Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

Jacques Cartier first set sail for the New World in 1534, when King Francis I of France commissioned a voyage to search for gold, spices and a Northwest route to Asia. With two ships and 61 men, Cartier explored the St. Lawrence Bay and returned to France with two Native Americans as trophies for the king. A pleased King Francis sent Cartier back the following year with more ships and a bigger crew. Guided by the same two Native Americans he had seized, Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River as far as modern-day Quebec and established a base near a friendly Iroquois village, where his party camped when winter set in. In September, Cartier led a short expedition to what would become Montreal.

The severe North American winter shocked Cartier's crew, who had expected mild temperatures since Quebec was further south in latitude than Paris. Cartier lost 25 men to scurvy and, when the climate improved, he hastily headed back to France.

War in Europe postponed Cartier's next voyage until 1541, when he was assigned to accompany a nobleman, Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, to establish a French colony and counter Spanish North American claims. Though Roberval was delayed for a year, Cartier returned to Quebec and, briefly, to Montreal. But when Cartier's crew settled at a new base north of Quebec, they again aroused the anger of native tribes.

Shortly after another harsh North American winter ended, Cartier gathered what he believed to be an abundant stash of gold and diamonds found by his crew and abandoned the base. He likewise ignored his orders to wait for Roberval and returned to France without him. There, he discovered his "treasure" wasn't treasure at all — it was worthless fool's gold. His colony a failure, Cartier received no further royal charters. In fact, French interest in the New World in general deteriorated after Cartier's mission; it was more than a half-century before France again showed interest in its claims to North America.

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