The Dark & Disturbing Tale of Jacques Cartier in Canada

The fellow in the middle of this drawing — the one with the cross and his hand on his heart — is Jacques Cartier. He was a French explorer one of the very first Europeans to ever come to Canada. At the end of his first trip here, he erected a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula, as a way of claiming the land for France. They say that's how he met Donnacona.

Donnacona was the Chief of Stadacona, a village around where Québec City is now. When the French erected their cross, they noticed that the chief seemed kind of annoyed by it. So Cartier decided to trick him. The French signalled as if they wanted to trade with the chief — and when Donnacona got close enough to their ship, they trapped him, forcing him and his two sons on board. Eventually, they came to an arrangement: the sons would sail with Cartier for France. They would learn French. And then, after the winter was over, they would return to North America with Cartier — where they would be his guides

So that's what they did. In 1535, Cartier came back with the sons in tow. They showed him where the St. Lawrence was (he'd totally missed it on his first trip) and took him to Stadacona, their village. In fact, Cartier took their word for village and used it to refer to the entire area around them. Five hundred years later, we still call this place by the name Cartier put on his maps after hearing it from them: Canada.

Cartier was pretty excited. He had "discovered" the St. Lawrence. The whole point of his trip was to find a trade route to Asia. This giant river seemed like a promising lead. But for good reason, Donnacona and his sons didn't trust the explorer. So they stayed behind while he sailed further upriver.

It seems Cartier went too far. He was supposed to sail home for France before winter, but when the snows came and the river froze, he was still here. In fact, he and his men were trapped in a spot not far from Stadacona. They would be forced to stay there until spring.

This was very bad news. The Europeans weren't equipped to deal with a Canadian winter. They had no idea how to keep themselves alive. As the days dragged on, the men fell ill.

"The sickness broke out among us accompanied by the most extraordinary symptoms," Cartier wrote. "For some lost all their strength, their legs became swollen and inflamed, and all had their mouths so tainted that the gums rotted away down to the roots of the teeth which nearly fell out. The disease spread among the three ships to such an extent that in the middle of February, of the 110 men forming our company, there were not 10 in good health."

They had scurvy. But the Frenchmen didn't know that; Europeans didn't understand the disease. So instead of being able to treat their illness, all Cartier and his men could do was to pray. And so they did.

"I gave orders for all to pray and to make orisons and have an image and figure of the Virgin Mary carried across the ice and snow and placed against a tree... and issued an order: that on the following Sunday mass should be said at that spot, praying the Virgin to be good enough to ask her dear son to have pity upon us. At that time, so many were down with the disease that we had almost lost hope of ever returning to France..."

It was Donnacona's sons who saved them. They knew exactly how to cure scurvy: with a tea from boiled cedar boughs. While Cartier's dying men refused to drink it at first, they were eventually convinced. The first to try it felt better right away. After two or three cups, Cartier says the sailors were cured. Twenty-five men had died of the disease, but the rest were going to make it.

Cartier assumed it was his prayers that had done the trick. The quick recovery of his men, he wrote, "must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes... God, in his infinite goodness and mercy, had pity upon us." It would be hundreds of years before European scientists figured out what caused scurvy and how to cure it. The final big breakthrough didn't come until 1932. Those cedar boughs were full of vitamin C.

Cartier wasn't exactly grateful for what Donnacona's sons had done. He answered their kindness with more trickery. When spring came, he organized a great feast on board one of his ships. And he invited Donnacona, his sons, and some of the other Stadacona villagers to attend. They were reluctant and suspicious, but they came. As soon as they were on board, Cartier took them prisoner.

This time when Cartier sailed back to France, he had ten First Nations people with him: the kidnapped villagers and some children he'd been given as "gifts". Donnacona was presented to King François — he regaled the monarch with wondrous tales about the riches to be found in Canada. But no matter how much he begged and pleaded, he would never be allowed to return home to his friends and family. None of them would. We know for sure that nine of them died within a few short years. The tenth, a little girl, has disappeared from the historical record.

Cartier, on the other hand, did go back to Stadacona. When he got there, he lied about what had happened. He told the new chief that Donnacona had passed away, but that the others were rich and happy. It didn't do any good, though. Built on a foundation of mistrust, the relationship between Cartier and the Iroquoians of Stadacona quickly deteriorated. Soon, they would be at war — the first of many between the French and Iroquois-speaking nations over the next 200 years.

More than three centuries before Confederation, the history of contact between Europeans and the First Nations was already off to a deeply disturbing start.


Want to read more stories like this? Become a champion of Canadiana on Patreon. Just a little monthly donation helps us to continue our hunt for the most incredible stories in Canadian history — and gets you access to exclusive content and other perks.

Canadiana is a new web series on the hunt for the most incredible stories in Canadian history. Coming Summer 2017. Subscribe on YouTube, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.