The Search for a Northwest Passage

views updated

The Search for a Northwest Passage


Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) explored northern North America with hopes of finding gold and precious metals, and possibly a cross-continental passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He never realized those goals, but he did find something of great value: a water passage into Canada's interior. His discovery in the 1530s of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River gave the Europeans, and specifically the French, access to the interior of the continent for the first time. This also provided the first views of the areas that would eventually become the sites of such major Canadian cities as Montreal and Quebec.


Before Cartier's voyages to Canada, North America was known to the Europeans mostly from its eastern coastline. Fishermen sailed its ocean waters, but had neither need nor desire to venture far onto land or even to explore inland waterways. Descriptions of the coast were poor and maps were rudimentary and used mainly to direct them across the Atlantic and to a desired location off of North America, but not to skirt along the rugged shoreline, into its bays or around its many islands. The fishermen of the day were satisfied to know only as much as needed to safely navigate the coastal waters, to locate a safe harbor when necessary, and to find the prime fishing grounds.

The Frenchman Cartier sought something more. He went to Canada with a different idea, and approached the coastline with the eye of a navigator, geographer, and explorer.

Trained as a navigator in Dieppe, northwest of Paris, Cartier made his first well-documented voyage in 1534 as the leader of an expedition to find precious metals in North America. Although he found no gold on the six-month journey, he did discover the Magdalen and Prince Edward islands, and spent considerable time investigating the Gulf of St. Lawrence. His records indicate that he was close to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, but he was either slightly too far north of it or the weather prevented him from spotting the waterway. While in Canada he befriended an Iroquois chief and brought two of the chief's sons with him to France. Cartier's adventures brought him fame in his hometown, but even before the accolades had died down, he was preparing for his next trip.

In May of 1535, he again crossed the Atlantic for North America. He led three ships carrying a crew of 110 men, plus the two native Americans who had learned the French language well enough during their overseas stay to serve as interpreters. Cartier immediately led the ships back to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where he hoped to find the waterway to Canada's interior and possibly across the continent. The interpreters guided him to the St. Lawrence estuary in August. With the discovery made, Cartier sailed his ships more than 200 miles (322 km) into the waterway and up to the Iroquois village of Stadacona. From there, they continued by longboat for another 100-plus miles (161 km) to the Iroquois village of Hochelaga. From a hill near Hochelaga, which he named Mont Réal, Cartier could see impassable rapids on the river beyond. At that point, he decided to return to Stadacona to spend the winter months.

Cartier returned to France in May of 1536 with news of the St. Lawrence River and its potential as a route to China. He also brought back to France another 10 Indians, including the chief whose sons had made the trip a year earlier. Based on stories told to him by his Indian interpreters, Cartier believed that if he traveled along the river just a bit farther, he might find that the waterway traversed the whole continent or at the very least revealed a wealth of precious metals. King François I was excited by the prospect and had planned to send the explorer back to Canada as soon as possible. While plans were under way, however, a war broke out between France and the Habsburg Empire, and the return trip was postponed until 1541. While waiting for the voyage back to their homeland, all but one of the 10 visiting Indians died in France.

When Cartier did set sail again for the New World, he was billed as the chief pilot under expedition commander and French nobleman Jean François de la Rocque de Roberval. The expedition included 1,500 men, including settlers for Canadian outposts, and eight ships. Cartier took the first ship out and arrived in Canada earlier than Roberval. He waited out the winter in an area north of Stadacona. The remainder of the fleet overwintered in Newfoundland. During the winter months, Cartier discovered what he thought to be gold and diamonds. (As it turned out, they were mimics of little or no value.) He decided to return to France with his finds, and was on his way back when he ran into Roberval in Newfoundland. Roberval ordered him to return to the mainland to help him set up a colony. Cartier disobeyed, however, and made his way back to France, where he took a home in the country. Cartier never left France again.


Cartier's major achievements were the discoveries of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the estuary leading into the St. Lawrence River and the river itself. The St. Lawrence waterway opened the first passage to take explorers and traders deep into Canada's interior. In fact, his voyage along the river brought him farther inland than any North American explorer had yet attained. Along the way, Cartier stopped at the Iroquois villages of Stadacona and Hochelaga, both of which would eventually become the sites of major Canadian cities. The city of Quebec now straddles Stadacona, and Montreal encompasses Hochelaga and the Cartier-named Mont Réal.

The impact of his discovery and his meticulous descriptions of the entire St. Lawrence water system was far-reaching. The geographical information he collected helped to create the most accurate maps of the period. Atlases of the day soon included details of the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence and the great river. In addition, his explorations of the eastern coast of northern North America led to discoveries of Prince Edward and Anticosti islands, Gaspé Bay, and other sites.

It was his discovery of the St. Lawrence River, however, that was the most influential. Once discovered and charted, it became for the French the most important and well-used entrance point into North America. As the fur trade blossomed into a major financial institution, the route garnered additional importance. The river became the major trade route for the French, and cemented France's major role in the development of Canada. As long as the French controlled the waterway, it also served as a political barrier to the expansion of other nations into the North American interior. As a result, France for many years held title to the major explorations of Canada and what would become the Midwestern portion of the United States. Even today, the influence of France and its explorers are still visible in many of the names of Canadian and Midwestern U.S. towns and cities. Had Cartier been able to bypass the rapids he saw outside of modern-day Montreal, the river would have taken him to Lake Ontario, the first in the chain of Great Lakes.

Beyond his geographical achievements, Cartier influenced future explorers in another way. His stay in Stadacona from late fall of 1535 to spring of 1536 represented the first time that Europeans had overwintered in Canada. The cold was more than he and his crew expected, but the most severe consequence of the winter months was the scurvy suffered by more than 90% of his crew. Fortunately for Cartier's men, the Iroquois had a remedy. They brewed a drink made from the bark of a cedar tree and served it to the crew. Laden with vitamin C, the curative beverage brought all but 25 crewmen back from the brink of death. Based on Cartier's winter experience, other Europeans who came to Canada were able to prepare better for the long winter days and nights.

Cartier's experiences as an expedition leader, his skills as a navigator and geographer, and his ability to form relationships with the native people helped not only to open Canada to exploration, but to create the climate for France to become highly influential in the development of Canada and the Midwestern United States.


Further Reading

Baker, Daniel B., ed. Explorers and Discovers of the World, first edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Biggar, H. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1924.

Byers, Paula K. Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Edmonds, J., commissioning ed. Oxford Atlas of Exploration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Morison, S. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

About this article

The Search for a Northwest Passage

Updated About content Print Article