Jacques Cartier

Explorer

Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

Discovered the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and explored much of its area; gave Canada and Canadians their name.

Name: Jacques Cartier

Birth/Death: 1491 CE - 1557 CE

Nationality: French

Birthplace: France

Portrait of Jacques Cartier

Cartier Portrait

Jacques Cartier. Portrait by Théophile Hamel (1817-1870). Oil on canvas, painted approximately 1844 based on an 1839 painting, since destroyed, by François Riss. There are no known paintings of Cartier that were created during his lifetime. (Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

Early Life

  • Jacques Cartier was born in 1491 in Saint-Malo, France, off the coast of Brittany. His family were well-respected mariners.

  • To increase his social status, in 1520, he married a member of a leading family of Saint-Malo, Mary Catherine des Granches.

  • Until his first voyage of exploration, Cartier was a respected Master-Pilot, a rank equivalent to the first mate in today’s terms, who made several voyages to Newfoundland in order to fish.

Voyages

  • In 1534, Jacques Cartier received a royal commission from King Francis I of France to explore the New World in order to find a passage to China and to find precious metals in the area around Newfoundland. Cartier outfitted two ships and sailed from Saint-Malo on April 20, 1534. After a swift Atlantic crossing, he landed at Newfoundland on May 10, 1534.

  • Cartier spent three months thoroughly exploring the St. Lawrence Gulf, and named the majority of islands and other geological features in the gulf. During this time, he met with the Huron tribe led by Donnacona and later took two of the natives (possibly Donnacona’s sons), Domagaya and Taignoagny on his return to France. After Cartier’s discovery of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, he sailed for France and landed safely in Saint-Malo on September 5, 1534.

  • His second voyage began on May 19, 1535, after he received a royal commission to explore the St. Lawrence River to find precious minerals and a possible strait to China.

  • The three ships Cartier commanded were separated during the Atlantic crossing, but regrouped at Blanc Sablon on July 26, 1535, and began their expedition on July 29. At this point in the voyage the two Hurons that Cartier took in the first voyage began to tell him stories of the Kingdom of Saguenay, which was supposedly overflowing with riches. Cartier was distracted by searching for this kingdom for the remainder of his voyage and the next, and he spent several days looking for it in the St. Lawrence Gulf before going down the river.

  • On September 7, Cartier was met and welcomed by Donnacona’s tribe of Hurons at the future site of Quebec. Cartier had issues with his guides, Domagaya and Taignoagny, because Donnacona did not want Cartier to sail up the river; a rival chief was situated there and Donnacona feared an alliance between the French and the rival tribe.

  • On September 19, Cartier left Quebec to explore the remainder of the river and to find Saguenay. This portion of the voyage was the most difficult as the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec is full of rapids, shoals and ice. With the help of several Native American tribes they encountered along the way, Cartier reached the site of modern-day Montreal on October 2.

  • Because they could make it no further down the river due to rapids, Cartier turned back on October 4, and returned to Quebec on October 11.  It was too late in the season to return to France, so Cartier built a fort and decided to winter at Quebec. Over the course of the winter, the majority of his crew contracted scurvy. They were cured with the help of a local remedy using bark from the tree called annedda (possibly arbor vitae), which saved them, but left only 85 men alive. Short on men, they had to scuttle, or sink, La Petite Hermine before they left Quebec, as there were not enough men to sail the ship back to France.

  • When Spring arrived, Cartier decided to leave, and took Donnacona, his sons, and other Native Americans with him. Cartier left Quebec on May, 6 1536, and landed in Saint-Malo on July 15, 1536.

  • Donnacona spread the rumor of Saguenay in France, which caught the attention of King Francis I, who became very interested in the possibility of his own source of revenue in the new world, similar to the wealth Spain had found in Mexico. He organized a third expedition in order to find it, first under the command of Cartier, but at the last minute he changed his mind and placed Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval in command of the fleet.

  • Although the fleet of eight was supposed to sail together, Roberval was not ready on the appointed date. Cartier, along with five of the ships, sailed without Roberval on May 23, 1541, in order to find Saguenay and establish a French colony in mainland Canada.

  • The fleet anchored on August 23 and built the town of Charlesbourg in present-day Quebec. After work began on the colony, Cartier left in the longboats to explore further down the river in hopes of finding Saguenay. However, he was once again stopped by rapids and turned back on September 7, without ever finding the city of Saguenay.

  • Relations with the local Huron tribes had turned bad by the time that Cartier returned to Charlesbourg. In early June 1542, Cartier abandoned Charlesbourg and sailed back to Newfoundland. At Newfoundland, Cartier found Roberval’s three ships sitting in harbor.  Roberval ordered Cartier to return to Charlesbourg but Cartier left to return to Saint-Malo where he arrived in October 1542.

  • The settlement of Charlesbourg failed after its first winter due to Native American attacks, disease and foul weather, which drove the men to abandon it in 1543.

  • Cartier never returned to North America, and lived out his life as a prominent citizen in France.

  • Jacques Cartier died on September 1, 1557, most likely from typhus.

Notable Ships

  • Grande Hermine (a carrack used in the 1535-1536 voyage and 1541-1542 voyage)

  • Petite Hermine (a carrack used in the 1535-1536 voyage; abandoned in the Saint-Charles River, as too many sailors had died during the winter to man it)

  • L’Emerillon (used on the 1535-1536 voyage and the 1541-1542 voyage)

  • Georges (used on the 1541-1542 voyage)

  • Saint-Brieux (used on the 1541-1542 voyage)

Legacy

  • The discovery of the entrance to the St. Lawrence River became the main waterway for Europeans to enter North America.

  • His relationships with the native peoples along the St. Lawrence River, though at times hostile, was the foundation to allowing French settlement on their lands.

  • Cartier designated the territory name of “Canada.”