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Québec Before 1608

Setting Sail

Jacques Cartier left Saint-Malo in May 1535 in search of riches and a new route to Asia. A 110-man crew traveled with him in three vessels: La Grande Hermine, La Petite Hermine, and L'Émérillon. In September 1535, they pulled up to the banks of Rivière Sainte-Croix (now known as Rivière Saint-Charles), the perfect natural harbor in which to weigh anchor. But the winter was harsh. Twenty-five of his men died of scurvy, with the others surviving thanks to annedda, an herbal tea made by the nearby First Nations of Stadacona.


Five hundred to eight hundred people lived in long houses (25 m x 30 m x 6 m) in this bustling Iroquois village no bigger than a football field (5,000 m2). Each house contained up to nine families, or some 40 people. In addition to hunting and fishing, the Iroquois grew sweetcorn, squash, and beans.

More Than One Stadacona?

For over a century, historians and archaeologists have searched for the village described by Cartier. Some say the village moved at least a dozen times between 1300 and 1535, largely to help regenerate soil. In other words, Stadacona has more than one hiding place. But where could it be? After focusing the search on the upper town, efforts have now shifted to the lower town.

Dashed Hopes

Cartier returned in 1541, eager to set up a colony. This time he established a settlement at the mouth of Rivière Cap-Rouge, where he had two forts built: one on the shoreline and another on the cape. He named the site Charlesbourg-Royal. An unforgiving winter, illness, and hostilities with the First Nations would force him to return to France in 1542.

Later that same year, Jean-François de La Roque de Roberval arrived with 200 men and women. Roberval settled on the site left behind by Cartier and renamed it France-Roy. He reinforced the fort on the cape, which comprised two central buildings, a large tower, and a 15 m long building with an oven, stove, and mills. But just like his predecessor, he failed in his attempt at colonization. He left in 1543.

Unearthing the Past

For years, not a trace of these two attempts at colonization could be found. And then the breakthrough came in 2005 when an archaeologist discovered artifacts belonging to the Cartier and Roberval settlements on the cape.