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Jacques Cartier

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Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier (December 31, 1491September 1 1557) was a French explorer who is popularly thought of as one of the major discoverers of Canada, or more specifically, the interior eastern region that would become the first european-inhabited area of that country.

Born in Saint-Malo, France in 1491, Cartier was part of a respectable family of mariners and improved his social status in 1520 by marrying Catherine des Granches, member of a leading ship-owning family. His good name in Saint-Malo is recognized by its frequent appearance in baptismal registers as godfather or witness.

No contemporary portrait of Jacques Cartier has been found and the most familiar portrait (see right) was painted by a Russian artist in 1839 for the city of Saint-Malo.

Very little information is available on Cartier's character and personality but his professional abilities can be easily ascertained. Considering that Cartier made three voyages of discovery in dangerous and hitherto unknown waters without losing a ship, that he entered and departed some fifty undiscovered harbours without serious mishap and that the only sailors he lost were victims of an epidemic ashore, he may be considered one of the most conscientious explorers of the period.

First Voyage 1534

The King of France, François I, chose him to find "certaines îles et pays où l'on dit qu'il se doit trouver grande quantité d'or et autres riches choses" ("certain islands and lands where it is said there are great quantities of gold and other riches"). In 1534 he set sail looking for a western passage to Asia. He explored parts of what are now Newfoundland (starting on May 10 of that year) and the Canadian Maritimes and where he learned of a river further west (the St. Lawrence River) that he believed might be the much searched-for northwest passage. He landed for the first time at present day Gaspé, Quebec where he planted a cross and claimed the territory for France. During this trip he took Domagaya and Taignoagny, the sons of Huron Chief Donnacona, back to Europe.

Second Voyage 1535-1536

Cartier set sail for a second voyage on May 19 of the following year with 3 ships, 110 men, and the two native boys (who were returned to the chief). He sailed upriver for the first time and reached the site of present-day Québec City, home of the Huron village of Stadacona where Donnacona was reunited with his two sons. Cartier left his main ships in a harbour close to Stadacona and used his smallest ship to continue upriver to visit Hochelaga (Montreal) and arrived on October 2, 1535. Much more impressive than the small and squalid village of Stadacona, more than a thousand Hurons came to the edge of the river to greet the Frenchmen. The site of their arrival has been confidently identified as the beginning of the Sainte-Marie sault, a location where the Jacques Cartier Bridge now stands.

After spending two days among the Hurons of Hochelaga, Cartier returned to Stadacona on October 11. It is not known exactly when Cartier decided to spend the winter of 1535-1536 in Canada but the decision must have been made by his arrival in Stadacona as it was by then too late to return to France. Cartier and his men prepared for winter by strengthening their fort, stacking firewood and salting down game and fish.

During this winter, Cartier compiled a sort of gazetteer which included several pages on the manner of the natives, in particular their habit of wearing only leggings and moccasins even in the dead of winter.

From mid-November 1535 to mid-April 1536 the French fleet lay frozen solid at the mouth of the St. Charles river, under the Rock of Quebec. Ice was over two fathom (1.8 m) thick in the river and snow four feet (1.2 m) deep ashore. To add to the discomfort, scurvy broke out, first among the Hurons and then among the French. By mid-February, Cartier states that "out of 110 that we were, not ten were well enough to help the others, a thing pitiful to see". Cartier estimates the number of Hurons dead at 50.

One of the natives who survived was Domagaya who had been taken to Europe by Cartier the previous year. Visiting the French fort for a friendly call, Cartier enquired and learned of him that a concoction made from a certain tree called annedda would cure scurvy. This remedy probably saved the expedition from destruction and by the end of the winter, 85 Frenchmen were alive.

Ready to sail back to France in early May 1536, Cartier decided to kidnap Donnacona so that he may personally tell the tale of a country further north, called Saguenay, that was said to be full of gold, rubies and other treasures. After a arduous trip down the St Lawrence river and a three weeks Atlantic crossing, Cartier and his men arrived in Saint-Malo on July 15 1536.

So ended the second and most profitable of Cartier's voyage, lasting fourteen months. Having already located the entrance, he now opened up the greatest waterway for penetrating North America. He had made an intelligent estimate of the resources of Canada, both natural and human, despite considerable exaggeration on the mineral side. Whilst some of his actions with respect to the natives were dishonorable, he did his best to establish friendship with the Huron up and down the Great River, an indispensable preliminary to French settlement.

Third Voyage 1541-1542

On May 23, 1541 Cartier departed Saint-Malo on his third voyage with five ships. This time, any thoughts of finding a passage to the Orient was forgotten and the goal was to find the Kingdom of Saguenay and its riches and also to establish a permanent settlement along the Saint Lawrence River.

Anchoring at Stadacona on August 23 1541, Cartier met the Hurons but found their "show of joy" and their numbers worrisome and decided not to build his settlement there. Sailing nine miles upriver to a spot he had previously observed, he decided to settle on the site of present day Cap-Rouge. The convicts and other colonists were landed, the cattle which had survived three months aboard ship were turned loose, earth broken for a kitchen garden and seeds of cabbage, turnip and lettuce were planted. A fortified settlement was thus created which was named Charlesbourg-Royal. Another fort was also built on the falaise overlooking the settlement for added protection.

The men also began collecting quartz crystal ("diamonds") and iron pyrites ("gold"). Two of the ships were dispatched home with some minerals on September 2.

Having set tasks for everyone, Cartier left with the longboats for a reconnaissance of the Saguenay on September 7. Having reached Hochelaga, bad weather and the numerous rapids prevented him to continue up to the Ottawa river.

Returning to Charlesbourg-Royal, Cartier finds the situation ominous. The Hurons no longer made friendly visits or peddled fish and game, but prowled about in a sinister manner. No records exists about the winter of 1541-1542 and the information must be gleaned for the few details provided from returning sailors. It seems that the Indians attacked and killed about 35 settlers before the Frenchmen could retreat behind the fortifications. Even though scurvy was cured through the native remedy, the impression left is of a general misery and of Cartier's growing conviction that he had insufficient manpower both to protect his base and go in search of Saguenay. Everyone boarded the three remaining ships in early June 1542 and arrived back in Europe in October 1542.

Cartier spent the rest of his life in Saint-Malo and his nearby estate, and died aged 66 on September 1 1557 from an epidemic. He died before any permanent European settlements were made in Canada; that had to wait for Samuel de Champlain in 1608.

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