Cartier Explores St. Lawrence River 

Canada #208 was issued for the 400th anniversary of Cartier’s first trip to Canada.

On June 9, 1534, Jacques Cartier became the first European explorer to travel the St. Lawrence River.

Cartier was born on December 31, 1491, in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France.  In 1534, the bishop of Saint-Malo introduced Cartier to King Francis I and recommended him for a commission to search for a northwest passage to Asia.  The bishop claimed Cartier had previously journeyed to Newfoundland and Brazil, exhibiting his ability to “lead ships to the discovery of new lands in the New World.”

St. Pierre & Miquelon #C47-49 – includes a stamp honoring Cartier.

Cartier set sail on April 20, 1534, with a crew of 61 men and a mission to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found.”  He sailed across the ocean for 20 days before reaching North America.  Beginning on May 10, Cartier explored parts of Newfoundland in the Canadian Atlantic provinces.

Canada #19 – 1859 stamp picturing Cartier.

Cartier then entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence near the Strait of Belle Isle.  After exploring that northern coast, he sailed down the west side of Newfoundland to Cape Anguille, making stops at Magdalen, Prince Edward Island, and Chaleur Bay.  He claimed the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec for France.  Then on June 9, he reached the St. Lawrence River.  Cartier sailed his ship down the river for some time but realized he couldn’t take it all the way to Asia and turned around.  He then sailed around Anticosti Island, back past the Strait of Belle Isle and back to France.

During this trip, Cartier had three encounters with Native Americans.  During one of these encounters, he took two sons of a tribe’s chief to bring back to France, promising to bring them back when he returned on another voyage.  Upon returning to France, Cartier’s tales of fertile lands, which were previously thought to be barren, excited the king. He ordered Cartier to take a second voyage.

Item #59102C – Canada and France Cartier Medal First Day Cover.

Cartier left on his second voyage on May 19, 1535, with three ships and 110 men.  Arriving in North America, he sailed up the St. Lawrence to the Iroquois capital to return the chief’s sons.  Arriving in October, he was greeted by over 1,000 people as he came ashore.  (The site of his landing now has a bridge that bears his name.)  Cartier was convinced that this river was the Northwest Passage he was searching for, and believed that the nearby rapids were all that kept him from sailing to China. Those rapids and the town near them became known as the Lachine Rapids and Lachine, Quebec (La Chine is French for China).

Canada #97 pictures Cartier and Samuel de Champlain.

During this trip, Cartier also inadvertently named Canada.  During his time at the rapids near present-day Montreal, he asked the natives what lay further up the river, and they replied “Kanata.”  Cartier thought they meant the name of a country and called the area “Canada” on his map.  It was not discovered until later that the Indians were referring to the little village upstream, as the Kanata is the Iroquois word for village or settlement.

Canada #754-56 – Issued for CAPEX ’78, this set includes a stamp honoring Cartier.

This time, Cartier brought the chief back to France with him, so he could tell the king about a country further north that was said to be full of gold, rubies, and other treasures. The king was once again impressed and sent Cartier back to North America, but this time as chief navigator, with Jean-Francois de La Rocque de Roberval in command.

Canada #387

US #1131
US and Canada joint-issues honoring the St. Lawrence Seaway.

On this journey, Cartier was no longer looking for a passage to Asia.  Instead, he was to find the legendary Kingdom of Saguenay and create a settlement on the St. Lawrence River.  He established that settlement at present-day Cap-Rouge, Quebec and found what he thought were diamonds, but were quartz crystals and iron pyrites.  The settlement ultimately failed due to illness and conflicts with the natives and Cartier returned to France in June 1542.  He died there in 1557.  As the years went on, the St. Lawrence River would become one of the most important trade waterways in North America.

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  1. I just returned from a short vacation to see the Niagara Waterfall on the Canadian side. Canada is a beautiful and well governed country! Now I know the origin of the country’s name. Thanks, Mystic!

  2. In college, I took a very interesting course on the history of Canada. The professor, who was himself a Canadian, made the point that the U.S. and Canada are obviously so close, and their histories are so inter-related, that it is like looking at the history of the U.S. but from the other side. He discussed the several versions of just how Canada got it’s name. One version has it that it was a Spanish explorer who first saw the vast Canadian forests stretching to the horizon, and exclaimed, “Ah, que nada,” or “Ah, what nothing.” OK, not very funny and not very accurate, but it was a Canadian that said it.

  3. I heard a somewhat humorous (and obviously untrue) story of how Canada got its name.
    The early explorers found three blocks of wood, each inscribed with a different letter of the alphabet. The letters were C, N and D. The chief explorer held up each block and called out the letter in true Canadian fashion: “C, eh? N, eh? D, eh?” The other explorers realized that spelled out C-A-N-A-D-A, and that became, by popular acclaim, the name of the country.
    A little far-fetched, but clever.

  4. Boy! learning how Canada got its name is by itself interesting because I had no previous idea. Thanks for another great and upgrading history lesson , Mystic!!

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