French navigator Jacques Cartier sailed into the St. Lawrence River for the first time on June 9, 1534. Commissioned by King Francis I of France to explore the northern lands in search of gold, spices, and a northern passage to Asia, Cartier’s voyages underlay France’s claims to Canada.
Born in 1491 in the coastal village of Saint-Malo, France, Jacques Cartier was an experienced navigator familiar with the routes that Breton fishermen followed to the New World. In command of the king’s 1534 expedition, Cartier set sail from France on April 20, 1534, with two ships and sixty-one men.
Cartier and his men ventured north through the Belle Isle Straits and across the Bay of St. Lawrence to Prince Edward Island where they made contact with the Native Americans of that region, members of the Iroquois nation.
Cartier forced Native-American guides to accompany him and headed northwest to Anticosti Island. After several days of sailing in that area, Cartier believed that he had discovered a new seaway to Asia’s riches, but he returned to France without confirmation.
On his second voyage in 1536, Cartier returned to the St. Lawrence River with additional ships and men and made his way upriver to an Indian village at present-day Quebec. In September, after a brief foray to the area around present-day Montreal, Cartier’s expedition arrived at the La Chine Rapids. When his Indian guides informed him of three additional stretches of rapids beyond La Chine, Cartier abandoned the push forward and returned to his base camp. Unprepared for the severe winter weather, many of his men died of malnutrition. Cartier set sail for France in May 1536.
Cartier made his third and final voyage to the New World in 1541. The king named Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval commander of the colonizing expedition but Cartier, commander of his own ship, arrived in the Quebec region before Roberval. Poor relations with Native-American tribes jeopardized attempts at settlement. Cartier again returned to France without venturing beyond the rapids, this time flouting Roberval’s orders to return to Quebec. Cartier never ventured to Canada again, but his detailed observations recorded in notes and maps aided subsequent French explorers and settlers who ventured to “New France.”
- Search loc.gov on explorer for information about European exploration of the Americas.
- Search the collection Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 on the terms St. Lawrence River, Montreal, Quebec, or Canada for scenic views of the region that Cartier explored.
- France in America, a collaborative bilingual digital project between the Library of Congress and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, explores the history of the French presence in North America from the first decades of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century. View the section on Cartier’s attempts at colonization. Search on Cartier for other materials on exploration in this collection.
- Compare early maps of the Americas featured in the Memory section of the American Treasures exhibition. The map, Early Image of the Americas, was produced in Rome in 1507. The American continent is visible on the left, but its coastline is only vaguely recognizable. In Mapping the New Discoveries (1562), by Spanish cartographer Diego Gutiérrez, the shape of the newly discovered continent appears in greater and more accurate detail.
- Map Collections includes the 1562 Diego Gutiérrez map of the Americas. Take a close look at sections of the map and read the Spanish captions using the “Zoom” feature. See also, the 1775 map Vue de Quebec, capitale du Canad.
- Visit the exhibition 1492, An Ongoing Voyage to view more treasures related to the exploration of America and the earliest contacts between European and Native American cultures.
- Explore documents related to Canadian history. Visit Early Canadiana OnlineExternal, a joint project of the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions (CIHM), the National Library of Canada External, the Université Laval Library External, the University of Toronto Library External, and the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec External.