10 May 2012

10 May - Cartier Explores the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Today in 1534, Jacques Cartier, a Breton navigator sailing for King Francis of France, began exploring the coast of Newfoundland, the Canadian Maritimes, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Two ships carrying sixty men under his command left St. Malo on the 20th of April, and after twenty days of prosperous sailing weather, they sighed Cape Bonavista.  From there, it still being rather wintery conditions, they moved southeast where they took refuge in a harbor that they named St. Katherine.

For roughly three months, Cartier and his men explored the area seen in the map opposite, but in the first week of August, with the winds and tides making sailing difficult, they decided to head for home, resolving to come back the following year and continue their explorations.  After celebrating the feast of the Assumption on August 15, they set sail and arrived back in the port of St. Malo on the 5th of September.

Like many before and after him, Cartier was looking for a westward passage to the fabled riches of the East Indies.  Like many before and after him, he thought he had done so, or at least found one of the islands wherein great riches awaited.  He spent the winter in France getting more ships and men together, and sailed again the following May, when he moved up what he was certain was a northwest passage.  It was instead the St. Lawrence River, but after wintering over in the ice-bound St. Charles River, he persuaded the local chief to go back to France with him to tell King Francis personally of the fabulously wealthy Kingdom of Saguenay somewhere to the north. 

Due to the increasing strife between France and Spain, which came to a head in 1536, and the loss of influential friends at court, it would be five years before Cartier sailed again for the New World.  This time, his orders included the disparate duties of looking for that fabulously wealthy country and, at the same time, assisting in the permanent settlement of the lands along the St. Lawrence River.  The project was under the command of the new Viceroy of the lands in Canada, Jean-Francois de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, with Cartier as Captain-General. 

Finding settlers was not an easy task. As usual, giving one’s descendents the entrĂ©e to exclusive “First Settlers” organizations does not seem to have greatly influenced anyone to be one of those First Settlers.  The king finally had to issue instructions for Roberval and Cartier to search the prisons of Paris and other major cities of France, and fill their crews with those convicts under sentence of death, excluding those guilty of high treason, counterfeiting, and heresy. 

While Roberval stayed behind to get the last of his supplies, Cartier with five ships and provisions sufficient for two years sailed from France on 23 May 1541, arriving, after a stormy voyage, late in June.  Here he waited six weeks for Roberval’s arrival before finally losing patience and moving up the St. Lawrence River without him. On the 23rd of August the ships arrived at the site of modern Cap-Rouge, Quebec. Cartier and his advance team of about 400 settlers left the five ships on which they had spent the last three months and built a fortified settlement, which he called Charlesbourg-Royal.  That done, Cartier went exploring again.

What happened during that winter is a matter for conjecture. In spite of the ample provisions and the fortifications, the settlement did not flourish.  The winter was extremely long and bitter.  Relations with their Iroquoian neighbors were strained, especially when they learned that the chief who had accompanied Cartier to France in 1536 had died there. [Actually, of the ten natives who had gone to France with the promise that they would return to their homes within the year, only one little girl had survived.] To mitigate the hostility he knew would be aimed at the Frenchmen, Cartier said that the others had become great lords in France, and did not wish to return.  It didn’t work.  The natives remained hostile.  Roberval remained absent.

Under the circumstances, Cartier could not explore the lands on the Ottawa River where he thought the Kingdom of Saguenay lay, nor was his other job of establishing a permanent settlement looking successful.  Discouraged, he determined to return to France in the spring.  Gathering the colony into his remaining ships, he set sail and actually met Roberval’s supply ships as they moved up the Newfoundland coast.  Instead of turning back, however, he set his face for home and arrived there in October. Roberval continued to Charlesbourg-Royal, where his 200 colonists cleared land, refurbished the abandoned buildings, and endured his iron rule, but his efforts were too little, too late.  He was recalled to France the following year, and the first attempted European settlement in North America was abandoned.


Map of Cartier’s First Voyage and Explorations, from Wikipedia.

The Reception of Jacques Cartier at Hochelaga, from William Henry Atherton, Under the French regime, 1535-1760 (1914), p. 8.  (Future Montreal)

Cartier’s Ships in the St. Lawrence River, from Gilbert Parker and Claude G. Bryan, Old Quebec: The Fortress of New France (1908) p. 13.