John Cabot

Jacques Cartier

Martin Frobisher

Samuel de Champlain

Henry Hudson

Additional Resources

Return to Directory




This section describes some of the first European explorers who came to Canada.  Europeans began to look for a new water route to Asia in the 1400s.  They wanted to trade for spices, silks, and jewels in the countries of Asia. 

The 1400s were exciting years in Europe.  People’s ideas about the world were changing.  New instruments were invented to guide sailors on long sea voyages.  Better sailing ships were built with more space for supplies and crew.  Trade with other countries made people want to explore the unknown.

The land route from Asia to Europe was long and dangerous.  It was also expensive.  Goods had to be moved using camel caravans across mountains and deserts.

The route by water was not much better.  Goods were taken to ports on the Mediterranean Sea and loaded onto ships.  The ships sailed around the southern tip of Africa to Asia.  The ports on the Mediterranean Sea were controlled by Italian cites that charged high tolls to people from other countries.  The water route south of Africa was especially dangerous.

Many explorers thought they could find a route to Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean.  Instead of Asia, they found North America.  For a long time, explorers tried to sail around or find a passage through North America.  They called the route they were looking for the Northwest Passage.

When they reached North America, they found a rich fishing ground.  The explorers met Aboriginal Peoples who taught them many things about the new land and guided them on their trips.  The Aboriginal Peoples began to trade furs with the Europeans for tools, clothing, and weapons. The Europeans learned that North America had many rich resources. 

This map shows the places visited by the early explorers and some of their main routes.  Because most of eastern Canada was covered with forests, these explorers traveled mainly by water.  They sailed along the east coast and up rivers toward the middle of North America.  They also sailed northwest to the Arctic Ocean.  Many places in Canada had names that were given to them by Aboriginal Peoples before Europeans came.  For example, Quebec City now stands on the site of Stadacona, and Montreal on the site of Hochelaga.  Some places still have names from Aboriginal languages, such as Ottawa.  Often, European explorers named places after themselves.  Some places have changed their original names.  For example, Montreal was once called Ville-Marie, and Annapolis Royal was once called Port-Royal.




        John Cabot

"...the sea is covered with fish which are caught not merely with nets but with baskets, a stone being attached to make the baskets sink with the water ..."  ~ John Cabot, on his return to England from Newfoundland in 1497

John Cabot was one of the first European explorers to come to Canada.  He was a sea captain and mapmaker.  In 1497, he sailed from England to look for a new route to Asia.  Instead he found Canada’s east coast. English merchants outfitted Cabot’s ship, the Matthew.  They supplied Cabot and his crew of eighteen men with food and trading supplies.

  After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for fifty days, they sighted land.  Cabot explored the coast they found.  They saw signs that people lived there.  They found dishing nets and snares set to trap animals, but they did not meet anyone.  Cabot rowed ashore and claimed the land for England.

  As the Matthew sailed on, the ocean became shallow.  Fish surrounded the ship.  The crew scooped up a big basket full of fresh Atlantic cod and had a feast. Cabot had found a wonderful fishing area that became known as the Grand Banks.  The Grand Banks is an area of shallow water southeast of Newfoundland.  They stretch for 500 kilometres.  The water is between 40 and 200 metres deep.

Cabot returned to England to tell about his trip.  The merchants were very pleased to hear about the codfish.  They needed more food to sell. The king of England gave Cabot money to pay for another trip.  In 1498, Cabot set sail with five ships and over 200 settlers.  They never reached their destination.  No one knows what happened to Cabot and the settlers.  They were probably lost at sea. The Europeans now knew about the Grand Banks.  Sailors began to fish there every summer, sailing back to Europe with a hold full of fish.

When Cabot reached Canada, he thought he had reached China.  Historians think he may have found Cape Breton Island, Labrador, or Newfoundland. When explorers reached a new land, they claimed it for their country.  To do this, some explorers left a symbol, such as a flag.  These symbols showed other who came to the same place that someone else already claimed it.



Jacques Cartier

After Cabot’s voyage, people came from European countries every year to fish for cod in the Grand Banks.  Other Europeans still wanted to find a new route to Asia.  Some explorers tried to sail northwest around the new land.  Others tried to find a route through it.

