The First Voyages of the Europeans

Europeans from a number of nations began voyaging to Canada in the 10th century. For the first centuries, they were merchants and fishermen, along with a few explorers. Then came explorers sent officially by their countries to take possession of the land.

The Vikings

The first Europeans to come to Canada were probably the Vikings, who landed on Baffin Island and along the Atlantic coast (Labrador) in the 10th century. Between 990 and 1050, they founded a small colony on Newfoundland's most northerly point, the site of today's Anse-aux-Meadows, not far from Saint Anthony. Despite their attempts to settle in "Canada," particularly the island of Newfoundland, the Viking voyages ended. Later, around 1390, Basque whalers crossed the Atlantic from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to hunt for giant whales, which they found on the fringes of an undiscovered island they named Land of the Basques (Newfoundland). The Basques did not settle and stay.

John Cabot and Giovanni de Verrazano

In 1497, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), a Genovese explorer commissioned by England (under the reign of Henry VII), travelled to Newfoundland (which he named Founde Isle, or "New Island"), already known by its Portuguese name Terra dos Bacalhais ("Land of the Cod"). He also landed at Cape Breton (now part of Nova Scotia), believing he had discovered the Indes (the northern coast of Asia). He laid claim to the territory on behalf of the King of England, Henry VII. Some historians consider Cabot the first person to discover today's Canada, but no colony was established. Cabot's main contribution was to bring news of the Grand Banks and its cod stocks back to Europe, causing the Portuguese, Spaniards, French (Basques, Bretons, Normans), and English to flock to the island, which the Bretons would now refer to as the Land of Cod or Island of Cod, like the Portuguese.

A Portuguese man by the name of João Fernandes the Llavrador (the "labourer"), a landowner from the Azores, explored Newfoundland and Labrador in 1499. His fellow countrymen are believed to have followed in 1501, notably his brothers Miguel and Gaspar Corte Real. Historic maps refer to Newfoundland and Labrador as "Terra de Corte Real." Portuguese fishermen went on to establish small bases on a coast they called Terra do Lavrador ("Land of Labrador"), after cartographer João Fernandes Llavrador. At the time, the name Labrador or Lavrador referred to what they believed was a single expanse of land running from Greenland to Newfoundland. Once they realized Greenland was separated from the Canadian coast by Baffin Bay and the Davis Straight, the name Labrador was only used to refer to the northeastern coast of the continent. All that remains of these Portuguese voyages are place names like Labrador, along with some adopted through the Spanish language, like Cabo Raso ("Cape Race"), Boa Vista ("Bonavista"), and Terra dos Baccalaos ("Land of Cod"). Other Europeans—Scandinavians, Bretons, and Basques—then began working the North Atlantic fisheries, but did not colonize the area.

In 1524, Giovanni de Verrazano went on a scouting expedition of North America on behalf of the king of France. After landing on the coast of North Carolina, he travelled up the shoreline to the mouth of the Hudson River, then on to Cape Breton Island. He named the entire territory Nova Gallia, or New France. He also left behind names like Dieppe, Honfleur, Arcadia, the Vendôme River (the Delaware), the Lorraine coast (the Delaware and New Jersey region), and Angoulême (New York). These place names were only fleeting, quickly giving way to new English names. Again, no colonization resulted from Verrazano's voyages.

Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain

The first "attempt" at settlement came only with Frenchman Jacques Cartier. The king of France, François I, wanted to follow up on Verrazano's voyages. An order dated March 1534 put a sum of money at Cartier's disposal to equip ships. The Saint-Malo navigator made three voyages to Canada (1534, 1535, and 1541) with the mission of "undertaking the voyage of this kingdom in the New Lands to discover certain islands and countries where there are said to be great quantities of gold and other riches."

Cartier discovered Chaleur Bay, Gaspé Bay (where he planted a cross in the name of the king of France), Anticosti Island, Tadoussac, Québec City (then Stadacona), and Montréal (then Hochelaga) and gave Canada its first French place names.

