Jacques Cartier and the St Lawrence River

The Renaissance in the sixteenth century in Europe was a time of great discoveries, with many overseas explorations aiming to find new lands and precious goods, especially gold and spices. It was the Age of Discovery, which saw the rise of famous explorers such as Christopher Columbus, who opened the way to the Americas for the first time in 1492, and Magellan, completing the first tour around the world between 1519 and 1522, which we already looked into in a previous magazine.

In the race to find a direct sea route to the Indies, the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese led the way. This is especially true after Vasco de Gamma completed the first expedition to reach India in 1497-1499, consolidating Portugal’s maritime presence and dominance of global trade routes. But a western passage was still to be discovered and King Francis I of France commissioned Jacques Cartier to explore the “northern lands”.

Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada

Little is known about the early life of the French mariner. Born in Saint-Malo in 1491, Jacques Cartier appears to have been the son of a local fisherman and, from a young age learnt to sail and navigate the seas. Some historians believe that Cartier might have been involved in fishing campaigns off the coast of Newfoundland, as well as exploratory missions to Brazil.   His wedding to the daughter of a local dignitary improved his social status and helped him develop his network, which led him to meet King Francis I in 1532. As a result, Cartier was commissioned by the King to lead three expeditions to find a way to Asia and bring back riches and in doing so he was following in the footsteps of the Italian navigator John Cabot, who first re-discovered mainland North America in 1497 - the first time since the Vikings five hundred years before.

The first expedition of two ships and 61 men started in 1534. After 20 days of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Cartier reached Newfoundland and explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence, producing the first map of the area. He established a first contact with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Native Americans who had originally lived along the shores of the eponymous river.  They spoke of its existence and the riches that could be found there. Cartier sailed back to France with two members of the tribe with the aim of returning to find the river.

The second expedition, which started in May 1535 and lasted until July 1536, was made up of three ships and 110 men, including the two Native Americans who served as translators. On the first expedition, Cartier missed the entry to the estuary because it is more than 100km wide making hard to believe it is a river mouth.  However, this time with the help of the indigenous population, the three ships sailed up the St Lawrence River to Stadaconé, the settlement now known as Quebec City. At that point, the river becomes less navigable and the expedition had to continue with only one ship. Cartier continued to explore the area until reaching a bigger settlement, which is now known as Montreal. The harsh winter forced the navigator to spend the winter in Stadaconé where 25 members of the crew died of scurvy, forcing the expedition to return with only two ships, no gold or other riches and the lost hope of finding a way to Asia.

Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada

The main aim of the third expedition to North America was to establish a colony. On May 1541, Cartier sailed ahead with five ships followed by Jean-Francois Roberval, the leader of the new colony. The plan didn’t go as anticipated and the St Lawrence Iroquoians did not welcome the new settlers. After spending the winter there, Cartier finally left in June 1542 with a cargo of what he thought was diamonds and gold but which turned out to be quartz.

Source: Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #168

Cartier was disappointed not to find the Western Passage to the Indes or gold and diamonds, but his legacy is of great importance: not only did he draw the first map of the St Lawrence Gulf and river, he also opened the way for the French presence in Quebec with its legacy of the the French language (still spoken in Quebec), and Saint Pierre et Miquelon, the self governing overseas collectivity of France, the only remnant of the former colonial Empire that remains under French control. He was also the first man to name the ‘northern lands’ as Canada taken from the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian word  ‘kanata’, meaning settlement village, or land.