Canadian History: The First Europeans

The Vikings Visited Canada in 1000 AD

Christopher Columbus is generally credited with discovering the Americas in 1492. There is reliable evidence to indicate the presence of Europeans in Canada much earlier

The earliest accounts of a European presence in what is now Canada can be found in the Viking Sagas of Iceland and Greenland.

The First Europeans in Canada

According to the primary sources, the first European to see Canada was a Viking from Iceland named Bjarni Herjolfsson. It believed that Herjolfsson was blown off course while attempting to sail from Greenland to Iceland, sometime around the year 985. Before the turn of the first Millennium, there are thought to have been at least eight attempts to establish Viking colonies in the New World, the best known of these is the Viking settlement found in L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Sometime around the year 1000 Leif Ericsson returned with a crew of 35, eventually landing in three places.

  • Helluland-The Land of Stones, believed to have been Baffin Island.
  • Markland- The Land of Forests, believed to have been Labrador
  • Vinland- The Land of Grapes, believed to have been L’anse aux Meadows, Newfondland

L’anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Viking site known to exist outside of Europe, anywhere in the world. It was discovered in 1960 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1978.

The Basque

Early in the 16th Century, Basque fishermen and whalers set up nine fishing and whaling camps on Canada’s East Coast, the largest of which was at Red Bay. By the mid-16th Century the Basque had been joined by fishermen from England and France.

John Cabot

In 1497, the Italian explorer John Cabot sailed from England under the patronage of King Henry VII. Cabot’s purpose was to find a more direct route to the Orient. He eventually mapped the east coast of North America from Maryland to Baffin Island. Cabot returned on a second voyage, where he saw the extremely rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks for the first time.

The Origin of the Canadian Fur Trade

Throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries, European fishing fleets made annual visits to the east coast of Canada. As time went on, a side industry began to develop as European fishermen began to trade knives, axes and beads with the First Nations for furs, which served to fuel the growing appetite for beaver pelt hats in Europe. In 1583, a French nobleman, the Marquis de la Roche arrived in Canada with a royal monopoly, guaranteeing his total control over the Canadian fur trade.

Jacques Cartier

Meanwhile, the French explorer Jacques Cartier made several voyages to Canada in the 16th Century, to what was eventually called New France. He sailed up the St. Lawrence River, traveling as far as the La Chine Rapids. He was also the first European to see the Native villages of Stadacona and Hocheloga, which would eventually become Quebec City and Montreal.

Even though the fur trade was profitable for both the First Nations and the Europeans, the natives were decimated by small pox and other diseases that the Europeans brought with them, which often wiped out whole villages. As the European presence in North American continued to expand, the St. Lawrence River became an important transportation route, allowing trappers and hunters to sell their furs in Quebec City and Montreal to eager European buyers. The St. Lawrence River was also a strategic line of communication for both England and France, as the two nations battled for control of North America.

Works Cited

Pálsson, Hermann (1965). The Vinland sagas: the Norse discovery of America. Penguin Classics.

The Canadian Encyclopedia, Tadoussac, retrieved May 12/09Thomas H. Raddall, Halifax, Warden of the North, McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1971, pp. 18-21

Kenneth McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada, 2d ed. Pelican, 1976, p. 53

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