The fame of Jacques Cartier, the first notable French explorer on the American continent, had more to do with the empire which France created due to his discoveries than with the scope or novelty of the discoveries themselves. French fishermen had been visiting Newfoundland and even penetrated the Gulf of St. Lawrence for nearly thirty years before Cartier, a seaman of St. Malo, set out in 1534 with two small ships to explore the western waters for the French crown. He sailed around Newfoundland and entered the Gulf at the north, on the day of St. Lawrence the Martyr, in honor of whom it was named.

Cartier made his first landing on the inlet of Gaspe, and here he took formal possession of the land under the banner of France. This he did by planting a cross, decorated with the lilies of France, and having a suitable inscription. He entered the St. Lawrence River, but being ill-equipped for winter, returned to France.

The following year, with three ships and a better expedition, Cartier returned, sailed up the river, and landed at a North American village near the present site of Quebec. From the Native Americans he learned of a larger town farther up the river, close to where Montreal now stands. However, he was unable to sail his ships any further and had to proceed in two boats. Here he heard of the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, but did not explore further because of the approach of cold weather. He wintered on the St. Charles River, where his company suffered severely from scurvy, and returned to France in the spring. Since he brought little of value and no gold, it was not until 1540 that another expedition could be fitted out.

Picardy, Francis de la Roque, Lord of Roberval was among many Frenchmen who thought it was a dishonor that a great nation like France had not yet established a state on the shores of the New World. He was granted a commission from Francis I to plant a colony, with full legal authority as viceroy over the territories and regions on or near the Gulf and River of St. Lawrence.

Lord Roberval outfitted five vessels and induced Cartier to receive a commission as chief pilot of the expedition. These two men, however, did not remain in harmony with one another; both desired honor and fame, and each wished to retain the greatest authority, which caused jealousy to spring up between them.

Cartier sailed the following spring, traveled up the river, and built a fort in the territory near where Quebec is now located. To establish a permanent and flourishing colony, there had to be an economic base, or industry. These entrepreneurs also needed perseverance, patience and a willingness to endure hardships. The first enterprise, composed of noblemen and inexperienced youths, failed, as might easily be expected. In the second attempt the other extreme was tried; the colonists were criminals, taken out of the prisons in France.

During that second winter Cartier endured many trials with these men and in the spring, even though Roberval arrived with reinforcements and asked Cartier to remain with him. However, he sailed in the night for France, thoroughly disgusted with his winter's occupation.

Sadly, the hardships and exposure to the elements ruined the explorer's health and he died shortly after his arrival in his native land.