For his third expedition, Cartier set sail with five ships and a crew of 1,500. After a bitter winter of famine and scurvy, the French broke camp and returned to France. Although the French navigator failed to found a settlement in Canada, he gave France a claim to the territory. In a strict sense, Jacques Cartier did not discover today's Canada, since he did not explore New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Prince Edward Island. He discovered the St. Lawrence Valley and the "Canada River." It is to Jacques Cartier that we owe the name Canada. When he heard the Iroquois (more precisely, the Mohawk) word kana:ta, which means "town" or "village," he thought it referred to the entire country. Cartier's voyages served to establish the place names of Eastern Canada very early on. Ever since, place names have been either French or Amerindian. Cartier is also the one who laid the groundwork for Canadian cartography and discovered the great seaway that gave New France three-quarters of the North American continent for a time. Some French place names in Acadia were later replaced by English names (after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713).

Later, French traders began coming periodically to trade furs. The Newfoundland region, with teemed with fish, became a source of wealth for the French fleets, as well as those from England, Spain, Basque country, and Portugal that regularly plied the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. All these visitors spoke their own languages, but without colonization, none had yet taken root.

Jacques Cartier's voyages were also significant in that they set the stage for those of Samuel de Champlain and his successors. Cartier can still be considered the father of French Canada, at least in Acadia and the St. Lawrence River Valley. But not for another sixty years did France take further interest in what was to become Canada.

British Explorers

As for the British, explorers Martin Frobisher in the 1570s and Henry Hudson from 1609 to 1611 also searched in vain for a passage to Asia. Frobisher made three expeditions (in 1576, 1577, and 1578) to the Canadian Arctic, north of Ungava Bay (Baffin Island), and was the first European to travel through what would later come to be known as the Hudson Strait. He explored the southern coasts to the far reaches of Hudson Bay, right into James Bay. Although his discoveries seemed worthless at the time, the navigator opened the way for British travel to the Arctic regions, and left behind English place names such as Cape Digges and Cape Wolstenholme. Another explorer was John Davis, who set out on a first voyage to the North Pole in 1585. Today's map of the polar regions still bears the names of his protectors, friends, and shipowners (Cumberland, Gilbert, Exeter, Raleigh, etc.). Canada's modern-day Hudson Bay area was an English territory, long inaccessible to the French. In 1615, English explorer William Baffin explored the Hudson Strait and drew up remarkably accurate navigational charts. During another expedition in 1616, he explored part of the bay named in his honour, Baffin Bay. So Hudson Bay, to go by place names, was English territory, not French.

In 1583, British Humphrey Gilbert left Plymouth for St. John's, Newfoundland, where he symbolically took possession of the land on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1596, the English were driven off the island by Basques and Malouins (Bretons and Normans), but a number returned in the 1630s to fish off the coasts. However, English and Scottish fishermen discouraged all attempts to colonize the island. In short, before New France and Canada were founded, the French and British were preparing for the conquest of North America. The French had explored Newfoundland and the valley and gulf of the St. Lawrence, and the British had ventured further to the north.

In 1728, Danish explorer Vitus Bering opened a trade route between Alaska and Russia. Other European explorers arrived from the west and east. Between 1690 and 1692, Englishman Henry Kelsey opened a route for the Hudson's Bay Company from Hudson Bay to the Prairies (today the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan). Although French explorers Pierre Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, had opened various routes across the vast plains by 1650, it was not until 1793 that Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie reached the Arctic and Pacific by way of land. Later, in 1845, his British countryman John Franklin, starting inland, travelled northward along the coast to the Arctic, exploring a number of rivers by canoe, but he never returned. He and his crew perished in 1847 when their ships froze in place. Nevertheless, Franklin's expeditions helped further knowledge of the Northwest Territories and part of the Arctic.