. They have also a considerable quantity of melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, pease [peas], and beans of various colors and unlike our own.

“Furthermore, they have a plant [tobacco], of which a large supply is collected in summer for the winter’s consumption. They hold it in high esteem, though the men alone make use of it in the following manner. After drying it in the sun, they carry it about their necks in a small skin pouch in lieu of a bag, together with a hollow bit of stone or wood [a pipe]. Then at frequent intervals they crumble this plant into powder, which they place in one of the openings of the hollow instrument, and, laying a live coal on top, suck at the other end to such an extent that they fill their bodies so full of smoke that it streams out of their mouths and nostrils as from a chimney. They say it keeps them warm and in good health, and never go about without these things. We made a trial of this smoke. When it is in one’s mouth, one would think one had taken powdered pepper, it is so hot.

“The women of this country work beyond comparison more than the men, both at fishing, which is much followed, as well as at tilling the ground and other tasks. Both the men, women, and children are more indifferent to the cold than beasts; for in the coldest weather we experienced, and it was extraordinary severe, they would come to our ships every day across the ice and snow, the majority of them almost stark naked, which seems incredible unless one has seen them.

“While the ice and snow last, they catch a great number of wild animals such as fawns, stags, and bears, hares, martens, foxes, otters, and others. Of these they brought us very few; for they are heavy eaters and are niggardly with their provisions. They eat their meat quite raw, merely smoking it, and the same with their fish. From what we have seen and been able to learn of these people, I am of opinion that they could easily be molded in the way one would wish. May God in His holy mercy turn His countenance towards them. Amen.”

Jacques Cartier never returned to America. He died in his home town of Saint-Malo, France, when he was sixty-six years old.

Next article: 1553 Looking for a Passage to Muscovy: the First Joint Stock Company


  1. Finé, Oronce. Maps of the North and South Poles, Paris, 1531. {{PD-Old}} Public domain for USA and France. Image source: [http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c9/Oronce_Fine_1531.jpg], [http://subharanjangupta.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/oronce-fine-map.jpg]
  2. Finé, Oronce. World Map, Paris, 1531. {{PD-Old}} Public domain for USA and France. Image source: [http://www.atlantismaps.com/Ch2_images/img_01L.jpg] Not only were Orance Finé’s charts copied for centuries by other cartographers, but he was honored in two other ways. Using the Latin forms of his name, astronomers named a crater on the moon after him, Orontius, and geographers named a cove in Antarctica after him called Finaeus Cove.
  3. Permission for use of translation pending. Ramsay Cook, ed., The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 35, 37-39, 63-64, 66, 67-70, 76-77, 79-80, 90-95. Excerpted, and footnotes added by the National Humanities Center, 2006: www.nhc.rtp.nc.us/pds/pds.htm.
  4. The village didn’t become the French town of Montréal until after the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  5. Louvain was a prominent Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium.
  6. This author wonders if the convicts were required to return to prison.