Jacques Cartier was a master sailor from St. Malo, France.  He had been on fishing trips to the Grand Banks.  The French kind hired him to search for gold and jewels in the new lands across the Atlantic Ocean and to try to find the Northwest Passage. Cartier made three voyages of exploration.  He left France for his first voyage on April 30, 1534.  He had two ships and a crew of sixty-one.  It took Cartier twenty days to sail to Newfoundland.  He sailed around the north end of the island down the west side, and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Cartier and his crew spent the summer exploring the Golf of St. Lawrence, looking for a route to Asia.  In June, he discovered Prince Edward Island.  He also visited several large bays on the coast of New Brunswick, thinking one of them might be the Northwest Passage.

In July, Cartier landed on the Gaspe Peninsula.  Cartier raised a large cross on the shore, claiming this land for France.  He met a group of Iroquois who had come to fish on the coast.

Their chief was named Donnacona.  With him were his two sons, Taignoagny and Domagaya.  Cartier gave Donnacona gifts of knives, glass beads, combs, and tin rings.  In return, the Iroquois shared their food with the Europeans.  They gave the visitors fresh fish.  They also showed the Europeans how to cook the dried corn, fruits, and nuts they had brought with them from their village, Stadacona.  Stadacona was at the same place Quebec City is today.

  When Cartier returned to France for the winter, he captured Donnacona’s sons to take with him.  He arrived back in St. Malo, France on September 4, 1534. After a winter in France, Cartier sailed back to Canada, in 1535.  This time he had three ships and a crew of 110 people.  When the ships had crossed the ocean, Domagaya and Taignoagny showed Cartier the route up the St. Lawrence River to their home.  They arrived in Stadacona in September, 1535.

Cartier explored farther up the river past Stadacona.  He found a second group of Aboriginal Peoples living at Hochelaga, on the island of Montreal.  Cartier climbed a hill on the island and named it Mount Royal.  He could see that the river stretched a long way, but rapids made travel by boat look difficult.  Cartier returned to Stadacona.  There he built a camp where he spent the winter with his crew.  The winter was much colder than it was in France.  Many of the French became sick, and twenty-five died over the winter.  When Cartier sailed home in the spring, he took Donnacona, his two sons, and several other people with him.  The Iroquois never returned to their home.  Donnacona and the others all died in France.

In 1541, Cartier made his third and last voyage.  He left France in May with five ships and a large group of 1 500 people.  He wanted to start a settlement on the St. Lawrence River.  Cartier and the settlers reached Stadacona in August. The people of Stadacona were not happy to see Cartier return.  He had used land near their homes without talking to them about it first.  When he visited Hochelaga on his last visit, he had done so against their wished.  He had not brought Donnacona and the others back from France.  At first, Cartier told the people of Stadacona that Donnacona was living in France.  Later, he admitted that Donnacona had died.

Cartier spent another winter at a camp on the St. Lawrence River.  The winter was hard for the settlers and many died.  He sailed home in June 1542.  He took some rocks back to France that he thought contained gold and diamonds. The rocks turned out to be worthless.  Cartier’s plan to start a settlement had failed.  More than sixty years passed before French explorers came to this area again.

Cartier kept a journal in which he recorded what he saw on his voyages.  In this journal entry, he described the first group of Aboriginal Peoples he met.  They were Beothuck who were fishing and hunting seals along the coast of Newfoundland. 

June 12, 1534

"They wear their hair tied up on the top of their head like a handful of twisted hay, with a nail or something of the sort passed through the middle.  Into it they weave a few birds’ feathers.  They clothe themselves with the furs of animals, both men as well as women.  They paint themselves with certain tan colors.  They have canoes made of birch bark in which they go about, and from which they catch many seals."

~ Jacques Cartier


On his first voyage, Cartier met a group of Mi’kmaq people at their summer fishing camp.  The Mi’kmaq made signals to show Cartier they wanted to trade with him.


July 7, 1534

Nine canoes came to our ship.  We rowed out to meet them in two longboats.  They made signs to show they wanted to trade.  They held up some furs.  We sent tow men on shore with knives, iron goods, and a red cap for their chief.  Before long, they brought their furs over.  We soon traded for all the furs they had.

