Jacques Cartier: explorer of the St. Lawrence River

IN 1534 Francis I. of France fitted out an expedition, the conduct of which he intrusted to Jacques Cartier, a fearless and skilful mariner, who had previously been engaged for several years in the fisheries on the Banks of Newfoundland, which even as early as 1517 already gave employment to some fifty English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese vessels. This expedition, consisting of two vessels of sixty tons each, sailed from St. Malo on the 20th of April, and on the 10th of May arrived at Newfoundland, where it remained ten days. Proceeding northward, Cartier passed through the Straits of Belleisle, entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and landed at Gaspe, where, on the 24th July, he erected a cross, surmounted by a fleur-de-lys, to commemorate his advent on the coast. A friendly intercourse with the natives enabled him to kidnap two men, with whom he sailed for France, where, on his arrival, he was well received by his sovereign.

In the following year Cartier obtained a new commission from Francis, and sailed with three vessels direct for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with instructions to explore its shores carefully, to establish a settlement, if at all practicable, and to open a traffic for gold with the inhabitants. In the month of August, on the festival day of the martyr Lawrence, this navigator entered the great father of the northern waters, which he called after the saint. Proceeding up it course, he found himself, in a few days, opposite the Indian village of Stadacona, then occupying a portion of the ground on which the city of Quebec now stands. As the vessels came to an anchor the terrified natives fled to the forest, whence they gazed, with mingled feelings of awe and wonder, on the "winged canoes" which had borne the pale-faced strangers to their shores. These feelings were, however, much less intense than they must have otherwise been, owing to the rumors which from time to time had preceded Cartier's approach, and to the fact that they were well acquainted with the circumstance of his visit to Gaspe the previous year, and the outrage he had there perpetrated on their countrymen. This knowledge led the inhabitants of Stadacona to resolve on a wary intercourse with the strangers. Their chief, Donacona, approached the vessels with a fleet of twelve canoes, filled with his armed followers. Ten of these canoes he directed to remain at a short distance, while he proceeded with the other two to ascertain the purport of the visit, - whether it was for peace or war. With this object in view, he commenced an oration. Cartier heard the chief patiently, and with the aid of the two Gaspe Indians, now tolerably proficient in the French language, he was enabled to open a conversation with him, and to allay his apprehensions. An amicable understanding having thus been established, Cartier moored his vessels safely in the river St. Charles, where, shortly afterwards, he received a second visit from Donacona, who this time came accompanied by five hundred warriors of his tribe.

Having thoroughly rested and refreshed himself and his men, Cartier determined to explore the river to Hochelaga, another Indian town, which he learned was situated several days' journey up its course. With the view of impressing the Indians with the superiority of the white man, he caused, prior to his departure, several cannonshots to be discharged, which produced the desired result. Like their countrymen of the south on the arrival of Columbus, the red men of the St. Lawrence were alarmed by the firing of artillery; and as its thunders reverberated among the surrounding hills, a feeling of mingled terror and astonishment took complete possession of their minds.

Leaving his other ships safely at anchor, Cartier, on the 19th of September, proceeded up the river with the Hermerillon (which, owing to the shallowness of the water, he had to leave in Lake St. Peter) and two boats, and frequently came into contact with small parties of the natives, who treated him in the most friendly manner. Bold, and loving adventure for its own sake, and at the same time strongly imbued with religious enthusiasm, Cartier watched the shifting landscape hour after hour, as he ascended the river, with feelings of the deepest gratification, which were heightened by the reflection that he was the pioneer of civilization and Christianity in that unknown clime. Nature presented itself in all its primitive grandeur to his view. The noble river on whose broad bosom he floated onwards day after day, disturbing vast flocks of water-fowl; the primeval forests of the north, which here and there presented, amid the luxuriance of their foliage, the parasitical vine loaded with ripe clusters of luscious grapes, and from whence the strange notes of the whippoorwill, and other birds of varied tone and plumage, such as he had never before seen, were heard at intervals; the bright sunshine of a Canadian autumn; the unclouded moonlight of its calm and pleasant nights, with the other novel accessories of the occasion, made a sublime and profound impression upon the mind of the adventurer.

