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Jacques Cartier Searches for “The Kingdom of the Saguenay”

For the week of Monday May 2, 2011

On May 6, 1536, Jacques Cartier set sail from the Iroquois settlement of Stadacona (now Quebec City) for France aboard La Grande Hermine, ending his second expedition to the New World. To bear witness to his discoveries, Cartier returned to France with ten captive Iroquois from Stadacona. Among them was Chief Donnacona who, Cartier hoped, would stir the King’s imagination and incite him to send further expeditions to North America.

The Arrival of Cartier at Stadacona.
La Grande Hermine is the biggest of the three ships
© Walter Baker, 1935 / Library and Archives Canada / 1989-606-20

Cartier had first met Donnacona and a group of Iroquois fishermen in the Gaspé Peninsula during his first visit to North America in 1534. It was a peaceful encounter, but a language barrier prevented any lengthy discussion. Donnacona agreed to let Cartier bring his two sons, Domagaya and Taignoagy, back to France so they could be instructed in French. When Cartier returned in 1535, the sons interpreted Donnacona’s remarkable stories of a place accessible by the great Saguenay River known as “The Kingdom of the Saguenay.” This kingdom, he said, was a rich land full of precious metals, commodities that Cartier hoped to find. In order to convince the French King to fund another expedition, the explorer captured Donnacona, his two sons, and seven other Iroquois before returning to France.

In France, Donnacona was presented to an enthusiastic King François I, who listened to his stories of mines rich in gold and silver, of exotic spices, and other marvels—everything the Europeans hoped for. He even said that there were men with wings on their arms like bats! Some thought Donnacona’s stories absurd, but the King insisted on believing they were true.

In 1541, Cartier returned to North America to find this golden kingdom. The archival record suggests that most of the captive Iroquois had died in France. The villagers of Stadacona, however, were told that they were living lavishly in France and that none wished to return. In 1542, Cartier returned to France, his ships packed with what he thought were gold and diamonds, only to find that they were actually quartz crystals and iron pyrites.

Though Donnacona’s stories were exaggerated, they dazzled many Europeans and led to further French exploration of North America. Donnacona was designated a National Historic Person in 1981, the arrival of Jacques Cartier at Gaspé, a National Historic Event in 1924, Hochelaga, a National Historic Site in 1920, and the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, where the two mighty rivers converge, a National Marine Conservation Area in 1998.

For more information on Cartier's voyages in Canada, please read the Cartier Arrives at Stadacona story from the This Week in History archives, and consult the websites of the Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada and the Virtual Museum of New France. To learn more about the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, please visit the National Marine Conservation Areas section of our website.

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