French fishermen reached the Grand Banks off Newfoundland earlier in
the sixteenth century, but the first French voyage of exploration was
dispatched in 1524. In a commission for François I, Giovanni Verrazzano
sailed La Dauphine along the coast of North America from North Carolina
to Newfoundland. The French did not follow up on this pioneering effort
for another decade. In 1534, François I commissioned Jacques Cartier to
sail with two ships (their names are not known) on a voyage that took
him along the coast of Newfoundland, through the Strait of Belle Isle,
to the northern coast of New Brunswick, where he embarked two sons of
the Indian chief Donnaconna for the return to France. So promising were
the results of this voyage that the king renewed his commission and
Cartier was given three ships to make a second voyage "to explore beyond
les Terres Neufves [and] to discover certain far-off countries." The
latter referred specifically to Cathay.
Cartier's ships on this voyage were La Grande Hermine (120 tons), La
Petite Hermine (60 tons), and the pinnace L'Emerillon (40 tons). They
sailed from Saint Malo in May 1535 and on August 10 put into a small bay
on the southern coast of Labrador that Cartier named for Saint Lawrence,
whose feast day it was. This name eventually applied to the Gulf of St.
Lawrence and the river that flows from Lake Ontario past Montréal and
Québec, but Cartier simply called it La Grande Rivière. Spurred on by
descriptions of the riches of Saguenay, Cartier sailed up the St.
Lawrence and eventually reached Donnaconna's village near present-day
Québec. From there he continued west with L'Emerillon as far as Lac
Saint-Pierre, and with his longboats touched the village of Hochalega
under the hill he called Mont Royal. His way barred by rapids, he
returned to Quebec for the winter. The following spring, Cartier
kidnapped Donnaconna and several of his tribesmen so that they could
relate their tales of Saguenay directly to the French king.
War with Spain postponed the launch of a new expedition until 1541. On
May 23, Cartier sailed with La Grande Hermine (which François I had
given to him), L'Emerillon, and three other ships as part of an
ambitious attempt to establish a French colony in Canada and reach
Saguenay. Donnaconna had died in France and their reception was not as
warm as it had been previously. Cartier established a fort at
Charlesbourg-Royal, and during the winter thirty-five of their company
were killed in Indian attacks. A second fleet, under Sieur de Roberval,
was supposed to have joined them, but in May Cartier's group sailed
alone for France. They met up with Roberval at St. John's, Newfoundland,
but Cartier refused to turn back, and continued to France. The riches of
Saguenay with which they returned proved to be nothing more than iron
ore and quartz.
Although the lack of material success and a half century of civil war
prevented France from mounting further expeditions to Canada, fishermen
and trappers continued to visit the area throughout the sixteenth
century. The next voyages of political significance would be those in
which Samuel de Champlain took part between 1603 and 1635. Although few
details of La Grande Hermine survive, a full-size model was made for
Canada's Expo '67. The dimensions given here are based on that model,
which is on display at the Cartier-Brebeuf Park in Quebec.
Morison, European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages.