Jacques Cartier


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Cartier?
  3. Literature & Analysis
    • “First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay” from The First Voyage of Jacques Cartier (July 1534)
    • Analysis of “First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Few explorers have acquired the distinction given to Jacques Cartier, the first explorer to claim what is now Canada for King Francis I of France and giving Canada its name. Born in Saint-Malo, a port-town in Brittany, France, in 1491, Cartier was an accomplished mariner before being commissioned by King Francis I in 1534 to cross the Atlantic Ocean in search of a passage to Asia and lands rich in valuable resources. Over the next eight years he led three expeditions to North America: in 1534, 1535–36, and 1541–42. Cartier never found a passage through the North American continent and, though he returned from his final voyage with what he believed were diamonds and gold, the cargo turned out to be worthless. Unable to establish a permanent colony in North America, he returned to France a failure. If the resources he had brought back to France had been worthless, however, his written accounts of his voyages have since proven invaluable. Published in three volumes, Cartier’s Voyages provide one of the earliest and most comprehensive records of European impressions of North America and its people. Written with a prejudice that might offend modern sensibilities, Cartier’s accounts reveal as much about sixteenth-century European attitudes and beliefs as they do about the First Nations people he encountered on his voyages. Nevertheless, his cartography, his meticulous descriptions of the land and people, and his attempts to establish relations with the First Nations people who inhabited the territory he visited mean that his Voyages are indispensable to anyone studying the history of New Brunswick and Canada.

On most author pages we direct readers to the appropriate entry in The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Though a Cartier entry is in production, it is not yet finalized. Please check the NBLE periodically for updates.

Why Should We Read and Study Cartier?

  • Though not the earliest description of Canada, Jacques Cartier’s memoirs of his voyages in 1534, 1535, and 1541 are the earliest records of European exploration of the Atlantic region and the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Moreover, they provide the earliest known European description of present-day New Brunswick and the First Nations people who first inhabited the territory.
  • Cartier’s Voyages reveal a great deal about European attitudes and beliefs, especially with regard to the indigenous peoples Cartier encountered during his expeditions to North America. As such, they provide insight into the way in which European colonizers exploited and manipulated the indigenous peoples they encountered, establishing a history of behaviour that continues today.

Literature & Analysis

“First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay” from The First Voyage of Jacques Cartier (July 1534)

And while we were in the said berth we went on Monday, the 6th, after having heard mass, with one of our boats to explore a cape and point of land which lay at seven or eight leagues to the west of us, for to see how the said land trended; and we being a half-league from said point perceived two bands of savages in boats, which crossed from their shore to the other, where they were more than forty or fifty boats, and of which one of the said companies of boats arrived at the said point, from which a great number of people leaped and landed on shore, who made a great noise, and made many signs that we should go ashore, showing us skins upon sticks. And because we had but a single boat we would not go there, and rowed toward the other band, which was on the sea. And they, seeing that we fled, equipped two of their largest boats for to come after us, with which were banded five others of those who came from the sea, and they came until near our said boat, dancing and making many signs of wanting our friendship, saying to us in their language: “Napou tou daman asurtar,” and other words which we did not understand.

Because we had, as was said, only one of our boats, we would not trust to their signs, and we made signs to them that they should withdraw, which they would not do, but rowed with such great fury that they surrounded our said boat with their seven boats. And because for the sign that we made them they would not retire, we fired two volleys over them, and then they fell to to return to the said point, and made a marvelously great noise, after which they began to return toward us as before; and they being very near our said boat, we let go at them two fusees, which passed among them, which astonished them greatly, so much so that they betook themselves to flight in very great haste and came after us no more. [. . .]

Thursday, the 8th of the said month, because the wind was not good to go out with our ships, we fitted out our said boats in order to go and explore the [Chaleur] bay [. . .] [M]aking our way along the coast we saw the said savages on the shore of a pond and low lands where they were making many fires and smokes. We went to the said place and found that it had a sea entrance, which entered into said pond, and we put our said boats to one side of the said entrance. The said savages passed over with one of their boats and fetched us some pieces of seals all cooked, which they put upon pieces of wood and then withdrew, making us a sign that they gave them to us. We sent two men ashore with hatchets and knives, paternosters, and other goods, for which they showed great joy, and forthwith passed in a crowd with their boats to the side where we were, with skins and whatever they had in order to get of our goods. And they were in number, of men, women, and children as well, more than three hundred [. . .]. I judge more than otherwise that these people would be easy to convert to our holy faith. They call a hatchet in their tongue Cochy and a knife Bacan. We named the said bay, Bay Chaleur.

