Cartier and the Indigenous

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In the 1530s, Jacques Cartier would cement his name in history by sailing to what would eventually be Canada. He would be one of the first Europeans that many Indigenous groups would meet and in a pattern that would become all too familiar, his interactions with the Indigenous were far from pleasant.

On April 20, 1534, Cartier set sail under the banner of King Francis I of France with the goal of finding a western passage to get to Asia. He was also tasked with finding islands and lands were gold could be collected, as the Spanish were doing in South America.

After 20 days, Cartier reached Newfoundland on May 10 and sailed around the Maritimes area, reaching Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Labrador.

During one stop in the Magdalen Islands, his crew would slaughter 1,000 birds, most of which were great auks that would be extinct by 1852. It was also here that he met the Indigenous people for the first time. Some trading occurred, and it is believed the group he interacted with were the Mi’kmaq. They were said to greet his ship with two fleets of canoes, 40 to 50 in all. Cartier is said to have fired light artillery to frighten them away. The following day, nine canoes arrived at the ship and the Mi’kmaq held up furs to show they wanted to trade. Cartier sent two men ashore with iron goods and knives and trading would occur between the two groups.

Cartier would write according to Macleans in 1934, quote:

“The next day, some of these Indians came in nine canoes to the point at the mouth of the cove where we lay anchored with our ships. We sent two men on shore to offer them some knives and other iron goods.”

He would describe the Indigenous stating quote:

“We perceived that they are people who would be easy to convert but this people may well be called savage, for they are the sorriest folk there can be in the world. They are wonderful thieves and steal everything they can carry off.”

It is also said that Cartier encountered the Beothuk on Newfoundland, and he would describe how they rubbed red ochre over their bodies, clothing and hair. It would be from this that the term “Red Indian” would come from.

Throughout the Quebec region, which had been inhabited for upwards of 9,000 years by the Indigenous there were several Indigenous groups including some groups of Cree, the Inuit to the north, the Mi’kmaq, Algonquin and Naskapi. For the Indigenous, the St. Lawrence was steeped in lore. Tadoussac, located to the east along the river of current Quebec City was said to be the oldest spot on earth by the Indigenous, a patch of land that rose above the floods that covered the world in its beginning.

At Gaspe Bay, he planted a cross on July 24 and claimed the territory for France. It was there he met the St. Lawrence Iroquois for the first time. An estimated 300 Iroquois encountered him. Cartier described how they slept under overturned canoes and wore few skins over their bodies. The Indigenous are said to have welcomed the French with songs and dance and then began to trade with them.

At first, the interaction was pleasant but after erecting the cross, the mood completely changed as the Iroquois seemed to understand that he was claiming their territory.

Cartier would describe that the cross was erected in front of 200 men, women and children in 40 boats. He said that nine of the Indigenous had come 700 kilometres to meet the French.

The leader of this group was Donnacona, who was not happy about the cross that had been put into the ground on his land. It was written of the interaction quote:

“After we were returned to our ships, their Captain clad with an old Bears skin, with three of his sons, and a brother of his with him, came unto us in one of their boats, but they came not so near us as they were want to do so: there he made a long Oration unto us, showing us the cross we had set up, and making a cross with two fingers, then did he showed us all the Country about us”

Meeting with Donnocana, Cartier was shown five scalps taken during a war with the Mi’kmaq the previous spring.

After presenting the gifts, Cartier suddenly seized the sons of Donnacona, as well as the chief himself, despite the efforts of the other Indigenous to stop them. The sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, were held by Cartier who said he would return them one year later upon his arrival back in the area. It was written of this interaction quote:

“Then did we shew them with signes, that the crosse was but onely set up to be as a light and leader which wayes to enter into the port, and that wee would shortly come againe, and bring good store of iron wares and other things, but that we would take two of his children with us, and afterward bring them to the sayd port againe: and. so wee clothed two of them in shirts, and coloured coates […] we gave to each one.of those three that went back, a hatchet, and some knives, which made them very glad. After these were gone, and had told the newes unto their fellowes, in the afternoone there came to our ships sixe boates of them, with six men in everyone, to take their farewells of those two we had detained to take with us”

The sons would tell stories of the Kingdom of Saguenay, and what could be found there. It was likely they told these stories of riches in order to be returned back to Canada as soon as possible. It could also be said that the French were simply hearing what they wanted to hear.

On May 19, 1535, Cartier began his second voyage with three ships, 110 men and the two Indigenous men he had taken with him. His ships were The Great Stoat, The Lesser Stoat and The Merlin. At this time, he sailed to Stadacona, where Donnacona was located. I did an episode on Stadacona and Hochelaga already, so I won’t talk too much about the communities here. Stadacona was located where Quebec City is now.

Cartier would apparently ask one of the Donnacona’s sons what the river’s name was and he was told it was a river without end.

Upon returning the two sons to Stadacona, Donnacona embraced his sons and they told him about France. Gifts were then exchanged and for awhile, the mood was festive, but it would slowly change to guarded suspicion.

Cartier would write quote:

“And all came over toward our ships showing many signs of joy, except the two men we had brought with us, to wit, Taignoagny and Dom Agaya, who were altogether changed in their attitude and goodwill, and refused to come on board our ships, although many times begged to do so. At this time we began somewhat to distrust them.”

