Chronicles of America 

Jacques Cartier's Voyages

The closing quarter of the fifteenth century in Europe has usually been regarded by historians as marking the end of the Middle Ages. The era of feudal chaos had drawn to a close and states were being welded together under the leadership of strong dynasties. With this consolidation came the desire for expansion, for acquiring new lands, and for opening up new channels of influence. Spain, Portugal, and England were first in the field of active exploration, searching for stores of precious metals and for new routes to the coasts of Ormuz and of India. In this quest for a short route to the half-fabulous empires of Asia they had literally stumbled upon a new continent which they had made haste to exploit. France, meanwhile, was dissipating her energies on Spanish and Italian battlefields. It was not until the peace of Cambrai in 1529 ended the struggle with Spain that France gave any attention to the work of gaining some foothold in the New World. By that time Spain had become firmly entrenched in the lands which border the Caribbean Sea; her galleons were already bearing home their rich cargoes of silver bullion. Portugal, England, and even Holland had already turned with zeal to the exploration of new lands in the East and the West: French fishermen, it is true, were lengthening their voyages to the west; every year now the rugged old Norman and Breton seaports were sending their fleets of small vessels to gather the harvests of the sea. But official France took no active interest in the regions toward which they went. Five years after the peace of Cambrai the Breton port of St. Malo became the starting point of the first French voyageur to the St. Lawrence. Francis I had been persuaded to turn his thoughts from gaming and gallantries to the trading prospects of his kingdom, with the result that in 1534 Jacques Cartier was able to set out on his first voyage of discovery. Cartier is described in the records of the time as a corsair--which means that he had made a business of roving the seas to despoil the enemies of France. St. Malo, his birthplace and home, on the coast of Brittany, faces the English Channel somewhat south of Jersey, the nearest of the Channel Islands. The town is set on high ground which projects out into the sea, forming an almost landlocked harbor where ships may ride at ease during the most tumultuous gales. It had long been a notable nursery of hardy fishermen and adventurous navigators, men who had pressed their way to all the coasts of Europe and beyond.

Cartier was one of these hardy sailors. His fathers before him had been mariners, and he had himself learned the way of the great waters while yet a mere youth. Before his expedition of 1534 Jacques Cartier had probably made a voyage to Brazil and had in all probability more than once visited the Newfoundland fishing-banks. Although, when he sailed from St. Malo to become the pathfinder of a new Bourbon imperialism, he was forty-three years of age and in the prime of his days, we know very little of his youth and early manhood. It is enough that he had attained the rank of a master-pilot and that, from his skill in seamanship, he was considered the most dependable man in all the kingdom to serve his august sovereign in this important enterprise.

Cartier shipped his crew at St. Malo, and on the 20th of April, 1534, headed his two small ships across the great Atlantic. His company numbered only threescore souls in all. Favored by steady winds his vessels made good progress, and within three weeks he sighted the shores of Newfoundland where he put into one of the many small harbors to rest and refit his ships. Then, turning northward, the expedition passed through the straits of Belle Isle and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Coasting along the northern shore of the Gulf for a short distance, Cartier headed his ships due southward, keeping close to the western shore of the great island almost its whole length; he then struck across the lower Gulf and, moving northward once more, reached the Baie des Chaleurs on the 6th July. Here the boats were sent ashore and the French were able to do a little trading with the Indians. About a week later, Cartier went northward once more and soon sought shelter from a violent gulf storm by anchoring in Gaspe Bay. On the headland there he planted a great wooden cross with the arms of France, the first symbol of Bourbon dominion in the New Land, and the same symbol that successive explorers, chanting the "Vexilla Regis", were in time to set aloft from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. It was the augury of the white man's coming.

Crossing next to the southerly shore of Anticosti the voyageurs almost circled the island until the constant and adverse winds which Cartier met in the gradually narrowing channel forced him to defer indefinitely his hope of finding a western passage, and he therefore headed his ships back to Belle Isle. It was now mid-August, and the season of autumnal storms was drawing near. Cartier had come to explore, to search for a westward route to the Indies, to look for precious metals, not to establish a colony. He accordingly decided to set sail for home and, with favoring winds, was able to reach St. Malo in the early days of September.

In one sense the voyage of 1534 had been a failure. No stores of mineral wealth had been discovered and no short route to Cipango or Cathay. Yet the spirit of exploration had been awakened. Carrier's recital of his voyage had aroused the interest of both the King and his people, so that the navigator's request for better equipment to make another voyage was readily granted. On May 19, 1535, Cartier once more set forth from St. Malo, this time with three vessels and with a royal patent, empowering him to take possession of new lands in his sovereign's name. With Cartier on this voyage there were over one hundred men, of whom the majority were hardened Malouins, veterans of the sea. How he found accommodation for all of them, with supplies and provisions, in three small vessels whose total burden was only two hundred and twenty tons, is not least among the mysteries of this remarkable voyage.

