Early French explorations


The Viking Contact
The Fishery
Early French explorations
The Birth of New France
Huron-Iroquois War



France was the last of the four great European maritime powers to take an active role in North American exploration, maybe because it was less of a seafaring nation than either England or Portugal and was embroiled in wars with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. However, French fishermen maintained a strong presence on the Great Banks and their reports generated an interest in the new continent. In addition, France's orientation to both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic gave it more access to information contributed by the English as well as the Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Hence, for nearly four decades following Cabot's seminal discoveries, most of the important explorations of the western borderlands of the North Atlantic were carried out by France, rather than by the English.




The first major North American expedition, and the first serious attempt to find the Northwest Passage north of the Caribbean since Cabot, began in 1523 when Francis I officially entered the race toward Asia and dispatched an expedition under the leadership of the Florentine navigator, Giovanni da Verrazzano.


Sailing from the Normandy port of Dieppe to the Madeiras, Verrazzano stayed somewhat north of the by-now-traditional Spanish trans-Atlantic route, made his landfall on the American coast at 34°N, and sailed along the coast first south and then north. The Florentine navigator saw a good deal of the Atlantic coast from Carolina to New England and provided Europe, via his letter to Francis I describing his voyage, with its first detailed description of North America's Eastern seaboard. Verrazzano's letter to the King of France confirmed the growing conviction among the best French and English geographers that North America was a separate continent.


His landscape descriptions were lyric, evoking memories of the Insulae Fortunatae. Verrazzano was also the first European explorer of North America to interact significantly with the indigenous people. Many later European images of the Garden of the World and of the pre-contact "golden age" of indigenous populations in North America may be traced, directly or indirectly, to Verrazzano.


Verrazzano's Letter to King Francis 1 of France 8 July 1524








Verrazzano's failure to discover a strait through the continent between Florida and New England caused the second significant French exploration in search of the Passage to be directed farther north, beyond his furthest advance. The next French explorations, led by Jacques Cartier, a St. Malo pilot and perhaps France's most competent explorer-navigator-cartographer, and Jean-François de la Roque, sieur de Roberval (a Protestant aristocrat, and a far less proficient navigator than Cartier), from 1534-43, were responsible for the creation of France's overseas American Empire, which brought great wealth to France until the middle of the eighteenth century.




The first Cartier voyage of 1534 was designed to follow up on the lead Verrazzano had provided regarding a passage to the Pacific. Departing St. Malo with two ships, Cartier followed both Cabot's sailing directions and those of the Breton fishermen who were by then actively exploiting the Newfoundland cod fishery. He reached the eastern Newfoundland coast only twenty days out from France, near where both John Cabot and the Norse voyagers had made their landfalls. From his landfall, he turned northwest, passed through the Straits of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador and, over the summer months of 1534, made a great clockwise reconnaissance around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Like Verrazzano, he found much to be enthusiastic about in the character of the land he explored. "By reason of the great depth and breadth of the gulfe," Cartier commented, "we conceived hope that we should finde a passage [to the Pacific]"; such was not to be, however, and in August 1534, Cartier and his ships returned to France. Henceforth, French explorations would be focused on the area in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the great river which offered a key to the geography of the interior.


On his second voyage of 1535, Cartier sailed with a larger fleet of three ships. He followed Francis I's injunction to improve geographical knowledge of the region beyond Newfoundland and to find both riches and a passage to the Sea of the South. Entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence via his earlier route of the Strait of Belle Isle, Cartier sailed along the northern coast of the Gulf and into the St. Lawrence proper. He sailed up the river as far as the Indian town called "Hochelega" on the site of present-day Montreal, before determining that the river was not a sea-level strait. Cartier's second voyage was the first noteworthy continental penetration of North America north of Mexico, and it set the feet of French explorers on a different path from those of other European nations: after Cartier, French exploration in search of both the Northwest Passage and exploitable riches would focus on the river and lake systems of the continental interior, thereby providing both a theoretical and an experiential basis for much of North American exploration well into the nineteenth century.




The continental basis of further French interest was evidenced by the goal of Cartier's third North American voyage. Having learned from a Huron chief named Donnaconna of an immensely rich (but purely mythical) kingdom of Saguenay which supposedly lay north of the Indian town of Stadacone (present Quebec City), Cartier and his sponsors determined that a subsequent expedition should undertake the search for Saguenay.


Cartier's third North American expedition departed France in May, 1541, bound for the discovery of Saguenay and the establishment of a French colony to exploit the promised riches of what France hoped would be their equivalent of Mexico or Peru. This third expedition was, ostensibly, a joint venture with the Sieur de Roberval.


Arriving in North America in August 1541, Cartier and his fleet sailed up the St. Lawrence to Stadacona (Quebec City), where they built a rude fort on the Cap Rouge river, which they named “Charlesbourg-Royal,” in honour of the son of Francis I, Charles d’Orléans. The fort was to house from 450 to 500 colonists (mostly convicts): the 350 who accompanied Cartier and the other 150 whom Roberval was supposed  to bring later. It would serve as the center of the first settlement of New France.  Cartier then penetrated inland via the Saguenay River in search of the mythical kingdom. It did not take more than a month to realize that Saguenay was a geographical will-o'-the-wisp, and he returned to the colony. Although detailed records of the winter at Quebec have not survived, it was miserable; the colonists were surprised by the harshness of the winter, and suffered  attacks by the Huron and the onset of scurvy.


Roberval, who was supposed to join Cartier at this site, had not showed up by spring; short of supplies, having lost many settlers during the winter, and concerned over the failure of Roberval to meet him, Cartier and his colonists abandoned their settlement in 1542. Sailing down the St. Lawrence, they met Roberval and his three ships, laden with supplies, at the harbor of St. John's, Newfoundland. Cartier attempted to convince Roberval to give up any attempt at colonization and return to France; when Roberval refused, Cartier and his fleet left the New World for good. Roberval, after his own abortive year-long attempt at finding Saguenay and a passage to the Pacific and establishing a colony, followed Cartier's lead in abandoning Canada in 1543.


This first attempt at settlement was disappointing. The supposed gold and diamonds that Cartier brought back to France turned out to be pyrite and quartz. The harsh winters were  a considerable hardship that took all immigrants by surprise. However, Cartier and Roberval were able to observe and report on the soil’s fertility, the abundance of game in the forests, and plentiful resources of fish, all of which promised the possibility of a prosperous settlement in the future.

Archaeological site Cartier-Roberval

View of the cliff at the Cap Rouge site near the city of Québec.

© CCNQ, Richard Fiset

Virtual Museum of New France, Colonies and Empires, Founding Sites



See also: The Rediscovered Colony The First France in North America (1541-1543)

Exhibition, Musée de l'Amérique francophone





Giacomo di Gastaldi, La Nuova Francia, 1556


Gastaldi’s map of New France is the earliest printed map focusing on what is now northeastern Canada and the United States. Published in the third volume of J.B. Ramusio's Viagi (Voyages), it is largely based on the voyages of Cartier and Verrazzano. The Hudson River, the St. Lawrence River, and the islands near the Gulf of St. Lawrence are the most prominent features on this map. A curious snake-like projection in the Atlantic Ocean has been the subject of much speculation. It is probably an attempt to depict the Grand Banks; or maybe it represents the Gulf Stream.



Source: John L. Allen, "From Cabot to Cartier: The Early Exploration of Eastern North America, 1497-1543", Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 82, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 500-521.

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2563358

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