Jacques Cartier, navigator (born between 7 June and 23 December 1491 in Saint-Malo, France; died 1 September 1557 in Saint-Malo, France). From 1534 to 1542, Cartier led three maritime expeditions to the interior of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River. During these expeditions, he explored, but more importantly accurately mapped for the first time, the interior of the river, from the Gulf to Montréal. For this navigational prowess, Cartier is still considered by many as the founder of “Canada”, even though, at the time, this term described only the region immediately surrounding Québec. Cartier’s upstream navigation of the St. Lawrence River in the 16th century ultimately led to France occupying this part of North America.

Voyages to the Americas

Cartier’s early life is very poorly documented. Employed in business and navigation from a young age, like his countrymen Cartier probably sailed along the coast of France, Newfoundland and South America (Brazil), first as a sailor and then as an officer. Nonetheless, it was the favourable political context following the annexation of Brittany to the kingdom of France that prompted King François 1 to choose Cartier to replace the explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who had died on his last voyage.

First Voyage (1534)

Cartier’s orders for his first expedition were to search for a passage to the Pacific Ocean in the area around Newfoundland and possibly find precious metals. He left Saint-Malo on 20 April 1534 with two ships and 61 men and reached the coast of Newfoundland 20 days later. During his journey, Cartier passed several sites known to European fishers; he renamed them or noted them on his maps. After skirting the north shore of Newfoundland, Cartier and his ships entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the Strait of Belle Isle and traveled south, hugging the coast of the Magdalen Islands on 26 June and reaching what are now the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick three days later. He then navigated towards the west, crossing Chaleur Bay and reaching Gaspé, where he encountered Iroquois-speaking Aboriginal people from the region of Québec, who had come to the area for their annual seal hunt. After the planting a cross and engaging in some trading and negotiations, Cartier’s ships left on 25 July with two of the Iroquois chief Donnacona’s sons and returned to France by following the coast of Anticosti Island and re-crossing the Strait of Belle Isle.

Second Voyage (1535-6)

The expedition of 1535 was more important than the first expedition and included 110 people and three medium-sized ships – the Grande Hermine [the Great Stoat], the Petite Hermine [the Lesser Stoat] and the Émérillon [the Merlin] – which had been adapted for river navigation. They left Brittany in mid-May 1535 and reached Newfoundland after a long, 50-day crossing. Following the itinerary from the previous year, they entered the Gulf, then travelled the “Canada River” (later named the St. Lawrence River) upstream, guided by the Iroquois chief’s sons to the village of Stadacona on the site of what is now the city of Québec. Given the extent of their planned explorations, the French decided to spend the winter there and settled at the mouth of the St. Charles River. Against the advice of Chief Donnacona, Cartier decided to continue sailing up the river towards Hochelaga, now the city of Montréal, which he reached on 2 October 1535. There he met other Iroquois, who tantalized Cartier with the prospect of a sea in the middle of the country. By the time Cartier returned to Stadacona (Québec), relations with the Aboriginal people there had deteriorated, but they nonetheless helped the poorly organized French to survive scurvy thanks to a remedy made from evergreen trees. When spring came, the French decided to return to Europe and took a dozen Stadaconiens with them as hostages. However, rumours of a kingdom rich in precious metals encouraged the French to resume their explorations of the area.

Third Voyage (1541-2)

The war in Europe led to a delay in returning to Canada, with the further result that the plans for the voyage were changed. This expedition was to include close to 800 people and involve a major attempt to colonize the region. The explorations were left to Cartier, but the logistics and colonial management of the expedition were entrusted to Jean-François de La Rocque, sieur de Roberval a senior military officer who was responsible for recruitment, loading weapons onto the ships, and bringing on craftsmen and a number of prisoners. Just as the expedition was to begin, delays in the preparations and the vagaries of the war with Spain meant that only half the personnel (led by Cartier) were sent to Canada in May 1541 by Roberval, who eventually came the following year. Cartier and his men settled the new colony several kilometres upstream from Québec at the confluence of the Cap Rouge and St. Lawrence rivers. While the colonists and craftsmen built the forts, Cartier decided to sail toward Hochelaga, but when he returned, a bloody battle had broken out with the Stadaconiens.

Return to France

In a state of relative siege during the winter, and not expecting the arrival of Roberval until spring, Cartier decided to abandon the colony at the end of May, having first filled a dozen barrels with what he believed were precious stones and metal. At a stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland, however, Cartier met de La Rocque de Roberval’s fleet and was given the order to return to Cap Rouge. Refusing to obey, Cartier sailed toward France under the cover of darkness. The stones and metal that he brought back turned out to be worthless and Cartier was never reimbursed by the king for the money he had borrowed from the Breton merchants. After this misadventure, he returned to business and died about fifteen years later at his estate at Limoilou near Saint-Malo. Cartier nonetheless kept his reputation as the first European to have explored and mapped this part of the Americas, which later became the French axis of power in North America.