The shipbuilders old measure for determining tonnage was to multiply the length of a vessel minus three-quarters of the beam by the beam, then to multiply the product by one-half the beam, then to divide this final product by 94. The resulting quotient was the tonnage. On this basis Cartier's three ships were 67 feet length by 23 feet beam, 57 feet length by 17 feet beam, and 48 feet length by 17 feet beam, respectively.

The trip across the ocean was boisterous, and the clumsy caravels had a hard time breasting the waves. The ships were soon separated by alternate storms and fog so that all three did not meet at their appointed rendezvous in the Straits of Belle Isle until the last week in July. Then moving westward along the north, shore of the Gulf, they passed Anticosti, crossed to the Gaspe shore, circled back as far as the Mingan islands, and then resumed a westward course up the great river. As the vessels stemmed the current but slowly, it was well into September when they cast anchor before the Indian village of Stadacona which occupied the present site of Lower Quebec.

Since it was now too late in the season to think of returning at once to France, Cartier decided to spend the winter at this point. Two of the ships were therefore drawn into the mouth of a brook which entered the river just below the village, while the Frenchmen established acquaintance with the savages and made preparations for a trip farther up the river in the smallest vessel. Using as interpreters two young Indians whom he had captured in the Gaspe region during his first voyage in the preceding year, Cartier was able to learn from the Indians at Stadacona that there was another settlement of importance at Hochelaga, now Montreal. The navigator decided to use the remaining days of autumn in a visit to this settlement, although the Stadacona Indians strenuously objected, declaring that there were all manner of dangers and difficulties in the way. With his smallest vessel and about half of his men, Cartier, however, made his way up the river during the last fortnight in September.

Near the point where the largest of the St. Lawrence rapids bars the river gateway to the west the Frenchman found Hochelaga nestling between the mountain and the shore, in the midst of "goodly and large fields full of corn such as the country yieldeth." The Indian village, which consisted of about fifty houses, was encircled by three courses of palisades, one within the other. The natives received their visitors with great cordiality, and after a liberal distribution of trinkets the French learned from them some vague snatches of information about the rivers and great lakes which lay to the westward "where a man might travel on the face of the waters for many moons in the same direction." But as winter was near Cartier found it necessary to hurry back to Stadacona, where the remaining members of his expedition had built a small fort or "habitation" during his absence.

Everything was made ready for the long season of cold and snow, but the winter came on with unusual severity. The neighboring Indians grew so hostile that the French hardly dared to venture from their narrow quarters. Supplies ran low, and to make matters worse the pestilence of scurvy came upon the camp. In February almost the entire company was stricken down and nearly one quarter of them had died before the emaciated survivors learned from the Indians that the bark of a white spruce tree boiled in water would afford a cure. The Frenchmen dosed themselves with the Indian remedy, using a whole tree in less than a week, but with such revivifying results that Cartier hailed the discovery as a genuine miracle. When spring appeared, the remnant of the company, now restored to health and vigor, gladly began their preparations for a return to France. There was no ardor among them for a further exploration of this inhospitable land. As there were not enough men to handle all three of the ships, they abandoned one of them, whose timbers were uncovered from the mudbank in 1843, more than three centuries later. Before leaving Stadacona, however, Cartier decided to take Donnacona, the head of the village, and several other Indians as presents to the French King. It was natural enough that the master-pilot should wish to bring his sovereign some impressive souvenir from the new domains, yet this sort of treachery and ingratitude was unpardonable. Donnacona and all these captives but one little Indian maiden died in France, and his people did not readily forget the lesson of European duplicity. By July the expedition was back in the harbor of St. Malo, and Cartier was promptly at work preparing for the King a journal of his experiences.

Cartier's account of his voyage which has come down to us contains many interesting details concerning the topography and life of the new land. The Malouin captain was a good navigator as seafaring went in his day, a good judge of distance at sea, and a keen observer of landmarks. But he was not a discriminating chronicler of those things which we would now wish to understand--for example, the relationship and status of the various Indian tribes with which he came into contact. All manner of Indian customs are superficially described, particularly those which presented to the French the aspect of novelty, but we are left altogether uncertain as to whether the Indians at Stadacona in Cartier's time were of Huron or Iroquois or Algonquin stock. The navigator did not describe with sufficient clearness, or with a due differentiation of the important from the trivial, those things which ethnologists would now like to know.

It must have been a disappointment not to be able to lay before the King any promise of great mineral wealth to be found in the new territory. While at Hochelaga Cartier had gleaned from the savages some vague allusions to sources of silver and copper in the far northwest, but that was all. He had not found a northern Eldorado, nor had his quest of a new route to the Indies been a whit more fruitful. Cartier had set out with this as his main motive, but had succeeded only in finding that there was no such route by way of the St. Lawrence. Though the King was much interested in his recital of courage and hardships, he was not fired with zeal for spending good money in the immediate equipping of another expedition to these inhospitable shores.

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