Jacques Cartier: O, Canada!

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13030

Who named Canada? Who first sailed around the Gulf of St. Lawrence? Who rushed home to France with a load of fool's gold, thinking it was the real thing? If you said Jacques Cartier, you are right!


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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How did the countries of the New World get their names? Do you know the origin of any of these countries' names, or can you take a guess?

In the previous Related Lesson of this French Explorers of the New World series, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned that explorer Giovanni Verrazzano had a bridge in New York named after him.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Jacques Cartier, who also had a bridge named after him. But this bridge is in Canada. And Cartier played a part in the naming of Canada, too!

Jacques Cartier, circa 1844

Image by Théophile Hamel after François Nicholas Riss [cropped], via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Cartier was born in a fishing village called St. Malo in northern France in 1491. He probably learned about sailing and navigation very early in life, and he may have taken some voyages across the Atlantic as a young man before leading his own expeditions. Some historians even believe he sailed with Verrazzano on his first two voyages!

In 1534, King Francis of France asked Cartier to lead a voyage to the New World with a few goals in mind:

  • look for the Northwest Passage to Asia (as Verrazzano had)
  • search for gold and precious spices
  • establish some colonies

Cartier sailed to Newfoundland, which Italian explorer John Cabot had previously discovered while exploring the New World for England. He sailed around the western coast of Newfoundland and entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence. While exploring the gulf, searching for the passage to Asia, he became the first European to sail completely around it, and the first to discover Prince Edward Island.

But Cartier made some mistakes along the way. He landed at Gaspe Peninsula and met with some friendly natives, with whom he traded furs. But then, he greatly annoyed the natives by planting a large cross there and claiming the land for France. Later, he tried to kidnap two of the chief's sons! Some historians say he did kidnap them. Others say the chief agreed to to let his sons go with Cartier when he promised that he would return with them and more items to trade. Either way, we know that Cartier took two native boys back to France with him.

  • Can you imagine how those boys felt leaving their home and family and going on a very long sea voyage to a place that would be very different and strange to them?
  • Do you think their family and friends felt worried, not knowing if they would ever see them again?
  • How do you think this made them feel about Cartier?

Cartier's First Voyage

Image by Jon Platek [Gaspe Peninsula text added], via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Though Cartier did not find a passage to the sea, King Francis was very pleased with his discoveries and sent him on a second voyage to explore further. He left with 3 ships in May of 1535. This time, he sailed into the St. Lawrence River. He stopped at a Huron village called Stadacona (now Quebec City), that was ruled by a chief named Donnacona. The natives told him of a "city of riches" called Saguenay. Eager to find this city, Cartier took two natives with him as guides, and leaving his larger ships behind, sailed in his smallest ship farther up the river.

He arrived at the area that is now Montreal, that was then a large Huron settlement called Hochelaga. A thousand natives came out to greet him. That site is where the Jacques Cartier Bridge now stands.

Jacques Cartier Bridge

Cartier's expedition turned around here because the river turned to rapids that they could not get through. But Cartier was certain that he had found the Northwest Passage and that the St. Lawrence River would eventually lead to China! In fact, this belief led to the rapids now called by the French name for China: the Lachine Rapids.

Soon, it was too late in the year to return to France because the waterways were frozen, so Cartier and his men built a fort and stayed for the winter.

In May of 1536, Cartier returned to France. He called the area he had explored "Kanata," which was the Huron word for "settlement." The name caught on, and the French began to refer to the land as "Canada."

Cartier's second voyage

Image by Jon Platek, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

In 1541, Cartier returned to Canada. King Francis wanted to start a settlement there under the charge of a nobleman named Roberval. Cartier's ships went first, and Roberval was supposed to meet up with him later. Cartier landed near what is now Quebec City, started a settlement, and continued exploring the area. Soon, his men began to collect diamonds and gold! They were so excited!

  • Had they found the mysterious "city of riches"?

Cartier and his men had a rough winter, and the Huron natives were no longer very friendly. So, in the spring, Cartier decided to return to France with their treasure. They stopped at Newfoundland, and there they met up with the nobleman Roberval, who had come to take charge of the settlement. Since all the men had left, there was no settlement to take charge of! Roberval ordered Cartier to turn around and go back. But Cartier and his men did not want to return; they were eager to get home with their riches. In the middle of the night, they took off and headed for France.

Unfortunately, when they returned to France, Cartier discovered that the "diamonds" were really only quartz, and the "gold" was iron pyrite (also called "fool's gold").

  • Would these two stones have fooled you, if you were looking for diamonds and gold?

King Francis must not have been pleased with Cartier, because he never got a chance to go on any other expeditions. So that was the end of Cartier's exploring career.

  • What do you think of it?
  • Could he have behaved better?
  • What things would you have done differently?

Now, watch Jacques Cartier: French Explorer That Named Canada - Fast Facts | History, to review what you learned about Cartier:


Journey on to the Got It? section, where you'll examine Cartier's goals and whether or not he achieved them!

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