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Ch. 4: The St. Lawrence

The Second Voyage: THE ST LAWRENCE

The second voyage of Jacques Cartier, undertaken in the
years 1535 and 1536, is the exploit on which his title
to fame chiefly rests. In this voyage he discovered the
river St Lawrence, visited the site of the present city
of Quebec, and, ascending the river as far as Hochelaga,
was enabled to view from the summit of Mount Royal the
imposing panorama of plain and river and mountain which
marks the junction of the St Lawrence and the Ottawa. He
brought back to the king of France the rumour of great
countries still to be discovered to the west, of vast
lakes and rivers reaching so far inland that no man could
say from what source they sprang, and the legend of a
region rich with gold and silver that should rival the
territory laid at the feet of Spain by the conquests of
Cortez. If he did not find the long-sought passage to
the Western Sea, at least he added to the dominions of
France a territory the potential wealth of which, as we
now see, was not surpassed even by the riches of Cathay.

The report of Cartier's first voyage, written by himself,
brought to him the immediate favour of the king. A
commission, issued under the seal of Philippe Chabot,
admiral of France, on October 30, 1534, granted to him
wide powers for employing ships and men, and for the
further prosecution of his discoveries. He was entitled
to engage at the king's charge three ships, equipped and
provisioned for fifteen months, so that he might be able
to spend, at least, an entire year in actual exploration.
Cartier spent the winter in making his preparations, and
in the springtime of the next year (1535) all was ready
for the voyage.

By the middle of May the ships, duly manned and provisioned,
lay at anchor in the harbour of St Malo, waiting only a
fair wind to sail. They were three in number--the Grande
Hermine of 120 tons burden; a ship of 60 tons which was
rechristened the Petite Hermine, and which was destined
to leave its timbers in the bed of a little rivulet beside
Quebec, and a small vessel of 40 tons known as the
Emerillon or Sparrow Hawk. On the largest of the ships
Cartier himself sailed, with Claude de Pont Briand,
Charles de la Pommeraye, and other gentlemen of France,
lured now by a spirit of adventure to voyage to the New
World. Mace Jalobert, who had married the sister of
Cartier's wife, commanded the second ship. Of the sailors
the greater part were trained seamen of St Malo.
Seventy-four of their names are still preserved upon a
roll of the crew. The company numbered in all one hundred
and twelve persons, including the two savages who had
been brought from Gaspe in the preceding voyage, and who
were now to return as guides and interpreters of the

Whether or not there were any priests on board the ships
is a matter that is not clear. The titles of two persons
in the roll--Dom Guillaume and Dom Antoine--seem to
suggest a priestly calling. But the fact that Cartier
made no attempt to baptize the Indians to whom he narrated
the truths of the Gospel, and that he makes no mention
of priests in connection with any of the sacred ceremonies
which he carried out, seem to show that none were included
in the expedition. There is, indeed, reference in the
narrative to the hearing of mass, but it relates probably
to the mere reading of prayers by the explorer himself.
On one occasion, also, as will appear, Cartier spoke to
the Indians of what his priests had told him, but the
meaning of the phrase is doubtful.

Before sailing, every man of the company repaired to the
Cathedral Church of St Malo, where all confessed their
sins and received the benediction of the good bishop of
the town. This was on the day and feast of Pentecost in
1535, and three days later, on May 19, the ships sailed
out from the little harbour and were borne with a fair
wind beyond the horizon of the west. But the voyage was
by no means as prosperous as that of the year before.
The ships kept happily together until May 26. Then they
were assailed in mid-Atlantic by furious gales from the
west, and were enveloped in dense banks of fog. During
a month of buffeting against adverse seas, they were
driven apart and lost sight of one another.