[. . .]

The 24th day of the said month [July] we caused a cross to be made thirty feet in height, which was made before a number of them on the point at the entrance of the said harbor, on the cross-bar of which we put a shield embossed with three fleurs-de-lis, and above where it was an inscription graven in wood in letters of large form, “VIVE LE ROY DE FRANCE” [“LONG LIVE THE KING OF FRANCE”]. And this cross we planted on the said point before them, the which they beheld us make and plant; and after it was raised in the air we all fell on our knees, with hands joined, while adoring it before them, and made them signs, looking up and showing them the sky, that by it was our redemption, for which they showed much admiration, turning and beholding the cross.

We, being returned to our ships, saw the captain clothed with an old black bear’s skin, in a boat with three of his sons and his brother, who approached not so close alongside as was customary, and made to us a long harangue, showing us the said cross and making the sign of the cross with two fingers, and then showed us the country all about us, as if he had wished to say that all the country was his, and that we should not plant the said cross without his leave. And after he had ended his said harangue, we showed him a hatchet, feigning to deliver it to him for his skin, to which he harkened, and little by little drew near the side of our ship, thinking to have the said hatchet. And one of our crew, being in our boat, put his hand on his said boat, and suddenly he with two or three of them leaped into their boat, and made them come into our ship, at which they were greatly astonished. And they, having entered, were assured by the captain that they should not have any harm, by showing them great signs of love, and he made them drink and eat and make great cheer, and then showed them by signs that the said cross had been planted for to make a mark and beacon in order to enter into the harbor, and that we would return very soon and would bring them iron wares and other things, and that we wished to carry two of his sons with us, and then they should return again to the said harbor. And we rigged his said two sons with two shirts, and with liveries and red caps, and to each one his chain of copper for the neck, with which they were greatly contented and delivered their old duds to those who were returning. And then we gave to the three that we sent back, to each one his hatchet and two knives, for which they showed great joy; and they, being returned to the land, told the news to the others.

Analysis of  “First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay” from The First Voyage of Jacques Cartier (July 1534)

Cartier set out on his first voyage on 20 April 1534 and arrived near present-day Newfoundland twenty days later. Beginning on 10 May, he explored the coasts of what is now the Atlantic region and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. His initial impression of the land he encountered was an unfavourable one. “I deem rather than otherwise,” wrote Cartier in June of that year, “that it is the land that God gave to Cain” (86). By July, Cartier’s descriptions of the land had become much more positive, but he was no closer to discovering a strait through which he could reach the Pacific.

On 3 July, Cartier approached Chaleur Bay and named the southernmost cape at the entrance to the bay (what is now Point Miscou) “Cap d’Espérance” or “Cape Hope” for the hope that the bay would finally reveal the long-sought passage to the Pacific. It was while exploring Chaleur Bay that Cartier first interacted with the First Nations of New Brunswick. Though they were not the first native peoples he had encountered – he had observed natives on the coasts of what are now Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island – those he met at Chaleur Bay were the first with whom he would interact.

The first of the two passages describes Cartier’s interactions with the natives he met at Chaleur Bay, most likely Mi’kmaq peoples of New Brunswick, on 6–8 July. What becomes immediately clear to the reader of Cartier’s account are his prejudicial beliefs about the native peoples he encounters. Like most Europeans of his time, Cartier considered the Indigenous peoples of North America to be barbaric and subhuman, a belief reflected in his use of the term “savage.” Indeed, the passage demonstrates that even when shown hospitality and goodwill, Cartier remained suspicious and distrustful of the Aboriginals he met. Sailing west into Chaleur Bay, Cartier’s ship is approached by “forty or fifty” canoe loads of Mi’kmaq men “making signs of wanting friendship” and trade. Cartier, however, “would not trust their signs” and when the natives pursue his boats he scares them away with gunfire. This initial exchange, in which Cartier’s response is clearly disproportionate to the behaviour of the native peoples, establishes early on the unequal relationship between the French explorers and the Indigenous peoples of present-day Canada.

This uneven relationship is reinforced when Cartier and his men return to Chaleur Bay two days later. Now willing to engage in trade with the natives, Cartier approaches a group of “more than three hundred.” Once again, the French are shown hospitality by the native peoples who offer them seal meat. Cartier, in turn, sends two men ashore with various tools and cooking utensils. Significant here are Cartier’s motives. Trade with the native peoples appears more of a pretense than a goal. In fact, Cartier appears already to be looking toward the future, determining that “these people would be easy to convert to our holy faith.” As French Catholics, Cartier and his men were not only explorers, but missionaries too whose goal it was to convert Indigenous peoples to Catholicism. Cartier is thus more concerned with how the French can transform and manipulate the native peoples than he is with developing a balanced relationship. The passage ends with Cartier giving the bay a new name, Baie-des-Chaleurs (translated as Bay of Heat), disregarding any claim to the land on the part of the indigenous peoples who had lived there for more than a thousand years.