~ Jacques Cartier



Martin Frobisher

Martin Frobisher was an English explorer who thought he could reach Asia by sailing northwest around North America.  Queen Elizabeth I of England ordered some merchants to help supply his ships for the journey.

Frobisher made his first trip in the summer of 1576.  He explored the coast of Labrador.  Then he sailed farther north.  He discovered a bay near a large island, which was later named Baffin Island after William Baffin, a later explorer.  At first, Frobisher thought the bay might be the Northwest Passage.  He named it Frobisher Bay, after himself.

One of Frobisher’s crew went ashore with gifts for the Inuit who lived along the coast.  The Inuit visited Frobisher’s ship to trade their sealskin and bearskin coats for bells, mirrors, and other small articles.  Using sign language, Frobisher asked one of them to guide his ship through the passage.  The Inuk agreed.  Five sailors went with him to get his kayak so he could guide them.  Frobisher never saw these men again.

Before Frobisher returned to England, he captured an Inuk man in his kayak.  He also took back some rock he had found on the shore.  He thought it contained gold.  Frobisher was eager to get back to the area where there was more of this rock.  Merchants agreed to pay for another voyage. 

On his second voyage in 1577, Frobisher and his crew collected tones of the rock.  Frobisher also tried to find out what had happened to the five sailors who had disappeared.

  While some of Frobisher’s crew were searching for gold, they met a group of Inuit and exchanged gifts with them.  One day, when Frobisher and his crew started to leave, the Inuit followed.  Frobisher tried to capture two of them, because he thought they might know something about his missing crew.  When the Inuit defended themselves, one of their arrows wounded Frobisher.  The fight ended when Frobisher’s crew captured one of the Inuit men.

Frobisher did not give up looking for his missing crew.  One day, when he found an empty tent, he thought it might have belonged to his men.  His crew tried to catch a group of Inuit to ask about the tent.  When the Inuit escaped in their kayaks, the English rowed after them, firing their guns.  The Inuit landed and defended themselves from shore.

A fierce battle took place.  The Inuit fought bravely, but their arrows were no match for the English guns.  A few of the Inuit were killed.  The English also captured two women.  One of them had a small child.  The English let the older woman go, but took the mother and baby back to England.  They also took the Inuk man they had captured earlier.  All three became ill and died in England.

In 1578, Frobisher made his third voyage.  This time he had fifteen ships.  The ships were blown off course by storms but they landed on an island.  Again, Frobisher hauled tones of rock back to England.  There he got some bed news.  The rock was worthless.  It contained no gold at all.  It was iron pyrite, known as fool’s gold.

  Frobisher was discouraged.  He decided to stop exploring.  He joined Queen Elizabeth’s navy, and later on, she made him Sir Martin Frobisher. Frobisher never found out what happened to the five missing sailors.  Three hundred years later, an American explorer heard an Inuit story about five Europeans who had come with the first ships.  These men lived with the Inuit for a few years.  Then they built a large boat and sailed out into the open water.  They were never seen again.




Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer and mapmaker.  He was also one of the first European people to set up trading posts and settlements in early Canada.  Champlain made many of the first drawings and maps of the new land.  He wrote descriptions of the people he met on his travels, and of the places he explored around the St. Lawrence River.  Champlain made his first trip to Canada in 1603.  He came with people who planned to start a fur-trading post in the new land.  As Cartier had done, they sailed up the St. Lawrence River, but they decided not to stay there.  Instead, they sailed back to the Atlantic coast where they built a settlement called Port-Royal on the Bay of Fundy.

Champlain explored the coast in that area, but he was more interested in the St. Lawrence.  In 1608, he sailed up the great river again.  He decided to stop at a spot along the river protected by cliffs.  He stared a fur-trading post at this spot.

He named it Quebec because the Aboriginal Peoples had called it kebec.  This word means, “Where the river gets narrow.”  There was good soil nearby, so farms could be started to grow food for the traders.  Quebec was also close to a rich supply of furs.  Furs were needed to pay for the upkeep of the settlement and for Champlain’s explorations.