Delighted with his journey, Cartier arrived, on the 2d of October, opposite the Huron village of Hochelaga, the inhabitants of which lined the shore on his approach, and made the most friendly signs for him to land. Supplies of fish and maize were freely tendered by the Indians, in return for which they received knives and beads. Despite this friendly conduct, however, Cartier and his companions deemed it most prudent to pass the night on board their boats. On the following day, headed by their leader dressed in the most imposing costume at his command, the exploring party went in procession to the village. At a short distance from its environs they were met by the sachem, who received them with that solemn courtesy peculiar to the aborigines of America. Cartier made him several presents: among these was a cross, which he hung round his neck and directed him to kiss. patches of ripe corn encircled the village, which consisted of fifty substantially-built huts, secured from attack by three lines of stout palisades. Like the natives of Mexico and Peru, the Hochelagians regarded the white men as a superior race of beings, who came among them as friends and benefactors. Impressed with this idea, they conducted them in state to their council lodge and brought their sick to be healed. Cartier was at once too completely in their power and too politic to undeceive them. It is recorded that he did everything he could to soothe their minds; that he even prayed with these idolaters, and distributed crosses and other symbols of the Catholic faith among them.

The introductory ceremony concluded, Cartier ascended the mountain behind Hochelaga, to which he gave the name of Mont Royal, subsequently corrupted into Montreal. From a point near its summit a noble prospect met his view. Interminable forests stretched on every side, their deep gloom broken at harmonious intervals by hills and rivers and island-studded lakes. Simple as were the natives of Hochelaga, they appeared to have some knowledge of the geography of their country. From them Cartier learned that it would take three months to sail in their canoes up the course of the majestic river which flowed beneath them, and that it ran through several great lakes, the farthest one of which was like a vast sea. Beyond this lake was another large river (the Mississippi), which pursued a southerly course through a region free from ice and snow. With the precious metals they appeared but very partially acquainted. Of copper they had a better knowledge, and stated that it was found at the Saguenay.

Favorably as Cartier had been received, the lateness of the season compelled his immediate return to Stadacona. The Indians expressed their regret at the shortness of the visit, and accompanied the French to their boats, which they followed for some time, making signs of farewell. The expedition did not, however, find all the natives equally friendly. While bivouacking one night on the bank of the river, they would probably have all been massacred, but for a timely retreat to their boats. Cartier had a narrow escape, and owed his life to the intrepidity of his boatswain, an Englishman.

The adventurers wintered in the St. Charles River, and continued to be treated with apparent kindness and hospitality by the Stadaconians, who had, fortunately, laid up abundant stores of provisions. Unaccustomed, however, to the rigor of a Canadian winter, and scantily supplied with warm clothing, Cartier and his companions suffered severely from the cold. To add to their other misfortunes, scurvy, the terror of the seaman in those days, made its appearance, and, in conjunction with a disease produced by a licentious intercourse with the natives, speedily carried off twenty-five of their number. To a decoction from the bark of the spruce-fir, taken on the recommendation of the Indians, the remainder ascribed their restoration to health.

The long winter at length drew to a close; the ice broke up, and, although the voyage had led to no gold-discoveries or profitable returns in a mercantile point of view, the expedition prepared to return home. Like other adventurers of that age, they requited the kindness and hospitality of the aborigines with the basest ingratitude. They compelled Donacona, with two other chiefs and eight warriors, to bear them company to France, where the greater part of these unfortunate men died soon after their arrival.

Finding his position with the inhabitants of Stadacona becoming daily more and more unpleasant, Cartier moved higher up the river to Cape Rouge, where he laid up three of his vessels, and sent the other two back to France, with letters to the king and Roberval, stating the success of his voyage and asking for supplies. His next proceeding was to erect a fort, which he called Charlesbourg. Here, after an unsuccessful attempt to navigate the rapids above Hochelaga, he passed a most uncomfortable winter. During the ensuring summer he occupied himself in examining the country in every direction, and in searching for gold, but of which he only procured a few trifling specimens in the beds of some dried rivulets. A few small diamonds were discovered in headland near Stadacona, which was therefore called Cape Diamond, a name it still retains.

The promised supplies not having arrived, another severe winter completely disheartened Cartier, and he accordingly resolved to return home. Putting into the harbor of St. John, Newfoundland, he encountered Roberval, who was now on his way to Canada, with a new company of adventurers and an abundance of stores and provisions. The viceroy endeavored to persuade Cartier to return with him, but without effect. He and his companions were alike disheartened with the extreme cold and prolonged duration of a Canadian winter, and this circumstance, in connection with the other hardships to which they had been exposed, caused them to long earnestly to return to their own sunny France. To avoid further importunity, a possible quarrel, and forcible detention, Cartier caused his sailors to weigh anchor during the night. After a tolerably quick passage, he arrived safely in his native country, where he died shortly after his return, having, like many others, sacrificed health and fortune to a passion for discovery and a desire to acquire gold.

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