On the 19th of May 1535 Jacques Cartier set sail on his second and most important expedition to the new world. His objective: to find the Great Lakes and the elusive route to China. By the middle of May the three ships, the Grand Hermine 120 tons, the Petite Hermine 60 tons and a small vessel of 40 tons known as Emerillon, were manned and provisioned awaiting only a fair wind to sail. The company numbered in all one 120 persons.
Shortly after the three ships had set sail, fierce winds separated them and they were not reunited until they reached Newfoundland eleven weeks later. Included among the crew were the two Aboriginal boys, Domagaya and Taignoagny, the sons of Donnacona whom Cartier had spent two months quizzing in Paris and St. Malo. With their help Cartier eventually “found the way to the mouth of the great river of Hochelaga and the route toward Canada.“
In the sparkling sunshine on the 1st of September, Cartier reached the mouth of the Saguenay River and anchored probably in the little bay near Orleans and Tadoussac “where the province and territory of Canada begins.”
The name Canada then applied only to what is now Quebec. Cartier was guided by the two Indian youths who had learned French and during the voyage had transfixed the crew with stories of a fabulous, miraculous, mysterious Kingdom of Saguenay that was rich in silver, gold and precious stones and was located somewhere to the north.
Cartier swallowed their stories hook line and sinker. Eagerly anticipating visiting this treasure trove. he followed the boys’ directions and took “the route to Canada” and sailed up the great St. Lawrence River which he always called La Grande Riviere.
Its size and stately appearance impressed him greatly. The mighty river, a majestic portal, stretching inland almost four thousand kilometres, was lost in the hazy distance of the remote and changing horizon. It was the one great river which led from the eastern shore into the heart of the continent. The St. Lawrence shouted its uniqueness to adventurers, the vast riches of whole west its dominion. To the free-spirited and the visionary it offered a passage to the central mysteries of the continent. It meant movement, a ceaseless procession west and east of river craft – canoes, bateaux, timber rafts and steamboats – following each other into history. This destined pathway of North American trade streams like an obsession through the whole of Canadian history.
In a letter of dedication to his sovereign, Francis IV, Cartier wrote, “The great river which flows through and waters the midst of these lands of yours, which is without comparison the largest river that is known to have ever been seen.” The forest along its shores were ablaze in golden ash and red maples.
Cartier’s first impression of this new continent was its vastness and stillness. It was once suggested that “To enter Canada is a matter of beinging silently swallowed by an alien continent.” At no time could this have been truer than on that day when Cartier cast his eyes about him at the tranquil land “awaiting the arrival of man to waken it to fruitfulness.”
The forests were tall, impenetrable, interminable and inscrutable, the only sounds issuing from the daunting denseness, the occasional splash of leaping fish and distant cawing of a crow from the treetops. When Cartier reached the site of Tadoussac at the mouth of a deep river flowing north which the natives called Saguenay, he sailed a short distance up but turned about when the boys said they “wanted home.” They told him there was another, better route further west.(which turned out to be The Outaouais [Ottawa] River).
Cartier continued up the St. Lawrence and on the 8th he reached heart of the country that had given the land its name, Cannata (‘village’ or ‘settlement’) in the Iroquois-Huron language.
The St. Lawrence narrowed as it flowed between a bold promontory and a broad, beautiful island on which the Native village of Stadacona stood in the shadow of the great Rock of Quebec. The land around it was called Canada.. “On the morrow the lord of Canada named Donnacona came to our ships accompanied by many Indians in twelve canoes.” On deck the two men from vastly different worlds attempted to converse.
Taignoagny and Domagaya, whom Donnacona never expected to see again, told their father what they had seen in France and that they had been well treated. At this Donnacona expressed much pleasure.
Later Cartier visited with Chief Donnacona at his village Stadacona, now Quebec City (from the Huron Kebec ‘the narrowing place.’) lying at a point where the mighty river St. Lawrence narrows to the breadth of a mile. Cartier recorded “this marks the beginning of the land and province of Canada.“
Cartier was eager to proceed to Hochelega, but he noticed that his two young guides had become somewhat distant. Donnacona too was reserved and urged Cartier to stay at Stadacona, declaring the river of little importance and the journey not worth making.
Cartier replied he had been commanded by his king to go as far as he could go and that after seeing Hochelega he would return. The next day the Natives tried again to dissuade Cartier from continuing his journey, but finding persuasion and oratory of no avail, they summoned the supernatural to frighten the French into remaining at Stadacona.
Three Natives were carefully made up to strike terror into Cartier and his companions. They were “wrapped up in dog skins, white and black with horns on their heads more than a yard long.”
Anxious to protect their position as middlemen, Donnacona was reluctant to have Cartier continue up the river to Hochelega. The Natives of Stadacona did not want those of Hochelega to have the wondrous metal goods the French had brought or if they were ever to have them, to receive them only by trading for them with the Natives of Stadacona. Competitive commerce was by no means unknown to these men of the Stone Age. The old chief wanted to maintain a monopoly on trade with the French and their fortunes. Once during his conversation with Cartier, “all his people at once in a loud voice cast out three great cries together in full voice, a sound horrible to hear.” It was the Indian war whoop which in days to come would curdle the blood of many in New France. Despite being told the French would freeze to death of they proceeded west, Cartier insisted that he must go. Donnacona finally gave in but refused to provide guides. Cartier and a company of fifty in all set sail for Hochelega on the 19th of September in the Emerillon.
The journey west to Hochelega (now Montreal) took thirteen days. The glowing fall colours delighted the French who recorded they observed “the finest trees in the world” that included oaks, elms, pines, cedars and birches.
Some 80 kilometres from Montreal, Cartier had to leave his galleon, Emerillon, at Lake St. Peter because the rapids in the St.Lawrence which Cartier in jest named La Chine (China) prevented his journey by ship further up the river. He left it well guarded and continued in longboats. Finally they reached open fields with a great mountain looming up behind. This highest point along that part of the St. Lawrence was called by the Natives, Hochelega, a typical Iroquois village in the midst of cultivated fields of maize or Indian corn. (Today the site is occupied by McGill University.)
The palisaded town of fifty longhouses, which were about forty-six metres in length and fourteen metres in width, each accommodated several families.
The well-fortified place was as constructed by the Iroquois – “compassed round about with timber with a triple row of tree trunks, one within another and framed like sharp spikes.” There were galleries at intervals on which were piled stones for use against attacking enemies. This was not the sought after city of the East. In the heart of the town was a public square wherein Cartier was welcomed by the chieftain borne upon the shoulders of his men.
By Cartier’s own estimate they were greeted by a thousands of excited people demonstrating wildly with wonder and delight at these hairy, oddly clad strangers. “They showed their joy, danced and performed various antics.”
The strangers were beset by a throng of women and children who touched their beards, felt their faces and gazed in wonder at their strange dress and weapons. Cartier offered up a prayer and made the sign of the cross . It was all wizardry to the astonished Natives who better understood the French when Cartier amid a flourish of trumpets began to hand out hatchets and knives.
On the day of their arrival Cartier and his men climbed the mountain and at the top beheld in all its autumn splendour the countryside for miles around. The view was so impressive a panorama that Cartier called the mountain, Mount Royal, which gave its name to Montreal. Mountains could be seen in all directions. To the north lay the Laurentians and the Green Mountains. The Adirondacks were to the south. Cartier described the wide Laurentian landscape that opened before him. “On reaching the summit we had a view of the land for more than thiry leagues round about. Towards the north there is a range of mountains running east and west. And another range to the south.
Between these ranges there lay a great plain, the fairest land it was possible to see, being arable, level and flat. And in the midst of this flat region flowed a mighty river “grand, large et spacieux. “extending beyond the spot where they had left their longboats.
“There is the most violent rapid it is possible to see which we were unable to pass. As far as the eye can see, one sees the river, grand, broad and extensive which came from the southwest and flowed near three fine conical mountains which we estimated to be some fifteen leagues away.”
He scanned the misty distance in which the St.Lawrence on the one hand and on the other a second river, the Ottawa, lost themselves. Cartier gazed at the silver streams stretching away to the west winding through unknown forests in the distance. They flowed from sources so remote that the Natives “had never heard of anyone reaching the head of them.” We can well imagine that he asked himself, “Which way must I go to seek Cathay?
The violent rapids of La Chine removed any hope of voyaging by boat directly to the great cities of China. Cartier like Moses from Mount Nebo stared westward to the promised land upon which he would never tread. The French could go no further. The violent Lachine Rapids flooding downward at a speed of more than thirty miles an hour barred passage by the ship’s boats, Cartier and company returned to Stadacona little knowing what the cold winter had in store for them. The smiling face of the forest land now frowned upon them. The winter proved to be a nightmare to the French.
By January and February ice nearly four metres thick locked the ships in a frosty embrace. On land snow was a metre deep and sub-zero winds howled about their little settlement. Many fell ill and died. Penned up in their makeshift encampment and stricken with the dreaded scurvy, only ten of the hundred and ten remained healthy. During the siege of sickness “twenty-five of the best and most able seamen we had succumbed to the malady.”
The others escaped death from scurvy when Cartier learned the the Natives’ carefully kept secret remedy: a brew made from white cedar leaves and bark that contained a high content of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). (Botanists still dispute the kind of evergreen used; some say hemlock, others cedar.) Whatever it was it cured the men in miraculous fashion.
Cartier used the time to observe and interrogate the Natives about their beliefs and habits. They had no domestic animals except dogs. Much of their meat was eaten freshly killed hence its high vitamin content. Only the surplus was smoked or dried to preserve it. Salt was not used at all. Cartier was intrigued by their habit of smoking and provided this description of their use of tobacco.
“There groweth a certain kind of herb whereof in summer they make a great provision for all the year. They wear it about their necks wrapped in a little beast’s skin made like a little bag with a hollow piece of wood or stone. At frequent intervals they crumble up this plant into powder, which they place in one of the large openings of the hollow instrument and laying a live coal on top suck at the other end to such an extent that they fill their bodies so full of smoke that it streams out of their mouths and nostrils as from a chimney. They say it keeps them warm and in good health and never go about without these things. We made a trial of this smoke. When it is in one’s mouth one would think one had taken powdered pepper it was so hot.”
This was probably the white man’s first experiment with tobacco and it occurred some fifty years before Sir Walter Raleigh began to popularize smoking in Queen Elizabeth’s London.
Mutual distrust flared up in the spring of 1536. A quarrel had broken out between Donnacona and his rival Agona and Cartier was asked by Donnacona’s son to eliminate Agona.
Cartier decided he would “outwit them” by getting rid of Donnacona and his sons, who were a greater threat to the French, by taking them back to France. This would also permit Cartier to present Donnacona to the king so that he could tell him all the tales he had told Cartier regarding the wonders of Saguenay.
These were tall tales for Donnacona enjoyed pulling the leg of the palefaces with fanciful stories about gold and silver. Now Donnacona was going to pay for his fun for Cartier kidnapped him and his sons along with four children who had been presented to Cartier by Donnacona. The Natives never saw Canada again.
The departure of Cartier and his men in the spring was really more of a flight from danger for the French had fallen out with the Stadaconans.
Not unnaturally the Natives were somewhat disturbed by Donnacona’s rather sudden departure from their midst and expressed their concerns to Cartier who sought to assure them that all would be well. After he “spoke thus to set their minds at rest, “Cartier set sail for home on May 6th, 1536 in only two ships since the the Petite Hermine had to be abandoned for lack of crew to man it. The Frenchmen reached St. Malo on July 16, 1536.
Five years were to pass before the lure of the Kingdom of Saguenay once again beckoned the Frenchmen.