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?

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

Jacques Cartier, circa 1844

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 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 these 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 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 let his sons go with Cartier when he promised to return and give them 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

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 three 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), 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 sailed in his smallest ship farther up the river, leaving his larger ships behind.

He arrived at the area now Montreal, 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 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!

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

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 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 returned to France with their treasure.

They stopped at Newfoundland and 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 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?

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King Francis must not have been pleased with Cartier because he never got a chance to go on 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 the video below to review what you learned about Cartier.

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

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