Champlain began to make friends with the Algonquin and Montagnais people who lived nearby.  Champlain wanted them to bring their furs to the trading post at Quebec.

Champlain believed he might find the Northwest Passage in the area around the new settlement.  On one trip, he traveled south with a group of Aboriginal Peoples.  They went along the Richelieu River until they reached a large lake.  Today this lake is called Lake Champlain.

A few years later, Champlain went exploring again.  He was looking for a route west to a sea he had heard about from the Aboriginal Peoples.  In 1615, he reached Lake Huron, where he met the Huron people.  From there he headed southeast and reached Lake Ontario.  He was disappointed because neither of these lakes was the Pacific Ocean.

After this trip, Champlain never went exploring again.  However, he encouraged some of the young men who had traveled with him to continue exploring.  When they returned to Quebec, he always talked with them about their explorations.  He also talked to Aboriginal Peoples about the lands to the north and west of the St. Lawrence.

Near the end of his life, Champlain used all the information from his trips to draw a map.  This map was the first to show the rivers and lakes of eastern Canada in much detail.  The map helped other people who explored after Champlain.




Henry Hudson

In 1609, another English explorer, Henry Hudson, tried to fid the Northwest Passage.  Hudson had already tried to sail to Asia by way of the North Pole in 1607.  In 1609, he tried a different direction.  Hudson and his crew sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.  He sailed his ship, the Half Moon, up a river that begins where the city of New York is today.  When Hudson realized the river was not the Northwest Passage, he returned to England.  Today the river is called the Hudson River.

In April 1610, Hudson and his crew sailed to look for the Northwest Passage again.  This time, with Frobisher’s maps to help him, Hudson sailed northwest into the Arctic waters.  After sailing through a narrow straight filled with ice, he entered a large, open body of water.  He followed the coast that bordered the water.  He thought that he had reached the west coast of North America.  In fact, he had discovered a bay that was later named Hudson Bay after him.

After months of searching for a way out of the bay, Hudson found his ship, the Discovery, blocked by land.  Winter was coming.  Hudson and his crew landed and spent the winter on the shore near their boat.  The weather was terrible.  The sailors became ill with scurvy.  Food supplies ran low.

In the spring, before the ice melted, an Aboriginal person came to trade with the crew.  Hudson and some of the crew went on foot to look for more Aboriginal Peoples, but they met no one.

As soon as the ice had melted and the shop was free to sail, the crew wanted to return home.  Hudson would not listen.  He decided to continue his search for the Northwest Passage.  Finally, the crew mutinied, and set Hudson, his son, and some loyal crew members adrift in a small boat.  Hudson and the others did not survive. 

Although Hudson did not find the Northwest Passage, his explorations later helped England lay a claim to the rich fur-trading area around Hudson Bay.  There were now two routes to get furs from Canada to Europe.  The French could ship furs to France by way of the St. Lawrence River.  The English could ship furs from Hudson Bay to England.




        In Summary

While they were looking for a shorter route to Asia, European explorers found a new land.

The early explorers traveled in eastern Canada and the St. Lawrence River valley.  Some tried to sail northwest through the Arctic Ocean.  The explorers soon discovered that the new land had rich resources of fish and furs.

The explorers met Aboriginal Peoples in the new land they visited.  The explorers began to trade with them.  Sometimes the explorers also fought with them.

Cabot first visited the Grand Banks near Newfoundland in 1497.  Europeans began fishing there every summer.

Cartier sailed to Canada from France in 1534.  He explored part of the east coast and sailed up the St. Lawrence River.  The Aboriginal Peoples he met taught Cartier many things about the new land. 

Frobisher began European exploration of the Arctic.  He reached Baffin Island, where he met some Inuit people.

Champlain explored the east coast and the land along the St. Lawrence River.  He helped start French settlements in the new land.  He traded furs with the Aboriginal Peoples.

Hudson discovered an important tout into the middle of North America that would help fur traders.  The Hudson Bay area became important to the English fur trade.

The explorers reported their discoveries in the new land in many ways.  Often they drew maps and pictures of what they had seen.  Sometimes they captured Aboriginal Peoples to take back to Europe with them.  The reports encouraged other Europeans to travel North America.




Joshua Miller