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French Explorers

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier was an explorer and seaman who made several important expeditions to Canada. He lived from 1491 to 1557, and was commissioned by Francois I, king of France, to explore the New World and discover gold. While the great riches for which he sought were never found, Cartier was a key figure in exploring and colonizing Canada. The Micmac Indians called the area Kebec, or Kanata, which meant narrows of the river.

His first voyage in 1534 spanned 137 days and he was accompanied by two ships and 30 men. Saguenay, the fabled golden city of the Micmac Indians, was his destination.

In 1535 he sailed for Canada with three ships and 110 men, still seeking the elusive golden treasure. His 1541 expedition was a colonizing mission for Francois I, but it failed because the colonists could not endure the harsh Canadian weather. He returned with jewels which proved to be counterfeit and the term “fake as a Canadian diamond” was coined. His death in 1557 was uneventful.

Jacques Marquette

Jacques Marquette, 1637 to 1675, was a Jesuit priest and explorer. He and Louis Joliet discovered the Mississippi River, and they were the first Europeans to explore down river to the Arkansas River. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1653 and spent 12 years as a teacher. In 1666, the Jesuits sent him to Canada to spread Catholicism.

Father Marquette’s first mission was in 1668 to the Holy Ghost at La Pointe mission. His second trip was in 1674 when he and Joliet set off to explore the Great Lakes and Mississippi River regions. 

In 1674 they traveled as far as Lake Michigan and the Saint Frances Xavier Mission. Marquette stayed at the mission while Joliet went on. His expedition in 1675 ended abruptly when he became ill and died. 

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain, 1567 to 1635, studied for his entire life to be a mariner like his father, a celebrated naval commander. He was well-educated; an experienced navigator who in 1601 was appointed royal geographer. In 1603, he led an expedition with 24 canoes, 60 Indian warriors, and three white men. They discovered Lake Champlain.

In 1604, Champlain started exploring Canada, and in 1608 traveled up the Saint Lawrence River to Quebec. The balance of his career was spent exploring the route up the Saint Lawrence, mapping the region around Sault Saint Louis, and establishing Quebec as a successful fur trading colony.

In 1615 he made a brief expedition to Ontario and in 1633 he became the governor of Quebec. He lived in Quebec until his death in 1635. His major life accomplishment was the mapping of Canada, and he is referred to as the father of New France.

Etienne Brule

Etienne Brule, 1592 to 1633, went to Quebec from France when he was sixteen. He became an explorer and Indian expert – he lived with the Huron Indians for over 20 years. Champlain entrusted him with many expeditions during his stay in Quebec, but he was eventually declared a traitor and killed by the Huron.

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