In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jacques Cartier

  • Introduction
  • Life and Voyages
  • Collections of Documents
  • Maps and Cartography
  • Cartier and the Renaissance World
  • The Early Years of New France
  • Cartier and Verrazzano
  • Commemoration and Memory

Atlantic History Jacques Cartier
Alan Gordon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0252


Jacques Cartier (b. 1491–d. 1557), a sea captain from Saint-Malo on France’s northern coast, was one of the first French sailors to explore the Atlantic world and to chart the geography of northeastern North America. His three voyages between 1534 and 1542 led to the discovery of the St. Lawrence River and its exploration as far as the modern-day city of Montreal. He established a French presence that continued intermittently through the remainder of the 16th century and led to the establishment of a permanent French colony in the 17th century. Thus, Cartier’s discoveries greatly influenced France’s knowledge of and commitment to the Atlantic world. However, little is really known about Cartier or his life. He rarely received direct credit for his own exploits in the centuries following his death. Having explored only as far as Montreal, his discoveries were of little value for further exploration in the 17th and 18th centuries. Only in the middle of the 19th century did he become a symbol of the French “discovery” of Canada. Research conducted in that century uncovered documents to confirm his accomplishments and to help identify him. Thus, the Cartier we know is largely a product of research conducted in the 19th century. However, the documentary record of his life and exploits is fragmentary, and much was destroyed either in fires or during the bombing of Saint-Malo during World War II. With the main story of his voyages well established by the mid-20th century, and lacking new discoveries to attract attention, only a small number of scholars have sustained interest in Jacques Cartier over the years. A flurry of attention accompanied the anniversaries of his first voyage, in 1934 and again in 1984, but more-recent academic interest in Cartier has been limited. His voyages have mostly served as a preface in survey histories of Canada or the French Empire. However, this does not mean that there have been no controversies in the scholarly literature. Disputes remain unresolved about many aspects of his life and voyages, and these debates provide interesting subject matter. This article guides students toward some of these controversies. In the 1960s and 1970s, some scholars began to use the accounts of Cartier’s voyages to “read between the lines” and to learn about native peoples of the 16th century. Subsequently, other scholars have applied other new methods to known sources, borrowing from literary studies, historical geography, and sociology, to learn what reading about Cartier can reveal of his times, our own, and the periods in between.

Life and Voyages

Many of the most recent accounts of Cartier’s life and voyages have been produced for young audiences and primary-school students and are unsuitable for scholarly research. Most accounts focus, understandably, on his three voyages to North America between 1534 and 1542. However, within these overviews can be found a number of differences in interpretation, emphasis, and conclusions. Dionne 1889 and Pope 1890 reflect the best 19th-century research into Cartier’s life. N.-E. Dionne’s work continues to serve as a resource for some of the more obscure facts of Cartier’s life and the lives of his relatives. From the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, French Canadian nationalists saw Cartier as an example of the ideal French Canadian: intrepid, dynamic, patriotic, and Catholic. Desrosiers 1934 presents a classic example of this view, but it appears as well, in more qualified form, in Groulx 1966. Lanctôt 1947 presents a more balanced but still-nationalistic assessment of Cartier and his historical significance. Trudel 2003 provides the most modern, scholarly biography. However, the date of its original publication (1966) reveals the degree to which the main lines of Cartier’s biography had been set by the mid-20th century.

  • Desrosiers, Adélard. Notre Jacques Cartier. Albums Historiques. Montreal: Éditions Albert Lévesque, 1934.

    A typical nationalist’s interpretation of Cartier. Repeats many 1930s myths about Cartier’s faith and mischaracterizations of native peoples. Useful for understanding the mindset of early-20th-century historians.

  • Dionne, N.-E. Jacques Cartier. Quebec: Léger Brousseau, 1889.

    One of four medalists in an essay contest sponsored by the lieutenant-governor of Quebec. Includes a detailed genealogical study of Cartier’s family as well as opinions on then-current myths about Cartier. However, the material is quite dated. Reissued in 1933 and 1934 by the Quebec City publisher Robitaille.

  • Groulx, Lionel. La découverte du Canada: Jacques Cartier. Rev. ed. Collection Fleur de Lys. Montreal and Paris: Fides, 1966.

    General overview of Cartier’s voyages, including discussions of many controversies in 20th-century historiography. The revised edition updates the 1934 original (Montreal: Granger), timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Cartier’s first voyage. Includes additional materials on the discovery in France in the 1940s of human remains presumed to be Cartier’s.

  • Lanctôt, Gustave. Jacques Cartier devant l’histoire. Montreal: Éditions Lumen, 1947.

    Raises controversial claims about Cartier’s career before and after his three voyages. Links Cartier’s geographical knowledge to Verrazzano’s earlier voyages. See also his work in Cartier and Verrazzano.

  • Pope, Joseph. Jacques Cartier: His Life and Voyages. Ottawa, ON: Woodburn, 1890.

    Written for an essay contest in 1889, and one of the first English-language accounts of Cartier’s voyages. Dated but revealing of 19th-century understandings. Many popular biographies in English are based on Pope’s work.

  • Trudel, Marcel. “Cartier, Jacques (1491–1557).” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 1, 1000–1700. Edited by Ramsay Cook. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

    A classic biography from the main Canadian biographical dictionary. Written by the leading historian of New France of his time. Includes an additional list of primary and secondary sources. Originally published in 1966.

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