Exploring Canada: The Uncharted Routes of Jacques Cartier

Immerse yourself in the explorations of French explorer Jacques Cartier, the navigator who mapped the Lawrence River.

Jacques Cartier, the renowned French explorer, is credited with shaping the history of Canada through his remarkable voyages and discoveries. Born on December 31, 1491, in Saint-Malo, France, Cartier embarked on several expeditions to the New World, commissioned by King Francis I, in search of wealth and a new route to Asia. His voyages led him to explore the St. Lawrence River and establish France's claim to the lands that would later become Canada. This article delves into the life, adventures, and lasting legacy of Jacques Cartier.

The Explorations of Jacques Cartier

powered by Proxi

Early Life and Explorations

Jacques Cartier's passion for exploration and discovery was evident from an early age. Born and raised in the bustling port city of Saint-Malo, he developed a deep fascination with the sea and its mysteries. Cartier honed his navigational skills while sailing the Atlantic, exploring various regions, including Brazil, before embarking on his major North American voyages.

The First Voyage: Venturing the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Jacques Cartier's first voyage, commissioned by King Francis I of France, commenced on April 20, 1534. The goal of this expedition was to discover a western passage to Asia, as well as to find riches such as gold and spices.

Departing from the port of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France, with two ships and 61 men, Cartier sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, following a route similar to the one taken by the Italian explorer John Cabot half a century earlier. After a 20-day journey, Cartier and his crew sighted land: the west coast of Newfoundland.

From there, they sailed through the Strait of Belle Isle, between Labrador and Newfoundland, and entered the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Cartier explored and mapped much of the gulf, including Anticosti Island, which he named "Assomption."

As they ventured further into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Cartier and his crew came upon Prince Edward Island. They then continued to explore, visiting the Magdalen Islands and Chaleur Bay. It was in Gaspé Bay that Cartier had an encounter with the native Iroquoians. Here, he planted a cross bearing the words "Long Live the King of France," thus claiming the land for France.

Before returning to France, Cartier also visited the Baie des Chaleurs and the Gaspé Peninsula. He returned to Saint-Malo on September 5, 1534. Despite not finding a passage to Asia or the riches he had hoped for, Cartier's first voyage was significant. He had claimed what would become Canada for France and paved the way for further exploration of the region. His detailed accounts of the voyage also provided Europeans with their first accurate description of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and its people.

The Second Voyage: Navigating the St. Lawrence River

Jacques Cartier's second voyage, launched in May 1535, was a more extensive exploration of the New World. Commissioned by King Francis I of France, Cartier set sail from Saint-Malo with three ships: the Grande Hermine, the Petite Hermine, and the Émérillon. Accompanying him were 110 men, including two Indigenous guides he had taken from their homeland during his first voyage.

The primary objective of this expedition was to explore further the St. Lawrence River and establish a French presence in the region. Following the directions given by his Indigenous guides, Cartier navigated through the treacherous waters of the river. This journey led Cartier to the site of present-day Quebec City, which was then a large Iroquois village named Stadacona.

Cartier and his crew spent some time in Stadacona, establishing a cordial relationship with the local Iroquois. From them, he learned about another significant settlement, Hochelaga, located farther up the St. Lawrence River. Intrigued by the tales of other rivers leading westward, rumored to hold vast riches, Cartier decided to explore further.

Leaving a group of his men at Stadacona, Cartier and the rest of his crew sailed up the river to Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montreal. There, they were welcomed by the local people and were shown Mount Royal, from which Montreal gets its name. However, their further progress was impeded by the Lachine Rapids, which proved too dangerous to navigate.

While the tales of wealth and potential passages to Asia were enticing, Cartier's expedition was plagued by hardship. The winter of 1535-36 was particularly harsh, and the crew was ill-prepared for the severe cold and lack of fresh food, leading to an outbreak of scurvy. Additionally, relations with the Iroquois became strained, adding to the difficulties the crew faced.

Despite these setbacks and the fact that they could not confirm the existence of the rumored riches, Cartier's second voyage was instrumental in furthering France's knowledge and claim over the territory. It also marked the first detailed European record of life in North America, including descriptions of the environment, flora, fauna, and the cultures of the indigenous peoples.