The second passage, which is dated 24 July 1534, describes Cartier’s contact with the Laurentian Iroquois from Stadacona at present-day Gaspé. In this passage, Cartier performs many of the same gestures and actions he carried out when interacting with the Mi’kmaq in the Bay of Chaleur two weeks earlier, but the motivation of Cartier and his men is made much more explicit. In this passage, the conversion of the Iroquoian peoples to both Catholicism and to the French Empire becomes an obvious incentive, while the acquisition of Iroquoian land leads Cartier to bribe and eventually kidnap the chief’s sons.

Raising a cross to which is attached a shield inscribed with fleurs-de-lis and a sign reading “VIVE LE ROY DE FRANCE” (“LONG LIVE THE KING OF FRANCE”), Cartier and his men enact a show of worship for the natives, kneeling and praying to the cross. While Cartier interprets the show to have inspired “admiration” in the on-looking Iroquois, their chief, Donnacona, is not impressed and approaches Cartier’s ship after the ceremony with his sons. Pretending he will trade a hatchet for the chief’s bear skin, Cartier draws Donnacona nearer his ship. Cartier’s men then capture Donnacona, bringing him and his sons aboard where they give them food and drink. With promises of “iron wares and other goods,” Cartier then explains why the cross had been raised and tells the chief that he would like to take two of his sons back to France. Dressing the sons in clothes and jewellery and giving the other men hatchets and knives, he sends everyone but the sons away.

To many readers today, the passage is a shocking one. With seeming detachment and casualness, Cartier describes the deception and bribery he and his men used to infiltrate Iroquoian land, claim that land for France, and kidnap the sons of Donnacona, the Iroquois chief. The encounter would prove to be a fateful one, for Donnacona’s sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, would be forced to guide the French during their explorations. Cartier would visit the village from which the Iroquois came, Stadacona, on his second and third voyages, and Samuel de Champlain would later found l’Habitation, the start of the settlement of Quebec, on the abandoned site of Stadacona in 1608.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

► Though there is a general agreement among history scholars that Cartier authored the accounts that constitute the Voyages, no original manuscript exists for any of the extant texts. As a result, the authenticity of Cartier’s Voyages and the accuracy of the translations we have today are suspect. Furthermore, Cartier’s accounts are subjective, skewed by the prejudice with which he regarded First Nations, and driven by a desire to accomplish the goals he set out to achieve: find a passage to Asia, possibly discover precious minerals and metals along the way, and convert Indigenous peoples to Catholicism and the ways of Empire. The accounts, however, remain foundational to early Canadian history and, as writers like Alfred G. Bailey and John Ralston Saul observe, are deeply imbedded in the Canadian cultural memory. Having said that, Cartier’s records are valuable looking glasses in which we see the emergence of our own colonial attitudes and values. And key questions arise. What do the importance and ambiguity surrounding the Voyages reveal about the writing of history? Whose authority does history reflect? What do Cartier’s accounts reveal about the relationship between history and fiction – are the two as distinct as we are led to believe?

► When Cartier returned to France from his final voyage in 1542, he was considered a failure. He hadn’t found a passage to Asia, the minerals and rocks he had thought were diamonds and jewels turned out to be worthless, and his attempt to establish a permanent settlement in North America had been unsuccessful. In subsequent years, however, Cartier’s reputation was revived and he was often – though mistakenly – considered the founder of New France. Consider the ways in which Cartier’s voyages have been commemorated in Canada during the twentieth century. Two notable examples are commemorative stamps (found here and here) and the Heritage Minutes commercial aired throughout the 1990s on Canadian television stations. To what extent do these commemorative gestures attempt to legitimize and even glorify European colonization of North America, reflecting a belief, not unlike Cartier’s own, that Cartier and his men had a right to claim and settle the land occupied by Canada’s First Nations?

► From the exercise above, readers might also benefit from considering the ways that colonial dramas between settler and First Nations communities play out today. What are the similarities, for example, between Cartier’s interventions in 1534–36 and the presumably benign commemorative events today? Whose community and what power structures benefit from such commemorations? Also, what are the similarities being replayed in both communities today (2017) over the Energy East pipeline project and shale gas development? In more profound ways, what are societies to do with inconvenient and unsettling aspects of their history? And, as importantly, what allowances are we willing to give to historical figures whose ideas and actions reflected the values of their own societies? Are we prepared to be judged as harshly for enacting our own social values as we now judge Cartier for enacting his? These are difficult questions that challenge us to examine our own views about history and knowledge.