Cartier in the Grande Hermine reached the coast of
Newfoundland safely on July coming again to the Island
of Birds. 'So full of birds it was,' he writes, 'that
all the ships of France might be loaded with them, and
yet it would not seem that any were taken away.' On the
next day the Grande Hermine sailed on through the Strait
of Belle Isle for Blanc Sablon, and there, by agreement,
waited in the hope that her consorts might arrive. In
the end, on the 26th, the two missing ships sailed into
the harbour together. Three days more were spent in making
necessary repairs and in obtaining water and other
supplies, and on the 29th at sunrise the reunited expedition
set out on its exploration of the northern shore. During
the first half of August their way lay over the course
already traversed from the Strait of Belle Isle to the
western end of Anticosti. The voyage along this coast
was marked by no event of especial interest. Cartier, as
before, noted carefully the bearing of the land as he
went along, took soundings, and, in the interest of future
pilots of the coast, named and described the chief
headlands and landmarks as he passed. He found the coast
for the most part dangerous and full of shoals. Here and
there vast forests extended to the shore, but otherwise
the country seemed barren and uninviting.

From the north shore Cartier sailed across to Anticosti,
touching near what is now called Charleton Point; but,
meeting with head winds, which, as in the preceding year,
hindered his progress along the island, he turned to the
north again and took shelter in what he called a 'goodly
great gulf full of islands, passages, and entrances
towards what wind soever you please to bend.' It might
be recognized, he said, by a great island that runs out
beyond the rest and on which is 'an hill fashioned as it
were an heap of corn.' The 'goodly gulf' is Pillage Bay
in the district of Saguenay, and the hill is Mount Ste

From this point the ships sailed again to Anticosti and
reached the extreme western cape of that island. The two
Indian guides were now in a familiar country. The land
in sight, they told Cartier, was a great island; south
of it was Gaspe, from which country Cartier had taken
them in the preceding summer; two days' journey beyond
the island towards the west lay the kingdom of Saguenay,
a part of the northern coast that stretches westwards
towards the land of Canada. The use of this name, destined
to mean so much to later generations, here appears for
the first time in Cartier's narrative. The word was
evidently taken from the lips of the savages, but its
exact significance has remained a matter of dispute. The
most fantastic derivations have been suggested. Charlevoix,
writing two hundred years later, even tells us that the
name originated from the fact that the Spaniards had been
upon the coast before Cartier, looking for mines. Their
search proving fruitless, they kept repeating 'aca nada'
(that is 'nothing here') in the hearing of the savages,
who repeated the words to the French, thus causing them
to suppose this to be the name of the country. There
seems no doubt, however, that the word is Indian, though
whether it is from the Iroquois Kannata, a settlement,
or from some term meaning a narrow strait or passage, it
is impossible to say.

From Anticosti, which Cartier named the Island of the
Assumption, the ships sailed across to the Gaspe side of
the Gulf, which they saw on August 16, and which was
noted to be a land 'full of very great and high hills.'
According to the information of his Indian guides, he
had now reached the point beyond which extended the great
kingdom of Saguenay. The northern and southern coasts
were evidently drawing more closely together, and between
them, so the savages averred, lay a great river.

'There is,' wrote Cartier in his narrative, 'between the
southerly lands and the northerly about thirty leagues
distance and more than two hundred fathoms depth. The
said men did, moreover, certify unto us that there was
the way and beginning of the great river of Hochelaga,
and ready way to Canada, which river the farther it went
the narrower it came, even unto Canada, and that then
there was fresh water which went so far upwards that they
had never heard of any man who had gone to the head of
it, and that there is no other passage but with small

