The Life of Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier

The Discoverer of the St. Lawrence River



Believed to be the first European to see the St. Lawrence River, Jacques Cartier claimed what is now the Province of Quebec for France.

Born in 1491, in Saint Malo, France, Jacques Cartier first went to sea as a boy, which was traditional during the 15th and 16th Centuries. The primary sources claim that Cartier may have taken part in the expeditions of Giovanni Verrazzano in 1524 and 1528. However, it is doubtful that Cartier would have participated in Verrazzano’s expeditions to the New World, out of regional pride.

Jacques Cariter’s First Voyage


In 1534, the Duchy of Brittany formally merged with France. Around the same time, Cartier was introduced to King Francois I by the Abbot of Mont-St. Michel. Later that year, Cartier set sail under a royal commission. Cartier’s aim was to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that great quantities of gold and other precious things are to be found.”

On May 10, 1534, Cartier arrived off the coast of Newfoundland and spent the rest of the summer exploring Canada’s east coast. On July 24, he erected a large wooden cross and a wooden plaque, with the words “long live the King of France,” carved into it. He also took two Iroquois natives back to France, promising to return them a year later.

Cartier returned to France in September, 1534, thinking, like John Cabot before him, that he had found the coast of Asia.

Jacques Cartier’s Second Voyage


The following year, Cartier returned to the New World, this time with three ships and 110 men, along with the two kidnapped natives. Upon sighting the coast, Cartier proceeded to sail up the St. Lawrence River to the Iroquois village of Stadacona and Hochelaga,, which would eventually become Quebec City and Montreal. Cartier believed that the St. Lawrence River was the beginning of the North West Passage and named the rapids near Montreal the Lechine, or China, Rapids.

Cartier spent two days at Hochelaga before returning to Stadacona, where he began making preparations to spend the winter.

From the middle of November, 1535 until the spring break-up in April, 1536, Cartier’s ships were frozen in the ice at the mouth of the St. Charles River. During the winter, Cartier’s men began to suffer from scurvy, which is caused by a lack of Vitamin C. Cartier’s crew would have died, were it not for the intervention of the First Nations, who gave the French a tea made with boiled cedar bark. When the ice melted in the spring of 1536, Cartier decided to take Chief Donnacona back to France with him, so that he could tell the story of the Kingdom of Sauguenay, which the Iroquois believed was ruled by blond men and filled with gold and other treasures.

Jacques Cartier’s Third Voyage

In 1540, Cartier returned to Canada with the rank of Captain General, under the command Jean-Francois de la Rocque de Roberval.

On May 23, 1541, Cartier set sail from Saint Malo with a convoy of five ships. His orders were to establish a colony on the banks of the St. Lawrence River and to search for the Kingdom of Saguenay.

Upon arrival in Canada, Cartier sailed upriver, establishing a settlement near present day Cap-Rouge, Quebec. The colony consisted of a walled settlement with a communal garden and a fort built on a high cliff overlooking the colony. Cartier named the settlement Charlesbourg-Royal.

At the same time, some of the colonists found what they believed to be gold and diamonds and Cartier sent two ships home with samples. However, a detailed analysis in France revealed that the samples were actually iron pyrite and quartz. The phrase “as false as diamonds from Canada,” became common in France following this discovery.

Meanwhile, Cartier took the expedition’s longboats and gone in search of the Kingdom of Saguenay. Cartier reached Hochelaga on September 7, but was prevented from continuing by a combination of rapids and bad weather. When he returned, Cartier found that the colony’s mood had changed. There are few details, but the First Nations are thought to have attacked the colony, killing 35 people. Matters were made worse that winter with an outbreak of scurvy. Cartier became convinced that he lacked the manpower to explore or defend the colony.

Cartier returned to France in June, 1542, leaving Roberval in command. The settlement was eventually abandoned in 1543 due to bad weather, disease and hostile natives. A successful French colony was eventually established by 17th Century explorer Samuel de Champlain.

Jacques Cartier’s Legacy

Having located and mapped the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, Cartier made it possible for other European explorers to colonize the interior of North America.

In August, 2006, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced that archaeologists had discovered the location of Cartier’s colony near the mouth of the Cap-Rouge River. The find has been called one of the most important since the discovery of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

Jacques Cartier died in September, 1557 at the age of 65.


Trudel, Marcel, Cartier, Jacques. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Nov.20/09

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