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Heritage Minute Critique (“First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay”)

After students have had the opportunity to read and discuss the passage, show the Jacques Cartier Heritage Minute (link available above, or search YouTube). Presented below are multiple ideas for classroom activities; each may stand on its own, or several could be combined.

  1. Historica Canada, the creator of these minutes, also releases accompanying lesson plans. In its Jacques Cartier plan is the statement, “Misunderstanding between people is often just a problem of language.” Ask students to apply this statement to both the Heritage Minute and the Cartier passage. If everyone spoke the same language, would the misunderstandings in the Heritage Minute disappear? Can students find evidence in the Cartier passage that the misunderstandings/conflict go much deeper than language?

  1. In small groups, have students choose three words to describe the Cartier that is the author of “First Encounter,” and three words to describe the Cartier that appears in the Heritage Minute. Compile a master list on the board. Do any words appear on both lists? If students were to portray Cartier, how would reading the primary source affect their portrayal?

  1. Ask students to speak about other Heritage Minutes they have seen. What kinds of Canadian stories does Historica Canada promote? What kinds of stories are not told? For a lighthearted prompt, you might show one of the many Heritage Minute parodies that tackle the “not told” question, such as those that appeared on the Rick Mercer Report. Why might Historica consider “Kanata” a good subject for a Heritage Minute, as opposed to, say, Cartier’s first encounter with Mi’kmaq people?

  1. Individually or in small groups, have students storyboard a script for a Heritage Minute based on some portion of “First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay.” Storyboards might include narration and/or dialogue. Students could consider how music and film techniques could be used to establish a tone appropriate for their subject matter and message.

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Examine how texts work to reveal and produce ideologies, identities, and positions

  • Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts

  • Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning

Strategy 2: Place Names (“First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay”)

Despite the presence of an existing population, visitor Cartier declares, “We named the said bay, Bay Chaleur.” That name continues to this day. Have students consider the origin of place names (towns, rivers, etc.) in their local area. Maps would be helpful, as would reference to William B. Hamilton’s Place Names of Atlantic Canada (1996). Are students aware of any other or past names for these places? If there are multiple names for a place, how might one name come to be the dominant one that appears on maps? To explore further, students could investigate a passionate naming dispute, such as the 2015 battle over Denali/Mount McKinley in the U.S. Why is the power to name, and have your name widely accepted, so important to people?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints

Strategy 3: Presentism (“First Encounter with Native Peoples in Chaleur Bay”)

When reading the literature of the past, particularly controversial material such as Cartier’s account, it is tempting to interpret it in terms of modern-day values. Lynn Hunt (2002) writes about the disadvantages of such an approach: “Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards.” Ask students to consider how presentism affected their reading of Cartier’s words. Can students think of any benefits to a presentist approach to literature? Does rereading with a different approach yield any new insights about Cartier’s worldview?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Articulate their own processes and strategies in exploring, interpreting, and reflecting on sophisticated texts and tasks

Further Reading

Cook, Ramsay, ed. Introduction [“Donnacona Discovers Europe: Rereading Jacques Cartier’s Voyages”]. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. By Jacques Cartier. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Gordon, Allan. Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2010.

Hamilton, William B. Place Names of Atlantic Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

Hunt, Lynn. “Against Presentism.” Perspectives 40.5 (2002): 7-9.

Trigger, Bruce. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1986.

Welton, Michael R. “First Encounters: New Worlds and Old Maps.” The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education 21.2 (March 2009): 67-79.

On most author pages we direct readers to the appropriate entry in The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Though a Cartier entry is in production, it is not yet finalized. Please check the NBLE periodically for updates.


The translated and edited memoirs of Jacques Cartier from which the above excerpts have been taken are in the Canadian public domain. As such, they are no longer protected by copyright in Canada. However, they may still be under copyright in some countries. Readers outside Canada must comply with the respective copyright laws of the country in which they live.

The two Cartier passages above were taken from pp. 103-107 and pp. 112-113 of Cartier, Jacques. A Memoir of Jacques Cartier: Sieur de Limoilou, His Voyages to the St. Lawrence, a Bibliography and a Facsimile of the Manuscript of 1534. Ed. and trans. James P. Baxter. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1906. 24 June 2015 <https://archive.org/stream/amemoirjacquesc00alfogoog#page/n17/mode/2up>.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.