The announcement that the waters in which he was sailing
led inward to a fresh-water river brought to Cartier not
the sense of elation that should have accompanied so
great a discovery, but a feeling of disappointment. A
fresh-water river could not be the westward passage to
Asia that he had hoped to find, and, interested though
he might be in the rumoured kingdom of Saguenay, it was
with reluctance that he turned from the waters of the
Gulf to the ascent of the great river. Indeed, he decided
not to do this until he had tried by every means to find
the wished-for opening on the coast of the Gulf.
Accordingly, he sailed to the northern shore and came to
the land among the Seven Islands, which lie near the
mouth of the Ste Marguerite river, about eighty-five
miles west of Anticosti,--the Round Islands, Cartier
called them. Here, having brought the ships to a safe
anchorage, riding in twenty fathoms of water, he sent
the boats eastward to explore the portion of the coast
towards Anticosti which he had not yet seen. He cherished
a last hope that here, perhaps, the westward passage
might open before him. But the boats returned from the
expedition with no news other than that of a river flowing
into the Gulf, in such volume that its water was still
fresh three miles from the shore. The men declared, too,
that they had seen 'fishes shaped like horses,' which,
so the Indians said, retired to shore at night, and spent
the day in the sea. The creatures, no doubt, were walruses.

It was on August 15 that Cartier had left Anticosti for
the Gaspe shore: it was not until the 24th that, delayed
by the exploring expeditions of the boats and by heavy
fogs and contrary winds, he moved out from the anchorage
at the Seven Islands to ascend the St Lawrence. The season
was now far advanced. By this time, doubtless, Cartier
had realized that the voyage would not result in the
discovery of the passage to the East. But, anxious not
to return home without having some success to report, he
was in any case prepared to winter in the New Land. Even
though he did not find the passage, it was better to
remain long enough to explore the lands in the basin of
the great river than to return home without adding anything
to the exploits of the previous voyage.

The expedition moved westward up the St Lawrence, the
first week's sail bringing them as far as the Saguenay.
On the way Cartier put in at Bic Islands, and christened
them in honour of St John. Finding here but scanty
shelter and a poor anchorage, he went on without further
delay to the Saguenay, the mouth of which he reached on
September 1. Here this great tributary river, fed from
the streams and springs of the distant north, pours its
mighty waters between majestic cliffs into the St
Lawrence--truly an impressive sight. So vast is the
flood that the great stream in its wider reaches shows
a breadth of three miles, and in places the waters are
charted as being more than eight hundred and seventy
feet deep. Narrowing at its mouth, it enters the St
Lawrence in an angry flood, shortly after passing the
vast and frowning rocks of Cape Eternity and Cape
Trinity, rising to a height of fifteen hundred feet.
High up on the face of the cliffs, Cartier saw growing
huge pine-trees that clung, earthless, to the naked
rock. Four canoes danced in the foaming water at the
river mouth: one of them made bold to approach the
ships, and the words of Cartier's Indian interpreters so
encouraged its occupants that they came on board. The
canoes, so these Indians explained to Cartier, had come
down from Canada to fish.

Cartier did not remain long at the Saguenay. On the next
day, September 2, the ships resumed their ascent of the
St Lawrence. The navigation at this point was by no means
easy. The river here feels the full force of the tide,
whose current twists and eddies among the great rocks
that lie near the surface of the water. The ships lay at
anchor that night off Hare Island. As they left their
moorings, at dawn of the following day, they fell in with
a great school of white whales disporting themselves in
the river. Strange fish, indeed, these seemed to Cartier.
'They were headed like greyhounds,' he wrote, 'and were
as white as snow, and were never before of any man seen
or known.'

Four days more brought the voyagers to an island, a
'goodly and fertile spot covered with fine trees,' and
among them so many filbert-trees that Cartier gave it
the name Isle-aux-Coudres (the Isle of Filberts), which
it still bears. On September 7 the vessels sailed about
thirty miles beyond Isle-aux-Coudres, and came to a group
of islands, one of which, extending for about twenty
miles up the river, appeared so fertile and so densely
covered with wild grapes hanging to the river's edge,
that Cartier named it the Isle of Bacchus. He himself,
however, afterwards altered the name to the Island of
Orleans. These islands, so the savages said, marked the
beginning of the country known as Canada.

Stephen Leacock

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