Jacques Cartier was born in St. Malo (France) in 1491. Not much is known of his life before 1534, when he departed on his first voyage. He was looking for a passage through or around North America to East Asia, as some had done before him, and many would after him.
He made the crossing of the Atlantic in only twenty days, and landed on an island near the coast of Newfoundland, by then already much frequented by Breton fishermen. He sailed north, and entered the Strait of Belle Isle. He sailed into the Bay of St. Lawrence, sailed along the westcoast of Newfoundland, and crossed the Bay to the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island, both of which he thought part of the mainland. Then he went to Chaleur Bay and Gaspé peninsula. There he saw 50 canoes filled with Micmac indians, who seemed friendly and greeted him with the words napeu tondamen assurtah (we want to make friendship). The next day the French and the Micmac traded and celebrated. Cartier explored the bay, being disappointed that it was not the straight to China he had hoped it to be. He also met a fishing party of 200 Hurons, led by their chief, Donnaconna. His sons, Domagaia and Taignagny, went to France with Cartier to become interpreters. Cartier explored Anticosti Island and returned to France.
As he had heared of a large river further to the west, and hoped it to be the sought-for northeast passage, Cartier departed on a second voyage in the next year. He sailed through the Strait of Belle Isle again, but this time followed the coast westward, and reached the St. Lawrence. He sailed upriver until the Huron village of Stadacona (at the location of present-day Quebec). Donnacona first greeted him friendly and solemnly, but refused to let him sail further west. Three medicin men dressed up as devils, and warned Cartier not to go further, but Cartier just laughed at it. He went further upriver, leaving the two Huron boys behind.
He reached Hochelaga, an Algonkin village. Again their coming resulted in extensive festivities. Cartier climbed a mountain he called Mount R'eal (royal mountain), and was appointing when he saw the rapids a bit upriver, which told him that this was not the passage to China. He spent the winter in Stadacona. During the winter his men suffered from scurvy, less than ten of his 110 men remained strong enough, and had to get food and water for all. Because he was afraid that the indians would attack if they learned that the French were ill, Cartier ordered his men to make noise when they were near. The expedition might well not have survived if it were not for Domagaia. Domagaia had scurvy too, but ten days later Cartier saw him healthy and well. Domagaia told him he had cured from the bark and needles of the white cedar tree. Just over one week later the tree was bare, but all Cartier's men were healthy again. The Hurons told him stories about a land in the north, called Saguenay, full of gold and other treasure. None of this was true of course, but the Hurons liked telling stories, and when they found the French liked stories of riches, they were happy to give them these. Willing to let king Francis I to hear about these stories, Cartier kidnapped Donnaconna and his sons, and took them with him to France.
He wanted to make another expedition, this time to look for Saguenay, but because of a war with Spain, and the difficulties of preparing the voyage, he was not able to do so until 1541. This time Cartier would not be the sole leader of the expedition, but had to serve under Jean-Francois de la Rocque, sieur de Roberval. He visited Stadacona, and built a fort near the mouth of the Saguenay. His men collected what they thought were diamonds and gold, but in reality were only quartz and iron pyrite (fool's gold). Cartier himself went west, looking for Saguenay, but got no further than Hochelaga.
Back at his fort (called Charlesbourg-Royal) he spent the winter. Some thirty-five of his men were killed in sporadical indian attacks (the Hurons had become hostile when they realized the French had come to stay), and Cartier was worried about the fact that Roberval did not show up. The next spring he met Roberval on Newfoundland. Roberval wanted him to return, but Cartier refused, and sneaked back to France. Roberval built a fort near Stadacona, wintered there, went looking for Saguenay but also got no further than Hochelaga, and returned to France. Cartier spent the rest of his life in St.-Malo and his nearby estate, and died in 1557, aged 66.