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Cartier’s St. Lawrence River: A Unit Study

Cartier’s St. Lawrence River: A Unit Study

Cartier’s St. Lawrence River: A Unit Study

Jacques Cartier was born in 1491. As he was considered a good seaman, in 1534 the king of France sent him to find a route from France to the western sea. On the first try, he found the inlet to the St. Lawrence, but didn’t enter it. Instead he returned home with a report that he might have found the passage he had sought after.

Cartier’s Second Voyage

The following year, being commissioned again to find the route aforementioned, he boldly returned and entered the St. Lawrence River and thus became the first European to discover it. Since the day he discovered the river was a feast day of St. Lawrence, Cartier gave the river St. Lawrence’s name, which it has borne to this day. Upon sailing up the St. Lawrence, he heard tales of kingdoms located on the river. Interested in seeing them, and also probably hopeful of finding gold, he journeyed on. On his way up the river, however, he soon discovered his way blocked by rapids, and decided upon wintering in Quebec. His wintering didn’t go so well, as the party suffered from the dread of sailors — scurvy. To make matters worse, the party was lacking adequate clothing for a harsh winter such as is found in Canada. By the time the winter had ended and twenty-five men were lost, Cartier decided to head home. He compelled three Indian chiefs and eight Indian warriors who had been hospitable to him to return to France with him. The majority died of unknown causes shortly after arriving in France.

Cartier’s Third Voyage

Cartier’s St. Lawrence River: A Unit Study
Jacques Cartier, his first interview with the Indians at Hochelaga now Montreal in 1535

Cartier returned to the St. Lawrence six years later. After anchoring three of his five ships, he sent the other two back to France to ask for supplies. Meanwhile Cartier busied himself with trying to pass the rapids that had halted him before, but failed. So he spent another winter on the St. Lawrence river. This party fared the winter better, but it was exceedingly cold for those accustomed to France’s warm climate. Once the winter ended, Cartier spent the following summer hunting for gold in the area (something most early explorers dreamed of finding), with but little success. He did discover a few diamonds, and named the location where they were discovered Cape Diamond, which name it has retained. The following hard winter disheartened Cartier. The supplies he had asked for never arrived. He returned home, where he died in 1557 of failing health.

Cartier’s Contributions

Despite his rather discouraging voyages, Cartier accomplished two things: one, he established France’s claim to Canada; and two, he discovered the St. Lawrence River on June 9, 1535.

Further Investigation

Jacques Cartier: Fast Facts
Helpful video from the History Channel.
(You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)

The Explorers: Jacques Cartier 1534-1542
Biography and interactive maps showing the routes he took from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Jacques Cartier Sailed Up the St. Lawrence River
Simple history for young people from the Library of Congress.

More detailed history from ThinkQuest.

Jacques Cartier’s Second Voyage to the St. Lawrence River and Interior of “Canada,” 1535-1536
Excerpts from his journal at (first link).

St. Lawrence River
About the river.


Jacques Cartier
Interactive lesson from The Mariners’ Museum.

Find Your Longitude
Every good sailor needs to known where he is!  Interactive from NOVA.

Activities for Students and Teachers
Twelve explorer activities including creating a compass, astrolabe, quadrant and globe; identifying instruments and parts of a ship; worksheets and more from the Mariner’s Museum (scroll down to Printable Activities).

A Book of Discovery

“Jacques Cartier Explores Canada”
Chapter from A Book of Discovery by M.B. Synge — a family favorite! Also available as a public domain download.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Cartier’s First Voyage
Map for notebook.

The Second Voyage
Map for notebook.

The Third Voyage
Map for notebook.

Explorer Notebooking Page
4-page set of explorer notebooking pages at

Cartier Boat Graphic (.doc)
Cute graphic with basic facts.  Since this document can be edited, you can erase the information, perhaps provide a few lines, and have the student fill out the information.

Jacques Cartier Notebooking Pages
Simple notebooking pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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