In Stadacona, Cartier makes the first reference to the name Canada to designate the territory of the area. The name comes from the Huron Iroquois word kanata, means meant village but was misinterpreted as newly discovered land. Cartier used the name to describe not only Stadacona, but the surrounding land and the river itself. Cartier would also name the inhabitants of the area Canadiens, and name the St. Lawrence River, Canada River.

He wrote quote:

“On the 13th of the month we set out from St. Lawrence’s Bay and headed toward the west, made our wray as far as the cape on the south side. . . and it was told us by the two Indians we had captured on our first voyage that this cape formed part of the land on the south which was an island and that to the south of it lay the route from Honguedo where we had seized them on our first voyage, to Canada; and that two days journey from this cape and island, began the Kingdom of the Saguenay, on the north shore as one made one’s way to this Canada.”

It was at Stadacona that Cartier left his main ship and continued on in his smallest ship to Hochelaga, located where Montreal is now.

The Indigenous had tried to stop Cartier from going on to Hochelaga. He would write quote:

“They dressed up three men as devils, arraying them in black and white dog-skins, with horns as long as one’s arm and their faces coloured black as coal, and unknown to us put them into a canoe.”

The two sons warned Cartier that their god Cudouagny, as well as Christian deities, had announced at Hochelaga that there would be much ice and snow and that they would all perish.

While the sons likely knew that Cartier and France had eyes on the land of the Indigenous, Cartier did not heed the warning. As it turned out though, it would indeed be an accurate warning for the coming winter.

Cartier would arrive at the village on Oct. 2, 1535.

At the time, Hochelaga had a population of a few thousand people and 1,000 people came to the river edge to greet Cartier and his men. It is believed that Cartier landed where the Cartier Bridge is now located. It was there he would name the nearby mountain Mount Royal.

The encounter was written down stating quote:

“During this interval, we came across on the way many of the people of the country, who brought us fish and other provisions, at the same time dancing and showing great joy at our coming. And in order to win and keep their friendship, the Captain [Cartier] made them a present of some knives, beads, and other small trifles, whereat they were greatly pleased. And on reaching Hochelaga, there came to meet us more than a thousand persons, men, women, and children, who gave us as good a welcome as ever father gave to his son, making great signs of joy…”

Due to the rapids, Cartier could not progress any further but he was sure that he had come across the Northwest Passage and that the rapids were the only thing preventing him from reaching China. Of course, there was an entire continent in his way but he did not know that. The rapids are named Lachine after the French word La Chine, which means China.

Cartier spent two days at Hochelaga before going back to Stadacona on Oct. 11. In that area, he would spend the winter where his men built a small fort, and collected provisions.

During this time, scurvy broke out among the crew and it was Domagaya who brought a concoction that cured scurvy, saving the lives of many of Cartier’s men and allowing 85 of his men to survive the winter. The cedar concoction that they gave the men was loaded with Vitamin C.

Cartier did not see the Indigenous curing his men. In his mind, it was God.

Having brought the sons back to Donnacona, Cartier made the decision to suddenly kidnap the chief and take him to France against his will. According to legend, he did this by organizing a giant feast on his ship and he invited Donnacona, his sons and villagers to attend. They were suspicious to attend but they came for the feast. As soon as they were on board, Cartier took them prisoner.

He wanted Donnacona to tell the story of the country to the north that he believed was full of gold, rubies and other treasures. Along with Donnacona, Cartier had forced another nine from the tribe, including Donnacona’s sons, to go to France.

Donnacona would tell the King of riches to be found in Canada, and begged to be returned back to his home.

While Donnacona was apparently treated well in France, and Cartier told him he would return him after a year, Donnacona never returned back to his home. He would die in France sometime around 1539.

Of the nine Indigenous, all but one girl died in France, and her fate is unknown.

Cartier returned to Canada in 1541 where he brought back no one from the original voyage he had taken years earlier. He simply told the new chief that Donnacona had passed away and everyone else was rich and happy. According to accounts, he is said to have stated quote:

“they remained in France where they were living as great lords, they had married and had no desire to return to their country.”

Once again, Cartier met with the Iroquois but he found their large numbers to be worrisome, as well as what he called their show of joy. He would decide not to make a settlement in the area and he chose to built a fort down the river.

On Sept. 7, 1541, Cartier travelled with a few Indigenous in longboats to find the fabled Saguenay, where he believed there was gold and riches. Once again, rapids prevented him from going farther than Hochelaga.

By the time he returned to the fort, the Iroquois were no longer making friendly visits to the fort or trading any food with the French. They spent their time in the woods around the fort, likely growing suspicious of the French and Cartier by that point.

It is believed, based on the accounts of the French sailors, that the Indigenous attacked the fort and 35 French died in the attack before they could get behind the fort walls.

In June 1542, Cartier left the fort and sailed back to Canada, never to return. His fort, put under the command of Jean-Francois Roberval, the first Lt. General of French Canada, would be abandoned one year later due to disease, foul weather and the growing hostility of the Indigenous to the French.

It would be decades before the French would return to set up a new community on the site of the Indigenous settlement. It would be called Quebec. By this point, the huge settlements of Hochelaga and Stadacona were gone, as were the Iroquois that Cartier had encountered.

Information from This Is Canadiana, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Native American Roots, Media Co-op, Macleans, CBC,, McGill University,

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