In May 1536, Cartier and his crew began their journey back to France, taking with them Chief Donnacona, a leader from Stadacona, along with several other Iroquois. They arrived back in Saint-Malo in July, ending a significant chapter in the history of New World exploration.

The Third Voyage: Establishing a Permanent Settlement

Jacques Cartier's third and final voyage, which began in May 1541, was a significantly different endeavor from his previous explorations. This time, his mission was not to find a passage to Asia but to establish a permanent French settlement in the New World. To this end, he set sail from Saint-Malo with five ships and a large number of colonists.

Cartier reached the St. Lawrence River and chose a site near the Iroquois village of Stadacona (present-day Quebec City) to establish a settlement. He named it Charlesbourg-Royal and built two forts, Fort Saint-Louis and Fort La Petite Hermine. These forts were meant to serve as a base for further exploration and a defense against potential attacks by the indigenous people.

During that winter, Cartier's crew discovered what they believed to be an abundance of gold and diamonds near the settlement. Elated by this supposed finding, Cartier decided to return to France in the spring with samples of these treasures. He left behind some colonists, including Sieur de Roberval, who had been appointed by King Francis I to lead the settlement.

Upon his arrival in France, Cartier presented the supposed gold and diamonds to the court. However, these were later identified as iron pyrite (fool's gold) and quartz - worthless in terms of their anticipated wealth. This revelation, coupled with the hardships endured by the colonists left behind at Charlesbourg-Royal, led to disillusionment with the venture.

The colonists who remained experienced a harsh winter and faced hostility from the indigenous population. When Cartier returned to fetch them, he found the settlement deserted. It appeared that the colonists had either died or abandoned the settlement.

The failure of the settlement and Cartier's exaggerated claims resulted in the loss of interest in the region by the French crown. It would take several decades before Samuel de Champlain would rekindle French interest in the region, leading to the establishment of Quebec City in 1608.

Despite the disappointing end to his final voyage, Jacques Cartier's explorations laid the groundwork for the French colonization of North America. His detailed accounts of the region and its indigenous peoples provided valuable information for future explorers and settlers.

Legacy and Controversies

Despite his contributions to the exploration of North America, Jacques Cartier's legacy is not without controversy. His dealings with the Iroquois, including the capture of their chiefs, strained relations between the French and Indigenous peoples in the region. Additionally, his abandonment of the settlement and exaggerated reports tarnished his reputation as a reliable explorer.

However, Cartier's exploration of the St. Lawrence River laid the foundation for France's claim to the Canadian territories. His voyages opened the door for future expeditions and ultimately led to the establishment of permanent settlements by French explorers and colonists.

Rediscovery of Cartier's First Colony

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in Cartier's first colony, known as Charlesbourg-Royal. Archaeologists have conducted excavations in an effort to uncover the remains of the settlement. The rediscovery of Cartier's first colony provides valuable insights into the challenges faced by early European settlers and sheds light on the experiences of those who ventured to the New World.

Ships Used by Cartier

Throughout his voyages, Jacques Cartier utilized several ships that played a crucial role in his explorations. The most notable of these were the Grande Hermine, the Petite Hermine, and the Emerillon. These vessels were instrumental in navigating the treacherous waters of the Atlantic and the St. Lawrence River, enabling Cartier and his crew to reach new lands and make significant discoveries.

Monuments and Artistic Remembrances

Jacques Cartier's explorations have been commemorated in various forms, including monuments and artistic representations. In Quebec City, a statue of Cartier stands as a tribute to his contributions to Canadian history. Additionally, artists have depicted Cartier's voyages in paintings and sculptures, capturing the spirit of adventure and discovery that defined his expeditions.

Popular References to Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier's expeditions and contributions to Canada's history have left a lasting impact on popular culture. His name and exploits frequently appear in literature, films, and educational materials, serving as a reminder of his significance as an explorer and the impact he had on the development of Canada.


Jacques Cartier's bold and ambitious voyages to North America opened new chapters in the history of exploration. His expeditions laid the groundwork for French colonization in Canada and established France's claim to the vast territories of the St. Lawrence River. While controversies surround his interactions with Indigenous peoples and his abandonment of settlements, Cartier's legacy remains intertwined with the story of Canada's early exploration and settlement. His name endures as a symbol of adventure, discovery, and the enduring spirit of exploration that shaped the world we know today.

No items found.

Adventure Awaits!

How would you like to plot your course!?