Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), French explorer and navigator, may truly be said to have discovered Canada. His voyages were the key to the cartography of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and he named the land around it "Canada."
Born in Saint-Malo in Brittany, Jacques Cartier probably had already been on trading and exploring missions to Brazil and Newfoundland when Francis I of France first approached him about a French expedition to the New World in 1532. In April of 1534, Cartier set out in two ships to discover, if he could, "certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found."
Cartier had a remarkably good run, reaching Newfoundland after a mere 20 days. It says much about Cartier's skill as navigator as well as about sixteenth-century navigation that his calculation of the latitude of Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, was only about 11 miles off its true latitude. West of the Strait of Belle Isle, Cartier encountered a French ship from La Rochelle. It is clear from his account that French and Portuguese fishermen had frequented these coasts for some time past. It is altogether probable that western European fishermen had been fishing around Newfoundland well before even John Cabot's voyage of 1497.
Cartier disliked the inhospitable look of the land on the south coast of Labrador and turned southward along the west coast of Newfoundland, crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sighted the fertile Prince Edward Island, and arrived in mid-July of 1534 at Gaspé on the mainland. After exploring Anticosti Island in the St. Lawrence estuary but, because of bad weather, missing the St. Lawrence River, he returned to France, arriving in Saint-Malo in September of 1534.
Almost at once he was recommissioned by Francis I for a more imposing expedition in 1535, this time with three ships, including the Grande Hermine. Leaving Saint-Malo in the middle of May, Cartier went straight for the estuary of the St. Lawrence where he had left off the year before. Using information gained from natives, he went up the great river, noting how the water turned gradually from salt to fresh, and arrived at the site of the Iroquois village of Stadacona (modern Quebec City) early in September of 1535. He continued up the river, anchored his ship, the Emérillon, at Lake St. Peter, and made the rest of his way to the native village of Hochelaga (modern Montreal) by longboat. When he arrived in October, he found a thriving, fortified Iroquois village nestled at the foot of a hill that he called Mont Réal. From the top of this hill he could see the rapids, later to be called Lachine, that blocked further navigation westward.
Cartier spent the winter of 1535 and 1536 back at Stadacona, where his men had built a primitive fort. It was a cold winter even by Canadian standards. From mid-November until mid-April, Cartier's ships were icebound. Worse still was scurvy, brought on by absence of fresh fruit and vegetables--basically the lack of vitamin C. Of Cartier's 110 men, only 10 were still well by February of 1536, and 25 men eventually died. The native peoples had a remedy for scurvy that Cartier learned about just in time: an infusion made from the bark of white cedar, which produced massive quantities of vitamin C and by which the men were quickly restored.
Cartier returned to France in May of 1536 and took ten Indians (including four children) with him, promising to bring them back to Canada on his next voyage. All but one of them had died, however, by the time the next expedition got under way in 1541. This time the expedition was under the leadership of Jean François de la Rocque de Roberval, and it was much larger than the earlier ones, with settlers included among about 1,500 men and with eight ships. Cartier left before Roberval, who was waiting for his guns, and arrived in August of 1541 at Stadacona.
This time Cartier set up camp a few miles above Stadacona, wintered more comfortably than before, and, finding no sign of Roberval in the spring, set off for France in June of 1542. At St. John's harbor, Newfoundland, Cartier met Roberval, who ordered him to return to Quebec. For a variety of reasons, some of them related doubtless to deteriorating relations with the native population, Cartier preferred not to return and slipped away for France under the cover of darkness. He settled down at a country estate not far from Saint-Malo. In 1520 he had married Catherine des Granches, but they had no children. Cartier died on September 1, 1557, at Saint-Malo.
- H. P. Biggar edited Cartier's record of his explorations, The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (1924). Biographical accounts of Cartier are in John Bartlet Brebner, The Explorers of North America, 1492-1806 (1933); Lawrence J. Burpee, The Discovery of Canada (1944); and Alida Sims Malkus, Blue-Water Boundary: Epic Highway of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence (1960). Cartier is discussed in Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971), a readable and well-documented study.